(translated by Benjamin Mier-Cruz)
“…never again would it be so beautiful.”
Dagerman was a Swedish writer, primarily active in the 1940s and early 1950s. He took his own life in 1954 aged 31. To give a sense of where his works sit, he is usually mentioned alongside Kafka, Faulkner and Camus. The quote “life is only a postponed suicide“, might explain why.
It begins: “A wife is to be buried at two o’clock, and at eleven-thirty the husband is standing in the kitchen in front of the cracked mirror above the sink. He hasn’t cried much, but he has lain long awake and the whites of his eyes are red.” The opening paragraph is long…and talks about his putting on a white shirt while his youngest sister – “the beautiful sister” – fixes his collar. The paragraph closes: “He furtively strokes her hand. The beautiful sister is the sister he adores. For he adores anything beautiful. The wife was ugly and sick. Which is why he has not been crying.“
The husband is Knut, the story is mainly told by his son Bengt, who is struggling with many things: the death of his mother; a so-so relationship with his girlfriend; and simmering anger directed at the woman who it quickly becomes apparent, was his father’s lover during the last couple of years of his mother’s life.
The language is taut, sparse; the book deals with loss, introspection, heartache and fury, as well as lust, an initially undiagnosed and later misdirected lust. There is a lot of nighttime walking the streets of Stockholm, as well as some time in the woods and waters around the thousands of islands off Stockholm, where the family have a holiday cottage. There are shadows, long silences, glances exchanged – all in all a very 1940s film noir suspense. The book has an interesting structure: a ‘regular’ chapter, followed by a “letter” from Bengt to someone, sometimes himself, repeated several times.
The book requires attention, it is not a light read, but when you do this, you get your reward:
“What binds her and what binds him, too, is the beauty of the moment. Nothing is ever as beautiful as the first isolated minutes with someone who might be able to love you – with someone you yourself might be able to love. There is nothing as silent as these minutes, nothing so saturated with sweet anticipation. It is for these few minutes that we love, not for the many that follow. Never again, they realise, would anything so beautiful ever happen to them. They might be happier, more impassioned, and infinitely satiated with their own bodies and with each other’s. But never again would it be so beautiful.”
Dagerman is an interesting writer, if a challenging one, sometimes. The existential wrangling is the kind of thing that is less prominent in literature these days, when compared with the middle of the last century…but for some of us, this kind of thing is timeless.