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
The Truce
The Truce by Mario Benedetti
Reviewed by Adrianne Aron

Mario Benedetti (1920-2009), Uruguay’s most beloved writer, was a man who loved to bend the rules. He gave his haikus as many syllables as fit his mood, and wrote a play divided into sections instead of acts. In his country,. . .

Read More >

I Am a Season That Does Not Exist in the World
I Am a Season That Does Not Exist in the World by Kim Kyung Ju
Reviewed by Jacob Rogers

Kim Kyung Ju’s I Am a Season That Does Not Exist in the World, translated from the Korean by Jake Levine, is a wonderful absurdist poetry collection. It’s a mix of verse and prose poems, or even poems in the. . .

Read More >

Kingdom Cons
Kingdom Cons by Yuri Herrera
Reviewed by Sarah Booker

Yuri Herrera is overwhelming in the way that he sucks readers into his worlds, transporting them to a borderland that is at once mythical in its construction and powerfully recognizable as a reflection of its modern-day counterpart. Kingdom Cons, originally. . .

Read More >

The Invented Part
The Invented Part by Rodrigo Fresán
Reviewed by Tiffany Nichols

Imagine reading a work that suddenly and very accurately calls out you, the reader, for not providing your full attention to the act of reading. Imagine how embarrassing it is when you, the reader, believe that you are engrossed in. . .

Read More >

A Simple Story: The Last Malambo
A Simple Story: The Last Malambo by Leila Guerriero
Reviewed by Emilee Brecht

Leila Guerriero’s A Simple Story: The Last Malambo chronicles the unique ferocity of a national dance competition in Argentina. The dance, called the malambo, pushes the physical and mental limits of male competitors striving to become champions of not only. . .

Read More >

The Little Buddhist Monk & The Proof
The Little Buddhist Monk & The Proof by Cesar Aira
Reviewed by Will Eells

Aira continues to surprise and delight in his latest release from New Directions, which collects two novellas: the first, The Little Buddhist Monk, a fairly recent work from 2005, and The Proof, an earlier work from 1989. There are a. . .

Read More >

Agnes
Agnes by Peter Stamm
Reviewed by Dorian Stuber

The narrator of Peter Stamm’s first novel, Agnes, originally published in 1998 and now available in the U.S. in an able translation by Michael Hofmann, is a young Swiss writer who has come to Chicago to research a book on. . .

Read More >