Lagerkvist, Pär

(1891-1974)
   A Swedish poet, dramatist, short story writer, and novelist, Lagerkvist is a major figure in Scandinavian literature and was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1951. Born in Växjö in Smaland, he briefly attended Uppsala University, after which he traveled to Paris. Introduced there to the most recent currents in modern art, and particularly to cubism, he wrote the manifesto Ordkonst och bildkonst (1913; Verbal Art and Pictorial Art) upon his return to Sweden. Speaking against realism and in favor of expressionism, Lagerkvist became one of the foremost exponents of modernism in Scandinavia.
   After some lackluster literary experiments, Lagerkvist published Jarn och manniskor (1915; tr. Iron andMen,1988),avolume of short stories dealing with World War I. His literary breakthrough came with the poetry collection Angest (1916; Anguish), a monument to the modernistic sensibilities of the time, as it emphasized fragmentation, loneliness, and absence of meaning. Angest was succeeded by Kaos (1919; Chaos).
   Lagerkvist maintained that the chaos and violence of the modern age called for a new kind of drama. His essay Modern teater (1918; tr. Modern Theatre, 1961) argued against the dramatic practice of the Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen and spoke in favor of the anti-realist dramaturgy of such plays as August Strindberg s Ett droämspel. He then wrote a series of plays in which he attempted to put these ideas into practice. Sista maänniskan (1917; tr. The Last Man, 1988) is set at a time when most of the population of the earth has been wiped out by some type of catastrophe, and the three one-act plays of Den svara stunden (1918; tr. The Difficult Hour, 1961) all deal with death. Himlens hemlighet (1919; tr. The Secret of Heaven, 1966) presents the human quest for meaning as utterly futile.
   Det eviga leendet (1920; tr. The Eternal Smile, 1934) and other prose works from this period are constructed around similar ideas. Children are presented as a source of joy in Det eviga leendet, however, but the prose piece "Far och jag ("Father and I ) in Onda sagor (1924; Evil Tales) belies the idea that childhood is necessarily a happy time. The autobiographical novel Gaäst hos verkligheten (1925; tr. GuestofReality, 1936) also indicates that Lagerkvist's childhood and youth were not particularly happy, but rather a process of gradual disenchantment with the religious beliefs of his family, accompanied by fear and guilt.
   Lagerkvist was exceptionally far-sighted in his perception of the changes in European politics in the 1930s. Travels in Germany and Italy opened his eyes to the threat to humanism posed by the respective regimes of the two countries, and he lifted his voice in a warning against the Fascist ideology earlier than most other writers. Boädeln (1933, tr. The Hangman, 1936) shows that the cruelty of the Middle Ages was far surpassed by the barbarism of Nazi Germany. A number of prose works written in the 1930s, among them Den knutna naäven (1934; tr. The Clenched Fist, 1988), had as their purpose to alert a broader audience to the threat and to remind them of the values of humanism. The drama Mannen utan sjaäl (1936; tr. The Man without a Soul, 1944) had a similar purpose, as did several other plays written in the 1940s, namely, Midsommardroäm i fattighuset (1941; tr. Midsummer Dream in the Workhouse, 1953), Den vises sten (1947; tr. The Philosopher's Stone, 1966), and Latmanniskan leva (1949; tr. Let Man Live, 1951).
   After World War II, Lagerkvist wrote mostly novels. An exception is his final poetry collection, Aftonland (1953; tr. Evening Land, 1975), which expressed ideas similar to those found in his prose writings. The novel Dvaärgen (1944; tr. The Dwarf, 1945) is a study in evil set in Renaissance Italy. Narrated by the title character, it expresses his complete lack of comprehension of human love and shows that he has no understanding of the value of art and science, except as tools of warfare. Barabbas (1950; tr. 1951) tells the story of the criminal who was set free instead of Jesus at the time of the crucifixion. Like Lagerkvist himself, Barabbas is drawn to Christianity, but his doubts are too great for him to overcome them. The novel Sibyllan (1956; tr. The Sybil, 1958) has as its protagonist Ahasuerus, of the legend of the Wandering Jew, who tries to understand why God has cursed him with the inability to die.
   Lagerkvist s last several books all deal with the situation ofhuman beings in relation to the divine. Ahasverus doäd (1960; tr. The Death of Ahasuerus, 1962), Pilgrim pa havet (1962; tr. Pilgrim at Sea, 1964), and Det heliga landet (1964; tr. The Holy Land, 1966) show that even though people are a mixture of good and evil, most people may still eventually be able to come to terms with the divine. These ideas are further explored in the more pessimistic novel Mariamne (1967; tr. Herod and Mariamne, 1968), in which Herod s love for Mariamne is insufficient to redeem him from the evil he carries within him.
   See also Theater.

Historical Dictionary of Scandinavian Literature and Theater. . 2006.

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