Sleet By Stig Dagerman – Why This Book Should Win

Elizabeth Harris’s translations from Italian include Mario Rigoni Stern’s novel Giacomo’s Seasons (Autumn Hill Books) and Giulio Mozzi’s story collection, This Is the Garden (Open Letter Books). She has won a 2013 Translation Prize from the Italian Ministry of Foreign Culture (Rome) for Rigoni Stern’s Giacomo’s Seasons, a Banff International Centre Translation Residency, and a PEN/Heim Translation Fund Prize from the PEN American Center for Antonio Tabucchi’s Tristano Dies“:http://archipelagobooks.org/book/tristano-dies-a-life/ (forthcoming with Archipelago Books). She teaches creative writing (fiction) at the University of North Dakota.

With the 2013 Nobel Prize in Literature going to Alice Munro and George Saunders’ nonstop prizes for his recent collection (his latest, the £40,000 Folio Prize—the equivalent of $67,000), we might say that the short story in English is having a very good year. Likewise, in the selections for the Best Translated Book Award, we’ve seen some remarkable story collections, and I think Stig Dagerman’s Sleet (David Godine Publisher), in Steven Hartman’s beautiful translation, tops the list. This is not a collection pretending to be a novel, not a series of linked short stories. It’s just a collection, one beautiful story after the other. Dagerman may not be famous in the US (yet), but he was the darling of Sweden, a prolific post-WWII fiction writer and journalist, whose collected articles on the aftermath of war in Germany, German Autumn, were considered a brilliant examination, according to Hartman, of the “very nature of human suffering and the moral complexities of justice.” Dagerman’s suicide in 1954 at the age of thirty-one was considered a national tragedy.

Dagerman has been compared to literary giants like Anton Chekhov and James Joyce. Alice McDermott, in her preface to Sleet, ties Dagerman to Joyce, especially, with his “ability to depict the intractable loneliness of childhood, but time and again…[Dagerman] tempers this loneliness with brief gestures of hope, connectedness….There are tears in these stories, for sure, cruelties, eruptions of violence, but none of this is offered without pity…” There is humor here, too, often mixed with sorrow, and there are the beautiful, beautiful details that create the vivid worlds of Dagerman’s stories, the rural and urban, working-class Sweden of the 1940s and 50s.

The title story, “Sleet,” is a fine example of the power of Dagerman’s short fiction. It is a beautifully crafted story, subtle in structure, and told from the point of view of a child as so many of these stories are, with a narrator whose voice—in no small part due to Hartman’s translation skills—is remarkably vivid. Here is an example of the charming, vibrant voice of the story, from the opening paragraph, as the narrator tells us:

So here we are, sitting in the barn, cutting the tops off big muddy carrots. If you want to, it’s easy to pretend other things, like how it’s not really carrots that are losing their heads but something totally different, like kids at school that you don’t like, or even vicious animals.

This boy, Arne Berg, who is painfully self-conscious about being fatherless, tells the story of the day when there was sleet in the forecast and his grandfather’s younger sister, “the aunt from America,” returned to Sweden after twenty years away from home. The beauty of the story is that its conflict lies partly outside the narrator’s understanding, in the gaps of time this aunt has been gone, and what this has meant for her and for her brother, the narrator’s grandfather, now grown very old. Before the aunt arrives, this grandfather stares “at himself in the shaving mirror. And at last I guess he must figure he looks pretty horrible, because then he starts to sob a little. ‘I ain’t seen her for twenty years,’ he says. And his face gets so scrunched up from all the sobbing that Alvar cuts his cheek.” All that time apart, the isolation of these siblings, their losses and struggles in life, are portrayed not by an explaining, understanding narrator but suggested by the story’s details that the narrator observes and are also reinforced by the dismal weather report, the repetition of the word, “sleet,” throughout the story, that’s tied as well to the alliterative “sigh-sigh-sigh”—Hartman’s magnificent translation choice—of the milk separator in the barn. By story’s end, the narrator’s shame and loneliness over his own missing relative, his father, is achingly rendered, yet also sweet: the aunt, this foreigner, traumatized by seeing her aged and now feeble brother, has fled to the barn, where the narrator sits with her and tells her family stories; she calls him, “’Poor little boy without a father,’” and his response to this:

And when I think of how they know all over America—all over that incredibly big America, on the other side of the Atlantic—how Arne Berg in Mjuksund, Sweden, hasn’t ever seen his daddy, then I can’t help it. Suddenly I don’t see the green carrot tops anymore and the tears drop slowly down the chaff-cutter.

The final line of the story is exquisite, tender, and beautifully balanced and shaped in Hartman’s translation, pulling the child’s story of longing and isolation to the grownups’ long history of separation, and playing these off the setting detail, the impending sleet, like Joyce’s snow “faintly falling through the universe,” as the aunt asks the boy if he is crying: “’No,’” he responds, “and I dry and dry till the carrot-top glistens green again, all freshly cut in the lamplight. ‘…It’s just a little sleet.’”

There isn’t a story in the collection that doesn’t have this same level of detail and character development, this same level of artistry. Equally impressive is the stylistic variety here. Every story’s voice is decidedly different, the points of view and tones vary from the distant, chilling, rhythmical third-person voice of “To Kill a Child” (the most famous story of the collection and also placed perfectly, our first taste of this author is this little masterpiece); to the intimate and heartbreaking third-person voice of the story of a shared secret between mother and son, “The Surprise”; to the first-person plural voice of impoverished farm children in “The Stockholm Car” (there is a single narrator, but he barely exists, blurs into the impoverished in general, the unnoticed); to the extremely colloquial, brutal, self-destructive first-person voice of the final novella-length “Where’s My Icelandic Sweater?”

