A remote Swedish village prepares for a wedding.
Dagerman’s (1923-1954; A Burnt Child, 2013, etc.) final novel, published in Sweden in 1949, takes place over the course of 24 hours. Hildur Palm is preparing to marry the bawdy, bombastic village butcher, Hilmer Westlund, several decades her senior. Hildur lives with her mother, who’s befriended a delusional singer from the village poorhouse; her father (known in the village as “The Snail”), who refuses to leave his second-story room; her brother, who pines for the promiscuous Rullan; and her bitter older sister, Irma, who’s had a child out of wedlock. As for Hilmer, he lives with his teenage daughter from another marriage and recounts his long-ago visit to America to anyone who will listen. Dagerman’s narrative roams from character to character. It’s the day of the wedding, and there are preparations to be made, regrets to reconsider, reservations to be overcome. Dagerman has been compared, in style and subject matter, to writers as diverse as Kafka, Faulkner, and Camus, but this novel resembles nothing so much as an awkward marriage between Bosch’s Hell and Bruegel’s Wedding Feast. There is a great deal of ribaldry, and while there is humor, too, it is of the desperate, gasping variety. Dagerman may have intended the wisdom with which the novel concludes to be transformative (essentially: “make do with what you have”), but more than anything it simply feels sad. Life is static; fate is inescapable. There’s little comfort to be had.
By turns devastating, antic, and lewd, Dagerman’s final novel is a forceful testament to his skill as a writer.