Stig Dagerman at 100
by Bengt Söderhäll, translated by Alex Fleming
2023 marks the hundredth anniversary of the birth of Stig Dagerman, whose short but prolific career has had a profound and lasting impact on Swedish letters. In this article, Bengt Söderhäll, Chair and Co-founder of the Stig Dagerman Society, discusses Dagerman’s lasting legacy and impact, and some of the events taking place to mark his centenary.
Ten or so years ago, I was approached by two young citizens while manning the Stig Dagerman Society’s stand at Göteborg Book Fair. It was clear that something had brought them there, but for some reason they were hesitant to say what it was. – Go on, have an apple and take a seat. They obliged, sitting down on either side of the gate-legged table. After a brief chat it emerged that their high-school Swedish teacher had sent their class out in pairs, each tasked with interviewing a different literary society. These two, we can call them Linda and Mariam, had drawn Dagerman. Linda discreetly enquired as to whether Dagerman was a living writer. After only the briefest pause for thought came the reply: Oh yes, he’s alive. Half an hour later, Linda had asked all her questions, and Mariam had taken notes. Our conversation had centred on the human condition and questions of freedom, and those of us at the stand had spoken about Dagerman’s urgency and flair across a range of genres and formats, including the novel and short story, poetry, satirical verse, criticism, reportage, theatre…
When it emerged that Dagerman had passed away in 1954, Linda blushed – a blush that quickly disappeared when she realised that her question had been rendered completely legitimate by the 'yes' she had received in reply. We pointed out that her question was a very pertinent one, and that Dagerman’s literary legacy is still very much alive. His works are constantly finding new readers, not only in Sweden but also abroad, where he has been translated into many languages.
Having been involved in the Stig Dagerman Society for over thirty years, and the Stig Dagerman Award for just under thirty, we are frequently asked how it is that Dagerman continues to be read, discussed and often quoted. To which we tend to say that it has something to do with a certain ‘Dagerman spirit’ – his concerted, honest attempt to explore the possibilities of freedom without restricting the freedom of others. As I write these lines, I am sitting in a hotel room on Paris’s Rue de la Harpe, just a stone’s throw or two from where Dagerman stayed when writing five celebrated articles on post-war France. In these, he started to reflect upon ideas of heroism and cowardice.
One of these articles is about Captain Jean, a resistance fighter shot by the German occupiers in 1944. Capitain Jean would become the inspiration for the character Mart, the shadow hanging over his younger brother Gabriel in the play Skuggan av Mart (Marty’s Shadow, 1948). Stig Dagerman’s daughter Lo Dagerman and Nancy Pick wrote insightfully about this play in the book Skuggorna vi bär (The Writer and the Refugee, 2019). As I recall, Lo Dagerman writes something along the lines that Capitain Jean is so young that he hadn’t yet compromised, or been compromised. In Skuggan av Mart, Stig Dagerman writes that ‘being weak and cowardly is the worst combination.’ Who is cowardly, and who is brave? Who fails in fulfilling their obligations, and who is the hero?
Stig Dagerman died young. He belongs to the ‘young dead’, those who perhaps never had the time to risk becoming weak and ugly, risk compromising or being compromised. Perhaps that is part of what keeps the new readers constantly streaming in. But, more than that, the ‘Dagerman spirit’ is about an indomitable will and ability to uncover, envisage and lucidly formulate the human condition, and the difficulties and barriers that we encounter and create that impede our individual and collective freedom.
At times Dagerman is labelled a pessimist. It is perhaps truer to say that he never shied away from depicting our shortcomings and anxieties at the precipitous nature of our condition, and that he through his artistry tried to show – and often successfully, too – that our capacity for improvement, forgiveness and reconciliation is vast, offering us ways out of what may appear to be dead ends and curtailed freedoms.
Some seventy years after Dagerman’s death, his works have inspired numerous academic papers and theses, articles in the press and journals; an ongoing stream of translations – most recently of the essay collection German Autumn to Korean and Russian, and of the novel The Island of the Doomed to Russian; the foundation of the Stig Dagerman Society and of the Stig Dagerman Award; the initiation of the Dagerman Seminar at the University of Gävle and of Region Uppsala’s ‘Interplays’, a three-year project that will see different forms of expression converge and draw from each other, in the spirit of Dagerman’s works and also through his texts; the republication of new editions of his novels and short stories; and the musical setting of his poems and satirical verses. The list goes on.
5 October marks the centenary of Sig Dagerman’s birth in Norrgärdet, Ävkarleby Municipality, Uppland province, Svealand region, Sweden, Scandinavia, Europe, the World. It will be celebrated in many ways and many places, not least in the opening of the Stig Dagerman Park, along the route that Stig Dagerman walked to and from school as a child, with a sculpture by artist Knutte Wester to mark the occasion.
Perhaps the sum of Dagerman’s longing, spirit and composure can be found in his 1954 poem ‘Den första snön’ (The First Snow), which casts winter’s first snow as a sprinkling of letters. With rhythm and musicality he formulates his own and a more universal desire, in lines such as ‘every letter must be opened/every question meet its response.’ Yes, the very author who was constantly posing questions about our human condition and acts, and who saw our existence not as a dead end but as an open field of opportunities. Which begs the questions: Does freedom exist? Or does my freedom limit yours? This constant message of being free, of freeing oneself, of trying not to limit the freedom of others. ‘Our need for consolation is insatiable’, Dagerman famously wrote in his 1952 essay of the same name. Our need for freedom is, too.
Stig Dagerman (1923-1954), is one of the most prominent Swedish writers of the early twentieth century. He enjoyed phenomenal success publishing four very different novels, as well as short stories, essays, poetry, and plays. More information on his life and works (in English) can be found at https://dagerman.us/. The annual Stig Dagerman Award, issued by the Dagerman Society and Älvkarleby Municipality, is given to a person or organization that, like Dagerman, promotes empathy and understanding through their work.