Lagerkvist, Pär (23 May 1891 - 11 July 1974)
Pär Lagerkvist (23 May 1891 - 11 July 1974)
This entry was expanded by Siklós from his Lagerkvist entry in DLB 259: Twentieth-Century Swedish writers Before world war II.
BOOKS: Människor (Stockholm: Fram, 1912);
Ordkonst och bildkonst: Om modärn skönlitteraturs dekadans: Om den modärna konstens vitalitet (Stockholm: Bröderna Lagerströms, 1913); translated by Roy Arthur Swanson and Everett M. Ellestad as Literary Art and Pictorial Art: On the Decadence of Modern Literature—on the Vitality of Modern Art (Storbrittanien: Rainbow Press, 1991);
Två sagor om livet (Stockholm: Fram, 1913);
Motiv (Stockholm: Bonnier, 1914);
Järn och människor (Stockholm: Bonnier, 1915);
Ångest (Stockholm: Bonnier, 1916);
Sista mänskan (Stockholm: Bonnier, 1917);
Teater: Den svåra stunden, tre enaktare: Modern teater, Synpunkter och angrepp (Stockholm: Bonnier, 1918);
Kaos (Stockholm: Bonnier, 1919);
Det eviga leendet (Stockholm: Bonnier, 1920); translated by Erik Mesterton and Denys W. Harding as The Eternal Smile (Cambridge: Fraser, 1934);
Den lyckligas väg (Stockholm: Bonnier, 1921);
Den osynlige (Stockholm: Bonnier, 1923);
Onda sagor (Stockholm: Bonnier, 1924);
Gäst hos verkligheten (Stockholm: Bonnier, 1925);
Hjärtats sånger (Stockholm: Bonnier, 1926);
Det besegrade livet (Stockholm: Bonnier, 1927);
Han som fick leva om sitt liv (Stockholm: Bonnier, 1928); translated by Walter Gustafson as The Man Who Lived His Life Over in Five Modern Scandinavian Plays (New York: Twayne, 1971);
Kämpande ande (Stockholm: Bonnier, 1930);
Konungen (Stockholm: Bonnier, 1932);
Vid lägereld (Stockholm: Bonnier, 1932);
Bödeln (Stockholm: Bonnier, 1933);
Den knutna näven (Stockholm: Bonnier, 1934);
I den tiden (Stockholm: Bonnier, 1935);
Mannen utan själ (Stockholm: Bonnier, 1936); translated by Helge Kökeritz as The Man without a Soul in Scandinavian Plays of the Twentieth Century, First Series,edited by Henry Alexander (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1944), pp. 69–114;
Genius (Stockholm: Bonnier, 1937);
Den befriade människan (Stockholm: Bonnier, 1939);
Seger i mörker (Stockholm: Bonnier, 1939);
Sång och strid (Stockholm: Bonnier, 1940);
Verner von Heidenstam: Inträdestal i Svenska akademien den 20 december 1940 (Stockholm: Bonnier, 1940);
Dikter (Stockholm: Bonnier, 1941);
Midsommardröm i fattighuset (Stockholm: Bonnier, 1941); translated by Alan Blair as Midsummer Dream in the Workhouse (London: Hodge, 1953);
Hemmet och stjärnan (Stockholm: Bonnier, 1942);
Dvärgen (Stockholm: Bonnier, 1944); translated by Alexandra Dick as The Dwarf (New York: Hill & Wang, 1945);
De vises sten (Stockholm: Bonnier, 1947);
Låt människan leva (Stockholm: Bonnier, 1949); translated by Alexander and Llewellyn Jones as Let Man Live in Scandinavian Plays of the Twentieth Century, Third Series (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1951);
Barabbas (Stockholm: Bonnier, 1950); translated by Blair (New York: Random House, 1951; London: Chatto & windus, 1952);
Aftonland (Stockholm: Bonnier, 1953); translated by W. H. Auden and Leif Sjöberg as Evening Land (New York: Wayne State University Press, 1975; London: Souvenir, 1977);
Sibyllan (Stockholm: Bonnier, 1956); translated by Naomi Walford as The Sibyl (New York: Random House, 1958; London: Chatto & windus, 1958);
Ahasverus död (Stockholm: Bonnier, 1960); translated by walford as The Death of Ahasuerus (New York: Random House, 1962; London: Chatto & windus, 1962);
Pilgrim på havet (Stockholm: Bonnier, 1962); translated by Walford as Pilgrim at Sea (New York: Random House, 1964; London: Chatto & windus, 1964);
Det heliga landet (Stockholm: Bonnier, 1964); translated by Walford as The Holy Land (New York: Random House, 1966; London: Chatto & windus, 1966);
Valda Dikter (Stockholm: Bonnier, 1965);
Mariamne (Stockholm: Bonnier, 1967); translated by walford as Herod and Mariamne (New York: Knopf, 1968);
Den svåra resan (Stockholm: Bonnier, 1985).
Editions and Collections: Valda Sidor (Stockholm: Bonnier, 1926);
Skrifter, 3 volumes (Stockholm: Bonnier, 1932);
Dikter (Stockholm: Bonnier, 1941);
Dramatik (Stockholm: Bonnier, 1946);
Prosa, 5 volumes (Stockholm: Bonnier, 1956);
Dramatik, 3 volumes (Stockholm: Bonnier, 1956);
Sagor, Satiere och noveller (Stockholm: Bonnier, 1957);
Dikter (Stockholm: Bonnier, 1965);
Pilgrimen (Stockholm: Bonnier, 1966)-comprises Ahasverus död, Pilgrim på havet, and Det heliga landet;
Antecknat: Ur efterlämnade dagböcker och anteckningar, edited by Elin Lagerkvist (Stockholm: Bonnier, 1977).
Editions in English: Guest of Reality, translated by Erik Mesterton and Denys W. Harding (London: Cape, 1936)-comprises The Eternal Smile, Guest of Reality, and The Hangman;
The Eternal Smile, and Other Stories, translated by Alan Blair and others (New York: Random House, 1954);
The Marriage Feast, translated by Blair (New York: Hill & Wang, 1954); republished as The Marriage Feast, and Other Stories (London: Chatto & Windus, 1955)-comprises “The Marriage Feast,” “Father and I,” “The Adventure,” “A Hero’s Death,” “The Venerated Bones,” “Saviour John,” “The Experimental world,” “The Lift That went Down into Hell,” “Love and Death,” “The Basement,” “The Evil Angel,” “The Princess and All the Kingdom,” “Paradise,” “The Children’s Campaign,” “God’s Little Travelling Salesman,” “The Masquerade of Souls,” “The Myth of Mankind,” “On the Scales of Osiris,” and “The Strange Country”
Modern Theatre: Seven Plays and an Essay, translated by Thomas R. Buckman (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1966)-comprises “Modern Theatre: Points of View and Attack”; The Difficult Hour: Three One-Acts; The Secret of Heaven; The King; The Hangman; and The Philosopher’s Stone;
The Eternal Smile, and Other Stories, translated by Mesterton, Harding, and David O’Gorman (London: Chatto & windus, 1971); republished as The Eternal Smile, Three Stories (New York: Hill & wang, 1971)-comprises The Eternal Smile, Guest of Reality, and The Executioner;
Five Early Works, translated by Roy Arthur Swanson (Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press, 1989)-comprises Iron and Men, The Last Man,”The Expectant Guest,” The Morning, and The Clenched Fist;
Guest of Reality, translated by Robin Fulton (London & New York: Quartet, 1989)-comprises Guest of Reality,“Father and I,” and The Difficult Journey.
PLAY PRODUCTIONS: Den svåra stunden, Düssel dorf, Schauspielhaus, 1919;
Himlens hemlighet, Stockholm, Intima Theater, 1921;
Den osynlige, Stockholm, Royal Dramatic Theater, 1924;
Han som fick leva om sitt liv, Stockholm, Royal Dramatic Theater, 1928;
Bödeln, Bergen, Den Nationale Scene, 1934;
Mannen utan själ, Malmö, City Theater, 1937;
Midsommardröm i fattighuset, Stockholm, Blancheteatern, 1941;
De vises sten, Stockholm, Royal Dramatic Theater, 1948;
Konungen, Malmö, City Theater, 1950;
Låt människan leva, Stockholm, Royal Dramatic Theater, 1950;
Barabbas, Stockholm, Royal Dramatic Theater, 1953;
Seger i mörker, Oslo, National Theater, 1979.
OTHER: Frya saanger, text by Lagerkvist, music by Gunnar De Frumerie (Stockholm, 1945);
Tre saanger, text by Lagerkvist, music by Frumerie (Foereningen svenska tonsättare, 1946);
“Anguish,” “At the Salvation Army,” “Little Hand that is not Mine,” “My Child, my Child, I come to you,” “My beloved will not return,” “How delightful to smell the fragrance of your garden,” “When you close my eyes,” “Thought has no goal,” “The ship of life,” “With my old eyes I look back,” and “In the quiet evening river,” in Seven Swedish Poets, edited and translated by Frederic Fleischer (Malmö & Lund: Cavefors, 1963), pp. 33–50.
The position of Pär Lagerkvist as one of the leading Swedish writers of the twentieth century has long been assured. In a literary career that spanned more than sixty years, Lagerkvist displayed a remarkable versatility in his writing. His opus includes poetry, short stories, dramas, and novels alongside literary programs and philosophical essays. Yet, within these various genres Lagerkvist’s writings as a whole display a note worthy stylistic consistency and thematic unity. In a simple and sparing literary style he repeatedly turns his attention to an examination of the dualistic and contradictory nature of the human condition. By posing questions relating to the fundamentals of human existence in his presentations of the relationships between life and death, between the human and the divine, the rational and the irrational, religious faith and doubt, and good and evil, Lagerkvist seeks to come closer to a universally valid, timeless understanding.
Despite the universal themes in Lagerkvist’s writings and his relative isolation from mainstream Swedish literary life-he never belonged to a literary group or movement-his keen awareness of contemporary trends, both literary and otherwise, is beyond dispute: his early poetry and plays established him as one of the foremost exponents of literary modernism in Sweden, while his literary activities of the 1930s announced him as one of the earliest and most uncompromising Swedish opponents of totalitarian movements in Europe. From the 1940s Lagerkvist’s reputation grew both at home and abroad, and public and critical acclaim culminated in the early 1950s with the publication of his biblical novel Barabbas in 1950 (translated, 1951) and the awarding of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1951. By the mid 1960s Lagerkvist was one of the most widely translated Swedish writers of all time, with publications appearing in no fewer than thirty-four languages.
In the history of twentieth-century Swedish literature there are few prominent writers of whom as little was known during their lifetimes as of Lagerkvist. An extremely private man who declined to speak publicly about either his life or his works, Lagerkvist claimed-at the time of the intense media interest surrounding his receiving of the Nobel Prize-that all he wanted to say could be found in his writing. If Lagerkvist’s intense privacy has been a source of frustration for critics and biographers alike, it also highlights the particular significance he attached to his literary calling as a means of personal expression and communication. After his death in 1974 it was made public that Lagerkvist had bequeathed to the Royal Library in Stockholm an extensive collection of his private writings-notebooks, letters, and papers-which provide additional insights into his life and his creative process.
