Tuesday, August 29, 2017

The Fly Trap by Fredrik Sjöberg

When the days are numbered, everything seems clearer, as if the time between preparation and departure possessed a particular magic. The endless stretch of time on the other side always struck me as evasive and treacherous. But the very limited period between now and then held a liberating peace and quiet. This allotment of time was an island. And the island became, later, a measurable moment. 
Sjöberg is a Swedish entomologist, and this is the first of three installments of essay collections. He writes about hoverflies (his specialty), collecting, and (Swedish) island living, but the most notable thread throughout is his fascination with Rene Malaise. Malaise, another Swedish entomologist, was also an avid explorer and art collector; Sjöberg weaves his own experiences collecting on his island with Malaise's adventures in Kamchatka and throughout the world.

The books that are hardest to review are those that you feel ambivalent about. I love essays but am often bogged down by essay collections, and this one wasn't any exception. Sjöberg has interesting observations to make, and he described worlds I know nothing about: Sweden, the art and science of entomology, Kamchatka, Burma. I enjoyed exploring new horizons, and was especially taken with Sjöberg's descriptions of his island and the intricacies of collecting, but I found him somewhat repetitive. Malaise, while interesting, didn't quite seem worth the obsessive attention Sjöberg pays him (although there is mystery-ish piece at the end about his art collecting later on that I enjoyed). His adventures are chronicled with just the wrong level of detail; they go one for a little too long with not enough scenery or personal relationships to keep the reader hooked.

The best essay by far "The Man Who Loved Islands." Named after a D.H. Lawrence short story, it details Sjöberg's love of his own island and his general fascination with them:
Whichever way I go, sooner or later I come to the sea. That's a banal observation, but within it, I think, lies a security that for many islanders is greater than the feeling of being trapped. Maybe it's no more remarkable than sleeping better with the door closed. 
Sjöberg is at his best describing his own work and life. He is understated and funny, has an eye for detail, and makes an odd profession (collecting flies?) accessible. He writes about things he loves, and that love shines through in his writing. His deviations into history are less readable and more frustrating, although my sense is that this would have been more enjoyable read in installments rather than all at once.

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