A Burnt Child, Stig Dagerman

It wasn’t until two-thirds of the way through A Burnt Child that I remembered that Dagerman committed suicide at age 31 and therefore, this book had been written at a very young age: 24, exactly. The odd shifts in the book make far more sense if you think of the author as barely out of his schooling, and I wonder what I would have made of it had I continued to think of him, incorrectly, as a mature, staid adult. The book’s demeanor and its flaws are very particular, and it’s not a stretch to think of them as endemic to a specific period in one’s biological life and its respective mental organization.

It begins with a mother’s death, and places three, then four characters, into the aftermath in a clean, Ibsen-like family schema. There is the father, Knut, who has little but contempt for his monstrous, dead wife, and the son Bengt, who venerates her to the point of swearing revenge against his father, and Bengt’s girlfriend Berit, who is mostly a passive observer. Knut quickly begins to date the elderly but feisty Gun, whom Bengt loathes.

Apart from Bengt’s infrequent histrionics, the early part of the book alternates between a processional of grief and slow, well-observed descriptions of the shaken world of the characters. It’s very proper, and very “mature,” since it’s closer in tone to work from the early 1900′s rather than 1948, when it was published. (There is no mention whatsoever of the war.) But soon, Bengt’s psychosis takes over, with impressionistic dreams and threats of violence. The psychology is typical, but delivered in such an unself-conscious manner that you can almost think he hadn’t read Freud. Unavoidably, Bengt has an affair with Gun, and the book shifts again. The writing becomes lost in reverie and Dagerman reveals a newfound weakness for romantic philosophical generalization:

We cannot comprehend our own death, nor the fact that someone should deceive us. That someone else should sleep naked with the one we love is something beyond our power of imagination. If we were to see it even our reason would not believe it, our feelings alone would know it.

This may read better in Swedish, but it probably doesn’t improve the ideas. By the time of Bengt’s exhibitionistic suicide attempt at the very end, the narrative is so involved with Bengt’s self-obsession that the surgical distance and description at the beginning has completely vanished, replaced by portentous imagery and clipped, melodramatic dialogue.

It’s not the self-obsession that marks A Burnt Child as having been written by a 24-year-old. His writing is not immature in the way that Marguerite Duras’s writing is immature, though they share a passionate narcissism. It’s the way he moves in many directions without committing to one, and the way he treasures the extremities of feelings to which teenagers and young adults are prone. Dagerman thought highly of himself and his writing, but he thought even more highly of his self five years earlier, who makes the basis for Bengt. Compare him with Salinger, who deals with hyperarticulate children with overdeveloped neuroses. Bengt is remarkably simple and remarkably passionate, and he makes his forebear, Goethe’s Werther, looks measured in comparison. It is a portrayal of an immature mental state by someone who has picked up enough writing ability before he’s forgotten the firsthand experience of the feeling altogether. (Compare him to Thomas Mann, who in Buddenbrooks is rushing away from firsthand mental experience as fast as possible.) It seems like less of a recreation than a contemporaneous document. The verisimilitude is startling, but the drastic shifts in tone and style yield a book that is not cohesive. It is too close to Dagerman’s own experience, and his own shifting perception as he aged at 20. Dagerman’s apparent lack of awareness of any of this damages the novel, but as a record of a period of a person’s life that has rarely produced any worthy writing, it is at least comprehensive and deeply felt, in many contradictory directions.

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