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Pär Lagerkvist (1891-1974)


One of the major Swedish writers of the first half of the 20th-century, a moralist, who used religious motifs and figures from the Christian tradition without strictly following the doctrines of the Church. Lagerkvist was a particularly outspoken critic of totalitarianism. Among his central themes was the fundamental question of good and evil, which he examined through such figures as the medieval red-hooded hangman, Barabbas, and the wandering Jew Ahasuerus. Lagerkvist was a member of the Swedish Academy and was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1951.

"The countryside opened around them in every direction, with marshlands, little lakes, all sorts of waters, with tiled strips, grazing lands, countless ploughed squares, with fenced pastures, bogs and woodlands and farmsteads scattered among the oats and the rye out in the sun. The light was so friendly and open everything could be seen, and in the distance Grandfather's place was in sight, sheltered in a group of maples." (from Guest of Reality, 1925)

Pär Lagerkvist was born in Växjö, a small town in Småland in southern Sweden, the son of Anders Johan Lagerkvist, a railroad official, and Johanna Blad. From his pietistically inclined parents and grandparents Lagerkvist inherited a simple and unquestioning Lutheran faith. Later in a notebook he confessed that he felt grateful for the non-literary atmosphere of his home. He was an outsider, and did not share his parent's religiosity. By the time he enrolled at the University of Uppsala, he had already become a convicted Darwinian, and had started to write poetry and fiction with philosophical themes. He studied art and literature for two years, but left his studies without taking a degree. The process of distancing himself from his grandparents' faith was not easy for the author. It is seen in his later works and autobiographical novel Gäst hos verkligheten (1925, Guest of Reality).

As a writer Lagerkvist made his debut with Människor (1912). The next year he visited Paris, where he became aware of new trends in the visual arts. In his theoretical essay 'Ordkonst och bildkonst' (1913) Lagerkvist rejected literary naturalism in favor of the elevation and simplicity found in Greek tragedy, the Old Testament, and the Icelandic sagas. His first volume of poems, Motiv (1914), did not receive much critical attention.

During the World War I Lagerkvist lived mostly in Denmark. There he wrote among other things for the theater. Den sista människan (1917,  The Last Man), a play, was followed by a collective work, Modern teater (1918), where he defended August Strinberg's late plays and his opposition to naturalism. Ångest (1916, Anguish) was a disillusioned collection of poems. Lagerkvist's anguish was derived from his fear of death, the World War, and personal crisis. He tried to explore how a person can find a meaningful life in a world where a war can kill millions for very little reason. "Love is nothing. Anguish is everything / the anguish of living." The collection, which turned away from the traditional romantic expression, marked the beginning of poetic modernism in Sweden. In Himlets hemlighet (1919, The Secret of Heaven), published in the collection Kaos, Lagerkvist posed the basic question, 'What is the meaning of life?' He implied that while this issue preoccupies human beings, it is a matter of total indifference to the Almighty. Den svåra stunden (1918, The Difficult Hour) collected three one-act plays describing the moment of death.

In the 1920s Lagerkvist travelled in France and Italy. Among his works from the 1920s are Guest of Reality, Onda sagor (1924), Hjärtats sånger (1926), and the drama Han som fick leva om sit liv (1928, The Man Who Lived His Life Over), in which Lagerkvist moved towards more realistic stage art. In his early books the author manifested socialistic and radical views, but gradually started using religious and moral themes in a historical context. In the novella Det eviga leendet (The Eternal Smile, 1920) the setting is the realm of the dead, where the characters join in a search for God, and demand an explanation. God turns out to be an old forester. In a dialogue about their creation they get the answer that He had not meant anything in particular, but merely had done His best. This belief in eternal love and mystical suffering, light and darkness, is seen in Den lyckliges väg (1921) and Hjärtats sånger, where he wrote: "Only you, my bosom, is left, / you who can suffer, / you who can feel the death of pain / but not complain."

