Pär Lagerkvist’s speech at the Nobel Banquet at the City Hall in Stockholm, December 10, 1951
I wish to express my warm thanks to the Swedish Academy for awarding me the Nobel Prize in Literature. This is so great an honour that one may be excused for asking oneself – have I really deserved it? Speaking for myself, I dare not even pose the question! Having taken no part in making this decision, however, I can enjoy it with a free conscience. The responsibility rests with my esteemed colleagues and for this, too, I am truly thankful!
We have heard great speeches today and will presently hear more. I shall therefore refrain from making one but will ask you instead to bear with me while I read you a passage from a book of mine that has never been published. I was wondering what I should say on this solemn occasion, when something rather strange happened; I unearthed an old manuscript dating back to 1922, twenty-nine years ago. As I read it, I came upon a passage which more or less expressed what I would have said in my speech, except that it did so in the form of a story, which is much better suited to my taste. It is about the enigma of our life which makes human destiny at once so great and so hard.
I wrote it nearly thirty years ago. I was staying at the time in a little place in the Pyrenees on the shores of the Mediterranean, a very lovely part of the world. I will now read you the first part of it as well as I can.
The Myth of Mankind
Once upon a time there was a world, and a man and a woman came to it on a fine morning, not to dwell there for any length of time, but just for a brief visit. They knew many other worlds, and this one seemed to them shabbier and poorer than those others. True, it was beautiful enough with its trees and mountains, its forests and copses, the skies above with ever-changing clouds and the wind which came softly at dusk and stirred everything so mysteriously. But, for all that, it was still a poor world compared to those they possessed far, far away. Thus they decided to remain here for only a short while, for they loved each other and it seemed as though nowhere else was their love so wonderful as in just this world. Here, love was not something one took for granted and that permeated everyone and everything, but was like a visitor from whom wondrous things were expected. Everything that had been clear and natural in their life became mysterious, sinister, and veiled. They were strangers abandoned to unknown powers. The love that united them was a marvel – it was perishable; it could fade away and die. So for a while they wished to remain in this new world they had found for themselves.
It was not always daylight here. After the light of day, dusk would fall upon all things, wiping out, obliterating them. The man and woman lay together in the darkness listening to the wind as it whispered in the trees. They drew closer to each other, asking: why are we here at all?
Then the man built a house for himself and the woman, a house of stones and moss, for were they not to move on shortly? The woman spread sweet-scented grass on the earthen floor and awaited him home at dusk. They loved each other more than ever and went about their daily chores.
One day, when the man was out in the fields, he felt a great longing come upon him for her whom he loved above all things. He bent down and kissed the earth she had lain upon. The woman began to love the trees and the clouds because her man walked under them when he came home to her, and she loved twilight too, for it was then that he returned to her. It was a strange new world, quite unlike those other worlds they owned far, far away.
And so the woman gave birth to a son. The oak trees outside the house sang to him, he looked about him with startled eyes and fell asleep lulled by the sound of the wind in the trees. But the man came home at night carrying gory carcasses of slain animals; he was weary and in need of rest. Lying in the darkness, the man and woman talked blissfully of how they would soon be moving on.
What a strange world this was; summer followed by autumn and frosty winter, winter followed by lovely spring. One could see time pass as one season released another; nothing ever stayed for long. The woman bore another son and, after a few years, yet another. The children grew up and went about their business; they ran and played and discovered new things every day. They had the whole of this wonderful world to play with and all that was in it. Nothing was too serious to be turned into a toy. The hands of the man became calloused with hard work in the fields and in the forest. The woman’s features became drawn and her steps less sprightly than before, but her voice was as soft and melodious as ever. One evening, as she sat down tired after a busy day, with the children gathered round her, she said to them, «Now we shall soon be moving from here. We will be going to the other worlds where our home is». The children looked amazed. «What are you saying, Mother? Are there any other worlds than this?» The mother’s eyes met the husband’s and pain pierced their hearts. Softly, she replied, «Of course there are other worlds», and she began to tell them of the worlds so unlike the one in which they were living, where everything was so much more spacious and wonderful, where there was no darkness, no singing trees, no struggle of any sort. The children sat huddled around her, listening to her story. Now and then, they would look up at their father as if asking, «Is this true, what Mother is telling us?» He only nodded and sat there deep in his own thoughts. The youngest son sat very close to his mother’s feet; his face was pale, his eyes shone with a strange light. The eldest boy, who was twelve, sat further away and stared out. Finally, he rose and went out into the darkness.
The mother went on with her story and the children listened avidly. She seemed to behold some far-off country with eyes that stared unseeing; from time to time she paused as though she could see no more, remember no more. After a while, though, she would resume her story in a voice that grew fainter and fainter. The fire was flickering in the sooty fireplace; it shone upon their faces and cast a glow over the warm room. The father held his hand over his eyes. And so they sat without stirring until midnight. Then the door opened; a gust of cold air invaded the room and the eldest son appeared. He was holding in his hand a large black bird with blood gushing from its breast. This was the first bird he had killed on his own. He threw it down by the fire where it reeked of warm blood. Then, still without uttering a word, he went into a dark corner of the room at the back and lay down to sleep.
