It is as though certain landscapes, including the Sweden of the writer Stig Dagerman (who died in 1954 when he was thirty-one), have their own sound. Northern landscapes such as his come to us without elaborate description or embellishment, or any display of easy feeling. Light is scarce and so too emotion is rationed, or held within and never made easy. The spirit is wary and the past comes haunting and much is unresolved. Mist, wind, clouds, short days, the proximity of the sea, the quickly changing weather, poverty or the memory of poverty, all suggest a world in which little can be taken for granted. In other places too such as Ireland, Scotland, Canada, Iceland, the northeast coast of the United States, novelists, short-story writers, and poets have mined this sense of scarcity and found an austere poetry, a hard-won truth.
Gray shadows, raked light, a sense of washed color, ghostliness and grief, with an aura of absence and the withholding of easy information, and the presence of stark and austere drama, appear too in the work of certain northern visual artists, such as the Danish painter Vilhelm Hammershøi, the Irish painter Patrick Collins, the Danish filmmaker Carl Theodor Dreyer, or the Swedish director Ingmar Bergman. Some of the icy melancholy in their work appears too in folksongs and in the music of Sibelius.
In the work, say, of John McGahern and Eugene McCabe in Ireland, or George Mackay Brown and Don Paterson in Scotland, or Alistair MacLeod and Alice Munro in Canada, or Halldór Laxness and Guðbergur Bergsson in Iceland, or Alice McDermott and Elizabeth Bishop’s early life in the northeastern United States (Bishop also spent much of her childhood in Canada), or Tomas Tranströmer and Stig Dagerman in Sweden, language has been pared down to match feeling, and feeling is all the more piercing in its effect, and filled with coiled and gnarled expression, because it is so watched over, so restrained.
A word is a tentative form of control, grammar an enactment of how things stand. But nothing is stable, so words can lift and have resonance, can move out, take in essences as a sponge soaks in water. Thus language is rooted in simple description, and then it blooms or withers; it is suggestive, has some flourishes, or a tone and texture that have odd delights, but it has all sorts of limits and failures. If words are a cry for help, the calm space around them offers a resigned helplessness.
In these northern societies, language is also a way to restrain experience, take it down to a level where it might stay. Language is neither ornament nor exaltation; it is firm and almost desolate in its purpose. Our time on the earth does not give us cause or need to say anything more than is necessary; language is thus a form of calm, modest knowledge or maybe even evasion. The poetry and the prose written in the light of this knowledge or this evasion, or in their shadow, have to be led by clarity, by precise description, by briskness of feeling, by no open displays of anything, least of all a simple response to experience. The tone implies an acceptance of what is known. The music lives in what is left out. The smallest word, or the holding of breath, can have a fierce, stony power.
In this world, death and disruption, solitude and grief, can take on a large resonance. In novels by John McGahern such as The Dark and Amongst Women, for example, the death of the mother is barely mentioned, but it haunts the aftermath; the novels are set in an eternal aftermath, a place where the drama has already happened and where characters live in a state of dull and often silent pain. In the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop, the death of the poet’s father and her mother’s incarceration in a mental hospital are not mentioned at all, but they are part of the undertone of the poetry; the poetry’s stoic force lies in that undertone.
In McGahern’s other books, however, such as his novel The Leavetaking and his memoir All Will Be Well, death is followed by disruption; the sudden moving of the boy—after his mother’s death, from the soft place where he was being brought up to the barracks where his father worked—is created with considerable tension, the tension between the almost ordinary and the almost epic.
In her prose piece “The Country Mouse,” Bishop wrote of her move to Worcester, Massachusetts, from the easygoing, casual beauty of Nova Scotia, where she was living with her maternal grandparents after her mother’s incarceration for mental illness:
I had been brought back unconsulted and against my wishes to the house my father had been born in, to be saved from a life of poverty and provincialism…. With this surprising extra set of grandparents, until a few weeks ago no more than names, a new life was about to begin…I felt as if I were being kidnapped, even if I wasn’t.
It is hard not to feel that in both cases the sudden disruption, the end of the familiar, came as a rare and ambiguous gift to the writers. Despite the pain involved, or precisely because of it, they found not only their subject, but their style.
