The Tennis Players
Lars Gustafsson is well-known in Sweden as a poet, novelist, radio and television dramatist, and critic. Only two of his novels, however, have been translated into English. The first, The Death of a Beekeeper (1978), is an account of a retired schoolteacher who has cancer, a story that is rendered through the teacher’s diaries. In that novel, the teacher, who becomes beekeeper, elaborately ignores the physical symptoms of his disease (as well as the letters from the hospital) by immersing himself in the chores and seasonal rhythms of a rural, Swedish existence. As one would expect with such a novel, its tone is gently reflective and sometimes comic, but always touching.
By contrast, The Tennis Players (published in Sweden in 1977 as Tennis-spelarna) is a zany tale about a visiting Swedish professor’s summer at the University of Texas. The novel pokes gentle fun at the sacred traditions of the American academy, and at various American scenes, yet it maintains a sense of admiration for the fact that these things exist in America. Although Lars, the narrator, is Swedish, he is not bent on cataloging the strangeness of the Texans around him. Lars does go to some trouble to explain baseball, to describe a Frisbee, and to characterize the reserve police, but the appeal of his tale does not depend on a cataloging of what America comprises but rather on recounting with open admiration the craziness of the Texans around him and particularly those at the academy. When the various conflicts of the story are resolved in unusual fashion, Lars’s response sums up his feelings, describing the Texans as “more interesting people than a European thinks to start with. Australian aborigines and desert Arabs look different. You look like us, dress like us, but actually you’re a strange, fascinating people.”
In coming to this realization that Texans are a “strange, fascinating people,” the narrator has captured the Americanness of summer school and the particular quality of summer school in Texas: Frisbees float across the college’s lawns and cowboys from the College of Engineering pack Texas Instruments calculators like six-guns. He captures, too, the pace and the opportunity for casual encounter that characterize summer schools everywhere.
Against this summer-school setting, Gustafsson weaves a particularly madcap set of circumstances. The central conflict in the novel is the challenge to August Strindberg scholarship made by one of Lars’s seminar students, a black man who has discovered an obscure chemistry book which suggests Strindberg’s behavior in Inferno (1898) was not imagined fear. This challenge leads to a computer collating of Inferno and the obscure Memoirs of a Chemist to try to corroborate events in both works. Fortunately for Lars and all other Strindberg critics, the collation is lost in the immense mind of the Southern Air Defense District’s computer...
(The entire section is 1208 words.)