Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Our need for consolation: reading Stig Dagerman.


Finally, the writings of Swedish author Stig Dagerman are becoming more available in the English language. Several volumes, some in new translations, are currently being published in the USA: German Autumn, Island of the Doomed, A Burnt Child (forthcoming) from the University of Minnesota Press, and a short story collection by Godine (see links below). Dagerman’s entire body of work is available in French, and a good part in Italian, German and Spanish, and the goal, as Siri Hustvedt suggested at a recent Dagerman seminar in Stockholm, is to eventually have all of his works available in English.

A dominant theme in Dagerman’s writing, says Hustvedt, is “… a cry for individual responsibility and freedom.” His was a time of crazed mass movements—in Nazi, fascist or communist colors—genocide, the ravages of war, the nuclear threat. His journey, and that of his generation, became to eke out a path towards freedom and hope through fear and a sense of meaninglessness.

Island of the Doomed is a symbolic novel describing how a stranded, fear-ridden humanity—its only certainty being of dying—might find that path. To Dagerman, a utopian anarchist and atheist, organized religion offers no consolation. His road toward transcendence is to stare fear in the face, closely observing, to come to terms with an existence void of ulterior meaning, and on that basis take action, however small and symbolic, that fosters human connection and solidarity.

“ … the awareness, simply awareness, the open eyes that fearlessly observe their terrifying situation have to be the guiding star of the self, our only compass that stake out the direction …”
—Stig Dagerman, Island of the Doomed

In the fall of 1946, he was sent as a journalist to war-ravaged Germany to write a series of articles that were later collected in the book German Autumn. Dagerman, who had fought Swedish Nazi supporters on the streets of Stockholm, was married to a German political refugee and spoke German fluently. The combination of his political outlook, access and courage led him in a unique direction:

"A French journalist of high repute begged me with the best of intentions and for the sake of objectivity to read German newspapers instead of looking at German dwellings or sniffing in German cooking-pots. Is it not something of this attitude which colors a large part of world opinion and which made Victor Gollancz, the Jewish publisher from London, feel, after his journey to Germany in this same autumn, that 'the values of the West are in danger' – values consisting of respect for the individual even when the individual has forfeited our sympathy and compassion, that is, the capacity to react in the face of suffering whether that suffering may be deserved or undeserved."
—Stig Dagerman, German Autumn

German Autumn has become an international journalistic classic on the aftermath of war: “… on a par,” said Henning Mankell, “with John Reed’s classic articles from the Soviet Union as well as Edgar Snow’s articles about the great political revolution in China.”

Autobiographical elements in Dagerman’s fiction are strongest in his short stories and the novel A Burnt Child. Crafted in a naturalistic style, they beautifully convey emotion in an understated fashion that makes their impact so much greater. As the great Graham Greene pointed out: “Dagerman wrote with beautiful objectivity. Instead of emotive phrases, he uses a choice of facts like bricks to construct an emotion.”

His short stories (a new collection to be published by Godine this fall, with a preface written by Alice McDermott) give insight into aspects of his childhood and adolescence. Set in a chronological order, the stories follow a male protagonist from his early rural upbringing on his grandparents’ farm through to his coming of age, living with his father in the working-class neighborhoods of Stockholm. The collection, titled To Kill A Child, refers to a loss of innocence experienced by the young child. It is also the title of a landmark short story that is widely read by generations of Swedish youths to promote safe driving. A Burnt Child, Dagerman’s third novel, is a natural companion to his short story collection. It follows a young male protagonist as he moves into Oedipal-tinged complexities of young adulthood.

Nowhere, however, is Dagerman more self-disclosing than in his haunting autobiographical essay Our Need for Consolation Is Insatiable. The essay was written in 1952, after years of writer’s block and depression, against which Dagerman valiantly struggled. “I chase consolation as a hunter tracking prey,” he wrote. Analyzing his struggle, Dagerman manages to identify, through the therapeutic force of his writing, a glimmer of hope, another road toward transcendence and liberation. A short film titled Our Need for Consolation premiered in Europe in January this year. It stars Stellan Skarsgard as the narrator of this text.

In the end, Dagerman’s search for transcendence could not see him through. After his spectacular rise to literary fame at the age of 22, followed by a burst of output of novels, journalism, short stories, drama and poetry, he succumbed to depression and died in 1954 at the age of 31.

Dagerman stands out as the epigone of a generation, as his work continues to enlighten and inspire.

“With humble gratitude to Stig Dagerman who, in order to show us the way, let himself be consumed by his own fire.”
—JMG Le Clezio, Introduction to Island of the Doomed (2012)


Lo Dagerman, M.Sc. in Counseling, resides in Maryland where she works with the mental health of children. She is the developer and manager of and producer of two short films based on the writing of Stig Dagerman in English translation.

Further links:
German Autumn
Island of the Doomed
A Burnt Child
Short story collection

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