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Authors: Fredrik Sjoberg

The Fly Trap

BOOK: The Fly Trap
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The Fly Trap
Fredrik Sjoberg
Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group (2015)

A Nature Book of the Year *(
The Times (UK))***

“The hoverflies are only props. No, not only, but to some extent. Here and there, my story is about something else.”
A mesmerizing memoir of extraordinary brilliance by an entomologist,
The Fly Trap
chronicles Fredrik Sjöberg’s life collecting hoverflies on a remote island in Sweden. Warm and humorous, self-deprecating and contemplative, and a major best seller in its native country,
The Fly Trap
is a meditation on the unexpected beauty of small things and an exploration of the history of entomology itself.
What drives the obsessive curiosity of collectors to catalog their finds? What is the importance of the hoverfly? As confounded by his unusual vocation as anyone, Sjöberg reflects on a range of ideas—the passage of time, art, lost loves—drawing on sources as disparate as D. H. Lawrence and the fascinating and nearly forgotten naturalist René Edmond Malaise. From the wilderness of Kamchatka to the loneliness of the Swedish isle he calls home, Sjöberg revels in the wonder of the natural world and leaves behind a trail of memorable images and stories.

Translation copyright © 2014 by Thomas Teal

All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Pantheon Books, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York. Originally published in Sweden as
by Nya Doxa, Nora, in 2004. Copyright © 2004 by Fredrik Sjöberg. This translation originally published in Great Britain by Particular Books, an imprint of Penguin Books Ltd., London, in 2014.

Pantheon Books and colophon are registered trademarks of Penguin Random House LLC.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Sjöberg, Fredrik, author.

[Flugfällan. English]

The fly trap / Fredrik Sjöberg ; translated by Thomas Teal.

pages cm

ISBN 978-1-101-87015-0 (hardcover : alk. paper).

ISBN 978-1-101-87016-7 (eBook).

1. Sjöberg, Fredrik. 2. Malaise, René Edmond, 1892–1978. 3. Entomologists—Sweden. 4. Entomology. 5. Scientific expedition—History. I. Teal, Thomas, translator. II. Title.

QL467. S54513 2015 595.7—dc23 2014037123

eBook ISBN 9781101870167

Cover design by Kelly Blair





Title Page



Chapter 1: The Curse of the Starving Class

Chapter 2: My Entry Into Hoverfly High Society

Chapter 3: A Trap in Rangoon

Chapter 4: The Man Who Loved Islands

Chapter 5: The Archipelago of Buttonology

Chapter 6: René Malaise (1892–1978)

Chapter 7: Narcissiana

Chapter 8: The Riddle of Doros

Chapter 9: In the Shadow of a Volcano

Chapter 10: The Net and Loneliness

Chapter 11: The Fly Tree

Chapter 12: The Entomologist’s Career

Chapter 13: Slowness

Chapter 14: The Island That Sank in the Sea

Chapter 15: The Legible Landscape

Chapter 16: Doctor Orlík and I

Chapter 17: The Allotted Time

Chapter 18: Portrait of Old Man

There are only three subjects: love, death and flies. Ever since man was invented, this emotion, this fear and the presence of these insects have been his constant companions. Other people can take care of the first two subjects. Me, I just concern myself with flies—a much greater theme than men, though maybe not greater than women.
Augusto Monterroso,
Hispianola (Addendum)

Chapter 1

The Curse of the Starving Class

It was during the time I wandered the streets near Nybroplan with a lamb in my arms. I remember it so well. Spring had come. The air was dry, almost dusty. The evening was chilly but still carried the smell of earth and last year’s leaves, warmed by the sun. The lamb bleated forlornly as I crossed Sibyllegatan.

During the day, the animal lived with the king’s pampered horses in the Royal Stables, down towards Strandvägen, and we understood that it must feel out of place, not only there but also, in the evenings, at the theatre. I know nothing about lambs, but old it was not. A few weeks, maybe. Playing the part of a living metaphor onstage must have been an ordeal, especially since the play—Sam Shepard’s American drama
Curse of the Starving Class
—was violent in places, and noisy, and hard to digest, even for full-grown human beings. We could only hope that the poor creature was able to just grit its teeth and think about something else. In any case, it grew, faster than anyone had reckoned on.

And now, once and for all, that was my problem. A foggy mixture of ambition and coincidence had led me to a job at the Royal Dramatic Theatre, and for the past couple of years I had been in the properties department, responsible for taking care of often rather peculiar props for various productions, so it fell to me to fetch the unhappy animal from the Royal Stables before every performance. I carried it in my arms. We undoubtedly made a sweet picture in the spring evening. And then when the curtain rose, the lamb (later the sheep) was to make its periodic entrances and exits, keep quiet, and preferably not soil the stage, all with the scrupulous precision of any other scenery change. In pitch darkness.