Per Fabian Lagerqvist (he adopted the phonetically more accurate spelling of his name in his school-days) was born on 23 May 1891 in the town of Växjö in the province of Småland. The youngest of seven children, Lagerkvist grew up in modest surroundings in a family whose daily life was strongly influenced by the traditional conservatism and pietistic Lutheranism of rural Småland. Lagerkvist’s parents-Anders Johan Lagerqvist, a foreman on the railway, and Johanna (Hanna) Blad-had moved to Växjö from the country in the 1870s but maintained strong ties with the nearby farming communities in which they had been raised. For Lagerkvist, too, the traditions of rural Småland, the life of quiet contemplation and religious devotion he observed at home, had a lasting influence. As a schoolboy he was introduced to the teachings of Charles Dar win and was influenced by socialist ideas. These new ideas precipitated his break with the religion and the conservatism of his family; yet, as many of his works attest, he appeared to be caught between the two worlds, maintaining a decided ambivalence toward both the old and the new, toward the traditional and the modern. Indeed, while Darwinism may have confirmed his own skepticism at his parents’ belief system, it also served to increase his own existential uncertainty, making him yearn in vain for the type of security and comfort his parents derived from their simple life of faith.
The influence of socialist ideas upon the young Lagerkvist also became apparent in his final years at Växjö Secondary Grammar School, first when he became a member of an anarchist group and then, in 1909, was the cofounder of a debating society called Röda Ringen (The Red Ring). In the conservative and religious atmosphere of Växjö, the group signaled its intention by holding meetings on Sunday mornings when the majority of the population was attending church. Although radical in their political outlook, the members of Röda Ringen concerned themselves less with political issues than with religious questions and with new developments in the natural sciences. Between 1910 and 1916 Lagerkvist submitted poems, including some of a distinctly radical nature, to socialist newspapers and periodicals. For the most part, how ever, his early foray into political issues had come to an end by the time of his full literary debut in 1912, with his radicalism increasingly being directed at experimentation with literary style and theme and with a short-lived phonetic orthography.
Following his graduation from grammar school in 1910, Lagerkvist left Växjö with his sights set on becoming a writer. In 1911 he enrolled at the University of Uppsala to study literature and art history but withdrew after a term to concentrate on his literary ambitions. His debut came the following year with the publication of the short prose piece Människor (1912, People). Although a minor work in Lagerkvist’s opus, Människor is not without significance, notably in its new and radically different style and form. Lagerkvist followed Människor with Två sagor om livet (1913, Two Tales of Life), another minor work, the basic theme of which is the conflict between reality and illusion.
During this period Lagerkvist lived with his only brother, Gunnar, a schoolteacher, who was a constant source of support during his brother’s early struggle to establish himself as a writer, and whose significance for the development of Lagerkvist’s literary career cannot be underestimated. The financial support of his brother and two of his sisters enabled Lagerkvist to visit Paris in 1913, a trip that had far-reaching repercussions for the form and content of his art. In Paris, Lagerkvist came into contact with the artistic community and developed a particular interest in the currents of modern art, most significantly those of Cubism and Expressionism, Two movements in which he saw a concerted effort to give expression to the spirit of the modern age.
In his first literary manifesto, Ordkonst och bildkonst: Om modärn skönlitteraturs dekadans: Om den modärna konstens vitalitet (1913; translated as Literary Art and Pictorial Art: On the Decadence of Modern Literature—on the Vitality of Modern Art, 1991), Lagerkvist calls for the renewal of literature that parallels the dynamic developments and formal experimentation to be found in contemporary art, Surveying currents in modern art, he points not only to the extreme, formal nature of Cubism, based on mathematical principles, but also to the raw emotion of a style such as Expressionism. On the basis of his observations of modern art Lagerkvist demands a literature of formal concentration, architectonic structure, and musicality. Unable to find his examples in a contemporary literature dominated by realism and naturalism, Lagerkvist points to the monumental and simple style of earlier literature; he names the Norse poems of the Edda, folk ballads, and the Finnish Kalevala from European culture and expresses particular interest in the ancient literature of the East and of India. The Bible, the Koran, and the Avesta of the Zoroastrians are all named as examples of the required artistic form and style, which combine simplicity and expressiveness.
The principles outlined in Ordkonst och bildkonst are followed in Lagerkvist’s next publications, Motiv (1914, Motifs), a collection of poetry and prose, and Färn och människor (1915; translated as Iron and Men, 1989), a collection of five short stories that deal with human existence in the face of the violence and anxiety of World War I. Both display Lagerkvist’s attempts to put his literary principles of Cubism into practice, but there is a degree of stylization and a tension between violent content and artistic form that has led them to be considered among Lagerkvist’s least successful works.
Lagerkvist’s life during World War I was marked by restless wandering; after fulfilling part of his copulsory military service, he was discharged because of nervous exhaustion in early 1915 and moved to Stockholm. In the same year, he traveled to Berlin to report on an Expressionist exhibition on behalf of the national newspaper Svenska Dagbladet. In 1916 he moved to Copenhagen and began an intensive study of drama, showing particular interest in Eastern and medieval drama. While he was living in Copenhagen, he met Karen Sörensen, who later became his first wife. By all accounts their relationship was passionate and tempestuous, and their life together was defined by extreme poverty.
Lagerkvist’s literary breakthrough came in 1916 with the publication of Ångest (Anguish), a slender volume of poetry that established him at the forefront of literary modernism in Sweden. The title poem evokes the earlier literary tradition of the previous generation of Swedish poets but also subverts it, and in so doing Lagerkvist is able to announce his break from the dominant lyric tradition in order to express the spirit of the age. The collection is clearly influenced by the war in Europe, encapsulating the mood and feelings of a generation traumatized by the experience of war, but equally it is a powerful expression of a personal, existential crisis. The poet’s anguish is driven by his alienation from a universe that is barren and harsh and simply heightens the sense of modern man’s absurd condition. Lagerkvist presents a world in which personal, human contact is fleeting and fragile and ultimately ineffective against this all-pervading experience of anguish. The poet is acutely aware of his own insignificance, contrasting his impermanent existence on Earth with the vastness and eternity of a universe in which God has now fallen silent. Lagerkvist’s doubts of locating meaning in orthodox faith are also suggested in “På frälsningsarmén” (At the Salvation Army), in which he highlights the contrasts between the poverty of human life and the longing for salvation. And yet, however tentatively, the poet continues to search for a transcendental reality even if the ultimate truth in human existence remains beyond human conception.
With its immediacy of emotion, its presentation of extreme inner turmoil, and its expressive use of visual imagery, Ångest is a more directly Expressionist work than any of Lagerkvist’s earlier publications. Although Lagerkvist clearly modifies his literary technique with great success, he does not abandon his adherence to the formal principles outlined in Ordkonst och bildkonst: the collection is carefully structured, with each poem complementing the other. The same themes, images, dualities, and contradictions run throughout the collection, and each poem contributes to and expands upon the overall presentation of the dominant moods of anguish and despair.
Closely related to Ångest thematically is Lagerkvist’s first published drama, the Expressionist Sista mänskan (1917; translated as The Last Man, 1989). Set in a barren, postapocalyptic world, where the last remaining humans are dying out, the play examines themes of the meaninglessness of life, mankind’s existential anguish, and the fear of death. The dominant mood is set from the beginning of the play, which opens with screams of anguish from the darkness. In the destructive, love-hate relationship between the major characters, and in the destruction of innocence, goodness, and love, Lagerkvist presents a bleak and pessimistic understanding of the human condition. Despite several attempts by the author to engage directors to produce Sista mänskan, the play remains the only Lagerkvist drama never to have been performed.
For Lagerkvist the years 1917 and 1918 were again marked by financial hardship and continued emotional fluctuations. The first half of 1917 was spent in Norway, followed by a return to Copenhagen. His letters repeatedly include requests to his family for financial assistance and to his publisher, Karl Otto Bonnier, for advances. Correspondence from this period records the strained relationship between Bonnier and Lagerkvist: in a letter to Lagerkvist in 1917, Bonnier expressed his own negative evaluation of Lagerkvist’s work, which in turn elicited a strong response from an impoverished Lagerkvist. His diary entries further record periods of isolation, near-starvation, and violent quarrels between himself and Sörensen. In early 1918 they were married, and shortly afterward Sörensen gave birth to a baby girl, Elin.
In 1918 Lagerkvist published three one-act plays under the collective title Teater: Den svåra stunden, tre enaktare: Modern teater, Synpunkter och angrepp (translated as The Difficult Hour: Three One-Acts and “Modern Theatre: Points of View and Attack,” 1966). In each of these Expressionist plays Lagerkvist presents the moment of death and evokes a sense of disorientation and unreality as his characters make their way through a dark, bleak landscape. His major themes of anguish, the fear of death, and the meaninglessness of life are again prominent, as are early examples of his frequent use of physical deformity to depict aspects of the human condition. Den svåra stunden has the distinction of being the first of Lagerkvist’s plays ever to be performed, at the Düssel dorf Schauspielhaus in 1919, although the public’s reception was far from positive, with the director, Knut Ström, being attacked in the street by members of the audience after the performance.
Published together with Den svåra stunden was Lagerkvist’s second literary program, Modern teater, Synpunkter och angrepp, an essay that demonstrates the results of Lagerkvist’s ongoing study of drama in Copenhagen and of his experiences as a drama critic. Central to Modern teater is Lagerkvist’s unsparing criticism of naturalism, which he continues to view with the distrust and skepticism he had expressed in Ordkonst och bildkonst five years earlier. Reserving his harshest criticism for the plays of Henrik Ibsen, Lagerkvist argues that naturalist drama is outdated and alienated from theater. For Lagerkvist, drama is the creation of mood and effects, the expression of a dramatist’s imagination rather than proof of his mimetic abilities. In his search for models upon which modern drama should be based, Lagerkvist makes particular mention of medieval drama and points to its expressive, theatrical wealth. The final section of the essay is devoted to a discussion of August Strindberg, who, in his later dramas and with great virtuosity, Lagerkvist argues, has already brought about the much-needed revolution in modern theater by breaking with the dominant tradition of naturalism. By exemplifying his own theory of drama with the dramatic techniques used by Strindberg, Lagerkvist clearly regards his own dramas as the continuation of this legacy, and in all of Lagerkvist’s early plays the influence of Strindberg is readily evident.
Lagerkvist’s next publication, Kaos (1919, Chaos), demonstrates his abilities in several genres. Comprising another one-act play, a short story, and a collection of poems, Kaos proved to be Lagerkvist’s first critical success. The play Himlens hemlighet (translated as The Secret of Heaven, 1966) received its premiere in 1921 at the Intima Theater in Stockholm, thus becoming the first Lagerkvist drama to be performed in Sweden. The themes of human alienation and existential anguish in a harsh, meaningless universe are played out on a stage set that is suggestive of a barren globe. Disparate characters seek answers to the meaning of life, but none succeed; a young man who finds brief meaning in love ultimately experiences despair as his love remains unrequited, and he throws himself out into the void. The use of symbolic characters is a prominent feature of this play; most noteworthy are Lagerkvist’s representations of God as an old woodcutter who remains undistracted from his task of sawing wood and of Death as a man methodically pulling the heads off dolls. In the short story “Den fördringsfulla gästen” (translated as “The Expectant Guest,” 1989) Lagerkvist portrays the alienation of modern man in a chaotic world. Perhaps taking some inspiration from his own rootless existence and restless travels, he creates a masterful representation of the absurdity of modern existence in his story of a guest’s stay at a hotel that is in a constant state of upheaval, disarray, and construction; his longing for peace and for a time of quiet contemplation to make sense of his life is consistently thwarted by the noise, chaos, and physical discomfort he experiences. Ultimately he can neither find nor be provided with meaning for his own existence. In several of the poems included in Kaos there is, however, at least the indication that Lagerkvist is moving away from the all-pervading despair that characterizes Ångest. Although he stresses man’s transience and expresses resignation at the loss of love, he also holds out hope for the future in several poems in which the poet addresses his child.
