Lars Gustafsson – A Tiler’s Afternoon

Some years ago I stumbled on a curious blog called Caustic Cover Critic, sub titled One man’s endless ranting about book design which was most interesting in itself, but even more interesting were his occasional forays into the world of little known books. Like many former bloggers he now mainly confines his comments to Twitter, but a few times through the year he comes up with excellent lists of strange books.

In February of this year he offered a list of 75 Excellent But Neglected Books. I won’t include the whole list, you can go to his site to find it, but list below the ones I was drawn to, and which have now come to me across the seas at a very slow pace in these times of Covid. Here are five titles that appealed to me (with his descriptions.)

A Woman’s World : Graham Rawle – 1962 set story about gender and femininity told entirely in words cut from 1950’s women’s magazines…

The Walking Man : Jiro Tanaguchi – A Japanese salaryman wanders the suburbs, sometimes with his wife, sometimes with his dog, and thinks thoughts…manga  beautifully rendered.

A Monkey Among Crocodiles : Brian Thomson – Hilarious and sad biography of a deeply weird woman, a disastrously unlucky and odd Victorian bi-sexual, compulsively litigious, memoirist and monkey owner.

A Tiler’s Afternoon : Lars Gustafsson – Exactly what it says; a tiler turns up to do a few hours of work on a half-renovated house, thinks thoughts, daydreams, and makes a big cock-up.

The Tower of London : Natsume Soseki – Would you like to read the travel writings of a miserable Japanese genius in London circa 1900?

I began with A Tiler’s Afternoon as I had been deeply moved by Gustafsson’s earlier book, Death of a Beekeeper (reviewed here 14-11-2015). Gustafsson was a poet and novelist, and while finding his subject matter in humble and unheroic lives, gives a wonderful rendering of aging, loss, the pains of childhood, the perils of art, the joy of craft and the yearning for love and meaning.

His epigraph ‘The story of any life, no matter whose, is the story of failure’, comes from Jean-Paul Sartre’s Being and Nothingness and on the first page it is clear our tiler’s life bears this out

The day began in the only way it could: the grass already touched by the first frost, the dog run off days ago, all life a mystery, his own most of all. The garden a mess, its cultivation neglected. The house was old, made of wood that had once been painted green, now dove-grey and peeling. Weary boughs of old and heavy apple trees hung threateningly across the rotting verandah. The entire garden a littered, jumbled monument to the collected works of his whole life. or, as some might have put it, the failures.

And there is Torsten’s life. His house and garden are neglected, at sixty-five hears old he no longer has any family, his car is a wreck, and his stomach is in such a bad way he can claim a small invalid pension.

When he can, he works, ‘on the black.’ It wouldn’t be worth it if he had to pay tax, and he likes to keep out of the way of officialdom (of which there seems to a great deal in Sweden.) It is now 1982 and in the 1950’s the Ekeby factory was still functioning, but now it too is a ruin.

But Torsten has his trade even if his tools are in a mouldering heap in the basement. And on the day where the events of this tale take place, he gets an early morning call from a plumber friend who asks him to step in to do some tiling on a half- completed renovation where the previous tilers had gone missing.

Against all odds his decrepit car starts, and he heads off to the job site. And this is where the story plays out. There is no-one around to tell him what to do, we see Torsten’s resourcefulness in getting the electricity connected, in finding a way of getting enough money to get the materials for the job, and we see his pride in his work.

When he goes to the industrial estate to purchase materials, he meets his cousin Stig, and their stories and conversations give a rich insight into their lives and into life in Sweden as it was during their life-times. Torsten also reveals himself to be a dreamer in the fantasies he spins about the woman who might be Sophie K.

This slender book is gripping and poetic. The chapter headings give some sense of how full of surprises it is. Here are a few at random

Opus incertum

We must imagine Sisyphus happy

I’ll never get Balk off my mind

Work, for the night is coming

A funny, sad, and deceptively simple meditation on life and its meaning.

His The Tale of a Dog and Funeral Music for Freemasons are on my list for next year.


5 thoughts on “Lars Gustafsson – A Tiler’s Afternoon

  1. It sounds like a good book to take your mind off things Gert. It’s snowing here to beat the band and we go into lock down tomorrow for the next 28 days.

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