Pär Lagerkvist 1891-1974
(Full name Pär Fabian Lagerkvist; also published under the pseudonym Stig Stigson) Swedish short story writer, playwright, novelist, and poet.
The following entry provides criticism on Lagerkvist's works from 1974 through 2001. For criticism prior to 1974, see CLC, Volumes 7, 10, 13, and 54.
Recipient of the 1951 Nobel Prize in literature, Lagerkvist is one of the foremost Swedish literary figures of the twentieth century. Throughout his career he displayed a concern with conflict between good and evil, faith and nihilism, and the mundane and the spiritual. Proficient in many genres, Lagerkvist garnered an international appeal based largely on his short stories and allegorical novellas, which often incorporated elements of folklore and mythology.
Lagerkvist was born on May 23, 1891, in the town of Växjö in Småland province. He grew up in a religiously conservative household where such customs as daily readings from the Old Testament were strictly observed. Following a year of study at the University of Uppsala, Lagerkvist traveled to Paris in 1913. There he became acquainted with the Fauvist, Cubist, and “naivist” movements in the visual arts. He lived in Denmark during most of World War I and spent much of the 1920s in France and Italy writing plays and poetry. In 1930 he settled with his family in Lidingö, an island community near Stockholm. Lagerkvist continued to write, and he steadily rose to prominence in the Swedish literary world: in 1940 he was elected to the Swedish Academy (the body which awards the Nobel Prizes) and in 1941 received an honorary doctorate from the University of Göteborg. However, Lagerkvist remained virtually unknown outside of Sweden until he was awarded the Nobel Prize. He wrote his most famous works, a cycle of six novellas, in the 1950s and 1960s. Lagerkvist died on July 11, 1974.
Impressed with both the intellectual discipline and aesthetic innovations of Fauvist, Cubist, and “naivist” movements, Lagerkvist issued the pamphlet Ordkonst och bildkonst (1913; Literary Art and Pictorial Art), in which he contrasted what he considered the “decadence” of modern fiction with the “vitality” of modern art. Calling for a renunciation of the documentary methods of nineteenth-century Naturalism, Lagerkvist endorsed an approach that employed the epic style and symbolic narratives of classic Greek tragedy, Icelandic sagas, and the Bible. Lagerkvist first incorporated these principles in his novella Människor (1912), his collection of short stories Järn och människor (1915; Iron and Men in Five Early Works), and Ångest (1916), a volume of poetry often considered the first expressionist work in Swedish literature. In his essays and criticism, Lagerkvist delineated his own artistic principles. In his controversial 1918 essay, Modern teater: Synpunkter och angrepp (Modern Theatre: Points of View and Attack), Lagerkvist denounced the Scandinavian playwright Henrik Ibsen and naturalism and embraced the playwright August Strindberg as his literary mentor. From the 1920s onward, Lagerkvist's works consistently exhibit his preoccupation with spiritual questions. In the autobiographical novella Gäst hos verkligheten (1925; Guest of Reality), Lagerkvist chronicled a child's growing awareness of his own mortality. Dvärgen (1944; The Dwarf) is an allegorical novel set in Renaissance Italy and narrated by a court dwarf who functions as a symbol of the malevolent forces within all people. Beginning with Barabbas (1950), and including Sibyllan (1956; The Sibyl), Ahasverus död (1960; The Death of Ahasuerus), Pilgrim på havet (1962; Pilgrim at Sea), Det heliga landet (1964; The Holy Land), and Mariamne (1967; Herod and Mariamne), Lagerkvist assembled a cycle of narratives that continue his examination of humanity's unending quest for meaning. Barabbas recounts the spiritual tribulations of a condemned thief in whose place Jesus of Nazareth is crucified. The title character remains a restless and loveless man despite his reprieve, although he dies possibly having found the spiritual truth and peace he sought. Aftonland (1953; Eveningland), Lagerkvist's final collection of verse, is a poetic masterpiece and an undisputed high point in Lagerkvist's poetry. Characterized by a greater degree of experimentation with form than his earlier collections, Eveningland includes many poems that are rhymeless or have free rhythm and highlights man's relationship to the God who may not exist, the nature of human existence in the vastness of the universe, and the poet's continued transcendental longing.
Lagerkvist is recognized as one of Sweden's most important literary figures. Critical analysis of his short stories, novels, and plays usually focus on religious and existential issues and his use of events, characters, and imagery from the Bible, folklore, and mythology. It is noted that Lagerkvist's novels and novellas, as well as his short stories, persistently relate the search for the meaning of existence. Because of this, he has been compared with such writers as Franz Kafka, Thomas Mann, and Albert Camus. Critics have traced Lagerkvist's literary development from his dark, pessimistic work early in his career to his later, more accessible work. Stylistically, reviewers praised his spare, poetic prose and the clarity of his message. The influence of such artists as Henrik Ibsen and August Strindberg on his work has been investigated, and commentators have traced his impact on later writers.
