An account of the life and work of Stig Dagerman, Swedish existentialist and anarchist writer
‘Life expects of you duties which appear repugnant to you. You must now know that the most important thing is not duties but what permits you to be someone good and just. There are many who will say to you that this is a piece of asocial advice, but you only have to reply to them: When the forms of society are so hard and hostile to life, it is more important to be asocial than inhuman’ (Stig Dagerman).
“I believe that man’s natural enemy is the mega-organization because it robs him of the vital necessity to feel responsible for his fellow-man, restricting his possibilies to show solidarity and love and instead turns him into an agent of power, that for the moment may be directed against others, but ultimately is directed against himself.”
Stig Dagerman was born in Sweden in 1923. He was the son of working class parents, his mother a telegraphist and his father an itinerant worker and train rail layer. They had not lived together and Stig was raised by his grandparents, of whom he had fond memories. His father then brought him to Stockholm.
The transition from country to city was a shock to his system. He was a brilliant pupil at school, if silent and reserved, and he found school and high school to be a prison. Life on the street and the solaces of cinema were some consolation for his nervous and anguished temperament.
In 1941 he joined the youth organisation of the syndicalist union Sveriges Arbetares Centralorganisation (SAC), the Circle of Syndicalist Youth, where anarchist ideas were widespread. He wrote regularly for its paper Storm. He then worked for Arbetaren (The Worker), the daily paper of the SAC, from 1943. Journalists for the paper were not allowed to earn more than the wage of a skilled worker.
In August 1943 he married Annemarie Goetze, the daughter of the German anarchosyndicalists Ferdinand and Elly Goetze. All three had fled from Nazi Germany, then taking part in the struggle in Spain in 1936, before having then to flee once more to Sweden with the victory of Franco. The marriage enabled Annemarie to obtain Swedish citizenship. In an interview with Annemarie in Paris in January 1960 she said that the myth that Stig’s father was an anarchist was false. He was a syndicalist, another thing altogether, whereas it was Ferdinand who had introduced anarchism to him. She and her father had discussed the ideas of anarchism with Stig over several years of their life together. This important influence on him led him to write in praise of anarchism in the article ‘Anarchism and Me’.
Between the age of twenty one and twenty six he wrote four novels, four plays, a collection of short stories, a collection of reportage and many articles, essays and poems. The Snake was a novel published in 1945 which depicted the lives of a group of young people during the Second World War, describing their anguish and their fears and their vain attempts to overcome them. The novel received great critical acclaim. In 1946 Stig became co-editor of the literary review 40-tal, around which a new generation of Swedish writers grouped.
Stig continued his literary output with The Island of the Doomed, an allegorical novel on fascism and the struggle with authority. The same year, in the autumn, he journeyed through a Germany of ruined cities. These experiences were written up in his German Autumn published in 1947. This proved to be his first real literary success in terms of bookshop sales. Next to appear was his collection of short stories, Games of Night, followed by his third novel A Burnt Child. This was written in Brittany, France (‘in great solitude’, according to Stig) appearing in 1948. It describes an anguished adolescence where the hero writes a suicide letter showing his detestation for a world of ‘little dogs,…with small feelings, small pleasures and small thoughts.’ This was followed by his first play ‘The Man Condemned to Death’, performed in 1949 in Stockholm. That year Stig published his last novel, Wedding Worries.
In 1948, between March and May, he had visited France and was to realise his writings whilst there in French Spring. Here he describes the hardship of the times, the increase in attempts at suicide, newspapers reduced to one page, hotel rooms only warmed for fifteen minutes of the day, a striker’s wife turning to prostitution to survive. Stig mixed journalistic reportage with literature and social comment, writing on impoverished and starving workers that they did not need to drink an aperitif to be hungry, not that they could afford one: ‘Their existence is furnished by an infernal tension in which every period of crisis plunges the poor.’ The dream of 1944 and the reality of 1948 highlight the disillusion of the period. The Liberation was not followed by social revolution but by social peace and grave hardship for the working class.
These writings taken collectively describe brilliantly the world immediately after World War Two and the establishment of order. In one article, ‘The Dictatorship of Sadness’ Stig fulminates against the national day of mourning decreed for the death of the Swedish king Gustav V and the lies and deceit generated on a national basis.
The next five years were hard for the writer, with four novels started but not finished. At the age of 31, on 4th November 1954, he locked himself in his garage, turned on the engine of his car and killed himself. The evening before he had sent his last piece ‘Beware of the Dog’ to Arbetaren. Writer’s block may have contributed to the reasons he killed himself, as well as an awareness of an impossibility for politicised writers to radically change the world.
Three of Stig Dagerman’s novels were adapted for film in the 1960s and he was soon translated into English, French and German after his death. He was hailed as a great existential writer and continues to attract attention and acclaim on the Continent, if little known in Britain despite translation of his work into English (all of which is currently out of print). As Graham Greene wrote, ‘Dagerman wrote with beautiful objectivity. Instead of emotive phrases, he uses a choice of facts, like bricks, to construct an emotion.’
This article appeared in Organise! No 75 , magazine of the Anarchist Federation www.afed.org.uk