Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Thursday, 4 June 2009



gentlemen In Sir Kenneth Clark's slim little book, What is a Masterpiece?, he describes a masterpiece as a title awarded over time by a consensus. It's not a single opinion – it's a time-tested collection of opinions. Granted he's talking about art here as opposed to literature but I do think the same principle can apply. I begin with this because one of the things that attracted me to Klas Östergren's novel, Gentlemen, was the fact that the blurb reports that "Gentlemen has been recognised throughout Europe as a masterpiece" and now, having read the book, I'm left wondering if the European standard is somewhat different to the one Clark proposes. I think I have the same problem with the word 'legend' as did Lauren Bacall when she objected to Nicole Kidman being referred to as a screen legend. It's very easy to devalue words.

Time will tell whether Östergren's novel really is a true masterpiece but for the moment I'm reserving judgement. The Swedes have been nothing less than ebullient in their praise for it however:

…dazzling, uninhibited storytelling … A breathtaking performance. –Horace Engdahl, Permanent Secretary of the Swedish Academy

Gentlemen is one of those classic, almost unlikely tall tales, that one only thought literary giants like Steinbeck and Faulkner were capable of producing – Borås Tidning (a daily newspaper)

Gentlemen changed my life … I devoured Gentlemen in a jiffy, and somehow it became a part of me. – Katrineholms Kuriren (another newspaper)

The book was originally published in his native Sweden in 1980 and so it's taken almost thirty years for it to find its way into English although from all accounts the translator, Tiina Nunnally, has done a sterling job. As far as that goes I'll have to trust those who know about such things.

The book is an odd mixture. I can understand comparison to Steinbeck, to le Carré, to F. Scott Fitzgerald and even to Raymond Chandler, and part of the charm of the book is that it does manage to take a whole hodgepodge of styles and influences and combine them to good effect. I may have some doubts whether the book is a true masterpiece but Östergren can certainly tell a story that keeps one’s interest as long as you're not in a rush to get to the point because, at 457 pages, you're not going to get through it in a jiffy I don't care what the reviewer in Katrineholms Kuriren says.

Really though this feels like one novel with a second jammed in the middle of it. In the first of three sections, which begins at the end of 1978, we are introduced to the main players, the narrator (coincidentally also called Klas Östergren) and the brothers Morgan. Then, just once he's piqued your interest, he stops, rewinds and tells the life story of the two brothers leading up to where the point in the book where he left off; this comprises the middle section of the book so you could really get away with reading the middle section first, then the first section followed by the third section and the story would not suffer, if anything it might make things clearer sooner but where would the fun be in that?

The real issue here, and one all authors face, is where to start one’s story. Just how much lead up to the real story is really is necessary? Östergren clearly believes that to help us fully understand the events that are to play out in the final section of the book we need to know a lot, an awful lot, but I'm not sure I necessarily agree. The book doesn't feel padded but just because something is interesting doesn't necessarily make it essential to the plot. There were a few times when I thought: Get on with it, man, because he does reveal things at a leisurely pace which means sometimes hanging onto scraps of information for quite a few pages before they come in handy again.

In real life few things get tidy endings its true, things peter out and this happens in the book. We don't get an answer to all the entries on the list of questions that we compile throughout the book. And that's fine up to a point but when you find yourself – as I did – with fifty pages left you start to wonder just what rabbits this guy is going to pull out of his hat to tie up all the loose ends. The fact is that he doesn't. And I'm sure he never intended to. But he has finally written a sequel, Gangsters, which begins exactly where Gentlemen ends so one has to wonder.

The core of the book is a universal one, the younger man enthralled by an older one. In this case it's the twenty-five year-old narrator/author who is taken under the wing of Henry Morgan, a “pianist, boxer and charmer”, who although only ten years older than the writer has packed an awful lot into his life. And in the first section of the book we really see the relationship between these two develop. Klas quickly moves into the large flat that Henry shares with his brother Leo who, according to Henry, is travelling in America; the fact of the matter is that Leo, five years younger than Henry, has been in an asylum following a breakdown the cause of which we have to wait till the end of the second section of the book to discover.

But that's all right. The lives of the two brothers make interesting reading. And their family, friends, lovers and business associates are all colourful and (for the most part) well fleshed out characters most of whom have key roles to play at different points in the brothers' lives. One of the things I particularly enjoyed about the middle section was that it filled me with nostalgia. Although I am really ages with Klas, the pop culture references, from The Beatles to Wimpy Burger Bars, were all things I still can remember firsthand although it was a little odd looking at these from a Scandinavian perspective and it goes without saying that a lot of the Swedish cultural references went right over my head. Being objective, as a memoir it's hard to believe that Klas could be privy to all the detailed information that is contained within these potted biographies and so much would have to be conjecture, filling in the blanks, but I was willing to overlook his donning the omniscient narrator hat as long as I got to learn what I wanted.

And what I wanted to learn was the "dark secret that [went] right to the heart of their country" that the book's blurb promised. Just over 300 pages into the book I discovered what it was. It all started out in 1929 when a young builder's assistant ends up under a pile of scaffolding. He survives with a limp, a stutter and spasms that make him look punch drunk. Because of this he quits the building trade and, looking for more sedentary work, becomes a precision-tool maker with the Zeverin Precision Tool Company, AB where he excels at his job. He displays obsessive compulsive tendencies however and is particular about laying out his tools in a specific order. When he comes into work one morning to find his tools in disarray he at first assumes his workmates are playing a prank on him but when this continues over a period of time and it is clearly obvious that no one is waiting to see his reaction he waits back one night to see what's really going on. His bosses have assured him that there is no secret night shift but from his hiding place he, and we, get to know the truth. Some short time later he disappears never to be seen again.

