"I constantly conduct a dialogue with myself," Pär Lagerkvist once said in a talk on his works, "one book answers the other".
Despite the constant varying of the answers, the dialogue is always concerned with the same thing, a search for the meaning of existence. Lagerkvist has experienced more intensely than most the central dilemma for twentieth-century man within the Christian sphere of influence: where can we find a foothold when we no longer believe in God?
The whole of Lagerkvist's creative work can be said to spring from a fundamentally divided experience of existence. We learn from the autobiographical description with the significant title "Gäst hos verkligheten" ("Guest of Reality") how the child and young man experienced two alternative worlds, the home, with the mother as its central support, and life outside. He himself stood apart from both, unable to commit himself fully to either.
His mother's world, illumined by Christian faith, represents meaningful coherence with a metaphysical superstructure and a firm system of values. Life implies a blind, biological, natural process in which man is merely an involuntary element with inescapable annihilation awaiting him. This is the meaning of the formula "things as they are" ("så som det är"), which recurs with minor variations throughout Lagerkvist's work, whereas the formula for his mother's world is "that which does not exist" ("det some inte finns").
These are the two poles in Lagerkvist's imaginative world, and he constantly swings between them. But it is always his mother's world that is the positive pattern. Most of the female figures in his work are formed in her image, and it is also from her world that he derives his two key words "light" and "peace". Even though Lagerkvist cannot by any means be said to have attained a firm faith in God, it is the two transcending forces in human life, the longing for spiritual reality and the longing for love, that always constitute the meaningful and controlling factors in his attempted solutions to the problem of life's significance. They are the very foundation pillars in "the world of the human heart" that he has mapped out for us.
The sense of alienation from existence is a major theme in twentieth-century literature, and as one of its interpreters Lagerkvist is akin to writers like Kafka and Camus. He belongs among those whose struggle against the dehumanization of mankind has led them to seek for the hidden God, a solution to the metaphysical riddles of life.
This has been particularly marked in the last two decades; from "Barabbas" onwards the magnetic power from the pole of "what does not exist" has been decisive in Lagerkvist's work. (pp. 57-8)
Lagerkvist's power to create images is perhaps his most characteristic gift as a writer. I do not think that Lagerkvist's books spring to mind primarily as quotations, but it is as pictures—of people and situations—that they remain in our memory. We need only think of figures like "the Hangman" and "the Dwarf", leading representatives of a one-dimensional world, "things as they are".
In his more recent phase Lagerkvist has given us a sequence of images for man in relationship to the hidden God. The pictures are taken in a peculiar twilight which often gives us plus and minus variants at one glance; it is the deep truth of paradox that they convey. (p. 58)
Lagerkvist's work from 1950 to 1964 constitutes a closely connected sequence, of which the five prose works, "Barabbas" (1950), "The Sibyl" (1956), "The Death of Ahasuerus" (1960), "Pilgrim at Sea" (1962) and "The Holy Land" (1964) are interlinked entities within a five-part picture, while "Aftonland" (1953) provides a lyrical background.
"Mariamne" (1967) … provides a more independent epilogue.
"Aftonland" is a fruitful place to begin our short survey precisely because the collection of poems acts as a sounding-board for the themes found separately in the novels.
The collection is divided into five sections, with varying themes, but the atmosphere is more or less the same throughout, and this gives the collection a powerful unity. The posing of the problems, or more accurately of the questions connected with man's relationship to God, also contributes to this effect.
After the first three sections have led us into "aftonlandet", the land of the preparation for death, and have emphasized man's eternal, unquenchable longing, we are confronted with the fourth and in every way the most powerful section. In twenty-four poems Lagerkvist here gives as many variations on the same theme, the relationship between mankind and the two powers, death and god.
It is also here that we find the most suggestive expression of the major dilemma, in the poem "En främling är min vän": "Vem är du som uppfyller mitt hjärta med din frånvaro? Som uppfyller hela världen med din frånvaro" ("Who are you who fills my heart with your absence? Who fills the whole world with your absence?"). This might be called the formula for man's relationship to the hidden God. (pp. 58-9)
The hidden God passes by, acting as it were absent-mindedly, without attention or consideration for the "victim" who is being overwhelmed, as is so often the case with Lagerkvist. (pp. 59-60)
The sense of alienation is dual: for the poet, God is alien, unattainable and incomprehensible, but at the same time the experience of him has such power that the poet is also a stranger in his surroundings. This is perhaps the heart of Lagerkvist's creative writing, most markedly so in his more recent period. It is a recurring theme in "Aftonland", and it distinguishes most of the characters in the prose works, especially Barabbas, the Sibyl and Ahasuerus….
God's power over man is stressed in more aggressive, almost hostile images of man overwhelmed by God, man in God's violent power, another major theme in Lagerkvist's later work.
The main image in [the "Aftonland" collection], the spear, has been prepared for in a previous poem ("Säg mig du eviga stjärna"), where the hostility of the transcendent is clearly expressed in the image "the spearpoint from eternity". (p. 60)
The main stress can be laid on the non-existence of the spear-thrower God, while the spear-faith does exist irrespective of this: man's longing for the transcendent and his religious need are independent of the existence of God….
The power which overwhelms man from outside is, however, so strongly stressed in the image of the spear, which must after all have been thrown by someone outside mankind, that it seems to me absurd not to place the greatest emphasis on this.
The paradoxical, and catastrophically devastating, power that the hidden God has over men even when they do not believe, is given expression in a number of poems…. (p. 61)
The final section in the collection is introduced by a poem in which Lagerkvist again approaches the language of the mystics…. The dark spring in this poem foreshadows a major symbol in the subsequent prose works and one particularly associated with Ahasuerus and Tobias.
It is also in this section that there appears the splendid sequence "Skapelsemorgon" ("The Morning of Creation") where nine poems give variations on the relationship between the Creator and creation and where loneliness and a sense...
(The entire section is 3142 words.)