Lagerkvist, Pär (Fabian)

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LAGERKVIST, Pär (Fabian)

Nationality: Swedish. Born: Växjo, 23 May 1891. Education: The University of Uppsala, 1911-12. Family: Married 1) Karen Dagmar Johanne Sørensen in 1918 (divorced 1925); 2) Elaine Luella Hallberg in 1925. Career: Theatre critic, Svenska Dagbladet, Stockholm, 1919. Awards: Samfundet De Nio prize, 1928; Bellman prize, 1945; Saint-Beuve prize, 1946; Foreign Book prize (France), 1951; Nobel prize for literature, 1951. Honorary degree: University of Gothenburg, 1941. Member: Swedish Academy of Literature, 1940. Died: 11 July 1974.


Short Stories

Två sagor om livet [Two Tales about Life]. 1913.

Järn och människor [Iron and People]. 1915.

Onda sagor [Evil Tales]. 1924.

Kämpande ande [Struggling Soul]. 1930; translated in part asMasquerade of Souls, 1954.

I den tiden [At That Time]. 1935.

The Eternal Smile and Other Stories. 1954.

The Marriage Feast and Other Stories. 1955.

Five Early Works (selection; bilingual edition). 1989.


Människor [People]. 1912.

Det eviga leendet. 1920; as The Eternal Smile, 1934.

Bödeln. 1933; as The Hangman, in Guest of Reality, 1936.

Dvärgen. 1944; as The Dwarf, 1945.

Barabbas. 1950; translated as Barabbas, 1951.

Sibyllan. 1956; as The Sibyl, 1958.

Pilgrimen. 1966.

Ahasverus' död. 1960; as The Death of Ahasuerus, 1962.

Pilgrim på havet. 1962; as Pilgrim at Sea, 1964.

Det heliga landet. 1964; as The Holy Land, 1966.

Mariamne. 1967; as Herod and Mariamne, 1968.


Sista Mänskan [The Last Man]. 1917.

Teater: Den svåra stunden; Modern teater: Synpunkter och angrepp[The Difficult Hour; Points of View and Attack] (produced 1918). 1918; essay and play translated in Modern Theatre, 1966.

Himlens hemlighet (produced 1921). In Kaos, 1919; as The Secret of Heaven, in Modern Theatre, 1966.

Den osynlige [The Invisible One] (produced 1924). 1923.

Gäst hos verkligheten. 1925; as Guest of Reality, 1936.

Han som fick leva om sitt liv (produced 1928). 1928; as The Man Who Lived His Life Over, in Five Scandinavian Plays, 1971.

Konungen (produced 1950). 1932; as The King, in Modern Thea-tre, 1966.

Bödeln, from his own novel (produced 1934). In Dramatik, 1946; as The Hangman, in Modern Theatre, 1966.

Mannen utan själ (produced 1938). 1936; as The Man Without a Soul, in Scandinavian Plays of the Twentieth Century 1, 1944.

Seger i mörker [Victory in Darkness] (produced 1940). 1939.

Midsommardröm i fattighuset (produced 1941). 1941; as Midsummer Dream in the Workhouse, 1953.

Dramatik. 1946.

Den vises sten (produced 1948). 1947; as The Philosopher's Stone, in Modern Theatre, 1966.

Låt människan leva (produced 1949). 1949; as Let Man Live, inScandinavian Plays of the Twentieth Century 3, 1951.

Barabbas, from his own novel (produced 1953). 1953.

Modern Theatre: Seven Plays and an Essay. 1966.


Motiv [Motifs]. 19l4.

Ångest [Anguish]. 1916.

Den lyckliges väg [Happy Road]. 1921.

Hjärtats sånger [Songs of the Heart]. 1926.

Vid lägereld [By the Campfire]. 1932.

Genius. 1937.

Sång och strid [Song and Battle]. 1940.

Dikter [Verse]. 1941; revised edition, 1958, 1974.

Hemmet och stjärnan [The Home and the Stars]. 1942.

Aftonland. 1953; as Evening Land, 1975.

Valda dikter [Selected Poems]. 1967.


Ordkonst och bildkonst [Word Art and Picture Art]. 1913.

Kaos [Chaos]. 1919.

Det besegrade livet [The Conquered Life]. 1927.

Skrifter [Writings]. 3 vols., 1932.

Den knutna näven [The Clenched Fist]. 1934.

Den befriade människan [Liberated Man]. 1939.

Prosa. 5 vols., 1945; revised edition, 1949.

Antecknat [Noted] (diary), edited by Elin Lagerkvist. 1977.



Lagerkvist in Translation by A. Ryberg, 1964.

Critical Studies:

Lagerkvist: An Introduction by Irene Scobbie, 1963, and "Lagerkvist," in Essays on Swedish Literature from 1880 to the Present Day edited by Scobbie, 1978; Lagerkvist: A Critical Essay by Winston Weathers, 1968; Lagerkvist Supplement, in Scandinavica, 1971; Lagerkvist by Robert Spector, 1973; Lagerkvist by Leif Sjöberg, 1976; Lagerkvist in America by Ray Lewis White, 1979.

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Pär Lagerkvist was successful as a lyric poet, playwright, and prose writer, and between 1912 and 1935 he produced several prose sketches and short stories in a variety of styles. His first prose work, Människor (People), was written when Lagerkvist was in a rebellious mood. His early protests were not just left-wing political outcries but also the more personal reactions of a young man who had lost his faith and was desperately seeking a substitute. His story is a sturm und drang account of two brothers: the demonic, decadent Gustav at odds with his family and life generally; and Erik, a gentle dutiful home-loving son. An immature and ultimately unsuccessful work, it nevertheless contains the true Lagerkvistian elements: an intense portrayal of angst, defiance, and despair, and a study in contrasts both in character and style.

