The Writer and the Refugee – my personal review

Why did Stig Dagerman, Swedish literary wunderkind, write a shockingly cruel play based on Etta Federn, the once eminent Austro-Jewish refugee he encountered in postwar Paris? The Writer and the Refugee, co-authored by Lo Dagerman (Stig’s daughter) and Nancy Pick (Etta’s American relative) is a riveting psychological and historical exploration of this question. Nancy and Lo’s book, which received glowing reviews in both Sweden and France, has now been released in the English-speaking world and is available (together with a summary of its editorial reviews) via Amazon in both a Kindle and paperback version. My personal review follows below:

*****

This beautifully written book draws the reader, step-by-step into the quest of its two authors to uncover the hidden past which shaped an encounter in 1947 between two remarkable European figures. One (The Writer)  was the celebrated Swedish author, journalist and playwright,  Stig Dagerman.  His astonishingly diverse body of work, mostly written between 1945 and 1949, offers deep insight into the political and psychological journey  of someone who came of age during an earlier era of disillusion and disaster. The other  (The Refugee)  is Etta Federn,  a prolific, Jewish-German/Austrian biographer, literary critic and translator, whose books were burned by the Nazis.  Federn fled from Berlin to Barcelona in 1932, and survived World War Two in hiding in France with her two sons, one of whom died a resistance hero.  (Nancy Pick discovered the existence of this unspoken-of relative while doing research for her son’s barmitzvah.)

In part, this book is a quintessentially American exploration by two writers (one native born, the other an immigrant) of parts of their family histories which had been left behind. But it is more. The fulcrum around which the book revolves is a brutal play, Marty’s Shadow,  about a cruel mother who glorifies her dead son, and torments his younger brother. The subject matter of this play puts the authors at odds with one another.   It is inconceivable to Lo that her beloved father could have been gratuitously cruel to a Jewish survivor of the Holocaust; meanwhile,  Nancy is determined to reclaim her vision of her relative (feminist, author, brave single mother and anti-fascist) from the pall cast over it by Marty’s Shadow.  Nancy and Lo’s exploration plays out against the backdrop of the hypocrisy of post-War France, where narratives of heroic resistance were being used to paper over an ambiguous (and in some ways shameful) recent past.

The story of how Dagerman and Pick resolve this tension is a tour de  force of suspenseful narrative and deep historical research. (The book’s generous annexes include Stig Dagerman’s moving  tribute to Etta’s resistance hero son, “In Memory of Captain Jean”.) Written in English, the book has been translated into both French and Swedish; in both countries it has received glowing reviews. (See the editorial reviews listed in its Amazon home page.)

Having accompanied the authors through the process of researching and writing this book, I know that it has been a labor of love for both of them. In my view (judging as objectively as I can; Lo and I have been married for 35 years….), solely on the merits of the work they have succeeded brilliantly. The Writer and the Refugee  is a remarkable, innovative, and compelling chronicle of the authors’, and their subjects,  journeys of political, psychological and personal discovery.

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