I don’t remember how I originally came across Fredrik Sjöberg’s The Fly Trap, or what drew me to it; I don’t even remember where I finally purchased the little volume. Tomas Traströmer’s appreciative blurb on the back cover did nudge me—although I was puzzled for a while about the poet’s conviction that the text “reveal[s] sudden insights into one’s life. Sometimes I almost think that he wrote it for me.”(1) It’s not that the book is bad, not that it lacks seriousness. Maybe it just took me a while to understand what this mix of biography and essay was trying to do—or maybe it took Sjöberg took a while to figure out what Sjöberg was trying to do.
The “goal,” if there is a single one, appears to be giving an account of René Malaise, a hero in Sjöberg’s field of entomology—and in doing so, trying (it seems) to explain Malaise’s (and maybe the author’s) life by the man’s inability to limit himself to one thing, to devote himself to one science, or to a particular subsection thereof, and to really just stick with that his entire life. And so the biography and the theme that seems to rule it form a sort of lumpy mixture—a warning I missed early-on with Sjöberg’s admission that “Here and there, my story is about something else. Exactly what, I don’t know. Some days I tell myself my mission is to say something about the art and sometimes the bliss of limitation.”(2)
I think the best way to describe my disquiet is via the sense that the author steps up to complex matters, hands out a spiffy word-chunk about them, and then trots off to other things, as if passing out starter koans before immediately dragging his followers along to the next bodhi tree, not allowing them time or space to think over these bits of wisdom. (Perhaps this is what Traströmer meant by “sudden insights.”) I think I’m right in saying that the second mention we get of limits/limitation is in a discourse about Malaise’s travels and all the new species he discovered thereon. The author states he’d go nuts trying to deal with such variety, follows that with a reasonable explanation that he’s “interested only in hoverflies,” and goes on to assert that “For people like me, limits are an essential part of life.”(3) Well, yes. That’s a potentially important statement, one that could apply in so many ways to life in general. But Sjöberg then demonstrates just how much he limits himself by tossing off a three-sentence reference to his own trip to Rangoon one time, and then we’re on to the particular sorts of insect trap Malaise invented.
Maybe that assertion was just a hint of what we’re meant to look for throughout the rest of the text, a hazy assurance that we’ll get a gradual answer to why people like him need limits. The same mention-and-flee tactic is used almost half the time Sjöberg gestures at the significance of limitation.(4) At first, I was irritated by what felt less like a failure to expand upon a claim, and more like an inability to concentrate, to focus—a variety, I suppose, of the art of limitation. But then I began, grudgingly, to appreciate the light touch, to see that theme of limitations play out in discussions of islands and in “buttonology,” the potentially dark side of limitation that in extreme cases might better be called shutting oneself off from the world.(5) I began to appreciate Sjöberg’s unwillingness to run with these glimmers that might pull lesser authors into self-helpy advice and admonishment, or onto the path of sentimentality or the nostrums of positive psychology. But it did take me a while to get past feeling teased with little whiffs of significance. If you want to be subtle about it, I often felt, then be subtle: don’t keep explicitly bringing up your theme without slowing down and going with it.
That sense of readerly indignation, though, calmed down, and gratitude for that lack of explicitness or prolonged discussion began to settle in. This change of heart may be due to the suspicion that what I’m really picking up on is a fear I know well: namely, of saying something too profound or serious, a fear managed by cutting off your statement with a flippant remark. Having grown up among good ol’ boys in hardy German-Scandinavian communities, I’m skilled in recognizing the anxiety of being chastised for getting too deep or admitting to any real enthusiasm. For being accused of thinking you and your big ideas are better than average people(‘s).
That sense kept popping up in the ways in which Sjöberg regularly brings up his own global travels, but then quickly puts them down as meaningless. (Or, as he calls it, his ” reluctance to travel… [being] an unsuccessful globetrotter… so homesick all the time.” ) I did love his gesturing toward the ways in which people often seem to travel just to be able to make themselves look worldly to others—just to tell impressive stories to people.(7) But then he keeps bringing up his experiences in Rangoon, rain forests, Los Angeles, and so on and so forth—but also telling us very little other than that he was in these places, perhaps so we don’t consider him to be one of those travel-braggarts.(8) Queen Gertrude would have pegged the practice as “protest[ing] too much, methinks.”(9)
I’ve obviously not come to a settled conclusion about The Fly Trap, and that’s fine. Maybe it’s how Sjöberg himself still feels about his beloved Malaise, or about any number of other topics mentioned in the book. But what I did applaud in this piece of work was the justification it (or its author) finally used for its creation, its existence: namely, Sjöberg’s reaction to a scientist’s declaration about the precise number of stars in the universe: “Against all odds, some presbyopic chump takes a shot at it… And he falls flat on his face, of course. But at least he’s tried… if someone can cheer me up this much by completely failing to describe a thing that doesn’t even interest me, then the last barrier has fallen. Nothing can stop me now… I stood up and went into the library, closed the door, sat down at my desk…”(10)
The important thing is to make the attempt. If I take away nothing else from the reading of this book, that insight and the determination that follows it will have been worth it, irritation or unsettling sensation be damned. The main thing is to try. Let’s hope we’ll all risk falling flat on our faces at some point in our lives, and at least having fun doing it before bandaging our bleeding noses and bruised egos.
(1) Fredrik Sjöberg, The Fly Trap, translated by Thomas Teal (New York: Pantheon Books, 2014), back cover. Of course, the few times I’ve tried to get into Traströmer, I’ve wandered away, feeling slightly sleepy and skeletal.
(2) Sjöberg, 12. I admit to being dense, and being so on a regular basis. But I didn’t realize until well over half of the way through the book that, oh, its purpose was to act as a biography. And oh, here’s why the book bears the title it does. (For the curious, this happened specifically on p. 172.)
(3) Sjöberg, 35–6.
(4) A couple of exceptions include Sjöberg, pp. 110–1 and 248–50, with discussions about people being willing to talk to strangers in airports (or on vacation) because they know they’ll only have a short time together. Or on p. 80, the paragraph, also to do with travels, about “the limited period between now and then… This allotment of time was an island.”
(5) Or, as defined on Sjöberg, 50, “tunnel vision.”
(6) Sjöberg, 39.
(7) For example, on Sjöberg, 24: “What an adventure! What stories I would tell! About freedom! But it didn’t happen. I never managed to say much more than that the forests were vast and the river as broad as Kalmar Sound. And that I’d been there. So it goes when you travel for the sake of something to say.”
(8) Witness, for example, his talk of the geologist who weighed in on Malaise’s thoughts on Atlantis: a person “whose expertise I trust—ever since we crossed the Ural Mountains together.” (213) Or on p. 244, after having mentioned an analogy about grains of sand that was effective enough on its own, “I travelled across the Sahara once, from Ouargla to Agadez, so I understand very well the scope of the astronomers’ discovery.”
(9) William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act III, Scene II.
(10) Sjöberg, 245.