Tag Archives: Lars Gustafsson

Stories of Happy People, Lars Gustafsson

Standard

 lars

It’s definitely going to look like I have a thing for old Swedish guys. And to follow up on the “happiness” theme, here is Stories of Happy People, a collection of short stories by Lars Gustafsson originally published by Nordstedt in Stockholm in 1981. So there are no smart phones and tablets in these stories.

But what can we find in those stories: the Chinese Cultural Revolution, model railroads, playing Bach on tapes, reading phone books in hotels, Athens without a subway. And an outlook on life unlike any other… I don’t even know how to begin to describe how Lars Gustafsson stands out as a writer. The way of describing reality, the attention to details, especially incongruous details, the incongruous thoughts that surface to consciousness in the middle of moments completely devoted to something else…

I saw on another website a comment related to this book that said “is that what it is to be happy?” Well worth asking, actually… What is happiness? Martin Seligman would offer an answer, but if I look at Gustafsson’s offering, I might find quite a different one, so let’s explore. Is happiness to be equated to finding meaning, being useful, being fulfilled, being free of unwanted concerns? Or is it absence of something, such as pain, worry, problems, discomforts of all sorts?

Is one happy when one is fully enmeshed in reality, connected to other people, or things, in meaningful ways? Or is one happiest when the ability to detach oneself, to let go, to “unwant” has been fully achieved? And is it the same for everyone? Is happiness in “big things” or “little things”?

Or is Gustafsson being somewhat sarcastic in his use of the word “happy”? Some of the stories are anything but happy… How do you describe the emotion that inhabits you once a nasty migraine headache is over? I would not quite go with “happiness”. The tenth story is called “Out of the Pain”. Its description of pain is reminiscent of The Death of a Beekeeper from the same author. Pain is described both as excruciating sensation and as color. And when there is a lull, the writer can return to his craft from which arises joy, the act of writing dubbed “a silent, ongoing feast”, that requires a lot of sacrifice to reap rewards. And writing requires taking leave of others, and the acceptance of this immense solitude is also the greatest freedom.

So light and cheerful, and at the same time so serious and deep that life is easy, that it consists of purest lust, and that it only exists for those who are able to dance and to laugh.

 This slim book is not an easy read filled with cute stories… but then what would one expect of a writer with a Ph.D. in theoretical philosophy. And different readers might find quite different meanings in these stories.

Now here is my latest fantasy, and one thing that at the moment seems to the just the thing to make me happy:  Meeting both Lars Gustafsson and Arnold Weinstein from Brown University for coffee, in Sweden. Who says that’s impossible?

 

Reference

Gustafsson, Lars. Stories of Happy People. New Directions Books, New York, NY, 1986.

Other places

http://www.austinchronicle.com/books/2000-02-25/75963/

http://larsgustafssonblog.blogspot.ca/

https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/lars-gustafsson-4/stories-of-happy-people/

Advertisements

What do you think about when you know the end is coming? Lars Gustafsson’s The Death of the Beekeeper

Standard

Lars Gustafsson’s remarkable book shows the reclusive, deeply introspective, last few months of a former teacher turned beekeeper. Aged around 40, the main character’s thoughts are share through snippets of writing supposedly found after his death. A sad part of this is that the death may not have had to occur, had the man pursued treatment options. But he does not open the letter he receives from the hospital after undergoing diagnostic tests. It takes the right to choose one’s life to an extreme.

This book uses the device of the “found notebooks.” There are two ways in which the narrator’s presence is shared. One is the prelude, where he (sorry for the choice of pronoun here) presents the main character. The last sentence of the prelude says “The voice which you are going to hear is his, not mine, and therefore at this point I take my leave of you.” (p. 2) The next section is an “inventory of sources”, i.e. the list and description of the found notebooks.

The rest of the book consists of excerpts from these notebooks, where the silent presence of the narrator is felt through the choice of what is presented. There are no overt comments on the excerpts from the notebooks.

The notes are about his youth, friends and youthful adventures, his studies, his girls, his former wife, a lover, his bees, the nature that surrounds him, his illness and the pain.

Favorite quotes:

Kind readers. Strange readers. We begin again. We never give up. It is early spring 1975, the story begins in the middle of the thaw. The location is North Västmanland. (p.1)

And then suddenly it peed right on my hand. I believe that is an experience not many people have had. The pee of a frog is ice-cold.  (p. 7-8)

But is there a kind of lumbago that hurts so damned much that you taste blood? (p. 13)

Proletarians of pain, unite! (p. 16)

There are dull pains, stabbing pains, and burning pains. (p. 22)

What is the maximum distance from which you can love a human being? Answer: less than a millimeter. And without a name. (p. 31)

Paradise opens up interesting problems. What is an infinitely continuous state of happiness? (p. 104)

The unpleasant similarity between pain and lust. Both consume one’s total attention, one sees nothing else anymore. (p. 151)

Well, actually, I do like most of the book… I am looking forward to my husband reading it to see what he thinks of it. We rarely like the same books. He’s likely to say something like we can count on the Swedes to be depressing… phhhh… He’s reading Pippi Longstocking right now and he is not really impressed, but at least that is a cheerful book.

References:

Gustafsson, Lars. The Death of a Beekeeper. New Directions Book. 1981 [1978].