Lars Gustafsson: The Death of a Beekeeper

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The Death of a Beekeeper by Lars Gustaffson is a small book, 167 pages long including an afterword by Janet F. Swaffar, the translator from the original Swedish. In the author’s prelude we learn that the protagonist, Lars Lennart Westin, sometimes called Weasel, a pensioned-off primary teacher and occasional beekeeper has terminal cancer, which, after some time, much too late, has been located in the spleen, with large metastases in the surrounding tissue. We know that, but the beekeeper doesn’t. For a long time he has allowed himself to believe he has a kidney stone. But when the pain became too unbearable he saw a doctor, and had a full load of exploratory tests. At the outset he has been waiting a few months for the doctor’s letter to arrive. When it does come he then has to decide whether to open it or not. Eventually he decides to destroy the letter unopened. Now it is just him and his illness, a waiting game with the fluctuating levels of pain as his companion.

The book takes the form of short extracts from three notebooks: the Yellow Notebook, the Blue Notebook and the Damaged Notebook, Sometimes a section is only a quarter of a page long. At other times his stories or reflections on his past may fill fifteen pages.
This enables the writer to chart the moods and reflections of Lars Westin in a range of voices from poetic to the everyday as he tries to fathom out what gives life meaning for him. The tone varies from the authorial voice in the first lines, ‘Kind readers. Strange readers. We begin again.’ to the wonderful story beginning,
‘About the way a small spider naps in the corner of the web it has built, God was napping for twenty million years in a distant nook of the universe… She lent the empty space a unique feeling of freshness of young green, yes, of being in love.
In this story God wakes up and hears the prayers pressing on her in multitudes and grants all the wishes of humankind. No longer an inimical father figure, instead there is a mother. No rules, all are free and from this ensues the Death of Language.

Other pages of the notebooks concern his reflections on his marriage, a calm but somewhat passionless affair, his one time of feeling what he considers deep love for another. Then there are observations on the behaviour of his bees who seem to have no concern for their dead; they milk them of residual honey then abandon their carcasses. His reflections and writing are all woven around his struggle with the pain and his attempt to describe it. Ultimately he decides, Paradise must consist of the stopping of pain. His perceptions and sense of meaning are irrevocable altered by this lonely struggle. But one thing he is sure of: My duty in these days, weeks or, at the worst months which are still left, consists in saying a great, clear NO.

This book was first published in English in 1981 and is now out of print. I bought a second hand copy online. Lars Gustafsson is still alive in his nineties and is a poet as well as a novelist. I found this book uncompromising, but poetic and deeply moving. I will be seeking out more of his work.

This is one of the books contained in Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin’s The Novel Cure, which we have previously discussed with Chicken Lady Bibliotherapy.

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8 thoughts on “Lars Gustafsson: The Death of a Beekeeper

  1. Are there similarities between Gustafsson and other Scandinavian authors such as Per Petterson, do you think? For some reason, I thought of his work as I was reading your review. Perhaps it’s the poetic prose style and poignant tone you’ve mentioned here, but I wonder if there’s something inherently Scandinavian about these novels. Something deeper about the culture or mood of this corner of the world?

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    1. I do feel that there is mournful and introspective tone to the books from this region I have read so far. But I feel I havent read enough yet. Lately I have found in second hand book shops The Half Brother by Lars Saabye Christensen and The Seducer by Jan Kjaerstadt both Brage Prize winners. They are both quite large and when I’ve read them I will report whether they follow the trend.

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        1. Perhaps, but you would have to agree dying is part of death and he is certainly in the process of that. And he is doing it all on his own with no help from anyone, either doctor or murderer.

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