Pär Fabian Lagerkvist displayed his predisposition to independence in his very first appearance in print, a letter to the local newspaper in October, 1905, written when he was fourteen:Every schoolboy is surely aware of the hostility that exists, not only in Växiö but in other cities as well, between elementary-and secondary-school pupils. This hostility may appear to be insignificant, but it certainly is not; it is nothing other than the beginning of a pernicious class hatred in Sweden. For how easily does a boy from elementary school, who during his entire schooling grows accustomed to harboring the same hostility toward a secondary-school pupil that the socialists harbor toward the upper social classes, how easily does such a boy fall victim to pernicious socialism. Conversely, a secondary-school pupil can easily begin to hate not only the elementary-school students but also, when he is older and more mature, all members of the working class. Therefore, comrades, let’s begin to lay aside this bad habit and rather try, in harmony, to further the best interests of our country. [signed] A schoolboy.
In five to seven years’ time, Lagerkvist would become sufficiently amenable to socialism to lend his creative talents to the Social Democratic journals Fram, Stormklockan, and Norskensflamman.
Thirteen months after his debut in the local newspaper, he published a prose sketch entitled “Moderskärlek” and signed “Jagibus.” It is a sentimental piece with a trace of bitterness over the emigration to the United States of which Småland had seen much during the last half of the nineteenth century.
The burgeoning of Lagerkvist’s literary career coincides with the development of cubism from 1907 to 1914. In 1909 and 1910 he published thirteen poems under the pen name “Stig Stigson.” The first work published in his own name was the poem “Kväll” (“Evening”), written in February, 1911, in honor of the poet Gustaf Fröding, who had recently died. In 1912, he published seven new poems, a copy of two hitherto unpublished Strindberg letters that he had discovered, a prose fantasy entitled “Gudstanken” (“God’s Thought”), and his first novel, Människor (people). Many of Lagerkvist’s early works, particularly his poems, have a militant socialist focus that would give way by 1916 to his broader humanistic expressions of längtan (longing), ångest (anguish), and kärlek (love). Adumbrations of his plays and later novels are evident in “God’s Thought,” in which a Diana figure (to reappear in a 1960 novel), as a vestige of a dead religion, serves to turn a man toward the experience of his own being and, consequently, away from preoccupation with the supernatural, and in a 1912 poem, “Min Gud” (“My God”), which begins, “My god is a proud, defiant man/ — —my god is a child gone astray,” asserts midway, “My god is what life has given me/ to mold into worship and belief,” and concludes, “my god—my god—: he is I!—he is I!— — —.” Lagerkvist’s maternal grandparents had been farm people, severely uncompromising in their fundamentalist religion. In their presence, Lagerkvist learned the cold terror of a religion of judgment. His father, Anders Johan Lagerkvist, a foreman at a railroad yard, and his 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 faith of both his grandparents and his parents.
In 1913, Lagerkvist published three poems and two prose sketches in Stormklockan, to which he also contributed twelve reviews, including his review of Fyodor Dostoevski’s Unizhennye i oskorblyonnye (1861; The Insulted and Injured , 1887)....
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His review article on Guillaume Apollinaire’sLes Peintres cubistes: Méditations esthétiques (1913; The Cubist Painters: Esthetic Meditations, 1944) appeared in Svenska dagbladet. He also published that year Två sagor om livet (two tales of life, a pair of short stories) and his very important essay Ordkonst och bildkonst (Literary Art and Pictorial Art, 1982), which established his championship of cubism and helped to change the literary climate in Sweden. He saw cubism as greatly superior to impressionism and naturalism and developed the suggestion that the literary artist would do well to adhere to the mathematical technique and the structural principles of the cubist painter.
Lagerkvist passed his student-examination in Växjö at the age of nineteen, entitling him to wear the white studentmössa (student-cap), indicative of his eligibility for university study. He entered Uppsala University in 1911 but gave it up after a single term. Människor includes passages expressive of his dissatisfaction with student life. He carried on his studies independently. During the first half of 1913, he was in Paris, carefully appraising the theories and methods of French painting, particularly expressionism, Fauvism, and, as noted, cubism.
He lived in Denmark during World War I and recorded his bitter but lyric lament over the waste and inhumanity of war in Järn och människor (iron and men), a collection of five short stories published in 1915. In the next year, his first collection of poems appeared under the title of the poem that opens the collection, Ångest. The title, translated as “anguish,” denotes a painfully intellectual emotion. Lagerkvist’s first major renditions of the theme coincided with his residence in the country of Søren Kierkegaard, who had defined the existentialist concept of ångest as “a sympathetic antipathy and an antipathetic sympathy.”