During the first half of the 1920s Lagerkvist’s marriage steadily deteriorated. In 1920 he abruptly left his wife and daughter behind in Copenhagen and traveled to Paris via London, leaving instructions for Sörensen to contact his brother, Gunnar, if she found herself in financial difficulties. After a stay in Paris, Lagerkvist continued his travels for the next few years, spending periods of time in southern France, Italy, and North Africa, occasionally accompanied by his wife and young daughter. He also spent time among the Swedish artistic community in Paris and traveling with friends and fellow artists. The contentment and happiness that was clearly absent from Lagerkvist’s strained marriage was afforded him in the creative process of writing, something that he noted in Italy during work on the prose piece Det eviga leendet (1920; translated as The Eternal Smile, 1934).
In Det eviga leendet a group of the dead pass time in eternity by recounting stories about their lives; while some of these stories are scarcely more than brief anecdotes, several are of greater length and can be regarded as self-contained short stories in their own right. With the scope of the life stories presented, and in the disparate characters recounting their lives, Lagerkvist aims at demonstrating the variety and the totality of the human experience. Unable to agree on the ultimate meaning of their lives, the dead decide to seek an answer by undertaking a journey to God. When, after many centuries, they finally confront God, they discover an old man sawing wood—a character recognizable from Himlens hemlighet—whose humility and simplicity is far removed from their notions of an omnipotent and omnipresent being. To their question about the meaning of life, God can only respond that his intention had been that they should not be content with nothing. When the children are brought before him, the old man professes to having meant nothing special with them, that they were only created out of happiness. The old woodcutter’s humility and goodness brings about in the dead a new acceptance of life that creates a sense of harmony and mutual understanding. In his presentation of a profoundly human God, Lagerkvist stresses that the possibilities in human life and the search for meaning are to be located in man.
The acceptance of life depicted in Det eviga leendet is also apparent in the poems that comprise Den lyckligas väg (1921, The Path of the Happy One). The collection is characterized by a lighter, milder tone and includes love and nature poetry as well as several evocative poems centered upon the figure of the mother, who, through her simple rural existence and devout religiosity, brings associations of the eternal and of a loving, human God. In other poems the personal transformation of the poet from a man consumed by anguish and despair to a seeker of happiness posits the wealth of life and the richness of the human experience.
With its themes of the dualities inherent in human existence, the struggle between good and evil, and the conflict between life and death, Lagerkvist’s first full-length play, Den osynlige (1923, The Invisible One), has generally been regarded as marking a return to a bleaker view of human existence. In Den osynlige, Lagerkvist creates a modern mystery play, an allegorical drama with diverse influences, most notably from medieval drama, Strindberg’s Ett drömspel (1902; translated as A Dream Play, 1902), and Rabindranath Tagore’s Raja (1910; translated as The King of the Dark Chamber, 1914). In the title character, Lagerkvist creates a representation of the human spirit who accompanies mankind and witnesses and reacts to the human struggle between good and evil as it plays out.
Den osynlige opens with diverse characters cursing Earth as they struggle, enslaved, under the merciless control of the Caretaker. The idealistic Hero, a saviorlike figure who has devoted himself to overthrowing the Caretaker, is given courage to fulfill his calling through the love of the Girl. The Invisible One fells the Caretaker but also acknowledges that his own being is made up of both light and darkness, of good and evil. For a period an idyllic world of light and freedom is created, and the love between the Hero and the Girl blossoms. Yet, mankind continues to display its pettiness and hatred, notably in the destructive relationship between the Man and the Woman. Anguish, violence, and destruction soon return to Earth, and the cry goes up that God is dead. Ultimately, all the characters are annihilated by the figure of Death, but the Hero and the Girl die united in a belief in their love. Only the Invisible One stands unbowed before the figure of Death, who remains powerless over him. In the figure of the Invisible One, Lagerkvist introduces a recurring and central concept in his writing, namely that of the human spirit as an indefatigable, eternal force that transcends individual life and death. In this figure he declares the triumph of the human spirit in the face of evil and ultimately of death, and by positing its eternal nature in a godless universe he holds out hope for the human condition and proffers meaning in human existence. Den osynlige was a considerable critical and public success when performed at the Dramatic Theater in Stockholm in 1924 and contributed substantially to establishing Lagerkvist’s reputation as a dramatist.
With the publication of Onda sagor (1924, Evil Tales) Lagerkvist demonstrated his mastery of and experimentation within the genre of short prose, setting predominantly realistic stories and sharply satirical tales side by side with short fables and parables. Generally considered to be one of the high points of Lagerkvist’s early prose fiction, Onda sagor has also traditionally been seen as an expression of his growing pessimism, with his satirical attacks on contemporary life and society in particular displaying a misanthropy on a par with Jonathan Swift or Strindberg. Of the attacks on human folly and weakness in Onda sagor, none are as extreme in their satire as “En hjältas död” (translated as “A Hero’s Death,” 1954), in which Lagerkvist attacks the materialism, sensationalism, and superficiality of modern society with the story of a young man who is paid 500,000 crowns to fall to his death as a form of public entertainrent. In “De vördade benen” (translated as “The Venerated Bones,” 1954) Lagerkvist satirizes the romantic view of war and fervent nationalism with the story of dead soldiers rising from the battlefield, not to effect some form of reconciliation but simply to exchange bones left scattered on the opposition’s territory. In “Hissen som gick ner i helvete” (translated as “The Life That Went Down into Hell,” 1954) human superficiality is exemplified by a man and his mistress who treat a trip to Hell as a sexually exciting experience and are unable to draw any deeper moral or existential conclusion. In “Frälsar Johan” (translated as “Saviour John,” 1954) irony and grotesque humor characterize Lagerkvist’s portrayal of the plight of a man convinced of his own calling as the savior of modern mankind; ridiculed and scorned by those around him, Lagerkvist’s savior is unwanted in the modern world and is a profound failure, pointlessly sacrificing himself in a misguided attempt to rescue people from a fire in an empty poorhouse.
A more overtly positive message is to be found in “Källarvåningen” (translated as “The Basement,” 1954), in which the severely crippled Lindgren, humbly accepting his own lot in life, propounds his belief in the fundamental goodness of mankind. However, in the evocative, autobiographical sketch “Far och jag” (translated as “Father and I,” 1954), the narrator as a boy is given a forewarning of the existential anguish that is to accompany his life; an idyllic country walk along the railway lines with his father, a railwayman, is transformed for the boy into an existentially terrifying experience as night draws in. The unscheduled train that surprises them as it hurtles through the darkness is interpreted by the narrator as a foreshadowing of his life of anguish, from which his father and his father’s belief in God will afford him no security or protection.
With Lagerkvist’s refusal to discuss details of his life publicly, it is scarcely surprising that a great degree of critical attention has been focused on his autobiographical writings, and indeed “Far och jag” and particularly Lagerkvist’s subsequent, longer, autobiographical prose work Gäst hos verkligheten (1925; translated as Guest of Reality, 1936) have frequently been used as starting points in examinations of Lagerkvist’s childhood experiences. In Gäst hos verkligheten he portrays the early years of a boy, Anders, the youngest child of a railway foreman in an unnamed small town in Sweden. The descriptions of the railway station, the town, and the surrounding countryside accurately portray Växjö at the end of the nineteenth century, and, by all accounts, the depiction of Anders’s family life, the peaceful, secure home environment, the deep religiosity of his parents, and the simple, rural life of his grandparents all have direct parallels in Lagerkvist’s own early life. Yet, the significance of Gäst hos verkligheten extends far beyond these now well-documented autobiographical elements, evinced by the fact that even with the public availability of Lagerkvist’s journals and notebooks–and, thus, a large amount of biographical data–it continues to be regarded as a seminal work in the author’s opus.
In Gäst hos verkligheten Lagerkvist’s portrayal of the young protagonist is structured around a series of episodes. In each of these episodes Anders experiences a type of epiphany that contributes to the overall depiction of a character whose confusion, fear, and extreme sensitivity set him apart from his family and environment. His early realization that the magical vision of the pavilion at night is revealed as a dirty, desolate place by day fills him with a growing disquiet and introduces a major theme of Gäst hos verkligheten, namely the conflict Anders experiences between illusion and reality. Ultimately, however, Anders’s inner turmoil is nowhere better expressed than in his awareness and fear of death, exemplified by his reactions to his grandmother’s fatal illness and encapsulated in his visits to a prayer stone in the forest. The sharp contrasts Anders experiences between the security of his family’s world and his own inner turmoil compel him in his youth to break away from his parents’ religion and turn to new teachings, ostensibly Darwinism. These teachings, however, far from providing comfort, simply confirm his own existential anguish in a confusing, meaningless universe.
At the time of the writing of Gäst hos verkligheten, Lagerkvist’s marriage to Sörensen had reached a crisis point. Years of financial hardship, and Lagerkvist’s decisions to travel and live alone for much of the first half of the 1920s, had taken their inevitable toll. The poor state of the marriage is evident in their correspondence in this period, which reveals Lagerkvist, in particular, at his most fractious. The couple was divorced in the fall of 1925, and Lagerkvist chose never to see Sörensen again. He gained custody of their daughter, Elin, who went to live with Lagerkvist’s brother and sister and whose own relationship with her mother ceased a few years later, only to be reestablished in the mid 1970s after Lagerkvist’s death.
The profound effect upon Lagerkvist of his first marriage is evident in the frequent portrayals of destructive relationships in his writings and gains its most direct expression in another autobiographical prose work, a continuation of Gäst hos verkligheten titled Den svåra resan (translated as The Difficult Journey, 1989). Written in 1925, Den svåra resan was discovered among Lagerkvist’s papers after his death but was not published until 1985. In Den svåra resan he continues the story of Anders, now an adult living in Denmark, who meets and falls in love with a young woman, Hilde. Drawn to the raw vitality he sees in Hilde, Anders embarks on a passionate affair with her, but their relationship from the outset is caught between a strong, mutual attraction and deeply destructive emotions. Although Lagerkvist considered Den svåra resan on a par with Gäst hos verkligheten, it is regarded as a less successful work than its predecessor, despite its obvious biographical significance. With its focus divided between a description of Hilde’s loveless childhood and youth and a portrayal of the emotionally destructive relationship between the two protagonists, it lacks the broader scope of Gäst hos verkligheten. Out of deference to her mother, Elin Lagerkvist chose not to have Den svåra resan published until the year after her mother’s death.
Shortly after his divorce, Lagerkvist married Elaine Hallberg Sandels. With his second marriage Lagerkvist experienced a degree of stability hitherto unknown, and although the couple spent the next several years living abroad, mostly in Italy and France, his life of restless wandering was at an end. In the summer of 1926 Sandels gave birth to twin sons. Correspondence between Lagerkvist and his publishers still reveals disagreements about financial arrangements, with the author urging the publication of his selected works to afford him a greater income to match his responsibilities as the father of two new children. The poems that comprise Hjärtats sånger (1926, Songs of the Heart) also reflect the changes in Lagerkvist’s personal life, notably in the second section of the collection, dedicated to Sandels, which includes what is regarded as some of the finest love poetry in modern Swedish literature.
