Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Lagerkvist's Dwarf and the Vulgarians

by Drew Martin
Dwarf is a small word, which describes a small person but it supersizes anyone who owns it as a verb; to dwarf someone or something. The extremes of this term are exhausted by Pär Lagerkvist in his novel, The Dwarf, which is set in undefined Italian states during the Renaissance. Lagerkvist published this story in 1944 and won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1951.

The Dwarf is considered Lagerkvist's greatest novel but it is such a vile narration that you want it to end as soon as the main character gets under your skin. Piccoline is the 26-inch tall court fetish of a prince's family. He hates everyone and everything. Hatred is the core of his personality and the boundary of philosophy. He confesses,

"It is difficult to understand those whom one does not hate..."

Lagerkvist's Dwarf is an analysis of man but unlike Swift's Gulliver's Travels, Voltaire's Candide or Saint Exupéry's The Little Prince, this book is not a globe-trotting adventure to size up man to an array of characters. Instead, Piccoline serves as the omnipresent outsider surveying the world around him with biting commentary.

"Human beings need flattery; otherwise they do not fulfill their purpose, not even in their own eyes. And both the present and the past contain much that is beautiful and noble which, without due praise, would have been neither noble nor beautiful."

After 70 pages, Piccoline joins his prince on a military campaign and drags us through a lot of muck until he returns to his castle. He poisons peacemongering enemies at a feast and then his city falls under siege, which festers from the inside out with the plague. The first 70 pages are the most interesting because the reader discovers how far this character can go, especially after he decapitates a kitten in the arms of a sleeping girl.

Lagerkvist makes a lot of vague references to people and places but the most obvious is Maestro Bernardo as Leonardo da Vinci. He sketches impaled heads, designs great weapons of war, paints The Last Supper, and dissects cadavers, which Piccoline describes in one line as "ferreting in Francesco's body." Dissection is an appropriate motif for this book. Piccoline is repulsed by the rank innards of humans, but he slices open the belly of man with his sharp tongue and lets the entrails spill out.

There are many trollish mythological creatures, and characters such as Shakespeare's Puck that are in Piccoline's blood, but the most relevant predecessors for me are two paintings. The first, and most historically and geographically aligned is Bronzino's 1553 depiction of the famed dwarf Morgante, a jester to the Medici court (top image). Piccoline describes a moment when he is stripped in the most violating and humiliating manner by Bernardo for a life study. It also is telling of a passage when he is offended by a strumpet's underarm hair and explains that any body hair other than that on one's head is repulsive. Unfortunately, Bronzino's dwarf shows nothing of Piccoline's causticity, which is overflowing in Velázquez's The Dwarf Sebastian de Morra, from 1645 (second from top image). The exquisite outfit is also fitting for a passage in which Piccoline explains that his clothes are cut from the same cloth as the prince's garments.

Could these paintings have influenced Lagerkvist's character? I know very little about this witty author, but think he took great joy in sampling and assembling his characters and story from many sources. His own commentary of great art through the eyes of Piccoline is most poignant in the description of Bernardo's portrait of the princess, the unnamed Mona Lisa.

"He has painted her exactly as she is, like a middle-aged whore. It is really like her, diabolically so. The voluptuous face with the heavy eyelids and the vague lustful smile, everything is like her."

On the flip side of this influence, I tried to think of a more modern character that is the best incarnation of Lagerkvist's dwarf. Surprisingly, it is Quark, a Ferengi in the Star Trek series Deep Space Nine (bottom image). He is one of the most developed characters from all of the shows. The Ferengi are dwarf-like and share Piccoline's view of humans as vulgarians. The only great difference is that Ferengi love women, while Piccoline explains that if he could ever love a human, it would be a man's man.

One thing I have neglected to explain, is that while dwarfs are of course human beings, Piccoline tells us otherwise when he speaks about his "ancient" race,

"We dwarfs have no homeland, no parents; we allow ourselves to be born of strangers, anywhere in secret, among the poorest and the most wretched, so that our race should not die out."

This otherness...this suspended diaspora is certainly a comment on the times; Lagerkvist finished this book at the end of World War II. The dwarf could be a Jewish man, or a gypsy, but he is often the persecuted homosexual. Most of the time he is simply a civilian caught up in the worst of humanity. When the enemy guests are first received at the castle, he protests with an absurd rant that Lagerkvist must have only felt for the pointlessness of war,

"I think the world has gone mad! Lasting peace! Nor more war! What flummery, what childishness! Do they think they can change the cosmic system? What conceit! And what infidelity toward the past and the great traditions!...And then there will be nothing left to put a limit to the bottomless pride and arrogance of mankind."

Lagerkvist's dwarf is a simple character with a very complicated relationship to his author/creator. Piccoline explains how the dwarf jester is seen as the buffoon but points out that the real buffoons are the court poets and philosopher's with their profound meditations on life. This passage can be expanded to include the reader of the book. He is our narrator jester and while we laugh at his ways and limited thoughts he is really setting us up for a farce we are central to. His praises are the real critiques and his thoughts that are shallow on the first read are really quite profound.

"Love is something which dies and when dead rots and becomes soil for a new love. Then the dead love continues its secret life in the living one, and thus in reality there is no death in love."