Authors: Par Lagerkvist
Copyright 1951 by Random House, Inc
Copyright renewed 1979 by Pierry Maury, Alan Blair and
Madame Catherine Gide
All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. Published in the United States by Vintage Books, a division of Random House, Inc., New York, and simultaneously in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto.
Originally published in Swedish by Albert Bonniers Forlag in 1950. Copyright 1950 by Albert Bonniers Forlag. This translation, preface by Lucien Maury and letter by André Gide, was originally published in hardcover by Random House, Inc. in 1951.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Lagerkvist, Pär, 1891–1974
Barabbas / by Pär Lagerkvist; translated
by Alan Blair; with a preface by
Lucien Maury; and a letter by André
Gide.—1st Vintage International ed.
p. cm.—(Vintage international)
Translation of: Barabbas.
“Originally published, in hardcover,
by Random House, Inc., in
1. Barabbas (Biblical figure)—
Fiction. I. Title.
n a body of literature which has been for the most part preoccupied with national background, with painting the manners of Stockholm and of the Swedish countryside, and—apart from its exploitation of a rich lyric strain—with folklore and epic fantasy, Pär Lagerkvist, since his early “Expressionist” days, has stood as representative of an intellectualism which, like himself, has remained somewhat remote and dignified, somewhat unresponsive to the noisy methods of modern publicity.
In the world of Swedish and Scandinavian letters, Lagerkvist occupies, as poet and thinker, a position of eminence which has long been recognized by his compatriots and by the educated public in the countries which adjoin his own. To paint the portrait of this remarkable man, whose work takes rank with the most significant productions
of contemporary Scandinavia, is as tempting as it would be difficult.
Except for a few short stories, and one piece of dramatic narrative,
, which was highly praised by our literary critics, the French public knows next to nothing of his writings.
Before saying anything else, it is well to draw attention to characteristics which are pre-eminent in the whole body of his work—to a nobility of tone and of style, to an unquestioning devotion to independence of mind, to an unequivocal sense of vocation which, for half a century, has assured for him a deserved reputation as one of the “advance guard.”
There is scarcely a single æsthetic problem in the realm of literature which Lagerkvist has not striven to define and resolve—not only theoretically, but in the practice of his art—whether in the theatre, the short story, or works of meditation, and verse. He has passed through many stages, from his early concern with the art of the theatre at a time when Copeau and Gordon Craig were making their first experiments, a concern which led to conclusions as daring and as relevant now as they ever were, to those hybrid productions, sometimes published simultaneously in the form of narratives or plays—
The Man Who Lived Again; The Dwarf; The Man Without a Soul; The Hangman; Victory in Darkness; The Philosopher’s Stone
. He has travelled far from the
Tales of Cruelty—
which has only a title in common with the stories of Villiers de l’Isle-Adam—or the deeply moving short pieces marked by an eloquent simplicity which the French writer Louis Philippe would
not have disowned; from those chapters of autobiography which reveal a meditative childhood already haunted by strange presentiments, and a curious hankering after death, to those essays and poems marked by a thrilling tenseness of unease, and filled with metaphysical ardour. It has been a far cry with him from anguish to serenity, to that interior joy which triumphs over all despair; from early revolt to an acceptance which has never been mere resignation, though often it is not far removed from a mood of burning adoration, from a religious sense at one with reason, from faith in the existence of a principle to be found at the source of all our human destiny. Many phases mark his pilgrimage, and the victories he has won are numerous in battles joined on the fields of ethics and æsthetics, in the perpetual struggle to attain to those realms of thought where the spirit can find its ultimate well-being.
Had Pär Lagerkvist written in a language more easily accessible to Western readers, he would undoubtedly have been acclaimed as one of the leaders of our time, as one of those few, those necessary, men who can hold aloft a light to guide our footsteps through the obsessive darkness of our world.
The little work here offered in translation proves abundantly that he has never lost touch with the tragedy of the contemporary mind, that, in spite of his philosophy, he is familiar with the devastating terrors of our problems, and has been brought face to face with the insoluble problem of Man’s predicament, with the horror of that blindness in which we are compelled to face the problem of the universe and of ourselves.