In 1913 Lagerkvist visited Paris and came into contact with modern artists. He greatly admired cubist painters, particularly Picasso and Braque, and sought to adapt their principles to literature. That year he produced the tract Ordkonst och bildkonst (Word Art and Picture Art), in which he maintains that, like modern painters, writers should strive for simplicity of both style and content, "simple thoughts, uncomplicated emotions in the face of the eternal powers of life: sorrow and gladness, awe, reverence, love and hate, an expression of the universal which rises above the individual."

His first substantial attempt to exemplify these tenets was five short stories entitled Järn och människor (Iron and People). The subject in each case is the effects of war on human emotions, and the aesthetic aim is to show the contrast between iron, or weapons, and human flesh. In all five stories the characters are brought to a point where, because of war, their two basic emotions, love and hate, are brought into conflict, leading to a crisis in which either hatred conquers and leads to destruction or love triumphs and brings about reconciliation.

Everything in the stories is subject to the discipline of the overall aesthetic pattern, but in some places one senses Lagerkvist's difficulty in restraining strong emotions. By 1916 those emotions were given freer rein as he struggled to come to terms with a seemingly purposeless world of mindless destruction. In this expressionistic phase Lagerkvist published a work entitled Kaos (Chaos) comprising a one-act play, a cycle of poems, and a prose passage called "Den fordringsfulle gästen." Told in the first person, the latter is a parable on modern life. A traveler is on a short visit; he has a great deal to make sense of, but "everything here is in such damned disorder." The hotel symbolizes the chaotic world as Lagerkvist experienced it, while the other characters are all absorbed in their own affairs, presenting a confusing world without a focal point. The narrator in his anguish is assertive, demanding in strident language his rights, but he is humiliated and finally sees that he has no rights at all. The feeling of alienation is complete when he realizes his insignificance in a vast universe. He leaves the chaotic scene and goes off into the darkness, arousing not the slightest interest among the other characters.

With the end of the war and a resolution of his marital problems in the early 1920s Lagerkvist moved from a denial to an acceptance of life. That goodness and human spirit can rise above adversity is partly reflected in Onda sagor (Evil Tales) where, admittedly, the dominant strain is misanthropic and shows little evidence of human dignity. "En hjältes död" ("Death of a Hero") ironically features a man pandering to the public's desire for sensationalism and record-breaking; Frälsar-Johan (John the Savior) in the story of that name is an idiot who believes he is the Savior and dies trying to rescue people from a burning old people's home—which is empty anyway. The autobiographical "Far och jag" ("Father and I") captures the moment when the young boy realizes he is alone in a frightening and chaotic universe; "Hissen som gick ner I helvete" ("The Lift that Went Down to Hell") deals with a philanderer so urbane that even being taken down to hell, described with nightmarish clarity, evokes a shallow reaction. "Källarvåningen" ("The Basement"), however, shows a positive attitude to life. The crippled Lindgren lives on charity in a poor basement but is content with his lot for he lives literally and metaphorically on the goodness of others.

Lagerkvist had great sympathy with simple, unassuming people, a point borne out in "Bröllopsfesten" ("The Wedding Feast"), the first of four long short stories with the general title Kämpande ande (Struggling Soul). Frida, a rather elderly, plain spinster who owns a little shop, is to marry Jonas, a slightly retarded porter. They no doubt make a ludicrous couple, and Lagerkvist includes amusing details, such as Frida insisting on a fine bridal crown. Making love after the wedding, Frida accidentally bites Jonas with her false teeth: "She was rather surprised herself immediately afterwards. But it was love talking." Lagerkvist records the affair with warmth and affection, however, and shows that two lonely, love-hungry souls finding each other is an occasion for happiness, not ridicule. In "Guds lille handelsresande" ("God's Little Travelling Salesman") the erring Emanual Olsson succumbs to alcohol and is saved by the Salvation Army. The search for a spiritual life is also the subject of "Själarnas maskerad," where the relationship between a businessman and a beautiful but lame woman constitutes love in its most idealistic form. It all takes place, however, in the "land of souls," a land of "perpetual feasting." This is how life and love could be if our souls could escape life's paralyzing trivialities. The philosophical questioning continues in "Uppbrottet" ("The Departure"), an inner monologue by a doctor who knows he is terminally ill. He discerns an afterlife but feels that the human conception of God gets in the way.

Always aware of political trends, Lagerkvist quickly reacted to the rise of totalitarianism in the 1930s. I den tiden (At That Time) highlights its dangers in short stories showing Lagerkvist's sustained irony at its best. In "Det lilla fälttåget" ("The Tiny Tots' Campaign") the horrors of war and the pompous love of victory parades are heightened by the Swiftian device of allowing the "men" to be children going bravely into battle "armed to their milk teeth." A clever dual effect is achieved by following this with "Det märkvärdiga landet" ("The Strange Country"), depicting the only democracy left in the world. Tourists visit it and marvel at people who are not regimented and whose thoughts and actions are embarrassingly vague in discussions about culture. The tourists enjoy the novel experience—"but it was lovely to be home again all the same."

Lagerkvist published no more short stories after 1935, but by then he had shown his mastery of the genre and had fashioned it to convey the essential dualism that runs through all his work, his constant quest for the purpose of life and a desire to fathom the fundamental good and evil aspects of humanity.

—Irene Scobbie

See the essay on "Father and I."