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