We all have those books that we read over and over again, books that call to us repeatedly over the years. And despite the fact that we think we know the story backwards and front, we crack the spine once more, because we know that we’ll find something familiar inside, and something beautiful, but we also know that each reading renders something new.
For me, the two books at the top of my read-again-and-again list are Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer and Lars Gustafsson’s The Death of a Beekeeper. I read The Moviegoer whenever I’m traveling south (I’m an Alabama girl by birth and upbringing), which is rarer and rarer these days. As for The Death of a Beekeeper, I find myself diving in every couple of years, usually when I’m winding down from the writing of a novel or gearing up to write a new one.
The physical and mental impact of pain, the intricate workings of beehives, the frozen landscape of North Vastmanland, are all detailed lovingly. So too are the mysterious ways of a fictional galaxy called Aldebaranâ€”a galaxy which our narrator constructs for the amusement of two local schoolboys who come to visit him at his cabin.
Gustafsson’s protagonist, Lars Westin, is a retired village schoolteacher in Sweden. By the time this narrative comes into our hands, Westin is already dead. What survives are Westin’s notebooks, through which we view, with exquisite clarity, the final months of his life. The Yellow Notebook is concerned with beekeeping and household expenses; the Damaged Notebook is made up of telephone numbers and notes about the progression of Westin’s cancer; the Blue Notebook contains “newspaper clippings, excerpts from Westin’s readings, and his own stories.”
It is in the Blue Notebook that we find Westin’s intergalactic narrative. As his own life comes to an end, he builds a fantastical world that will live on beyond him. With a little faith in those two precocious schoolboys, one can imagine that Aldebaran will live on beyond the notebooks as well.
This is a book of found texts–not one but several–and each of the notebooks on its own might offer up enough material for a novel. Yet, here they all reside together, in a space of little more than a hundred pages. The Death of a Beekeeper was part of the inspiration for my new novel, No One You Know, which encompasses two found texts: a blue plaid notebook containing the mathematical ramblings of the narrator’s dead sister, and a true crime novel entitled Murder by the Bay, written by the narrator’s old professor and friend about her sister’s death.
“Kind readers,” Gustaffson begins. “Strange readers. We begin again.” And so I, strange reader that I am, begin…again and again and again. Each time, I come away feeling that I have discovered something wonderful.