Lars Gustafsson

Lars Gustafsson (1936-2016)

Lars Gustafsson was a Swedish poet, novelist, philosopher, essayist and playwright, author of nearly 80 books.

Born in Västerås on May 17th 1936, he studied at Uppsala University, where he earned a doctorate in philosophy. He made his debut with the 1959 novel Poeten Brumbergs sista dagar och död (The Last Days and Death of the Poet Brumberg), inspired by… Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (Logico-Philosophical Treatise). “In his early works Gustafsson’s world is ambiguous and variable. Uncertainty appears not only in descriptions of reality, but is also symbolized in the heroes, not fully convinced as to whether they live in a dream or the real world” – wrote Marta Rey-Radlińska. – A change in his prose works appears around 1970 in a pentalogy Sprickorna i muren (The Cracks in the Wall) (1971-1978), widely recognized as one of his most important works, in which he takes on the role of a social critic. En biodlares död (The Death of a Beekeeper) (1982), whose hero dies of cancer, is a part of this cycle of novels. The author indicated that it is “a book about pain. It describes the journey to a place where pain rules – and tolerates no rivals”.

Gustafsson published his first poetry volumes in the early 60s; he was also, amongst others, Editor-in-Chief of the prestigious «Bonniers Litterära Magasin» (Bonniers Literary Magazine). “His reputation as the enfant terrible of Sweden’s cultural life grew at the same time. Reasons for irritation were many: superhuman erudition, a tendency to glibness and inelegant, personal polemics, the efficiency with which he managed his career… Above all else, however, and quite unusually for a Swedish intellectual, the apostasy from a leftist ideology, of the generation of ’68, to a liberal position, that of a pamphleteer exposing the – Orwellian in his opinion – social democratic state and tax apparatus, ultimately pro-Americanism, and his conversion to Judaism, elicited and continues to elicit a lot of caustic comments from Sweden’s academics” – wrote Jan Balbierz about Gustafsson. – “Tireless critic of the dead language of state power, of the »official lie«, he has become one of the Swedish Social Democratic establishment’s most hated public enemies”.

In his poetry, the Swedish author combined the pursuit of precision, clarity, minimalism of form with a fascination of materiality, the concrete, but also the purely philosophical questions, on the means of existence of “I”, discerner of the world, more especially the nature of language, a framework in which we express ourselves and the world. Thus in his work next to, for example Elegi över en död labrador (Elegy for a Dead Labrador) we find a poem, an ode to “Gauss’s curve, from under which »valance« appear two-headed calves, century old people and meteors. Gustafsson often returned to this theme in his essays. The curve describes the normal distribution of an amazing amount of natural and social phenomena. Its shape resembles that of a bell, the farther we are from the apex, the lower the probability that a fact will occur – observed Jan Balbierz. – Gustafsson’s interest extends to those areas of experience that fall in parts of the curve approaching zero, though above it; things bizarre, unlikely and almost impossible that nonetheless end up happening”.

The most extensive presentation of Lars Gustafsson’s poetry in Polish can be found in Alla galna små föremål (All Crazy Small Objects) translated by Kruszyński (Znak, 2012). Polish translations (by Zygmunt Łanowski) of the Swedish writer’s novels by The Czytelnik Publishing House include Yllet (Wool) (1997), Familjefesten (Family Feast) (1981) and En biodlares död (The Death of a Beekeeper) (1982).

”I had the privilege of participating in a poetry reading with Wislawa Szymborska shortly before her death. I was thus able to personally meet the Big Three, of Poland’s golden age of poetry. I had already met Zbigniew Herbert in the eighties as a member of the Petrarca Prize Jury; he lived in Munich at the time. I met Czeslaw Milosz in Lisbon in May of 1988. A fascinating conversation about Baroque poetry, during a bus journey to somewhere, still lives in my memory. All three certainly meant a lot to my poetry – wrote Gustafsson in the afterword to Alla galna små föremål (All Crazy Small Objects). – They all at once belonged to a larger poetic direction that attracted and inspired me throughout my life. One – it must be said, with reference to my generation – that achieved great poetic triumphs; In addition to the three Poles, also Tomas Tranströmer, Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Joseph Brodsky and Robert Bly. It’s hard to find a name for this trend. […] It’s all about a passion for truth, about a fundamental aversion to rhetoric, as well as a conviction that an accurate scrutiny of the world is of fundamental importance to poetics”.

“The translation of Swedish poetry into Polish is not obvious: we sometimes find such brevity within that inevitably makes us chatterboxes. At least in the descriptions of nature: cool precision rather than kitschy poetics. Lars Gustafsson proved to be friendly to the Polish language, he did not put up such resistance, his phrase seemed both intellectual and ecstatic, somewhat like Milosz: not without reason, did he end up at Krakow’s Czeslaw Milosz Literary Festival. It was for this festival that I translated a handful of poems and thought that would be my lot. The blame for Alla galna små föremål (All Crazy Small Objects) is Wislawa Szymborska’s, with whom Lars read poems in one of the Kazimierz churches. She was delighted with these poems and demanded the entire volume. Milosz, Szymborska, now Herbert, the perfect triumvirate – declares Zbigniew Kruszyński, translator of Lars Gustafsson’s poetry. – The poems I translated were mainly Michael Krüger’s choices. Lars added a further dozen works that he wanted to see in Polish. ‘But in what order in the collection?’ – I asked him, certain that the last poem would be about death and evanescence: Let This be the Day (“I would like / not without relief / to see how the world disappears”). Of course, I was wrong, the author added a poem at the end called “Shine”: “I’m afraid to destroy / the great peace of the pane, / so I keep the paddle up”. Such is Lars Gustafsson: upsets the order of things, deprives of illusions, but leaves hope”.

Lars Gustafsson taught philosophy at the University of Texas at Austin in the United States from 1983, until his retirement. He died in Stockholm on April 3rd 2016.

Recipient of many literary awards, including the Prix International Charles Veillon des Essais (1983), Heinrich Steffens Preis (1986), Sveriges Radios Lyrikpris (1990), Bellmanpriset (1990), Premio Grinzane Cavour (1996), Aniar-priset (2003), Tomas Tranströmerpriset (2006), Litteris et Artibus (2006) and Stiftelsen Selma Lagerlöfs litteraturpris (2009). Lars Gustafson was also a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Fellow of Poetry (1994).