Lars Gustafsson … loves to play with possibilities and solutions in a manner that is refreshingly affirmative. For those willing to follow his tales to their epiphanic moments, Stories of Happy People offers an intellectual adventure of the highest order.

The New York Times

Lars Gustafsson

Lars Gustafsson was born May 17, 1936, in Väteras, Sweden. He earned the equivalent of an American doctorate at the University of Uppsala in 1962. He has published novels, stories, poems, drama, and literary criticism, and was the editor of Sweden’s leading literary magazine Bonnier Litterära Magasin from 1962–1972. He presently teaches in his adopted state of Texas, at the University of Texas at Austin.

cover image of the book Elegies And Other Poems

Elegies And Other Poems

Lars Gustafsson is one of Sweden’s leading and most prolific men of letters––a poet, philosopher, and fiction writer with dozens of books to his credit since his literary debut, at the age of twenty, in 1956. Although known in the English-speaking world primarily for his novels and short fiction, Gustafsson is nevertheless one of the most frequently translated of contemporary Swedish poets. Elegies and Other Poems is a companion volume to The Stillness of the World Before Bach (New Directions, 1988). As in that earlier gathering, editor Christopher Middleton has made his selection from several of the poet’s books and included his own translations as well as those of others: Yvonne Sandstroem, Bill Brookshire, and Philip Martin. Readers of Gustafsson’s fiction will recognize in his verse the elegant mix of intellect and sheer play, the ruminations of a mind that apprehends humanity in the riddles of the universe. (“Clocks tick tentatively in tropical rooms,/Time takes children with it, makes them grow./Where the children stood, suddenly silence.”)

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cover image of the book The Tale of a Dog

The Tale of a Dog

The Tale of a Dog, Lars Gustafsson’s newest novel, is subtitled From the Diaries of a Texan Bankruptcy Judge. The judge in this case is a certain Erwin CaldwelI, the narrator of Gustafsson’s roman noir who leads the reader through a wildly discursive romp that is also a meditation on the abiding presence of evil in the human heart. The year is 1992, and the rivers in and around rain-soaked Austin are flooding their banks. The life of the city is thrown into confusion, and Judge Caldwell, a comfortably married man, has an affair with the owner of a small bookstore. His stepdaughter returns home after being denied tenure at Harvard, her little boy in tow, and Judge Caldwell learns of the death by drowning of the Belgian philosopher-semanticist Jan van der Rouwers, revered by a generation of Texas university students. Murder or suicide? Van the Rouwers is discovered to have been not a World War II Resistance fighter as claimed but a Nazi collaborator and anti-Semitic apologist. Judge CaIdwell ponders the disconcerting turns of history and life in Texas. Meanwhile, Douglas Melvin Smith, “The Most Intelligent Man in America,” makes an appearance in the state and takes a murderous dislike to the judge. And what does all this have to do with the dog of the title? Thereby hangs a tale.

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cover image of the book A Tiler’s Afternoon

A Tiler’s Afternoon

In A Tiler’s Afternoon, Lars Gustafsson invites us to share a day’s work with Torsten Bergman, an aging, semi-retired tile-layer. On this particular day, Torsten arrives at an empty suburban villa, partially renovated and left unfinished. A master craftsman, he knows what to do and goes about his business, all the while reminiscing over his past, considering what may be left of his future, daydreaming about the mysterious Sophie K., the absent occupant of the villa’s upstairs flat. No one checks on the work. With the close of the day comes Torsten’s growing unease over hours spent on perhaps futile labor. “But at that moment there was a loud knocking at the door—no, more of a pounding than a knocking. It sounded as if by some strange coincidence the whole world had come to life again and was trying to get in.” Like Samuel Beckett, Lars Gustafsson turns the plainest of circumstances into poignant universals. There are yet roads to travel after we say we cannot go on.

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cover image of the book Bernard Foy’s Third Castling

Bernard Foy’s Third Castling

This imaginative novel suggests the possibility of parallel lives. In part one, Bernard Foy is a young American Rabbi, caught up in a ruthless game of international intrigue and espionage. In Part Two, he is a lecherous 83-year-old poet and member of the Swedish Academy. And, in Part Three he is a brilliant, homicidal juvenile delinquent—perhaps writing about the other two. Or maybe all three Berard Foys are conceived of in a beehive within a skull, lodged deep in a Swedish forest. Although Swedish, Gustafsson spends most of the year at the University of Texas, Austin.

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cover image of the book The Stillness Of The World Before Bach

The Stillness Of The World Before Bach

Lars Gustafsson, one of Sweden’s leading men of letters, is known in the English-speaking world primarily for his novels and short stories, but he is also a distinguished poet with ten discrete volumes published to date in addition to the collective edition of his work for the years 1950-1980. In The Stillness of the World Before Bach: New Selected Poems, readers will recognize in Gustafsson’s verse the playful erudition and imaginative philosophizing that give his fiction its unique appeal. Gustafsson, writes editor Christopher Middleton, “has remained distinctively a poet, insofar as his novels and essays usually combine exploratory and fabulous features with keen observation, a fascination with character in conflict as the subjective (or existential) axis of history, and a delight in story for its own complex or simple sake.” The selections for The Stillness of the World Before Bach were made by Christopher Middleton of the University of Texas at Austin in close association with the author, with whom he also collaborated for his own versions of many of the poems. Other translations were contributed by Robin Fulton, Philip Martin Yvonne L. Sandstroem, and Harriett Watts.

