Between fields of rye, two children have just come upon a footpath that they have never taken before, and in the three villages along the plain, window panes glisten in the sun. Men shave before mirrors propped on kitchen tables, women hum as they slice up cinnamon bread for the morning meal, and children sit on kitchen floors, buttoning the fronts of their shirts. This is the pleasant morning of an evil day, because on this day a child will be killed in the third village by a cheerful man. Yet the child still sits on the kitchen floor, buttoning his shirt. And the man who is still shaving talks of the day ahead, of their rowing trip down the creek.
Excerpt from Stig Dagerman’s ‘To Kill A Child’.
Stig Dagerman is required reading if you study Swedish literature at the high school level or beyond in Sweden, or at least that was the case when I went to school in Sweden a dinosaur age ago. Dagerman (born in 1923) was a writer and journalist who became a literary sensation in Sweden and beyond, writing newspaper articles and a book about life in post-war Germany, publishing several novels, short stories, poems, essays, and satirical verses between 1945 and 1949.
Dagerman was an amazing writer, and his short stories really show his amazing literary skill and talent. His language is evocative but never ornate or overly emotional. There’s no literary “showiness” in his work, just a clean, clear, expressive prose that grips you from the first word to the last. To quote the great Graham Greene: “Dagerman wrote with beautiful objectivity. Instead of emotive phrases, he uses a choice of facts, like bricks, to construct an emotion.”
One of his most famous short stories is ‘To Kill A Child’ from 1948, a short story that was actually written “on order”. Dagerman was paid 75 kronor (the equivalent of about 10 US dollars today) to write the story for an anti-speeding campaign by the National Society for Road Safety in Sweden.
‘To Kill A Child’ is structured very much like a horror story (there’s a real cinematic quality to it), following both the child in the story’s title, and the man who will become the killer – showing us the very human, everyday actions that eventually lead to tragedy. It’s a chilling and gripping short story that demonstrates what a great writer can do with very few words, and how effective the short story genre can be – whittling down a story to its essence, and revealing its heart “deliberately, precisely, breathlessly”, to quote American writer Siri Hustvedt, when she was writing about Dagerman.
Unfortunately, literary success and recognition did not bring Dagerman a life of happiness. He struggled with depression and writer’s block, and was haunted by financial- and marital problems. In 1954, at the age of 31, he committed suicide.
‘To Kill A Child’ has been turned into a movie – twice: in 1953, and again in 2003. The short story is available to read online – for example at The New York Review of Book.
Stig Dagerman’s work has been translated into many languages, and many of his books are available in English, for example:
- Sleet: Selected Stories, a collection of short stories that includes ‘To Kill A Child’
- German Autumn, a collection of Dagerman’s articles from post-war Germany
- A Burnt Child: A Novel