Lagerkvist’s greater optimism is also expressed in the short, aphoristic essay Det besegrade livet (1927, The Conquered Life). Here he develops his earlier presentations of the dichotomous relationship between man and life and makes a sharp distinction between life as the basic human condition of existing and being as the potential in human existence. Only through the struggle against, and ultimately through victory over, life can mankind assert that which is distinctively human. By professing his belief not in a divine being but in the divine in all mankind, Lagerkvist can thus further assert the existence of the eternal in the human spirit. With the form of transcendental humanism he espouses in Det besegrade livet, he distances himself not only from the traditional, Christian conceptions of life and of the divine but also takes issue with the rationalist, scientific doctrines of the day.
In his next two works, the play Han som fick leva om sitt liv (1928; translated as The Man Who Lived His Life Over, 1971) and the short-story collection Kämpande ande (1930, Struggling Spirit), Lagerkvist continues his examination of the struggle of the human spirit to rise above the restrictive nature of life. Han som fick leva om sitt liv marks a turning point in his dramatic technique; the play is more realistic than any of his earlier dramas, with an identifiable setting, everyday language, and characters who are not allegorical representations but named individuals. In the figure of Daniel, a shoemaker who is allowed to live his life over, Lagerkvist dramatizes the dualities of the human condition and asks how man is to live his real life. In his new life Daniel vows to control the emotions that had driven his actions in his previous life and had led him to commit murder. Yet, his attempts to live a life in which his emotions are strictly controlled and his actions defined by reason also end in personal tragedy, this time with the suicide of his son, who is unable to live up to his father’s rigid moral code. The failure of the extremes represented by the former and the present Daniel, Lagerkvist intimates, lies in the refusal to accept, or reconcile, the contradictions inherent in the totality of the human experience, which incorporates both reason and emotion, intellect and instinct, and good and evil.
In Kämpande ande, a collection of predominantly realistic short stories, Lagerkvist highlights the significance of spiritual experiences in even the most ordinary of people; in “Guds lille handelsresande” (translated as “God’s Little Traveling Salesman,” 1954) a salesman of religious tracts falls on hard times and vacillates between faith and doubt but eventually returns to his religious devotion a more honest man. The paramount importance of love in the human experience is expressed in the idyllic romance and tragic love story of “Själernas maskerad” (translated as “The Masquerade of Souls,” 1954) and in the wedding of two lonely out siders in “Bröllopsfesten” (translated as “The Marriage Feast,” 1954). Considered by many Lagerkvist scholars to rank among Lagerkvist’s best short stories, “Bröllopsfesten” tells of an older couple, Frida and Jonas, who experience their wedding day as an occasion of solemnity and wonderment despite the disapproval and mockery of their wedding guests. With irony and humor, but also with genuine pathos, Lagerkvist presents the profound love and devotion experienced by the couple and depicts with sensitivity, although not without humor, their awkwardness on their wedding night. The tale concludes with Jonas and Frida’s love being given a cosmic, eternal perspective as they fall asleep under a night sky of ever-increasing stars.
By the time Kämpande ande was published in 1930, Lagerkvist and his family had settled in Lidingö, near Stockholm. After more than a decade of living abroad he was, as his correspondence reveals, ready to return home. Although he continued to travel extensively, Lidingö and a summer house on the island of Tjörn were the fixed points for him and his family from the 1930s onward.
Earlier than most of his contemporaries Lagerkvist sensed the dangerous currents in European political life and quickly established himself as an uncompromising opponent of totalitarian movements in Europe. His growing unease at political developments and his call for vigilance in this volatile period can be perceived in the verse collection Vid lägereld (1932, By the Campfire). Yet, this volume is composed of poems that are not overtly political and focus rather on the dualities that define the human condition, notably in the struggle between good and evil and between the forces of light and darkness inherent in man.
A more directly political theme is to be found in the complex, richly textured, historical play Konungen (translated as “The King,” 1966), also published in 1932. Lagerkvist displays the skill of the mature dramatist in combining social and political themes with philosophical concerns in a drama patterned on ritual, mythical elements. The setting of Konungen is historical Babylon, and the theme is that of a sacrificial ritual in which the legitimate king is replaced for several days by a criminal, who is later sacrificed when order is restored. Although influenced by Lagerkvist’s reading of James Frazer’s seminal anthropological study, The Golden Bough (1922), Konungen has undeniable relevance to contemporary political conditions. In the play the criminal, Iream-Azu, upon replacing the rightful king, Amar-Azu, precipitates a bloody revolution of the masses and asserts his own supremacy. With clear references to political upheaval in Europe, notably to the Russian Revolution, Lagerkvist questions the role and validity of political violence and discusses the nature of revolution and of democracy. The significance of the play, however, extends well beyond its political discussion. In Amar-Azu, Lagerkvist presents a seeker of truth whose philosophical speculations mirror his own and lead the king to the awareness of the illusory nature of human existence. The existential doubt that characterizes Amar-Azu’s progression from king to beggar is countered by the faith and love represented by two of the other major characters, Nadur and Sibile. Yet, Konungen remains a bleak presentation of human brutality and destructiveness and exemplifies the profoundly dialogic nature of Lagerkvist’s opus as a whole when contrasted with his earlier optimism in Det besegrade livet. Although Konungen was received well, and although the Dramatic Theater in Stockholm made preliminary plans to stage it, the play did not receive its premiere until 1950.
In the spring of 1933 Lagerkvist traveled to North Africa, Greece, and Palestine, a trip that had a profound influence upon his writings for the next decade. In Palestine he witnessed the first wave of Jewish refugees from Europe, while his return trip took him through Germany only a few weeks after Adolf Hitler’s seizure of power. The militarism, anti-Semitism, and growing state propaganda already apparent in the earliest days of the Third Reich disturbed Lagerkvist greatly, and upon his return to Sweden he wrote the novella Bödeln (translated as The Hangman, 1936). Published in the autumn of 1933, Bödeln is a remarkable early warning of the threat posed by Nazi Germany.
Bödeln is divided into two parts: the first set in a tavern in the Middle Ages, the second in a contemporary dance club. Uniting the two parts is the dominant but silent figure of the Hangman; in the first part his presence is viewed with awe and fear and precipitates a discussion among the tavern guests in which they recount stories of his mysterious powers, highlighting the superstitions and taboos associated with this socially liminal character. In the second part of the novella, the atmosphere in the nightclub is one of overt eroticism and barely contained aggression. Uniformed men greet each other with straight-armed salutes and calls of “Heil!”–the most direct indications as to the object of Lagerkvist’s criticism. The political ideology espoused by the club-goers, and the language used to express this ideology, is also a chillingly accurate expression of Nazi propaganda. In this new age of brutality the Hangman is regarded as a celebrity for the deeds he performs; yet, he sits impassively as he witnesses the escalating violence around him, which culminates in a violent, racist attack upon black jazz musicians.
Only when he is lauded as the leader of the New age does the Hangman finally rise and deliver his impassioned speech, rich with biblical allusions and dark imagery, in which he recounts the odious role he has been forced to play on behalf of mankind: from the outset, the Hangman has accompanied mankind, committing mankind’s crimes, bearing the burden of the guilt and responsibility for these acts. He recounts that his desire to be released from his role had grown all the greater after he had crucified a man claiming to be the Son of God. His subsequent journey to God to be freed from his burden had ended in despair as God had long since turned to stone.
In the figure of the Hangman, Lagerkvist creates a complex symbolic character, part executioner and part scapegoat; he is the representative for human evil who nevertheless desires to be freed from his role. His inversion of the message of Christ is a powerful and deeply pessimistic commentary on the nature of human evil, particularly in its modern manifestations; yet, it also reflects Lagerkvist’s ongoing evaluation of the nature of evil and its relationship to good. By presenting a modern world where God no longer exists, Lagerkvist uses the perpetrator of evil acts to make an impassioned call for the paramount importance of human responsibility in the face of growing political ideologies based on violence and a rigid, quasi-religious adherence to the party line.
On the encouragement of the director Per Lind berg, among others, Lagerkvist rewrote Bödeln as a drama, and in its dramatic form the work achieved its literary breakthrough. Its premiere was in Bergen, where it played to full houses for sixty nights in the autumn of 1934. Productions in Oslo and Stockholm were met with less than unanimous approval, with some considering the play to be an unprovoked attack on a “friendly” nation. Bödeln did much to raise Lagerkvist’s profile both within Scandinavia and further afield, however; the play was also staged in Amsterdam and London in 1935.
Lagerkvist’s impressions of his trip to Palestine and Greece in 1933 form the basis for his next publication, Den knutnanäven (1934; translated as the Clenched Fist, 1989), a collection of four travel essays. In the title essay Lagerkvist finds his ideal symbolic representation for the spirit of Western cultural development in the Acropolis–the “clenched fist” of the title–and regards this edifice, bearing the ravages of Western history, as the foremost bastion of the spirit of humanism and democracy that pervades all of western culture. At a time when Europe was increasingly threatened by totalitarianism and political violence, Lagerkvist turns to the traditions of democracy, freedom, and justice that he sees represented by the Acropolis and asserts his relentless opposition to dictatorship in terms of his brand of “kämpande humanism” (fighting humanism).
In the second essay, “Stridsland, evighetsland” (Land of Conflict, Land of Eternity), Lagerkvist’s declarations of humanism take on a metaphysical slant. In the landscape of Palestine, at the meeting point between the fertile Valley of Kidron and the desert leading to the Dead Sea, he finds another richly symbolic representation, this time for the human, existential struggle against the nothingness of death. Also in this essay Lagerkvist gives definitive expression to his paradoxical relationship to the Christian faith, referring to himself as “en religiösateist” (a religious atheist), who can see Christ only in human terms and who regards Christ’s message of love as a profoundly human message.
The next essay, “Undret i Delphi” (The Miracle at Delphi), returns to Lagerkvist’s examination of the dualistic nature of human existence. The interplay between spirit and nature and the constructive and destructive forces inherent in the human condition are described in Nietzschean terms as the conflict between the Apollonian and Dionysian. Significantly, Lagerkvist argues that western culture itself is the product of the impulses of both forces and is at its most dynamic when these elements are in harmony and balance. Lagerkvist expresses the fervent hope that mankind will recognize the significance of this interplay rather than choose to cultivate the destructive forces in the manner of totalitarian movements. “Hellensk morgondröm” (Hellenic Morning Dream), the fourth and final essay, is a short but succinct summation of Lagerkvist’s nonpartisan stance; a clear morning in Greece provides him with a brief glimpse of the reality that is normally obscured by the belief systems, dogmas, and ideologies with which mankind surrounds itself. For Lagerkvist, clarity in human life, the reality of existence, can only be perceived, and only briefly at that, when mankind struggles to free itself from the shackles of its own ideological prison.
Lagerkvist’s satirical voice, Swiftian in its intensity, is at the fore in the short-story collection I den tiden (1935, In That Time). “Det lilla falltoget” (translated as “The Children’s Campaign,” 1954), frequently compared to Swift’s A Modest Proposal (1729), is an account of a military campaign undertaken by an army of children against a neighboring state. Certainly taking some inspiration from the growth of militaristic youth movements in Germany, Italy, and the Soviet Union, Lagerkvist uses the story to deride the valorizing of war and the fanatical nationalism evident in the Europe of his day. Lagerkvist’s narrative displays a masterful blend of grotesque humor and graphic realism and includes elements of factual, military reportage.
