FEAR OF DEATH AND AN ABSENT GOD

11/05/2019 00:52

Two months ago I visited in Gothenburg the younger of my sisters. Well ... she is not so young anymore, four years older than I am she is now 69 years. However, that does not hinder us from getting along just as good as when we were kids together. With my sisters, I share an interest in literature and the arts, and we are never at a loss of topics to talk about, although due to my annoying way of being I generally do most of the talking.

We visited the Botanical Gardens, the Art Museum, bookstores, markets, and the city library. At the last-mentioned place I became fascinated by Sven Ljungberg's frescoes, inspired by Pär Lagerkvist's Guest of Reality, a novel that most Swedes of my generation are relatively well acquainted with, partly because it was compulsory reading in school, and partly because it was filmed by Lagerkvist's son Bengt and was presented during the Swedish television's childhood. I had been thoroughly gripped by both the reading- and film experience. When I looked up at Ljungberg's angular, slightly naivistic frescoes feelings from long ago came back to me.

Sven Ljungberg stands out as an artist who has been particularly skillful in depicting both the Swedish countryside and its small towns, in all their beauty and boredom. So have childhood narratives like Lagerkvist´s Guest of Reality, Harry Martinsson's Flowering Nettle and Eyvind Johnson's Here´s Your Life, the last-mentioned novel tells the story about a fourteen-years-old Olof, who thus is older than the twelve-years-old Anders in Guest of Reality. Martin in Flowering Nettle was only seven years when his mother left him and his difficult life as a sockenbarn, Community Child, began, meaning that he was “sold” to the peasant who would keep him at the lowest community expenditure, something that meant a sockenbarn had to work hard for his/her living. These novels have since I read them remained with me, not only because they were well written and easy to read, but mainly since they to a high degree were autobiographical tales about hardship in a poor Sweden of bygone times, witnessed and experienced by curious and sensitive children on the verge of adolescence.

One of Ljungberg's frescoes depicts Anders sitting on a handcart while his self-confident and serene father, foreman at Växjö´s railway station, drives them through summertime Småland, a poor but nevertheless lush landscape in southern Sweden, with glittering lakes, fragrant forests and flowering meadows. On his lap, Anders holds a basket with coffee, sugar and a piece of yeast they are bringing to his grandmother. Anders loves his Granny, who looks and behaves like his mother, though she is old and skinny. He likes staying at his grandparents' place, though he has great respect for his deeply religious grandfather, whom he finds somewhat frightening. In their garden, Anders picks berries from the bushes or lies in the grass enjoying the warm sunlight, listening to the sounds of nature. 

Anders is happy there, but this mood changes when evening approaches with darkening clouds predicting a threatening thunderstorm. Anders´s father has to return to Växjö, preferably before the storm. He has the early morning shift at the station and as the weather shows signs of becoming violent and dangerous he tells Anders that he has to remain with the grandparents overnight. Alone with the ancient couple, while thunder, storm, and heavy rain rage around them, the boy listens to his ancient grandfather, who looks like a grave and mighty prophet, reading aloud from the Book of Revelation, about a judgmental God pouring out his seven bowls of wrath upon the earth to punish a humanity lost in sin against him.

In the middle of the night, the storm has subsided and Anders wakes up. With increasing fear he watches how his grandparents lay absolutely still next to each other. Worried he pitter-patters towards them, carefully and silently in the moonlight shining through the window. “Are they dead?” When he comes close to them he can see that his grandparents are breathing and thus assured he quietly returns to his bed, overwhelmed by terrifying thoughts about death. Anders´s own death and that of others are constantly on his mind. He is filled to the brim by worrisome thoughts and wild fantasies. Amidst his deeply religious close of kin, his entire existence is threatened by a dark cloud of anxiety hovering above him, created by his thoughts about God's fearful omnipotence and a relentlessly approaching death.

One day he sits alone on a garden path and thoughtlessly digs a small pit among the pebbles, the imposing restaurateur passes by, Anders's numerous family lives on the second floor of the railway restaurant. The stately man leans over the boy and states that he should be very careful about digging pits, however small they might mean that someone in his family will soon die. Terrified Anders fills in the pit and runs away. Who is going to die? Maybe his mother, maybe his sisters, maybe Grandma. Will his father be run over by a train?

Another day, Anders ends up by the restaurant's woodshed where the old firewood provider stands sawing lump wood, s ofhalf seriously and half-jokingly he tells the boy that he has been sawing and cutting firewood all his life and if he had not been doing all those living and working at the railway hotel and those living there would have frozen to death long ago. Once again, Anders is overtaken by his suffocating fear of death, not his own but the one of all those he loves and feels safe among. He goes down into the ice cellar of the restaurant to experience how dying from cold could feel like.

