burning city

Last week I’ve learned a new trick in getting my soon to be three year old daughter to stop crying. Recently she started calling herself a “big girl”, so now every time she’s bursting into tears, I’m reminding her that she’s not a little baby anymore, and that only little babies cry. It works like a magic: through the quickly drying tears she confirms that she is a big girl and that she stopped crying.

I know there will be many things that I’ll have to learn about handling my child as she grows. Her vocabulary is rapidly expanding and I’m preparing myself to answering lots of inquisitive questions from her about every little and big thing that will catch my daughter’s attention.

Today’s bit of literature looks at the world through the eyes of a four-year-old boy, and shows how his father struggles to explain his son the difference between the reality and something that had happened long time ago.

This short story was written by Hjalmar Söderberg (1869-1941), Swedish novelist and journalist. His novels and stories often portray melancholic or disillusioned people. But in The Burning City a little boy knows how not to let himself down.

The Burning City

by Hjalmar Söderberg

Through the two windows with their bright lattice-figured curtains the level sunlight of the winter morning falls in two slanting oblong quadrilaterals on the soft green carpet, and in the warm sunny spaces a little boy skips and dances. He knows but little of the world as yet. He knows he is little and is going to be big, but he does not know either that he has been born or that he will die. He knows he is four and will soon be five, but he does not know what is meant by “a year”; he still measures time only into yesterday, today, and tomorrow.

“Papa,” he suddenly exclaims to his father, who has just finished breakfast and lighted his first cigar of the day — he being a person to measure time with cigars — “Papa, I dreamed so many things last night! I dreamed about the whole room! I dreamed about the chairs and the green carpet and the mirror and the clock and the stove and the shutters and the cupboards.”

With that he skips forward to the stove, where the fire flames and crackles, and turns a somersault. He considers the stove and the place in front of it as the most important and dignified things in the room.

His father nods and laughs at him over the corner of his paper, and the boy laughs back, laughs away uncontrollably. He is at the age when laughter is still only an utterance of joy, not of appreciation for the ridiculous. When he stood at the window some days ago and laughed at the moon, it was not because he found the moon funny, but because it gave him joy with its round bright face.

When he has had his laugh out, he clambers up on a chair and points to one of the pictures on the wall.

“— And I dreamed most of all about that picture,” he says.

The picture is a photograph of an old Dutch painting, A Burning City.

“Well, and what was it you dreamed?” his father asks.

“I don’t know.”

“Come, think!”

“Oh yes, I dreamed it was burning and that I patted a doggie.”

“But generally you are afraid of doggies.”

“Yes, but on pictures I can pat them nicely.”

Then he laughs and skips and dances.

At last he comes up to his father and says, “Papa dear, take down the picture. I want Papa to show me the picture again the way he did yesterday.”

The picture is a new arrival in the room; it came the day before. With the other pictures around the walls the little boy has acquainted himself long ago: Uncle Strindberg and Uncle Schopaur (i.e., Schopenhauer) and Uncle Napoleon and ugly old Goethe and Grandmother when she was young. But the Burning City is new, and is furthermore in itself a much more amusing picture than the others. The father humors the little boy, takes the picture down from the wall, and they enjoy it together. Over a broad estuary that winds toward the sea and is filled with sloops and rowboats runs an arched bridge with a fortified tower. On the left shore lies the burning city: rows of narrow houses with pointed gables, high roofs, churches, and towers; a throng of people running hither and thither, a sea of fire and flames, clouds of smoke, ladders raised against walls, horses running away with shaking loads, docks crowded with barrels and sacks and all manner of rubbish; on the river a mass of people in a rowboat that is almost ready to capsize, while across the bridge people are running for dear life, and away off in the foreground stand two dogs sniffing at each other. But far in the background, where the estuary widens toward the sea, a much-too-small moon sits on the horizon in a mist of pale clouds, peeping wanly and sadly at all this misery.

“Papa,” inquires the little boy, “why is the city burning?”

“Somebody was careless with fire,” says the father.

“Who was it that was careless?”

“Ah, one can’t be sure of that so long afterward.”

“How long afterward?”

“It is many hundred years since that city was burned,” says the father.

This is a bit puzzling to the little boy, as the father clearly realizes, but he had to answer something. The boy sits quiet a moment and ponders. New thoughts and impressions about things stir in his brain and mingle with the old. He points with his little finger on the glass over the burning city and says:

“Yes, but it was burning yesterday, and now today it’s burning too.”