In this enigmatic and unforgettable
, with its sense of spiritual torment, its deep stirrings of faith, its sure response to the movements of the human mind, is expressed the riddle of Man and his destiny, the contrasted aspects of his fundamental drama, and the cry of humanity in its death throes, bequeathing its spirit to the night.
In this, his latest work, we see the final development of an art which has reached the limits of elliptic suggestion, of austerity, and of a form that has been pared down to essentials.
is the last phase in a process of thought which has moved beyond mere literature, of an art which, with its admirable sobriety, embodies the emotional climate of our times.
y Dear Lucien Maury:
is, beyond all possibility of doubt, a remarkable book. I am deeply grateful to you for giving me an early opportunity to read it, as you did in the case of the same author’s
which received, last year, so enthusiastic a welcome from critics and public alike.
When you brought me the translation of
, you spoke of it in such a way as to make me feel the liveliest desire to read it. But I had no idea then how deeply it would interest me. I was, as it so happened, marvellously (I dare not say, providentially) prepared for the experience of its perusal owing to the fact that I had been buried, for the past month, in a study of
l’Histoire des Origines du Christianisme
. Renan had, in masterly
fashion, made it possible for me to realize with what intelligent precision Pär Lagerkvist has shown the mysterious springs of an emerging conscience secretly tormented by the problem of Christ at a time when the Christian doctrine was still in the process of formation, when the dogma of the Resurrection still depended on the uncertain evidence of a few credulous witnesses who had not yet bridged the gap between superstition and faith.
From what you told me then, my dear Maury, I derived a very imperfect idea of the extent to which the adventure of Barabbas was involved in the story of Our Lord’s crucifixion, of the degree to which the troubled movements of the robber’s mind were bound up with what he had seen, or thought he had seen, at Golgotha, and with the various rumours which followed hard upon the Divine Tragedy—an event upon which the destiny of well-nigh the whole of humanity was, eventually, to hang.
It is the measure of Lagerkvist’s success that he has managed so admirably to maintain his balance on a tightrope which stretches across the dark abyss that lies between the world of reality and the world of faith. The closing sentence of the book remains (no doubt deliberately) ambiguous: “When he felt death approaching, that which he had always been so afraid of, he said out into the darkness, as though he were speaking to it:—To thee I deliver up my soul.” That “as though” leaves me wondering whether, without realizing it, he was, in fact, addressing Christ, whether the Galilean did not “get him” at the end. Vicisti Galileus, as Julian the Apostate said.
I have your word for it, dear Maury, that this ambiguity
exists also in the original text. The Swedish language has given us, and is still giving, works of such outstanding value, that knowledge of it will soon form part of the equipment of any man calling himself well-educated. We need to be in the position to appreciate the important part likely to be played by Sweden in the Concert of Europe.
veryone knows how they hung there on the crosses, and who they were that stood gathered around him: Mary his mother and Mary Magdalene, Veronica, Simon of Cyrene, who carried the cross, and Joseph of Arimathea, who shrouded him. But a little further down the slope, rather to one side, a man was standing with his eyes riveted on the dying man in the middle, watching his death-throes from the first moment to the last. His name was Barabbas. This book is about him.
He was about thirty, powerfully built, with a sallow complexion, a reddish beard and black hair. His eyebrows also were black, his eyes too deep-set, as though they wanted to hide. Under one of them he had a deep scar that was lost to sight in his beard. But a man’s appearance is of little consequence.
He had followed the mob through the streets all the way from the governor’s palace, but at a distance, somewhat behind the others. When the exhausted rabbi had collapsed beneath his cross, he had stopped and stood still for a while to avoid catching up with the cross, and then they had got hold of that man Simon and forced him to carry it instead. There were not many men in the crowd, except the Roman soldiers, of course; they were mostly women following the condemned man and a flock of urchins who were always there when anyone was led out along their street to be crucified—it made a change for them. But they soon tired and went back to their games, pausing a moment to glance at the man with the long scar down his cheek who was walking behind the others.