I eagerly threw myself over Klas Östergren´s follow-up to "Gentlemen", "Gangsters", which was published in 2005, 25 years after the first novel. Mostly, I wanted to know what had really happened to Henry and Leo Morgan. Did I find out? Well, not exactly.

We meet a much more mature Klas in this novel, and Klas the Narrator from Gentlemen is now one step closer to Klas the Author of both novels. What he does, actually, is betray the fiction: only a few pages into this story, he reveals that the brothers, Henry and Leo, are actually one and the same person. Maud the Mistress - who is pregnant with Henry´s child and has dumped the mysterious financier W.S. - reads Klas´s manuscript and then tells him her story, a corrective of which the details remain hidden to us readers. When the second manuscript is finished, suddenly there is a message from Henry, for Maud to meet him in Vienna. She, heavily pregnant and unable to go anywhere, sends Klas instead. He does not, however, find Henry there, but a man they call The Envoy, who is described as a kind of state-employed cleaning man, who plugs leaks, gets rid of awkward and inconvenient people, and what not. You could say he is the mobster henchman of the Swedish Welfare State. I see before me the equivalent of Harvey Keitel´s cleaner in "Pulp Fiction", powerful, dangerous, but much more beige.

Klas spends a night in the company of The Envoy, and only towards the end of the story do we find out some of what he learned in those hours. We do get some idea of what happened to Henry Morgan, but much remains foggy. Klas stays in touch with, but not close to, Maud and her son Gustaf, and years later is drawn back into the plot involving Henry´s disappearance, through his son. We also learn that the second draft of "Gentlemen" was completely re-written after the meeting with The Envoy, and that Maud was very put off when the book was finally published. What was left out, we never find out.

The style of writing is so much more mature and a real joy to read. You can really see how much better an author Östergren has become in the years that have passed: he is a master at character study and absolutely nails those awkward scenes with family and people that used to be our friends, situations that we all can relate to. He lets the characters be both complex and paradoxal at times, and all of them are as mysterious when the novel is finished as they were to start with. He also flavours the text with small nuggets of wisdom, of lessons learned, without ever touching a cliché. I loved these lines (in my own quick and dirty translation):
"...real pride is an evening-feeling, something that comes when the machines are cooling down, tools and equipment has been put away for the night, when one´s daywork is done and has been done well, just like all other days, weeks, months, and years."
The moral of this story is, I suppose, that we never can know, and for the most part don´t want to know, the truth about our friends or our country, those we love and trust. Klas is offered more insight than he is willing to recieve, and as a reader, I am all with him, not at all eager to open those doors to which he has a key that he prefers not to use, which is extremely skilfully done by Östergren the Author.

There is a gangster in every gentleman, and every gangster has a gentle side to him; this is certainly true of Henry Morgan, but also of W.S., of The Envoy, and even of Klas Östergren himself.



It´s been a tough week in one regard, with the mum-in-law in hospital and myself contracting stomach flu, probably from the emergency room where there were signs about this contagion being around. Luckily, she didn´t get it, but I had to be in quarantine for four days in total, which was depressing and frustrating, but on the other hand, it gave me a lot of time to read.

The reading project I had started was another tandem read with my friend (who did finish "Swann´s Way), and this time we had decided to go for a Swedish author, Klas Östergren, who is well known, has been around for a while, but for some reason, none of us had read. He has recently been invited to join the Swedish Academy, on chair 11 after Ulf Linde, who was one of my favourite eccentrics on the Swedish art scene. Östergren was Pernilla August´s first husband, and she is, as you may know, Anakin Skywalker´s mum. Not that this has anything whatsoever to do with Östergren´s authorship...

In 1980, Östergren got his big break with "Gentlemen", and I remember it, as I was 14 at the time and had just started to get interested in literature for real, realizing it was more than Nancy Drew mysteries and sci-fi paperbacks. He was 25, cute and gifted, and I should have read him then but didn´t and today, I´m kind of glad I didn´t. Because I really enjoyed this novel now, and also, he wrote a sequel in 2005. It is a tale about a young author, Klas Östergren, who befriends two brothers, Henry and Leo Morgan, and gets himself drawn into some very dangerous machinations.

Östergren, the narrator (not the author), gets his flat plundered of almost everything and decides to take an offer made to him by a new friend from the boxing gym, Henry Morgan, to move into the grand flat Henry has inherited from his grandfather, the nobleman Morgonstjärna (which literally means morning star). Henry´s late father had been a jazz pianist, a bit of a black sheep of the family, and changed his name to Morgan. Klas is working on a commission, a pastishe of August Strindberg´s classical novel "The Red Room", to celebrate its 100th anniversary.

Henry Morgan is a grand character with gentlemanly habits, dresses stylishly but out of date, is always cleanshaven, an excellent cook, likes to woe the ladies; a real charmer. On the other hand, he lives on almost nothing: a small allowance inherited from his grandfather, the odd job as a film extra, and small schemes that are more or less criminal. He has also inherited a treasure hunt from his grandfather, a dig into the "Bellman tunnels" under the house, where a 17th Century king is rumoured to have disposed of some gold for just-in-case he is overthrown. Henry is helped by a few of his neighbours, a gang of colourful characters who all seem more or less alcoholic, and Klas fits in nicely among them. Henry has also spent five years on the continent after deserting from the Swedish army, a tale which reads almost like a picaresque novel: a string of unlikely adventures. Henry is a jazz pianist like his father, and has been at work for ten years with a concert he is calling "Europe - crumbling fragments", but no one has ever heard any of it.

