Pär Lagerkvist Analysis

Other Literary Forms

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Pär Lagerkvist is, outside Sweden, best known as a novelist. In his own country, he is highly esteemed both as a poet and as a novelist and is ranked second only to August Strindberg in Swedish drama (excluding the cinema). He is also the author of essays on drama, literature, and painting; prose poems; sketches; travel essays; and many short stories.


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

As a Scandinavian playwright, Pär Lagerkvist now belongs to a triumvirate that includes Henrik Ibsen and August Strindberg. Thomas Buckman, the translator of seven of Lagerkvist’s plays and of his essay on modern theater, recognizes him as having introduced “a new spirit of modernism” into drama. The scholar Alrik Gustafson, who was a friend and frequent guest of Lagerkvist, observed in 1951 that “Lagerkvist has placed his stamp so firmly on Swedish literary culture that a recent Scandinavian writes: ‘If Swedish literature after 1914 may be expressed by a single name, that name must without question be Pär Lagerkvist.’” One may perhaps expect high praise from Scandinavians and from professors of Scandinavian studies, and indeed Martin Seymour-Smith, insisting that “Scandinavians overvalue their literature,” says that “no better example of this habit could be found than in the vastly inflated reputation of Lagerkvist” and adds that in expressionist drama “his example has been disastrous.” This somewhat peevish appraisal is at least explicit on the magnitude of Lagerkvist’s influence. For better or worse, Lagerkvist has been a real force in modern Swedish drama and literature. Richard B. Vowles, a critic of Lagerkvist’s fiction, has written, fairly and noncommittally, “Between 1912 and 1918 he largely established the expressionist direction of Swedish modernism.” It would be difficult to deny that Sweden’s renowned film director Ingmar Bergman followed this direction. “Lagerkvist,” according...

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Other Literary Forms

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Pär Lagerkvist’s first literary success was a volume of poetry, Ångest (1916; anguish). He dominated the Scandinavian theater with plays such as Han som fick leva om sitt liv (1928; The Man Who Lived His Life Over, 1971) and De vises sten (1947; The Philosopher’s Stone, 1966). His international reputation was established by the novels written in his later life, particularly Barabbas (1950).


(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Pär Lagerkvist received the prestigious literary prize from Samfundet De Nio in 1928. He was elected one of eighteen “Immortals” of the Swedish Academy in 1940 and was awarded an honorary Ph.D. from the University of Gothenburg in 1941. He received the Bellman Foundation Award in Fiction in 1945 and the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1951.

Other literary forms

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Although he is known primarily for the full-length novels that began appearing near the end of World War II, Pär Lagerkvist (LAH-gur-kvihst) also achieved great recognition in Scandinavia for his numerous short stories, novellas, poems, and plays. Little of this early work is available in translation. Lagerkvist’s short fiction and miscellaneous prose have been collected in Prosa I-V (1956). Some of the pieces in this work have appeared in translation in The Eternal Smile, and Other Stories (1954), The Marriage Feast, and Other Stories (1955), and The Eternal Smile: Three Stories (1971). Many of Lagerkvist’s volumes of poetry have been collected in Dikter (1941). This portion of his work is the least known outside Scandinavia; only one volume, Aftonland (1953; Evening Land, 1975), has been translated in its entirety. Lagerkvist also wrote plays, as well as dramatic adaptations of two of his fictional pieces: Bödeln (pb. 1933; The Hangman, 1966) and Barabbas (pr., pb. 1953). A selection of his plays has been translated in Modern Theatre: Seven Plays and an Essay (1966). His diaries and unpublished notes were edited by his daughter, Elin Lagerkvist, under the title Antecknat (1977).


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Pär Lagerkvist is perhaps the most important figure of Swedish modernism, a tradition that is little known outside Scandinavia itself. Though Lagerkvist’s influence on literature outside this region has been slight, his work has exerted a great influence on the Nordic tradition of which he is a part.

Despite the relative unfamiliarity of his work to readers of modern European literature, Lagerkvist is the most widely translated Swedish author since August Strindberg. Though various portions of his work have been translated into at least thirty-four languages, large portions remain inaccessible to non-Swedish readers. Only one other Swedish writer, Ingmar Bergman, rivals the degree of international recognition Lagerkvist has achieved, and Bergman is not so much a literary artist as a filmmaker.

Lagerkvist’s importance to literary history lies in his influence on the development of the unique characteristics of Swedish modernism that distinguish it from the modern literature of other countries. Lagerkvist’s influence in this regard has not been limited to his role as a leading novelist; his poetry and drama have been influential as well.

In 1941, Lagerkvist received an honorary doctorate from the University of Göteborg. In addition to being elected to the Swedish Academy of Literature in 1940, he received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1951, the year following the publication of his novel Barabbas.

Discussion Topics

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

What is Pär Lagerkvist’s view of deity? Is his notion of God thoroughly negative? Explain.

What elements of existentialism coincide with Lagerkvist’s writing?

How may The Dwarf be seen as a cubistic novel?

What is the difference between the idea of “the meaning of life” and Lagerkvist’s concept of “life meaning”?

How does Lagerkvist deal with the Christian message of love?


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Block, Adele. “The Mythical Female in the Fictional Works of Pär Lagerkvist.” The International Fiction Review 1, no. 1 (January, 1974): 48-53. An examination of the mythical mother figure in Lagerkvist’s short fiction.

Brantly, Susan. “Tradition Versus Innovation: The Cradle of Swedish Modernism—Pär Lagerkvist.” In A History of Swedish Literature, edited by Lars G. Warme. Vol. 3. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1996. A general overview of Lagerkvist’s work, including discussion of “The Eternal Smile.”

Polet, Jeff. “A Blackened Sea: Religion and Crisis in the Works of Pär Lagerkvist.” Renascence 54, no. 1 (2001): 47-67. Focuses on the reality of human freedom, which Lagerkvist locates in the space between silence and the voice of God.

Scobbie, Irene, ed. Aspects of Modern Swedish Literature. Rev. ed. Chester Springs, Pa.: Dufour Editions, 1999. Contains an in-depth study of Lagerkvist, among other writers.

Scobbie, Irene. Pär Lagerkvist: Gäst hos verkligheten. 3d ed. Hull: University of Hull, 1981. Despite the title, this work, which includes bibliographical references, is in English.

Sjöberg, Leif. Pär Lagerkvist. New York: Columbia University Press, 1976. A definitive short overview of Lagerkvist’s primary works. Four major examples of his short fiction, “The Eternal Smile,” “Father and I,” Guest of Reality, and The Hangman are examined in depth.

Spector, Robert Donald. Pär Lagerkvist. New York: Twayne, 1973. A full-length study of Lagerkvist’s complete works in English. Spector examines structure, point of view, and symbolism and finds a fundamental unity in Lagerkvist’s prose, drama, and poetry. Excellent bibliography.

Warme, Lars G. A History of Swedish Literature. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1996. A scholarly study of Swedish literature that covers significant writers such as Lagerkvist.

White, Ray Lewis. Pär Lagerkvist in America. Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press, 1979. This is an index of reviews of Lagerkvist’s works published in America, however, it includes only one short-story collection, The Eternal Smile and Other Stories.