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A Burnt Child

A Burnt Child: A Novel

Stig Dagerman
Translated by Benjamin Mier-Cruz
Introduction by Per Olov Enquist
Copyright Date: 2013
Pages: 224
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  • Book Info
    A Burnt Child
    Book Description:

    After the international success of his collection of World War II newspaper articles, German Autumn-a book that solidified his status as the most promising and exciting writer in Sweden-Stig Dagerman was sent to France with an assignment to produce more in this journalistic style. But he could not write the much-awaited follow-up. Instead, he holed up in a small French village and in the summer of 1948 created what would be his most personal, poignant, and shocking novel: A Burnt Child. Set in a working-class neighborhood in Stockholm, the story revolves around a young man named Bengt who falls into deep, private turmoil with the unexpected death of his mother. As he struggles to cope with her loss, his despair slowly transforms to rage when he discovers his father had a mistress. But as Bengt swears revenge on behalf of his mother's memory, he also finds himself drawn into a fevered and conflicted relationship with this woman-a turn that causes him to question his previous faith in morality, virtue, and fidelity. Written in a taut and beautifully naturalistic tone, Dagerman illuminates the rich atmospheres of Bengt's life, both internal and eternal: from his heartache and fury to the moody streets of Stockholm and the Hitchcockian shadows of tension and threat in the woods and waters of Sweden's remote islands. A Burnt Child remains Dagerman's most widely read novel, both in Sweden and worldwide, and is one of the crowning works of his short but celebrated career.

    eISBN: 978-0-8166-8700-8
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. I-IV)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. V-VI)
    (pp. VII-XII)
    Per Olov Enquist

    Bränt barn (A Burnt Child) was the first book I read by Stig Dagerman—I think in 1949. It overwhelmed me, and for a long time I wrote my own school essays in the same style that I imagined was his. I read everything by him after that, but nothing was like A Burnt Child.

    What was so compelling about this novel about a young man who had an affair with his father’s new wife? Surely it wasn’t pornography. And why has this of all his novels divided critics, even today? Olof Lagercrantz, for instance, scarcely mentions it in his...


      (pp. 5-33)

      A wife is to be buried at two o’clock, and at eleven-thirty the husband is standing in the kitchen in front of the cracked mirror above the sink. He hasn’t cried much, but he has lain long awake and the whites of his eyes are red. His shirt is white and bright, and his freshly ironed pants are faintly steaming. As his youngest sister adjusts the stiff white collar behind his neck and draws the white bow across his throat so tenderly that it feels like a caress, the widower leans over the sink and peers searchingly into his eyes....

      (pp. 34-55)

      When someone is dead, there is, on the one hand, a big empty hole. But on the other hand, there is a lot left over. You go up to these things and look at them, twisting and turning them. But you don’t really know what to do with them. You start by gently touching them. But after a while, your fingers grow tired. That is why you end up hating them. Dresses are the worst. After that, shoes.

      On certain nights, when the father thinks the son is sleeping and when the son thinks the father is sleeping, the father...

      (pp. 56-83)

      At the end of march, the son often goes out for walks in the evenings. The father is also out on these evenings, but he doesn’t take walks. Well, he does, but they are very short. Even so, it’s a long time before he comes home again. He takes the dog out for walks because dogs need exercise. And every evening when he steps out the front door, he goes in a different direction. But every evening he ends up in the same place, which makes the dog very happy.

      But before he ever gets there, it just so happens...

      (pp. 84-115)

      Sometimes we do something without knowing why. And once it is done, we are surprised that we did it. Or sometimes we are even afraid. But from the surprise, as well as the fear, comes an explanation. It has to come. Because the unexplained fills us with a dread that we cannot tolerate for long. But by the time the explanation is thought of or uttered, we have already forgotten that it came after—that the deed came first. If we’re never reminded of it, because the act corresponds with the explanation, then everything is fine. But sometimes everything is...

      (pp. 116-145)

      They are at sea for three days. At sea, they say playfully. That sounds like living on a boat. In reality, however, they are not on a boat but an island or, more precisely, two small islands connected by a funny little wooden arch, which they jokingly call a bridge. The open sea encircles them, and the coast disappears into the dark water, which blackens as the night approaches. To the west, the sun has just set behind a glimmering strip of land. Looking at it, they think, Look how dark the sea is out there, far back, by the...

      (pp. 146-163)

      Hello, bengt, she says when he opens the door.

      He does not say a word. Thirty seconds go by, maybe more. In her red dress, Gun is standing completely still on the cold, gray doorstep. Bengt doesn’t look at her but past her, looks out at the stairs that slowly lead up to the silent and empty attic. But when he finally does look at her, he notices that she isn’t looking at him either. She was looking past him, through the dark entrance as if she were searching for someone. He turns around and looks for himself. He can...

      (pp. 164-186)

      The sea is high and green during the day and black with flashes of white at night. But the water is clear as it usually is in fall. The six broadleaf trees around the inlet are shedding their leaves, which blow freshly onto the porch every morning. At night, the cool September moon gleams red. When it drifts out of the night’s dark clouds it has blood on its lips. The sailboat season is over, and now colliers sway sluggishly along the horizon. Their smoke sinks black and heavily into the sea. Twice a week a train of barges drifts...

      (pp. 187-207)

      Berit is even afraid of the ice. Not just the ice that has formed overnight, but also the solid ice that has been freezing all winter. This is why she is so anxious as they travel across the ice to the island. She is sitting on the kicksled and Bengt is pushing her. She fears the whole time that the ice will give way. But it does not. It only creaks. The runners are screeching, and Gun is singing. She is sitting on the father’s sled with a bag in her lap. She is wearing short white boots. Berit has...

      (pp. 208-211)

      You wake up happily, feel the wound aching mildly, and remember. You tug at the bandage and smile in the darkness at the unimaginable. It doesn’t hurt, and you are glad. You are brave, too, daring to turn on the light with your good hand. This time, you aren’t afraid when you look into your own eyes; there was never a time before when this didn’t frighten you. Your suicide note is on the desk, ripped to shreds. And when you turn out the light, the pieces continue to glow. You also manage to keep looking at yourself without becoming...

  5. Back Matter
    (pp. 212-212)