 

The incident with the sawing Wood Man appears to have been an unusually impressive childhood memory. A sawing old man is repeatedly appearing in Lagerkvist's texts. In collections of short stories like The Eternal Smile from 1920 and Evil Tales written in 1924 the Wood Man has become an incarnation of God, but not as a judgmental and threatening god. The sawing old man is an incarnation of the simple, hard peasant life. The peasant´s daily toil to bring food on the table, security, and shelter for his family. The Wood Man is by Lagerkvist representing a confident, dutiful god, like a “mother every day saying the same words to her children.” The God who Lagerkvist praises in his early writing is a seemingly uncomplicated figure, who through his humble and untiring toil provides peace and security to humanity. A God who draws up a boundary against abundance and exaggeration, who through his daily routines and strict laws guarantees balance and survival. Death is his servant, a prerequisite for the universe´s survival and constant renewal. A view of life that makes me think of the Swedish poet, children´s book writer, and artist Barbro Lindgren's simple and seemingly childish poems:

One time we shall die

You and I.

All people shall die

and all animals

and all trees will die

and the flowers on the ground,

but

not all at the same time

only now and then

making it hardly noticeable.

 

Perhaps Lagerkvist's early image of a stoically calm God and the necessity of facing death with calm and forbearance was an attitude created by the piety characterizing his parental home, where the only available books were the Bible and the Hymn Book of the Swedish Church. In the short story Father and I, one of the Evil Tales from 1924, published one year before Guest of Reality, terror breaks into the idyll. Just as in Guest of Reality, father and son are traveling on a handcart along a railroad track. They make a stop in a summery forest and the father tells his son how he liked to walk there as a child, they also visit the boy´s grandparents, but when night arrives and they return along the railway tracks, they are suddenly surprised by a violently onrushing train, completely unknown to the father, the experienced stationmaster. The train is a wanton intrusion into the boy's so far secure world. What frightens him most of all is the sight of his father's bewilderment while being confronted with an unknown train and the boy understands that the confident, pious man, after all, is not as self-confident and now-all as he had believed him to be. The father has his own doubts and weaknesses. The black locomotive, which with its unknown stoker and empty coaches rushes forward in the darkness of the night becomes an image of the life that lays waiting for the so far inexperienced boy. The train's end station will be the same for each and every one of us - Death.

When Lagerkvist wrote Father and I he was planning to write a comprehensive novel about his childhood. He intended to describe a worrying, though nevertheless credible reality, which not only would enter the mind of a constantly fantasizing child but also his feelings of security and quiescent joy while living close to his siblings and parents:

I will write a book (maybe somewhere in the South) about my childhood, the bookshelf with the Bible, the selection of homilies, Father and Mother, the old grandparents living out in the unspoiled nature, Grandmother with the burning stick in the mouth, Grandfather with his lice comb and brackish farts, paganism and raw, beautiful health ...

It was primarily the presence of a brooding death that would provide relief and depth to the novel and death overshadowed almost everything told in Guest of Reality and Death, the eternal presence of cold-blooded violence and God´s absence also came to characterize Pär Lagerkvist's later writing.

Like so many other children, I was occasionally harassed by paralyzing thoughts about a threatening Death, terrifying deliberations that thankfully has not returned since then. An experience that fueled my deeply felt horror of death was precisely Guest of Reality. Television came late to Sweden. While most of the so-called Western world already had been conquered by this deceitful device it took quite a long time before it appeared in Sweden. It was in 1956 that the Riksdag decided that television should be formally introduced and that all broadcasts would be state-controlled. Initially, they were concentrated on specific geographical areas, though by 1958 they had reached most parts of the Kingdom. Although those who had acquired the TV-sets had to settle for no more than a few hours of TV-watching per night, generally with programs conducted by well-behaved men and women telling their viewers what to appreciate and what to think.

It was in 1958 that the first newscast was introduced – Aktuellt. However, another year or two passed before my father bought a TV set. It was expensive, but he had to give in declaring that since he, after all, was a journalist he had to be able to ”follow” what was happening around him. Already at that time, the so-called ”public opinion” was becoming increasingly influenced by the few evening hours when almost the entire nation was imprisoned in front of the same television program. It was not until 1969 that the state-controlled Sweden's Radio, which the television company was still called, changed its name to The TV Company Sweden´s Television (SVT) and in 1979 it launched a second TV channel – TV 2.

I, and many others with me, still remember the magical feeling when the TV showed up in our home and we sat there imprisoned in an otherwise darkened room while the blue-gray light from the TVset was reflected from our fascinated faces. The exciting feeling when the bell from the City Hall of Stockholm announced that tonight's broadcasts were about to begin.

As I wrote above, the first TV programs were largely characterized by courteous ladies and gentlemen who spoke and acted in front of the cameras. There were still only limited methods for recording the programs and if there appeared any nature program, some exciting series, or a feature movie that had not been produced abroad, the national interest was greater than usual.

