A Moth to Flame

Stig Dagerman’s A Moth to a Flame (translated by Benjamin Mier-Cruz and previously published as A Burnt Child) is the latest in Penguin’s European Writers series. Despite a recent revival in the US (where this was originally published), it has not been since Quartet Encounters in the eighties that Dagerman has enjoyed regular publication in the UK, making him a perfect fit for the series which focuses on writers highly regarded in Europe but largely neglected here. A Moth to a Flame is the third of Dagerman’s four novels, originally published in 1948 when he was twenty-five. Six years later he would kill himself.

A Moth to a Flame is not an easy novel to like as it sets out to portray all its characters unsympathetically. The central character, Bengt, who narrates parts of the novel in letters he writes to himself (a device that works rather like a soliloquy), is a student approaching the threshold of adulthood but frequently prone to the moods of adolescence. The novel opens at his mother’s funeral and we see he is keen to differentiate his grief from what he sees as his father’s indifference. The son cries and “as he is drying his eyes he can hear through the silence of the room that everyone is listening to him cry.” The father, on the other hand, is described as unfeeling as stone: “a stone arm around his shoulder”; and:

“The father gently presses his cheek against his. It is a cheek of stone.”

When Bengt answers the phone to a woman looking to speak to his father he realises that his mother has been, as he sees it, betrayed – and “he who betrays another kills her slowly.” He regards his father’s grief as false:

“Finally, the mask thuds off, the widower’s dismal mask.”

This would seem to leave the reader’s sympathy with Bengt, but Dagerman demonstrates the cruelty which lies within him in the way he treats his fiancée, Berit. When she begins to cry after they have watched a film together, his immediate reaction is, “So I thought I’d really give her something to cry about.” When she tells him she thinks that spring is the most beautiful season, he instinctively replies that he finds it the ugliest. This cruelty is also in evidence in the way he treats his father. He tells him about his successes at university, knowing that his father will want to reward him financially (“I told him the exam went well, and then he gave me twenty kroner”), while having stopped attending lectures entirely. In Bengt’s view:

“I think a lie should be judged by what a person hopes to gain from it.”

This is suggestive of Bengt’s more general belief that he is superior to both his father and Berit:

“For weaker persons, it might be considered necessary to have an absolutely fixed value for a concept, but for a person who knows where he is going… a fixed definition like that can even seem obstructive at times.”

Dagerman also demonstrates both his father’s affection for his wife and Bengt’s mother’s own flaws. We see the father taking out a pair of the dead wife’s shoes, feeling the “smooth interior” in a scene that will be repeated when Bengt puts his hand into the foot of one of her stockings. Another pair of shoes, unworn, were a gift from the father:

“Alma didn’t like anything that was beautiful.”

Dagerman frequently uses clothing to depict his character’s feelings. A handkerchief which the father gives to Bengt at the funeral is impregnated with the perfume of his father’s lover, Gun. Bengt later wakes from a nightmare with it in his mouth: “It tastes like tears and perfume.” In the dream he wakes from he is wearing a cloak made of blood which he cannot remove. Dagerman also uses a dog which the father brings home in a similar way. The dog is Gun’s and Bengt’s father uses it as excuse to go out walking at night and visit her. Bengt thinks “he’s hunting me with that dog,” and beats it one night when he comes home to find his father with Gun.

As the novel progresses, Bengt’s hatred of Gun becomes an obsession with her and he takes to phoning her where she works as a cinema cashier:

“She is constantly in my thoughts all day and constantly in my dreams all night.”

When his Bengt and Berit holiday with his father and Gun, his obsession burns more fiercely, a rivalry with his father first seen when he asks to row them across to the island. Once there he watches her and follows them when they go off in the boat together (he would go with them until he is reminded that, “You can’t leave Berit.”). When they dance together we see how dangerous his fixation is becoming:

“But the dance seems to last forever. It’s the first time he’s ever touched her for so long and by the end his hands are completely wet. When they finally do stop, he notices he was holding her tight…”

Bengt’s hatred for Gun becomes a different kind of passion entirely.

A Moth to a Flame is a claustrophobic coming of age story in which Bengt moves from puritanical rage to affected cynicism:

“What we are doing is something everyone does but most do it without really knowing it because they cannot face it.”

In the end he can cope with neither. Its intense atmosphere is exacerbated by the confined settings – the house Bengt and his father share, the cinema, the island – and the fact that much of the novel seems to take place in darkness, with, in keeping with the title, numerous candles. It’s another worthy addition to what is a fascinating series.

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4 Responses to “A Moth to Flame”

  1. JacquiWine Says:

    Much as I love coming-of-age stories (and the Penguin European Writers series in general), I wonder whether this particular book might be too oppressive and brutal for me, especially in the dark month of January Luckily, I still have the Heinrich Boll in my TBR – a novella you liked very much as far as I can recall?

  2. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    Wow, sounds very dark indeed. Like Jacqui, I think I might struggle with this one at the moment, though…

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