Author: Lars Gustafsson
Publisher: New Directions Books (1978)
Number of Pages: 158
How long it took me to read: 5 days
Where I got this book: Amazon
Like a Moth to a Flame
I was trying to find a book to read by a Swedish author that had been translated into English and that wasn’t a thriller (a genre that’s been growing in popularity in Scandinavia since the publication of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo); I was after a book that could give me insights into Sweden. I happened to walk past the Nobel Museum in Stockholm’s Gamla Stan and it sparked the idea to look for a Swedish author who’d won the Nobel Prize for Literature. A quick search on the Internet brought up Lars Gustafsson. There was something very direct and pragmatic about the title of this book that seemed to echo some of my impressions of Swedes so far—they get to the point. There are a few more Swedish books up my sleeve for readers who want to join me in reading the work of other Swedish Nobel prize winners.
I propose that the top 5 quotes from this book are:
5. “In spite of everything, I felt somehow relieved after this meeting. It freed me of something which seemed like the not altogether pleasant overture to a disruption of tranquility. And which perhaps had something to do with my bad habit of fixating on all possible objects which attract my restless attention.” (p.30)
4. “People who are important to us we meet not just once, but at least twenty times before we begin to take the signs seriously.” (p.35)
3. “We were both disgusted with bureaucracy, with the centralization of this country, with the massive resettlement of human beings from their natural environment to impersonal, barracklike suburbs in large cities.” (p.47)
2. “…this dull, indefinite hunger, this feeling of lacking something, which, whether awake or asleep, pursues us in almost every moment of our lives. What is it? The possibility of love in our bodies. The presence, the possible presence of another human being. The humiliating, constant reminder that loneliness is not possible, that such a thing as a lonely human being cannot be.” (p.116)
…and my pick for the No.1 quote is…
1. “We begin again. We never give up.” (p.47)
Conversation with the Reader
While I read, I write, and as I write, I read. Here’s some of what I wrote while I read this book:
“I’m the only person outside. A white path leads over the bridge and into the forest. My breath shoots out in small puffs that freeze in front of my numb nose. A steady rhythm of squeaks and crunches fills the space around me as I press my boots into the crisp snow. Otherwise, it’s silent. The weight of the snow dampens all sound. Besides, it’s after dinner on a January night in Stockholm—everyone is indoors. A figure appears ahead and stands in the halo of light under the streetlamp but I can’t make out if it’s a man or a woman; it just looks like a stick figure standing in the snow. Then it turns its back on me and a few steps later, it’s swallowed up by the night. My fingertips are numb. I nestle my hands into my pockets and head for the harbour.
“Small waves have frozen in mid undulation. There’s a boat in one of the moorings. A warm glow from the electric candles in its bow window holds my attention for a few moments. If anyone’s looking out of the window, they’ll see me, very small against the expanse of the frozen waters—a silhouette cut out of the night sky and pasted onto a static image, like a stick figure. I chuckle to myself, wondering if the other person out tonight had the same realization.
“A Swedish flag slaps against the flagpole at the edge of the harbour and a helicopter cracks a path through the icy sky. Then silence fills the void once more. I need to keep moving so I walk around the harbour wall and look out to the horizon. A pool of light glitters in the distance. Are the Northern Lights about to regale me? I walk further and see that the road rises up a small hill at the top of which is a large house that looks like a gin palace. Its enormous terrace is flecked with fairy lights and every window is lambent with candle light. I can’t hear music and I can’t see anyone nor even the shadows of people shuffling around inside. Suddenly, the image of Jack Nicholson in the movie The Shining springs to mind; the part where he appears in an old photograph of a crowd of guests at a lavish party that took place years before he was even alive. If I let my imagination run wild, this could be the house where the party paints the horizon from dawn to dusk, entertaining guests who’ve long since died.
“My solitude mingles with the cold and the quiet. Thoughts march in single file, slowly, methodically, so that I can look at each of them, carefully. I think of the beekeeper—the book’s protagonist—whose story is pieced together from various notebooks that the reader is told were found in his cottage after his death. One is reserved for his household accounts, another a notepad with an obscure mix of phone numbers and observations of the terminal cancer growing inside him. The Blue Notebook is an inventory of events in his life like his marriage and his career milestones. Gustafsson said in an interview, “More and more people are realizing that the meaning or sense of their lives is the one they have to give to themselves.” I wonder what image of my life would emerge if someone were to collect all my scribbles from all the journals, bits of paper, notebooks, and computer files I’ve accumulated over time. Fragments of my life could be edited together in millions of different configurations, each telling a story about a person I might not even recognize.
“When I get home, I look at the cover of the book—it’s a black and white photograph of a landscape that’s very typically Swedish: the flat, well worn rocks extend out to the sea; a spit of land fringed with birches and pines juts out into the water. It’s a calm scene and now that I have been lulled into stillness, images and thoughts that have been buried beneath layers of noise and activity float up into my mind’s eye.”
“ ‘The human being, this strange creature, hovering between animal existence and hope,’ is the last thing I read before going to sleep. It leads me down a wormhole. When I emerge, I’m blinded by the sun and bathed in its light. Opening my eyes, I see a fuzzy outline. From the splay-footed, Charlie Chaplin walk, I know it’s my father. He’s sniffing the roses. I remember a story he once told about smelling a particularly perfumed rose and finding that he sniffed up a bumble bee along with its scent, which naturally stung him in his left nostril. He ambles from one rose to another, his knees knobbly and locked each time he stops to cup a flower, gathering together its petals as if he were warming a glass of cognac, perhaps preparing to squeeze out the bees.