“Det märkvärdiga landet” (translated as “The Strange Country,” 1954) is a tale set in a dystopian, totalitarian future, in which the strange country of the title is the only place where democracy and personal freedoms have survived. Now an archaic and peculiar backwater, it has been maintained as a living museum and tourist destination. The regimented, uniformed tourists that arrive in the country witness with bemuserent the personal freedoms of the locals who wear what they like, engage in uninhibited political discussions, and are free to associate with anyone, regardless of race. In “Det markvärdiga landet” Lagerkvist’s criticism of totalitarianism is combined with a distinct warning of the potential loss of the democratic western tradition.
Undoubtedly influenced by the Spanish Civil war, Lagerkvist’s next play, Mannen utan själ (1936; translated as The Man without a Soul, 1944), nevertheless demonstrates Lagerkvist’s ability to turn a predominantly realistic, political theme–a political assassination and its consequences–into metaphysical drama. Critics have frequently compared Mannen utan själ to the medieval morality plays, emphasizing the allegorical nature of the drama. The title figure, a political assassin, meets and falls in love with the girlfriend of his most recent victim. Through the experience of love, the man progresses from a position of unreflecting action in his adherence to a political ideology to a moral questioning of the nature of political violence and ultimately to transcendental speculations. Mannen utan själ enjoyed a successful run under the direction of Lindberg in Stockholm and was later taken on a tour of regional theaters in Sweden, much to Lagerkvist’s approval.
The poems that comprise the collection Genius (1937) reflect Lagerkvist’s continuing examination of the conflicting and contradictory forces at work in human consciousness. In tone and mood the collection resembles some of the more reflective passages from Den knutna näven. The search for truth and the relationship between the temporal and the eternal in human existence are central to the collection, as is the presentation of the struggle between the Apollonian forces of light and Dionysian forces of darkness in man.
The relationship between the Apollonian and the Dionysian is further examined in Lagerkvist’s next play, Seger i mörker (1939, Victory in Darkness). The most realistic and conventional of all Lagerkvist’s dramas–and considered by many critics to be one of his weakest–Seger i mörker deals with central political issues of the day, notably the struggle between democracy and dictatorship, and the use of political violence. Here too, however, in the figures of the two brothers, Gabriel Fontan, the democratic prime minister, and Robert Grant, the extremist agitator, Lagerkvist presents the political conflict as one element in the struggle between contra dictory aspects inherent in mankind. Grant gains his political victory, and yet, in the struggle between the constructive and destructive forces represented by Fon-tan and Grant respectively, it is Fontan who goes to his death secure in the knowledge of his own transcendental victory brought about by the love of his wife, Stella.
Shortly after the outbreak of war Lagerkvist published a short philosophical essay, Den befriade människan (1939, The Liberated Man). Intended as his testament were anything to befall him during the war, the essay is a summation and development of the principles of his brand of transcendental “fighting humanism.” It is an optimistic declaration of his belief in the good in man kind and in the notion of life as an eternal, unifying force of which each individual is a part. Much to Lagerkvist’s disappointment, the essay was largely over looked upon its publication.
During the war years Lagerkvist’s most direct political statements were made in his poetry. Indeed, his first play of the 1940s, Midsommardröm i fattighuset (1941; translated as Midsummer Dream in the workhouse, 1953), is a rich evocation of love, dreams, and poetry as means of transforming reality, and the work appears to be a conscious effort on Lagerkvist’s part to move away from the political engagement that had characterized his dramas of the 1930s. In contrast, Lagerkvist’s two poetry collections of this period, Sång och strict (1940, Song and Struggle) and Hemmet och stjärnan (1942, The Home and the Stars), are both marked by a degree of political referentiality unseen, for example, in his poems of the 1930s, and which contributed to their positive reception upon publication.
For all its difficulties and hardships, the first half of the 1940s was not without its high points for Lagerkvist. In 1940 he was elected as one of eighteen “Immortals” to the Swedish Academy, and in the same year he received an honorary doctorate from the University of Göteborg, while his reputation both at home and abroad increased significantly with the publication in 1944 of the novel Dvärgen (translated as The Dwarf, 1945).
A masterpiece of modern Swedish prose, Dvärgen is a complex work in which various elements-the psychological, the allegorical, and the symbolic-are intertwined in a richly textured historical novel. The novel is set in Renaissance Italy and concerns the events involving an unnamed principality and its major figures. The fictional world in the novel, albeit a stylized representation of the Renaissance, reveals Lagerkvist’s customary attention to historical detail and makes clear allusions to the Italy of Leonardo da Vinci, Niccolò Machiavelli, the Medicis, and the Borgias. Lagerkvist’s depiction of Renaissance court life highlights the contradictions of the age; the Renaissance, regarded as a high point in humanism, was a time of remarkable developments and advances in the sciences and the arts. Equally it was a period characterized by brutality and bloodshed, a time of political power struggles, court intrigues, and wars. In Lagerkvist’s novel the Prince’s humanistic and scientific interests, evinced by the number of artists, astronomers, and scientists present at his court, run alongside his political aspirations. The latter precipitate a costly war against a neighboring state, culminating in a mass poisoning, a lengthy siege, and an outbreak of plague. In another major narrative thread the reader is witness to Princess Teodora’s lascivious behavior and, later, her torturous religious conversion; there is also the tragic love story involving the young Princess Angelica and the enemy Prince Giovanni, and the activities of the mercurial, Da Vinci-like figure, Maestro Bernardo.
Uniting all these events and figures and dominating the novel is the malign title character, the court Dwarf, who is the first-person narrator. In the persona of the Dwarf, Lagerkvist creates the consummate representation of evil, a character whose stunted emotional development is directly associated with his arrested physical development. He is a consistent character whose actions and beliefs are in accordance with a nature that is governed by evil and hatred.
Lagerkvist’s diminutive protagonist does not, how ever, function solely as a symbol of evil. He also functions as an individual within the fictional world of the novel. Indeed, Lagerkvist provides the Dwarf with a background that suggests the psychological motivation behind his adherence to evil and his hatred of mankind. There is undeniable pathos in the Dwarf’s enraged retelling of his loveless childhood, the disgust that his mother felt toward him, and the urgency with which he was sold into the service of the Prince. He is a character who has been denied the experience of love and turns instead to a life governed by hatred. He lives an isolated and solitary life, can tolerate no physical contact, and is disgusted by all manifestations of human physicality. Significantly, the Dwarf equates love solely with the sexual act, an act that physically sickens him, and thus cannot distinguish between the sensual love represented by Princess Teodora and the innocent love of Princess Angelica.
The Dwarf’s hatred is all-encompassing, directed both at mankind and at his own sterile race, the dwarves, who choose to make a mockery of their own physical appearance for the amusement of princes and their courts. His message of hatred is made explicit when he presides over a mock mass for the entertainment of the court. The Dwarf’s inverted Eucharist involving the purification of human sin through hatred (and in vengeance for his own suffering) is a dark and threatening message that unsettles the court and has a particularly strong effect upon the religious Princess Teodora. In the Dwarf, Lagerkvist characteristically blurs the distinctions between good and evil, as, ulti mately, it is through him, acting as the scourge of God, that Teodora attempts to expiate her sins, is destroyed, but is also sanctified after her death.
The Dwarf is a peculiarly one-dimensional character-he is incapable, for example, of humor or irony and is unable to comprehend the inherent dualities and contradictions in mankind, assigning them to the all-pervading hypocrisy of a base and inauthentic race. He is infuriated and baffled by all notions of play or dissim ulation-among which he counts art. The limitations of his point of view are set into sharp relief in his relation ship to all the major characters, but perhaps nowhere more clearly than in his dealings with Maestro Bernardo, Lagerkvist’s representative of the Renaissance man, the breadth of whose scientific and artistic interests leaves the Dwarf alternately confused, disgusted, and enraged. With characteristic incomprehension and obvious irritation, the Dwarf also observes Maestro Bernardo’s vacillation between powerful faith in the human spirit and deep despair at the limitations of the human condition.
The Dwarf does, however, find one form of duality comprehensible: the duplicity that he claims to observe in the Prince. He actively cultivates the similarities between himself and the Prince, and this close identification culminates in the “reconciliation” banquet, where the Dwarf not only follows his Prince’s orders in poisoning his enemies but also interprets his wishes by poisoning the Prince’s friend and rival, Don Riccardo. As the Prince increasingly follows the evil side of his nature, so the Dwarf’s influence grows; either directly or indirectly, he participates not only in the murder of Don Riccardo but also in the deaths of Prince Giovanni and the Princesses Angelica and Teodora. At the end of the novel the Prince has the Dwarf locked up and chained in the palace dungeon; yet, the Dwarf remains unperturbed, patiently waiting for the day when, inevitably, the Prince will send for him again. At the time of the publication of Dvärgen, readers were in no doubt as to the contemporary relevance of the Dwarf’s concluding statements. Indeed, with its depiction of war and political power, and its descriptions of human brutality and suffering, Lagerkvist’s novel includes enough clear parallels to the modern age to be read also as an allegory of contempo rary Europe.
Lagerkvist’s novel is a masterful study of the bleak and sterile world of his evil protagonist. And yet, the Dwarf’s narrative is not without truth, and many of his observations on human nature are disconcertingly valid. The power of Lagerkvist’s novel lies not only in what the Dwarf observes and comments upon, however, but equally in what he leaves unsaid or reveals through other characters. Even through his narrow perspective, the aspirations and scope of the human spirit are evident in the art, religion, and philosophy of the age. The Dwarf, however, can only ever provide a partial understanding of human existence, and, characteristically, he is consistently incapable of seeing beyond the material level. He dismisses all notions of the transcendental in the human experience; significantly, for all his self-proclaimed perspicacity, he reveals that he has never been capable of seeing the stars in the night sky.
On its publication, Dvärgen was heralded as a masterpiece and was a critical and popular success. It became a best-seller in Sweden and also established Lagerkvist’s reputation internationally. Within two years of its publication in Sweden, Dvärgen had been translated into English, French, and German and subsequently into other languages, including Italian and Spanish.
The second half of the 1940s began with the publication of two more works, both dramas. De vises sten (1947; translated as The Philosopher’s Stone, 1966) is set in the late Middle Ages and has as its focus the alchemist Albertus, whose relentless search for truth and knowledge leads to the destruction of his family’s happiness and love. Despite its historical setting, De vises sten has clear contemporary references both in the existential questioning that runs throughout the play and in the central dialogic presentation of the relationship between science and religion. Significantly, Albertus’s counterpart, Rabbi Simonides, follows a course of action that proves to be similarly destructive as a result of a dogmatic adherence to his religious beliefs. The cautionary nature of De vises sten is clear, and as in many of Lagerkvist’s works, this play too includes a warning of the dangers of the search for absolutes in human existence. The play was a critical success and was performed at the Dramatic Theater in 1948. According to Lagerkvist it was the best production of any of his plays performed in Stockholm.
The short play Låt människan leva (1949; translated as Let Man Live, 1951) has generally been regarded less as a drama than a stage liturgy or oratorio; it is a deeply moral piece in which Lagerkvist calls for human understanding and love in a powerful, pacifistic message. On a barren stage fourteen martyrs step forth to recount the judgment passed upon them. Each character’s monologue contributes to Lagerkvist’s discussion of morality and judgment, the relationship between good and evil, and ultimately to the fundamental nature of human existence. Although Låt människan leva is not considered to rank among Lagerkvist’s most significant plays, it stands as a fitting epilogue–it was Lagerkvist’s last original play–for a dramatist who repeatedly sought to experiment with the dramatic form.
