Stig Dagerman (5 October 1923 – 4 November 1954) was a Swedish journalist and writer. He was one of the most prominent Swedish authors writing in the aftermath of WWII, but his existential texts transcend time and place and continue to be widely published in Sweden and abroad.
Stig Dagerman was born in Älvkarleby, Uppsala County. In the course of five years, 1945–49, he enjoyed phenomenal success with four novels, a collection of short stories, a book about postwar Germany, five plays, hundreds of poems and satirical verses, several essays of note and a large amount of journalism. Then, with apparent suddenness, he fell silent. In the fall of 1954, Sweden was stunned to learn that Stig Dagerman, the epitome of his generation of writers, had been found dead in his car: he had closed the doors of the garage and run the engine.
Dagerman's works deal with universal problems of morality and conscience, of sexuality and social philosophy, of love, compassion and justice.:14 He plunges into the painful realities of human existence, dissecting feelings of fear, guilt and loneliness. Despite the somber content, he also displays a wry sense of humor that occasionally turns his writing into burlesque or satire.
“An imagination that appeals to an unreasonable degree of sympathy is precisely what makes Dagerman’s fiction so evocative. Evocative or not, as one might expect, of despair, or bleakness, or existential angst, but of compassion, fellow-feeling, even love.” - Alice McDermott in her foreword to Sleet - Selected Stories (Godine, 2013).
The British writer Graham Greene said this about him: "Dagerman wrote with beautiful objectivity. Instead of emotive phrases, he uses a choice of facts, like bricks, to construct an emotion." This style is exemplified in the following excerpt from the story, "The Games of Night", where a young boy, Håkan, lies waiting for his drunken father to come home:
- At night, all waking thoughts revolve around one thing, one moment.
- And even Håkan's deepest sleep is much too fragile to block that thing out.
- True, he hasn' t heard the car pull up out front. He hasn't heard the click
- of the light switch or the steps in the stairwell. But the key that slides into the keyhole
- also pokes a hole in Håkan's sleep. In an instant he's awake, stricken deep by a flash
- of delight tingling hot from his toes to his scalp. But the delight disappears nearly
- as fast as it comes, withdrawing into a cloud of uncertainties.
Dagerman's work is translated into many languages, and his work continues to inspire readers, writers, musicians and filmmakers. His collected works are available in eleven volumes. Scholars have examined his writing from every possible angle: philosophical, political, psychological, journalistic, its relationship to the medium of film, and why French and Italian readers have found him particularly appealing. Artists continue to put music to his texts. Films have been made of his short stories, novels and famous essay "Our Need for Consolation Is Insatiable". The Stig Dagerman Society in Sweden annually awards the Stig Dagerman Prize to individuals who, like Dagerman, through their work promote empathy and understanding. In 2008, the SD Prize went to the French writer J. M. G. Le Clézio, who later was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.
Life and work
Stig Dagerman, born in 1923, spent his childhood on a small farm in Älvkarleby where he lived with his paternal grandparents. His unwed mother gave birth on the farm but left shortly thereaftrer, never to come back. He will meet her only when he is in his twenties. Dagerman's father, a traveling day laborer, eventually settled in Stockholm. His son joined him there at the age of eleven.
Through his father, Dagerman came into contact with Anarchism and its ideological offspring, Syndicalism, and joined the Syndicalist Youth Federation. At nineteen, he became the editor of "Storm", the youth paper, and at twenty-two he was appointed the cultural editor of Arbetaren ("The Worker"), then a daily newspaper of the Syndicalist movement. It was in the fertile ground of the newspaper world that he met fellow writers and relished polemic writing. In addition to editorials and articles, Dagerman penned over a thousand daily poems, many highly satirical, commenting on current events. He called "Arbetaren" his "spiritual birthplace".
Dagerman's horizons were greatly expanded by his marriage in 1943 to Annemarie Götze, an eighteen-year old German refugee. Her parents, Ferdinand and Elly, were prominent Anarcho-Syndicalists, and the family escaped Nazi-Germany to join the center of the movement in Barcelona. As Spanish fascists brutally crushed the Anarcho-Syndicalist social experiment there, the Götzes fled through France and Norway, with Hitler's army at their heels, to a neutral Sweden. Dagerman and his young wife lived with his parents-in-law, and it was through this family, and the steady stream of refugees that passes through their home, that Dagerman felt he can sense the pulse of Europe.
In 1945, Stig Dagerman was twenty-two and published his first novel Ormen (The Snake). It was an anti-militaristic story with fear as its main theme, channeling the war-time zeitgeist. Positive reviews earned him the reputation as a brilliant young writer of great promise. He left "Arbetaren" to write full-time. The following year, Dagerman published De dömdas ö (The Island of the Doomed), completed over a fortnight during which, he says, it is as he "let god do the writing". Using nightmarish imagery, this was an allegory centered on seven shipwrecked people, each doomed to die, each seeking a form of salvation.