Sweden's Radio was already from the start producing several excellent plays and films exclusively made for TV, and it was not long after my father had acquired our television set that Guest of Reality hit me with violent force. Pär Lagerkvist's son Bengt had made a memorable interpretation of his father's novel and its overshadowing fear of death. Although he was at least five years older than me, I had no difficulty identifying with the film's Anders. My unconditional love of my mother and father, my sisters and grandparents, and all-consuming fear of death was by me just as primitive and fundamental as it had been with Anders.

When I in Gothenburg recently was confronted with Sven Ljungberg's interpretation of Anders' prayer in the woods, I recalled seeing it long ago as a woodblock print in some school anthology and was thus reminded not only of a strong reading experience from bygone times, but also how the same scen had been depicted in the TV film. I found it somewhat bewildering that I in such detail could remember something I had experienced almost sixty years ago.

Both the novel and the film clearly indicate how deeply rooted religion was among Anders's close of kin. They read aloud from the Bible and prayed together. However, the had realized that true, heartfelt faith is much more than just common piety, for him it also meant lonely ruminations and sacrifice. He had found a sacred spot just for himself. A place where he could be alone with his fearful God. To capture the right devotional mood he visited his sheltered place only during gloomy days with cold and drizzle. True faith required sacrifice if you are not prepared to sacrifice anything of your comfort and wellbeing your prayers would without effect. When the fear of death overwhelmed him, Anders walked along the railway tracks into the woods, until he found his prayer spot:

A little way in, surrounded by tussocks, lay a flat stone which was barely a few inches above ground level. There was nothing special about it. If anything was remarkable it was simply that there was a stone here at all, there were no others, the mossy earth let them sink. He glanced carefully round, out along the track, though no one would be likely to come that way. And he lay down on the stone and prayed. It was silent all around him, only the dripping from the trees. He was not to be heard either, he didn´t pray out loud, but his cheeks were burning. Straight ahead there was a swampy opening in the forest and in the middle stood a stunted pine barley the size of a man and he looked at this all the time, but he did not direct his prayer to it. No, he prayed to the same God as those at home, there was no difference. But, he had his own out here. His cheeks glowed, he kept his hands folded hard together and prayed no more than one thing: That he shouldn´t die, that none of them should die, none of them! That Father should live, and Mother and all the children. He counted them – the old ones in the country, all of them, all of them! Surely, no one would die! Everything would remain as it was. Nothing would change!

What scared the barely seven-year-old Jan Lundius when he saw that scene on TV was that he also was tormented by similar anxiety. Just like the film's Anders, I had found a secret place in a grove not far from my parental home where I prayed the same prayer – that God would not let any of my loved ones die.

Sven Ljungberg told that before he in 1957 made some wood engravings to illustrate a deluxe edition of Guest of Reality, he presented his sketches to Pär Lagerkvist. The author was quite impressed, declaring Ljungberg had been able to capture the emotions and setting he had tried to describe in his novel and that he was looking forward to see the wood engravings. As soon as Ljungberg had cut and printed the engravings he showed them to Lagerkvist who, after leafing through them again and again exclaimed:

- But what did you do with the picture of the boy praying in the forest?

- I didn't cut it because when I showed you the sketch, you didn't even look at it. You flipped past it as if you didn't like it.

- On the contrary, I was so moved and apprehended that you so skillfully had captured that particular episode that I couldn't even look at the picture. It is the best illustration of them all.

The fearsome culmination of Bengt Lagerkvist´s filmed version his father´s novel is when the grandmother had been buried and a grief-stricken Anders ended up at the funeral party, which in front of his tormented gaze after beginning a solemn affair degenerated into an alcohol-soaked feast where the guests were larking about, making a horrible racket while toasting, gossiping and laughing. When a drunken man playfully gobbled up the cross adorning the funeral cake Anders had more than enough. He went out into the wintry night, passed a couple of old men peeing in the snow, rounded the corner of the cottage and through a frostbitten window watched how his grandfather sat upright in the matrimonial bed reading the Bible in his grief-stricken loneliness. After the reading, the old man looked straight into emptiness and then carefully placed the Bible on the nightstand, while blowing out the candle. Anders turned around, walked through the crackling snow, stopped and looked up and into the starry sky; empty and desolate.

We know that Anders will soon leave his parents' safe piety behind. That he, in fact, is identical with Pär Lagerkvist who, at the age of twenty-five, threw himself into boundless anxiety, reflected in several expressionistic poems in his collection of poetry Ångest, Anguish, written in 1916. God is now dead, everything is cold, empty and devoid of all meaning:

Anguish, anguish is my heritage,

the wound of my throat,

the cry of my heart in the world.

Now the lathered sky congeals

in the coarse hand of night;

now the forests

and the rigid heights

rise barrenly against

the dwarfed vault of the sky.

How hard everything is,

how stiffened, black and silent!

 

I grope about this darkened room,

I feel the sharp edge of the cliff against my finger.

I tear my sore and aching hands

on the hills and darkened woods,

on the black iron of sky

and on the cold earth!

 

Anguish, anguish is my heritage,

the wound of my throat,

the cry of my heart in the world.