So what has this to do with the Morgans? Well, despite his injuries the young builder's assistant finally gets married and, at the time of his disappearance, his wife was pregnant with their son, Verner, who would grow up to a) be a friend of Leo Morgan and b) more than a little obsessed with his missing father. In time Leo would receive an assignment from a newspaper owner to investigate the man's disappearance and what Leo learns proves to be the catalyst that triggers his breakdown.

But why call the book Gentlemen? I did wonder a bit about that at first but that's perhaps because it took me a while to get a clear picture of the three protagonists in my head. They're not gentlemen of leisure as such; they all do some form of work (albeit not a great deal), and they're all more concerned with other matters. Henry gets by selling off his grandfather's rare book collection, dipping into a seeming never-ending pile of luncheon vouchers, and occasional work as a film extra; Leo tries to live on as small a scale as possible, to keep his fragile sense of sanity untroubled and Klas survives on the advance he receives for writing a pastiche of Strindberg's The Red Room, updating its political satire to mark the centenary of its publication. So, none of them are rich but they are all reasonably free to follow their own interests. In Henry's case this is working on a piano piece that he'd been pottering with for fifteen years, that and digging for treasure under the city with a few friends, an endeavour that Klas gets roped into too. Leo had been a fairly successful poet beginning as a child but as an adult he becomes increasingly lost in drink particularly following his breakdown when all he wants to do is lie in bed all day long. That is until they come to get him.

We never learn who they are exactly but his brother goes after them and this is where the book opens, well just afterwards, with Klas returning to the empty flat, barricading himself in and attempting to record everything he could remember about the brothers in an attempt to try and make some sense of everything.

This grand flat is like a museum to some kind of glory, an ancient ideal, or some kind of vanished chivalry. The library is silent and permeated with smoke, the service corridors with their gloomy sideboards and tall cabinets are terrifying, the kitchen is filthy, the bedrooms haven't been made up, the living room is cold. On either side of the fireplace – where we spent so many hours sitting on the Chippendale furniture, drinking toddies and entertaining each other with peculiar anecdotes – stand two Parian figurines made by the Gustafsberg Company towards the end of the nineteenth century. The pieces are about one and a half feet tall, and the porcelain looks exactly like the real marble they're meant to imitate. One of them represents 'Truth' and is depicted as a muscular man without a stitch of clothing on his body, with exquisitely sculpted features that nevertheless fail to conceal something indeterminate and evasive in his eyes. The other Parian figure represents, appropriately enough, 'Falsehood' – a jester leaning casually on a wine barrel, holding a stringed instrument and bubbling with esprit, no doubt in the midst of telling some risqué story about a shepherd.

It's not the least difficult to make certain associations with the two men who until quite recently resided here in this flat. They abandoned it as hastily as if an air-raid siren had sounded. Everything stands untouched; indeed, this whole museum-like home is filled with extraordinary objects, things from bygone eras. My thoughts are inevitably drawn back to the past.

And so he begins his period of self-confinement in the flat. Although he makes a good job at filling in some of the blanks one would expect there to be things he can't guess at which is why when Maud, a long-time lover of Henry's, appears on page 451 I thought: Yes! Here she comes with some answers. But, no. On the very last page she says to Klas that she'll tell him everything she knows "even if it means death" but we've run out of book at this point and I'm not sure I want to wade through Gangsters' 456 pages to find resolution because I can pretty much fill in the blanks myself. Maybe Östergren is simply treating his readers as adults and not spelling out everything for them. That gives him the benefit of the doubt, doesn't it?

If you think this review is a little thin on direct quotations from the book there's a reason for this. I struggled to find passages that really excited me. The writing in this book is not what keeps you reading, it's the story; there is a difference. I tend to think of literary fiction as a medium where how things are said is more important than what is said. I didn't get that feeling here. The section I've just quoted from the opening page is a representative selection and if you think it's a little heavy on detail then you'd be right – the whole book is like that – and the detail is interesting so I'd be hard-pressed to set to the text with a blue pencil.

If I was into Summer reads – which I'm not because 'Summer read' connotes holidays and I've never been one for holidays – I think this might do nicely especially if you remember the seventies with the same affection as I do. I'd never buy it purely because I could get two – possibly even three – books for my 457 pages and me being me that's the direction I would go in but if you like a story that takes it time and you have the time you wouldn't get to the end of this and feel you've wasted that time.

The book is published in the UK by Canongate Books and by MacAdam/Cage Publishing in the States; their version is only 375 pages – maybe the print is smaller.


Klas Ostergren Klas Östergren was born in Stockholm in 1955 and is the author of several novels including Gentlemen (1981) and its sequel, Gangsters (2005). A leading star of Swedish literature for nearly three decades, he has won the Piratenpriset and the Doblougska prize from the Swedish Academy. A founder of the rock band Fullersta Revolutionary Orche- stra, Östergren has also worked as a translator, playwright, and scriptwriter for television and screen, and he co-wrote Mikael Håfström’s film Ondskan, which was nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. He now lives with his wife and three children in the seafront town of Kivik in southern Sweden.


Dick said...

Dammit - another book I have to track down and read. Thanks a lot, Jim - I'll be sending you the bill...

Jim Murdoch said...

Glad I've managed to pique your interest. There are new copies on for as little as 90p. I've actually been feeling a little guilty about my review because I didn't enthuse more so your comment made me feel a bit better about that.

Dave King said...

Yes, my reaction was much like Dick's. My must have book list is growing apace. You should be feeling a teeny weeny touch of guilt.

Jim Murdoch said...

Dave, I already feel guilty about so many other things in this life it'll just have to join the queue and wait it's turn.

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