Tuesday, June 15, 2010

The Death of a Beekeeper

"Kind readers.  Strange readers.   We begin again.  We never give up.  It is early spring 1975, the story begins in the middle of the thaw." (The Death of A Beekeeper, Prelude, p 1)  

I first discovered the writing of Lars Gustafsson several years ago when I found his novel, Bernard Foy's Third Castling, in a neighborhood bookstore.  It was such a quirky, interesting and arresting book that I have sought out other works by Gustafsson over the years.  One of these is The Death of a Beekeeper which opens with what Lars Gustafsson calls a “prelude” in which he says good-bye to the readers of this, the last part of his five-volume novel sequence. He presents himself as merely the editor of notes left behind on Lars Lennart Westin’s death, telling the reader that the speaker to whom he now hands over the narrative suffers from cancer of the spleen. Told in the form a journal or diary it tells the story of a man who was a schoolteacher, but now is dying; a man who is a beekeeper, and a man who is very human. We first read that he has received a letter from a local hospital, probably containing test results and the diagnosis of his ailment. He burns the letter.  This brief, quiet novel speaks with a courageous voice. Refusing to die with his life unclarified, unexamined, he rejects the sterile confines of a hospital and, for the few months left to him, retreats to the isolated Swedish countryside to work among his bees, to endure the progression of pain, and to record his accompanying, disquieting insights. It is his humanity and the way he faces life that makes his story touching and gives meaning to what might otherwise be seen as mundane everyday events.  Gustafsson, by juxtaposing the beekeeper's notes on his inner life, feelings, and memories, and his notes on his outer life, the daily running of the apiary, suggests by the inquiring, seemingly spontaneous entries the deep relatedness of life, death, and hope.

"Above him was the whole summer.  A soft wind was moving through the trees.  On the other side of the island a kingfisher hovered above the water . . ." (p 140)

Lars Gustafsson is a Swedish, poet, novelist and scholar. Even though he was raised and educated in Sweden he lived in Austin, Texas until 2003, and has recently returned to Sweden. He served as a professor at the University of Texas at Austin, where he taught Philosophy and Creative Writing, until May 2006, when he retired. In addition to his novels he has published poetry and essays.

The Death of a Beekeeper by Lars Gustafsson. New Directions, New York. 1981 (1978)

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