Greatness Strikes Where It Pleases
"Greatness Strikes Where It Pleases" by Swedish writer Lars Gustafsson, was first published in Sweden in 1981. Translated into English in 1986, it appeared in Stories of Happy People (Norton, 1986; in print). It can also be found in You've Got to Read This: Contemporary Writers Introduce Stories That Held Them in Awe, edited by Ron Hansen (New York, 1994).
"Greatness Strikes Where It Pleases" is the story of a severely mentally retarded boy who is sent to an institution for the retarded, where he grows to manhood. The story covers a period from the 1930s to the late 1970s. Although set in Europe (possibly in Sweden, the country of Gustafsson's birth, although no specific country is identified), the story might equally well have been set in the United States. In a few short pages, it reveals a great deal about the inner life of a mentally retarded person and also much about the attitudes taken by society to the mentally retarded. On one level, it is a story of loneliness, isolation, and neglect, but on another level, it affirms the uniqueness and the dignity of the mentally retarded man, who against all odds creates an imaginative life for himself that allows him to feel in harmony with the larger forces at work in nature and the universe.
Novelist, poet, and essayist Lars Gustafsson was born in Västerås, Sweden, on May 17, 1936.
He recalls in his notebooks that he felt isolated in his early school years, since he was already thinking about the serious issues in human life and society. He wanted to be a poet from the age of fourteen. Leaving Västerås in 1955, he studied philosophy, aesthetics, sociology, and literature at the University of Uppsala, and in 1957, he received a scholarship to study at Magdalene College of Oxford University. This was also the year in which his first published prose work appeared. This was Vägvila: Ett mysteriespel på prosa: Till det förflutna och minnet av vindar (Rest at the Roadside: A Mystery Play in Prose: To the Past and the Memory of Winds). His first novel, Poeten Brumbergs sista dagar och död: En romantisk berättelse (The Poet Brumberg's Final Days and Death: A Romantic Story) followed in 1959. His first poetry collection was published in 1962.
After Gustafsson received his Filosofie Licentiat degree from the University of Uppsala in 1960, he became editor, and from 1965 to 1972 editor-in-chief, of the Swedish literary journal, Bonniers Litterära Magasin. In 1962, he married Madeleine Lagerberg, with whom he had two children. During the 1960s he published four collections of poetry, three novels, and five collections of essays. Selections from three of the poetry volumes appeared in translation in The Stillness of the World before Bach: New Selected Poems (1988). The critical essays established Gustafsson's reputation in Europe as an intellectual who grappled with political and philosophical issues.
During the 1970s, Gustafsson traveled extensively throughout the world, and he also wrote five novels, which further enhanced his reputation in Sweden. One of these, Tennisspelarna: En berättelse (1977) became the first of his novels to be translated into English, as The Tennis Players (1983). In 1978, he received a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Uppsala.
In 1981, Gustafsson converted to Judaism, having rejected during the 1970s the Lutheranism in which he was raised. In the same year he published the collection of short stories, Berättelser om lyckliga människor, in which the story, "Greatness Strikes Where It Pleases" first appeared. The collection was translated by Yvonne L. Sandström and John Weinstock as Stories of Happy People, and published by New Directions (New York) in 1986.
Gustafsson emigrated to the United States in 1982 and lived in Austin, Texas, where he became adjunct professor of Germanic Studies at the University of Texas. His first marriage having ended in divorce, he remarried, to Dena Alexandra Chasnoff, and he became an American citizen in 1983.
Two of his novels during the 1980s have been translated into English. These are Sorgemusik för frimurare (1983), translated as Funeral Music for Freemasons (1987); and Bernard Foys tredje rockad (1986), translated as Bernard Foy's Third Castling (1988). The novel En kakelsättares eftermiddag (1991) was translated as A Tiler's Afternoon (1993).
Gustafsson has as of 2005 written eighteen novels, and his work has been translated into fifteen languages. He has won many awards, including the Prix Européen de l'essai Charles Veillon (1983), the Swedish Academy's Bellman Prize (1990), and the Swedish Pilot Prize (1996).
"Greatness Strikes Where It Pleases" begins in the 1930s, when the mentally retarded boy is living with his family on a small farm by the woods. He has a brother and sister, older by two and three years respectively. They practice with their tools in the woodshed, making wood cars and boats, but the
retarded boy is horrified by tools such as chisels, saws and axes, because he cannot learn how to handle them correctly. He also has difficulty in remembering the names of the tools. There are other tools in the shed, including a mallet that is too heavy to lift and a hanging ice saw that he is forbidden to touch. Sometimes the boy is beaten because his parents are afraid he will badly hurt himself; they want him to keep away from the tools. Sometimes his brother and sister tease him, sending him to the barn to fetch objects that do not exist. He is unsure about what things exist and what do not.
For this boy, better than tools are mushrooms that grow in the woods behind the barn. He enjoys their different shapes and smells and the way they feel when he touches them. But his parents do not allow him to go to the woods where the mushrooms grow.
He starts school in 1939, at the age of seven. World War II has just begun. The teacher at the one-room school is kind and helpful as the boy tries to learn to read. He can tell the letters apart, but he cannot make sense of words. During recess, he walks around by himself, apart from the other children. He does not understand why he is at school, and he remains there for only one week. After this one attempt to educate him, his parents send him away to an institution for retarded boys. At the institution, he misses the life he has known on the farm. He amuses himself by picking a spider "apart, leg by leg," and feeding paper to the fat boy in the bed next to him, whose habit is to eat little paper balls. The retarded boy is comforted by the patterns he observes in the wallpaper. Out of the crisscrossing lines he is able to make shapes like trees.
The following spring, in 1940, he is sent home because the institution is to be used for other purposes. After he has been home for a week, he almost drowns in a brook. He is rescued by his brother and then beaten by his parents for his carelessness.
In the spring of 1945, when he is about thirteen and living again at the institution, he becomes sexually aware and learns how to masturbate. This discovery makes him happy, because he realizes that his body holds secrets that he may be able to discover. It is "the happiest spring of his life."
During this period, he is allowed to observe other boys working in the wood shop. A new teacher is kind to him, allows him "to sort pieces of wood in the lumber room," and gives him other small tasks to perform. He is confused by the boisterousness of the other boys, but the teacher knows how to quiet things down without being abusive toward the boys. The teacher becomes the center of the boy's world.
The boy does not get on so well with the female aides. They tell him he is in the way and cause him some anxiety with their attitudes that veer between disgust and maternal feelings. There is a high turnover of staff, so the boy never really gets to know any of the aides.
After a couple of years, the wood shop teacher leaves, and many of the boys are moved to a different institution. Only the more severely retarded, including the boy, remain.
In 1952, a truck loaded with wheat overturns on the road near the institution. For weeks the boys find wheat in the ditches and hedges and play with it. They regard it as "a mysterious gift" from outside.
This is the last memorable thing that happens in the boy's life for some while. As he becomes an adult, he lives for mealtimes, and by the age of thirty he has become grotesquely fat. He is allowed to help in the apple orchard across the road, although he is not much use there. In 1956, a motorized cultivator arrives, which frightens him. He rushes back to the home, where he is left alone.
One of his peculiarities that amuses the men who work in the garden is that he is afraid of birds. If a bird such as a sparrow flies up suddenly from a bush or from a new-plowed field, he is terrified. Even as an adult, he runs babbling into the kitchen on such occasions.
At the end of the 1950s, the man's parents die. Nobody tries to explain this to him, and he does not know exactly when or in what order they die. He is just aware that he has not seen them for a few years, and he misses them in a vague kind of way.
In September, 1977, the retarded man sits in the dayroom in the new home, sixty miles from the previous one, which was torn down in 1963. He sits in his favorite spot by the window, looking out onto an asphalt yard with a wilted flowerbed and three parking places. It is a still day. He sits there for hours, moving his chair a few inches every hour so that it always remains in the patch of sunlight. In some mysterious way, he is in harmony with the entire cosmos. In the shadows cast by the leaves against the wall, he sees the mushrooms that he used to love as a child. He lets his imagination roam over those shapes, recreating many mushrooms, each one different from the others, and allowing them all to grow in fantastic and unique ways. He appreciates how mysterious life is and has a sense of its greatness, a greatness which includes himself.
As a young child, the unnamed boy is active and curious. He loves to play in the woods, and he is especially drawn to the mushrooms that grow there. His senses are very much alive, and he discerns the way things and people smell. Although he is teased by his brother and sister, he does not seem to be unhappy. When he is sent to the home for the mentally retarded, he misses the sights and sounds of life with his family on the farm. The boy's difficulty is that he has intellectual disabilities that make it very hard for him to learn. At home, he cannot master how to use the tools in the woodshed and sometimes hurts himself trying. His language skills are also poor. He cannot connect words to things and feels that words belong to other people, not to him. At his first and only week in school, he cannot learn how to read and does not know how to make friends.
At the institution, he is not the most severely disabled of the residents. Although not able to communicate with words, he is able to wash and feed himself. He also still exhibits curiosity, observing the activities in the wood shop and being amused, and sometimes frightened, at the antics of the other boys. He responds well when a new teacher at the home treats him with dignity and keeps him busy with chores. When left to his own devices, he shows he has an active imagination, creating meaningful patterns as he stares at wallpaper, and later, when he is an adult, at the shadows of leaves against the wall.
As an adult, he suffers from institutional neglect. Left alone, without any meaningful activities, he gets fat, and his mind appears to stagnate.
The New Teacher
The new teacher is a young, quiet man who is employed by the institution to teach in the wood shop. He remains patient and calm and knows how to maintain discipline without being harsh. He treats the boys well.
Loneliness and Neglect
The mentally retarded boy, who is unable to speak and communicate his needs in a normal way, has to endure the loneliness of someone who does not fit into the expectations and norms of society. He is at the mercy of others who order his world for him in a way that suits them, and in a way that leaves him powerless. The people who are in charge of him hold keys that he does not possess—the use of language, for example—and, as he knows, they want things from him. They want him to behave in a certain way, to respond to them in a certain way, but he never does understand what that way might be. Since humans normally organize and make sense of their world through language, he is at an enormous disadvantage, because words are a mystery to him. For this boy, language seems like an arbitrary thing, something invented by the strong, and he knows very well that he is not one of the strong.
As a child, the unnamed boy seems to be a stranger or an outsider even in his own family. His brother and sister fool him into going to look for objects that do not exist and laugh heartily as his expense when he cannot find them. He feels cut off from his siblings because they are allowed to use the tools in the woodshed and he is not. When he first attends school, he is similarly isolated. He does not mix with the other children and does not enjoy the noise they make as they play. He cuts a solitary figure. Things do not change much when he is sent to an institution for the mentally retarded. He is not allowed in the wood shop because he cannot be trusted with the tools, and the other boys sometimes laugh at him. Few people show him any understanding. The exception is the kind teacher who treats him as a human being and looks directly into his eyes as he speaks to him. During this period, when the boy is thirteen, and continuing until he is about eighteen, there seems to be a genuine possibility of what the narrator calls "an awakening." But when the teacher leaves and the wood shop closes, the opportunity for development is lost, and the pattern of the boy's life for the next quarter of a century is set. There is no longer anything in his environment to stimulate his interest. He is fed and clothed at the Home, but no other attempt is made to give him meaningful activity: "His senses were asleep: there was nothing that made enough of a claim on them." Although sometimes he is treated with kindness, as when the aides try to comfort him when he is frightened by birds, he also has to endure humiliation and lack of respect, as when the foreman, who probably means no harm, laughs at his efforts to rake leaves in the apple orchard. Progressively becoming more and more isolated, the boy, who has now grown into a man, is left to while his life away getting fat and sitting around the Home in a chair, gazing out at the yard.