Människor (novella) 1912
Ordkonst och bildkonst [Literary Art and Pictorial Art] (criticism) 1913
Motiv (poetry) 1914
Järn och människor [Iron and Men in Five Early Works] (short stories) 1915
Ångest (poetry) 1916
Sista mänskan (play) 1917
Modern teater: Synpunkter och angrepp [Modern Theatre: Points of View and Attack] (essay) 1918
Kaos (short stories, poetry, and play) 1919
Det eviga leendet [The Eternal Smile] (novella) 1920
Den lyckligas väg (poetry) 1921
Den osynlige (play) 1923
Onda sagor (novella) 1924
Gäst hos verkligheten [Guest of Reality] (novella) 1925
Hjärtats sånger (poetry) 1926
Han som fick leva om sitt liv [The Man Who Lived His Life Over] (play) 1928
Kämpande ande (short stories) 1930
Konungen [The King] (play) 1932
Vid lägereld (poetry) 1932
Bödeln [The Hangman] (novella) 1933
Den knutna näven [The Clenched Fist] (essays) 1934
Mannen utan själ [The Man...
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SOURCE: Bloch, Adèle. “The Mythical Female in the Fictional Works of Pär Lagerkvist.” International Fiction Review 1, no. 1 (January 1974): 48-53.
[In the following essay, Bloch investigates the role of the mythical female in Lagerkvist's fictional works.]
Lagerkvist may be viewed from many angles. Labelled an “existentialist” by some critics,1 he can be compared to his hero Ahasuerus, the Wandering Jew who revolts against the injustice of fate, the opacity of the world, the silence of nature and of the divine. For him the Schopenhauer-Freudian concept is valid: man is the author of his own fate, since whatever happens to the individual comes from within. Yet man needs a sense of purpose. Even if there is no real proof of the existence of an external God or Ideal Love or of any ultimate truth, man will create a pattern, or reinterpret his life according to a superior order, for he cannot tolerate the utter nihilism of the arbitrary absurdity inherent in his condition. Existence may precede essence, but Lagerkvist's heroes unconsciously live their lives according to some mythological image or archetype. They all pattern their personalities and follow the paths indicated to them by buried biblical or heathen traditions. Some are more aware than others. They come to understand these mythical forces at maturity. Others garner this understanding only on the verge of death. Others yet,...
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SOURCE: Rovinsky, Robert T. “Ibsen and Lagerkvist Revisited.” Scandinavian Studies 50, no. 1 (1978): 39-49.
[In the following essay, Rovinsky determines Henrik Ibsen's influence on Lagerkvist.]
If scholars had accepted without contest Ibsen's words on Kierkegaardian impulses in his plays, this important question would most likely have died in a cul-de-sac.1 Similarly, if present day research continues on its long established tack and follows Pär Lagerkvist's pronouncements on, or rather, against Henrik Ibsen, the study which elucidates the artistic debt he owed his predecessor will never surface.
Ibsen är inte den store dramatikern: för så vitt man med dramatiker menar en diktare som först på scenen ser förverkligade alla sina intentioner, som skriver för scenen, vars dikt just där får sin mäktigaste resning och sin djupaste innebörd. Det finns bland alla hans dramer inget som verkligen vinner väsentligt på att framföras.2
Ibsen kan man gå utomkring; som en milstolpe med romersk siffra. Men Strindberg befinner sig mitt på vägen. …3
The former quote, written in Svenska Dagbladet by the same playwright who, only two years earlier, had created the interminable drama, Sista mänskan—most justifiably the only one...
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SOURCE: Linnér, Sven. “Literary Symbols and Religious Belief.” In Religious Symbols and Their Functions, edited by Haralds Biezais, pp. 117-25. Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell International, 1978.
[In the following essay, Linnér notes the religious language and imagery in Lagerkvist's work.]
Of all the world's religions, I shall here only be dealing with Christianity; this is the religion I know something about. I also impose strict limitations in the matter of literary examples, which are taken predominantly from modern Swedish literature. But I naturally hope that the views presented here will also prove applicable to other religions and literatures.
