Translated by Benjamin Mier-Cruz
Reviewed by Imogen G.
I took some time out from Japanese culture to read the Swedish novel A Moth to a Flame for Annabel’s month of Nordic FINDS. By the end of this very beautifully written, psychologically intense novel, however, I felt a bit sullied after spending so much time with such horrible people.
The book was first published in Sweden in 1948, and appeared in English in 1950 as The Burnt Child; it has been republished in English translation as part of the new Penguin European Writers series (2019). Dagerman was one of the most prominent Swedish authors in the period after the Second World War, and is still widely read there.
The novel opens with the funeral of a middle-aged woman, Alma, who leaves behind her husband Knut and her 20-year-old, sometime student son, Bergt. While Knut is superficially focused on what is beautiful, and seems unable to face those things in life that lack beauty (such as a dying wife, or a dead wife for that matter), Bergt initially inspires sympathy, as he weeps openly and describes his love for his mother simply and openly too:
He isn’t doing it [crying] because he’s been drinking. In fact, he never drinks. Almost never. He is doing it because he loved her. And, of course, you talk about the one you loved – if you talk at all. And he loved her because she loved him. And the one who has loved you should always receive your love in return. Otherwise you are a fool.
But this isn’t a straightforward novel, or a straightforward family. There’s an abundance of shame here: lowered shades, lies – to oneself and to others – and the covering of keyholes.
The father looks briefly into the son’s eyes. The funeral eyes. He think they are ugly, and he doesn’t like anything ugly. There is something about ugliness that he fears. Therefore it isn’t his son that he fears. It’s the ugliness inside him. And the ugliness inside him is so hideously similar to the dead wife that he immediately has to look at something else.
The characters’ interactions are often described in this distant, depersonalizing way, in terms of their familial role, rather than their names. All the major characters are majorly flawed, from violent, disturbed Bergt to his insipid girlfriend Berit, dissolute father Knut and his largely amoral lover, Gun.
Everything feels bleached-out and heavy. Bergt writes angry, circular letters to himself, drinks and takes his violent despair out on dogs. As he becomes increasingly obsessed with Gun, who quite literally wears his mother’s shoes, the angst ramps up and the novel begins to read more and more like a cross between Ingmar Bergman and Barbara Vine, with a sense of creeping dread, incipient violence and brooding intensity.
Sadly, Dagerman stopped writing in 1949, and killed himself at the age of 31.