The home of the Morgans, borrowed from Wikipedia
Henry´s  brother Leo isn´t around when Klas moves in. "He is in the States," Henry says, but when Leo finally shows up, it turns out he has been in a mental hospital. Leo is a poet, an infant prodigy who got his first collection published when he was 14 and who is now, at thirty, a burned out junkie. He also has a great work which he never seems to finish, a poetry collection of great promise.

Henry has a mistress which he shares with a financier, a man who is only a shadow in the story, but of whose existence Klas is always reminded as Henry is always wearing his shirts and using his cigarette cases, both with his initials on them. Shadowlike he may be, and Klas calls him evil, but he is more complex than that, among other things involved in trying to rescue defectors from East Berlin. Leo gets a commission from a magazine, to do a bit of investigative journalism. He finds evidence of goings-on during the war that could be embarrassing to the financier, who is getting ready to go into politics.

It took me a while to get into it, I have to say. The style is a bit anachronistic (not unlike Henry Morgan himself) and can feel a bit pretentious, and I´m not sure it is consciously done that way since I haven´t read anything else by Östergren. Particularly in the introductory part, where we get to know the narrator, and he comes off as a bit of a prat. The best bits are when he tells the tale of the Morgan brothers, that is delightfully entertaining. The present dangers are more hinted at than concrete; Östergren also skillfully sets the zeitgeist, with demonstrations in Stockholm, Cold War tensions, the Harrisburg incident, and so on. Like I said, these are times I lived through myself, this is the world I grew up in, and it feels both recent and very far away.

Towards the end I start to think of it as a novel about creativity. Each character is struggling with some great work, a vision of the magnum opus that is going to make their names, give them their break. They are constantly diverted, however. It is also about trying to function in a world that is changing all the time, when you have bought into the values of an old way of life. Who needs a gentleman in the 1980´s? Who needs it now? And is Henry Morgan a proper gentleman, anyway? Or is it just some grand self-delusion, a cover-up of the truth?

I also think that this is about a young man (the narrator) who realizes that so much about his life, so much about his destiny, is in the hands of people that are out of his reach: politicians, capitalists, the big movers and shakers that the man on the street are at the mercy of, so to speak. Klas and the Morgans, as artists, live at the fringe of society, and they become acutely aware of how much the rules can be bent. In this regard, the novel is more current than ever. Actually, it doesn´t feel dated at all, at least not to me.

It is a long novel with some 400 pages; it is very complex and open-ended. When it is finished you don´t really know what happened. A very unsatisfactory end indeed, and how lucky I was to read the book now, because in 2005, Östergren wrote a sequel, "Gangsters". It would have been very frustrating to have to wait for 25 years!

There is an English translation of "Gentlemen", and according to this, there should also be a translation of "Gangsters", but I can´t find out where to buy it. There seem to be a pending release of both books, but it doesn´t say what language. A film is being made right now, to be released later this year, both in cinemas and on television. I really look forward to that, but first I am going for the novel "Gangsters"!


To Read Or Not To Read - Proust

I hardly have to comment on the merits of Marcel Proust´s "In Search of Lost Time" (or "Remembrance of Things Past" depending on the translation; Sw. "På spaning efter den tid som flytt") - countless books have been written on the subject, hundreds of academics have made a career of analysing the 3000 or so pages of this mega-novel. I´m not sure I know anyone who has read it in its entirety, most people are probably happy to get through the first part, "Swann´s Way". Personally, I got to about page 158. That´s when I realized I had effectively stopped, that I was seriously procrastinating my reading - a very strange experience for me.

Yes, I had developed a strong sense of unease about the whole thing, almost a kind of claustrophobia that made me either just shut down (and go to sleep) or want to open the window and howl.

I reached for support in the form of Olof Lagercrantz, my old favourite literary critic, who has written a whole book about his reading of Proust ("Att läsa Proust", 1992). It was a joy to read, as everything by him: he clearly and concisely laid out the main points of the novel - as he saw it, of course, his interpretation is his own. I realized this: to "get" Proust, I need to read all of it. I must also read a few biographies about him. This will probably take a decade of my life, if not more considering the pace I am keeping. Lagercrantz himself didn´t get to it until he was old and retired. Also, now having read Lagercrantz and knowing a bit more about the story, I am even less inclined to pursue the reading. The language is lovely, but pretty sentences is not enough for me.

Lagercrantz has written elsewhere ("Om konsten att läsa och skriva", 1985) that a good writer leaves room in his text for the reader to breathe, a poetic way of saying that the reader is invited to participate in the creative process; for example he does not give every little detail away, does not kill the story with descriptions, thereby letting the reader add his own flavour and make the story more familiar to him. (Or her, obviously.) We, as readers, engage in the text through our imaginations. There is, adds Lagercrantz, two exceptions: Proust and Joyce. This does not make them poor writers, he hurriedly continues, but rather the Mount Everest of literature. There is very little oxygen up on this literary Olympus, very little for the reader to do, and it is very hard to engage. I have tried Joyce as well, and came to somewhere around page eight, so I think Lagercrantz is probably right.

Well, I have a very active imagination. I like to "nest" within a story as I read it. To be frank, I found this beautiful, skilful, impressive, and very, very dull. I am not qualified to comment on anything beyond my own experience and there you have it. For a few days, I tried to convince myself that I might "save" it for my old age, but honestly, I will never go near it again. I will always have something better to do than reading Proust, even if it is just looking out the window, like his Aunt Leonie.