Lagerkvist, Pär (Vol. 10)
Lagerkvist, Pär 1891–1974
Lagerkvist was a Swedish poet, playwright, and novelist. Known as an Expressionist in his early days, Lagerkvist is best known for his Barabbas, which was one of the first novels to deal with a biblical subject in a realistic manner. Known for his spare, haunting prose style, Lagerkvist won the 1951 Nobel Prize for Literature. (See also CLC, Vol. 7, and Contemporary Authors, obituary, Vols. 49-52.)
Lagerkvist has apparently called himself a "religious sceptic." His novels have a curious unfinality about them, for their characters never come to their proper reward, never gain the solace suffering is supposed to bring. In manifestly Christian fiction, the main characters seem completed by their faith, whether that faith has temporal reward or not. In explicit existential fiction, generally the protagonist achieves some sort of pride, even happiness, in his incompleteness. But for the religious sceptic, like Lagerkvist, there is neither fulfillment nor pride. Humility, very human love, tenuous community, striving—these are the "rewards" of such a world. They are universal conditions, but they are not rigidly defined. In other words, they do not congeal into dogma. In the Lagerkvist scheme of things there are no conclusions, no party lines, no givens. As near to Christian as the basic tenets are, they are not locked into doctrine. In Barabbas, the Christian enclave ignores and then purges Barabbas, the truer seeker. Christ himself is said to have cursed Ahasuerus in The Death of Ahasuerus. And the Christians in The Dwarf are generally materialistic and vicious beings, even sadistic in their faith. Lagerkvist consistently attacks those who are so meager of spirit that they accept the narrow word and in consequence reject the spirit of religious law. (p. 98)
As a brief against the acceptance of dogma, The...
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Throughout most of his creative life Pär Lagerkvist has given artistic form to an inner conflict, a struggle between on the one hand a pessimistic view of life and man, and on the other a belief in man's ability to overcome the restrictions imposed upon him by life and gradually evolve into a truly spiritual being. (p. 128)
In many respects Mariamne (1967) reads like the antithesis of the Pilgrim trilogy, Ahasverus död (1960), Pilgrim på havet (1962) and Det heliga landet (1964)…. [Lagerkvist shows in the Pilgrim trilogy] that it was a woman's pure and gentle love that guided Tobias to his ultimate goal. In Mariamne the influence of a pure and gentle woman is again shown, but the results on this occasion may appear on first reading to be little more than complete desolation.
The man with a troubled soul is this time Herod, an example of the "desert" man so often encountered in Lagerkvist's works, most notably in Barabbas…. Like Barabbas he inhabits geographically and metaphorically the desert bordering the Dead Sea, and like Barabbas he is wholly isolated, a captive of his own egocentricity.
Lagerkvist depicts Herod as man in his early stages of development. He is less primitive than the Dwarf, that demonic human figure physically almost as ancient as Apeman although spiritually in his infancy, but he has much in common with him. (pp. 128-29)...
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Although Pär Lagerkvist will no doubt remain best-known for his fable-like fictions, his poetry is an important part of his output and it is a pity so little has been done to make it accessible to English readers. To that extent we should welcome the British edition of Aftonland [Evening Land]…. As the title suggests, the awareness of approaching age is present (Lagerkvist was sixty-two) but this should not lead us to expect any simple form of resignation, for his exploration of the enigmas of God, eternity, human fate and loneliness is as probing and kaleidoscopic here as it was throughout his writing life. As Östen Sjöstrand stressed in his inaugural address as Lagerkvist's successor in the Swedish Academy, a certain inner dynamism characterizes all of Lagerkvist's work: it can be sensed behind the quietest tones and at times it can break through the wrought surface….
Lagerkvist's poetry, often because of its surface simplicity, can be very resistant to translation. The worst we can do to Lagerkvist is make him appear banal—yet, given his life-long probing of "timeless" enigmas, given his fine ear for the musicality of certain unexportable Swedish cadences, and given his reliance, in his earlier work especially, on relatively simple and at times rather four-square literary models inherited from his early pietistic environment, the trap of banality yawns wide for the unwary translator….
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