One Paragraph of The Dwarf

Twice in my life I have read novels by unknown-to-me Nordic authors simply because they won the Nobel Prize, and in both cases they were really, really great.  The first was Independent People, by Halldór Laxness.  The second, which I’ve just finished, was Pär Lagerkvist’s short novel The Dwarf, in Alexandra Dick’s translation.  Looks like I’ll have to try Knut Hamsun.

Here’s the opening paragraph.  The impression this gives of the book is exactly correct.

I am twenty-six inches tall, shapely and well proportioned, my head perhaps a trifle too large.  My hair is not black like the others’, but reddish, very stiff and thick, drawn back from the temples and the broad but not especially lofty brow.  My face is beardless, but otherwise just like that of other men.  My eyebrows meet.  My bodily strength is considerable, particularly if I am annoyed.  When the wrestling match between Jehoshaphat and myself I forced him onto his back after twenty minutes and strangled him.  Since then I have been the only dwarf at this court.

The prevailing critical take about The Dwarf seems to read it as a meditation on evil, but I don’t think that’s quite right — it’s much more like a meditation on childishness. What’s going on here is something like this.  We find the innocence and freedom of childhood attractive, but this is only because actual children are small and weak.  Lagerkvist takes the mental qualities we associate with children — first and foremost an incomprehension,  verging on horror, of adult appetites and their satisfaction, but also impulsivity, stubbornness, and moral rigidity — and imparts them to a being with the power to do something about them. The result is something like psychopathy.  Or, if you want, evil.

(As for the first paragraph  — just note that the dwarf’s height is given in inches only, not feet and inches, like that of an infant.  And that the story told is a compressed little fantasy of sibling rivalry.)

The Dwarf is from 1945, the height of the psychoanalytic era.  So my guess is that the question implicit in the book, “What happens when a furious child is working the gears of an adult body?” was meant to be taken literally.

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4 thoughts on “One Paragraph of The Dwarf

  1. Wait, you didn’t read The Dwarf in grad school? Liesl has a copy, and I thought this topic came up back then. I guess I’m misremembering… (And it’s not like I’ve read her copy either, I suppose.)

  2. Dan Schmidt says:

    The themes you mention remind me a lot of The Tin Drum, written 14 years later. I wonder if it was an influence.

  3. John Cowan says:

    I think you are over-interpreting the expression of the dwarf’s height. The Swedish original begins “Jag är 26 tum lång”, using the old Swedish word for “inch”. Since the metric system had been in full use in Sweden for some sixty years, I suspect the main effect on the reader is archaism, suitable for a tale set in the 15th century.

  4. E.J. says:

    Get to Hamsun post-haste. It’s hard to recommend just one of his books, but my favorite is probably “Mysteries.” Well, maybe “Growth of the Soil.” Everyone seems to love “Hunger,” but I wouldn’t recommend starting there with Hamsun.

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