 

 

I have not been able to find out who did this translation, but assume it was Leif Sjöberg and W. H. Auden, who together interpreted poems by several Swedish modernists. Perhaps the young Lagerkvist by the time he wrote his fierce poems had been able to rid himself of his childhood fears of a vengeful, violent and all-powerful God. However, it is doubtful if that really was the case. A strong religious sentiment lingers on. Towards the end of Guest of Reality, a somewhat older Anders is visiting the Salvation Army. He has become fascinated by a young salvation officer but is worried by the overheated religiosity of the meetings and the ”oppressive purity” of the young lady he is attracted to.

Among the frescoes in Gothenburg's city library, Ljungberg has included a picture of a Salvation Army meeting, though it is a calm and somewhat chilly image. Far from an emotional and compassionate poem that strangely enough was included in Lagerkvist's book of anguish, published nine years before, Guest of Reality, he called it At the Salvation Army:

Just now, someone found God.

How the room radiates clarity!

A little person in gray,

worn clothes covering her body

like a feeble shell

around limbs thin and lukewarm,

she fumbles with trembling hands

in open space, blue and wide,

she rises on feet so hot

upwards, towards hovering stars.

 

 

It seems as if Pär Lagerkvist kept his specific brand of faith throughout his life. In book after book, he wrestled with an absent God. He even called himself ”God's secretary on earth.” Pär Lagerkvist's most famous novel, at least outside Swedish borders, is supposedly Barabbas.

It is the story of the robber being spared and released instead of Jesus. Barabbas saw the Lord tormented on the cross and witnessed how the world darkened as the helpless Savior died. The experience shook Barabbas within his innermost. His name means Son of the Father and we are all as incapable as him to be able to free us from our fathers´ heritage. In Barabbas´s case the Father was God himself. Jesus's death had relentlessly cast its shadow over Barabbas´s entire existence. Friends said that he had only imagined that when Jesus gave up his breath darkness covered the earth. They advised Barabbas to enjoy the life he had been granted through a strange coincidence.

However, Barabbas could not get out of his mind the man who had been chosen to die instead of him. He made his investigations into who this Jesus might have been. He met with his disciple Peter, as well as a woman who claimed t have been healed by Jesus. He even met Lazarus, whom Jesus was said to have risen from death, but all Lazarus had to say was that "The Kingdom of Death is nothing."

Disappointed, Barabbas returned to his criminal activities and once again became the leader of a ruthless band of bandits. However, he could not escape his destiny. He was taken prisoner, but Pilate was forced to acquit him because according to Roman law he could not punish someone who had previously been pardoned. The fact that Barabbas constantly avoided being killed, turned into a curse. He approached the Christians, but when he tried to share their faith in a man whose death had truly saved him, something always happened that made Barabbas despair and doubt. The Christians constantly approached him, after all – he had seen the Master up close and been with him when he died. In order not to disappoint them, Barabbas invented miracle stories about Jesus. In the end, he almost appeared to believe in them himself. However, every time Barabbas tried to come close to others, he became disappointed. He remained an outsider all his life.

When he was forced to work as a slave in the mines of Cyprus, Barabbas almost became a Christian, but when the only friend he ever had, the Christian Zahak, died, Barabbas despaired again. He ended up in Rome, constantly searching for meaning with his life. Why was he spared death? Was it the will of the Christians´ invisible and silent God's? He had heard that Christians met in the catacombs outside the walls of Rome, but as he went astray in the darkness of endless underground corridors he could not find a trace of any Christians. When he returned to Rome, the entire city was up in flames. He heard people say that it was the Christians who had started the fire. Barabbas knew that it had been said that the resurrected Jesus one day would destroy the evil of the world and he now imagined that the burning of Rome was a decisive proof of Jesus's deity. With enthusiasm he made sure that the fire spread even further, only to find that it was the Roman emperor who had caused the fire and that he was putting the blame on the Christians. Barabbas was imprisoned, but when his ”fellow” Christians found out that Barabbas had been involved in spreading the fire, they turned their backs on him, even though Barabbas like them had been sentenced to death, accused of being a Christian. When Christians were taken away to be executed, they sang and prayed in unison, secure in their close togetherness and strong faith, Barabbas was crucified alone, far from the others. Into the approaching darkness, he cried in despair: "To you, I deliver my soul!"

The year after Pär Lagerkvist wrote Barabbas, the colossal movie Quo Vadis, about Nero's persecution of the Christians, became a world success. It is said that it rescued Metro-Goldwyn-Mayor, MGM, from a threatening bankruptcy. Sword-and-sandal films came into fashion and as early as 1952 the Swedish film company Sandrews made its biggest investment ever – Barabbas was filmed in Israel and Rome, while interiors were shot in Sweden. Director was Alf Sjöberg, who twice had won the Gold Palm in Cannes - 1944 with Torment and in 1951 with Miss Julie.

