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Lars Gustafsson: En biodlares död (Death of a Beekeeper)

This is one of five books Gustafsson wrote about five variations of himself. This one is the final one. (Only one other – Sigismund – is available in English). I took one personality, mainly my own childhood, my own youth up to the age of eighteen and then varied it into five different lives, strengthening one property of my personality here, weakening it in another by giving myself a little more of a certain talent, subtracting a talent there. That resulted in alternative lives, what I call the crack in the wall. In this story the Lars character is a former teacher who has retired, after divorcing his wife, and lives a solitary and virtually moneyless existence as a beekeeper. He has been suffering some pain and goes to the hospital to have tests, suspecting the worse. However, when he gets the letter from the hospital, he burns it without opening it, hoping that he may have something less life-threatening such as kidney stones. However, we know (and he soon finds out) that he has cancer and is going to die.

The story starts with an editor telling us that these are the various notebooks left by Lars. Like Doris Lessing in her Golden Notebook, different colour notebooks are used for different functions, though Gustaffson has claimed he was not influenced by Lessing but only by his own practice of using different colour notebooks for different uses. We follow the beekeeper’s slow progress to death (starting in the autumn, when he has the hospital tests and ending the following spring when he finally has to go to hospital.) Nothing spectacular happens. Inevitably he reviews his life, particularly his failed marriage. He and his dog keep up their walks and his enjoyment of the Swedish countryside is a key factor in helping him survive. But the key point is that he remains his own person, separate from everyone else, till the end. I knew how alien I was, but I also knew that the others were just as alien. In the universe no one is at home. His humour, his strength and his sense that he is part of nature keep him going to the end.

Publishing history

First published 1978 by P A Norstedt and Söners Förlag, Stockholm
First English translation 1981 by New Directions
Translated by J K Swaffer & G H Weber