Authors: Pär Lagerkvist

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Swedish novelist, playwright, and poet

Author Works

Long Fiction:

Människor, 1912 (novella)

Det eviga leendet, 1920 (novella; The Eternal Smile, 1934)

Gäst hos verkligheten, 1925 (novella; Guest of Reality, 1936)

Bödeln, 1933 (novella; The Hangman, 1936)

Dvärgen, 1944 (The Dwarf, 1945)

Barabbas, 1950 (English translation, 1951)

Sibyllan, 1956 (The Sibyl, 1958)

Ahasverus död, 1960 (The Death of Ahasuerus, 1960)

Pilgrim på havet, 1962 (Pilgrim at Sea, 1964)

Det heliga landet, 1964 (The Holy Land, 1966)

Pilgrimen, 1966 (collective title for previous 3 novels)

Mariamne, 1967 (Herod and Mariamne, 1968)

Short Fiction:

Två sagor om livet, 1913

Järn och människor, 1915

Onda sagor, 1924

Kämpande ande, 1930

I den tiden, 1935

The Eternal Smile, and Other Stories, 1954

The Marriage Feast, and Other Stories, 1955

Prosa I-V, 1956

The Eternal Smile: Three Stories, 1971


Sista mänskan, pb. 1917 (The Last Man, 1989)

Den svåra stunden, pr., pb. 1918 (The Difficult Hour, I-III, 1966)

Himlens hemlighet, pb. 1919 (The Secret of Heaven, 1966)

Den osynlige, pb. 1923

Han som fick leva om sitt liv, pr., pb. 1928 (The Man Who Lived His Life Over, 1971)

Konungen, pb. 1932 (The King, 1966)

Bödeln, pb. 1933 (adaptation of his novella; The Hangman, 1966)

Mannen utan själ, pb. 1936 (The Man Without a Soul, 1944)

Seger i mörker, pb. 1939

Midsommardröm i fattighuset, pr., pb. 1941 (Midsummer Dream in the Workhouse, 1953)

De vises sten, pb. 1947 (The Philosopher’s Stone, 1966)

Låt människan leva, pr., pb. 1949 (Let Man Live, 1951)

Barabbas, pr., pb. 1953 (adaptation of his novel)

Dramatik, pb. 1956 (3 volumes)


Ångest, 1916

Den lyckliges väg, 1921

Hjärtats sånger, 1926

Vid lägereld, 1932

Genius, 1937

Sång och strid, 1940

Dikter, 1941

Hemmet och stjärnan, 1942

Aftonland, 1953 (Evening Land, 1975)


Ordkonst och bildkonst, 1913 (Literary Art and Pictorial Art, 1982)

Teater, 1918

“Modern teater: Synpunkter och angrepp,” 1918 (“Modern Theatre: Points of View and Attack,” 1966)

Det besegrade livet, 1927

Den knutna näven, 1934 (The Clenched Fist, 1982)

Den befriade människan, 1939

Antecknat, 1977


Motiv, 1914 (poetry, essays, and prose sketches)

Kaos, 1919 (poetry and the play The Secret of Heaven)

Modern Theatre: Seven Plays and an Essay, 1966

Five Early Works, 1989


Pär Fabian Lagerkvist (LAH-gur-kvihst), the winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1951, was instrumental in bringing Sweden into the mainstream of European movements in twentieth century literature and art. He gained international recognition as a somber, original stylist in fiction and drama. He was born in Växjö, a small town in the Swedish province of Smaland, on May 23, 1891, the seventh child of Johanna Blad and Anders Johan Lagerkvist. His father, who worked as a railroad signalman, figures, along with the author’s family life in youth, in at least three of Lagerkvist’s early stories.{$I[AN]9810001066}{$I[A]Lagerkvist, Pär}{$I[geo]SWEDEN;Lagerkvist, Pär}{$I[tim]1891;Lagerkvist, Pär}

Pär Lagerkvist

(©The Nobel Foundation)

Before he was nineteen, Lagerkvist had decided to become a writer. He published his first novel, Människor, when he was twenty-one. It was not a success, but it included in expressionist style many of the themes that he would later perfect in the deceptively simple and essentially cubist style distilled from his most successful early works, such as the poem Ångest (anguish) of 1916 and the play The Difficult Hour, as well as the story “The Eternal Smile.” The themes are those of the reality of evil in human life, the profound simplicity of human love, the darkness and light of the human spirit, the anguished human longing for the unattainable, a never-satisfied longing that is itself the subjective fulfillment of an individual’s life, and the divinity that lies, not in the darkness of eternity or in the person of an external god, but in the capacity of the human heart to reconcile the complexity of evil with the simplicity of love. The title of his first novel means “people,” or “human beings,” and Lagerkvist became one of the great literary humanists of the twentieth century.

His probing of evil as the motive force of life is manifest in much of his work. The title Onda sagor (his first proper collection of short stories) means “evil tales,” and the collection includes, along with “Father and I,” tales such as “Love and Death” and “The Evil Angel.” The Hangman, a play, embodies human evil in its titular character and shows the indispensability of the executioner to society and the life-giving nature of evil tempered by love: A woman sentenced to die is spared when the executioner falls in love with her and agrees to marry her. The titular character of the novel The Dwarf is another allegorical embodiment of evil without which society, represented by a prince, cannot long subsist. In his major novels, from Barabbas through The Holy Land, the main characters are evil men in search of death, which proves to be the inestimable peace of love. His last novel, Herod and Mariamne, portrays Herod the Great as a paragon of evil softened and finally destroyed by his love for Mariamne.