Critics compare Dagerman’s works to Franz Kafka, William Faulkner and Albert Camus. Many see him as the main representative of a group of Swedish writers called “Fyrtiotalisterna” (“the writers of the 1940s”) who channel existentialist feelings of fear, alienation and meaninglessness common in the wake of the horrors of World War II and the looming Cold War.
In 1946, Dagerman became a Swedish household name through a newspaper travel log from war-torn Germany, later published with the title Tysk Höst (German Autumn). Rather than blaming the German people for the war’s atrocities, calling them crazed or evil, Dagerman portrayed the human ordinariness of the men and women who scraped by in the ruins of war. To him, the root of disaster lay in the anonymity of mass-organizations that obstructs empathy and individual responsibility, qualities without which the human race is threatened by extinction.
- “I believe that man’s natural enemy is the mega-organization
- because it robs him of the vital necessity to feel responsible for his fellow-man,
- restricting his possibilities to show solidarity and love
- and instead turns him into an agent of power,
- that for the moment may be directed against others,
- but ultimately is directed against himself.”
The short story collection Nattens lekar (The Games of Night), published in 1947, met with high acclaim. Many of the stories were set on his grandparents’ farm, and are written from a child’s perspective. Dagerman used a tender naturalistic style that appeals to a wide audience. This same year his first play “Den dödsdömde” (“The Man Condemned to Death”) opened in Stockholm to rave reviews.
The most famous of Dagerman’s short stories, “Att döda ett barn” (“To Kill A Child”), exemplified the strong influence of film on his writing. In image after image, it portrayed in riveting detail how a series of perfectly ordinary events can be a prologue to horror.
In 1948, he wrote three more plays and published his third novel Bränt barn (A Burnt Child). The story was a psychological account of a young man’s infatuation with his father’s mistress, and was written in a tight, naturalistic style.
Dagerman only wrote one more novel: Bröllopsbesvär (Wedding Worries), published in 1949, regarded by some as his best. In this novel, he returned one final time to the setting of his grandparents’ farm and characters to describe the human condition, including a search for forgiveness and salvation. In this book, Dagerman, who throughout his career experimented with different literary styles, made ample use of stream-of-consciousness as a way of penetrating a character.
After his early and rapid successes, expectations kept rising, not the least his own. Dagerman struggled with depression and an onset of writer’s block. He became restless in the now suburbanized Götze family, and was drawn to the medium of theater. As a playwright, and even a one-time director, he met friends and lovers within the theater world, leaving his family for periods at a time. Eventually, Dagerman broke away for good to live with and later marry the celebrated actress Anita Björk with whom he had a daughter. But the break proved difficult, emotionally and financially. Dagerman felt guilty leaving his young sons, and took on mounting debt to support his first family. The assumption being that his debt would be paid up when he were to publish his next book ...
While battling deepening depression and a debilitating writer’s block, Dagerman penned an autobiographical essay “Vårt behov av tröst är omättligt” (“Our need for consolation is insatiable”) about his struggles and search for a way to stay alive. He also wrote “Tusen år hos gud” (“A Thousand Years with God”) – part of a new novel he was planning – which signaled a turn to a more mystical bent in his writing. In spite of his struggles, Dagerman continued to deliver his daily satirical verses for “Arbetaren”, the last one published on November 5, 1954, the day after his suicide.
- Ormen (The Snake) 1945, novel
- De dömdas ö (The Island of the Doomed) 1946, novel
- Tysk höst (German Autumn), 1947, non-fictional account of post-war Germany
- Nattens lekar (The Games of Night) 1947, a collection of short stories
- Bränt barn (A Burnt Child) 1948, novel
- Dramer om dömda: Den dödsdömde; Skuggan av Mart (Dramas of the Condemned: The Man Condemned to Death; The Shadow of Mart) 1948, plays
- Judas Dramer: Streber; Ingen går fri (Judas Dramas: No One Goes Free; The Climber) 1949, plays
- Bröllopsbesvär (Wedding Worries) 1949, novel
- Vårt behov av tröst (Our Need for Consolation is Insatiable) 1955, prose and poetry. Edited by O. Lagercrantz
German Autumn. Translation by Robin Fulton. Introduction by Mark Kurlansky. University of Minnesota Press, 2011. One of the best collections ever written about the aftermath of war." - Henning Mankell
Sleet - Selected Stories. Translation by Steven Hartman. Preface by Alice McDermott. David R. Godine, 2013. Stig Dagerman writes with the tension that belongs to emergency - deliberately, precisely, breathlessly ... At once remote and intimate in tone, these works by one of the great twentieth-cetntury writers come fully to life in a remarkable translation by Steven Hartman. - Siri Hustvedt
