After a childhood marked by violence and abandonment, Dagerman found his vocation as a writer by joining up as a teenager with Syndico-Anarchist journalists in Sweden inspired by the anti-Fascist movement in Spain. But his narrative gifts, his ravening human sympathy, and his sensitivity to the lurking tragedies in everyday life soon brought him to literature, and he was famous by his twenties for his novels, stories, satirical poems, and plays. His work and thought are finally coming to America in a series of new translations and editions from David R. Godine and the University of Minnesota Press. In Little Star Weekly we feature his story, “Bon Soir,” about a boy coming of age selling newspapers in an archipelago ferryboat, translated by Steven Hartman.
He knows precious little about life, the boy who mans the ferry newsstand, this fifteen-year-old who becomes so tongue-tied and ashamed one Sunday when he is startled by the cook’s husband up above the dock. The boy is loitering on the exposed rock between some bushes, poking and jabbing in through the branches with a sharp piece of board he found down near the shoreline. Who knows what rogues might be lurking behind them? And what better way to rout them out? But when the cook’s husband appears out of nowhere, the boy stammers something about there being wasps’ nests in those bushes, maybe even rats, then he gathers up his dignity and heads off to the other side of the cove, beyond the sunken barge, to lay in the sun on a shelf of high exposed rock. Nearby a dirty little canal wide enough for a rowboat flows out under an overhanging thicket, extending a small gray finger into the clear water. This is the very spot where he asked Barbro, the kitchen helper, if she’d like to play Adam and Eve one evening when they went for a swim. When she replied, “You show me yours and I’ll show you mine,” he lost his nerve and wished he’d never said it.
It turns out that there’s a good deal he desires but cannot find the nerve to do this summer. The little notebook he always carries in his pocket is littered with scribblings of those desires: he feels like a string that has yet to be played, a taut string fearful of being plucked lest it should break, or like a dynamo spinning and spinning without any outcome.
Now he lies here on the rock shelf in the broiling sun, drawing a small sailboat as it tacks in the sound. His boat isn’t bad, but he can’t say as much for his attempts to catch the water’s reflections shimmering in the midday heat or the flock of gulls that dive continuously into a yellow slick of something a couple sailors have poured out over a gunwale. On another island, just across the sound, two girls in red bathing suits are moving along the shore with small, timid steps, as music plays above them from a gramophone atop a rock cliff. Maybe they are afraid of snakes, which is enough to make anyone’s bare feet dart anxiously from toe to toe as they eye the grass before them. In boots you’re apt to take fearful lumbering steps as you whistle up into the empty air with a bit too much gusto. The strides of fear come in all walks, sure enough.
Maybe he does know a good bit about life after all. He knows almost everything worth knowing about the art of scrounging soda from the hostess of the small steamer’s restaurant. And he knows what sherry tastes like, ever since he and a young college student shared half a bottle in the dining lounge one evening during a blind run. He has smoked eight different brands of cigarettes and discovered just how strong beer can get if you let it stew on the ship’s boiler. If asked, he can reveal the good and the bad about all of Sweden’s weekly magazines. And he can do the same when it comes to that great man of the people and defender of the arts who bought a notorious pornographic magazine off him—for research purposes, of course—and then bawled him out because the back cover had apparently gotten soiled in his tote bag. He also knows that if you want to be treated like a grown-up you should snap your head around and stare at the legs of any girl over a certain age who walks by you on the upper deck. For a week now he’s also known what it feels like to kiss.
He learns this one evening from Barbro after taking a dip alone in the small cove where the water is always warm from the canal. The boat is dark and quiet when he returns from his swim. A hanging kerosene lamp has been lit in the waiting hut by the ferry dock across the sound, where a couple dances silently to a distantly wailing gramophone…
Read more in Little Star Weekly
Our issue also features Swedish-Finnish radical poet, Elmer Diktonius
A Swedish Literary Icon: The Writings of Stig Dagerman in America
Scandinavia House, 58 Park Avenue (@ 38th Street), Tuesday, October 22
A panel discussion with Novelist Siri Hustvedt and translators Steven Hartman and Susan Bernofsky, moderated by Ann Kjellberg.
The author’s daughter, Lo Dagerman, will introduce a short documentary, “Our Need for Consolation” (directed by Dan Levy Dagerman, 2012), featuring actor Stellan Skarsgård, and based on Dagerman’s autobiographical reflection of the same name.
Books by Dagerman
Stories: Sleet (translated by Steven Hartman)
Journalism: German Autumn (translated by Robin Fulton Macpherson), in a league with W. G. Sebald’s On the Natural History of Destruction, a half a century earlier, this book that made Dagerman’s name when he forced the attention of an unsympathetic world on the sufferings and confusions of everyday deafeated Germans. Indeed Dagerman is one of Sebald’s sources.