In reading these stories, I was perhaps struck most by this stylistic variety: there are great short story writers—Flannery O’Connor, for example—whose books you must set aside for a time before their stories begin to bleed together. Not so with Dagerman. He’s simply a master of the form—and Hartman, too, must be considered a master, for he is the one who recognized what was there in the originals and then created all these nuances of voice and character and style in the English.

For you to get a taste of Hartman’s work on voice in the stories—his work at creating these voices—let me just show you a passage from the dark ending of “To Kill a Child.” This classic story, originally commissioned by the National Society for Road Safety in order to promote safe driving, was to become, as Hartman points out in his translator’s note to the collection, one of the greatest of Swedish short stories, as Dagerman, the consummate artist, took this “redressing of a particular social problem as the starting point rather than as an end in itself and out of these mundane materials created a poignant tale of choice, chance, and human loss that rises to the highest levels of art, literary balance, and philosophical concision.”

Here is the rough, literal version of the final lines of the story:

For it is not true that time heals all wounds. Time does not heal a killed child’s wounds and it heals very badly the pain of a mother who forgot to buy sugar and sends her child across the road to borrow and just as poorly does it heal the angst/anxiety of a once happy man who killed it.
For the one who has killed a child does not go to sea. The one who has killed a child drives slowly home in silence and beside him he has a mute woman with her hand bandaged and in all the villages they pass, they do not see a single happy person. All shadows are very dark and when they separate it is still in silence and the man who killed the child knows that this silence is his enemy and that he will need years of his life to defeat it by screaming that it was not his fault. But he knows this is a lie and in his night’s dreams he instead will wish to get a single minute of his life back in order to make this one minute different.

But so mercilessly is life against the one who has killed the child that everything afterwards is too late.

And here is Hartman’s gorgeous, final version of this passage:

Because it’s not true that time heals all wounds. Time does not heal the wounds of a dead child, and it heals very poorly the pain of a mother who forgot to buy sugar and who sent her child across the road to borrow some. And it heals just as poorly the anguish of a once cheerful man who has killed a child.

Because the man who has killed a child does not go to the sea. The man who has killed a child drives home slowly, in silence. And beside him sits a mute woman with a bandaged hand. And as they drive back through the villages, they do not see even one friendly face—all shadows, everywhere, are very dark. And when they part, it is in the deepest silence. And the man who has killed a child knows that this silence is his enemy, and that he will need years of his life to conquer it by crying out that it wasn’t his fault. But he also knows that this is a lie. And in the fitful dreams of his nights he will try instead to gain back just a single minute of his life, to somehow make that single minute different.

But life is so merciless to the man who has killed a child that everything afterward is too late.

I won’t go into much detail here about Hartman’s choices, but I think they were very wise and have created an astoundingly dramatic, heart-wrenching story in the English. Hartman’s impulse seems to have been to pare down the Swedish even more in order to heighten its emotional impact, to break up sentences for dramatic effect as well, and to play off the sounds of English for increased musicality, especially toward the end of the story: his use of assonance does this, for example, with his decision to emphasize the long “i” sound used so often in the story with the repetition of “child,” carrying this sound into his ending even more, using it over and over in the story’s last lines so that it begins to sound almost like a pealing funeral bell—“silence,” child,” “silence,” “life,” “crying,” “lie,” “nights,” “try,” “life” and “life” and “child.” As a result of Hartman’s sound, gut-level choices as a writer of English prose, I think he’s given Dagerman’s original story a very good chance of becoming a classic in English as well.

And Hartman, along with his skills in bringing Dagerman into English, has played another very significant role in creating this book: he’s the one who selected the stories and put them together as a collection. As Hartman told me, he arranged the stories roughly according to the age of the protagonist as well as according to what he sees as a “thematic arc” to the book and according to “atmosphere and stylistic variation, which has a certain ebb and flow throughout the collection.” There is also, he points out, a general split between rural stories and those set largely in working-class Stockholm. Hartman speaks to the thematic unity of the work, how all the stories are “to some extent about the death of childhood, whether literally” as tied to child protagonists or “psychically/spiritually among the other adults in the same story.” Hartman goes on to say:

The (often premature) death of childhood is evident in different ways in the collection, sometimes in painful glimpses of emotional trauma…sometimes in exposing the tyranny of circumstance and situation…. Even in the case of a couple of stories that may seem less obviously to fit this mold, “Men of Character” and “Icelandic Sweater,” the adult characters have to let go—however imperfectly, belatedly, and unwillingly—to childlike illusions that can no longer be sustained in worlds hostile or indifferent to their needs.

Hartman’s thoughtful thematic and stylistic ordering of the Dagerman stories has created a collection, then, where the individual stories—which are consistently very, very strong—are arranged in such a way as to be made even stronger; no, this is not a “linked” collection per se, but like the best story collections—as we find with great poetry collections—these stories do speak to one another, resonate off one another, and create a unified and very beautiful whole.

Dagerman and Hartman’s Sleet is an extremely strong story collection at a time when story collections in English seem to be increasingly respected. A collection has never won The Best Translated Book Award. Maybe that’s about to change.

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