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Björn Larsson, Filologens dröm (The Philologist's Dream)

Norstedts,  2008. ISBN: 9789113017617

Reviewed by Tom Geddes in SBR 2008:2

Larsson’s last two novels were in a quasi-thriller genre, with an explicit nod towards the relationship between literature and reality, but did not achieve the same perfection of literary form as his masterpiece, Long John Silver. In one of the humorous moral tales in his new volume of short stories, the perfect integration of beauty and truth, of style and content, is the recipe for literary writing advocated in a fictional notebook ascribed to Flaubert tracked down by a writer not unlike the author, trying to overcome his writer’s block by studying the creative process. Unable fully to comprehend or emulate Flaubert’s precepts, the writer produces only the (imperfect) short story we are reading and dies some years later in literary obscurity. Yet in turning to the shorter fictional form, Björn Larsson has achieved some exemplary specimens of the genre. They are delightfully engaging studies of the need for a sense of proportion in life, set in the world of academia, gently mocking the blinkered self-importance narrow scholarship can induce, and stressing the need for a balance between the intellect and the emotions, between the scientific advancement of knowledge and the empathy of human relationships. These are light-hearted, ironical Tales of the Joys of Discovery as the subtitle so equivocally implies, beautifully composed with internal parallels or circularity, curling in upon themselves with as satisfying a recognition for the reader as that achieved by the characters.The title story features a mediaevalist who specialises only in historical linguistics trying to defend his subject against budget cuts and changing perceptions of relevance. Citing the debt of Dan Brown to mediaeval studies, he attempts to rekindle interest in his subject with a lecture on Chrétien’s Perceval. But the audience cares only for the unsolved mystery of the Grail. So he goes in search of the undiscovered preChrétien source, visiting every manuscript collection in Europe until he comes upon an unknown Grail manuscript in the Vatican library. Meeting a woman in a bar that evening, he finds himself in his first sexual relationship since youth, and on returning the next day to resume the narrative, is unable to turn the page, suddenly aware that solving the mystery of the Grail will result in his subject of Old French Philology being even less likely to survive; everything becomes meaningless if there is nothing left to seek.When asked by the woman if he had found what he sought, he answers in the affirmative, an implicit parallel to Perceval’s failure to ask the right questions in the extant mediaeval epic. There is a similar ironic twist at the end of The Linguist’s Last Lecture. The linguist’s research is deemed too narrow even by his colleagues. He is unworldly and a poor teacher, though he wants his students to share his enthusiasm. He spends ten years formulating a universal grammar which will incorporate all exceptions, and presents it in an increasingly abstract lecture at a world conference. Under questioning, he realises he had become too engrossed to notice that he was undermining the very Chomskyan theories he was trying to develop. Rather than defend himself against the criticism of his colleagues who fear for their careers, he burns his lecture notes and is never seen again, allowing them to conclude that he himself is an idiosyncratic exception to the rule. In another academic sphere, a shy geneticist meets a distant homosexual relative with whom she falls in love; assuming the relationship impossible, she immerses herself in her research, eventually proving that homosexuality is physiologically conditioned, even if not a genetic predisposition. Left aimless in life, she then hears that he has fallen in love with a woman and is about to become a father. The opposite poles of scientific research and human relationships are also quirkily treated in the story of an astronomer who, in competition for funding, sees her long-term studies of the universe as more significant than others’ more immediately relevant research. Supported by the dean, a fellowastronomer, she is given time and money for research at the Canary Islands observatory, where, increasingly concerned about the role of human consciousness in understanding the cosmos, she meets a Chilean astronomer who shares her fear that all our theories may be wrong. A onenight stand with him gives her a taste for more human contact, and when later she discovers she is pregnant, she resolves her dichotomy by giving up her research and marrying the dean, aware that even her child's lifetime would not be long enough for a human to leave the solar system, and not wishing to burden it with a mother suffering such ontological angst. We read of a speleologist who abandons the frustrations of administration and relentless research credits to return to his basic love of cave exploration, venturing to his own death in the knowledge that he has discovered the largest underground lake; a virologist who is so committed to his work that he is happy to complete his research even after one of his ex-students has published the same findings, thus proving his own capability only to himself. In a playful narrative about the nature of truth and belief, a philosopher, angry with religious fundamentalism, herself has a near-religious experience while relaxing in Italy, and concludes that reality simply exists, and that only linguistic statements about reality are true or false. An almost autistically focused chemistry student, who achieves only partial insight from his professor’s introductory lecture on the importance of human relationships and teamwork, needs to seek his professor’s advice on how to proceed when he falls in love with his allocated assistant.The two researchers marry and then find in their continuing research that they have negated their professor’s life’s work. Fearing to present their findings to him on his retirement, they are amazed by his joy at their results, a concrete embodiment of his outlook. Portraits of socially inadequate academics? Yes – but much more than that! And in returning to his academic roots and the shorter prose form, Larsson seems paradoxically to have broadened his range and expanded his humour.

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