I first became aware of Lar Gustafsson, who died this month, when Harvill Press published a number of his novels in the 1990s, including perhaps his most famous, The Death of a Beekeeper. Since then I’ve tracked down the rest of his fiction (he was also a poet) and only recently acquired the final volume (in English, that is) a short novel from 1977 (translated by Yvonne Sandstroem in 1983) called The Tennis Players.
At fewer than a hundred pages, The Tennis Players is properly a novella, and, as its narrator is a Visiting Professor at Texas University, it falls into the category of campus literature, with autobiographical leanings (Gustafsson spent much of his life teaching in the US, and the cover photograph – on which he features- suggests he can wield a racket). The narrator (called, of course, Lars Gustafsson) is approached by a student on his Swedish literature course with the memoir of a Polish chemist, Zygmunt. In it, Zygmunt describes his attempt in Paris, alongside a group of Polish anarchists, to acquire the secrets of August Strindberg’s alchemy, as described in Strindberg’s autobiographical novel, Inferno. Inferno is usually cited as evidence that Strindberg was suffering from some form of psychological neurosis, but now it seems that his paranoia may have been justified. Zygmunt’s actions include attempting to render Strindberg unconscious by gassing him in order to steal his notes.
“Zygmunt ascribes the fact that they had eluded detection to nothing more than August’s naïve conviction that he was the centre of the universe, and so naturally had to assume the Powers were persecuting him.”
However, as Gustafsson’s girlfriend points out,
“There are just too many people who have built their careers on the Inferno Crisis, who make their living teaching it. You can’t drag in some old Polish alchemist at this point…Believe me, sensible people have seen that memoir long ago and decided to disregard it.”
What’s needed is a careful comparison of the two texts, and what better way to accomplish that than to “feed both books into a computer and program it to check the day-to-day correlation between the two narratives” – or, at least, that’s the novel suggestion put to Lars. This is, of course, a much trickier proposition in 1975, but luckily Gustafsson has recently befriended (on the tennis court) Chris who, despite being blacklisted by the FBI and the CIA, works for Strategic Air Defense. This allows him access to a particularly powerful computer:
“I can transfer a lot of memory capacity so it isn’t easy to discover that the machine is moon-lighting.”
These events play out against the background of an attempt by the Boards of Trustees to remove the University President over a refusal to replace a performance of Wagner’s Das Rheingold with Verdi’s Aida, and so all apsects of campus comedy are covered.
For, despite the occasional reminder of death – a student shooting from the university bell tower; the potential for nuclear Armageddon as a result of misuse of the Strategic Air Defense computer – Gustafsson retains a comic tone throughout. He begins and ends with the declaration, “It was a happy time” and a sense of happiness pervades the narrative, quite at odds, one would imagine, with Strindberg’s Inferno. At the novel’s heart lies Abel, a tennis player who can match Jimmy Connors and Rod Laver, but who is contented playing against whoever arrives at the university court:
“He was related to the great teachers, Gunnar Ekelof, the Japanese Zen monks, the ancient archers, and the Australian aborigine medicine men.”
The Tennis Players may not be a great novel, and its more dated elements may mean it is unlikely to be reprinted, but the idea that the narrator can look back on a moment of happiness in his life, without quite being able to explain why he felt that way, still rings true. Amid all the satiric shenanigans, it is that feeling that makes it such a joy to read.