From Disharmony to Harmony
For most of his life, and in most ways, the boy lacks meaningful connection to his environment. He lives in a world that does not make any sense to him. This is partly because he cannot learn to read or write or communicate verbally, which means that he cannot comprehend why things happen as they do. He is especially uncomfortable with machines, the objects that the human world has manufactured, which operate in unfamiliar ways and have power to injure him. To this boy, the world behaves in unpredictable ways. When a bird flies up suddenly from a bush and terrifies him, it is only "one of the thousand ways in which the world would turn unreliable."
However, he is able to enjoy his senses. As a child, he savors the smell and the feel of mushrooms and other plants that grow wild. He feels a kinship with them, even though he has no names for them. This experience of being connected to the world stays with him as the years go by. He frequently reverts to it or tries to recreate it, as a way of imposing order, familiarity, and meaning on an otherwise strange and incomprehensible world. During the only week he ever spends at a normal school, when he tries copying letters, they turn out looking like mushrooms.
Later, when he is sent to the institution, he gazes at the patterns on the wallpaper until the patterns resemble trees. Like mushrooms, trees were things he could respond to even when he was very young. When the wind blew through the big ash trees outside the schoolhouse, he thought to himself, "The trees are so happy … when the wind comes. That gives them something to do."
When he reaches manhood, he appears to others to be a fat, mentally retarded man with a vacant mind who lounges for hours in a chair by the window doing nothing. But the reality is somewhat different. As he gazes at the shadows cast on the wall by the leaves in the yard, he is once more able to revert to his love of mushrooms and the feeling of friendship that he felt in their presence. Over the years, in his imagination, he creates an almost infinite number of different mushroom shapes from the shadows, each one of which is unique. In his own way he understands the greatness and the mystery of life as it unfolds over long stretches of time. And as he moves his chair every hour to stay in the sun, he unconsciously aligns his own life with the life of the entire cosmos. Out of harmony with the human world, he silently places himself in harmony with something so much greater and more permanent.
Point of View
The story is told in the third person by a narrator who has insight into how the retarded boy and later man experiences the world. The narrator is a mature and sophisticated adult; when he needs to he uses complex sentence structures (one sentence contains 132 words), and the last six paragraphs are written in a heightened, lyrical style that enables him to convey his vision of the connection between the mentally retarded man and the infinity of the cosmos. This is a reality that the man cannot know for himself, except by some unconscious instinct.
Topics for Further Study
- Research current definitions of mental retardation. Is the condition solely related to intellectual abilities or are other factors involved? What are some of the causes of the condition? Is there any way of preventing it?
- Research the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. What are its main provisions? What type of disabilities does it cover?
- From your reading of the story, describe some of the good things about the care the protagonist receives at the institution and some of the bad things. What conclusions do you draw from the story about the needs of the mentally retarded?
- Reread the first three pages of the story, which describe the boy's childhood up to the age of seven. Now write a paragraph that describes a few of your own remembered experiences of being a very young child. Try to recapture how you really felt and how you saw things at that time. Are there any similarities between the boy's experience and your own?
However, although the adult narrator has greater intelligence and verbal range than his subject, he uses several techniques that bring the reader
closer to the experience of the retarded individual. First, the story contains no dialogue, which has the effect of conveying the locked-in nature of the boy's experience; he cannot communicate with the rest of the human world. Second, in spite of his more sophisticated consciousness, the narrator's style is predominantly simple, which conveys the childlike nature of the boy's experience. Monosyllabic phrases such as "The House, large, white, behind trees and a fence," and "a wind came through the big ash trees" suggest a child's perceptions, expressed in language a child might use. Third, metaphor (the comparison of one thing to another dissimilar thing in such a way as to bring out a similarity between them) is employed to convey how the boy experiences ordinary things in a special way. The ice axe is "a cruel giant with dragon's teeth"; and the knot he ties his shoelaces with is a "small, evil animal that the lace passed through." Fourth, in order to bring the reader closer to the boy's experience, the narrator sometimes employs the second-person form, as in, "water you inhale deeply has a strange way of stinging," and "the joiner's saws … that clattered so merrily when you released the tension." Finally, the boy is unnamed throughout. He is referred to only as "he." This namelessness conveys the way society depersonalizes him. He is a category—a mentally retarded male—rather than a living person with a personality and with likes and dislikes, interests and needs.
Treatment of the Mentally Retarded
Societal attitudes about mental retardation changed considerably over the course of the twentieth century. In the United States in the early part of the century, individuals with mental retardation were generally sent away to schools for the feebleminded, where standards of care varied widely. These were usually large institutions, each accommodating more than one thousand children and adults. Most of the institutions were in rural areas. They often had gardens and a fully operational farm. The male inmates worked on the farm, operating the heavy machinery and tending to the animals. Females did domestic chores such as laundry. Those who were only mildly retarded cared for the more severe cases and also for the young children. Some inmates returned to their families for holidays.
Social trends in the early twentieth century, however, did not favor enlightened treatment of the mentally retarded. Instead of the retarded being viewed as harmless children who needed to be taken care of, there was a growing perception that they posed a potential threat to society. It was claimed by society opinion-makers that because of their weak powers of reasoning, the mentally retarded were more likely than others to indulge in criminal activity or immoral sexual behavior. In his book Inventing the Feeble Mind: A History of Mental Retardation in the United States, James W. Trent Jr. comments on the period 1900—1920, noting "the increasing insistence … that mental defectives, in their amorality and fecundity, were not only linked with social vices but indeed were the most prominent and persistent cause of those vices."
Along with the virtual criminalization of mental retardation, came the eugenics movement, which sought to sterilize those considered unfit to have children. The eugenics movement arose out of a scientific interest in heredity and the belief in the necessity of creating superior human stock. Eugenics attracted support from many of the leading minds of the day, including Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Andrew Carnegie, and many other progressive thinkers. The goal was to use knowledge of heredity to prevent the birth of mental defectives. Eugenicists believed that by cultivating good human stock, many problems that had plagued humanity, such as poverty and crime, as well as mental retardation, could be eradicated. Soon the list included vices such as prostitution, venereal disease, illegitimate births, and drunkenness. Particularly targeted were the mildly retarded, known at the time as morons, since unlike "idiots" (those with the lowest intelligence), they could pass for normal in everyday society and were therefore more dangerous. It was also argued that mental retardation was a permanent condition and that retarded persons could not be educated.
In 1907, the state of Indiana passed the first sterilization law in the United States. Although it focused on criminals and rapists, it also included the mentally retarded. By 1917, eleven more states had followed. After World War I, fifteen more states permitted sterilization in some circumstances. In the 1927 case Buck v. Bell, Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, in upholding a sterilization law, declared "Three generations of imbeciles are enough."
The eugenics movement flourished not only in the United States but also in Nazi Germany in the 1930s and 1940s, where 400,000 people were sterilized. Involuntary sterilization also took place in
Sweden (where "Greatness Strikes Where It Pleases" may be set). Between 1926, when a law permitting sterilization was passed, and continuing until the 1970s, up to 60,000 women were sterilized, for reasons that included mental retardation.
In the United States in the years leading up to World War II, the institutionalization of the mentally retarded increased. Many people were committed involuntarily by court order, and they were committed for life. In 1926, there were 43,000 mentally retarded people at state institutions, and this number increased to 81,000 in 1936.
During this period, and persisting right up to the 1950s and in some cases beyond, mental retardation was regarded as a shameful thing. Few families would want to admit that one of their members suffered from the condition. According to Trent, "To have a defective in the family was to be associated with vice, immorality, failure, bad blood, and stupidity."
Compare & Contrast
- 1920–1940s: In the United States, people can be confined involuntarily in an institution for the mentally retarded on the basis of a note from a physician or psychologist. In some states, the person concerned has no right to a lawyer or a court hearing. This arrangement results in the commitment to institutions of many who are not retarded but whose behavior is regarded as problematic.
Today: People with mental retardation are guaranteed full civil rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. This act protects access to jobs, transportation, and public places such as movie theaters, restaurants, and stores. Children and adults with mental retardation cannot be denied access to private day care on the basis of their disability.
- 1961: President John F. Kennedy creates the President's Panel on Mental Retardation. The president calls upon Americans to address the needs of mentally retarded people and their desire to be included in the everyday life of the community.
Today: In 2003, the President's Committee on Mental Retardation is renamed the President's Committee for People with Intellectual Disabilities. In renaming the committee, the terms "mental retardation" and "intellectual disabilities" are considered synonyms. The committee continues to address the needs of the same people as in the past, but under a more acceptable name. The new term attempts to remove negative attitudes and encourage positive images of people with intellectual disabilities.
- 1968: The first Special Olympic Games is held at Soldier Field, Chicago, Illinois, inspired by Eunice Kennedy Shriver and underwritten by the Kennedy Foundation. The Games feature 1,000 athletes with intellectual disabilities from 26 states and Canada competing in athletics, floor hockey, and aquatics.
Today: The 2003 Special Olympics World Summer Games are held in Dublin, Ireland. These are the first Summer Games ever held outside the United States. It is the world's largest sporting event for 2003, featuring 7,000 athletes from more than 150 countries participating in 21 sports.
- 1970s: In the United States, the death penalty is reinstated in 1976, and execution of the mentally retarded is permitted.
Today: In 2002, in line with international norms, the Supreme Court rules that the death penalty for mentally retarded persons is "cruel and unusual punishment" and therefore violates the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution. This opinion results in reprieves for many death row inmates, since it is estimated that as many as 10 percent suffer from mental retardation.
After World War II, when the full horrors of the Nazi embrace of eugenics became widely known, support for sterilization in the United States faded. It also became known that many previously
institutionalized mentally retarded individuals had served successfully in the U.S. armed forces during the war.
During the 1960s, there were a number of scandals about how the mentally retarded were being treated in institutions. A notorious photo essay in Look magazine in 1966 showed neglect, filth, and boredom in state schools for the retarded. In 1967, a visitor to the Sonoma State Hospital in California saw, as reported by Trent, "wards of naked adults sleeping on cement floors often in their own excrement or wandering in open dayrooms." Many were so heavily medicated they were in a daze. In 1972, in another public scandal, two homes for the retarded in New York were the subject of a television expose, which showed conditions, as Trent puts it, "not unlike Nazi death camps."
During this period also, there was a gradual change in public attitudes toward the mentally retarded. People began to realize that such individuals could live outside the institution and lead productive lives. In the 1970s, a public policy of deinstitutionalization led to thousands of retarded people being integrated into their communities, in public schools, and in the workplace. The emphasis was on normalization and inclusion rather than segregation.
