What is happiness in an age of packaged needs and liberated desires? Lars Gustafsson's Stories of Happy People is a collection of ten short fictions that maps the range of contentment, from inner joy to the edges of despair. "Uncle Sven and the Cultural Revolution" finds a politically indifferent Swedish research engineer, in Mao's China as an industrial consultant, surprised by his own imagination. "The Four Railroads of Iserlohn" lead to poignant, illusionary journeyings. The half-felt yearnings of displaced intellectuals, trying to break out of the stasis of their existence, are explored in "The Art of Surviving November," "What Does Not Kill Us, Tends to Make Us Stronger," and "The Fugitives Discover That They Knew Nothing." "A Water Story" is a sketch of the elusive staying power of love. The protected, private universes of the mentally retarded, the insane, and the senile are opened to view in "Greatness Strikes Where It Pleases," "The Bird in the Breast," and "Out of the Pain." In all of these stories, Gustafsson, one of Sweden's leading men of letters and philosophical writer par excellence, places lives of seeming smallness within the wider context of the culture and history of our hapless era.
First published in Sweden in 1981, this is a quirky, philosophical collection of short fiction peopled by characters as brave and ironic as its title. From the author of Sigismund (1985), The Tennis Players (1983), and The Death of a Beekeeper (1981). The typical protagonist here isa nameless middle-aged Swedish male who holds an obscure but somewhat exotic job (research engineer, economic analyst), travels a great deal (but is utterly displaced existentially, even at home) and shows a kind of bright, tensile strength in the face of the basic lonely emptiness of the world. Some of this emptiness is relieved by American women, who are portrayed as fascinating but alien; thus, in "The Art of Surviving November," an economist goes to a conference in Georgia and becomes the lover of an American widow given to reading "thick paperback novels," a woman whose orgasms "rolled like long, dull waves, breakers across a distant shore so far removed that few travelers had actually taken the time to visit it." The economist is able therefore to literally survive November and return home to his dead marriage. And, in the beautiful "What Does Not Kill Us, Tends to Make Us Strong," a professor of Swedish literature at a Texas university mourns his wife (recently killed in a car accident) without really even being aware of it, until he sleeps with a younger woman and experiences a kind of "shy, astonished gratitude." Gustafsson's stories are delicate formulations, seemingly autobiographical, which refuse to depend on plot, and tend to veer off suddenly and self-indulgently. The worst of them ("Out of the Pain" "The Four Railroads of Iserlohn," "The Fugitives Discover That They Knew Nothing") are didactic and obscure; but "A Water Story," the best, is as good as they come - the author himself and his young son are caught out after dark while boating on a Swedish lake; they rescue a flailing swimmer who recovers and tells them a weird story of obsessional love: "There was something strange between us; a kind of fire, poison, perhaps, like toadstool poison. . ." In sum: an unpredictable, occasionally difficult, but generally rewarding collection from a funny, highly individual writer. (Kirkus Reviews)