Paer Lagerkvist - World Literature

World Literature

Paer Lagerkvist


BORN: 1891, Vaexjoe, Sweden

DIED: 1974, Stockholm, Sweden


GENRE: Fiction, drama, poetry


Literary Art and Pictorial Art: On the Decadence of Modern Literature, on the Vitality of Modern Art (1913)

Barabbas (1951)

Pilgrim at Sea (1962)

The Holy Land (1966)



Paer Lagerkvist. Lagerkvist, Par F., photograph. The Library of Congress.



Regarded as one of the foremost Swedish literary figures of the twentieth century, Lagerkvist displayed throughout his career a concern with metaphysical and moral issues arising from conflicts between science, religion, and human conduct. Influenced by innovations in French modernist painting, as well as by the evolutionary theories of Charles Darwin and the expressionist techniques of dramatist August Strindberg, Lagerkvist’s work often incorporates elements from folktales, fables, and myths and is characterized by obscure symbolism, abstract imagery, and simple, unadorned language.


Works in Biographical and Historical Context

An Early Rejection of Tradition. Paer Lagerkvist was born on May 23, 1891, in the city of Vaexjoe in the southern Swedish district of Smaland. Even though he was raised in an atmosphere of provincialism and religious orthodoxy, Lagerkvist rejected these values, and in 1913, following a year of study at the University of Uppsala, he traveled to Paris, where he became acquainted with the fauvist, cubist, and ‘‘naivist’’ movements in the visual arts. He found himself deeply impressed with both the intellectual discipline and aesthetic innovations of these groups.

Bitter Belief against a Backdrop of Global Gloom. Lagerkvist’s early work was dark, lyrical, and pessimistic. Deeply disturbed by immense destructiveness of World War I (1914-1918), his writings of this era feature the conflict between traditional Christian and modern scientific-determinist views. Lagerkvist’s works were largely concerned with man’s relationship to God, with the meaning of life, and with the conflict between good and evil. Although Lagerkvist’s later works were thematically similar to his earlier works, they became more accessible, less pessimistic, and more realistic. Eventually Lagerkvist came to believe that good and love could triumph over evil. His play Han som fick leva om sitt liv (He who lived his life over again), published in 1928, is generally regarded as the beginning of the more mature, optimistic period of his writing.

Salvation for the Damned: A New (Old) Vision of Humanity. In his later years, Lagerkvist devoted himself primarily to writing the novels for which he is perhaps best known outside of Sweden. Working in the wake of the global catastrophe that was World War II (1939-1945) Lagerkvist was, like much of the world, nearly desperate for a vision of hope. During World War II, Sweden maintained its neutrality while Germany pursued a policy of aggressive territorial expansion and the systematic murder of six million European Jews. At the time, many in Sweden objected to their government's lack of involvement in fighting the Nazis.

Beginning with Barabbas (1950), Lagerkvist assembled a cycle of narratives that continued his examination of humanity’s unending quest for meaning. One of Lagerkvist's most acclaimed works, Barabbas has been adapted for both stage and film; it was after its publication that Lagerkvist received the Nobel Prize for Literature (in 1951).

Death of a Tyrant’s Wife. Lagerkvist’s final novel, Herod and Mariamne (1967), tells the story of Herod the Great, the tyrannical king of Judaea, and of his love for his queen, the good and compassionate Mariamne. Published a year after the death of his wife, Lagerkvist acknowledged the autobiographical element in Herod and Mariamne, writing that the sense of loss experienced by Herod was his own at the death of his wife. Although he continued to make preliminary sketches for new literary works, Lagerkvist published nothing else thereafter. His final notebook, begun in 1970, reveals his continued literary activity and traditional literary themes; it runs to more than one thousand pages and consists primarily of personal reflections on his ambivalent relationship to God and on his own approaching death. Paer Lagerkvist died in Stockholm on July 11, 1974.



Lagerkvist's famous contemporaries include:

Boris Pasternak (1890-1960): In addition to his influential poetry, this Russian author also wrote Doctor Zhivago.

