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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Tale of a Dog

Lars Gustafsson

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To purchase The Tale of a Dog

Title: The Tale of a Dog
Author: Lars Gustafsson
Genre: Novel
Written: 1993 (Eng.: 1998)
Length: 182 pages
Original in: Swedish
Availability: The Tale of a Dog - US
The Tale of a Dog - UK
The Tale of a Dog - Canada
Une histoire de chien - France
Die Sache mit dem Hund - Deutschland
  • Swedish title: Historien med hunden
  • From the Diaries of a Texan Bankruptcy Judge
  • Translated by Tom Geddes

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Our Assessment:

B+ : entertaining and quite well done, though loose focus is not ideal.

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
New Statesman C+ 19/6/1998 William Scammell
The NY Times Book Rev. B+ 4/4/1999 G. H. Gerzina
Publishers Weekly B 14/12/1998 .
The Times B 19/3/1998 Tibor Fischer
TLS . 12/6/1998 .

  From the Reviews:
  • "Gustafsson's prose carries us on happily, but the clunky truisms and stories within stories deliver less than they seem to promise. There's a touch of Humbert Humbert here (and an improbable coitus in a bookshop), a touch of Kundera or Calvino there, a lightness and a heaviness that never quite add up to more than intelligent vignettes of -- as the blurb puts it -- small people trying to cope with an all too complex world." - William Scammell, New Statesman

  • "(P)rovoking, if occasionally dry and disjointed." - Publishers Weekly

  • "The Tale of a Dog is the work of a master, albeit a master only in second gear." - Tibor Fischer, The Times

  • "Refracted through a number of alternately curious and banal everyday events which occur to the judge after his murder of the dog, the fundamental concern of the novel is with large philosophical questions. (...) To compare Tale of a Dog with Crime and Punishment, as does a Scandinavian newspaper cited on the back cover, is to exaggerate the seriousness with which the author treats his themes. Nevertheless this intelligent, oddly disturbing book, fluently translated by Tom Geddes, is always intriguing and, at times, comic." - Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The prolific Lars Gustafsson has seen less than a dozen of his works translated into English, and this despite spending much of his life at the University of Texas, Austin, and setting many of his novels at least in part in the United States. Six years after it was published in Sweden The Tale of a Dog comes to these shores. Presumably we should be glad that it comes at all, given that much of Gustafsson's fiction remains untranslated. Subtitled From the Diaries of a Texan Bankruptcy Judge this one is, indeed, set squarely in familiar Texan territory. The authorial voice, however, remains distinctly European, not at all helped by a decidedly British translation by Tom Geddes.
       The novel is not, in fact, presented as from the diaries of said judge, Erwin Caldwell. Caldwell narrates the book, and several chapters consist entirely of his correspondence, but that is as personal as the account gets. (We wonder whether this is sold as a diary in Swedish too, but we suspect it was merely an ill-advised (mis)explication tagged on by the English-language publishers.) It is a breezily written book, the chapters (31 of them) short, a fairly typical Gustafssonian piece.
       The story centers around two episodes: the recent death (perhaps accidental, perhaps suicide, perhaps murder) of a Paul de Man like figure and the beating to death of a dog. The professor, Jan van de Rouwers, taught ethics and semantics and taught the judge morality when the latter was a student (sending him to interview slumlords to discuss their feelings of guilt, or lack thereof). Professor van de Rouwers claimed to have fought in the Dutch resistance against the Nazis, as it turns out he was a collaborator and wrote articles in support of their policies at the beginning of the war, i.e. he was, in fact, far from being a moral light. (New Directions, the American publishers of this book, describe the professor as Belgian on the back cover, though he is described by Gustafsson as Dutch. De Man was Belgian -- nevertheless, it's not the kind of slip they should be making.) The dog in question is a mutt that the judge beats to death. Throughout the book he confesses to his heinous deed, professing his guilt while not necessarily feeling very guilty about it.
       In typical Gustafssonian fashion the story is presented with many sub-stories, tales told in the various settings as the judge leads his readers around his life. There is a mysterious bookstore, there are the cashiers he eyes, there is America's most intelligent man, and, peripherally, mass-murder. His stepdaughter and her six year old son show up (providing one of the instances where Gustafsson's failure to get a true feel for his almost-adopted country crops up, when he considers finding a place for the six year old boy in nursery school). There are also the ominous torrents of water that flow and flood in the background, as well as a spectacular fire. It is an entertaining tale, bustling with stories, whose main fault is its lack of focus (the story is a bit too loose, and a bit too lacking in certain details to be a complete success).
       Gustafsson is concerned with the bigger issues, and though he presents it in the guise of his little entertainments, this is indeed a heavy book about morality and ethics. Gustafsson is to be admired for his refusal to go for any easy answers, or to see or portray the questions as black or white. This is brightly colour-speckled grey, in all its variations, and very well done at that. W can and do recommend this unusual tale, with the warning that it is more European than American and very grey in its moral outlook.

       Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina properly addresses the problems of the translation in her brief New York Times Book Review review: Tom Geddes' is indeed a "very British translation", and while Gustafsson is also partially at fault (surprisingly, for all the years he has taught at Austin), it is true that in this English version it is "hard to believe that the narrator is a native Texan". (An opinion echoed in Publishers Weekly, but passed over unnoticed in the British reviews which commend the translation.)

Published by New Directions in the US and Harvill in the UK. Note that while we greatly admire New Directions, the Harvill editions are things of much greater beauty.

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The Tale of a Dog: Reviews: Lars Gustafsson: Other books by Lars Gustafsson under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Swedish author Lars Gustafsson lived 1936 to 2016.

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