The father ventures on an explanation of the difference between pictures and reality.

“That is not a real city,” he says, “that is only a picture. The real city was burned up long, long ago. It is gone. The people that run about there waving their arms are dead and don’t exist anymore. The houses have been burned up, the towers have fallen. The bridge is gone too.”

“Have the towers burned down or tumbled down?” asks the boy.

“They have both burned and tumbled down.”

“Are the steamboats dead too?”

“The boats too have been gone long ago,” replied the father. “But those are not steamboats, they are sailing vessels. There were no steamboats in those days.”

The little boy sticks out his lower lip with a dissatisfied expression.

“But I see that they’re steamboats,” he says. “Papa, what’s that steamboat’s name?”

He has a mind of his own, the boy does. The father is tired of the labor of instruction and holds his peace. The boy points with his finger to the old Dutch merchantmen and prattles to himself:

“That steamer’s name is Bragë; and that one’s is Hillersea, and that is the Princess Ingeborg. Papa,” he cries all of a sudden, “is the moon gone too?”

“No, the moon still exists. It is the one thing of all there that still exists. It is the same moon you laughed at the other day in the nursery window.”

Again the little boy sits still and ponders. Then comes yet another question:

“Papa, is it very long ago this city was burned? Is it as long ago as when we went away on the Princess Ingeborg?”

“It is much, much longer ago,” answers the father. “When that city burned, neither you nor I nor Mamma nor Grandma was here.”

The boy’s face becomes very serious all at once. He looks positively troubled. He sits quiet a long while pondering. But it seems as if things would not work out for him.

“Tell me, Papa,” he finally asks, “where was I when that city was burned? Was it when I was at Grenna with Mamma?”

“No, old fellow,” replies the father, “when that city burned you didn’t yet exist.”

The boy sticks out his underlip again with an attitude as much as to say: No, I can’t agree to such a thing as that. He then repeats with emphasis:

“Yes, but where was I then?”

His father answers, “You didn’t exist at all.”

The boy looks at his father with round eyes. Suddenly all the little face brightens, the boy tears himself away from his father, and begins to skip and dance again in the sunny spots on the green carpet, crying at the top of his lungs:

“Oho, yes I did, just the same. I was somewhere, I was somewhere!”

He thought his father was only joking with him. Such an idea was clearly too ridiculous! The maids used sometimes to talk nonsense to him in jest, and he thought his father had done the same.

So he skips and dances in the sunlight.

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3 Insightful Bits in response to “A Bit Of Literature – The Burning City”

  1. Thank goodness for ‘Lit-Bits’! I’ve packed all my books, so today it’s inspirationbit to the rescue. Before this post, I’d never heard of Hjalmar Söderberg. What a beautiful story. I wonder how often such scenes are repeated these days? I fear not often enough.

    Thank you for sharing this, Vivien. I’m off to find out more about this Söderberg fellow. I think I’ll try one of his novels.

    Very nicely written introduction too, BTW.

  2. oh, you’re most welcome, John. I also haven’t heard about Söderberg before coming across this story in one of my newly acquired short story books.

    Glad you liked it and my little intro as well ;-) Kids are little wonders, and it’s incredible how much the adults can learn just by looking at the world through the eyes of children.
    My mom was saying that when I was little, she was calling me a “Why-girl” because I was driving her nuts with all my WHY questions. I can see my daughter is quickly turning into the Why-girl as well ;-)

    You know there are so many wonderfully written short stories, but most of them are not short enough for the online reading, so it takes me awhile to find a story for my lit bits that’s not only a great read but also not very long. Also, I’d like to explore more short stories from other countries.
    I can’t seem to find that link and the name of the Japanese author that you sent me last year. When you get a chance, could you please, re-send it to me?
    Good luck with your move. Hope you’ll get to your new place very soon.

  3. Hi. Find this site or blog and thought you might have heard of it already, anyway I thought you might be interested in it: http://www.smashingmagazine.com/

    And secondly, as a tiny contribution to your mega social media project, check out Entrecard (http://entrecard.com/): a simple way to drive traffic to your site. :)

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Hi, I'm Vivien. Thanks for visiting my Inspiration Bit. I often find myself scouring the internet looking for either answers to many questions I have or websites that inspire me, sites that I can learn from. On what topics you might ask — any topics that interest me, anything from web design to typography and art, from blogging to entrepreneurship, from programming to open source.
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When I'm not blogging, I design web sites, teach, play with my daughter and try to balance family, work, friends and a somewhat active social life on