Lagerkvist found that complexity is life and simplicity is death. He came to see the complexity of evil and the simplicity of love as moral integers, which, when reconciled, fulfilled a human life by moderating that life’s resistance to spiritual entropy. He also contrasted truly simple love, the love of God, to a more complex mixture of general love (the love of all humankind, which in its abstractness is ultimately the love of God) and particular love (the love of one person other than oneself). Unmixed, general love, such as Mariamne’s love of humankind, and particular love, such as Herod’s love of Mariamne, are each fatal in their simplicity: Herod and Mariamne destroy each other.

Lagerkvist’s first literary efforts, produced in the wake of August Strindberg’s accomplishments, were expressionistic, particularly Människor and his first play, The Last Man, which was as unsuccessful as the first novel and yet, like the novel, replete with the author’s main themes. It was in Paris and Copenhagen that Lagerkvist abandoned expressionism for cubism. During the period from 1912 to 1925 (inclusive of his marriage from 1918 to 1925 to the Dane Karen Srensen and his marriage in 1925 to the Swede Elaine Hallberg, who remained his wife until she died in 1967), he studied the cubism of the French painters championed by Guillaume Apollinaire. He urged his compatriots to learn what was going on in France and to recognize in cubism the elements of planar architectonics that had molded primitive art and the poetic Edda. This approach is discussed in his monograph Literary Art and Pictorial Art.

Travels to Greece and Palestine in the early 1930’s confirmed Lagerkvist’s rejection of Jesus, not as the world’s greatest messenger of love, but as a divine savior, and intensified in him his militant humanism. The Clenched Fist is his lyrical account of this journey; the title of this collection of travel essays refers to the Acropolis as the similitude of a human fist raised in opposition to all that is not human. It is in this work that Lagerkvist identifies himself as a “religious atheist,” that is, as one who is committed to Jesus’s ethics of love in their application to the complex chiaroscuro of Dionysian and Apollonian humanism.

His seven novels from The Dwarf through Herod and Mariamne are Lagerkvist’s most significant contribution to world literature. The Dwarf is a lyrical exegesis on evil, as Herod and Mariamne is a lyrical exegesis on love; between these works are five novels which take as their thematic center the crucifixion of Christ. Barabbas takes the titular character from the crucifixion of Christ to his own crucifixion. The Sibyl follows the Wandering Jew from the crucifixion of Christ to Delphi, where he learns that true divinity is idiocy, or true simplicity. In The Death of Ahasuerus, the Wandering Jew finds death in the context of love. Pilgrim at Sea and The Holy Land bring the Wandering Jew’s companion and successor in wandering, Tobias, in a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, where the three crosses on Calvary are at last experienced by the pilgrim as the reconciliation of evil (the two criminals’ crosses) and love (Jesus’s cross).

Lagerkvist, whose works have been translated into many languages, upholds three significant twentieth century traditions. Structurally, he joins Strindberg and Alfred Doblin in expressionism, and Apollinaire and André Gide in cubism. His work is also directly relative to and illustrative of existentialism, owing to its sustained inquiry into ångest (angst, or anguish), longing, alienation, the concept of evil, humanistic individualism, and the identification of love and death.

BibliographyBlock, Adele. “The Mythical Female in the Fictional Works of Pär Lagerkvist.” The International Fiction Review 1, no. 1 (January, 1974): 48-53. An examination of the mythical mother figure in Lagerkvist’s short fiction.Brantly, Susan. “Tradition Versus Innovation: The Cradle of Swedish Modernism–Pär Lagerkvist.” In A History of Swedish Literature, edited by Lars G. Warme. Vol. 3. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1996. A general overview of Lagerkvist’s work, including discussion of “The Eternal Smile.”Polet, Jeff. “A Blackened Sea: Religion and Crisis in the Works of Pär Lagerkvist.” Renascence 54, no. 1 (2001): 47-67. Focuses on the reality of human freedom, which Lagerkvist locates in the space between silence and the voice of God.Scobbie, Irene, ed. Aspects of Modern Swedish Literature. Rev. ed. Chester Springs, Pa.: Dufour Editions, 1999. Contains an in-depth study of Lagerkvist, among other writers.Scobbie, Irene. Pär Lagerkvist: Gäst hos verkligheten. 3d ed. Hull: University of Hull, 1981. Despite the title, this work, which includes bibliographical references, is in English.Sjöberg, Leif. Pär Lagerkvist. New York: Columbia University Press, 1976. A definitive short overview of Lagerkvist’s primary works. Four major examples of his short fiction, “The Eternal Smile,” “Father and I,” Guest of Reality, and The Hangman are examined in depth.Spector, Robert Donald. Pär Lagerkvist. New York: Twayne, 1973. A full-length study of Lagerkvist’s complete works in English. Spector examines structure, point of view, and symbolism and finds a fundamental unity in Lagerkvist’s prose, drama, and poetry. Excellent bibliography.Warme, Lars G. A History of Swedish Literature. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1996. A scholarly study of Swedish literature that covers significant writers such as Lagerkvist.White, Ray Lewis. Pär Lagerkvist in America. Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press, 1979. This is an index of reviews of Lagerkvist’s works published in America, however, it includes only one short-story collection, The Eternal Smile and Other Stories.
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