Although Gustafsson's work is not as widely known in the English-speaking world as his admirers might like it to be, the translation of his short story collection Stories of Happy People did receive some positive reviews when published in 1986. In Studies in Short Fiction, Daniel P. Deneau selected "Greatness Strikes Where It Pleases" as one of the two memorable stories in the collection. He described it as "an absorbing account" of a mentally retarded person, in which, at the end, "in lyrical prose we learn of his feeling of oneness with the universe and his understanding of the great mystery of which mankind is a part." Deneau quotes Gustafsson's statement that "Nobody really knows what a human being is," and comments that in all his stories, including "Greatness Strikes Where It Pleases," "[Gustafsson] quietly illustrates mysteries rather than certainties."
In the September 7, 1986, New York Times Book Review, Eric O. Johannesson noted that the book was a collection of "10 delightful and significant narratives." Although he does not mention "Greatness Strikes Where It Pleases" directly, his general comments can be applied to it. According to Johannesson, the book "celebrates possibilities.
In their efforts to cope with particular situations, Mr. Gustafsson's characters are generously granted sudden insights, epiphanies or sorts." In a fictional world that "seems inherently valueless, value is conferred by a shift of point of view, of perspective. Thus new possibilities are offered. It is a joyous, life-enhancing philosophy."
Charles Baxter, in his introduction to the story in the anthology, You've Got to Read This: Contemporary Writers Introduce Stories That Held Them in Awe, describes it as "something of a miracle: it induces in the reader a bit of a trance, and in this trance it convincingly portrays its subject as mysteriously exceptional, godlike." Baxter also has praise for Gustafsson's "very tricky maneuver," in which the protagonist's manner of perceiving the world "must come to us through words and a literary language that the boy and subsequently the man do not possess." Baxter praises the narrator for not taking pity on the mentally retarded character and for granting him "nobility, free from condescension." However, in illustrating how the narrator accomplishes this, Baxter misreads the entire paragraph beginning "In a world that had no center, he reigned like a quiet monarch," which in fact describes the young teacher at the institution rather than the protagonist.
Aubrey holds a Ph.D. in English and has published many articles on contemporary literature. In this essay, Aubrey discusses how Gustafsson gives the mentally retarded man a dignity that belies his intellectual deficiencies and how the story compares with other literary works that include mentally retarded characters.
Gustafsson's "Greatness Strikes Where It Pleases" says a great deal in a short space about mental retardation and how it was regarded in the mid-twentieth century. It deserves a place alongside other short stories of the century, such as Jack London's "Told in the Drooling Ward" (1914) and Eudora Welty's "Lily Daw and the Three Ladies" (1941), both of which treat the subject of mental retardation with humor and understanding.
The boy in Gustafsson's story is recognized by his family as being retarded when he is still very young. He does not learn as quickly as his brother and sister, and his language skills lag behind the norm. But his parents seem to have little idea of what to do with him. They beat him so that he will not go to the woodshed and hurt himself, and they also ban him from the woods behind the barn, which is the only place he feels at home. They no doubt feel protective of his welfare, but like other parents of a mentally retarded child, they must decide what to do with him. This boy is given only a week at a normal school. When he cannot learn anything in that time he is, one presumes, declared impossible to educate—a not uncommon attitude at the time. Not knowing what else to do with him, and perhaps feeling the stigma often attached to those who had a retarded person in the family, his parents send him to an institution. For the better part of the century, institutionalization of the retarded was the norm. It was considered better for the general welfare if they were herded together, isolated from society's embarrassed and disapproving gaze.
The home in the story takes in boys of all levels of mental retardation. Some are severe cases, such as the fat boy who makes little paper balls out of anything he can find and eats them. Some of the boys cannot feed themselves properly; most of them move around slowly, and "some were so deep
in their own worlds that nothing could have disturbed them." The protagonist is himself considered one of the "hopeless ones," but that is only after an encouraging period in his life comes to an end. The shining light in this story is the unnamed teacher who arrives at the home when the boy is about thirteen years old. The fact that there is a teacher at all shows that the home does make some effort to educate its residents, unlike some of the worst institutions in Europe and the United States that during the twentieth century had the responsibility of caring of some of society's most vulnerable citizens. In the story, the boys who are only mildly retarded are given practical training in the wood shop, and their new teacher makes every effort to involve the unnamed protagonist, who is more severely retarded, in useful activity. He is allowed to sort pieces of wood, sweep floors, and empty pails of wood shavings. The teacher treats him like a human being, and the boy responds. He is made to feel that he really exists, even though he still lacks language skills, and the other boys laugh at him.
The real tragedy in the boy's life comes after the teacher leaves. No one thereafter takes much notice of him, and as a result of his neglect, he "slip[s] away," into his interior world, isolated from meaningful human contact. As an adult he is allowed to get fat, and apart from his supervised and unrewarding trips to the apple orchard, he appears to spend most of his time, for many years, sitting in a chair in the dayroom gazing out of the window.
What Do I Read Next?
- Gustafsson's short novel Funeral Music for Freemasons (1983; English translation, 1987) tells the story of what has happened to three people who knew each other at the University of Uppsala in the 1950s. One is a poet who later works as a tour guide in Africa; another tries but fails to establish a career as an opera singer; and the third becomes a successful nuclear physicist at Harvard.
- William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury (1929), besides being considered one of the most important American novels of the twentieth century, is interesting because of its treatment of Benjy Compson, a severely mentally retarded individual who narrates the opening section. Benjy cannot talk and is eventually sent to an asylum. The novel as a whole traces the decline of an aristocratic Southern family from 1910 to 1928.
- John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men (1937) is a somber tale about two laborers, George and Lennie, who dream of creating a better life for themselves as farmers in California. Lennie is mentally retarded. He possesses great physical strength and is devoted to George but, because of his simple mind, he is helpless to exert any influence on the tragic course of events.
- The New York Times Book Review commented on the similarities between some of Gustafsson's stories and those of the Danish writer, Isak Dinesen. Dinesen's Winter's Tales (reissue ed., 1993) contains some of her best work, in which fairy tale and myth coexist with a deep understanding of human nature.
It is here that the story takes an almost mystical turn. The arc of the retarded man's life has appeared to be plunging downward. His parents are dead. He has no friends. No one thinks about him. He has nothing to do. As the narrator puts it, he is "quite empty," and this condition has endured for ten years. But then comes the astonishing reversal. The emptiness turns out to be an illusion. Hidden to the undiscerning eye is a fullness in this man's life that belies his apparent isolation. Far from being empty, his mind is in fact intricately at work, constructing meaning and delight for himself in the mushroom patterns he creates from the ever-changing shadows of the leaves on the wall. These
images reconnect him to nature, reminding him of the kinship he felt with mushrooms in those long ago days in the woods, before society labeled him as a mental defective and packed him off to an institution. As he sits and watches, and with an ingenuity that no observer would suspect, he allows his self-created mushroom-shapes to grow, to live and to die in a natural cycle that makes him feel in harmony with nature's infinite variety, with the entire stream of time and space, of which he knows himself, all "mysterious and great," to be a part.
No one had ever written about a mentally retarded person in this way before. The stories by London and Welty, although they empathize with the retarded, are more naturalistic in vein. London creates an entertaining adventure around Tom, his first-person narrator, who is a twenty-eight-year-old "feeb," that is, a resident of a home for the feeble-minded, in California. The twist is that Tom, who works as an attendant and helps to feed the more severely retarded (the "droolers" of the title), is a lot smarter than many of the so-called normal people who run the institution. In Welty's story, three respectable ladies in Mississippi, horrified by the emerging sexuality of the mildly retarded Lily Daw, conspire to have her sent to the Ellisville Institute for the Feeble-Minded. The story is a satire which exposes the fear that people had at the time—the story was published in 1941—of the supposed rampant, immoral sexuality of the mentally retarded.
Gustafsson's purpose is quite different. He does not try to pretend that the boy is more intelligent than he appears or poke fun at or criticize those who have charge of his life. Instead, artfully combining images of motion and stillness, and alternating between the vast and the minute—from the galaxy to the unborn fetus—he invests the severely retarded, obese man with a massive dignity, a greatness even, by placing him in harmony with the great rhythms of the cosmos and with its inscrutable mysteries and purposes. By moving his chair, so slowly, so awkwardly, with such difficulty, to ensure that he always stays in the sliver of sunlight that illumines the floor of the dayroom, he becomes, in spite of his big, cumbersome body, a tiny part of the eternal cosmic dance.
Perhaps the only work of literature that comes anywhere near a resemblance to this extraordinary tour de force is William Wordsworth's poem "The Idiot Boy," from his Lyrical Ballads (1798). In this ballad, a woman named Betty Foy sends Johnny, her retarded young son, out on a pony at night to fetch the doctor to aid a sick neighbor. Johnny, not grasping what is expected of him, fails to summon the doctor and instead spends the entire night out under the stars, worrying the life out his mother. But the "idiot boy" is the real hero of the poem. In his simplicity, he possesses a spontaneity and oneness with nature that eludes the adults in the poem, who are weighed down by their worries and concerns. Several times Wordsworth uses the word "glory" in association with Johnny, which, like Gustafsson's use of the word "great" in connection with his protagonist, is not a word that most people would immediately associate with the mentally retarded. But in the penultimate stanza of "The Idiot Boy," for example, Betty asks Johnny what he did all night, to which he responds, "The cocks did crow to-whoo, to-whoo, / And the sun did shine so cold." The narrator comments in the following line, "Thus answered Johnny in his glory." Like Johnny, the retarded man in "Greatness Strikes Where It Pleases" has an inner life that cannot be appreciated by those who assess human worth only in terms of narrowly defined notions of intelligence. As he sits alone at his window, he is a part of what Shakespeare, in The Winter's Tale, called "great creating nature" (IV, iv, 89), which has a place and a purpose for everything under the sun, including those who, through no fault of their own, are left in isolation to spin their dreams and seek their connection to the great whole.
Source: Bryan Aubrey, Critical Essay on "Greatness Strikes Where It Pleases," in Short Stories for Students, Thomson Gale, 2006.
In the following essay, Dübois discusses Gustafsson's writing career.
Lars Gustafsson is one of the most prolific Swedish writers since August Strindberg. Since the late 1950s he has produced a voluminous flow of poetry, novels, short stories, critical essays, and editorials. He is also one of the few Swedish writers who has gained international recognition with literary awards such as the Prix International Charles Veillon des Essais in 1983, the Heinrich Steffens Preis in 1986, Una Vita per la Litteratura in 1989, a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship for poetry in 1994, and several others. His major works have been translated into fifteen languages, and Harold Bloom includes Gustafsson in The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages (1994). While the problem of identity has been the defining theme of Gustafsson's writings,
his social criticism has often vexed the Swedish cultural elite. As a result he is seen as a controversial writer in Sweden rather than as one embraced by the establishment. Recurring references to his native province of Västmanland in his works have led Swedish critics to characterize Gustafsson as a "lokalpoet" (provincial poet). In contrast, international critics view him as a philosopher and even a "universalgenie" (universal genius), as one reviewer wrote in the German newspaper Kieler Nachtrichten on 28 October 1993. In 1996, when Gustafsson received the Pilot Prize in Sweden for his writings, the jury defined him eloquently as a "diktarfilosof, fantast, encyklopedist, hemmastadd främling på varje breddgrad från Västmanlands slussar till Texas vidder" (a poet philosopher, a dreamer, an encyclopedist, a stranger familiar with every latitude from the locks of Västmanland to the Texas plains).