Like his countryman Eyvind Johnson, he reacted in his work to rising totalitarian ideologies. Bödeln (1933, The Hangman), which first came out as a novel and then as a play, was a condemnation of the threat of dictators and fascism. The first part was set in a medieval village, where the reader meets the hangman, sitting in a tavern. He is then moved to modern times, to a jazz café in Nazi Germany, where he is admired. The hangman never loses his essence as the embodiment of barbarism and brutality, and he is condemned for eternity for the sins of human beings. Moral problems and the crisis of humanism dominated Lagervist's works of the 1930s and 1940s. Den knutna näven (1934, The Clenched Fist) was based on the author's journeys in Palestine and Greece and summarized his humanistic world view.

During the early years of WW II Lagerkvist published two patriotic books, Sång och strid (1940) and Hemmet och stjärnan (1942). In the allegorical novel Dvärgen (1944, The Dwarf), set in Renaissance Italy, the protagonist is an agent of evil, who openly enjoys death, and is imprisoned after his sercives to the Prince. Twisted in mind and body, he writes his diary knowing that he is soon needed. The story about the struggle between creative forces - the Prince is a patron of arts – and destruction is one of his best-known works. Lagerkvist drew parallels between the dark Middle Ages and the modern gangster world. The book has been praised for its stylistic unity.

Barabbas (1950) was the first of six historical novels set in the Holy Land and classical Delphi. Immediately hailed as a masterwork by many writers, among them André Gide, it was in a short time translated into nine languages, and made into a film in 1952. The book was also adapted into a two-act play in 1953. Barabbas's confusion and skepticism show the inconclusive quest for meaning in human life. Barabbas, the criminal in the New Testament, is pardoned instead of Christ, and is sentenced to the silver mines. He is incapable of loving, but in the course of events he becomes gradually aware of greater forces guiding his life. At the end is imprisoned and condemned to be crucified. " – Jag har länge tänkt tro på denne gud, på honom också. Men hur ska jag kunna göra det? Hur ska jag kunna tro på något så besynnerligt. Och jag som är uppsyningsman över slavar, hur skulle jag kunna dyrka en korsfäst slav?" (from Barabbas)

Several of Lagerkvist's books in the 1960s deal with biblical or mythical themes. Lagerkvist referred to himself as a "religious atheist". Sibyllan (1958, The Sybil) starts the story of the Wandering Jew, cursed with eternal life. Struggling to understand his fate, he seeks out an old priestess of the Oracle at Delphi, who has been driven from the temple. The pilgrimage continues in Ahasverus död (1960, The Death of Ahasuerus), where he meets Tobias, a criminal, who is at the same time a good man. Ahasuerus finally finds peace, and he is allowed to die as a reward for abandoning his obsessive religious concerns – God appears as another unhappy cruel being. Other tales probing religious questions include Pilgrim på havet (1964, Pilgrim at Sea), which deals symbolically with loneliness and humanity's search for belief, Det heliga landet (1966, The Holy Land), and Mariamne (Herod and Mariamne, 1967). The title figure, the wife of Herod the Great, is killed by her husband, "an image of mankind, who fills the earth, but whose numbers one day will be wiped from it".

Lagerkvist was married twice. After 1930 he lived quietly in Lidingö, an island community near Stockholm. Lagerkvist's first marriage was unhappy. He then married in 1925 Elaine Luella Hallberg, the widow of the painter Gösta Sandels, who had died tragically in Grenada in 1919. Hjärtats sånger contained some of Lagerkvist's best love poems which were dedicated to E. "Dig rörde aldrig mörket, / fast livet sorg dig gav, / fast ibland mörka skuggor / du stod vid öppnad grav, / fast du i smärta prövats, / fastän du led som vi / - men omkring dig var ljuset / dom ej får mörker bli." Lagerkvist died in Stockholm on July 11, 1974. His personal material had been removed to Stockholm's Kungliga Bibliotek, not to be read until he was dead. Although Lagerkvist was reticent about his private life, he depicted in the novella Guest of Reality his early years in Småland. In 1977 Elin Lagerkvist published her father's diaries and notes under the title Antecknat. Bengt Lagerkvist mentions in Riddar Drömmare av sol och snö (1999), a work on Gösta Sandels, how he was afraid of his father, "Dysterkvist", who poured his anger over the silent and sober-minded Elaine.