Lagerkvist developed a presentation of ångest as an intensified consciousness of längtan (longing). Längtan is common to both innocence (ignorance) and loss of innocence (awareness); it is in the loss of innocence that längtan becomes ångest. Both Lagerkvist and Kierkegaard see spirit as an intellectual emotion, as the imaginative awareness that is at once the source, the sustenance, and the identity of “anguish”; both see it as a synthesis of body and soul, a synthesis that spirit itself effects when it awakens from its own dream. Lagerkvist’s längtan is Kierkegaard’s Aand . . . drømmende (spirit . . . dreaming).
It was during this period in Denmark that Lagerkvist added to his independent curriculum a thoroughgoing study of drama. He concluded that modern theater, like modern literature, was seriously oppressed by naturalism; in “Modern teater: Synpunkter och angrepp” (1918; “Modern Theatre: Points of View and Attack,” 1966), he criticized contemporary drama as vigorously as he had criticized contemporary literature in Literary Art and Pictorial Art, and his suggestion for its rejuvenation was much the same as the one he had made for literature—chiefly, mathematical construction and an application of the principles of cubist painting. He berated the naturalistic theater for its failure to express the time in which people were currently living, a time greatly in need of giving adequate expression to its ångest.
His first play, Sista mänskan (the last man), was published in 1917. Like his first novel, it was patently expressionistic, depressingly informed by the imagery of darkness, and presumably a failure. Lagerkvist never permitted any reprinting of Människor; and while he did not object to reprintings of Sista mänskan, he seems never to have sought or encouraged its production once he had achieved success with his subsequent plays. The number of plays he wrote is relatively small, thirteen in the thirty-six years from 1917 through 1953, with two of these being adaptations from his prose fiction. He published no dramatic works during the last twenty-one years of his life. The film production of his Barabbas in 1962 was essentially the work of others. Ibsen, having written twice that many plays in fifty-one years, remained active as a playwright until only seven years before his death. Strindberg, who wrote his last play only three years before his death, had completed forty-six plays in, at most, thirty-seven years.
By the time Lagerkvist had written his second and third plays, his second comprising three one-act plays and his third being a one-act play, he had succeeded August Brunius, his good friend and the author of the foreword to Literary Art and Pictorial Art, as art and drama critic for Svenska dagbladet. During 1918-1919, he wrote forty-six reviews for the newspaper. In 1922 he collected his thoughts on innocence, awareness, and spirit and wrote them down in “Myten om människorna” (the myth of humankind). This work deals with the beginning, as Sista mänskan deals with the end, of humankind. Only a fragment of it has been published. By 1925, Lagerkvist was well established as a significant figure in Swedish literature. In 1928, having successfully worked in all the literary genres that mark his canon, he received the prestigious literary prize awarded by Samfundet De Nio (The Committee of Nine).
Lagerkvist’s most challenging works during the next decade were Bödeln (1933; The Hangman, 1936) and Den knutna näven (1934; The Clenched Fist, 1982), the latter written in conjuction with his travels to Greece and Palestine. In these works, he measures ångest against the problem of evil with which he had struggled in Sista mänskan and which he had elucidated in his collection of short stories Onda sagor (1924; evil tales). The Hangman is a lyric comment on the brutalism of fascist sovereignty; more important, it develops in sympathetic antipathy the theme of the necessity and persistence of evil. The subject is expanded in lyric essays in The Clenched Fist as Lagerkvist elaborates his version of Friedrich Nietzsche’s Apollonian and Dionysian duality. Unlike Nietzsche, he limits these motifs almost exclusively to morality, yet, like Nietzsche, he recognizes the positive and negative forces in each and the great dangers resulting from the ascendance of either one over the other. These themes receive masterful treatment in the novel Dvärgen (1944; The Dwarf, 1945) with its Apollonian artist-scientist Messer Bernardo, its Dionysian dwarf Piccoline, and its theme of inherent human evil.
Four years before publication of The Dwarf, Lagerkvist had succeeded to the chair of the deceased Verner von Heidenstam as a duly elected member of the Swedish Academy of Literature, that body of “immortals” that selects the winners of the Nobel Prize in Literature. Lagerkvist was himself nominated for the Nobel Prize in 1950, the year in which he published his novel Barabbas. André Gide had won the prize in 1947, T. S. Eliot in 1948. The 1949 prize was held over to 1950, the year of Lagerkvist’s nomination; it was won by William Faulkner, for whom it is said Lagerkvist had cast his ballot, and the 1950 prize was awarded to Bertrand Russell. The 1951 prize was awarded to Pär Lagerkvist, the Uppsala University dropout who had received an honorary Ph.D. from the University of Gothenburg in 1941 and whose works became the subject of study at Uppsala. Lagerkvist’s speech at the Nobel Prize ceremonies consisted of the aforementioned fragment from his 1922 composition “Myten om människorna.”
From 1951 until his death in 1974, Lagerkvist published only six works—his ninth and last volume of poetry and five short novels. In 1977, his daughter Elin Lagerkvist published Antecknat, a collection of his notes, jottings, and diary entries, dating from 1906, and seven previously unpublished poems.