Characteristic of the modern situation I have in mind is the lack of any distinction between the languages of belief and non-belief. Thus, over a wide area, a believer on the one hand may use symbols which are in no way recognisable as specifically Christian, and may do so even when he wishes to portray experiences of a profoundly religious character; as reader, he can also recognise such experiences in the symbolism of the non-believer. A non-believer, on the other hand, may use Christian symbols without enabling us to attribute to him any conversion to faith.
Let me begin by quoting an example from The Brothers Karamazov; the point in question might be called a religious concept rather than a symbol, but...
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SOURCE: Schwab, Gweneth B. “Herod and Barabbas: Lagerkvist and the Long Search.” Scandinavica 20, no. 1 (May 1981): 75-85.
[In the following essay, Schwab asserts that in his novels Barabbas and Herod and Mariamne Lagerkvist “depicts mankind with reference to one of the most significant events in religious history and reveals the same turmoil, confusion, and incompleteness that has always defined man.”]
The world recoiled from World War I only to instigate the forces which would produce World War II. The pattern of crisis of the twentieth century is well known: the crisis of faith in God, of faith in science, of faith in history, and of faith even that man can learn from or correct his own errors. The holocaust soiled the century with a horror nearly indescribable. The crisis of the century repeated itself over and over in the crises of individual consciences. Yet, out of these ashes of faith emerged a kind of beauty as men continued to live and artists continued to create. Pär Lagerkvist is one of the many who created in spite of and inspired by the crisis of his world and of his personal world view. Using the two thousand year only division of history as a touchstone, Lagerkvist explores the reality of the human condition in many of his novels. Two such novels, Barabbas (1951), and Herod and Mariamne (1967), portray humanity against the backdrop of Christ's...
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SOURCE: Bloch, Adèle. “Mythological Syncretism in the Works of Four Modern Novelists.” International Fiction Review 8, no. 2 (summer 1981): 114-18.
[In the following essay, Bloch finds similarities between the main influences on and themes found in the work of Lagerkvist, Thomas Mann, Nikos Kazantsakis, and Jacques Roumain.]
In the nineteen forties and fifties while the world was still in the throes of war and social upheaval, four novelists wrote fictional works with similar archetypal themes. Thomas Mann is the senior author as his Joseph Cycle1 most directly influenced the work of his younger colleagues. The Scandinavian Pär Lagerkvist so closely followed in his footsteps that similar characters and structures can be found throughout his entire opus, from the popular Barabbas2 through the Sybil3 and the Holy Land.4 The fictional works of the Greek poet Nikos Kazantsakis such as the Greek Passion5 and the Last Temptation of Christ6 also display the same mythological images and patterns. Finally, repercussions of almost identical archetypal figures impress the reader of the novels of Jacques Roumain, a Haitian poet and writer of fictional works, such as Gouverneurs de la Rosée7 (“Governors of the Dew”) which won him worldwide acclaim just prior to his untimely death in...
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SOURCE: Brantly, Susan. “The Stylistic Legacy of Religious Literature in Pär Lagerkvist's Poetry.” Scandinavica 22, no. 1 (May 1983): 47-68.
[In the following essay, Brantly explores the religious influences on Lagerkvist's poetry.]
The question of literary influence is a popular but problematic topic within literary studies. Any given literary work is the product of numerous outside influences, the tracing of which is an impossible task of questionable utility. Frederik Böök has described these outside influences upon a poet's labours as, ‘Råmaterialet, hvilket af diktaren präglas med hans egna upplefvelser och formas efter hans eget väsen; en lyrisk dikt kan trots otaliga “förebilder” vara i högsta måtto originell.’1 Indeed, a frequently encountered danger in influence studies is that once connections with eminent literary models have been drawn, the original element in a given work may be easily overshadowed and neglected. A further complication in the question of influence consists of the fact that models can be used by an author both consciously and unconsciously. Unconscious influences tend to be much more elusive. Yet another pitfall in studies of influence is that a given motif or technique can have several possible sources, and one is not always able to identify with certainty the actual source.
With regard to the problem of influence, alongside...
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SOURCE: Scobbie, Irene. “The Origins and Development of Lagerkvist's Barabbas.” Scandinavian Studies 55, no. 1 (1983): 55-66.
[In the following essay, Scobbie traces Lagerkvist's creative process through an examination of Barabbas.]
During his lifetime Pär Lagerkvist was extremely reticent about his work and about how he experienced the creative process. One gains the impression that he was inspired in the old-fashioned sense of that word, wrote when in an almost visionary state and that he then divorced himself from what he had created. On his death in 1974 when it was revealed that he had kept diaries, correspondence, drafts, manuscripts, typescripts, and proofs of many of his works, both published and unpublished, it became possible to examine Lagerkvist's method of writing. What emerges is the image of a painstaking craftsman as well as an inspired author.