Before the opening, while we were still in rehearsal, we planned a mechanical lamb, a woolly stuffed animal with a movable head and a built-in speaker that would deliver adorable bleats at exactly the right moment by simply having the stage manager press a button. But when the director saw our expensive robot, he thought it over for about four seconds before condemning the attempt as futile. If the stage directions specified a real lamb, then we would have a real lamb, not a toy. So that was that. The lamb became my responsibility. And that is how it came about that spring that I began to ask myself what I thought I was doing, and why.

Now you may well wonder what a young entomologist was doing in the theatre in the first place. It is indeed a troubling question, one I’d rather not dig into too deeply. Anyway, it was a long time ago. Let’s just say that he wanted to impress the girls, an area where entomologists need all the help they can get. Or it might be better to say that all of us need to flee blindly from time to time so as not to become copies of the world’s expectations, and maybe, too, to give us the courage to remember some of those great, bold thoughts that made a child get up in the night, heart pounding, and write down a secret promise for his life.

In any case, it was an exciting job. Fascinating and attractive to an outsider. Nothing can swallow fear headfirst like a large theatre in a strange city; nothing is more intoxicating than the dreams that dwell in its walls. Of course there was much that I never understood about the tricks of the playwright’s trade or the unwritten subtext in a manuscript, the subtleties and tiny footnotes. But it didn’t bother me, not to begin with.

Ingmar Bergman had returned from Munich, and it was all a great celebration. Shakespeare was mounted on the main stage in a great hubbub of activity, and those of us who padded quietly along the fly galleries and in the wings were able to transform the smallest glimpse of the master into anecdotes about his whims and legendary magic touch—small, plain stories that got better and bolder in the city’s bars and could easily be turned into envy of and interest in the storyteller himself. Gogol rolled in like an armoured cruiser, and Norén ground down all resistance even from the most obdurate audiences. Strindberg, Molière, Chekhov. My relation to all of this was perhaps looser than that of the younger stagehands, property mistresses, dressers, extras and assistants with unclear assignments with whom the theatre teems—looser because almost all of them wanted to become famous actors and actresses themselves and stand in the spotlight, so they suffered mightily from their longing and from other people’s success and from the capricious rule of theatre-school auditions.

The work was rarely demanding. You followed a production from the first rehearsals until the play closed. In the beginning, it was about understanding the director and even more so the set designer, which is an art in itself. Then later you rehearsed scene changes with the cast and crew and checked the props as they arrived from the warehouse and workshops. By the time of the opening, we usually had everything down pat.

But this particular play was different. It was not just that the increasingly unmanageable lamb was a constant source of concern. It was also a food play, by which I mean that food was prepared onstage. There are several fairly simple ways of dealing with this problem, but certain directors and designers always want to make things difficult. That is to say, if the actors are supposed to cook a meal, then they have to cook a meal. No substitutes. Of course you can use apple juice for cognac and beer. But the food has to be real. In this case, they were supposed to sauté some kidneys. The smell of frying kidneys fills a theatre in no time at all, which it was felt added a certain authenticity.

When the lights went out for scene changes, we prop people rushed in like silverfish across a bathroom floor to rearrange the furniture, clear the table, set the table, carry a lot of stuff in and out—in this case, among other things, a wheelbarrow, a broken door and innumerable artichokes. During one of these pitch-black scene changes it was thus our job—with the aid of nothing but memory and tiny luminous strips of tape on the stage floor—to place raw kidneys into a frying pan on a stove of the type supposed to have stood in American rural kitchens in the 1950s. The number of seconds allotted for this task was precise and verged on the impossible. And as if that weren’t enough,
Curse of the Starving Class
had another curious feature—we can call it technical—which I would guess is unique in the history of Swedish theatre.

The thing was that in one particular scene, Wesley, the son in the family, played by Peter Stormare, was to show his contempt for his younger sister’s vapid life by pissing on some charts she had made at a scout meeting.

So the workshop was instructed to construct a gadget with which to simulate this act, and shortly before opening night it appeared—a device, ingenious in its simplicity, consisting of a tube and a rubber bladder. The trouble was merely that the director, at this delicate juncture in the play, placed Stormare far downstage, facing the audience. This created a serious credibility problem. And when it then became clear that the gadget leaked so badly that Wesley appeared to suffer from incontinence, there occurred what I had already begun to fear.

“Oh, what the hell,” Stormare said. “I’ll just pee.” And so he did.

My artistic sense was still rather undeveloped, but I was nevertheless deeply impressed by this unusual ability, night after night, month after month, to realize the playwright’s vision and the director’s weakness for unusual effects by very calmly urinating onstage just a few feet from the noses of the very cultivated ladies in the first row. What a gift! Naturally it was only a matter of time before he wound up in Hollywood, where he won undying fame as the silent, psychopathic kidnapper in

BOOK: The Fly Trap
11.63Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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