Pär Lagerkvist Lagerkvist, Pär (Vol. 7) - Essay

Lagerkvist, Pär (Vol. 7)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Lagerkvist, Pär 1891–1974

Lagerkvist, a Swedish novelist, poet, and playwright, received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1951. Lagerkvist championed cubism and expressionism in his youth; in his later years he was absorbed in the religious nature of man's struggle with good and evil. (See also Contemporary Authors, obituary, Vols. 49-52.)

André Gide has said of ["Barabbas" that it was] "beyond all doubt a remarkable book," and there will be few readers to disagree. The work combines the utmost physical realism with an intensity of spiritual conflict not often equaled in the retelling of Biblical tales. Pär Lagerkvist has taken a man barely mentioned in the New Testament and has built him into a character as real, as evil, and as good as he must have been to the men who knew him those centuries ago. This is no outline sketch in black and white but a deeply conceived and richly colored portrait of a man driven beyond the powers of his endurance by a force he could never actually believe in….

So many of the novels dealing with the time of Christ present merely a sensational panorama of the period, but Pär Lagerkvist probes deeper, seeking the whys and where-fores of the orgies and spectacles in the natures of the people inaugurating them. He seeks to understand the fanatical courage of the Christians, those gentle believers in non-violence whose strength in the face of violence directed against them baffled and infuriated their tormentors….

Pär Lagerkvist shows how the world into which Christ's teaching came lived truly in the shadow and fear of death. Barabbas is always conscious of the fate that lies ahead, the going down into darkness and nothingness. The mad idea that the Christians hold concerning another life after death fascinates him, but he cannot accept it. It is literally too good to be true. In the end when Barabbas comes again to crucifixion there is no Christ to take his place. He is face to face with death. He speaks out his belief, and the reader knows what he says, but who shall say what he has meant? This is the final suspense in a book full of suspense.

Pär Lagerkvist has not been well known in America although he has received full acclaim and many honors in Europe, but with this book in which ideas and events clash vigorously, in which both the story and the argument run to climactic completion, he should take his place on this side of the Atlantic.

Graham Bates, "In the Shadow of the Cross," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1951 by Saturday Review, Inc.; reprinted with permission), October 27, 1951, p. 12.

Barabbas … is, by contemporary standards, a small masterpiece.

In a prose style that is swift, sparing, limpid, and hauntingly intense in its effects—a style whose energy and beauty the translator, Alan Blair, has magnificently preserved—Lagerkvist evokes the early Christian era with a selective realism more telling than any ponderously detailed reconstruction of the past. Every image sustains the feeling, "That is the way things were"; every movement in the story has an unerring rightness. The narrative unfolds the spiritual drama of a skeptic confronted with Christ's challenge and it does so in terms peculiarly suggestive to the modern mind. Lagerkvist's Barabbas—brutal, solitary, incapable of belief yet haunted by the image of the rabbi who chose to die in his place—is a powerful symbol of the loveless being, imprisoned in selfhood, who can be strongly stirred only by hate and is tormented by an unconscious need for love. (p. 97)

Charles J. Rolo, in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass.; reprinted with permission), December, 1951.

In a body of literature which has been for the most part preoccupied with national background, with painting the manners of Stockholm and of the Swedish countryside, and—apart from its exploitation of a rich lyric strain—with folklore and epic fantasy, Pär Lagerkvist, since his early "Expressionist" days, has stood as representative of an intellectualism which, like himself, has remained somewhat remote and dignified, somewhat unresponsive to the noisy methods of modern publicity.

In the world of Swedish and Scandinavian letters, Lagerkvist occupies, as poet and thinker, a position of eminence which has long been recognized by his compatriots and by the educated public in the countries which adjoin his own. (p. v)

Before saying anything else, it is well to draw attention to characteristics which are pre-eminent in the whole body of his work—to a nobility of tone and of style, to an unquestioning devotion to independence of mind, to an unequivocal sense of vocation which, for half a century, has assured for him a deserved reputation as one of the "advance guard."

There is scarcely a single aesthetic problem in the realm of literature which Lagerkvist has not striven to define and resolve—not only theoretically, but in the practice of his art—whether in the theatre, the short story, or works of meditation, and verse…. It has been a far cry with him from anguish to serenity, to that interior joy which triumphs over all despair; from early revolt to an acceptance which has never been mere resignation, though often it is not far removed from a mood of burning adoration, from a religious sense at one with reason, from faith in the existence of a principle to be found at the source of all our human destiny. Many phases mark his pilgrimage, and the victories he has won are numerous in battles joined on the fields of ethics and aesthetics, in the perpetual struggle to attain to those realms of thought where the spirit can find its ultimate well-being. (pp. vi-vii)

[Barabbas] proves abundantly that he has never lost touch with the tragedy of the contemporary mind, that, in spite of his philosophy, he is familiar with the devastating terrors of our problems, and has been brought face to face with the insoluble problem of Man's predicament, with the horror of that blindness in which we are compelled to face the problem of the universe and of ourselves.

