A gem from the excellent Penguin European Writers series, A Moth to a Flame by Stig Dagerman is a magnificently moody read. Set in 1940’s Stockholm, it tells the tale of Bengt, a young man broken by the premature death of his mother. Discovering that his father had a secret lover throughout, the devastated Bengt plots vengeance, and in Dagerman’s astute portrayal of Bengt’s slide into existential crisis, we watch as he becomes embroiled in a demented affair with that very same mistress. Laced with sly humour, this novel of grief, loss and love is a provocative treat.
Likened to Kafka, Faulkner and Camus, Dagerman is a Swedish literary great, known for taking a deep philosophical dive into big themes. Here he introduces us to Bengt, his father, Knut, fiancée Berit, and an assorted group of mourners, in what must be one of the most spine-tingling funeral scenes in literature.
Mama had suffered from a bad heart but nobody had expected her to go so soon. It is a bitter January day, heavy with snow, and in a stunningly cinematic scene, the procession glide silently down the steps to the waiting cars. Dark, beautiful and dreadful, the women of the group call to mind the paintings of Edvard Munch, their white faces glistening as hard as bone under their veils.
‘Only their faces are white, as well as a single gloveless hand pressed against a coat.’
At the graveside, Bengt finally understands that this is the end, but it’s at the restaurant gathering afterwards, when a waiter mistakenly beckons him to a phone call meant for his father, that he realises that it’s also a beginning. The voice belongs to Gun, the mistress, who is soon to assume a role in the family and set up shop in Bengt’s tortured psyche.
Throughout the novel, Bengt strives for catharsis via self-addressed letters, providing the reader with a bird’s eye view into the chaos of his mind, focused in the early days after Mama’s death on his increasingly fractured relationship with Knut.
Disgusted with his father’s treachery, and suspicious of his intentions, Bengt takes to spying on him. He discovers that every night, Papa goes through his dead wife’s wardrobe, contemplating and caressing each shoe, each garment. One dreadful night, Papa takes out her best red dress and spreads it across an armchair, in the shape of a woman. This red dress will come to haunt Bengt, manifesting itself throughout the novel, along with candles, shoes, and a dog. A black dog, of course.
A family trip to an island in the Stockholm archipelago brings revelation, as Bengt succumbs to his desires. In Dagerman’s startling tale, identities merge and grief morphs into something simultaneously dangerous and comforting.
‘When someone is dead, there is…a big empty hole. But on the other hand, there is a lot left over. You go up to these things and look at them, twisting and turning them. But you don’t really know what to do with them.’
Indeed. An intense and compelling novel, wonderfully translated by Benjamin Mier-Cruz and with an insightful introduction by Siri Hustvedt.
A Moth to a Flame by Stig Dagerman is published by Penguin, 224 pages.