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.


Comments are disabled for this article.

....

A Burnt Child
By Stig Dagerman
Translated by Benjamin Mier-Cruz
Reviewed by Phillip Koyoumjian
224 pages, paperback
ISBN: 978-0-8166-7799-3
$18.95
Astragal
Astragal by Albertine Sarrazin
Reviewed by Tiffany Nichols

Upon completing Albertine Sarrazin’s Astragal I was left to wonder why it ever fell from print. Aside from the location, Astragal could pass as the great American novel. Its edginess and rawness capture the angst and desires we all had. . .

Read More >

Live Bait
Live Bait by Fabio Genovesi
Reviewed by Megan Berkobien

When my eyes first crossed the back cover of Fabio Genovesi’s novel Live Bait, I was caught by a blurb nestled between accolades, a few words from a reviewer for La Repubblica stating that the novel was, however magically, “[b]eyond. . .

Read More >

The Skin
The Skin by Curzio Malaparte
Reviewed by Peter Biello

“I preferred the war to the plague,” writes Curzio Malaparte in his 1949 novel, The Skin. He speaks of World War II and the destruction it has wrought on Italy, the city of Naples in particular. But the plague he. . .

Read More >

Love Sonnets & Elegies
Love Sonnets & Elegies by Louise Labé
Reviewed by Brandy Harrison

With the steady rise of feminist scholarship and criticism in recent decades, it is little wonder that the work of Louise Labé should be attracting, as Richard Sieburth tells us in the Afterword to his translation, a “wide and thriving”. . .

Read More >

Conversations
Conversations by César Aira
Reviewed by Tiffany Nichols

In Conversations, we find ourselves again in the protagonist’s conscious and subconscious, which is mostly likely that of Mr. César Aira and consistent with prototypical Aira style. This style never fails because each time Aira is able to develop a. . .

Read More >

Nothing Ever Happens
Nothing Ever Happens by José Ovejero
Reviewed by Juan Carlos Postigo

You are not ashamed of what you do, but of what they see you do. Without realizing it, life can be an accumulation of secrets that permeates every last minute of our routine . . .

The narrative history of. . .

Read More >

The Pendragon Legend
The Pendragon Legend by Antal Szerb
Reviewed by P. T. Smith

Literature in translation often comes with a certain pedigree. In this little corner of the world, with so few books making it into this comforting nook, it is often those of the highest quality that cross through, and attention is. . .

Read More >