J. R. R. Tolkien (1892-1973): An English scholar and the author of The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Wilfred Owen (1893-1918): An English soldier and poet whose work was critical of World War I, in which he ultimately died—one week before the war ended.

Benito Mussolini (1883-1945): The Italian leader of the National Fascist Party in Italy, he met a gruesome end that reflected his own grisly approach to controlling his populace.

Ho Chi Minh (1890-1969): A Vietnamese revolutionary and the first president of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam).

Fatima Jinnah (1893-1969): A Pakistani political leader who was a prime figure in the Pakistan movement for independence from Great Britain and India.


Works in Literary Context

Lagerkvist's early work functioned as a reaction against contemporary literary trends. In 1913, in fact, Lagerkvist began a period in his career in which he deliberately tried to incorporate the trends in the visual arts—expressionism, cubism, and fauvism, in particular—into his literary art. In his later career, however, Lagerkvist turned to a much more traditional source of inspiration: the Bible. Lagerkvist’s best-known work is based on a character from the Bible and incorporates the simplistic narrative structure of vast portions of the Bible.

In Search of a New Literature. Lagerkvist became acquainted with the fauvist, cubist, and ‘‘naivist’’ movements in the visual arts during a trip to France in 1913. Impressed with both the intellectual discipline and aesthetic innovations of these groups, Lagerkvist issued the theoretical pamphlet Literary Art and Pictorial Art: On the Decadence of Modern Literature, on the Vitality of Modern Art. In this, his first literary manifesto, Lagerkvist calls for a renewal of literature that would parallel the dynamic developments and formal experimentation in contemporary art. He put his principles into action in his next publications, including Motifs (1914), a collection of poetry and prose, and Iron and Men (1915), a collection of five short stories that deal with human existence in the face of the violence and anxiety of World War I. Both display Lagerkvist’s attempts to put principles of cubism into literary practice, but there is a degree of stylization and a tension between violent content and artistic form that has led these to be considered among Lagerkvist’s least successful works.

Back to the Bible. In the majority of his works published between 1950 and 1967—a total of six novels and one collection of poetry—Lagerkvist’s primary focus is the examination of the relationship between the human and the divine—specifically, humanity’s relationship to the Christian God. In Barabbas, the scant biblical references to the robber and insurrectionist who was released instead of Christ are Lagerkvist’s starting point for a masterly novel about the relationship between doubt and faith, the human and the divine. Lagerkvist uses a sparse but monumental style, consciously modeled on that of the Bible but also owing much to the narrative techniques of popular storytelling.

A Tradition of External Inspiration. Since Lagerkvist’s time, other authors have attempted both to incorporate the conventions of other art forms into literature and to use the Bible as a model for their own writing. As an example, Toni Morrison’s Jazz attempts to re-create the feeling of listening to jazz music in her novel’s plot structure and in her character representation. Meanwhile, Anita Diamant’s The Red Tent, like Barab- bas, takes a relatively minor figure from the Bible and spins an entire novel out of this character’s experiences. Indeed, Diamant focuses on the treatment of women during the early biblical period, offering readers a unique view of that period of history.



Barabbas reinterprets a traditional character from a new perspective. Here are a few works that attempt to rethink the importance and personalities of famous and infamous figures in terms of contemporary values:

Marie Antoinette (2006), a film directed by Sophia Coppola. Marie Antoinette—historically seen as a queen whose excesses so enraged her people that they beheaded her—is presented in this film as a lonely young girl married to an impotent and uninterested man.

Romeo + Juliet (1996), a film directed by Baz Luhrmann. By changing the setting of this famous Shakespeare play to a contemporary one, the film attempts to point out the fact that, above all else, the two lovers' plight is a result of teenage anger, repression, and sexual drive.

A Thousand Acres (1991), a novel by Jane Smiley. In this novel, Smiley reimagines the relationship Shakespeare's King Lear had with his daughters using contemporary Iowa as a setting. Smiley suggests that Lear was a drunken child molester and that the daughters must find a way to survive their father by joining together.


