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Stig Dagerman: A Dark Swedish Novelist for Dark Times

Roar writer Keval Nathwani on Swedish writer Stig Dagerman.

It is so easy, when things get hard, to retreat. To find comfort in the benign, to shelter from the harsh vicissitudes of life. In art as in life, it is all too tempting to seek comfort in beauty. But we often forget that in art, we can also find comfort by acknowledging reality. However, to escape the charge of hypocrisy, I will freely admit that I too am guilty of sheltering in beauty. In fact even as I write this, I am listening to Thomas Tallis’s magisterial 40 part Motet, Spem in Alium.  It featured, rather strangely, in both novel form and film of 50 Shades of Grey, and yes it was the scene you’re thinking of.

[Mr Grey] “It’s called Spem in Alium”

[Miss Steele]  “It was…overwhelming”

[Mr Grey] “I’ve always wanted to f*ck to it”

This short, and rather crude, exchange expresses my point, I think, quite well. The sublime and the pedestrian can, in fact, make rather curious bedfellows, pardon the pun, if they are considered as truth. If both the beauty and ugliness of life are accepted as part of life’s behest, then one might find the hard times just that bit easier to bear. In that endeavour, I might suggest a turn to the man that Senegalese-French writer Fatou Diomé calls, “mon amour suédois”.

She was referring to Stig Dagerman, a Swedish novelist, poet, playwright and journalist. After a stint at Arbetaren (The Workers), an anarch-syndicalist daily newspaper, he came to prominence in the Swedish literary canon with his first novel at the age of 22, Ormen (The Snake). This was followed by De Dömdas Ö (The Island of the Doomed), which he completed in two weeks citing ‘God’ as the force behind his frenetic writing frenzy.

He became a member of the Fyrtiotalisterna (“the writers of the 1940s”), in Sweden. Critics compared him in the same breath with William Faulkner, and Franz Kafka, praising his gritty realism. His writing is clear and uncomplicated, but powerful and incisive. It takes one aback to see how uncompromisingly honest Dagerman is willing to be. In an achingly painful little story, ‘The Games of the Night’, Dagerman writes of a young boy, HÃ¥kon, who waits for his father to come home;

“True, he hasn’t heard the car pull up out front. He hasn’t heard the click

of the light switch or the steps in the stairwell. But the key that slides into the keyhole

also pokes a hole in HÃ¥kan’s sleep.” 

In 1946, he was sent by the Swedish Newspaper, Expressen, to a battered Germany as, foreign correspondent. He was advised;

“for the sake of objectivity to read German newspapers instead of looking at German dwellings or sniffing in German cooking-pots.”

Dagerman was out of step with the international zeitgeist at the time, which sought to condemn the defeated Germany. Whereas Dagerman saw with a rawness, the sufferings of the remaining German people. The resultant volume Tysk Höst  (German Autumn), was a volume that explored the humanity of the remaining Germans in their complete suffering, in order to challenge the mass-institutions who hinder freedom of expression. He was attempting to prove that Germany herself was a victim of the Nazi Regime. Dagerman explains his position in an essay, ‘Do we believe in Humankind?’, 1950;

“I believe that man’s natural enemy is the mega-organization because it robs him of the vital necessity to feel responsible for his fellow-man, [it] restricts his possibilities to show solidarity and love and instead turns him into an agent of power.”

Dagerman took his sensitivity for the human subject into his fictional writing. He often charts the lives of young people, caught up in the tidal wave of events and other vast impersonal forces and tries to create emotional links in order to better understand the burden of human suffering.

Out of all of Dagerman’s work, I would recommend, A Moth To A Flame. It begins with the death of Bengt’s mother. Bengt is a young undergraduate from a working class background and the novel is presented from his point of view. It charts the ramifications of grief, fear, jealousy, revenge, and love which amalgamate to provide a stirring and complex narrative. Bengt, who is engaged, goes on to have an affair with his father’s mistress, driven by revenge, and yet Dagerman continues to evoke the mundane everyday, making the extraordinary seem perfectly ordinary. Scattered among the chapters are letters that Bengt writes to himself in a refreshing break from the overall narrative.

In many of them, Bengt is a cynic of the human condition, and of the vapid passivity of life;

“If you want someone to love you, you don’t ask her to see if she ‘really’ does. Because, when all is said and done, there isn’t much we ‘really’ do. If you search deep down, you will find that the weight never reaches the bottom.”

Dagerman killed himself on 4th November 1954, 66 years ago, at the age of 31. He had been fighting back depression in the years after his blossoming success. Today, his works are put to music and his stories are adapted into films. This is a testament to his lasting success and a vindication of his belief, that without the chains of modern society, man can be truly free. When contemplating the looming future, it might help to remember some of Dagerman’s lines in To Kill a Child, A government notice warning of the dangers of reckless driving ;

“Because life is constructed in such a merciless fashion, even one minute before a cheerful man kills a child, he can still feel entirely at ease.”

Dagerman’s life and art are a reminder that it is not necessary to be in awe of the beautiful all the time in order to be able to find comfort in hard times. Sometimes, gritty realism can be just as moving, stimulating, and comforting.



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