For Stig Dagerman, who was born in 1923, the tension between the life he lived with his grandparents in rural Sweden and the disruption to that life when he was moved to Stockholm to live with his father in 1935 when he was twelve gives him a clarity of vision, a sharp way of remembering and dramatizing. The absences of the people and life he had known made him a master of the art of absences, a master of the nuances of what is missing and cannot be said. What is known is felt more deeply because of the silence surrounding it. The worlds of childhood and even of adulthood are lost worlds, so that every image of them comes with an undertone of pain, danger, even panic. There is no need to spell out what is being felt; it is there in the spaces between the words.
Dagerman was in possession of several tones. In the short time when he flourished as a writer, he was also politically active on the left. He wrote articles, satirical poems, and plays as well as stories and novels. His book German Autumn, a collection of reports from Germany in the autumn of 1946, has some of the moral seriousness and ability to handle complex political truths of George Orwell, with a gift for writing sharp and cool declarative sentences that is close to Hemingway. What characterizes the book most is its clear-eyed sympathy for suffering, its ability to feel pity without being naive. The softness of Dagerman’s gaze is combined with the controlled clarity of his description and reporting and the intelligence of his analysis.
While his best work derives its expressive force from a simplicity of style, with emotion buried in the rhythm or between the words, there was also a restlessness in Dagerman that makes him hard to pin down. For example, his novel Island of the Doomed, written in the summer of 1946, is a kind of fable in which a number of castaways are marooned on a strange island. Here the sentences are snaky and laden with description; the tone is baroque and at times surreal. The subject is his usual one—the nature of the human condition—but whereas the best of his work manages to do this using suggestion and careful shading, Island of the Doomed seeks to replace suspicion of language with a delight in its texture that is almost innocent.
In other novels, as well as his stories, Dagerman allows his sentences to depend on their coiled power. In A Burnt Child, his penultimate novel, published in 1948, the atmosphere of grief fills the house as the mother dies, leaving the boy and his father alone. But first there has to be a funeral. Dagerman manages the awkward rituals with the same gnarled force and sense of carefully observed detail as John McGahern in his novel The Leavetaking and Alice McDermott in Charming Billy. Dagerman writes:
Before the cars arrive, they stand around in groups in different parts of the room. Four are standing under the chiming pendulum clock with glasses in their hands. They take sips when no one is looking. They are the widower’s relatives from the country, the ones you only see at weddings and funerals and whose clothes smell like mothballs. They look at the expensive clock. Then at each other. They look at the expensive encyclopedia with its leather binding glistening behind the glass of the bookcase. Then they glance at each other again and take another sip. At once, they are whispering with lips moistened by coffee and wine. They have never cared for the deceased.
It would have been easy then to have made this merely a novel of muted sorrow and sour emotions. But like McGahern in The Leavetaking and The Pornographer, Dagerman sought to mix grief with eros. He allows the son to begin an affair with his father’s girlfriend, thus merging erotic charge and confusion with loss and absence and estrangement.
Love in Dagerman’s short stories is filled with fear. The sentences themselves, the paragraphs and the pages are used as a way to mask things; the drama is between slow concealment and stark revelation. The grandparents, as described in Dagerman’s “A Child’s Memoirs,” “did not like people who were fretwork; they wanted one to serve a useful purpose, if only as a hedgestake.” They thus became a sort of model for a prose style and a system of narration.
When he was at college in Stockholm, Dagerman heard the news that his beloved grandfather had been murdered, stabbed to death by someone unhinged, and that his grandmother had died a few weeks later. “The evening I heard about the murder,” he wrote,
I went to the City Library and tried to write a poem to the dead man’s memory. Nothing came of it but a few pitiful lines which I tore up in shame. But out of that shame, out of that impotence and grief, something was born—something which I believe was the desire to become a writer: that is to say to be able to tell of what it is to mourn, to have been loved, to be left lonely.
For any writer who has known early loss and dislocation, the task is to find metaphors, to work out ways of dealing with experience that are indirect to begin with, and then slowly move toward the original wound by something lurking in the prose. Writing becomes a skin-tight camouflage; the camouflage then carries with it traces of the original impulse to write and to make the writing matter to the reader, traces that gradually become more rich with truth and dense with feeling than the original impulse itself.
Thus in stories such as “To Kill a Child,” “In Grandmother’s House,” and “The Surprise,” Dagerman found ways of suggesting his own story while telling it more richly and mysteriously. In other stories of childhood, or that use a child observer, he uses a tone close to that in the early stories of James Joyce’s Dubliners, which Joyce described to his publisher as a tone of “scrupulous meanness.” No flourishes, no high drama. Each sentence etched on the page as each observation or sensation is etched on the child’s mind.
