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Lars Gustafsson: Bernard Foys tredje rockad (Bernard Foy’s Third Castling)

This is probably Gustafsson’s best novel and a strange one it is. There are three parts. The first part tells the story of Bernard Foy, a rabbi from Houston, Texas, who happens to be working in Stockholm but is applying for a job in Paris. On the train journey he gets involved in an international spy ring, involving Cruise missiles, the Soviets, the German Minister of Defence, the French bibliothèque nationale, Zeppelins over Houston and one or more pigskin briefcases. He is nearly killed on several occasions but survives. The second part tells of an eighty-three year old Bernard Foy, a Swedish poet and academician, who is writing a spy novel called Bernard Foy’s Third Castling but who now is reminiscing about his life, art and the women has loved. Many of the characters who appeared in the first part appear in this part, at least their names do, though their characters are very different. The same applies to the third part, where we have the story of a young Bernard Foy. He has found the body of his father, who has killed himself, apparently because he is about to be arrested by the Swedish Revenue Service for unpaid taxes. Young Bernard is determined not be taken into foster care and successfully deceives the authorities into thinking that he is in foster care, thereby allowing him to continue writing his poetry (or, more particularly, a novel called, yes, you guessed it, Bernard Foy’s Third Castling, about a poet and containing large chunks of the poet’s poetry), all written on a stolen Atari computer.

So which is the real Bernard Foy? And does it matter? Gustafsson is playing with reality and our perceptions of reality, not just with the three Bernard Foys (and the three versions of many of the other characters) but also with a variety of other plot devices, such as the pigskin briefcase, which appears in all three stories and of which there may be more than one and whose contents are, to say the least, odd, or the love of the old poet’s life, whoever she may be. It is a wonderful game and is enhanced not only by Gustafsson’s control of his language and medium, by his literary games with Baudelaire, Rilke and other poets, but also by his poetic language. The description of the rabbi (before the spy caper) observing the mysterious door in the lake open and a man apparently deposit a severed head in the lake before disappearing or the young Foy of the third book discovering the dead body of the sheriff, chained up in a toilet, and surrounded by bees, are just two of the superb scenes. If anyone says Swedish literature is unimportant, point them to this book.

Publishing history

First published 1986 by P A Norstedt and Söners Förlag, Stockholm
First English translation 1988 by New Directions