Sjöberg's directing assistant was the young Bengt Lagerkvist, who thus began his career in Swedish film. He subsequently made highly acclaimed series for The Swedish Television, films based on famous Swedish classics, such as The People of Hemsö (1966), The Queen's Tiara (1967), Bombi Bitt and I (1968) and Somewhere in Sweden (1973), to name just a few of his most acclaimed TVseries.

Barabbas competed in Cannes, but was not rewarded, instead it recieved awful reviews. The criticism was devastating, for example, did Max Favalelli, film critic of Paris Press, write:

Imagine a burlesque opera, staged by a director with a strong pathos and played by a bunch of inept old men from some second-rate small town theatre. It is, in fact, the most stressful experience I have had ever since I fled Paris during the German occupation.

 

Sandrews had played for high stakes and lost miserably, the disaster was somewhat smoothened when Swedish director Arne Sucksdorff won both the Palme d´Or at Cannes and the Golden Bear in Berlin with his The Great Adventure about two boys and an otter.

 

 

Although there is some risk that it was worthy of a Golden Turkey Award I would like to watch Alf Sjöberg's Barabbas, though I do not know how to get hold it. However, I have seen and appreciated Richard Fleischer's Barabbas from 1961, with Anthony Quinn as Barabbas, but also with several Italian big stars in the cast, like Silvana Mangano and Vittorio Gassman. Dino De Laurentiis produced the film and Nobel Laureate and poet Salvatore Quasimodo participated in the writing of the screenplay, though I do not know how Pär Lagerkvist reacted to the film and its fairly extensive reworkings of his story. However, I know that he was present during the fourteen days when Alf Sjöberg filmed Barabbas in Rome.Fleischer's film was shot exclusively in Rome and Verona. Ben Hur, the 1959 feature film, was also filmed within CineCittá in Rome. If Ben Hur had the famous horse race as its climax and main attraction, Fleischer´s Barabbas had gladiator fights, especially the one between Anthony Quinn and the demonic Jack Palance, who in 1953 unforgettably had played the black-clad villain in Shane .

 

 


 

The father of my good friend Alessio Morelli owned a delicatessen near one of the apartments we have lived in here in Rome. He sold the store several years ago. Well, Alessio's father once told me how he and his brother, who in his youth had been a professional boxer, the same day but in different parts of Rome had been recruited as extras for Quo Vadis. Each had been stopped in the street and asked to participate in the movie and became quite surprised when they met in CineCittá. Since then the had been participating in many of the sword-and-sandal films with biblical, Roman or Greek-mythological motifs that were mass-produced in Italy between 1958 and 1965 when Spaghetti Westerns took over. In Italy, such films are called cine di peplum, after the Latin name for the short tunics that the film heroes and heroines used to wear.


The Morelli brothers assumed that the highlight of their movie career was when they acted as gladiators in Fleischer´s Barabbas, in which the youngest brother was chosen to stage a violent gladiator battle with no less than the great Jack Palance. The brothers generally had to play infantry soldiers, wrestlers, galley slaves, or gladiators since the movie directors generally assumed they were too heavy for equestrian scenes. Unfortunately, the younger brother's gladiator scewas cut from the final version of Barabbas, a movie marketed as Begins where the other big ones leave off! In contrast to the somewhat laterne  feature film Cleopatra, which nearly bankrupted 20th Century FoxBarabbas became a huge success with movie critics.

 

 

My father had most of Lagerkvist's books in his bookshelf and one time I read the short novels he wrote after Barabbas. I do not know if Lagerkvist wrote any more poems after 1953. He did, however, continue his stubborn fight with his absent and cruel God. Like death, which is present by its absence, since it is alive and well in our thoughts, Lagerkvist´s God is also very much present, in spite of his obvious absence.

 

Lagerkvist´s novel The Sybil tells the story about a girl who is chosen to become a sacred being. The choice is made by a bunch of scamming priests who do not really believe in the oracle and god they are serving. Nevertheless, just by being chosen to become holy, the girl is gravely affected by the presence of an absent god. She becomes special and has to suffer by not being like others. She is sacrificed by religious bigotry but still feels that there is some kind of presence beyond all the trappings of the official religion, a hidden mystery beyond human existence. The absence/presence of God completely changes and eventually destroys the poor girl. She is sacrificed on several levels, both personal and spiritual. She falls in love with a man and since this is forbidden for a Sybil the man is executed. During a ceremony, the Sybil becomes pregnant with a child who turns out to be mentally handicapped. The Sybil knows that she would not have the child if it had not been for the absent god's presence. Since she so obviously had lost her virginity, she also loses her gift of prophecy and is ostracized from society. She is forced to live alone with her half-witted son, being the only one among the ”believers” around her who actually has experienced God´s presence on earth, been touched and afflicted by Him.