In The Public Dialogue in Sweden: Current Issues of Social, Esthetic and Moral Debate (1964), Gustafsson writes: "People have spoken of the vacuum which Christianity has left behind, how a language which was meant to express the drama of the inner life ceased to be public property when the corresponding articles of faith also ceased to be…. They have said that it is a job for the modern author to supply us with such a language." Acutely aware of what he saw as a profound spiritual crisis in society—a crisis paralleled within the individual—he set out to find that lost language. His writings describe this search, which he conducts on two fronts: outwardly, in the form of social criticism, and inwardly, in the form of a probing quest for individual self-awareness. Gustafsson's discussions of philosophical and existential questions, with frequent mention of such authorities as Heraclitus, René Descartes, Søren Kierkegaard, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Ludwig Wittgenstein, especially displays his analytical-philosophical erudition. He shares the desire of these philosophers to identify and define human reality further and to explore the "tillstånd mellan tillstånden" (in-between stage), the dimension between the soul and the world, for answers to the enigma of human existence.
Lars Erik Einar Gustafsson was born on 17 May 1936 in Västerås, Sweden, to Einar H. Gustafsson, a merchant, and Lotten M. Carlsson Gustafsson. In Ett minnespalats: Vertikala memoarer (A Palace of Memories: Vertical Memoirs, 1994) he reminisces about walks to a park with his father, recalling how the smoke from his father's cigarette and the smell of his wet wartime uniform conveyed a sense of comfort and security to the young Gustafsson. On the other hand, he mentions his mother in the memoir only in relation to parental arguments, a fact that is interesting because of the elusive role that women play later in his works. His personal notebooks, donated to the University of Uppsala, reveal the author as an outsider who, as a teenager, was already thinking as an adult. The pain of isolation during these early school years—combined with his memories of yellow light reflected on his grandmother's kitchen floor, of the smell of wet wool, of the images of murky river water in his native city, and of the nature of the surrounding province—imbue Gustafsson's novels of the 1960s and 1970s.
In 1955 Gustafsson left Västerås to study philosophy, aesthetics, sociology, and the history of literature at the University of Uppsala. During the Uppsala years he often debated about the function of metapoetry in Swedish literature of the 1950s with Gäran Printz-Påhlson, a contemporary Swedish poet and literary critic. He also helped establish the literary journal Siesta in 1956, where he debuted as a poet in the same year with "Gestaltlös sångare" (Singer without a Figure). In 1957 Gustafsson received a scholarship to study with Gilbert Ryle at Magdalene College of Oxford University, where the analytic and linguistic philosophy of Ryle and Wittgenstein became an integral part of Gustafsson's literary pursuit and the focal point of his continued academic research. He received his Filosofie Licentiat degree—a predoctoral degree—from the University of Uppsala in 1960. In 1978 he received a Ph.D. in theoretical philosophy, also from the University of Uppsala. His dissertation, Språk och lögn: En essä om språkfilosofisk extremism i nittonde århundradet (Language and Lie: An Essay on Extreme Linguistic Philosophy in the Nineteenth Century), was published that same year.
Vägvila: Ett mysteriespel påprosa: Till det förflutna och minnet av vindar (Rest at the Roadside: A Mystery Play in Prose: To the Past and the
Memory of Winds, 1957) was Gustafsson's first published work of prose. Yet, he considers Poeten Brumbergs sista dagar och död: En romantisk berättelse (The Poet Brumberg's Final Days and Death: A Romatic Story, 1959) his first novel—a romantic novel-within-a-novel, in which the narrator finds Jacob Brumberg's diary and a draft to a novel called "The Prince." This work exemplifies the romantic trend in Swedish literature of the 1950s; in Tre Romantiska Berättelser: Studier i Eyvind Johnsons Romantisk berättelse och Tidens gång, Lars Gustafssons Poeten Brumbergs sista dagar och död och Svens Delbrancs Kastrater (1999), Leif Dahlberg underscores certain intertextual references in Gustafsson's book, such as Friedrich von Schlegel's Lucinde (1799), Rainer Maria Rilke's Duineser Elegien (1923; translated as Duino Elegies, 1939), and James Joyce's Ulysses (1922). The erudition and affinity for philosophy, mythology, and metaphysics that characterized Gustafsson's works for the next three decades already appear in Poeten Brumbergs sista dagar och död. Increasingly known in literary circles at this time, he also began developing a reputation as a novice who challenges established authors.
Gustafsson's career solidified during the 1960s with the publication of four poetry volumes, three novels, and five collections of critical essays. In the novel Bröderna: En allegorisk berättelse (The Brothers: An Allegorical Story, 1960) identity conflicts and a childhood trauma appear for the first time. Here they are presented through the mythological motif of twins. In the three novels that he wrote during the 1960s, including Bröderna, Följeslagarna: En äventyrsberättelse (The Companions: An Adventure Story, 1962), and Den egentliga berättelsen om Herr Arenander: Anteckningar (The Real Story about Mr. Arenander: Notes, 1966), loneliness is a common theme. Gustafsson's memories from childhood, such as the reflection of yellow light on his grandmother's kitchen floor and the red schoolhouse where he was the student of an abusive teacher, permeate all three works. The autobiographical aspect of the novels are further underscored through their various depictions of a young boy growing up in Västmanland; of a college student and his adventurous journey through Europe to find out who he really is; and, finally, of Mr. Arenander, who—sharing the memories of the young boy and the college student—personifies the culmination of identity conflicts and of existential loneliness.
Since Gustafsson was involved in debates about poetics in the 1950s and published his first poem in 1956, his verse reflects the traditional style and motifs that critics have defined as emblematic of this time. His first poetry collection came out in 1962. Ballongfararna (The Balloonists) was followed by En förmiddag i Sverige (A Morning in Sweden, 1963), En resa till jordens medelpunkt och andra dikter (Journey to the Center of the Earth and Other Poems, 1966), and by Bröderna Wright uppsöker Kitty Hawk och andra dikter (The Wright Brothers Look for Kitty Hawk and Other Poems, 1968). Selections from these three volumes appeared in translation in The Stillness of the World before Bach: New Selected Poems (1988). In accordance with the realist trend of "nyenkelhet" (new simplicity), as practiced by Swedish writers in the 1960s, Gustafsson's verse style is direct and to the point. On the other hand, realism embraces his poetry as much as the enigmatic is omnipresent in it. His desire to make visible what is invisible motivates recurring existential questions also in these verse collections; his use of Jules Verne's science-fiction classic Voyages au centre de la Terre (1864; translated as Journey to the Center of the Earth, 1872); and their references to explorations of the North Pole—whether by balloonists or by seafarers or through alchemy and mysticism. In his foreword to Ur bild i bild: Samlade dikter 1950–1980 (1982), Gustafsson describes the calling he felt to be a poet, at the age of fourteen: "Poesins demon eller ängel måste ha gripit mig om strupen sommaren 1950" (The demon or angel of poetry must have grabbed me by the throat in the summer of 1950). Thus, he is foremost a poet whose lyricism also informs his prose.
The 1960s were eventful and productive years for Gustafsson. In 1962 he married Madeleine Lagerberg, with whom he has two children, Joen and Lotten. Hired in the early 1960s by Bonniers Litterära Magasin— a journal put out by Albert Bonniers Publishers in Stockholm—he worked by day as an editor and wrote his poetry and novels at night. Gustafsson served as editor in chief of the magazine from 1966 to 1972. Through his work at Bonnier he became friendly with prominent Scandinavian and international authors and literary organizations—such as Gruppe 47 (Group 47), an association of German-speaking writers that presented his poems in translation at a reading in Sweden in 1964. Ultimately enhancing his international career, this event catalyzed Gustafsson to immerse himself in German cultural life. Since that presentation he has returned to Germany frequently to read from his own works, to write, and to lecture. Gustafsson's years at Bonniers Litterära Magasin
were also controversial—largely because of certain social upheavals, both in Sweden and abroad. In 1965 he published Göran Sonnevi's poem "Om kriget i Vietnam" (On the War in Vietnam), which in effect demarcated a new period of political and "factional" writing in the country; "factional" is a term, prevalent in Sweden in the 1960s, that reflects a combination of the words "facts" and "fictional." Gustafsson's efforts to transform the traditional and conservative journal into a progressive and liberal medium in line with its time reaped much criticism, from both within and without the house of Bonnier.
While Gustafsson's novels and poetry evince existential and psychological questions in the personal sphere, his essay collections verify his public position as a European intellectual with a particular focus on the political and the philosophical. He takes his responsibility as an intellectual seriously, asserting in the 7 July 1980 issue of Svenska Dagbladet that "De intellektuellas uppgift i ett samhälle är att bidra till dess självkännedom" (The intellectuals' task in society is to contribute to its self-awareness). In The Public Dialogue in Sweden he suggests that the "nihilism of values" in contemporary Swedish society reflected the ongoing philosophical debates of the 1940s and 1950s. Gustafsson's interest in exploring diverse events and personae in the arts and sciences is quite evident in Förberedelser till flykt och andra berättelser (Preparations for Flight and Other Stories, 1967), a work that he calls a turning point in his career as a writer.
In a postscript to the 1976 edition of Förberedelser till flykt och andra berättelser, Gustafsson remarks that although the book was largely forgotten soon after it was first published, stories from it were later translated and received acclaim in other countries. For Gustafsson this book captures the emptiness and coldness he was experiencing at the time of its writing—conditions that he tried to depict by experimenting with different literary techniques. "Besökaren" (The Visitor), a story from the collection, describes an angel who, on a cold winter night, sees a lonely man on a country road. The angel tries to reach into the man to undo the enigma his life embodies but finds only coldness and emptiness—then leaves in horror while the man struggles toward the warmth of a yellow light shining from his house. Förberedelser till flykt och andra berättelser especially foreshadows Gustafsson's works of the 1970s. The juxtaposition of warmth with coldness seen in "Besökaren" reappears as a theme in the poetry collection Varma rum och kalla (1972; translated as Warm Rooms and Cold, 1975). The idea of a void sensed within an individual—a feeling that, as Gustafsson describes, results from an oppressive power system and its public lies—also recurs in his verse. These motifs dominate the five novels he wrote in the 1970s.
While Gustafsson and some critics view Förberedelser till flykt och andra berättelser as a transitional work, others rather see the epic poem Kärleksförklaring till en sefardisk dam (Declaration of Love to a Sephardic Lady, 1970; selections translated in The Stillness of the World before Bach) as a turning point in his writings. The poem starts with reminiscences of cold winter days in early childhood and, typical of a Gustafsson text, progresses to reflections on world literature and history. Yet, the verse is foremost an affectionate declaration to a "dam, krinna, flicka" (lady, woman, girl) who has the power to turn the speaker's coldness and bitterness into mourning and fatigue. She is his true inner self, his "anima," a metaphysical motif that Gustafsson employs in his verses of the 1970s and 1980s. Most strikingly, at the time of composing Kärleksförklaring till en sefardisk dam Gustafsson began to compare his writings to "ett sorgearbete" (a grief work).
