The recent reissuing of several of Stig Dagerman’s novels by University of Minnesota Press has rekindled interest in his works, which have until now been little-known outside Sweden. Just twenty-four when he wrote A Burnt Child (here newly translated by Benjamin Mier-Cruz) in the summer of 1948, Dagerman was regarded at that time as one of Sweden’s most talented “Fyrtiotalisterna,” a handful of men of letters whose writings evoked the ennui that followed the Second World War. He produced plays, poetry, short stories, journalism, and novels before depression eventually deprived him of the will to write; he ended his own life not long after his thirty-first birthday. A Burnt Child, his penultimate novel, is a haunting expression of the angst many European intellectuals felt during this period.
Twenty-year-old philosophy student Bengt Lundin (whose name plays on the original Swedish title, Bränt barn) is confronted with his mother’s death and his father’s looming marriage to his mistress. Bengt struggles with anger toward his father and conflicting emotions toward his volatile late mother and unstable fiancée.
Bengt’s deceptive and arrogant character is developed by chapters narrating events alternating with letters written by Bengt to himself and to other characters. These letters show his youthful vanity and sophomoric thinking: “I think that the more theoretical knowledge you obtain, the more multifarious and kaleidoscopic your view becomes of the reality that lurks behind concepts.” Multifarious and kaleidoscopic, no; fractured and scattered, yes. When contrasted with the actual events described in the narrative, Bengt’s “analysis” of what he and the people around him do appears merely as a specious rationalization for his own moral failings; he possesses much theoretical knowledge, but no understanding of human nature. His reliance on his naïve intellect leads him directly, and half-knowingly, into committing the very act he claims to despise his father for.
Compounded with (and partly a cause of) Bengt’s deceptiveness and intellectual immaturity is his oedipal relationship with Gun, his father’s mistress/fiancée and later wife. Gun possesses all the qualities Bengt’s mother did not: beauty, youthfulness (if not youth), sensuality. Indeed, she wears the red dress and high heels his mother refused to wear because she believed herself too old to wear such things. “Her name is Gun Berg. That name is much too young for such an old woman,” he observes (his mother’s name was Alma).
While scornful of his father’s betrayal of his mother, and his mother’s betrayal of Bengt through her own affair, he betrays his own father and fiancée with Gun. After he realizes that he cannot make Gun love him exclusively, he succumbs to jealousy and attempts suicide. He eventually reconciles himself (to some degree) with reality, although he does not abandon his increasingly oedipal love for Gun. By the end of the novel, he calls her Mama as they hold each other in a lovers’ embrace.
Dagerman’s style (in the narrative chapters) is best described by Graham Greene: “Instead of emotive phrases, he uses a choice of facts, like bricks, to construct an emotion.” Like a film, Dagerman’s prose illustrates a scene in a way that evokes a mood. (Indeed, film plays a role in the novel: Gun works in a cinema, and it is here that Bengt first meets her.) Here are Bengt and his father at a restaurant after his mother’s funeral, just after Bengt realizes his father had committed adultery:
They walk to the private room together. It’s almost dark now, but the flame will continue to burn for a little while longer. The son is walking behind the father, but once inside he sits on the opposite side of the table. He wants to look him in the eye. He wants to see whether his eyes are afraid. But the father doesn’t look at him. The father is standing next to the deceased’s cold chair and looks down at the empty plate. But it’s no longer empty. The bill is on the mother’s plate.
This visual style is where Dagerman is at his best. At times his prose can lapse into distracting and tedious philosophizing, especially toward the end of the book. Fortunately, this detracts little from his usually terse, evocative prose.
A Burnt Child is an excellent portrayal of the clash between a young man’s reason and his heart. By contrasting third-person narrative with Bengt’s letters, Dagerman skillfully illustrates Bengt’s failure to conquer human frailty with reason. The highly descriptive, yet concise, prose joins the psychological exploration to evoke the despondency Dagerman and others felt after the incomprehensible destruction of war.
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“Yeah, it looks short. What is it, a hundred pages?”
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