 

Ahasverus in Ahasverus's Death has had a similar experience. He had also met God, in the shape of Jesus, who during his walk to Calvary by Ahasverus was denied to rest by his door, a crime that was severely punished by God. Like the Sybil, Ahasverus became an involuntarily chosen victim of God's apparent capriciousness. Why did God let Jesus stop by the door of Ahasverus? The unfortunate encounter with God´s son made Ahasverus an outcast. He laments his grief, rages against a God who by appearing in the midst of humankind "robbed people of their innocence", only to them leave them alone with nagging doubts and bad conscience. An emptiness that is not an emptiness at all, because neither God nor death can be entirely dispelled and this is precisely what torments Ahasverus and makes him hate God and the religion that Jesus left behind. The presence of nothingness that suffocates life.

 

– He keeps us away from what we actually long for, while he assumes we long for him.

 

Religion blocks our experience of what is truly divine. Rituals and religious bigotry obscure the sacred. Since both Ahasverus and the Sibyl were gravely affected by the cruelty of an invisible/absent God, they can never rid themselves of the thought of Him

In Pilgrim at Sea we meet Tobias, who previously had met with Ahasverus and since then, like him, had been trying to get rid of his anguish, his forlorn search after an absent God. He sets off on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land but ends up on a pirate ship, sailed by a bunch of brutal bandits. Among them is the rouge Giovanni, who wholeheartedly appears to enjoy the rough and unrestrained life among the seaports' criminals and prostitutes. Giovanni was once a priest, though he lost his assignment and was expelled when his pious congregation learned that he had fallen in love with a married woman and that his love was reciprocated. He had since then chosen to ignore God's silence and cruelty by becoming a full-fledged villain. However, like the Sybil and Ahasverus, Giovanni was nevertheless an outcast, but unlike the Sybil, Giovanni did not become a hermit. However, God did not leave Giovanni alone with his sins. He stroke him down with incurable blindness. Giovanni wondered day and night if this was God´s punishment, or merely something that could befall anyone, a godfearing saint just as well as a blasphemous sinner. However, Giovanni finds no relief in the world of crime and debauchery, though both he and Tobias perceives some tranquility at sea, a border zone between the worlds of mankind.

In the Holy Land, Giovanni and Tobias end up on an unknown coast, with ruins of a forgotten temple. The shepherds who live there do not seem to know God. They wonder why Giovanni has become blind and he tells them that he assumes it is a punishment from God. They ask him why he is so sure about that, among them, there are also blind people who apparently have not committed any serious sins as all. Why would an omnipotent creature like Giovanni´s God among millions of others care about one insignificant human being? Giovanni has no answer but is well aware of the fact he has sinned against an unknown, mighty god and that must be the reason for his particular blindness. There must be a connection – Giovanni cannot help interpreting his suffering as a proof of God´s existence. Furthermore, even if God does not exist that does not hinder that a belief in His presence makes us human suffer.


 

I don't know if I remember Lagerkvist´s books correctly. I have not read them again. I once asked my father why he kept all those books by Lagerkvist. Did he like them? "Well, I don't know," he replied. “They are not particularly entertaining, but I couldn't help reading them. And now they are standing there. It's hard to tell if they're good or not. They stand there and remind me of their presence.” Contrary to many other books I have read, Lagerkvist´s stories have basically remained with me. They are so to speak both present and absent. Impersonal and hard to forget, like myths and fairy tales.


 

Finally, Lagerkvist became some kind of national monument, Nobel Laureate, and Academy member. Was he a Christian, or an atheist? He was definitely "not like people are most". Many thought he was boring. I considered it to be a healthy sign when a poet like Göran Palm, son of the pastor and rather well-known theologian Samuel Palm, in his poetry happily kicked in every direction. He devoted more than twenty years to the writing of an epic in blank verse, which he called Sweden - a Winter´s Tale, dealing with “the continuous dismantling of the dream of a fair and just people's home [”the people´s home” was a famous slogan of the Swedish Socialdemocratic Party].” In his poem The Sergeant of the Soul from 1963, Palm wanders through Stockholm. In short sentences, he describes what he sees and encounters in Sweden´s capital. Each sight is followed by an angry comment, or an absurd, not realized, action. The long poem is unrestrained, senseless, funny and provocative. For example:


 

An age-old relative comes dressed in black

comes out from the Elim Chapel.

Tell her you often think about her

while you masturbate.

She may need some encouragement.

 

The Elim Chapel was the Baptists´ main church in Stockholm. Much of what Palm wrote was hostile to religion. As the priest´s son, he actually was, he might have been what my father used to call "a grandchild of God," i.e. someone who stood one step further away from God than “God´s children”. Palm was a prominent member of the League of Humanists who promoted and probably continues to do so (they have renamed their association The Humanists) secularism, or more correctly what they label as secular humanism, i.e. a good and just society freed from God, church and religious pondering. Göran Palm does in his poem also provide a humorous comment on the generally respected brooder Pär Lagerkvist:

 

Pär Lagerkvist steps out of a taxi.

Tell him that ”Barabbas”

is the funniest book you have ever read!

