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Sigismund Summary

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

Sigismund: From the Memories of a Baroque Polish Prince explores the inner reality of man’s existence through a series of loosely connected meditations, fantasies, and memories. The novel, written in the first person and often addressed directly to the reader, depicts the struggle of the narrator, a Swedish writer, to create an authentic identity despite the alienating forces of modern society. Alternately, he identifies with Sigismund III, King of Poland from 1587 to 1632 and with an alter ego, the painter Laura G., who journeys to Hell. He also plays a small role in an intergalactic war that ultimately resurrects Sigismund, and he re-creates scenes from his childhood in Sweden. Juxtaposed to his imaginative life are brief scenes that underscore the emptiness of his roles as intellectual and family man.

The main section of the novel, “Memories from Purgatory,” begins with a strange anecdote that breaks down the distinction between reality and fiction. The story, told years in the past by a former professor, is “so unbelievable, so absurd, and so alien” that it jars the original audience as well as the reader. The narrator validates this world, however, by relating the story in the present tense and by identifying with its main character, “Prince W.’s flunky serf.” He views the so-called ordinary world as the real absurdity and lives emotionally in his daydreams and fantasies. Meanwhile, his “stand-in” participates in this absurdity; he writes newspaper articles, discusses politics with his wife and friends, and tries to communicate with his children.

The public persona of the narrator conforms to the conditioning of a culture that rewards superficial cleverness and punishes any violation of the rules. Friends and students respect his ideas; colleagues envy his many accomplishments. As he goes through the motions, however, he secretly despises his petty bourgeois life. He is alienated from his work and emotionally detached from his wife and two children, who are unnamed. The only person who evokes any real feeling is his friend Zwatt, but he sublimates his desire for her into intellectual conversation and only obliquely hints at his feelings in a letter to her. On the surface, he is normal; his ideas are politically correct; his behavior is socially acceptable.

What he considers his real life—his philosophical speculations and fantasies—is richer and much less predictable. He regularly escapes to pastoral scenes from his childhood in Vastmanland or loses himself in fantastical adventures. A comic strip, pasted on an outhouse wall, suddenly comes alive. Just as Flash Gordon breaks through the glass bubble that has imprisoned him for thirty years, so the narrator and the reader enter another level of reality. Perceiving further challenging of accepted notions of time and the material world, Sigismund begins to stir in his sarcophagus.

Perhaps the narrator is particularly obsessed with Sigismund because he too was a Swede fated to live in another country. Just as Sigismund unsuccessfully tried to unify Sweden and Poland, the narrator tries to integrate his memories of humus-filled lakes and solitary canals with the squalor of thirty-story tenements and the ugliness of the Berlin Wall. Trying to make sense of his life, he re-creates the stories of two people who played a significant part in his early development. Both his Uncle Stig and his Aunt Clara symbolize the possibility of asserting one’s individuality in opposition to conventional expectations.

His Uncle Stig initially appears to have been a failure. A socialist, he is repeatedly cheated out of the profits from his inventions, because he refuses to deal with the capitalist system. He is finally defeated, not by the capitalists, but by his own loss of faith. His most spectacular invention is an aerodynamic bicycle, dedicated to the cause of socialism and world peace and designed to compete with an automobile. After he recovers from his seventy-mile-an-hour...

(The entire section is 1,061 words.)