The female characters in Gustafsson's works are rarely women of flesh and blood. Instead, they are creatures from mythology—such as Circe, Eurydice, and Medusa—or the persona's anima or a seductive, redheaded woman who appears in his life for a fleeting moment. In Kärleksförklaring till en sefardisk dam the object of the speaker's love relates to memories of women who have offered him a sense of warmth and security: "Först i tuieller tre års åldern, / förväxlade jag dig med en mormor Emma, / … Nästa gång jag åter såg dig var du en sefardisk dam" / (First, two or three years old, / I confused you with a grandmother Emma, / … Next time I saw you, you were a Sephardic lady). The Sephardic lady does not stay a muse in this poem yet personifies the speaker's anima, which Carl Gustav Jung defined as the archetype of the human soul: "Du är min anima, och jag känner dig inte" (You are my Anima, and I don't know you). A metaphysical symbol, she also represents Gustafsson's inner quest. While the poem calls up incidents from the speaker's past—and displays images from Gustafsson's novels and poems of the 1960s—it also signals a more direct link to Gustafsson's life through the mention of certain persons, places, and events. At the same time Gustafsson portrays the persona as a European intellectual and thus contrasts it with himself, a poet from provincial Västmanland.
On 16 September 1970, around the time that Gustafsson wrote Kärleksförklaring till en sefardisk dam, Jerome Hollander—then the American ambassador to Sweden—gave a talk about the Vietnam War at the cathedral in Västerås. The event drew protest and resulted in an incident of police brutality. This politicization of the religious sphere of the cathedral outraged Gustafsson, who five days later requested, in a letter to the Bishop of Västerås, that his membership in the Lutheran State Church be withdrawn. (Until recently in Sweden, citizens were Lutherans automatically at birth; in 1996 the Swedish government began the process of separating itself from the Church and made the separation official in 2000.) In 1981 Gustafsson converted to Judaism, eleven years after the Sephardic lady in Kärleksförklaring till en sefardisk dam occasioned the first reference to Judaism in his work.
Gustafsson spent most of the 1970s writing a "pentalogy," the five works of fiction that cemented his reputation as one of the most important Swedish novelists: Herr Gustafsson själv (Mr. Gustafsson Himself, 1971), Yllet (The Wool, 1973), Familjefesten (The Family Reunion, 1975), Sigismund: Ur en polsk barockfurstes minnen (1976; translated as Sigismund: From the Memories of a Baroque Polish Prince, 1985), and En biodlares död (1978; translated as The Death of a Beekeeper, 1981). All of these works were later collected and republished as Sprickorna i muren (The Cracks in the Wall, 1984) with a postscript by the author. The novels share a protagonist named Lars—whose life echoes Gustafsson's own—and feature the recurring phrase "Vi börjar om från början. Vi ger oss inte." (We'll start all over. We won't give in.) The first novel, Herr Gustafsson själv, opens with familiar images of a lonely childhood and of disturbances at school. On an airplane to Berlin the protagonist, Lars, meets redheaded Hanna von Wallenstein, a philosophy professor. With Wallenstein's help, Lars embarks on a quest into his past and his soul, commencing his "grief work." In Herr Gustafsson själv Gustafsson also makes repeated references to Hector Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique (1830), instilling in the novel a sense of the fantastic in both its form and content.
Herr Gustafsson själv represented the author's attempt to establish his authenticity as a writer, which he did by presenting the protagonist with his own name and biographical facts, thus confusing the boundaries between autobiography and fiction. Many critics viewed his experimentation as self-sublimation. The polemic aspect of the novel—Gustafsson's criticism of the "public lie" that infiltrates society and further separates the individual from the government—was seen as a sign of the writer's own search for power. In contrast Gustafsson has asserted more than once that the novel is not about himself but rather about the 1960s. Understandably, his autobiographical style and prominent position as editor in chief of Bonniers Litterära Magasin made him an easy target for criticism. For example, Lars Bäckström, his former friend and colleague, wrote that
"Herr G" i romanen visade sig ha för mycket gemensamt med den LG som är en etablerad maktfigur, kritiker i Expressen, förlagsman och multinationell författarföretagare inom Bonnierkonglomeratet. Från en sådan position kan man väl uträtta åtskilligt av värde men man saknar motivation, ja, det är emot ens intresse att skärskåda sig själv.
("Mr. G" in the novel turned out to have too much in common with the LG who is an established power figure, critic at the daily Expressen, editor and multinational author-entrepreneur within the Bonnier publishing conglomerate. In such a position one could do a great deal, but one lacks motivation, yes, it counters one's own interests, to scrutinize oneself.)
During his years with Bonniers Litterära Magasin, Gustafsson endured many attacks for giving the journal a new liberal slant and responded publicly to diatribes from the press. In 1972, having received a one-year fellowship from the Deutscher Akademischer Austausch Dienst in Germany, he resigned from his position and left with his family to write in Berlin, where he worked on most of his next three novels—Yllet, Familjefesten, and Sigismund.
If Herr Gustafsson själv is Gustafsson's most controversial novel, Yllet is his most emblematic because of his use of the smell of wet wool to describe the stagnation of Swedish society. Wool has an ambiguous role in the novel, as the protagonist of Yllet suggests: "Ylle har två egenskaper förstår ni. Det skyddar mot kyla, mot vinter och blåst. Men det sluter inne också" (You see, wool has two characteristics. It protects against cold, against winter and wind. But it also confines). Unlike Gustafsson's previous works of the 1970s, Yllet focuses much more on descriptions of nature in Västmanland and of life in the small town of Trummelsberg. The main character, Lars Hedin—born, like Gustafsson, in 1936—has left his career as a university academic to become a math teacher in a junior high school. He becomes increasingly frustrated and disappointed by the petty politics of the school and the community that supports it. Hedin finds relief from his suffocating existence in his efforts to rescue a brilliant student from being expelled because of misbehavior. In the course of
helping the teenager, Hedin becomes romantically involved with his girlfriend. The novel is thus both a fierce criticism of the alienating bureaucracy in Sweden and a sensual yet doomed love story.
Gustafsson continued his social criticism in Familjefesten, in which social power is no longer merely symbolic but woven into the actual plot of the novel. In the context of a family reunion in the Västmanland countryside, the bureaucrat Lars Troäng reminisces about the government power games that he tried to stop by leaking information to the news media. Surprisingly, instead of the expected scandal, his leaks are suppressed by the media and he is viewed as paranoid. Familjefesten constitutes an "action novel" based on certain Swedish political scandals of the 1960s, such as the so-called IB-Affair—an incident of espionage that the secret police in Stockholm mishandled in the early 1960s. The novel both emphasizes Gustafsson's efforts to make visible the infiltration of public lies in society and reflects the topic of the dissertation—language and lies—that he was also writing at the time.
Although Yllet and En biodlares död have been more popular in Sweden and other countries, Gustafsson writes in the postscript to Sprickorna i muren that Familjefesten is the darkest of the five novels, while Sigismund is the best. Sigismund was written during years in Germany, where much of the plot is also set. Although En resa till jordens medelpunkt och andra dikter, his poetry volume of ten years earlier, had already evidenced his affinity for Verne, the novel occasioned Gustafsson's first attempt to introduce an element of science fiction into his prose. He makes science fiction thematic in two of the four individual stories in Sigismund: in one story about an intergalactic war and in another story about Sigismund, the king of Poland and Sweden in the seventeenth century. King Sigismund role-plays with someone called Mr. Gustafsson, an author writing in Berlin, and a third character, the woman painter Laura G., enhances the complexity of one of the stories as the female version of Mr. Gustafsson. The encouraging outlook "You can, if you want to" emanates from the interaction of these personages. Lies and secrets are conquered as the king awakes in his sarcophagus and Laura G. is allowed to descend into and explore Hell.
Gustafsson introduces psychological and philosophical aspects into the novel to create a light and hopeful conclusion to his exploration of the public lie. The interaction between King Sigismund and Mr. Gustafsson is played out as a philosophical Heraclitean concept of sleep and dream to emphasize the possibility of change and departure. Gustafsson invokes Heraclitus in the postscript to Sprickorna i muren to explain his intentions:
En man tänder om natten ett ljus, har hans ögonljus utsläckts. Levande berör han den döde i römnen; vaken berör han den sovande.
(A man lights a lamp for himself in the night, when the light of his own eyes is extinguished. The living man touches the dead in his sleep; the waking man touches the sleeper.)
This interrelation between sleep and dream recurs in Gustafsson's later poetry and prose, particularly in the novel Bernard Foys tredje rockad (1986; translated as Bernard Foy's Third Castling, 1988). Furthermore, the presence of Laura G. as a female counterpart to the author continues the idea of the anima that Gustafsson introduced in Kärleksförklaring till en sefardisk dam.
En biodlares död, the fifth and final novel of the Sprickorna i muren series, is one of Gustafsson's greatest works. Written while Gustafsson was Thord Gray Professor of Literature and Philosophy at the University of Texas at Austin in 1974, the novel is his best received work and has been translated into thirteen languages, including Japanese and Hebrew. Set once again in Västmanland, En biodlares död is told in the form of entries from a diary belonging to Lars Westin, a reclusive retired teacher who has died of cancer; before his death he supported himself by raising bees in seclusion. Pain—specifically, the euphoric feeling of freedom from pain—is the theme of the novel, which also focuses in part on existential questions and on Jewish mysticism. Moreover, as he once asserted, Gustafsson based En biodlares död both on the story of his own decisions regarding religion in Sweden and on the biblical story of Job.
While in Gustafsson's previous works, the narrative voice has been closely linked to the author himself, in En biodlares död the narrative "I" dissolves in extreme pain, concluding, "Jag. jag. jag. jag,… efter bara fyra gånger ett meningslöst ord" (I, I, I, I,… after only four times already a senseless word). Critics who had previously expressed irritation at the self-referential tendencies in Gustafsson's earlier writings received En biodlares död with respect and admiration. Åke Janzon wrote in his review in Svenska Daglbladet (27 January 1978) that "Lars Gustafsson undervisar inte längre, han lyssnar. Jag tror inte han någonsin nått närmare människan själv än i denna fina och sinnrika bok" (Lars Gustafsson does not teach anymore, he listens. I don't think
he has ever come closer to the human self than in this fine, ingenious book).
What was regarded as fantastic and egocentric in Gustafsson's prior works of fiction are transformed in En biodlares död into aspects of metaphysical and religious thought. Gustafsson has compared the progression of the novels—and their increasing awareness of the self in society—to the stages of Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise in Dante's La Commedia (The Divine Comedy, 1306-1321). The protagonists' discovery of their frailties and fears in the first two novels corresponds to the descent into Hell, while the next two novels reflect Purgatory through the alienation of the main characters from the government and through the influence of dreams and the unconscious on them. Finally, Gustafsson renders Paradise in the fifth novel when Lars Westin, the protagonist of En biodlares död, finds comfort and release through spirituality.