In this enigmatic and unforgettable Barabbas, with its sense of spiritual torment, its deep stirrings of faith, its sure response to the movements of the human mind, is expressed the riddle of Man and his destiny, the contrasted aspects of his fundamental drama, and the cry of humanity in its death throes, bequeathing its spirit to the night. (p. viii)

[Here] we see the final development of an art which has reached the limits of elliptic suggestion, of austerity, and of a form that has been pared down to essentials.

Barabbas is the last phase in a process of thought which has moved beyond mere literature, of an art which, with its admirable sobriety, embodies the emotional climate of our times. (pp. viii-ix)

Lucien Maury, in his preface to Barabbas, translated by Alan Blair (copyright © 1951 by Random House, Inc.; reprinted by permission of Random House, Inc.), Random House, 1951, pp. v-ix.

It is the measure of Lagerkvist's success [in Barabbas] that he has managed so admirably to maintain his balance on a tightrope which stretches across the dark abyss that lies between the world of reality and the world of faith. (p. xi)

André Gide, in his prefatory letter on Barabbas, translated by Alan Blair (copyright © 1951 by Random House, Inc.; reprinted by permission of Random House, Inc.), Random House, 1951, pp. x-xii.

If a writer begins with the stark metaphysical encounter with God and nothingness, where does he end after forty years and eight novellas (his plays and verse are not my concern here)? Lagerkvist's new book, The Death of Ahasuerus …, leaves us in pretty much the same place, or rather the same no place. God's name is spelled with a small letter now, and he never appears in person; he dropped from sight after The Eternal Smile, as Lagerkvist moved still farther away from religious certainty. But the central pattern is still the same: an endless quest for meaning, represented by a physical journey; confrontation with suffering; a defiant approach to God; a paradoxical revelation of God's finiteness; and a final reconciliation to death, which is at the same time a reconciliation to life. (p. 170)

As often in Lagerkvist fiction, the burden rests not on narrative, but on spare iconographic scenes (the shriveled woman with the stigmata, the arrow in the mountain pass), on the emotions of the characters and, preeminently, on metaphysical speculation. For Lagerkvist is a relentlessly philosophical writer, and his theme is always the same; man's suffering and its relation to a greater power than himself. The entire story of this book seems merely a scaffolding erected to hold the deathbed of Ahasuerus, and his final thrust at understanding. To what insight is he raised? That all mankind, not Christ alone, is crucified. (pp. 170-71)

All his fiction is freighted with philosophy, but in the best of it narrative structure and scene finely support the burden. And in the best of his fiction that burden is overwhelmingly one of doubt and brooding evil, not of reassurance. Uncertainty and suffering are woven into the very fabric of experience as Lagerkvist most powerfully feels it; affirmation in his world is like a candle in the outer darkness….

[The] certainty of death is with him for good—and the uncertainty of nearly everything else. For above all, Lagerkvist is the apostle of uncertainty and ignorance. A "religious atheist," he has called himself: one who is temperamentally religious, but who finds nothing to pin his faith on. That man should yearn for comprehension, yet be sunk in a world of suffering which is incomprehensible: that condition rankles as an outrage in the hearts of Pär Lagerkvist's compelling antiheroes. (p. 171)

They hate man … for his cruelty, for his arrogance, or for his ignorance. The Christian message, "love one another," falls with extreme oddity on their ears. Who can understand such words, within the human landscape of these books—the torture, thievery, rape, battle, and slavery that fill Lagerkvist's pages? And his heroes, through whose eyes and whose words we see the world (since Lagerkvist rarely intrudes an authorial point of view), have been especially ill-treated by it….

In … the strongest of Lagerkvist's tales, there are to be sure some traces of beauty, but a beauty that reaches us gravely qualified by the rancor or skepticism through which it sifts….

The only nobility that survives, finally, is that of the tormented heroes themselves. It issues in uncertainty and rebellion, at best.

But uncertainty and rebellion are not dishonorable conditions. In any case, the world as Lagerkvist sees it offers no other terms: take it or leave it, take it or die. In his best work—and it ranks with the best in contemporary Europe—there is no compromise with them. Reassurance and peace, as in The Death of Ahasuerus, are not materials he is at home with. (p. 172)

Richard M. Ohmann, "Apostle of Uncertainty," in Commonweal (copyright © 1962 Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.; reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), May 11, 1962, pp. 170-72.