For further reading: Pär Lagerkvist: ögonblickets diktare och marknaden by Håkan Möller (2012); Den politiske Lagerkvist, ed. by Margareta Petersson, Christer Knutsson (2011); Pär Lagerkvist talar, ed. by Margareta Petersson, Christer Knutsson (2011); Brinn du eviga längtan: Pär Lagerkvists livslånga brottning med Gud och livets mening by Lars Holmberg (2008); Sagan, myten och modernismen i Pär Lagerkvists tidigaste prosa och Onda sagor by Karin Fabreus (2002); Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Vol. 3, ed. by Steven R. Serafin (1999); A History of Swedish Literature, ed by L.G. Warme (1996); World Authors 1900-1950, ed. by Martin Seymour-Smith and Andrew C. Kimmens (1996); European Writers: The Twentieth Century, ed. by W.J.H. Jackson (1990); Pär Lagerkvist by Ingrid Schöier (1987); A History of Scandinavian Literature, 1870-1980 by Sven H. Rossel (1982); Pär Lagerkvist in America by Ray Lewis White (1979); Gud, matos och kärlek by Willy Jönsson (1978); Pär Lagerkvist by Lennart Sjöberg (1976); Pär Lagerkvist’s Development as a Dramatist: A Study in Theory and Practice by Robert Thomas Rovinsky (1974); Pär Lagerkvist by R.D. Spector (1973); Menneske-hjertets verden by Gunnel Malmström (1970); Pär Lagerkvist: A Critical Essay by W. Weathers (1968); Främlingen Lagerkvist by Kai Henmark (1966); Pär Lagerkvist in translation by Anders Ryberg (1964); Pär Lagerkvist: An Introduction by I. Scobbie (1963); Pär Lagerkvist by Otto Oberholzer (1958); Pär Lagerkvist by Gustaf Fredén (1954); Livsproblemet hos Pär Lagerkvist by Jöran Mjöberg (1951) - Suomeksi on myös julkaistu novellikokoelma Kuolleet, jotka etsivät Jumalaa (1935) ja kokoelma Runoja (1953), suom. Viljo Kajava

Selected works:

  • Människor: novell, 1912
  • Två sagor om livet, 1913
  • Ordkonst och bildkonst: om modärn skönlitteraturs dekadans, 1913 (foreword by August Brunius)
    - Literary and Pictorial Art: On the Decadence of Modern Literature (translated by Roy Arthur Swanson and Everett M. Ellestad, 1991)
  • Motiv, 1914
  • Järn och människor: noveller, 1915
    - Iron and Men (translated by Roy Arthur Swanson, in Five Early Works, 1988)
  • Ångest, 1916
  • Sista människan: ett drama, 1917 (play)
    - The Last Man (translated by Roy Arthur Swanson, in Five Early Works, 1988)
  • Teater: Den svåra stunden, tre enaktare: Modern teater, Synpunkter och angrepp, 1918
    - Modern Theater: Points of View and Attack (translated by Thomas R. Buckman, 1961)
  • Den svåre stunden I-III, 1918
    - The Difficult Hour I-III (tr., in Modern Theatre: Seven Plays and an Essay, 1966)
  • Kaos, 1919
  • Himlens hemlighet, 1919 (play)
    - The Secret of Heaven (tr., in Modern Theatre: Seven Plays and an Essay, 1966)
  • Det eviga leendet, 1920
    - The Eternal Smile: Three Stories (Erik Mesterton, Denys W. Harding, and David O'Gorman, 1934) / The Eternal Smile, and Other Stories (translated by Alan Blair and others, 1954) / The Eternal Smile: Three Stories (translated by Erik Mesterton, Denys W. Harding, and David O’Gorman, 1971)
  • Den lyckliges väg, 1921
  • Den osynlige: skådespel i tre akter, 1923 (play)
  • Onda sagor, 1924
  • Valda sidor, 1925
  • Gäst hos verkligheten: vid en järnvägsstation, 1925
    - Guest of Reality (translated by Erik Mesterton and Denys W. Harding, 1936; Robin Fulton, 1989)
  • Hjärtats sånger, 1926
  • Det besegrade livet, 1927
  • Han som fick leva om sitt liv: skådespel i tre akter, 1928 (play)
    - The Man Who Lived His Life Over (tr., in Five Modern Scandinavian Plays, 1971)
  • Kämpande ande, 1930
  • Själarnas maskerad, 1930
  • Vid lägereld, 1932
  • Skrifter, 1932 (3 vols.)
  • Konungen: skådespel i tre akter, 1932 (play)
    - The King (tr., in Modern Theatre: Seven Plays and an Essay, 1966)
  • Bödeln, 1933
    - Hangman (tr. 1936; in Modern Theatre: Seven Plays and an Essay, 1966)
  • Bödeln, 1934 (play)
  • Den knutna näven, 1934
    - The Clenched Fist (translated by Roy Arthur Swanson, in Five Early Works, 1988)
  • I den tiden, 1935
  • Mannen utan själ: skådespel i fem akter, 1936 (play)
    - The Man Without a Soul (translated by H. Koekeritz, 1944; in Scandinavian Plays of the Twentieth Century, Ser. 1, 1971)
  • Genius, 1937
  • Seger i mörker: skådespel i fyra akter, 1939 (play)
  • Den befriade människan, 1939
  • Sång och strid, 1940
  • Dikter, 1941
  • Midsommardröm i fattighuset: skådespel i tre akter, 1941 (play)
    - Midsummer Dream in the Workhouse (translated by Alan Blair, 1953)
  • Hemmet och stjärnan, 1942
  • Dvärgen, 1944
    - The Dwarf (translated by Alexandra Dick, 1945)
    - Kääpiö (suom. Helka Varho, 1945)
  • Prosa, 1945
  • Dramatik, 1946
  • De vises sten, 1947 (play)
    - The Philosopher's Stone (translated by Thomas R. Buckman, in Modern Theatre: Seven Plays and an Essay, 1966)
  • Låt människan leva, 1949 (play)
    - Let Man Live (translated by H. Alexander and L. Jones, in Scandinavian Plays of the Twentieth Century, 1951)
  • Prosa, 1949 (5 vols.)
  • Barabbas, 1950
    - Barabbas (translated by Alan Blair, 1951)
    - Barabbas (suom. Lauri Hirvensalo, 1950)
    - film 1952, dir. by Richard Fleisher, starring Anthony Quinn, Silvana Mangano, Ernest Borgnine, Jack Palance
  • Aftonland, 1953
    - Evening Land (translators: W.H. Auden and Leif Sjöberg, 1975; Anthony Barnett, 2001)
  • The Marriage Feast and Other Stories, 1954 (translated by Alan Blair and Carl Eric Lindin)
  • Dramatik, 1956 (3 vols.)
  • Sibyllan, 1956
    - The Sibyl (translated by Naomi Walford, 1958)
    - Sibylla (suom. Mika Waltari, 1956
  • Ahasverus död, 1960
    - The Death of Ahasuerus (translated by Naomi Walford, 1962)
    - Ahasveruksen kuolema (suom. Eila Pennanen, 1960)
  • Pilgrim på havet, 1962
    - Pilgrim at Sea (translated by Naomi Walford, 1964)
    - Pyhiinvaeltaja merellä (suom. Eila Pennanen, 1962)
  • Det heliga landet, 1965
    - The Holy Land (translated by Naomi Walford, 1966)
    - Pyhä maa (suom. Eila Pennanen, 1965)
  • Valda dikter, 1965 (foreword by Sven Lindner)
  • Dikter, 1
  • Prosa. Ahasverus’ död, Pilgrim på havet, Det heliga landet, 1966
  • Modern Theater: Seven Plays and an Essay, 1966 (translated by Thomas R. Buckman)  
  • Mariamne, 1967
    - Herod and Mariamne (translated by Naomi Walford, 1968)
    - Mariamne (suom. Kristiina Kivivuori, 1969)
  • Antecknat: ur efterlämnade dagböcker och anteckningar, 1977 (edited by Elin Lagerkvist)
  • Den svåra resan, 1985
  • Five Early Works, 1988 (translated by Roy Arthur Swanson; contains Iron and Men; The Last Man; The Expectant Guest; The Morning; The Clenched Fist)
  • Brev, 1991 (edited by Ingrid Schöier)
  • Brev till och från Pär Lagerkvist: från Heidenstam till Forssell, 2006 (edited by Margareta Petersson, Christer Knutsson)
  • Pär Lagerkvist om bildkonsten, 2009 (edited by Margareta Petersson, Christer Knutsson)

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