While Gustafsson was working on Sprickorna i muren, he published a lighthearted novel, Tennisspelarna: En berättelse (1977; translated as The Tennis Players, 1983). The book is derived from his experiences as a visiting professor at the University of Texas and includes a variety of entertaining stories. In a scene describing an early morning tennis match, for example, the movement of the ball arouses philosophical-mathematical speculations between the players. In another of the narrative strands Gustafsson creates an intriguing mystery based on August Strindberg and his writing of Inferno (1897). Tennisspelarna was also the first of Gustafsson's novels to be translated into English. Reviewing the book for The New Yorker (2 January 1984), John Updike concluded that "It is farce, but underplayed, and swiftly over, leaving a certain resonance of the personal; the conjunction of sunstruck Texas realities with the intellectual murk of fin-de-siècle Northern Europe … is of course one the author lived through." Indeed, the intermingling of Strindberg's Inferno, Kurt Gödel's mathematical theories, and Nietzsche's philosophical constructs in the novel displays an erudition characteristic of Gustafsson.
Toward the end of the 1970s Gustafsson was at his peak as a poet, novelist, essayist, and intellectual. By then he had established a reputation as a brilliant cultural commentator in Sweden and Germany as well as in France and Italy, countries in which translations of Den egentliga berättelsen om Herr Arenander and Familjefesten had recently appeared. Although the Västmanland province remained his point of departure, his worldview became more global through travel experiences. His extensive travels in Africa, Asia, Europe, and the United States during this decade resulted in more prose works: Världsdelar: Reseskildringar (Continents: Travel Accounts, 1975), Kinesisk höst (Chinese Autumn, 1978), and Afrikanskt försök: En essä om villkoren (African Effort: An Essay about the Conditions, 1980). In 1977 Gustafsson also published a new collection of poetry, Sonetter (Sonnets), embodying thirty sonnets and three sestinas. While critics admired the didactic quality of the verses, they also questioned his skill as a writer of sonnets.
Nonetheless, also during this time, critics often castigated him for displays of carelessness and arrogance in his works of nonfiction. Critics especially received his postdoctorate essay collections such as Språk och lögn, Konfrontationer: Stycken om konst, litteratur och politik (Confrontations: Texts About Art, Literature, and Politics, 1979), and Filosofier: Essäer (Philosophies: Essays, 1979) with much ambivalence, casting into question his reputation for keen cultural commentary. Thus, although they lauded him for his creative use of fantasy and erudition, they simultaneously found fault with his cavalier attitude toward facts and with his continued tendency to view himself and his opinions as pivotal in social and cultural matters. As Åke Lundquist wrote in Dagens Nyheter (18 January 1985) in his review of Frihet och fruktan: 22 brev (Freedom and Fear: 22 Letters, 1985)—which Gustafsson cowrote with Per Ahlmark—"Lars Gustafssons debattmetod är auktoritär. I sina åsikter tycks han mig ofta ta miste. Han uttrycker sig arrogant och hånfullt, det är lätt att tycka illa om honom" (Lars Gustafsson's method of debate is authoritarian. His opinions are often based on misinformation. He expresses himself with arrogance and disdain, it is easy to dislike him). On the other hand, while critics questioned Gustafsson's reputation as an intellectual and a social critic, they continued to laud his poetry, particularly Artesiska brunnar cartesianska drömmar: Tjugotvå lärodikter (Artesian Wells Cartesian Dreams: Twenty-two Didactic Poems, 1980), excerpts from which were translated in The Stillness of the World before Bach. The collection harks back to his earlier poetry and incorporates themes and metaphors such as the natural life of Västmanland, the idea of the anima, the image of turbots frozen with open eyes in the ice, and the philosopher Heraclitus.
In the 1980s Gustafsson went through significant changes in his personal life. In 1981 he
converted to Orthodox Judaism. Then in 1982, after divorcing Madeleine Gustafsson, he married Dena Alexandra Chasnoff, a native of Texas. Raised in the Orthodox Judaic tradition, Chasnoff was a main reason behind Gustafsson's decision to convert. In 1983 the couple settled in Austin, where Gustafsson became an adjunct professor at the University of Texas, teaching philosophy, the history of ideas, and literature on a part-time basis. He and his wife have two children, Benjamin and Karin Julia, whom he has mentioned intermittently in recent writings.
Gustafsson's style of writing was also changing at this time. Two novels that appeared in the 1980s, Sorgemusik för frimurare (1983; translated as Funeral Music for Freemasons, 1987) and Bernard Foys tredje rockad, especially signal this development. The linear narrative prevalent in most of his novels of the 1960s and 1970s grows fragmented in the 1980s and assumes postmodern contours. He employed this fragmented technique previously in Sprickorna i muren, which follows five distinct protagonists who have the same name, Lars; through the novels in that series Gustafsson suggests that these main characters represent different aspects of one person and could thus be fused into a single character. Furthermore, in both Sorgemusik för frimurare and Bernard Foys tredje rockad the action is spread over various continents—Europe, Africa, and the United States—and thus emphasizes Gustafsson's new global outlook.
Sorgemusik för frimurare relates the story of three different people—Jan, Ann-Marie, and Hasse—who have known each other since they were students at the University of Uppsala in the 1950s. Jan was an aspiring poet in college but later gave up his literary career when he left Sweden to work as a tour guide in Senegal, Africa. Ann-Marie, Jan's girlfriend at the University of Uppsala, aspired toward a career as an opera singer; her world was the music of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, whose Masonic Funeral March (1785) is reflected in the title of the novel. After university Ann-Marie leads a lonely life, however, and she never quite succeeds on stage. Hasse, in contrast, becomes a successful nuclear physicist at Harvard and travels the globe to present his research and negotiate business enterprises. He is married and lives in Austin, Texas. Both of the characters who were once aspiring artists face endings: Jan dies from cancer shortly after his return to Sweden after a long period in Africa, while Ann-Marie resigns from her position in the theater to exist merely as a receptionist at a business concern. Hasse, the entrepreneur scientist living in the United States, is the only successful person.
Sorgemusik för frimurare combines elements from Gustafsson's previous works yet hints at his new life in the United States. The character of Jan, who has Gustafsson's birth date, also has much in common with earlier protagonists. For example, like Lars Herdin in Yllet, Jan is unable to resist the cancer of bureaucracy and of society and the figurative death that they bring. Like Lars Westin in En biodlares död, Jan is also an outsider keen on exploring the existence of a metaphysical presence. Linked romantically to both Jan and Hasse, Ann-Marie recalls the elusive woman who signifies anima in Gustafsson's works. Furthermore, she is often associated with yellow light, the metaphor that Gustafsson uses to describe moments of harmony and peace in his poetry and prose. The novel ends with a scene in which Hasse is playing tennis in the United States. Although he appears as a peripheral character in the novel, there are hints throughout that he is indeed the main protagonist. Hasse voices the same loss of self as the earlier characters, yet handles the loss in a more constructive way than the others. In spite of his strength he is a transitional figure: he still has one foot in his bourgeois past in Sweden, and he admits that his shadow—his past in Sweden—is stronger than his new self in the United States. Critics have postulated that Hasse, the successful individual, is Gustafsson's idea of a happy person. More accurately, he is a confused and resigned individual who misses his shadow and his playful games with symbols in his youth. In this context Sorgemusik för frimurare can be seen as a precursor to the individuation that occurs in Bernard Foys tredje rockad.
Bernard Foys tredje rockad is Gustafsson's most postmodern work. The development of three different plots within the novel creates fragmented situations, which—like symbols—are imbued with meaning. The French critic Roland Barthes defined such fragmentation as the ludic technique, the literary game that, according to him, is necessary to break the mirror effect of literature based on reality. For Barthes, the ludic technique makes language visible as a character in the room: the situations become scenes that give the reader more than conventional psychological analysis. This approach matches perfectly both Gustafsson's literary style and his affinity for games, an inclination he probably inherited from Einar, his game-loving father.
Bernard Foys tredje rockad is divided into three sections: "Oktobers månads tak är lågt" (October's
Roof Hangs Low), "När blomblad ännu föll om våren" (When Petals Still Fell in the Spring), and "Den mogna åldern" (The Age of Maturity). The first part is a detective story, in which an American rabbi, Bernard Foy, becomes involuntarily drawn into an international espionage ring. In the second section an aging poet named Bernard Foy confesses that he wrote the previous detective story. The old poet has composed the heroic adventure to amuse himself and to avoid writing the promised sequel to his autobiography, which should have been completed a couple of decades earlier. When the poet declares that the successful publication of the first volume of his autobiography, "När blomblad ännu föll om våren," should have been followed by "Den mogna åldern" and "Oktobers månads tak är lågt," Gustafsson is actually combining the poet's reality with the simulated reality and topography of the novel at hand.
Gustafsson alerts the reader to the existence of a metanovel yet negates such an existence by frustrating the reader's expectations: the chronology of the section titles in the novel do not parallel that of Foy's proposed autobiographical work. A separate reality emerges from the titles of the poet's auto-biographical project and those of the sections in the actual novel. A third, in-between stage of reality appears, underscoring the close relationship between the novel and Gustafsson's own body of work as a whole and to its autobiographical components. The title "Oktobers månads tak är lågt" and its narrative about the American rabbi points symbolically to the author's own situation as a Jew residing in Texas. The title "När blomblad ännu föll om våren" evokes childhood metaphorically: as Foy the poet spends most of his time reminiscing about his past, he regresses to a stage of infantile dependency. This situation—a Swedish poet or artist dying, whether literally or metaphorically, in his native land—also recalls Jan and Ann-Marie in Sorgemusik för frimurare. Finally, although the title of the final section of the novel, "Den mogna åldern," implies a narrative about an individual at a mature age, Gustafsson depicts a teenaged Foy. The teenager behaves with the insights, intellect, and perspective of a mature adult, however, rather than with the emotional despair of a youth who has just lost both of his parents. In many ways Foy as a youth exemplifies the typical Gustafsson protagonist, who suffers in isolation: the teenager hides in the dark heating ducts underneath his town in order to compose the opus that will help him overcome the pain of losing his father—a scenario familiar from Herr Gustafsson själv, in which the narrator states that his writing is a "grief work." The unfolding story of Bernard Foys tredje rockad conveys how such pain and grief are overcome.
If the three sections of Bernard Foys tredje rockad are read in reverse order, they reflect indeed on Gustafsson's literary career as a whole: in the beginning the teenager withdraws into himself and into an underworld to create; then, as a member of the Swedish cultural establishment, the poet—who had been regarded previously as godly by idolizing admirers—withdraws from society after suffering a stroke; and finally, the rabbi, whose courage and intellect help prevent an international nuclear disaster, represents a new culture and genealogy. Withdrawal and isolation, emotional as well as social, has characterized his main characters since Gustafsson's first literary work appeared in 1957. Expressions of anxiety and coldness are present in each work: there are examples of autism and images of Greenland ice in Bröderna that reappear in the first two sections of Bernard Foys tredje rockad. In Herr Gustafsson själv coldness surrounds and exists within the protagonist, and he finds solace only in memories of yellow light and in the act of speaking: "… talandet är moderlighet och skydd. Det är min värme, min enda form. Min vagga" (… the act of speaking is maternal and protective. It is my warmth, my only form. My cradle). In reverse order, the closure that Rabbi Bernard Foy represents can then be seen as a result of a long discourse that was initiated as a grief work by someone who found solace in the Jewish faith.