Works in Critical Context

Although Lagerkvist’s early, most experimental work was largely panned, his later work—particularly Barabbas— has received mostly positive reviews. Critics note its sleek, spare style on the one hand, and its effortless combination of realism with spiritual conflict on the other. Nonetheless, some critics have argued that Lagerkvist does not take enough time or effort to flesh out his characters and, instead, presents flat, unrealistic characters.

Barabbas. Lagerkvist was virtually unknown in the United States until the publication of the English translation of Barabbas in 1951, the same year he received the Nobel Prize for Literature. The novel is the story of the condemned thief whose place Christ took on the cross. In a review of the novel, Graham Bates remarks, ‘‘The work combines the utmost physical realism with an intensity of spiritual conflict not often equaled in the retelling of Biblical tales. Paer Lagerkvist has taken a man barely mentioned in the New Testament and has built him into a character as real, as evil, and as good as he must have been to the men who knew him those centuries ago. This is no outline sketch in black and white but a deeply conceived and richly colored portrait of a man driven beyond the powers of his endurance by a force he could never actually believe in.’’

Charles Rollo calls Barabbas a ‘‘small masterpiece,’’ observing, ‘‘In a prose style that is swift, sparing, limpid, and hauntingly intense in its effects—a style whose energy and beauty the translator, Alan Blair, has magnificently preserved—Lagerkvist evokes the early Christian era with a selective realism more telling than any ponderously detailed reconstruction of the past. Every image sustains the feeling, ‘That is the way things were’; every movement in the story has an unerring rightness.’’ Harvey Breit has praised Lagerkvist for taking ‘‘a complex moral theme’’ and constructing the tale ‘‘with a craftsman’s complete mastery and simplicity,’’ synthesizing ‘‘an elaborate, moral vision and austere poetic style.’’


Responses to Literature

1. Read Barabbas. What effect do you believe Lagerkvist was trying to achieve by basing his biblical characters less on the traditional, biblical representation and more on people from Lagerkvist’s own life? Do you believe he achieved this effect? Cite specific examples from the text to support your response.

2. Using the Internet and the library, research cubism, expressionism, and fauvism. Then read Iron and Men. In what ways do you think this text exemplifies the values of these visual art traditions? Cite specific passages from the text and paintings from the various art traditions in your response.

3. Read Lagerkvist’s Pilgrim at Sea. Based on your reading of the text, do you agree with Michele Murray’s assessment that Lagerkvist’s characters in this text are merely ‘‘mouthpieces of Good or Evil or Lust or Cupidity,’’ not fully fleshed-out characters? Why or why not?

4. To understand what it is like to interpret the values of one art form into the traditions of another, consider a painting, sculpture, poem, film, or novel that you enjoy. Then, attempt to represent in one of the other art forms the experience you have contemplating the work of art you enjoy. For instance, if you enjoy the film Reality Bites, try to re-create the impression of this film in a painting or sculpture. If you like the sculptures of Giacometti, try to write a short story that explores the life of one of his figures.




Fearnley, Ragnhild. Paer Lagerkvist. Oslo: Gyldendal, 1950.

Sjoeberg, Leif. Paer Lagerkvist. New York: Columbia University Press, 1976.

Spector, Robert Donald. Paer Lagerkvist. New York: Twayne, 1973.

Weathers, Winston. Paer Lagerkvist: A Critical Essay. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1968.


Spector, Robert D. ‘‘Lagerkvist and Existentialism.’’ Scandinavian Studies (1960).

________. ‘‘Lagerkvist, Swift and the Devices of Fantasy.’’ Western Humanities Review (1958).

________. ‘‘Lagerkvist’s Uses of Deformity.’’ Scandinavian Studies (1961).

Swanson, Roy A. ‘‘Lagerkvist and Existentialism.’’ Scandinavian Studies (1966).

________. ‘‘Lagerkvist’s Dwarf and the Redemption of Evil.’’ Discourse (1970).

Vowles, Richard B. ‘‘The Fiction of Paer Lagerkvist.’’ Western Humanities Review (1954).