A Burnt Child. Translation by Benjamin Mier-Cruz. Introduction by PO Enqvist. University of Minnesota Press, 2013. Following his mother's sudden death, the emotional turmoil of a young man played out against his father, young girlfriend and the father's mistress. Explored with compassion and brilliant psychological insight.A small master piece.- PO Enqvist
Island of the Doomed. Translation by Laurie Thompson. Introduction by JMG Le Clezio. University of Minnesota Press, 2012. All of Dagerman's oeuvre, his novels, poems and political essays are in some way contained in this stormy novel, in its whirl of sensations and images. … 'the open eyes which fearlessly scrutinize their dangerous position must be the stars of our ego, our only compass, the compass which decides which direction we take, because if there is no compass, there can be no direction.' With humble gratitude to Stig Dagerman who, in order to show us the way, let himself be consumed by his own fire. - JMG Le Clezio
The Snake. Translation and introduction by Laurie Thompson. Quartet Encounters, London, 1995. The novel seems to be a collection of short stories until, in a brilliant denouement, disparate threads are brought together to reveal the underlying thematic structures. Dagerman writes with equal skill from the point of view of both sexes, and through them he examines wider issues of social justice and the psychology of fear. - Laurie Thompson
The Games of Night. Translation by Naomi Walford and introduction by Michael Meyer. Bodley Head, London, 1959; Lippincott, Philadelphia and New York, 1961; Quartet Encounters, London, 1986. Much of SD's best writing is to be found in his short stories. His work is original and daring. A critic has written of him: "Everything was briefer, more fiery and more sharply felt for him than for other people. His books exploded from him. - Michael Meyer
Individual Texts Translated by Steven Hartman
"Our Need for Consolation". (unpublished)
"Thousand Years with God". (unpublished)
"The Surprise". Southern California Anthology 8, Los Angeles, CA: University of Southern California, 1996. 60-66
"Men of Character". Southern Review 32:1. Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University, 1996. 59-79
"Salted Meat and Cucumber". Prism International 34:2. Vancouver, BC: University of British Columbia, 1996. 54-60
"Sleet". Confrontation 54/55 (Double Issue). New York, NY: Long Island University, 1994. 53-62
"The Games of Night". Black Warrior Review 20:2. Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama, 1994. 107-117
"In Grandmother's House". Quarterly West 38. Salt Lake City, UT: University of Utah, 1994. 160-167
"To Kill A Child". Grand Street 42. New York, NY, 1992. 96-100
Other English Translations
"Pithy Poems". Translation by Laurie Thompson. The Lampeter Translation Series: 4. Lampeter, Wales. 1989.
"God Pays a Visit to Newton, 1727". Translation by Ulla Natterqvist-Sawa. Prism International, Vancouver, BC, October 1986. 7-24
"Bon Soir". Translation by Anne Born. The Swedish Book Review supplement. UK, 1984. 13-
"The Man Condemned to Death". Translation by Joan Tate. The Swedish Book Review supplement. UK, 1984. 21-
" The Condemned". Translation by Henry Alexander and Llewellyn Jones. Scandinavian Plays of the Twentieth Century. Third Series. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1951.
Selected Adaptations to Film and Music
"To Kill A Child" (TRT 10 min, 2003, Swedish with English subtitles) by Bjorne Larson and Alexander Skarsgard. Narration by Stellan Skarsgard.
"The Games of Night" (TRT 23 min, 2007, English) by Dan Levy Dagerman. Screenplay based on translation by Steven Hartman.
"Our Need for Consolation" (TRT 20 min, 2012, English) by Dan Levy Dagerman. Narration by Stellan Skarsgard.
"Notre besoin de consolation est impossible a rassasier",Tetes raides, CD ""Banco"", 2007. "Corps de mots", CD booklet + DVD, 2013.
"Stig Dagerman" a French poem inspired from "Our need for consolation is insatiable", written by Kentin Jivek, part of the album "Now I'm Black Moon", released in April 2011.
- Thompson, Laurie. 1983. Stig Dagerman. Boston: Twayne Publishers. ISBN 0-8057-6523-9
- Lagercrantz, Olof. 1958, 1967, 1985, 2004. Stig Dagerman. Stockholm: Norstedts Panpockets. ISBN 91-7263-550-9
- Dagerman, Stig. The Games of Night. Philadelphia and New York: Lippincott 1961. Cover quote by Graham Greene.
- "The Games of Night", translation by Steven Hartman.
- The French group "Tetes raides" recorded the text of "Our Need for Consolation is Insatiable" to reggae rhythm on their CD Banco, 2007.
- E.g. "The Games of Night" by Dan Levy Dagerman (23 min, English, 2007); "Our Need for Consolation" by Dan Levy Dagerman (20 min, English, 2012)
- From “Do we believe in man?” 1950, Stig Dagerman Essäer och journalistik, transl. Lo Dagerman
- Short review of the stories http://www.webcitation.org/query?url=http://www.geocities.com/SoHo/Coffeehouse/4587/issue7.html%23dagerman&date=2009-10-25+09:59:25
- http://www.dagerman.us/, official website in English administered by Lo Dagerman
- (Swedish) http://www.dagerman.se/