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 Dwarf holds no truth as self-evident. The misapprehension of events by the dwarf serves the important literary purpose of portraying insubstantial knowledge directly; no other technique could as well have evoked the reader's dissatisfaction with answers and judgments. We cannot trust the dwarf, just as we cannot trust the evidence of this world or the "evidence" of an otherworld…. Like Henry James and Vladimir Nabokov in some of their fictions, Lagerkvist has created a narrator whose conclusions leave the reader ill at ease. The brilliant use of the memoir format in The Dwarf accomplishes the sceptical attitude in the most immediate, almost visceral way by encouraging doubt in the reader himself. In effect, the unreliable narrator is the meaning of the novel.
Even though the dwarf's narration veils some of the actuality in the novel, there will be agreement on a number of his characteristics: his ugliness, his misanthropy, cynicism, pride, shallowness, his love of war and of killing. The common denominator of these is not, however, undifferentiated evil, as Alrik Gustafson avers in A History of Swedish Literature. He states that "in many ways" the dwarf is "the very incarnation of evil," and thus far the commentators have agreed. But the dwarf is too closely drawn, too specifically malicious to represent all evil. Furthermore, to designate the dwarf as evil incarnate is to imply metaphysical manicheism, a rather simplistic duality which certainly would not appeal to a modern sceptical mind. The Dwarf is full of realistic detail unusual for Lagerkvist's novels, and the first-person narrator is also unique; the consequence of these techniques is that we may be confident of determining the dwarf's precise nature. The "evil" is really an overwhelming egoism, a selfishness raised to the highest power, an I-ness such as that touted by the existential philosopher. The dwarf denies any values outside himself; he retreats within, where fickleness, vacillation, and ephemerality have reign. His judgments begin and end in himself, referring at every instance to his own self-serving. So extreme is his egoism that he convinces himself of his authority in the court, though he obviously has none, and of the continuing reliance of the Prince on him, though he is chained in a dungeon. Since his character emanates from the vicissitudes of the "I" he is arbitrary and changeable in his opinions. He adores his Prince but turns against him bitterly; he taunts the Princess and brings about her death although he confesses his love for her; he has unlimited admiration for the leader of the mercenaries and then denounces him. The dwarf's only consistency lies...
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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)
Herod is a man of primitive urges, a point Lagerkvist underlines in his characterization, by his references to blood and fire. (p. 129)
Lagerkvist's story deals with the point in Herod's life when he comes into contact with Mariamne, his antithesis in every respect. She is fair, gentle, fragile, sensitive and unselfish to the point where she sacrifices herself for others…. The fire of Herod's...
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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….
Aftonland generally avoids … closed forms and [translator W. H. Auden] wisely keeps clear of acute rhyming problems. But when we look at the texture of his versions, there are many pages where lithe Swedish has become stiff English, as if Auden felt too bound by the literal versions from which he was working, so that some of the grammatical mechanics of the Swedish show through.
Robin Fulton, "The Eternal Enigmas," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1978; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), March 10, 1978, p. 291.