One of his most successful novels, Barabbas, provides an excellent example. If we trace this work on the evidence of material deposited at Kungliga biblioteket in Stockholm, we can gain some impression of how a Lagerkvistian masterpiece emerges.
To single out the exact moment when a work is conceived is hardly possible. In the case of a work by Lagerkvist the temptation is to go back to childhood memories of a loving home that for the youngest child Pär was too permeated with piety,...
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SOURCE: Sondrup, Steven P. “Terms of Divergence: The Vocabularies of Pär Lagerkvist's Ångest and Artur Lundkvist's Glöd.” Scandinavian Studies 58, no. 1 (1986): 25-36.
[In the following essay, Sondrup considers the influence of Lagerkvist on the poetry of Artur Lundkvist.]
Ich weiß nicht, ob Ihnen unter all dem ermüdenden Geschwätz von Individualität, Stil, Gesinnung, Stimmung und so fort nicht das Bewußtsein dafür abhanden gekommenist, daß das Material der Poesie die Worte sind. …
(Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Poesie und Leben, 1896)
The publication in 1916 of Pär Lagerkvist's collection of poetry entitled Ångest (Angst) marks a decisive turning point in the history of modern Swedish literature. The power and intensity with which the poet evoked his agony were without parallel, and his strident Modernism pointed toward new areas of human experience accessible to poetic exploration. Lagerkvist was dramatically turning his back on the subtly nuanced and often melancholy world of his immediate predecessors—Ola Hansson and the young Vilhelm Ekelund, for example—and following in the footsteps of Baudelaire and Strindberg, while drawing inspiration from cubist aesthetics and Marinetti's futurist invectives. The title of the collection and the selection of “Ångest, ångest är min...
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SOURCE: Weiss, Hanna Kalter. “‘Myten om Människorna’: The Myth of Modern Man in Pär Lagerkvist's Novels.” Scandinavica 26, no. 1 (May 1987): 13-29.
[In the following essay, Weiss traces Lagerkvist's use of mythology in his work.]
Pär Lagerkvist can rightly be called a maker of modern myth. Drawing from ancient and medieval sources, he recreates these into his own myth of modern man and his dilemma. Lagerkvist's hero is the unbeliever on a constant search for the meaning of life. He is the ugly ‘dwarf’ on Odysseys to the ‘Holy Land’ of forgiveness which, he feels, he does not deserve, but which may eventually come to him through the selfless love of Woman. The creation of such myth places Lagerkvist on the level of the great mythmakers of the twentieth century. Already in his early short stories, especially in ‘Paradiset’ and ‘Myten om människorna,’ Lagerkvist shows his mythopoetic inclination and continues it in his longer works. This paper will trace the evolution of the Lagerkvist myth in his novels.
Ever since the beginning of his existence man has created myth.1 Where his knowledge fell short, he tried to explain the unknown through mythical metaphor, conceiving stories about creation, the seasons, the stars, natural phenomena, birth and death; and he pondered the supernatural powers guiding his world. Awe, fear, love, hate, jealousy, delight,...
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SOURCE: Algulin, Ingemar. “Pär Lagerkvist: Modernist of Timelessness.” In A History of Swedish Literature, pp. 183-91. Sweden: The Swedish Institute, 1989.
[In the following essay, Algulin offers an overview on Lagerkvist's life and career.]
With Pär Lagerkvist (1891-1974), awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1951, Swedish literature got its first modernist, i.e. the first writer to link up more directly with the international movements. He was, however, only to a limited extent a pioneer and leading figure of the new artistic ideas. He went his own way, and the great existential questions always interested him more than contemporary literary life. When he formulated his modernistic program in 1913 in Ordkonst och bildkonst (Word Art and Pictorial Art) he tied in with modern art, in particular with Cubism and Expressionism. However, typically enough, he also cited as models the very oldest forms of literature: Homer, the Greek tragedies, the Old Testament, the Icelandic saga, the sources of primitive Indian and Persian religion and more. In the midst of his bold, artistic innovation is an obvious archaic element, a lingering fascination with timeless moods and attitudes, a strong link with metaphysical problems and the great religious questions. His writing can be seen as a powerful duel between the new scientific picture of the world, which he accepted early, and the Christian...
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SOURCE: Swanson, Roy Arthur. Introduction to Pär Lagerkvist: Five Early Works, translated by Roy Arthur Swanson, pp. 1-61. Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press, 1989.
[In the following essay, Swanson traces Lagerkvist's literary development and delineates the defining characteristics of his work.]