“The frame widens and I see the rest of the garden. Senta, the Alsatian, lies on the grass. Her black coat soaks up the warmth and her chest rises and falls evenly, calmy, comfortably. Suddenly something wakes her and she sits up in a flash, her tan-coloured ears perked up. Oscar, the tortoise, is on a mission across the lawn. His shell lifts and falls steadily as he makes the long journey past the dog. Senta’s eyes are trained on him and she’s alert to the rasping sound of his leathery limbs. Oscar emits an unexpectedly loud sigh as he drags himself into the shade. I’m watching Senta watching Oscar and wondering if she’ll bother him. There was one time when I had to yank him from her mouth. A piece of his shell came off on one of her incisors. A dot of orange blood welled up from the shell. He pulled his head inside so fast that I felt I was holding a headless creature in my hand. Senta’s like a soldier at a road block and this time she seems to be letting him pass.
“In the foreground I can see the garden table, its heavy cast iron frame disguised by delicate lattice work and white paint. Like a doily, it hosts pastries puffing out their cream-filled cheeks and pouting their enormous, strawberry red, raspberry pink lips.
“Seated in a semicircle around the table are dead members of my family. My grandfather sits with one leg folded over the other, his back very straight. His silver hair sparkles in the afternoon light. My grandmother sits beside him, her head tilted coyly to one side. Her cheeks are sucked in from years of inhaling cigarette smoke and saying the word ‘Ja,’ (Swedish for ‘yes,’ which can be substituted for a sharp intake of breath). My uncle is next to her. He has a big, warm, mischievous smile on his face, and his salt-and-pepper hair is a bit messy. Aunt Ladan is looking at him, her smile accentuated by bright pink lipstick. She’s wearing a shiny, fuschia blouse and adjusts the neckline with her long, elegant fingers, nails polished and painted pink. My maternal grandfather sits perched at a jaunty angle in his chair, as though he were sitting at a sidewalk café in Paris, like he used to as a student.
“They’re talking but when they see me, they stop and smile. I’m aware of myself looking at them and of them looking at me. I stand on the patio, the flagstones under my feet radiating all the warmth they’ve absorbed. Happiness reverberates through me. I don’t need to tell them anything. We smile. That’s enough.
“The image is so clear that when I awake, I think my reality the dream.”
“This sentence makes sense to me in a way it wouldn’t have before I moved to Stockholm: ‘People who are important to us we meet not just once, but at least twenty times before we begin to take the signs seriously.’
“When I first arrived in Sweden, everyone kept telling me that friendships were slow in the making here, that it takes a long time before Swedes open up to newcomers but that once they do, they make friends for life. It’s just that until they warm up to you, it can seem like Swedes will go out of their way to avoid all human contact.
“I got on a crowded train the other day. There were still plenty of seats free, except that people had put their bags on them. I walked past a few of these well-kept bags and saw that this pattern extended throughout the rest of the carriage. I was carrying a heavy rucksack and wanted to sit down, so I eventually stopped in front of a random seat, this one occupied by a small plastic bag. Next to it sat its owner, an elderly woman, who was looking out the window. I stood in front of her for a while but she didn’t notice me so I said, ‘Excuse me,’ in Swedish and smiled at her. She looked at me with a blank expression and so I said in English (my Swedish is still rudimentary), ‘Would you mind if I sat here?’ As time slowed to a standstill, I witnessed a plethora of expressions on her face. First, she looked confused, as though she didn’t know if I was talking to her or to someone else. Next, she looked perturbed at the realization that I was, in fact, addressing her. After that came shock—perhaps because she had no idea how to respond. Then came resignation as she saw that I was still there, looking at her. She reluctantly picked up her small plastic bag, perhaps hoping that if enough time passed, I’d change my mind and leave her in peace.
“As I sat down, I sensed that the incident continued to deeply disturb her. Now, she held the plastic bag as though it were a dirty diaper that had to be disposed of, but where? She looked helplessly at the man opposite who also had a bag on the seat next to him. I could almost see the excruciating pain on her face as she realized that she had no other choice but to speak to him and even worse, to ask a favour of him—to put her bag next to his.
“She seemed to be getting exhausted by the whole ordeal, which quickly turned to anger (a natural progression in the multi-step Swedish process otherwise known as ‘interacting with a person you do not know’). She glared at me from the corner of her eye, trying not to turn her head away from the window. As she kept glaring at me, I became aware of a burning in my cheeks and a flurry of emotions rising to the surface. A rush of adrenaline set in as I turned my head in a pronounced way so that I was looking straight at her and said, ‘Excuse me, is it ok for me to sit here?’
“My heart raced. The couple in the seat behind us shuffled and the young woman sitting diagonally opposite shot me a glance. You could feel the social awkwardness pulsating between each passenger, sucking the air out of the carriage, leaving us squirming. The elderly woman shook her head vehemently as she said, in flawless English, ‘No, not at all. It’s perfectly all right.’ I took a deep breath and sank into my seat. I relaxed my clenched jaw and loosened my neck. I even thought about reaching into my bag to get out The Death of the Beekeeper when I became aware of a fresh note of agitation in the air. What terrible faux pas had I committed now? What horrendous transgression was I guilty of? And then, my answer came. ‘I’m just surprised,’ she mumbled under her breath.
“I’m not sure if our paths will cross again but if Gustafsson’s quote is anything to go by, I have another nineteen encounters to go before I have to take the signs seriously.”