The publication of the novel Barabbas in 1950 marked a New direction in Lagerkvist’s writings, one that highlighted a move to a more personal presentation of his major concerns. In the majority of his works published between 1950 and 1967–a total of six novels and one collection of poetry–Lagerkvist’s primary focus is the examination of the relationship between the human and the divine, and specifically man’s relationship to the Christian God.
In Barabbas, the scant biblical references to the robber and insurrectionist who was released instead of Christ are Lagerkvist’s starting point for a masterful novel about the relationship between doubt and faith, the human and the divine, life and death, and good and evil. Lagerkvist uses a sparse, monumental style, consciously modeled on that of the Bible but also owing much to the narrative techniques of popular storytelling. The simplicity of style in the novel is evident also in the broad characterizations of figures such as the girl with a harelip and Barabbas himself. Christ is described as weak and underdeveloped, scarcely a full-grown man; the unnamed Peter, depicted as a large and simple peasant; and Mary, a stern and reproachful peasant woman, appear to have more in common with people from Lagerkvist’s own rural background than with recognizable representations from the Christian tradition.
In the character of Barabbas, Lagerkvist depicts the fate of a specific individual whose life is profoundly altered by his particular relationship to Christ, and yet this situation also highlights Barabbas’s relationship to mankind in general. Barabbas, whose place is taken by Christ, is quite literally the man for whom Christ dies on the cross and, by extension, can be regarded as the representative for all mankind. His journey through life following Christ’s Crucifixion is one characterized by an existential doubt and a desire for faith that also reflects the modern consciousness. Indeed, for all the biblical references and stylistic techniques in the novel, Lagerkvist’s protagonist is throughout also a modern character, a figure whose relationship to the Christian faith, and whose doubt and questionings, are clearly akin to those of Lagerkvist himself.
From the outset of Barabbas the sense of ambiguity that characterizes the novel is established. Using a narrative technique that alternates between omniscience and thought represented in third-person voice, Lagerkvist highlights the uncertainty that pervades his protagonist’s experiences. Barabbas first sees the figure of Christ upon his release from the palace dungeon; he observes a dazzling light surrounding Christ but remains uncertain if it is a trick of the light on emerging from the darkness of prison. Strangely drawn to Christ, Barabbas follows him at a distance, is witness to his Crucifixion, and experiences the darkness that falls over Golgotha at Christ’s death.
After Christ’s Crucifixion, Barabbas is unable to free himself of thoughts of the innocent man who died in his place, and who, he learns, is regarded by some as the Messiah. He seeks out the followers of Christ, among them the unnamed Peter, but he is rejected by them when they learn his identity. In order to prove for himself that Christ is not the Savior and will not rise from the dead, Barabbas holds watch over his tomb. Ambiguity again characterizes the events surrounding the Resurrection; unlike the girl with the harelip, who witnesses Christ’s Resurrection, Barabbas observes nothing but the empty tomb. Later, when the girl is stoned to death for her belief in Christ, Barabbas regards her death as the betrayal of her faith, a sign of the ineffectuality of a savior who can offer no protection and no salvation to his own followers. He returns to his robber band but is a changed man, and his thoughts repeatedly turn to the events on Golgotha.
In a style reminiscent of the Gospels, the narrative moves ahead to a time when Barabbas, now in his fifties, is a slave in the Cypriot copper mines. Barabbas’s link to Christ remains close, this time in the figure of Sahak, a Christian slave to whom he is literally chained. Although Barabbas is briefly converted by Sahak, the two characters serve to emphasize two divergent attitudes to Christ; in contrast to Sahak, who possesses unquestioning faith, Barabbas remains the man who has seen but cannot believe. Later, following their release from the mines, Sahak is discovered to be a Christian and condemned to death for his faith. Barabbas, with an acute awareness of his betrayal of Sahak, is again acquitted; asked if he is a Christian, he can only answer truthfully that he is not, although he wants to believe. Barabbas’s desire for faith is highlighted at Sahak’s crucifixion. As on Golgotha many years previously, Barabbas witnesses the sufferings of a crucified man, and while there are no miracles or unexplained events, Barabbas kneels as if in prayer but knows he has no one to pray to.
After Sahak’s death, Barabbas’s ambiguous relationship to Christ continues; on his return to Rome, he tries, in vain, to seek out the Christians. He throws himself into action, believing he is joining a Christian insurrection that is setting fire to Rome. Barabbas finally believes he is acting upon Christ’s bidding, but it transpires that he is serving the wrong master–the Roman emperor, Nero. Barabbas is arrested, imprisoned, and condemned to death with the Christians. He is crucified along with the others but at a slight distance from them, a further symbolic indication of his relationship to the Christian faith. Perhaps the characteristic ambiguity of Barabbas, and specifically of the experiences of the pro tagonist, are nowhere demonstrated as clearly as in the final lines of the novel, when Barabbas feels death approaching and cries out. His final words have been much disputed in Lagerkvist scholarship: “När han kände döden komma, den som han altid hade varit så rädd för, sale han ut i mörkret, som om han talade till det:–Till dig överlämnar jag min själ” (when he felt death approaching, that which he had always been so afraid of, he said out into the darkness, as though he were speaking to it:–To thee I deliver up my soul). Does he in his final moments address God or the approaching darkness of death? It is a question that, in Lagerkvist’s presentation of Barabbas, can have no clear answer or definite resolution.
Despite the apparent simplicity of Lagerkvist’s narrative, the clear plot structure (built upon the three crucifixions), and the broad characterizations, the novel is one of Lagerkvist’s most complex works, with Barabbas’s central conflict highlighted as much in the depiction of his relationship to other contrasting characters as it is in the ambiguities of the narrative. Of these the most significant one is Barabbas’s relationship to Christ himself, a relationship that is marked by contrasts from the outset when Barabbas emerges from the darkness to see Christ surrounded by a dazzling light. Barabbas’s powerful build is contrasted with the physical weakness of Christ; his guilt with Christ’s innocence; his acquittal with Christ’s Crucifixion; and his experience of hatred with Christ’s life surrounded by love. Similarly, in other contrasting figures such as the girl, Sahak, and Peter, Lagerkvist presents the alternatives to Barabbas’s doubt and skepticism. Yet, while these paradigmatic relationships serve to set Barabbas apart from Christ and his followers, they also indicate the intricate links between doubt and faith, the human and the divine, and life and death. The girl experiences human love in her relation ship to Barabbas and divine love in her relationship to Christ; Barabbas’s closest friendship, with Sahak, also brings him closest to accepting Christ; while Peter, the disciple who denies Christ and who (unlike Barabbas) is not a witness to Christ’s Crucifixion, acknowledges the difficulties inherent in the struggle for Christian faith. Barabbas’s condition, however, will never allow him to arrive at the Christian truth espoused by these characters; significantly–and in terms familiar from Lagerkvist’s own declarations in Den knutna näven—Barabbas can understand the Crucifixion at Golgotha but not the Resurrection at the tomb, and, characteristically, his meeting with another unnamed biblical figure, Lazarus, emphasizes not the miracle of his rising from the dead but Barabbas’s own fear of death.
At the time of the publication of Barabbas in 1950 Lagerkvist was traveling with his wife in southern Europe and the Middle East. Letters and telegrams from family and friends kept him informed of the critical and public success of the novel, whose first printing ran to the considerable figure of twenty-five thousand copies. The success of Barabbas first in Sweden and then internationally (most notably in France, where André Gide became a particular admirer of the novel) convinced the Swedish Academy to overcome its reluctance to honor a native Swede. The committee awarded the 1951 Nobel Prize in Literature to Lagerkvist “for the artistic vigor and true independence of mind with which he endeavors in his poetry to find answers to the eternal questions confronting mankind.” (The word translated as “poetry” was actually diktning, which in Swedish can mean “literary works” in a broader sense and almost certainly did so in Lagerkvist’s case; the art work on his Nobel diploma depicted scenes representing his novels Dvärgen and Barabbas.) At the award ceremony Lagerkvist, a notoriously reluctant public speaker, chose not to make a speech but instead read out an unpublished prose piece, “Myten om människorna” (The Myth of Mankind), written thirty years earlier. The continuing success of Barabbas was further ensured when Lagerkvist dramatized the novel in 1952. The novel was also made into a movie starring Anthony Quinn in 1962.
Lagerkvist had been a member of the Swedish Academy since 1940. The award of the Nobel Prize by the Academy to one of its own members might have been questioned, particularly by those in the English-speaking world, for whom Lagerkvist was still a relatively little known author. However, as a member of the Academy, Lagerkvist could neither nominate himself nor vote for himself. Nevertheless, it was an issue that he felt he did need to address in his introductory remarks at the Nobel Prize banquet, even making the point that he could enjoy the award in good conscience on literary merits precisely because he had not been involved in the selection process that year. His renown in Scandinavia and Germany, and–with the publication of Barabbas–his growing reputation in France had made him a popular and logical choice.
In fact, the award to Lagerkvist in 1951 could not have come as a complete surprise. He had first been nominated in 1947, and in 1950 there had been considerable speculation in the Swedish media and even the international press that Lagerkvist would be awarded the prize for 1949 (which had been deferred to 1950). The 1949 prize went instead to William Faulkner, with the prize for 1950 going to Bertrand Russell. For Lagerkvist this disappointment was certainly also combined with some embarrassment. He was an intensely private man, and the media interest in him during 1950 had already made him uncomfortable. Even when the prize was awarded to him in 1951 he eschewed interviews with the media. While he welcomed journalists at his home in Lidingö following the announcement, even happily posing for photographs, he declined all requests for interviews, would not be drawn into discussions about his work, and would not permit access to his study. Even at the high point of critical and public recognition, Lagerkvist felt that his privacy and creative integrity should not be compromised.
The Nobel Prize threw Lagerkvist into the international spotlight and certainly guaranteed him–almost overnight–a much broader international readership. All of his subsequent novels were translated and published in English (and other major world languages). In addition, by the mid 1950s, many of his earlier short stories, hitherto unavailable in English, had also been translated and published in collections both in the United States and the United Kingdom. Although Lagerkvist never concealed his obvious pleasure and pride at being the recipient of the Nobel Prize, he refused to be drawn into a more public role as a result. He declined invitations to conferences and congresses, and, according to his correspondence, was anxious to return to a more private existence away from the limelight. It can also be argued that this desire for privacy is also reflected in the increasingly introspective nature of his later works, replete with personal symbolism in contrast to the political engagement found in the majority of his works from the 1930s and 1940s.
Aftonland (1953; translated as Evening Land, 1975), 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, Aftonland includes many poems that are rhymeless or have free rhythm. Lagerkvist’s examination of his basic themes continues, however, in a series of poems that 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. His poetic landscape is the evening land of the soul, a landscape in which the poet cannot decipher the message of the stars in the night sky or the impenetrable signs left by God, and in which the figure of the stranger and wanderer, representing either man or God, appears.