 

 

I do not know if Pär Lagerkvist succeeded in overcoming the horrors of his childhood, but it is clear that throughout his eighty years long, conscious life he wrestled with his origins in bible-faithful Småland. The overshadowing presence of God lingered, even after Lagerkvist imagined that it had been dispersed. He could never free himself from his God. Throughout his life, Lagerkvist was tormented by God´s absence. Like Barabbas, he wants to believe in God, but since understanding, according to Lagerkvist, is a prerequisite for belief, he is unable to do do so.

 

One thing is certain, and it is that his son Bengt, during his last few months in life was paralyzed by his thoughts about death. In a TV interview he gave in 2014 sometime before his death, Bengt Lagerkvist told the journalist:

 

I suffer from pulmonary fibrosis making it hard for me to breathe and my heart becomes strained. I have to be constantly connected to an oxygen apparatus and can only with great difficulty take a short walk around the square below. This disease suddenly struck me a month ago and has changed my life, now when I soon will be 85 years old. It is extremely difficult to accept. I have an enomous fear of death. Sadly enough.

 

 

Since many years back, I have no fear whatsoever of death. I cannot remember when this fear disappeared. I assume it had blown away when I reached the age of Anders in Guest of Reality. Maybe it will come back when I get older and frail. Might fear of death be hereditary? I sat by both my father's and my mother's deathbed. I was very fond of them and sometimes am deeply affected by the loss of them. However, I am grateful that when I sat next to them during their last hours on earth they did not demonstrate any fear or worries about their approaching death. Neither did they do so earlier. Although they rarely talked about it, I do not think they believed in Heaven or Hell. Neither Mother nor Father, were particularly religious, although during my childhood they often went to the church accompanied by us children and they were familiar with the Bible and the Swedish Hymn Book. When I was a kid we blessed the food together and thanked God for it, but I cannot remember they did it when I had become an adult.

 

A fear of death like the one Lagerkvist described in Guest of Reality must be difficult to endure. It also seems to be characterized by its environment. While writing about Guest of Reality I came to think about the Englishman Julian Barnes. In Nothing to be Frightened of he writes about his and others' horror of death. Because the majority of people around him, and society at large, seem to take fairly lightly on the certainty of death he finds his suffering to be quite embarrassing. For as long as he can remember, fear of death has been a part of Barnes's existence. Every day he thinks about death and during nights

 

I am thrown from sleep into darkness, panic and a malicious awareness that this is a world to be borrowed. . . awake, alone, completely alone, I hit the pillow with my fist and scream 'Oh no! Oh no! Oh NO ”during an incessant chatter.

 

 

According to Barnes, death is nothing but non-existence, a total emptiness. His book is called Nothing to be Frightenned of and it is this ”nothing”, an all-encompassing, complete void, which scares him. Barnes wonders why he has to mentally crippled by ”nothingness”. To him, religion is a worthless cure for death anxiety, as well as psychotherapy, this modern religion devoid of Christianity's impressive history marked as it is by poignant music and masterful art. According to Branes, psychotherapy is nothing but a superficial humbug, a ”contemporary religion” trying to create a

 

secular, modern heaven of self-fulfilment: the development of the personality, the relationships which help define us, the status-giving job, . . . the accumulation of sexual exploits, the visits to the gym, the consumption of culture. It all adds up to happiness, doesn’t it — doesn’t it? This is our chosen myth.

 

Optimism is self-deception. A belief in bodily functions has superseded the profound mysticism of religion, which unfortunately is equally worthless in alleviating death anxiety – God´s absence in the dark night of the soul, which may have brought some world-averted and deranged fanatics closer to Him, but not Julian Barnes. To him, the brain is just a lump of meat and the soul merely ”a story the brain tells itself.” Individuality is an illusion. Scientists have found no physical evidence a ”self” and even less so the existence of a soul.

 

As a feeble remedy for overcoming his death anxiety, Julian Barnes wrote a book about death, memories, meditations on the meaning of life, and the complete disappearance of God, but unlike Lagerkvist's profound mysteries, Barnes's offers a concoction written with tempo, wit, and British humor, filled with entertaining, and some pointless anecdotes about other death-obsessed writers, artists, and composers, like the unforgettable story about Sergei Rachmaninov´s fear of death. As an example of Barnes's witty storytelling, the rachmaninovian anecdote is worth quoting in its entirety:

 

Every thanataphobe needs the temporary comfort of a worst-case exemplar. I have G. he has Rachmaninov, a man both terrified of death and terrified that there might be survival after it; a composer who worked the Dies Irae into his music more times than anyone else; a cinema-goer who ran gibbering from the hall during the opening graveyard scene of Frankenstein. Rachmaninov only surprised his friends when he didn´t want to talk about death. A typical occasion; in 1915, he went to visit the poet Marietta Shaginyan and her mother. First, he asked the mother to tell his fortune in cards, in order (of course) to find out how much longer he had to live. Then he settled down to talk to the daughter about death; his chosen text that day being a short story by Artstbashev. There was a dish of salted pistachio nuts at hand. Rachmaninov ate a mouthful, talked about death. Suddenly, he broke off and laughed. ”The pistachio nuts have made my fear go away. Do you know where to?” Neither the poet nor her mother could answer this question, but when Rachmanicov left for Moscow they gave him a whole sack of nuts for the journey ”to cure his fear of death”.

