The Sybil

1956: in the Soviet Union Khrushchev denounces the personality cult which has grown up around Stalin; in the US Elvis Presley appears on television for the first time and Norma Jean Mortenson changes her name to Marilyn Monroe. Around the world countries continue to gain their independence – Sudan, Morocco, Tunisia… Hungary attempts to leave the Warsaw Pact and Britain and France bomb Egypt in order to force a reopening of the Suez Canal. Oh, and the first ever Eurovision Song Contest takes place in Switzerland. And in literature? As it turns out, Karen and Simon have chosen a year filled with fascinating writing, as I’m sure we shall see in the coming week.

The Swedish author Par Lagerkvist enters 1956 already a Nobel Prize winner (1951) with a publishing career that began in 1912. In 1956 he published a novella, The Sybil, which would be translated in 1958 by Naomi Walford. Like his most famous work Barabbas, The Sybil is an overtly religious work, not only telling the story of a woman who becomes an oracle at Delphi, but including the legend of the Wandering Jew. It begins with that very character who has travelled to Delphi to discover his fate, only to be turned away:

“There was no answer to what he asked, they told him. No oracle in the world could answer it.”

He is sent instead, by a beggar, to “an old priestess of the oracle, an ancient pythia, cursed and hated by all because she had committed a crime against god.” It is to her he tells the story of how one day he was standing at his door when he sees a man approaching with a cross. The man rests against the wall of his house and, in the fear that this may prove unlucky, he tells him to move on. In turn, the man curses him:

“Because you denied me this, you shall suffer greater punishment than mine: you shall never die. You shall wander through this world for all eternity, and find no rest.”

Of course, the man dismisses the idea, but still it preys on his mind. Interestingly, the first effect his immortality has on him is to make him feel distant from his wife and child; he feels like “a stranger standing there, like some outsider who ought not to disturb them in their life.” Rather than, more obviously, have the man watch his family ageing, Lagerkvist has his perception of them altered: it is his mind as well as his body which has been changed. Already Lagerkvist has touched on two important themes of the novella: how contact with god changes us; and how divine punishment can be cruel and excessive.

These ideas continue through the story of the sibyl, which she tells the man in return. Her story begins when she is taken from her parents as an adolescent to the temple to be the voice of the oracle:

“It aroused a tumult in me; it frightened me, annihilated me – and filled me with boundless happiness.”

As with the Wandering Jew, Lagerkvist is very good in recreating both the physical and emotional aspects of her experience, from the “stifling fumes” and “stench of goat” in temple where she must prophesy, to the feeling of possession which overcomes her:

“I felt relief, release; a feeling not of death, but of life, life – an indescribable feeling of delight, but so violent, so unprecedented… It was he! He! It was he who filled me, I felt it, I knew it!”

The sybil’s “crime against god” is to fall in love with a young man who returns to the village and is apparently unaware of her role as a pythia. In this role she is regarded as “god’s bride” – and is, indeed, dressed as a bride – “the only bridal gown I would ever wear” – and is forbidden any other relationships. Eventually she falls pregnant, her secret is discovered and she is chased from the temple by a mob. Confusing matters further, just before she discovers her pregnancy she feels “violated” by god:

“…the god in the shape of the black goat, his sacred beast in the cave of the oracle, threw itself upon me and assuaged itself and me in an act of love in which pain, evil and voluptuousness were mingled in a way that revolted me.”

She never knows if the idiot son which results is the child of her lover or the god. For both the sybil and the Wandering Jew, god is far from loving:

“Yes, god is evil… Heartless and malignant. Revengeful to anyone who dares to love another than him. Towards him who dares forbid him to lean is head against his house. Cruel and merciless. He cares nothing for mankind, only for himself. And he never forgives, never forgets.”

Yet at the same time, the old woman questions, “What would my life have been without him?… If I had never experienced anything but myself?” Here Lagerkvist is facing up to the paradox of religion: its inability to explain a meaningless world while, at the same time, giving that world meaning. The Sybil grapples with the questions and doubts this raises, ultimately leaving the reader to decide where their loyalties lie, making the novel a powerful and unflinching parable of faith and despair.

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6 Responses to “The Sybil”

  1. JacquiWine Says:

    I love your opening paragraph on world events in 1956! It was also the year when the UK album charts were published for the first time, with Frank Sinatra’s Songs for Swinging Lovers leading the way. As for the Largevist, maybe the paradoxical quality of the novel says something about that point in time, an era when the world was emerging from recovery following the Second World War?

  2. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    Great post Grant – you always find the most interesting books for these challenges!

  3. Reese Warner Says:

    I read this novel years ago & remember liking it. It’s not Barabbas, but still… I hadn’t thought about this as a 1956 novel, but it is! Nice post–I should think about rereading it.

  4. #1956Club – ready, set, go! – Stuck in a Book Says:

    […] 1streading’s Blog […]

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