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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Klas Östergren

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To purchase Gentlemen

Title: Gentlemen
Author: Klas Östergren
Genre: Novel
Written: 1981 (Eng. 2007)
Length: 514 pages
Original in: Swedish
Availability: Gentlemen - US
Gentlemen - UK
Gentlemen - Canada
Gentlemen - France
Gentlemen - Deutschland
  • Swedish title: Gentlemen
  • Translated by Tiina Nunnally

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Our Assessment:

B+ : appealing, roundabout slice of life in post-WWII Sweden

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Financial Times . 2/2/2008 Jonathan Gibbs
The Independent . 20/2/2009 Boyd Tonkin
The New York Sun . 20/9/2007 Katherine Marino
The Telegraph . 22/2/2008 James Urquhart
The Times . 11/1/2008 Kate Saunders
Die Welt . 6/8/2007 David Deißner

  From the Reviews:
  • "The book reads like an update of a Raymond Chandler mystery for the May 1968 generation." - Jonathan Gibbs, Financial Times

  • "(T)his exuberant alloy of family saga, espionage romp and historical panorama delivers border-hopping intrigue as well as a nostalgia fest for veterans of the Sixties and Seventies." - Boyd Tonkin, The Independent

  • "Indeed, one of the book's unifying themes is the struggle of the artist against the conformity of bourgeois standards. This capitalist critique, however, is never developed convincingly by any of the characters. Similarly, allusions to politics, history, literature, and popular culture pervade the novel like a drumbeat, reminding the reader of events happening in postwar Sweden and around the world, but as soon as the events are introduced, they are dismissed. (...) This lack of engagement contributes to the novel's universally ironic worldview in which nothing really matters, and anything goes." - Katherine Marino, The New York Sun

  • "Gentlemen opens with vigour but soon stagnates under Leo's listless influence. Despite copious enjoyable vignettes, the novel's weighty mid-section, which recounts the Morgan brothers' adolescences, has the material volume of a hearty, picaresque William Boyd saga but little by way of moral substance or direction. It also begs too many questions as to how Klas is narrating a story to which he had no access." - James Urquhart, The Telegraph

  • "(E)xuberant, complicated thriller and literary tour de force (.....) The unravelling of the mystery is extremely compelling, and highly imaginative. This one can stay." - Kate Saunders, The Times

  • "Und doch wirkt das Ganze überzeugend und erstaunlich kurzweilig, denn Östergren versteht sich aufs Erzählen." - David Deißner, Die Welt

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:

       Gentlemen is narrated by a would-be writer in his mid-twenties, Klas Östergren, "in the Year of the Child, the election year of 1979". He's hardly established himself yet, and even takes a summer job as a groundskeeper at a golf course one summer, but it looks like some better opportunities are coming along. He's commissioned to write re-write Strindberg's classic The Red Room in a modern-day setting -- "This could be your breakthrough, if you can pull it off", his publisher thinks -- and he's invited to move into the apartment of Henry Morgan.
       Henry is quite the character -- a boxing dandy, with his tie always done in a Windsor knot -- with a "very old double luxury apartment, cold and gloomy" that hints of former family glories and riches (little in evidence now -- though the bed in Klas' room is supposedly Göring's). Henry is a jack-of-all-trades bohemian. From being a film-extra to earlier times when he was: "Henry the clerk in London, Heinrich der Barmeister und Schlossdiener in the Alps, and Henri le boulevardier in Paris", Henry has seen and done a lot. Much of the novel recounts his wanderings and (small) adventures, before he met Klas.
       There's also Henry's brother, Leo, absent at the beginning (supposedly in America) but whose return stirs things up even more. A child-prodigy-poet, whose first collection, Herbarium , was published when he was 14, Leo is far more lost in his own thoughts and ideas than Henry. There are a few more poetry collections (one under the pseudonym of 'John Silver' ("not a very good book", apparently)), some stabs at philosophy, and some general difficulties in dealing with everyday reality. Adventurous Henry immerses himself in experience and seeks it out, while for Leo:

Everything he wrote was presumably based on this lack of contact with life. He had been an outsider for as long as he could remember, and only when he was writing did he feel completely real, a participant instead of an observer.
       Klas, of course, also has the role of writer -- and Henry also wants to take advantage of that:
     "Be my Boswell !" was a standing exhortation from Henry Morgan
       Of course, Klas already has a project underway -- the modern version of The Red Room, a ruthless look at Swedish society -- but it's no surprise how things wind up and which project he abandons and which he completes. Indeed, Gentlemen is a sort of modern The Red Room, and in a long (and continuing) line of Scandinavian novels of the down-and-out (or close to it) artistic types doing their own thing in the corrupt society of whatever the relevant age. (Östergren doesn't do quite as much with their outsider-status as he might, as in a party for Nobel Prize laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer he has Klas attend.)
       Much of the book recounts not Klas' own experiences, but rather the lives of Henry and Leo -- a longish look at life in Sweden after World War II, and particularly in the 1960s and 70s. It's nicely if somewhat meanderingly done, though a focus on small episodes and general overviews can get to be a bit much over the length of the novel.
       There is some clever invention and nice detail, from Henry's treasure-hunting ambitions in the cellar (which Klas soon joins in) to Leo's career as poet. Eventually, there's also a rather darker side to it all, as Leo in particular gets involved in (and is burdened by the knowledge of) considerably uglier things. It doesn't quite add up to a political thriller, but certainly points some fingers at a corrupt society.
       Klas' early warnings -- "I'm already aging like a Dorian Gray", and "We must allow ourselves to despair, at least once in a while", and the like -- are never entirely forgotten, and there's much that is ominous throughout the book (one reason Klas moves in with Henry is because his own apartment was burgled, almost all his possessions (i.e. also his identity) taken), but much of the book is really quite funny. It's comedy with a Scandinavian tint to it (i.e. in shades of grey), but entertaining nevertheless.
       Gentlemen is a book of a different time (and place), the atmosphere of Sweden at the end of the 1970s suffusing the text (there's even a biting bleakness in Klas' repeated reminders that it's the Year of the Child ...), but it's strong enough to still be well worth reading

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Gentlemen: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Swedish author Klas Östergren was born in 1955.

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© 2007-2021 the complete review

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