My attempt to revive my adolescent admiration for the novels of Pär Lagerkvist is not going well. I don’t think I read his first international success, Dvärgen, published in Swedish in 1944 (which I don’t think much was making it out of Sweden), first translated into English as The Dwarf after Lagerkvist had won the Nobel Prize in 1951. It presents the diary of a dwarf, Picoline, a bitter misanthrope. Picoline does not hate his master, a philosophical Renaissance-era Italian prince who has brought a Leonardo da Vinci (as if, there could be more than one!) called Bernardo to court. Bernardo tends not to finish things, including a fresco of the Last Supper and a portrait of the princess. He also designs military devices, some of which are built and used in a war with a neighboring principality.
Picoline has some respect for the range and intensity of Bernardo’s interests, but is mortified when Bernardo strips and draws him. Picoline wants to keep his body unseen by others, but does not try to kill Bernardo.
Besides hating human beings in general, especially laughing ones and young lovers (he considers both laughing faces and sex offensively grotesque), Picoline hates other dwarfs. During the war he hunts down and slays the dwarf of the rival prince. He recalls with relish having earlier strangled the other dwarf in his prince’s court.
At a banquet celebrating a peace treaty, Picoline poisons the other prince and some others, missing the prince’s son, who is having puppy love with his prince’s daughter. Later Picoline finds that this adolescent has snuck in and is sleeping with the daughter. He wakes his prince, who goes to his daughter’s room and decapitates her sleeping lover, rather distressing his daughter…
The promiscuous wife of the prince likes Picoline and confesses everything she does to him. He despises her as a trollop, but had nothing to do with her death (unlike those of so many others!). Bernado paints a portrait of the dead princess as a radiant Madonna (this portrait he actually finishes, and it is hung in the cathedral, where it becomes an object of popular veneration). Picoline thinks the first portrait showed the real character of the princess, but does not tell the prince that. The prince decides Picoline was responsible for his death and has him chained in the dungeon (after torture fails to produce any confession).
Picoline is too monochrome a character, devoured by his hatred of most everyone, to provide an interesting sensibility. I find his catalog of contempt for people and other dwarfs tedious. There is no flicker of guilt in him. I guess he represents evil, though not a very interesting evil and one that is, shall we say dwarfed by others active in the world when Lagerkvist was writing the book in neutral Sweden. Is he a vision of Hitler transported to servitude in Renaissance Milan? He craves war and thrives on destruction, but he is not in charge.
The prose is stripped down, consisting of simple syntax declarative sentences, as in other Lagerkvist novels, such as the more engaging The Sibyl. The character and the outrages he perpetrates or imagines seem very heavy-handed to me, though occasionally his excesses seem funny, not just abhorrent. He is SO consumed with misanthropy (he doesn’t consider that dwarfs are human, though hating them just as much or perhaps more). He does not think that dwarfs are at all like children, but in his frantic imagining and incomprehension of adults, there is something childlike about him, in addition to his diminutive stature. He hates what he cannot understand, which includes most human conduct.
©2018, Stephen O. Murray