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.