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the Complete Review
the complete review - poetry

The Stillness of the World
before Bach

Lars Gustafsson

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To purchase The Stillness of the World before Bach

Title: The Stillness of the World before Bach
Author: Lars Gustafsson
Genre: Poetry
Written: (1988)
Length: 120 pages
Original in: Swedish
Availability: The Stillness of the World before Bach - US
The Stillness of the World before Bach - UK
The Stillness of the World before Bach - Canada
  • New Selected Poems
  • This collection contains selections from ten volumes of poetry published by Lars Gustafsson in Swedish between 1962 and 1984
  • Edited and with an Introduction by Christopher Middleton
  • Translated by Robin Fulton, Philip Martin, Yvonne L. Sandstroem, Harriet Watts, and Christopher Middleton in collaboration with Lars Gustafsson
  • Christopher Middleton notes: "All my translations were made in close collaboration with Lars Gustafsson, since I do not know Swedish"

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Our Assessment:

B+ : good, broad overview of Gustafsson's poetry

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
World Lit. Today . Spring/1989 Eric Sellin

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The complete review's Review:

       The prolific writer Lars Gustafsson is perhaps best known for his slim novels and story-collections, but he is also a respected poet. This collection contains samples from no less than ten volumes of his poetry, a broad if somewhat thin survey of his poetry from 1962 to 1984. The collection is ordered chronologically, giving some sense of Gustafsson's growth as a poet.
       The title of the collection (which was also the Swedish title of a 1983 collection) is that of one of Gustafsson's most famous and well-known poems, a beautiful little piece in which he wonders "what kind of a world" it could have been before Bach's music. It is, in fact, a thought he returns to again, in the poem "The Starred Sky ..." from his collection Birds. Wondering about the universe and the quantum world there, and "matter's obstinate refusal to be anything but probabilities", he explains:

The world of distances and shadows
and random leaps between the spectral lines
this frighteningly still dance
is what I mean
by the world's stillness before Bach
       Gustafsson's concerns with distances and shadows and the individual's place in an enormous and unfathomable universe play a role in much of his work. In the early poem A Landscape he writes of:
the topographical labyrinth
which man populates
with fences, railway bridges, branching directions.

Everywhere directions, possibilities,
and only he who stands still is at the center:
the moment you move
everything imperceptibly turns round,
with you as axle in a mighty wheel
       There are elegies, sonnets, and ballads in this collection. Gustafsson's subjects range from philosophical, historical, and literary material to poems concerned with a simple image or memory. A number deal with dogs. Whether a clever little piece such as his Poem on Revisionism or the more elaborate Lines for the Prince of Venosa (which maintains both that "It doesn't matter a damn how you misuse your life / you'll still find a way home to yourself" and that "beauty is the only thing that lasts"), Gustafsson shows he is a thinker, using poetry to approach complex questions.
       Intellectualism is a precarious hold for him. He can not help but consider the world with his mind (as opposed to on the basis of emotion, perception, belief), but he recognizes that this too limits his understanding:
But, outside the texts, an absolute stillness, winter night.
Scrutinize history and it might as well not have occurred.
       Gustafsson's poetry is clever, thoughtful, and often poignant. He is willing to try a variety of styles (made clearer in this compact volume). He is obviously talented, and often successful in what he sets out to do.
       These translations are something of a muddle, an odd assortment by a number of translators, edited by a man who doesn't speak Swedish, helped by the author (himself fluent in English). Gustafsson's input certainly lends these English versions some authority -- but then again Gustafsson must have also had some say with Tom Geddes' translation of The Tale of a Dog (see our review), a novel set in Texas but translated incongruously into a very British English.
       The poems do read quite well, and some of them are exceptional. A larger, more comprehensive selection (more than just the complementary Elegies (see our review)) would have appealed to us, but this serves well as an introduction to Gustafsson the poet. Recommended (in the absence of any real alternatives).

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The Stillness of the World before Bach: 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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