 

 

With Barnes, we are far away from Pär Lagekvist's heavy-hearted myth-making, but his good mood cannot hide death´s ominous presence. An entirely different author than Lagerkvist and Barnes is Astrid Lindgren, although she also, just like Pär Lagerkvist, finds her roots deep down in Småland´s soil. Maybe this ingenious teller of children´s tales is not so different from neither the myth-making Lagerkvist nor the witty Julian Barnes. Astrid also appeared to suffer from a severe fear of death, maybe a legacy from her pious childhood. She also told myths and stories to master her fear of death and what she perceived to be the death, or at least absence, of God. When someone asked Astrid if she still kept her childhood faith and still believed in God, she replied:

 

No, I honestly I don't. Although if my father had lived, I might never have dared to say this because then he would have become sad. It is perhaps shameful by me to deny God because I still thank him quite often and pray to him when I am in despair.

 

 

Something Pär Lagerkvist could probably approve of, and probably practiced as well. In book after book, Astrid Lindgren tackled her thoughts about God's absence and the certainty of death and like Lagerkvist she did so in the form of fairy tales and myths.

 

Probably more than any other modern storyteller, death is present in Astrid's stories. In older fairy tales, however, Death is a well-known figure. A master teller like H. C. Andersen was at least as obsessed with death as Astrid Lindgren, though his tales about Death are by far more lugubrious than those written by Astrid.

 

 

The mother of Pippi Longstockings is an angel. The children in the short story collection The Red Bird have all lost their parents and are themselves dying. In Simon Small Moves In, Bertil's sister has died. In the young adult´s book Kati in Paris, the protagonist considers suicide. In Ronja the Robber´s Daughter, the kind and old Skalle-Per dies. In Mio´s Kingdom and The Brothers Lionheart death is most evident.

 

Mio´s Kingdom takes place in the magical Land of Faraway, perhaps it is the same fantasy kingdom as Nagirjala in The Brothers Lion Heart and I wonder if the land in Mio´s Kingdom, like Nangirjala is a reign of death invented by Astrid to mitigate her own fear of death and its constant presence, symbolized by the Sorrowbird.

But in the top of the tallest poplar, sat a great black solitary bird. It sang more sweetly than all the white birds put together. It felt as if this bird sang only for me. But I didn´t want to listen, beacuse its song was so eery.

Death, the bird and a reborn tree are found in the tragic short story My Nightingale is Singing, one of the death-obsessed tales in The Red Bird. In this short fairy tale, the orphaned Malin dies among the old people at a fattigstuga, poorhouse, but her departed soul causes a seemingly dead tree to bloom. Absence – Presence.

 

 

Close to the end of her life, Astrid spoke to her sisters Ingegerd and Stina on the phone every day. They always started their conversations with the words "The Death, the Death", to ”get rid of that issue”, clear the air and then talk about other, nicer things. The seemingly unassuming ease with which Astrid paces around her death anxiety is somewhat reminiscent of Julian Barnes's stylistic, humorous overcrowding around his constant torment, under both attitudes we perceive an ever-deepening darkness.

 

In an interview shortly after her son Lars had died, Astrid Lindgren stated that "You have to live in such a way that you become friends with death." The statement was followed by a longer pause, then she said, almost inaudibly: ”That´s what I believe, tra, la, la.” This has been interpreted as her way of trivializing grief, but I think it was the other way around, I suppose it was memories from the Småland of her childhood that rose to the surface – the profound sadness and sense of loss reflected in a strange dance song I heard as a child, but then I did not understand that it was perhaps dealing with death and that death anxiety maybe can be overcome by an absurd belief in a life after this:

Thief and thief, shall be thy name,

´cause you stole my little friend,

though I´ll have sweet comfort

that I´ll get her back again.

That´s what I believe, tra la la,

That´s what I believe, tra la la,

That´s what I believe, tra la la,

That´s what I believe, tra la la.

 

 

Barnes, Julian (2019) Nothing to be Frightened of. London: Vintage. Lagerkvist, Pär (1963) The Sybil. London:Vintage. Lagerkvist, Pär (1966) The Holy Land. London:Vintage. Lagerkvist, Pär (1982) Pilgrim at Sea. London:Vintage. Lagerkvist, Pär (1982) Death of Ahasuerus. London: Vintage. Lagerkvist, Pär (1989) Barabbas. London:Vintage. Lagerkvist, Pär (1989) Guest of Reality and Other Stories. London: Quartet Books. Lindgren, Astrid (2011) Mio´s Kingdom. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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