In several key poems in the collection, the poet recounts memories revolving around childhood experiences. In “Vem gick förbimin barndoms fönster” (who walked Past the Window of My Childhood) the poet’s childhood awareness of God causes his early feelings of alienation and loneliness, while in “Vad upplevde jag den kvällen” (What Did I Experience That Evening) the child, under the night sky, experiences for the first time the vastness and the mystery of the universe. In a third poem, “Med gamla ögon ser jag mig tillbaka” (With Old Eyes I Look Back), disparate images from the poet’s childhood home are recalled, but the poet cannot account for their significance in a life that has been characterized by alienation and estrangement. Central to the collection is the poet’s relationship to God; the paradox inherent in faith in a nonexistent god is demonstrated in “Om du tror på gud och flagon gud inte (inns” (If You Believe in God and No God Exists), and yet mankind reveals its religious, transcendental longing in the act of faith. In another poem, “En främling är min vän” (My Friend Is a Stranger), Lagerkvist expresses the paradox of this longing in the lines “Vem är du som uppfyller mitt hjärta med din frånvaro? / Som uppfyller hela världen med din frånvaro?” (Who are you who so fill my heart with your absence l who fill the entire world with your absence?). In Aftonland, Lagerkvist characteristically leaves man’s relationship to God unresolved and yet indicates that man can find meaning in existence through religious longing and the relentless search driven by the experience of this God.
Lagerkvist continues his examination of man’s relationship to the divine in his next novel, Sibyllan (1956; translated as The Sibyl, 1958), in this case in a dialogic form in the presentation of two characters whose lives have been profoundly shaped by their decisive meetings with God. In Sibyllan a young man arrives at the Temple of Delphi in search of answers to his fate. The man is recognizable as Ahasuerus, the Wandering Jew of Christian legend, cursed by Christ for refusing him permission to rest at his door on his way to Golgotha and condemned to an eternal life of spiritual unrest. He is directed to a mountain cave overlooking the town, where an old woman, a former Pythia, lives with her imbecile son, a graying man with a permanent smile on his child-like face.
Ahasuerus recounts his tale to the old woman and the way in which Christ’s curse transformed his happy, simple life with his wife and son into the spiritual torment of an eternal living death. Ahasuerus does not experience Christ as the god of love but as a malign god whose own Crucifixion is further indication of the cruelty of the divine.
The old woman’s response is to recount the story of her own life filled with the experience of the power and terror of her god. As a young woman she was taken from her parents, simple and devout peasants, and chosen to serve at the Temple at Delphi. There she was taken deep into the sanctuary to the oracle pit, where she experienced not only the delight and ecstasy but also the pain and agony of divine possession. Following each possession she felt forsaken by the god whose absence filled her with loss and longing. The power of the woman’s raptures soon led her to be regarded as a great Pythia, and yet it also led to her increasing isolation from humankind. On a visit home, however, she met a one-armed soldier who was unaware of her true identity, and with him she experienced the fullness and happiness of human love. On her return to the oracle, her god took vengeance upon her experience of love by violating her in the form of a black goat and drowning her lover. When, later, the rumors of the Pythia’s pregnancy were confirmed, she was assaulted by the crowds and rescued from certain death only by the intervention of the compassionate temple servant. Escaping to the cave in the mountains, she gave birth to her witless son, whose silent presence is a constant mockery of the beauty and joy of the love she experienced with the soldier.
The mysterious and enigmatic nature of man’s experience of the divine is highlighted at the conclusion of the novel. At the end of her story, the old woman notices that her son has disappeared. Accompanied by Ahasuerus, she follows his footprints in the snow up the mountain until they vanish without a trace. For the woman comes the realization that she has given birth to the son of her god, who has now returned to his father. For Ahasuerus, the enigmatic smile on the face of the woman’s son represents the enigma of God, who is neither good nor evil, but he cannot rid himself of his hatred for the god under whose curse he continues to suffer. In the parting words of the old woman, Lagerkvist gives full expression to the paradox of the divine in the human condition. She acknowledges both the happiness and unhappiness that her experience of her god has brought her, both the curse and the blessing that comes from being filled with the divine spirit, but also acknowledges that her life has been profoundly richer for the experience. To Ahasuerus, as well, she offers hope, perhaps even reconciliation in his relationship to God, and recognizes that his all-encompassing despair is equally and also the experience of the divine.
The broad characterizations in Sibyllan also contribute to Lagerkvist’s exposition of his central thematic concern; the two major characters, as well as the Pythia’s witless son, her parents, and the temple attendant, function less as clearly defined individuals than as types through which he discusses man’s relationship to God; significantly, attitudes to the divine are not presented solely in the two major characters. The portrayal of the humble and compassionate temple servant brings to mind several representatives of the divine from earlier Lagerkvist works, while the depiction of the simple faith and devout nature of the Pythia’s parents is striking in its similarities to Lagerkvist’s presentation of the world of the parents in Gäst hos verkligheten. Indeed, the Pythia’s sense of alienation from her parents’ simple lifestyle appears rooted in Lagerkvist’s own estrangement from the rural Småland in which he was raised. The deeply personal nature of the novel is further emphasized in the figure of Ahasuerus, with whom Lagerkvist clearly identifies; in his work notes he planned to draw a parallel between the man who denied Christ permission to rest at his threshold and his own relationship to the Christian faith.
The figure of the Wandering Jew reappears, now in a medieval setting, in Lagerkvist’s next novel, Ahasverus död (1960; translated as The Death of Ahasuerus, 1962). The title figure of the novel clearly connects Ahasverus död to Sibyllan, and yet it is an indication of the interconnectedness of Lagerkvist’s late novels that Ahasverus död also constitutes the first volume in a trilogy focusing on Tobias and his pilgrimage; the second novel, Pilgrim på havet (translated as Pilgrim at Sea, 1964), appeared in 1962 and the concluding part, Det heliga landet (translated as The Holy Land, 1966), in 1964. The three volumes also appeared together under the collective title of Pilgrimen (The Pilgrim) in 1966.
In Ahasverus död, the wandering Jew arrives at an inn full of pilgrims heading for the Holy Land. There he is drawn to the intimidating Tobias, a former student, soldier, and brutal bandit, who recounts his life and the unusual events that precipitate his own, unwilled pilgrimage. In response to Ahasuerus’s question of whether he really is a pilgrim, Tobias tells of the day when he came across a dead woman bearing the marks of stigmata. For reasons he cannot himself fully explain, he fell to his knees and made a promise to undertake a pilgrimage in her place. Ahasuerus sees the influence of Christ leading Tobias to the stigmatic. While the experience transforms him from his life of violence and awakens his religious longing, he is also bound to earthly, human love for the woman he refers to as Diana. She is a complex and ambiguous figure; a woman close to nature, she is defiled and used by Tobias and becomes a harlot for his robber band, but her love for him remains constant. She accompanies Tobias on the start of his pilgrimage and ultimately sacrifices her life for him when she intercepts an arrow of unknown provenance aimed at him. After Diana’s death Tobias continues his attempts to reach the Holy Land, and, having missed the last scheduled boat, he negotiates passage with a questionable crew on a less than-seaworthy vessel. Ahasuerus holds out little hope of Tobias’s success.
In Ahasverus död the relationship between Ahasuerus and Tobias highlights the central theme of human fellowship. Ahasuerus’s meeting with Tobias provides him with a sense of brotherhood for the first time and allows him to embark on a revelatory journey that ultimately frees him from the curse that has governed his life. He comes to the realization that it is God who separates man from the divine. Yet, in the figure of Tobias, a pilgrim unlike the others, he recognizes the value of belief in the Holy Land that may remain inaccessible to mankind and that is concealed by the distortions and falsification of religious belief.
In his central, concluding monologue Ahasuerus is able to reevaluate his relationship to Christ, beginning with a line of questioning that is familiar from Barabbas, Aftonland, and Sibyllan, namely, man’s persecution at the hands of God. Ahasuerus goes on to accuse Christ for marking him out for his crime against him and sees Christ’s Crucifixion not as a unique or decisive event but as one example of the suffering and stigmatism that characterizes human life in general. Gradually, he comes to reconcile his fate with that of Christ–recognizing their brotherhood–as he gains an understanding that Christ is not vindictive but, like himself, has suffered and has been cursed by a vindic tive, cruel God. With this realization comes the peace for which Ahasuerus has been longing; he dies in a monastery, watched over by a kind, smiling monk, who appears to kindle a distant memory in Ahasuerus.
In Pilgrim på havet Lagerkvist continues the story of Tobias’s pilgrimage. It transpires that Tobias has secured passage to the Holy Land onboard a pirate ship. Among the unsavory crew is the godless but good Giovanni, a defrocked priest, whom Tobias befriends and who later saves his life. Giovanni, who has given himself over to life at sea and has derived a sense of peace from it, understands that the only certain things in life are its insecurity and uncertainty.
In Pilgrim på havet Lagerkvist utilizes a similar dialogic structure to that of Ahasverus död, with one character relating his story to the other for whom these narrated experiences are significant for his own spiritual development. This time Giovanni recounts his story to Tobias: his life in a strictly religious family, his training as a priest, and his love affair with a married woman who is obsessed with thoughts of her true love. When Giovanni’s affair with the woman is discovered, he is excommunicated. Giovanni shows Tobias the locket that he constantly wears around his neck. It used to belong to the married woman, who had claimed that it contained the image of her lover. Giovanni will not be parted from this object, even though he reveals that the locket is–and always has been–empty, and thus that the object of her love has been illusory. The story of the woman is finally connected to Tobias’s own pilgrimage when Giovanni recounts hearing that she had died onboard a pilgrim boat approaching the Holy Land.
Giovanni’s story allows Tobias to contemplate the nature of both man’s spiritual longing (represented by the pilgrimage) and his experience of love (represented by the locket). For Tobias, the Holy Land, like the expe rience of perfect love, is beyond human reach, and mankind can only ever find itself on a journey toward it. And yet, neither the emptiness of the locket nor the inaccessibility of the shore that lies beyond the sea can detract from the significance of either in mankind’s transcendental search. In the sea and the locket, and the complexities and paradoxes associated with them, Lagerkvist creates some of his most complete symbolic representations for the two interrelated themes that dominate his opus; it is the longing, whether in the religious search or for the experience of perfect love–even if they may appear illusory or beyond reach–that defines the transcendental in the human experience.
The concluding part of the trilogy, Det heliga landet, is a difficult novel, replete with obscure, personal symbolism. Many years have passed, and Giovanni, now blind, and Tobias have been set ashore on the coast of a barren and windswept country that, with the exception of a ruined temple, is devoid of any trace of culture or religion. The population consists almost entirely of old shepherds who live in mud huts without women or children. In this setting Giovanni and Tobias experience a series of mysterious events; the shepherds lead them to a hut at the bottom of a mountain where an infant child has become an object of worship. Tobias digs up an image from the ground, a face carved into stone with a derisive smile; vultures start to appear above the country as the sheep begin to die. A sacrificial priest kills and performs a ritual on a bird and then sacrifices a lamb. A strange woman arrives from the mountain, carrying in a basket a snake that causes the death of the child. The woman also removes the locket from around Giovanni’s neck, which causes his death, and hands the locket to Tobias.