William Fovet, in an article for Horisont (1987), has emphasized the multidimensional aspect of Bernard Foys tredje rockad, defining the text as "ett öppet kenst verk" (an open piece of art), a cosmos in itself. This perspective seems natural to an author who admires the complexity of works such as Douglas Hofstadter's Gödel Escher Bach (1979), in which the worlds of mathematics, visual art, and music are tied together. Gustafsson has claimed that Bernard Foys tredje rockad was written as an effort to transfer mathematical-musical compositions into the structure of a novel. The work also represents his attempt to create a fiction within a fiction. These innovations helped the novel attain a significant place in literary criticism and in literary history. Important as a milestone in Gustafsson's writings, Bernard Foys tredje rockad was also published the year that the writer celebrated his fiftieth birthday. At this juncture his life was peaceful and harmonious, as opposed to the identity conflicts and alienation that ruled before, and the novel can therefore be viewed as ending a
significant period of Gustafsson's voluminous productivity. When asked whether or not Bernard Foys tredje rockad indeed symbolize a kind of closure, Gustafsson affirmed that he had to find "ett nytt språk" (a new language) for his future works.
In 1988 Gustafsson published Fyra poeter: Gustaf Adolf Fredenlund, Bernard Foy, Ehrmine Wikström, Jan Bohman (Four poets: Gustaf Adolf Fredenlund, Bernard Foy, Ehrmine Wikström, Jan Bohman), a collection of poetry in which he continues the plays on identity featured in his previous two novels. The four fictive poets personify different age groups and different styles of writing; Foy and Bohman are obviously the poet-protagonists from the two previous novels. Yet, although the reader perceives Gustafsson's influence in Fyra poeter through certain references to topics raised in earlier works, an additional understanding of aging and of the passage of time also emerges. Such understanding is heightened in his next collection, Förberedelser för vintersäsongen: Elegier och andra dikter (Preparations for the Winter Season: Elegies and Other Poems, 1990). The first part of the volume exhibits thoughtful and nostalgic memories of the past as well as reflections on the present. The juxtaposition of past and present is particularly evident in "Austin, Texas," in which the poet compares his own childhood to that of his young son, Benjamin. The poem makes Gustafsson's situation as an expatriate poignantly clear: that which is natural to the son will always be foreign to the man who grew up in a different culture and climate. Another memorable lyric is "Elegi över den gamla mexikanska kvinnan och hennes döda barn" (translated as "Elegy for the Old Mexican Woman and Her Dead Child" in the 8 October 1990 issue of The New Yorker), which Gustafsson wrote in memory of a Mexican woman who had been carrying a dead fetus in her womb for sixty years. The image of this woman still connected to her dead child is analogous to the grief work that the poet expressed in his writings. Förberedelser för vintersäsongen brought him two distinguished awards in Sweden: the Bellman Prize of the Royal Swedish Academy in 1990 and the Poetry Prize of the Swedish Broadcasting Corporation in 1993.
Gustafsson's new understanding manifests itself further in the novel En kakelsättares eftermiddag (1991; translated as A Tiler's Afternoon, 1993), which he refers to as a supplement to En biodlares död. Like the earlier narrative, En kakelsättares eftermiddag deals with loneliness and human misfortune. The life of the main character, however, has little in common with Gustaffson's own biography. In En kakelsättares eftermiddag Torsten Bergman is a retired tiler who lives alone in a decrepit house in which the basement, with all his tools and piles of saved tiles, is flooded with murky water. He receives a call to help a former colleague set tiles in a house under construction. When he arrives, no one is there to confirm his job or offer information, and a mystery begins to emerge as Bergman searches the building. The nameplate of a tenant, Sophie Karlsson, intrigues him; he imagines her both as a woman painter, Sophie K., who is a seductive, redheaded woman dressed in black velvet, and as his former teacher from elementary school. Elusive and absent, Sophie nevertheless has a presence in the text that is reminiscent of how Gustafsson characterizes women in his earlier works. The mysteries of the plot and his conversations with Stig, a colleague, provide the backdrop for Torsten's soliloquies about his past and his misfortunes, which—as in the myth of Sisyphus—impel Torsten to start anew repeatedly. Published simultaneously in Sweden and in Germany, En kakelsättares eftermiddag was soon translated into seven languages. While Swedish critics focused on the relation of the novel to Gustafsson's previous works and on its elements of social criticism, critics in France and Italy applauded its philosophical theme.
In 1993, the same year Gustafsson was awarded a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship for poetry, his fifteenth novel was published. Historien med hunden: Ur en texansk konkursdomares dagböcker och brev (translated as The Tale of a Dog: From the Diaries and Letters of a Texan Bankruptcy Judge, 1998) has been called a roman noir—French for "dark novel"—because of its dominant existential theme. Gustafsson considers Historien med hunden the third part of a trilogy that began with En biodlares död, also recounted in the form of diary entries, and En kakelsättares eftermiddag. Apart from the character of Jan van der Rouwers, a Dutch philosopher-semanticist, Historien med hunden consists of distinctly Texan personalities. Gustafsson's familiarity with the city of Austin and with life in Texas is evident; he describes places and incidents with the same ease and sensitivity as he did in the earlier narratives that were set in Västerås. Good versus evil constitutes the central theme of Historien med hunden, in which two murders set the plot in motion. Erwin Caldwell, a judge, commits the first crime when he kills a stray dog that has been irritating him for some time; Caldwell also empties his trash on his neighbor's well-manicured lawn. The other murder is of van der Rouwers, a professor
whose body is found floating in the Texas Colorado River at the Tom Miller Dam. The judge's crime and the subsequent discovery of the professor's anti-Semitic views from pieces he wrote in Belgium during World War II are reminiscent of Gustafsson's affinity for games and for philosophical explorations of identity and ethics.
By the time of the appearance of Historien med hunden, Gustafsson had been living in Texas for ten years. For reviewers of Historien med hunden, the passage of time and the impressive number of Gustafsson's publications cast his career in a new light. The novel drew quite positive responses, suggesting that critics had abandoned their diatribes against the writer. Magnus Eriksson, for example, writes in his review in Svenska Dagbladet on 26 August 1993: "Som vanligt präglas det hela av en oemotståndlig blanding av förströddhet, skarpsinne och infallsrikedom…. Som läsare kan man endast tacka för en utsökt roman och önska Herr Gustafsson välkommen hem" (The whole thing is as usual an irresistible mixture of distraction, acumen, and ingenuity…. As a reader, one can only express gratitude for an excellent novel and wish Mr. Gustafsson welcome home). The cynicism of past reviewers receded once Gustafsson stopped reflecting on his own life in his writing. Critics also appreciated the novelty of an American setting.
In the 1990s Gustafsson's works largely concern aging and death, perhaps because of personal tragedies and losses involving people close to him. Tomas Tranströmer, an internationally acclaimed poet and Gustafsson's friend, suffered a stroke in 1990; another friend, the esteemed writer Sven Delblanc, died from cancer in 1992; and Yvonne Sandström, Gustafsson's old schoolmate and frequent translator of his works, died in 1994. Most significantly, Gustafsson lost his father Einar, who died at age eighty-six in 1993. These losses inevitably reminded him of human frailty, and thoughts of the past and people from his past pervaded his poetry and prose at this time. One work of nonfiction, Ett minnespalats, consists of stories about people and events that have had a significant impact on his life and writings. Ett minnespalats features a sensitive and humorous eulogy that he composed for his father in the form of a chapter, "Agenten" (The Agent). In the poetry collection Stenkista (Caisson, 1994), Gustafsson compares the burdens of his life to the heaviness and sturdiness of a caisson. The stones that weigh the caisson down symbolize the experiences of his life:…
(When I was very young
I didn't really exist anywhere.
Now, with all these stones aboard,
and there are more every year, dead friends,
dead relatives, dead expectations,
not to mention the great weights of unfinished business,
which soon will be visible over the surface
everything rests rather firmly.
[To plant a caisson. That is heavy.])
The perspective of an aging man prevails throughout the book, which also includes a poem that divides the narrator's life into decades, "Mina Decennier" (My Decades), as well as another that pays tribute to Delblanc, "Sven Delblanc 1931–1992." In addition, two rhymed poems, "Skåpets sånges" (Songs of the Cupboard) and "Envei," remind the reader of Gustafsson's stylistic playfulness and the origins of his style in the traditional poetry of the 1950s.
Gustafsson's sixteenth novel, Tjänarinnan: En kärleksroman (The Maid: A Love Story, 1996), features a prodigal son's return to Sweden. Dick Olsson, a bachelor living in Austin, Texas, and working as a successful consultant of computer images, learns of his mother's death in Stockholm. He has Eleonore, a Colombian and the maid of the title, take care of his house while he is away attending to his loss. Receiving a less than favorable response from critics, the novel lacks the complexity that distinguishes most of the author's earlier works. Tjänarinnan is still important, however, for Gustafsson's portrayal of an aging man who tries to come to terms with his loneliness and his past. The descriptions of Olsson's existential loneliness, of his thoughts about his dead mother, and of how to fit his attendance at her funeral in Stockholm into his already busy calendar make this book emblematic of Gustafsson's position at that time as an aging, successful, and busy author.
In the novel Windy berättar: om sitt liv, om de försvunna och om dem som ännu finns kvar (1999; Windy Tells: About Her Life, about Those Who Are Gone and Those Who Remain), Gustafsson introduces a young female narrator for the first time. Through a soliloquy delivered by Windy, a hairdresser, the plot develops in the time it takes for her to cut the hair of a University of Texas professor. She tells him about her life and her customers, most of whom are professors or students at the university. The novel recalls Gustafsson's previous book, Historien med hunden, in that Windy refers to its major events, such as a certain murder and the boat house fire, and to a main character, Judge Caldwell. Like En kakelsättares eftermiddag,
Windy berättar is also an existential and philosophical work. While Torsten Bergmann, the protagonist of the earlier novel, struggled fruitlessly to complete a job or to succeed at something, Windy's life story follows her endless struggle to overcome hardships and to support her two daughters as a single mother. Furthermore, Gustafsson's increasing familiarity with the landscape of Texas is evident through his detailed descriptions of nature—which, as passages from his previous books display, also resembles his native Västmanland.
He returns to Västmanland in the short mystery novel, Blom och den andra magentan (Blom and the Second Magenta, 2001). The plot concerns a rare stamp: a one-cent British Guiana stamp was colored magenta by mistake in the mid nineteenth century. In 1856 a Swedish captain affixed the stamp to a postcard that he sent to his brother, who was living in the small community of Väster Våla. Someone has now learned about the stamp—the only one like it left in the world—and thinks it might still be hidden in an old nearby estate that remains largely intact. This entertaining thriller, in which an eccentric Stockholm police detective—who is a former theologian—arrives on the scene to solve the mystery, reaffirms Lars Gustafsson's affinity for intellectual games. Despite the general characterization of his writings as "grief work," Blom och den andra magentan attests to, if not also underscores, his pleasure in the act of creating.
Source: Ia Dübois, "Lars Gustafsson," in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 257, Twentieth-Century Swedish Writers After World War II, edited by Ann-Charlotte Gavel Adams, The Gale Group, 2002, pp. 115-30.
In the following essay, Baxter says "Greatness Strikes Where It Pleases" is "experienced in nearly frozen narrative events of almost pure feeling."
