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“The Dwarf” was published in 1945 (the author, Pär Lagerkvist, a Swede, went on to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1951), and it is the story of — you guessed it! — a dwarf. He is a court dwarf for a prince in medieval Italy, and he’s one of the most unique characters I’ve ever found in the pages of a book.
As a dwarf he considers himself to be of a race separate from and much older than the human race. He watches the human goings-on with a certain detachment and a great deal of disgust. He professes to hate humans generally, with the exception of the Prince who employs him. He admires the Prince, though he is often baffled by him. One way to interpret the book is to see the Dwarf as a symbol for the ruthless and bellicose spirit that a medieval prince would be required to possess at times, but to do so would be to deny the full humanity of the Dwarf himself (a humanity that the Dwarf, in turn, would deny!).
The Dwarf is a prideful and fundamentally evil character. His mother sold him to the Prince, and since then he has been literally spit upon and kicked all of his life. As a consequence he does not have any direct experience of love or sympathy — these feeling move in him in a subterranean way that he can hardly access, much less understand. The book is written in the form of Dwarf’s journal or diary entries, and much of the power of the book comes in the form of his idiosyncratic observations and commentary. He writes things like this:
It is difficult to understand those whom one does not hate, for then one is unarmed, and one has nothing with which to penetrate into their being.
I have noticed that sometimes I frighten people; what they really fear is themselves. They think it is I who scare them, but it is the dwarf within them, the ape-faced manlike being who sticks up its head from the depths of their souls.
What would life be like if it were not futile? Futility is the foundation upon which it rests. On what other foundation could it have been based which would have held and never given way?
The Dwarf is a short novel, but it moves swiftly and deeply. It flirts with allegory; it deals explicitly in religious and Christian themes; and it progresses by an inevitable logic toward terrible destruction and a kind of apocalypse. The Dwarf plays his role in encouraging the downward spiral. At times I had the instinct to fling the book away, as if it were a photo making me look at something I didn’t want to look at. But, having come to the end of the book, I found the feeling that great literature sometimes creates, of having gone through a change, as if the book could reach inside and alter the reader’s very DNA. (Tangentially, I think of the complicated, lingering feelings sometimes created by the photography of Diane Arbus, who often worked with circus performers.) It is a strange, spiritually demanding book, and undeniably a work of art.
By the end of the book the Dwarf himself has achieved an almost mystical power of spiritual violence, similar in ways to the character of the Judge in Cormac McCarthy’s great novel, “Blood Meridian.” But, for my money, the Dwarf is the more interesting character of the two. The Judge offers a pure, inexplicable expression of the spirit of war and chaos. The Dwarf comes to the same place, but comes to it by a process of human tragedy. And the power he achieves arises, paradoxically, directly, from his dwarfish weakness and impotence.
P.S.-ish thing: “The Dwarf” is one of four novels included in my reading class, “Housewives and Evildoers,” this fall at the Lighthouse.
P.P.S. bonus lit nerd thing!: Readers of Jonathan Franzen’s “The Corrections” will find it alludes to “The Dwarf” with this line, “Upstairs in the Lagerkvist Taproom [Edith] and Sylvia were served by a dwarf in a horned helmet and leather jerkin…”