Lars Gustafsson’s novel Sigismund: From the Memories of a Baroque Polish Prince, first published in Sweden in 1976, is bracingly eccentric in form yet eminently readable. Were it the work of a writer from Eastern Europe or Latin America, it would be much discussed. Coming from Scandinavia, it has hardly been reviewed.
Sigismund has an autobiographical base and a deftly established setting—Berlin, 1973—from which it freely departs. Here, as in his other novels, Gustafsson violates the conventional distinction between author and narrator: His narrator is Lars Gustafsson, a visiting professor—as was, presumably, the “real” Lars Gustafsson in 1973. From the beginning, however, it is clear that this is no naïvely autobiographical fiction, for, having suggested that the boundary between life and art has been erased, Gustafsson proceeds to indulge in brazen fancies which celebrate the writer’s freedom to lie, to invent, to make up what he pleases.
Much of the pleasure of the novel derives from the unusual interplay between the “autobiographical” Lars Gustafsson, who seems to be addressing the reader with refreshing directness, and the shameless liar, the writer-as-counterfeiter. Here is the voice of the former:
If there isn’t a paradise it remains to be invented. Dry clear air, some trees that sway in a steady wind Paradise is a place where it is dry, where sun and sharp shadows prevail.In any case that doesn’t at all accord with the time and place for this story. BERLIN 1973. A drizzling, endless rain moves through the parks, highways, gasometers, among the cars parked on endless destroyed lots, a heavy coal smell in the air. Puffs of wind from the dead who move past in the twilight. And just like those Shakespearean kings who awaken in the middle of the night when a cold gust goes through the room, a gust of reproaches, of remorse, of remembrance, I often awaken.
Within the first few pages, this reflective, engaging voice describes the experience that sets the novel’s sketchy, parodistic plot in motion. It is an experience that many readers will find familiar: a sudden awareness that one has been living “without noticing it,” that a “stand-in” has been carrying on in one’s absence, going through all the motions of everyday life. Where, then, has the “I” been, and how can its return be managed?
Here is a familiar human dilemma in a realistic setting, but the manner in which Gustafsson develops it is anything but familiar, or realistic. Having described the sensation of “waking” to his life after months of living without awareness, Gustafsson shows himself in the process of finding a metaphor for his condition. This is what the Russian Formalists called “baring the device”: The writer shows the reader how the trick is done (and the trick is done, for all that). The metaphor which Gustafsson seizes on is deliberately outlandish, in the manner of Richard Brautigan (as the charming insouciance of Gustafsson’s title, its inconsequential relation to the substance of the novel, recalls the appeal of Brautigan’s A Confederate General from Big Sur, 1979): According to this metaphor, his slumbering self, his “I,” is the Swedish-born King Sigismund III of Poland, who died in 1632 and who since that time has been entombed in a sarcophagus in the cathedral of Cracow.
It is a ridiculous conceit (a baroque conceit), and Gustafsson soon expresses his regret at having introduced it, but in fact it is this very quality that makes it suitable for his purposes. He wants to show that a fundamental question—“I really wonder who has charge of my soul?”—cannot be answered by a proper literary metaphor: The bizarre convolutions of human selfhood deserve a strange analogue. He wants to celebrate the anarchic freedom of the writer, and the human capacity for making meaning, for the metaphor of Sigismund, however farfetched, organizes diverse experiences, yields insights, as any story will do.
Insofar as Sigismund has...
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