All was quiet now; the mother had finished her story. They gazed bewildered at each other, as if waking from a dream, and stared at the bird as it lay there dead, the red blood seeping from its breast, staining the floor about it. All arose silently and went to bed.
After that night, little was said for a time; each one went his own way. It was summer, bumblebees were buzzing in the lush meadows, the copses had been washed a bright green colour by the soft rains of spring, and the air was crystal clear. One day, at noon, the smallest child came up to his mother as she was sitting outside the house. He was very pale and quiet and asked her to tell him about the other world. The mother looked at him in amazement. «Darling,» she said, «I cannot speak of it now. Look, the sun is shining! Why aren’t you out playing with your brothers? » He went quietly away and cried, but no one knew.
He never asked her again but only grew paler and paler, his eyes burning with a strange light. One morning, he could not get up at all, but just lay there. Day after day, he lay still, hardly saying a word, gazing into space with his strange eyes. They asked him where the pain was and promised that he would soon be out again in the sun and see all the fine new flowers that had come up. He did not reply, but only lay there not even seeming to see them. His mother watched over him and cried and asked him if she should tell him of all the wonderful things she knew, but he only smiled at her.
One night, he closed his eyes and died. They all gathered round him, his mother folded his small hands over his breast and, when the dusk fell, they sat huddled together in the darkening room and talked about him in whispers. He had left this world, they said, and gone to another world, a better and happier one, but they said it with heavy hearts and sighed. Finally, they all walked away frightened and confused, leaving him lying there, cold and forsaken.
In the morning, they buried him in the earth. The meadows were scented, the sun was shining softly, and there was gentle warmth everywhere. The mother said, «He is no longer here.» A rose tree near his grave burst into blossom.
And so the years came and went. The mother often sat by the grave in the afternoons, staring over the mountains that shut everything out. The father paused by the grave whenever he passed it on his way, but the children would not go near it, for it was like no other place on earth.
The two boys grew up into tall strapping lads, but the man and the woman began to shrink and fade away. Their hair turned grey, their shoulders stooped, and yet a kind of peace and dignity came upon them. The father still tried to go out hunting with his sons, but it was they who coped with the animals when they were wild and dangerous. The mother, aging, sat outside the house and groped about with her hands when she heard them returning home. Her eyes were so tired now that they could only see at noon when the sun was at its highest in the sky. At other times, all was darkness about her and she used to ask why that was so. One autumn day, she went inside and lay down, listening to the wind as to a memory of long long ago. The man sat by her side and, together, they talked about things as if they were alone in the world once more. She had grown very frail but an inner light illuminated her features. One night, she said to them in her failing voice, «Now I want to leave this world where I have spent my life and go to my home.» And so she went away. They buried her in the earth and there she lay.
Then it was winter once more and very cold. The old man no longer went out, but sat by the fire. The sons came home with carcasses and cut them up. The old man turned the meat on the spit and watched the fire turn a brighter red where the meat was roasting on it. When the spring came, he went out and looked at the trees and fields in all their greenery. He paused by each one and gave it a nod of recognition. Everything here was familiar to him. He stopped by the flowers he had picked for her he loved the first morning they had come here. He stopped by his hunting weapons, now covered with blood, for one of his sons had taken them. Then he walked back into the house and lay down and said to his sons as they stood by his deathbed, «Now I must depart from this world where I have lived all my life and leave it. Our home is not here». He held their hands in his until he died. They buried him in the earth as he had bid them do, for it was there he wished to lie.
Now both the old people were gone and the sons felt a wonderful relief. There was a sense of liberation as though a cord tying them to something which was no part of them had been severed. Early next morning, they arose and went out into the open, savouring the smell of young trees and of the rain which had fallen that night. Side by side they walked together, the two tall youngsters, and the earth was proud to bear them. Life was beginning for them and they were ready to take possession of this world.
Prior to the speech, Einar Löfstedt, Member of the Swedish Academy and the Royal Academy of Sciences, made the following comments: «Is there a secret link between science and poetry? Perhaps there is. An English writer has said: ‹Poetry is the impassioned expression which is in the countenance of all science.› Whether these words apply to every science is open to question, but they do voice a very deep truth. Great poetry, as well as great science, is a form of obsession. They both want to lift man out of himself and to seek the answer to his eternal questions. With a visionary’s strength and an ever deeper earnestness, you, Pär Lagerkvist, have sought to throw light on the problems of humanity in our time. Long before most, you have given expression to the Anguish occasioned by the threatening mechanization and barrenness of modern civilization. You have seen the human mind as a car, black and empty, roaring along in the dark through unknown towns to an unknown goal. But by degrees you have also heard the delicate flute of tendemess playing in the night, and you have seen The Eternal Smile in the life of humble folk when it is lived in love and trust. And in Barabbas, your recent great work, you have shown us man – torpid, uncertain, guilt-laden, like most of us – half unconsciously following the Unknown One who died to save mankind.
We offer you our thanks and congratulations and are happy to have been able to bestow on you, on the repeated recommendation from other countries, the honour of the Nobel Prize.»
Their work and discoveries range from how cells adapt to changes in levels of oxygen to our ability to fight global poverty.
See them all presented here.