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PEN America Event for Stig Dagerman

A couple weeks ago, a copy of Stig Dagerman’s Sleet (translated by Steven Hartman) arrived at our offices. To be honest, I’d never heard of Dagerman, but the attractive cover (I am a fan of Godine’s new Verba Mundi designs) and a very nice email from the book’s publicist kept this on my desk as a book to look into.

Of course, the planning for and execution of the Frankfurt Book Fair has stymied any attempts to actually read this (or much of anything aside from Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge, which is awesome), but after hearing about this upcoming PEN event in honor of Dagerman, I’m very intrigued.

[More event info below, but just to get the facts out there: This will take place Tuesday, October 22nd at the Scandinavia House (58 Park Ave., New York, NY 10016) starting at 6:30.]

First off, in terms of Dagerman himself, he was a very productive writer and journalist whose life was cut short when he committed suicide at the age of 31 in 1954. A number of his works have made it into English, including four in recent years: German Autumn (a collection of articles), A Burnt Child, Island of the Doomed (which sounds intense and insane and which I’m ordering right now),1 and the aforementioned Sleet.

Sleet, a collection of twelve stories “unified by a central theme: the death of innocence,” includes an intro by Alice McDermott that gives a good sense of his writing:

I confess that this was not what I expected to find from this tragic Swedish writer when I opened German Autumn, the first of his works that I borrowed from his daughter. I expected darkness. Angst. The void. Hopelessness. But what I found instead was an account of human suffering unbiased by politics or nationalism, hatred or revenge. An account of human suffering given with both a novelist’s eye (“A big bare room with a cement floor and a window that has been almost entirely bricked up. A solitary bulb hangs from the ceiling and shines unmercifully on three air-raid-shelter beds, a stove reeking with sour wood, a small woman with a chalk-white face stirring a pot on the stove, a small boy lying on the bed and staring up apathetically at the light,”) and a moral vision that managed to maintain, “respect for the individual even when the individual has forfeited our sympathy and compassion . . . the capacity to react in the face of suffering whether that suffering may be deserved or undeserved.”

Going back to the PEN event—the real reason for this post—here’s a bit more info about what’s going to take place next Tuesday:

Novelist Siri Hustvedt, translator Steven Hartman, Professor of English at Mid-Sweden University, and PEN Translation Committee Chair Susan Bernofsky read and discuss Stig Dagerman’s writings with moderator Ann Kjellberg, editor of Little Star.

The author’s daughter, Lo Dagerman, will introduce a short documentary, Our Need for Consolation, based on Dagerman’s classic essay and featuring actor Stellan Skarsgård.

Sounds really interesting, and I want to personally thank Sue Ramin from Godine and Lo Dagerman for bringing Dagerman’s work to my attention. Now, if only I could stop traveling and editing . . .

1 Seriously, check this out:

In the summer of 1946, while secluded in August Strindberg’s small cabin in the Stockholm archipelago, Stig Dagerman wrote Island of the Doomed. This novel was unlike any other yet seen in Sweden and would establish him as the country’s brightest literary star. To this day it is a singular work of fiction—a haunting tale that oscillates around seven castaways as they await their inevitable death on a desert island populated by blind gulls and hordes of iguanas. At the center of the island is a poisonous lagoon, where a strange fish swims in circles and devours anything in its path. As we are taken into the lives of each castaway, it becomes clear that Dagerman’s true subject is the nature of horror itself.

Island of the Doomed is a chilling profile of terror and guilt and a stunning exploration—written under the shadow of the Nuremberg Trials—of the anxieties of a generation in the postwar nuclear age.



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