He had been invited to introduce a story and was pulling down books from the shelves to reread a few of the old obscure favorites. They had to be obscure, he thought, or there was no point in introducing one of them. The books were scattered on the floor, and he had to be careful to avoid tripping over them or kicking one of them into the corner. Some of the stories, once reread, no longer seemed quite so appropriate for the occasion, however. Conrad Aiken's "The Woman-Hater" still had its shockingly beautiful paragraph two pages from the end, when the college kid is kissed by a woman he doesn't know and wakes up like Sleeping Beauty, but the rest of the story seemed too drab, too perfunctorily written. Aiken's "Silent Snow, Secret Snow," about a boy's descent into schizophrenia, was still perfect in its evocation of a child's mental vertigo but was, it seemed, constantly anthologized. Evan Connell's "Arcturus" was too long for inclusion in an anthology, as was Isak Dinesen's "Sorrow-acre." Kipling's "'They'" could effectively give anyone the shivers. All the same, it seemed, upon reexamination, too tricky by half and culturally unpleasant in the way Kipling could sometimes be. Anyone introducing such a story might feel an urge to apologize for it—a bad way to start. Katherine Anne Porter's "Noon Wine" was bulletproof but, like "Arcturus," too long and hardly obscure. He didn't know enough about some writers and their traditions, Yasunari Kawabata's or Bessie Head's, for example, to introduce one of their stories. And he didn't feel like introducing writers who needed no introduction, at least from him: Chekhov or Alice Munro or Italo Calvino. Dozens of others.
Sighing happily, he took down Lars Gustafsson's Stories of Happy People and reread "Greatness Strikes Where It Pleases." Probably it was the story he had wanted to introduce all along.
This story, translated by Yvonne L. Sandstroem and John Weinstock, is part of a book first published in Sweden in 1981 whose concern is that most complex and elusive fictional subject, happiness. Happiness is fundamentally antidramatic. For the most part, it resists conflict altogether, having passed beyond it or finessed it. In this sense it is distinct from the emotions of triumph or contentment. There are probably no stories in Paradise, and there are very few stories about Paradise. In America we secretly tend to think of happiness as rather dull and banal, middle class, unworthy of our attention, possessed by the likes of Ozzie and Harriet. Gustafsson's protagonists in this book, by contrast, approach happiness warily and treat it as the utterly mysterious condition that it is.
In one story we follow Nietzsche, floating in and out of excruciating migraines in his pension room on the shore of Lago Maggiore, discovering that he himself is part of a great truth, a wildly humorous and very clever joke in which he is the perfect thing that makes the world not-perfect. In another, we follow two obsessed lovers; in a third, an old Swedish industrial engineer who discovers in the quotations from Chairman Mao a catalyst for remembering a truth buried in his memory and almost obliterated by historical trauma. Whatever happiness Gustafsson's protagonists find, it always
has the virtue of a pleasing complexity, like a very oddly shaped crystal.
The subject of, and virtually only character in, "Greatness Strikes Where It Pleases" is what we would call a retarded person, a sort of boy who grows to be a sort of man. The story has no interest in the pathos of this situation, none whatever. It is hardly interested in this character as a person at all: his actions and decisions are virtually irrelevant to the story's progress, which is genuine but minimal. All the same, the story is something of a miracle: it induces in the reader a bit of a trance, and in this trance it convincingly portrays its subject as mysteriously exceptional, godlike.
"Greatness Strikes Where It Pleases" is one of the few stories I know of where time virtually stands still throughout the entire story. Or rather it is experienced in nearly frozen narrative events of almost pure feeling. The story has eliminated transitions: one moment the boy is with his parents; at the next moment he is in a home; then he is a man. Man and boy are virtually the same. Nothing leads to anything else. Nothing has to. Instead, one scene yields to another, as dough in the oven yields to the heat to become bread, or as the front of a crowd changes direction because of some pressure from the rear. Everything within the story—grass, mushrooms, wood saws—is defamiliarized, an object for endless contemplation.
The protagonist (he has no name) has almost no words, does not own the words that are used against him, but recognizes that the strong, unlike him, do own the words and use them to punish others, including himself, and to order the business of the world. Gustafsson's story is involved in a very tricky maneuver here, because all this must come to us through words and a literary language that the boy and subsequently the man do not possess. The words of the story must induce a feeling for his perceptions even though the perceptions do not come to him in exactly this form.
"He had no words for the world, and birds' suddenly flying up was one of the thousand ways in which the world would turn unreliable." That's the horror. But the story is dominated by pleasures, slow-seeming ones. "The trees are so happy, he thought, when the wind comes. That gives them something to do."
We all have intuitions that we don't exactly have the words for, especially when we're children. These intuitions probably have the form of shaped sensory perceptions of emotions that have what amounts to a distinct outline. Henry James, in his preface to What Maisie Knew, argues that fiction, or at least his kind of fiction, shouldn't be stuck with only the language that the characters themselves possess. By a certain sleight-of-hand, the writer gives to the character the language that the character deserves, a language that honors the character's intuitions. Our feelings can be sophisticated even when our language is not.
The narrator of "Greatness Strikes Where It Pleases," as I've said, never takes pity on the subject of the story. What he does is much odder. He gives him instead the benefit of his intelligent and informed fascination and curiosity. He engages in a thought experiment in which the young man is granted nobility, free from condescension. This character gradually becomes an ambassador from and then a monarch of a country that the rest of us know almost nothing about but can still perceive. It is the country of contemplation-without-thought.
In a world that had no center, he reigned like a quiet monarch, too self-evident ever to feel that his own order was being threatened, too rich to demand anything from the poor, an envoy in chaos serving an order so noble that it was also able to accept the necessity of disorder.
That's beautiful. And in its simple complexity—there is such a condition—it gives an inkling of the almost stationary beauty of the story's conclusion, where Gustaffsson's protagonist begins to take on the mind of a mushroom, which is also the mind of God.
Sitting in his chair, so fat he spills out over the edges, this nameless character ends in an exalted, ethereal state, both weighed down and lifted up, that cannot truly be shared by anyone capable of reading this story. The boy who has been excluded from
everything wordly, worldly, and human has now attained a state that you, the reader, can only read about but never have in quite the way he has it.
The final six paragraphs of this story are remarkable and hair-raising. The story has stopped progressing, in its unusual manner. Instead, and at some distance from you, it turns, very very slowly, like a wheel in the sky. The chords are slow and sustained, and they are in no hurry to get anywhere because they have already arrived at their destination. It is like the music of Thomas Tallis or what we know of the conversation of angels. Light floods through everything, and we enter something like the mind of the infinite, which is still the mind of a retarded boy, shockingly apart from the rest of us, hugely beautiful, and great.
Source: Charles Baxter, "Introduction to 'Greatness Strikes Where It Pleases,'" in You've Got to Read This: Contemporary Writers Introduce Stories That Held Them in Awe, edited by Ron Hansen and Jim Shepard, HarperCollins, 1994, pp. 258-60.
Daniel P. Deneau
In the following mixed review of Stories of Happy People, Deneau asserts that Gustafsson "quietly illustrates mysteries rather than certainties" in his stories.
The versatile Lars Gustafsson (1936–)—sometimes poet, novelist, playwright, editor, critic, philisopher, teacher—is said to be well known in Sweden and other European countries; and surely he must be appreciated by New Directions, which has issued translations of three Gustafsson novels and now offers his Stories of Happy People, a collection of ten pieces of short fiction, two previously translated into English. Neither Gustafsson's title nor his epigraphs (suggesting "adaptation" and "groping") seem particularly accurate or ironical.
It is unfortunate that the selections are presented without any introduction, footnotes, or even dates. Several commentators have suggested that there have been significant changes in Gustafsson's novels and poetry through the years, and readers of Stories must wonder if the selections are arranged in the order of composition or original publication. My guess is that the first five stories are "early"; certainly they are episodic, inconclusive, and even enigmatic, the latter not because of complexity but because of Gustafsson's apparent unwillingness to struggle for some degree of coherence. The final sentence of the second story, an episodic account of "The Four Railroads of Iserlohn," is an appropriate verdict: "Here ends our impossible story." Similar comments appear late in the third and fourth stories: "On his way to the bus stop, he realized that he was either at the beginning or at the end of a very powerful story." The last five selections, however, are not punctuated in a similar way, and they do have more shape and focus than their predecessors.
For one reason or another, additional generalizations are not easy to formulate. Given Gustafsson's academic background (D.Phil., Uppsala, 1961 or 1962), a reader should not be surprised by allusions to Dante, Bach, Pascal, Mallarmé, Malthus, Ibsen, Sartre, Bergman, and even I. A. Richards and Cleanth Brooks; nor should one be surprised by a sprinkling of reflective or "philosophical" comments. Sometimes these seem weighty, but generally they are as clear and apt as the following: "What struck him more and more often was the narcissistic aspect of this whole fitness craze … essentially they were nothing but a blind, uncertain, narcissistic generation preoccupied with the last and, in its own way, the most fragile of all the continents of hope: your own body." Several of the stories deal with travelers to China, Germany, Greece, and the United States; the stories have some cosmopolitan flavor but present only glimpses of modern Sweden. Gustafsson seems conscious of changes which have occurred from decade to decade in the twentieth century, and he may show some nostalgia for the Sweden of his youth. Certainly one suspects that the stories contain bits, perhaps more than bits, of autobiography: for instance, the longest story in the volume, "What Does Not Kill Us, Tends to Make Us Stronger" (one of those forgettable titles), deals with the career of "Lars," a Swedish teacher at the University of Texas, a university where Gustafsson himself served as a visiting professor (the same university is the setting for The Tennis Player). Let us hope that the male-female relationships in the volume are imaginary, for all of them seem impermanent or troubled. Here and there one receives glimpses of topics which concern Gustafsson in his longer works. For instance, writing in the "Translator's Introduction" to Gustafsson's Foray into Swedish Poetry (essays on fifteen poets), Robert T. Rovinsky indicates that as a critic "one of Gustafsson's main concerns is for what he calls … 'the very mysteriousness of human existence.'" The same might be said of Gustafsson's the short story writer. "Nobody really knows what a human being is" he repeats, and in all of his stories he quietly illustrates mysteries rather than certainties.
Only two of the stories, the seventh and ninth, actually seem memorable, perhaps because the
unusual protagonists make a significant degree of mysteriousness seem inevitable. In the sixth story, "The Fugitives Discover That They Know Nothing," two sophisticated people meet by chance in Athens, engage in a brief affair, and then simply walk away from one another: "… they had come close to something great,…. Greatness Arrived. And they were unable to receive it." (Why? What Greatness? I have no idea.) The seventh story, "Greatness Strikes Where It Pleases," is an absorbing account, extending from childhood to middle age, of a mentally retarded male, though one may read a number of pages before becoming aware of the way the protagonist's childishness will be evaluated by society. At the end the unnamed protagonist is a huge and shapeless form sitting in the sunlight, but in lyrical prose we learn of his feeling of oneness with the universe and his understanding of the great mystery of which mankind is a part. The somewhat similar ninth story, "The Bird in the Breast," tells of a woman who, different from childhood, gradually withdraws farther and farther into a private world, where there is an extraordinary drama as death approaches.
Source: Daniel P. Deneau, Review of Stories of Happy People, in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 27, No. 3, Summer 1987, pp. 316-18.