Some of Dagerman’s other stories, such as “Sleet,” are masterpieces of their kind. In that story, the sense of expectation is held throughout as the family in the Swedish countryside waits for their relative who has come from America, but all the time there is another melody playing in the story, which can fade and become dominant and fade. This melody gives us the family itself, the grandfather, the mother, the child’s own brittle, watchful consciousness. The detail is worked with what seems like an awestruck ease. After the grandfather has been shaved, for example, so that he will look good for his sister, “there’s a red scratch on his cheek that sticks out like a thin mouth, but the rest of him is pure white.” He is wearing the suit he wore at his wife’s funeral.
In a story like this a single word can carry an immense poetic weight. The word “sleet” is not a symbol for anything. It is itself, sleet, a part of the weather. Where it is placed in the story, and how it is repeated, however, allow it to hit the reader’s nervous system as an example of strangeness, of some moment that lodged in the mind with a sort of shivering intensity. A set of resonant feelings came darting toward the reader in a single word.
Slowly, also, another melody, a more plaintive one, is playing, and it is the story of an absence as well as an arrival. In the first section of the story, it is clear that the child has no father and that this is a raw and uneasy matter in the house. The visitor then will exacerbate the absence toward the end of the story by asking baldly: “Are you the little boy without a father?” This then is allowed to emerge as the dominant theme; it has been there all along as undertone.
Dagerman’s genius was to hide it from us while other things were happening, all the more urgently to involve us in the emotion around it. He can also evoke such emotion in a single sentence. He writes in “A Child’s Memoirs”: “Everyone else in the world had parents: I had only grandparents.” The stark simplicity of this, coming at the end of a paragraph where he has written about waiting for his mother to come and her failure ever to do so, manages something that can normally be only achieved in music. It involves a lowering of the tone, allowing a single instrument to emerge and giving that single instrument a melody to play that seems both natural and essential, something that has always been there now raised up, standing alone, pitiless and filled with stony pity.
As with Joyce’s Dubliners, innocence gives way to experience. Dagerman’s rural stories are filled with loss, but also with a strange stability. Once the city and sexuality enter the frame, the stability is replaced by chaos and confusion, but the sensibility remains as raw as earlier, as watchful, as ready to notice, and as filled with an effort to make sense of things. In stories such as “The Games of Night,” “Men of Character,” and “Bon Soir,” there is a drama around love and treachery, sexual desire and personal isolation, but there is also another drama around the art of noticing and the poetics of knowing. What is half known takes on power in these dark stories, in which scenes and characters are filled with watchfulness and guilt.
In these stories, domestic life is fraught and filled with anguish. “The Games of Night,” for example, inhabits the mind of a young boy, an only child, as he moves between dream and reality. His father is drinking; his mother needs money. The voice is stark, direct, with statement of fact, or what seems like fact, followed by further statement. The story opens: “Sometimes at night as his mother cries in her room, and only a clattering of unfamiliar footsteps echoes in the stairwell, Håkan plays a little game to keep from crying himself.” Dagerman avoids easy flourishes; he holds a tone with fierce control in order to release an undertone.
In “Men of Character,” the teacher’s wife in a small community is having an affair with their lodger, a forester. Dagerman has a way of making his narrative perspective seem like a camera. We see what the characters do, we hear what they say. Their interior life is, for the most part, conveyed all the more powerfully by using implication rather than explanation and by the use of a close-up shot, and then moving the camera back to capture a scene from a doorway. As in “The Games of Night,” Dagerman knows how to use silence, stillness, the half-said, the understated in order to dramatize states of deep, raw feeling. His emotional seasons are autumn and winter. Short days, cold air, the nervous glance, the glimpse, the night without sleep, are the bricks with which he builds his fictional houses filled with shadows and unresolved pain, but filled also with a stark tenderness, at times a grim humor, in the face of uneasiness and loss.
No one can be trusted. Nonetheless, there is something in these stories that, because they tell no more than they know, because they offer no false drama or any moral message, can be trusted in full. It suggests a great deal more with a fierce sly grace because there is a pure belief in the power of suggestion itself, as well as the power of imagination. What is left out, or hidden between words or in the rhythm of sentences, has been chosen with such care by Dagerman, chosen to have as much afterglow as glow, to have as much undercurrent as current, and thus remain in the mind and memory all the more completely.