In [Pilgrim of the Sea] it is not only the protagonist who is at sea; all of us are sailing that vast ocean of allegory and fable on which the Ship of Fools heaved and tossed not so very long ago. (p. 59)

It is a tricky sea, this mare fabula, bounded on one side by the reefs of Higher Profundity and on the other by the promontory of Universal Significance, swept by the notorious Calms of Boredom and possessed, apparently, of the sirens' lure for some novelists. Few traverse it successfully, nor is Lagerkvist one of the successful few. While his book is too short to be properly boring, it is resoundingly hollow, and this failure is the outcome … of Lagerkvist's conception of fiction as revealed in this work. (pp. 59-60)

Clearly, this is by no means a tale of any inherent originality or profundity…. [It] needs great intensity to raise this commonplace sequence of events to the power of a universal insight, to see in the single person the features of—if not all mankind—at least a goodly portion.

This intensity Lagerkvist lacks. Instead, he tries to universalize his ordinary events by abstracting them from time and place and setting them free in a void…. This procedure, however valuable it may be for the philosopher, does not serve the novelist well, for human actions do not occur in a void, but embedded in particulars, and the richness of fictional characters, their reach for universality, does not arise from the simplicity of abstraction but from the interplay between circumstances and gesture. A character may transcend his individuality to speak to conditions other than those of his creation, but he cannot avoid individuality and survive.

Lagerkvist's characters are not even characters, but mere spokesmen, mouthpieces of Good or Evil or Lust or Cupidity, whose sins and virtues are as pallid as they are. Deprived of the density which sustains fiction and summons the power of evocation, Lagerkvist has written, not a Profound Statement of Mankind's Struggle With Good and Evil (which sounds rather like a Chayefsky or Arthur Miller hope), but merely a philosophical melodrama, in which phantoms wrestle with vague concepts devoid of both significance and vitality. (pp. 60-1)

Michele Murray, "Odd Odyssey," in Commonweal (copyright © 1964 Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.; reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), April 3, 1964, pp. 59-61.

[Herod and Mariamne] is another of [Lagerkvist's] religious-psychological parables: man encounters a transforming spiritual grace that he desperately desires but that he cannot comprehend. (p. 478)

According to Lagerkvist, Herod, emblematic man, is unchangeably programmed for secular existence. Though Herod may envision for awhile some surcease from his secularism through spiritual grace, actually he is forever rooted in the "slimy bed" of his own being and has no "link with the divine."

Man is, in the final instance, a wilderness unto himself, and when he realizes his own limitations he reverts to an inevitable savagery and orders the murder of the glorious "possibility": Mariamne is destroyed.

Not that Lagerkvist questions the reality of that which Mariamne represents. Lagerkvist himself would seem to believe in the divine. But he believes the divine is an eternal mystery. Man may glimpse and sense it, but will at last kill whatever part of it he has been able to grasp. Man always returns to sickness and emptiness. "Then the old ways returned and he was himself again."

At the novel's end, Lagerkvist reminds the reader once more that Herod is representative of a mankind "that replenishes the earth but whose race shall one day be erased from it, and … will leave no memorial." Herod and Mariamne is a bitter novel, a brief, brilliant, haunting work. Yet its bitterness may be a challenge: its chilling "no" may stimulate the "yes" of faith. (p. 479)

Winston Weathers, in Commonweal (copyright © 1969 Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.; reprinted by permission of Common-weal Publishing Co., Inc.), January 10, 1969.

Lagerkvist may be viewed from many angles. Labelled an "existentialist" by some critics, 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, such as Barabbas, die in the maternal darkness of the unconscious.

Lagerkvist uses the theory of mythological archetype projection very much in the manner of Thomas Mann whose heroes fashion their natures and destinies according to certain legendary prototypes. Fuller recognition of identification with mythical figures is slowly attained by certain individuals, as the generations move towards more civilized levels of conscience. In the case of Lagerkvist's fictional characters, complete self-realization can be gained only after a lifetime of guilt, struggles and re-enactment of some original sins. His heroes descend into hell several times and undergo several partial epiphanies while groping for final answers which cannot be definitely stated. They also change identities along the way. One thing, however, remains a leitmotiv: their pilgrimage is always placed under the aegis of the Magna Mater. She may assume many masks: the sea of oblivion, the hounding witch, the virgin saint of christianity, the pagan huntress, to name but a few, but she is the feminine dark side of the earth, as conceived by the male spirit. Her modifications are due to the state of mind of man, who projects his own emotions and symbolism upon the female, according to his age, his upbringing and his times. She is present in all of Lagerkvist's works and completely engulfs his later novels.