In the final part of the novel the landscape surrounding Tobias becomes increasingly undefined and dream-like as he makes his way across the mountains. In his wanderings he comes across three empty crosses on a hill and understands each cross to be of equal significance. Later on he sees the figure of a man at a river, but when he approaches him and looks down at the man’s reflection, he sees only himself. Coming across a figure of the Madonna on the side of the path, Tobias rests and is reminded of his youthful betrayal of a young woman who became pregnant by him; Tobias forced her to abort the child, and she subsequently committed suicide. The Madonna comes to life and transforms into the young woman, who forgives Tobias and removes the locket from his neck; as she places it around her neck, the locket begins to glow brightly, and Tobias can die in peace. In Det heliga landet, Lagerkvist thus leaves the final word to the power of human love and suggests, in the Madonna’s transformation into the woman, that only human love can bring Tobias to his holy land.
The notion of the redemptive possibilities of love figures centrally in Lagerkvist’s final work, the short novel Mariamne (1967; translated as Herod and Mariamne, 1968). In Mariamne Lagerkvist tells the story of Herod the Great, the tyrannical king of Judea, and of his love for his queen, the good and compassionate Mariamne. Herod is a forbidding figure over whose evil nature not even love can effect a permanent change. And yet, for a while, Herod’s manner is altered by Mariamne, and a milder period of rule begins. Ultimately, however, he is unable to deny his evil nature; his love for Mariamne turns to jealousy and hate, and he returns to his earlier ways. On Herod’s orders Mariamne is murdered. Following her death he becomes increasingly isolated and is gradually destroyed by a terminal illness, the result of his dissolute lifestyle. He fears the news–heralded by three wise men who arrive at his palace–of a New king born in his land and orders the slaughter of the innocents. Abandoned and alone, Herod dies in his empty palace, repeatedly calling out Mariamne’s name.
In this final novel Lagerkvist dispenses with all narrative embellishments; the style is sparse, the language is simple and characterized by a high degree of repetition, and the plot is straightforward. As in all his works, the simplicity of his prose belies the complexities inherent in this novel. Lagerkvist’s narrative contrasts appearance and reality and questions the relationship between actions and motivation, thus emphasizing the difficulty of arriving at the truth in the story. Even the conflict between good and evil represented in the antithetical characters of Herod and Mariamne appears anything but clear-cut; Mariamne’s influence over Herod is considerable at times, and even after her death he cannot free himself from his feelings for her and dies with her name on his lips. In the figure of Mariamne, Lagerkvist creates an embodiment of purity, goodness, and the possibility of salvation through love. He suggests that the love represented by Mariamne is close to the divine, and with clear allusions to Paul’s conversion he has Herod’s first (and profound) meeting with Mariamne take place at the Damascus gate. Yet, because of Herod’s nature his experience of love is never entirely free of evil. His attempt to arrive at the love represented by Mariamne, however, is closely connected to the search for the divine and the transcendental in the human experience that concerned Lagerkvist throughout his life.
Mariamne was published in the year after the death of Elaine Lagerkvist. In his notes Lagerkvist acknowl edged the autobiographical element in his story, writing that the sense of loss experienced by Herod was his own at the death of his wife. After his wife’s death he continued to live at Lidingö, mostly in the company of his daughter. Although he continued to make preliminary sketches for new literary works, Lagerkvist published nothing else. His final notebook, begun in 1970, reveals his continued activity and traditional literary themes; it runs to more than one thousand pages and consists primarily of personal reflections on his ambivalent relationship to God and on his own approaching death. Pär Lagerkvist died on 11 July 1974.
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Rolf Yrlid, Pär Lagerkvists kritiker: En recensionsbibliografi (Lund: Studentlitteratur, 1970),
Ray Lewis White, Pär Lagerkvist in America (Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell / Atlantic Highlands, NJ.: Humanities Press, 1979).
Ingrid Schöier, Pär Lagerkvist: En biografi (Stockholm: Bonnier, 1987);
Ulf Lagerkvist, Den bortvändes ansikte: En minnesbok (Stockholm: Bromberg, 1991);
Bengt Lagerkvist, Vem spelar in natten: Den unge Pär Lagerkvist (Stockholm: Atlantis, 2001).
A. B. Benson, “Pär Lagerkvist: Nobel Laureate,” College English, 13 (1952): 417–424;
Jan Bjøndal, Kilden og den hellige lengsel: En studie i Pär Lagerkvists senere romaner (Oslo: Solum, 2000);
Thomas Buckman, “Pär Lagerkvist and the Swedish Theatre,” Tulane Drama Review, 6 (1961): 60–89;
Piotr Bukowski, Ordnungsschwund–Ordnungswandel: Pär Lagerkvist und der deutsche Expressionismus (Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 2000);
Agnieszka Cienkowska-Schmidt, Sehnsucht nach dem Heiligen Land: Eine Studie zu Pär Lagerkvists später Prosa (Frankfurt am Main & New York: Peter Lang, 1985);
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Everett M. Ellested, “Pär Lagerkvist and Cubism: A Study of His Theory and Practice,” Scandinavian Studies, 45 (Winter 1973): 37–52;
Karin Fabreus, Sagen, myten och modernismen i Pär Lagerkvists tidigaste prosa och Onda sagor (Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell International, 2002);
Ragnhild Fearnley, Pär Lagerkvist (Oslo: Gyldendal, 1950);
Gustaf Fredén, Pär Lagerkvist från Gudstanken till Barabbas, second edition (Stockholm: Svenska bokförlaget/Bonnier, 1954);
Hans O. Granlid, Det medvetna barnet: Stil och innebörd i Pär Lagerkvists Gäst hos verkligheten (Göteborg: Akademieförlaget/Gumpert, 1961);
Peter Hallberg, “Stjärnesymboliken i Pär Lagerkvists lyrik,” Göteborgs-studier i litteraturhistorie tillägnade Sverker Ek (1954): 313–342;
Arne Hannevik, “Pär Lagerkvists drama Bödeln,” Edda, 64 (1964): 1–17;
Kjell Heggelund, Fiksjon og virkelighet: En studie i tre nordiske jeg romaner (Oslo: Universitetsforlag / Stockholm: Bonnier, 1966);
Kai Henmark, Främlingen Lagerkvist (Stockholm: Rabén & Sjögren, 1966);
Eric O. Johannesson, “Pär Lagerkvist and the Art of Rebellion,” Scandinavian Studies, 30 (1958):19-29;
Willy Jönsson, Cud, matos och kärlek: Om Pär Lagerkvists fädernmijä ocli barndomsvärld (Växjö: Öja hembygds-och Kultyurminnesförening, 1978);
Jönsson, Som är från evighet: Om trygghetsgrunder och oroshärdar i Pär Lagerkvists liv och diktning (Växjö: Kulturföreningen Memoria, 1991),
Urpu-Liisa Karahka, Jaget och ismerna: Studier i Pär Lagerkvists estetiska teori och lyriska praktik t.o.m. 1916 (Lund: Cavefors, 1978),
Ulla-Britta Lagerroth, Regi i möte med drama och samhälle: Per Lindberg tolkar Pär Lagerkvist (Stockholm: Rabén & Sjögren, 1978),
Bengt Larsson, Pär Lagerkvist och det stora samhällsbygget: Kring ett motiv i en opublicerad berättelse från hösten 1917 (Växjö: Pär Lagerkvist–samfundets förlag, 1995);
Larsson, “Pär Lagerkvists litterära kubism,” Samlaren, 85 (1965): 66–95;
Per Lindberg, “Några synpunkter på. Pär Lagerkvists dramatik,” Svensk litteraturtidskrift, 3 (1940): 155–186;
Örjan Lindberger, Pär Lagerkvist och våldsmakterna: Föreläsning hållen vid Pär Lagerkvist–samfundets årsmöte: Lidingö lördagen den 23 maj 1992 (Växjö: förlag, 1992);
Sven Linnér, Pär Lagerkvists livstro (Stockholm: Bonnier, 1961);
Linnér, “Pär Lagerkvist’s ‘The Eternal Smile’ and The Sibyl,” Scandinavian Studies, 37 (1965): 160–167;
Gunnel Malmström, Menneskehjertets verden: Hovedmotiv i Pär Lagerkvists diktning (Oslo: Gyldendal, 1970);
Jöran Mjöberg, Ångest var hans arvedel: Om Pär Lagerkvist som lyriker (Växjö: Pär Lagerkvist-samfundet, 1999);
Mjöberg, “Det förnekade mörkret,” Samlaren, 35 (1954): 78–112;
Otto Oberholzer, Pär Lagerkvist: Studien zu seiner Prosa und seinen Dramen (Heidelberg: Winter, 1958);
Yngve B. Olsson and Gunnar Syréhn, Två Lagerkviststudier (Växjö: Pär Lagerkvist–samfundets förlag, 1993);
Pär Lagerkvist 100 år: Föreläsningar och anföranden i Växjö våren 1991, edited by the Pär Lagerkvist–samfundet (Växjö: Pär Lagerkvist–samfundets förlag, 1992);
Anders Ringblom, Småland i världen: Om Lagerkvist och Moberg (Växjö: Pär Lagerkvist-samfundet, 1998);
Scandinavica, special Lagerkvist issue, edited by Sven Linnér, 10 (1971);
Ingrid Schöier, Som i Aftonland: Studier kring temata, motiv och metod i Pär Lagerkvists sista diktsamling (Stockholm: Akademilitteratur, 1981);
Schöier, “Under stjärnorna: ‘Det humanistiska manifestet’ hos Pär Lagerkvist,” Nordisk tidskrift, 68 (1992): 39–64;
Rikard Schönström, Dikten som besvärjelse: begärets dialektik i Pär Lagerkvists fröfattarskap (Stockholm & Lund: Symposion, 1987);
Irene Scobbie, “Pär Lagerkvist,” in Aspects of Modern Swedish Literature (Norwich, U.K.: Norvik, 1988), pp. 142–167;
Scobbie, Pär Lagerkvist: Gäst hos verkligheten (Hull: University of Hull Press, 1974);
Leif Sjöberg, Pär Lagerkvist (New York: Columbia University Press, 1976);
Östen Sjöstrand, Pär Lagerkvist: Inträdestal i Svenska akademien (Stockholm: Norstedt, 1975);
Andreas Skartveit, Gud skapt i menneskets bilete: Ein Lagerkvist-studie (Oslo: Norske samlaget, 1966);
Robert D. Spector, “Lagerkvist and Existentialism,” Scandinavian Studies, 32 (1960): 203–211;
Spector, “Lagerkvist, Swift and the Devices of Fantasy,” Western Humanities Review, 12 (1958): 75–79;
Spector, “Lagerkvist’s Uses of Deformity,” Scandinavian Studies, 33 (1961): 209–217;
Spector, Pär Lagerkvist (New York: Twayne, 1973);
Thure Stenström, Berättartekniska studier i Pär Lagerkvists, Lars Gyllenstens och Cora Sandels prosa (Stockholm: Bonnier, 1964), pp. 1–20;
Roy A. Swanson, “Evil and Love in Lagerkvist’s Crucifixion Cycle,” Scandinavian Studies, 38 (1966): 302–317;
Swanson, “Lagerkvist’s Dwarf and the Redemption of Evil,” Discourse, 13 (1970): 192–211;
Gunnar Tideström, ed., Synpunkter på Pär Lagerkvist (Stockholm: Aldus/Bonnier, 1966);
Egil Törnqvist, “Pär Lagerkvist: Bödeln,” in Svenska dramastrukturer (Stockholm: Prisma, 1973), pp. 85–107;
Richard B. Vowles, “The Fiction of Pär Lagerkvist,” Western Humanities Review, 8 (1954): 111–119.
An extensive collection of Pär Lagerkvist’s notebooks, letters, and papers are housed at the Royal Library in Stockholm.