Pär Fabian Lagerkvist was born on May 23, 1891, in Växjö, a southern Swedish town in the Kronoberg district of Småland province; his early writings are cast in the orthography and dialect of this region. His maternal grandparents were farm folk, severely uncompromising in their fundamentalist religion. In their presence Lagerkvist learned the cold terror of a religion of judgment. His attitude to this kind of religion is expressed in works like The Morning (Morgonen), and Guest of Reality (Gäst hos verkligheten, 1925: a recollection of his childhood).
His father, Anders Johan Lagerkvist, was a bangrdsförman (foreman at a railroad station yard). Details of his father's work appear in stories like “Braekman Blome”1 and “Father and I” (“Far och jag,” 1924). His father and mother, née Johanna Blad, were devout Christians, but their persuasion was marked more by the solace of the Gospel than by the rigidity of the Law. Ultimately Lagerkvist abandoned the regular faith of both his grandparents and his...
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SOURCE: Nilsson, Nils Åke. “Poetic Naivism: Czeslaw Milosz and Pär Lagerkvist.” Scando-Slavica 36 (1990): 41-53.
[In the following essay, Nilsson finds historical, biographical, and religious similarities between Czeslaw Milosz's poem “Father in the Library” and Lagerkvist's untitled poem from his collection The Road of the Happy Man.]
In 1943 Czesław Miłosz wrote a cycle of poems entitled Świat (The World; there are two English translations, Miłosz 1984 and Miłosz 1988).
The theme of the cycle—a world of childhood and innocence—returns in Miłosz's later prose and poetry. But the form of poetic discourse—indicated by the subtitle Poema naiwne (Naive poems)—is special and gives the cycle a unique position among his works.
It consists of 20 short poems. One of them is entitled “Ojciec w bibliotece” (“Father in the Library”):
Wysokie czoło, a nad nim zwichrzone Włosy, na które słońce z okna pada. I ojciec jasną ma z puchu koronę, Gdy wielką księgę przed sobą rozkłada.
Szata wzorzysta jak na czarodzieju, Zaklęcia głosem przyciszonym mruczy. Jakie są dziwy, co w księdze się dzieją, Dowie się, kogo Bóg czarów nauczy.
The English translation is from Miłosz 1988:
A high forehead, and above it tousled hair On which a ray of sun falls...
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SOURCE: Polet, Jeff. “A Blackened Sea: Religion and Crisis in the Work of Pär Lagerkvist.” Renascence 54, no. 1 (fall 2001): 47-63.
[In the following essay, Polet discusses how Lagerkvist's characters mirror his own search for eternal peace and the Kingdom of God, by exploring the connection between social order and freedom and the deepest questions of what he called “human destiny.”]
A variety of literary figures have been highly regarded as critics of totalitarianism: Camus, Kundera, Orwell and Solzhenitsyn among them. Generally absent from this list is Swedish Nobel laureate Pär Lagerkvist. This is an unfortunate omission, and in the English speaking world his work has become all but neglected. Quickly after his death in 1974, two books were published giving American readers an overview of Lagerkvist's work, though neither was an in-depth study. Since then, no books and only two articles, both of them comparing him with other contemporary writers, have been published about Lagerkvist. As a result, a generation of Americans is largely unfamiliar with his work.
One can only speculate as to why his voice has become silent. Certainly the end of the cold war made his statements against totalitarianism seem less relevant. The fact that he worked in a minor language and a culture that was not a world-center probably consigned him more to the margins. His sparse prose, strange...
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White, Ray. Pär Lagerkvist in America. Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press, 1979, 149 p.
Indexes reviews of Lagerkvist's works published in the United States.
Sjoberg, Leif. Pär Lagerkvist. New York: Columbia University Press, 1976, 52 p.
Summary of Lagerkvist's life and early works.
Ahnebrink, Lars. “Pär Lagerkvist: A Seeker and a Humanist.” Pacific Spectator 6, no. 4 (autumn 1952): 400-12.
Traces Lagerkvist's development as a writer.
Benson, Adolph B. “Pär Lagerkvist: Nobel Laureate.” College English 13, no. 8 (May 1952): 417-24.
Discusses Lagerkvist's short fiction within the framework of an introduction to his works and philosophy.
Ellestad, Everett M. “Lagerkvist and Cubism.” Scandinavian Studies 45, no. 1 (winter 1973): 38-53.
Studies Lagerkvist's “development of literary cubism from theory to practice,” concentrating on the style and technique of his fiction.
Fuller, John. “Apings.” New Statesman 67, no. 1717 (7 February 1964): 219-20.
Unfavorable review of the “absurdly overplayed” and “comically portentous” novella Pilgrim...
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