Lagerkvist's heroes, females as well as males, spend their lives in the search for a God or Ideal which would give them a sense of purpose, of peace and of value. In their peregrinations, they must confront their shadow side, namely the Great Mother, upon which they project their own desires, fears and guilt. Basically, the Mythical Mother is neither absolutely good nor absolutely bad. In the circle of life, vice and virtue, moral criteria, are relative. The unconscious may well assume a threatening face, especially to the uninitiated: "Lagerkvist is a very dwelling place of dualisms, of contending opposites, darkness and light, good and evil, the cosmic and the familiar, life and death, comfort and despair." [See Richard Vowles' preface to Lagerkvist's The Eternal Smile and Other Stories]. (p. 48)

It is a matter of scant importance whether Lagerkvist is actually a literary exponent of Freudian or Jungian theories. Both interpretations are equally valid in his case. From a Freudian angle, his heroes, when they refer to their childhood at all, were often brought up under abnormal conditions. (p. 49)

But although formative trauma may explain some of these characters whose dreams also elicit a strongly sexual content, they are too deeply rooted on common ground and extra-individual symbolism to account for mere infantile repression and adult compensation…. Lagerkvist's fictional heroes are seldom personal; often they are so archetypal in nature as to remain nameless or designated by such vague mythological appellations as "the woman he called Diana," "the Sybil," "the Babe." They represent a whole race or group of kindred men. Some are reprobates such as the Dwarf, Barabbas or King Herod, who belong to the ancient red-haired progeny of Cain, Esau and Judas, sinners and sinned against, firebrands endowed with Promethean traits. On the other hand there is a constant reappearance of minor Cabiric characters, lavatory keepers, pagan temple servants or christian lay brothers who lead the weary soul to rest, thus mirroring the role of Hermes Psychopompos. It is significant that Tom-Thumb chtonic deities have the soles of their feet black, while their heads are bathed in radiance. All are shrouded in hermetic ambiguity which stems from their dual role: service of Apollo, the paternal god of light, and yet devotion to the dark goddess of the underworld.

Lagerkvist rarely elaborates, he suggests in streamlined fashion. Yet every word is pregnant with symbolic meaning. He usually avoids dating the stage on which he places his works, so as to endow them with a cyclical sweep. Some of the locales are loosely set in early Christianity (although he never refers to Christ by name, but by circumlocution so as to emphasize the archetypal nature of the Messianic prototype), others are placed in Apocalyptic days. Still others take place in a prehistorical setting with futuristic overtones. Lagerkvist will not pinpoint his tales in a given span. He presents us with the wheel of time, the returning aeons, blending the ancient with the modern while the subterranean roots push their ramifications far into the archaic matriarchal antiquity. The past resonates in the present, as the circle revolves from cradle to grave. Meanwhile the locket, which for him symbolizes life and the womb, typical aspects of the Great Mother, gets handed from one person to the next. Characters fade and reappear from one work to the next.

One feature, though, remains constant, despite its many guises: that is the Anima Figure of eminine visage of the collective mind. It provides not only a poetic pattern, a meaning which has to be discovered by the writer, his heroes and his readers, to gain more insight into an opaque and seemingly senseless universe, but it lends cohesion to the entire work. (pp. 49-50)

Lagerkvist, in common with Thomas Mann, likes to mingle all mythologies, mixing the Mediterranean with the Norse and with the Oriental in order to emphasize the common ground from which all myths have sprung. (p. 51)

Despite the fact that Magna Mater has transformed herself in the image of many earthly women, her unity is never in doubt….

The Magna Mater has very little to do with the true nature of the women who confront Lagerkvist's heroes…. Woman is a symbol or product of the male's aspirations, fears or ideals. He keeps projecting these qualities upon the female rather than truly relating to a human being. Misunderstanding and alienation are the basis of the relationship, as in the typical case of Herod who seeks a love with whom he can never communicate….

It is noticeable that in all of his fiction, love can only thrive on sex, stealth, violence and prohibition. This allows the mind of the subject to endow his object with mythological traits. Never does he depict a permanent relationship, one in which personalities and basic needs are understood and respected. Men insist on forcing their partners to re-enact archetypal patterns, thus excluding insight of true feminine psychology and of the real flesh and blood woman, who naturally suffers from such a basic misunderstanding. (p. 52)

Adèle Bloch, "The Mythical Female in the Fictional Works of Pär Lagerkvist," in The International Fiction Review, January, 1974, pp. 48-53.

It is surely no exaggeration to state that the literatures of the Scandinavian countries are the least well-known—except for a small handful of authors—of any major European literatures, nor is it incorrect to state that these are among the richest, relatively untapped literatures of our century. Even a Nobel laureate such as Pär Lagerkvist … is known more for the commercial success of his novel Barabbas (made into a successful motion picture starring Anthony Quinn) than his excellent short fiction and other works. (p. 35)

Paul Schlueter, in Studies in Short Fiction (copyright 1975 by Newberry College), Winter, 1975.