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cover image of the book Funeral Music for Freemasons

Funeral Music for Freemasons

Lars Gustafsson’s Funeral Music for Freemasons (1983), the Swedish writer’s fifth book of fiction to be translated into English, follows the lives of three free spirits of the 1950s, from their aspiring student years in Stockholm to their present realities, so different from their youthful imaginings. Jan Bohman, a brilliant poet become smalltime African merchant––a latterday Rimbaud––is about to be deported from Senegal. Hans (“Hasse" to his friends), an idealistic research physicist, is now a professor at Harvard, leading the protected surburban life of an American academic. Ann-Marie Nöhme, the promising Mozartean soprano in the bonds of whose love both men agonized, has had a failed career in a provincial repertory. How could so much talent have come to so little? Was there something in the Sweden of their youth, and by extension the whole of the industrial West, that prefigured the death of creativity? Or might it have been spent, drained away in love’s passion? Then again, perhaps these years never did in fact happen, memory following one time-line, existence another, so that their real lives seem to have gone unlived. With his customary psychological delicacy and philosophical aplomb, Lars Gustafsson has composed a novel in Funeral Music for Freemasons that, like the Mozart Trauermusik the title invokes, sings a moving dirge for an age.

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cover image of the book Stories of Happy People

Stories of Happy People

What is happiness in an age of packaged needs and liberated desires? Lars Gustafsson’s Stories of Happy People is a collection of ten short fictions that maps the range of contentment, from inner joy to the edges of despair. “Uncle Sven and the Cultural Revolution” finds a politically indifferent Swedish research engineer, in Mao’s China as an industrial consultant, surprised by his own imagination. “The Four Railroads of Iserlohn” lead to poignant, illusionary journeyings. The half-felt yearnings of displaced intellectuals, trying to break out of the stasis of their existence, are explored in “The Art of Surviving November,” “What Does Not Kill Us, Tends to Make Us Stronger,” and “The Fugitives Discover That They Knew Nothing.” “A Water Story” is a sketch of the elusive staying power of love. The protected, private universes of the mentally retarded, the insane, and the senile are opened to view in “Greatness Strikes Where It Pleases,” “The Bird in the Breast,” and “Out of the Pain.” In all of these stories, Gustafsson, one of Sweden’s leading men of letters and philosophical writer par excellence, places lives of seeming smallness within the wider context of the culture and history of our hapless era.

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cover image of the book Sigismund


To readers familiar with Lars Gustafsson’s work, the playful philosophizing of Sigsmund will come as no surprise, as he leisurely pulls together seeming fragments into a narrative of 1970s Berlin that at once looks back to Homer, Dante, and the Faust legend and ahead to space warfare and intergalactic travel, childhood memories of Sweden, Marxist-Leninism, sports competition, art, epistemology, daydreams––nothing is excluded from the purview of Gustafsson’s lighthearted humanism. And behind it all broods the restless spirit of the author’s alter ego, the warring king, Sigismund III of Poland (d. 1632).

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cover image of the book The Tennis Players

The Tennis Players

The scene: Austin, Texas, 1974. A Visiting Professor of Swedish Literature at the University of Texas, quite uncoincidentally named Lars Gustafsson, is teaching a seminar in nineteenth-century European thought and quietly perfecting his game of tennis. His serenity is tested by a sudden series of bizarre events that turns The Tennis Players into a delightful romp through modern-day academe. A previously unknown Memoires d’une chimiste, written by a Polish exile, proves to be a key to August Strindberg’s famed “Inferno Crisis” of 1894-96, when the Swedish master suffered from severe delusions. Could it really be true that he was in fact the victim of an anarchist conspiracy?—even paranoids, after all, have real enemies—and Strindberg criticism threatens to be blown apart, not to mention the entire national defense, when an enterprising programmer manages to feed Strindberg’s Inferno and Pietziewzskozsky’s Memoires into the Early Warning System’s computer to see if the two works do indeed correspond. Meanwhile, the campus of the University of Texas is on the verge of a new wave of riots pending the high-handed cancellation of a student production of Wagner’s Das Rheingold in favor of Verdi’s Aida, complete with elephants. Lars Gustafsson is one of Sweden’s leading men of letters. The Tennis Players is his second novel to be published in English. Of the more reflective The Death of a Beekeeper (1981), John Updike commented in The New Yorker, “it is a beautiful work, lyrical and bleak, resonant and terse.”

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cover image of the book The Death of a Beekeeper

The Death of a Beekeeper

In the beginning of the winter thaw, Lars Lennart Westin has learned that he has cancer and will not live through spring. Told through the journals of this schoolteacher turned apiarist, The Death of a Beekeeper, is his gentle, courageous, and sometimes comic meditation on living with pain. Westin has refused to surrender the time left him to the impersonation of a hospital, preferring to take his fate upon himself, to continue solitary, reflective life in the Swedish countryside. “I took little walks and noticed that in the last months the pain had actually colored the landscape in a peculiar way. Here and there is a tree where it really hurt, here and there is a fence against whose post I struck my hand in passing.” His inner landscape is also re-forming: “This constant concern with an indefinite dangerous secret in one’s own body, this feeling that some dramatic change is taking place, without one’s being able to have any clarity about what really is… reminds me of prepuberty. I even recognize this gentle feeling of shame again.” The relentlessly intimate burning in his gut provides a point of psychic detachment, rendering his survival “a unique art form whose level of difficulty is so high that no one exists who can practice it.” Yet he insists, “We begin again. We never give up.”

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Lars Gustafsson … loves to play with possibilities and solutions in a manner that is refreshingly affirmative. For those willing to follow his tales to their epiphanic moments, Stories of Happy People offers an intellectual adventure of the highest order.

The New York Times

Lars Gustafsson has an uncompromising vision of the utter complexity of modern life…. he loves to play with possibilities and solutions in a manner that is refreshingly affirmative.

The New York Times Book Review

… has something irresistibly humorous about it – a matter of almost imperceptible incongruities that are the hallmark of Gustafsson’s mature narrative technique.

The Austin Chronicle
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