Reading D.H. Lawrence on a Remote Swedish Island
Fredrik Sjöberg on Parables, Flies, and the Sea
Towards the end of his brief life, D.H. Lawrence wrote a short story called “The Man Who Loved Islands.” I had never read it, knew only its title, but I was nevertheless practically certain that the story would help me answer my eternally returning question: Why an island? For years I searched for this hard-to-find book in Stockholm’s secondhand bookshops, although I felt no great urgency. The mere knowledge that Lawrence had got to the bottom of the riddle soothed me. The answer existed. Moreover, inevitably, I had theories of my own.
For even if this island is like a Sunday afternoon, 15 square kilometers in size, it is nevertheless so small and isolated that everyone who chooses to settle here without having deep roots in the community is expected to explain the decision as if they were joining some peculiar sect. Always the same question. Why this island? And, as ever, love is a good answer—as all the women know who arrived from distant places and married into ancient island families by way of perennial homebody boys with greasy caps and shotguns—women who now run the island’s practical and political affairs.
It’s said to be the same all over the world, in all seven seas. Islands are matriarchies of a kind seldom seen on land. The men—as Iceland’s president Vigdís Finnbogadóttir remarked on one occasion when the subject arose—the men flee to their own preferred landscape, which is the sea. They’re simply not around. So it was and still is in places where fishing and piloting remain important. But here? No. Here something else is at work.
It is always something else. “Circumstances.” Which is true, of course. And it makes a perfectly good answer, as does a longing for the raw beauty of the skerries and their shifting forms of silence at the edge of the open sea. Such things can be said, and in May, when the maples bloom and the rosefinch sings in the woods by the shore, no answers are needed, nor even questions. Nature is enough. Why not move out here? The change comes only later, several years later. It was only then that I thought I saw that the island had a peculiar attraction for men with a need for control and security, which they sought on land through power over others, but which out here was woven into the limitations of the insular landscape. For nothing is so enclosed and concrete as an island. In the old days, the days of seamen, the landscape was open and free in all directions. Now freedom takes a different form for those who find their way here. For us. For me.
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. The thought struck me one summer morning when we had finally decided to capture the badger. Before it tipped over the house.
It usually lived under our cottage in the winter, right under the floor, and as long as the children were little, we all thought the arrangement was exciting and congenial. The space was so small that we could sometimes hear the rough brush on his back rasping against the floorboards when he turned around in his winter sleep. It was only when we abandoned the old house and built a new one by the lake that we discovered that the foundation was so undermined by all the tunnels of his burrow that the building was about to collapse. There had to be a limit to our hospitality, so the next time the little wedge-nosed miscreant appeared and began to install himself under the cottage, we turned to one of those inscrutable men to be found on every island who always have a rancid bratwurst on hand with which to bait their galvanized badger trap. This man set up his trap by the corner of the building. The very next morning, there lay the badger rolled up in a ball inside—sound asleep.
* * * *
I need to interject here that the natives on our island are by no means exceptionally odd. Come to think of it, neither are the summer people. At least not compared with the new settlers, the enthusiasts who move out to the island, or anyway try to. Many come and leave again quickly, always with some equally idiotic project for which they’re hoping to get a government grant, since the island is so sparsely populated that no project is too harebrained to get official support.
People sometimes call me for help in investigating the possibilities. I am a biologist, after all. Their projects are often said to have an environmental dimension—the infallible key to getting grants—so I’m considered a good person to talk to. When we were new out here, I used to say that I was a writer, but all the women on the island felt so sorry for my wife that I started insisting I was a biologist instead. What else could I do? And if you’re a biologist on an island widely known for its rich biosphere, you have to put up with a lot of phone calls from morons. They always seem to assume that I’m a moron myself.
One man called because he wanted to, as he put it, reconnoiter the island for a small-scale industrial initiative that ought to be a dream project for some EU structural fund with the proper environmental orientation. He told me he’d been sitting at home one day watching the opening ceremony of some great sporting event—the Olympic Games, maybe, I don’t remember exactly. Anyway there was a gigantic stadium and a brass band, a parade of national teams, speeches and acrobats. Buckets of polychrome metallic confetti had rained down like an April snow shower past the cameras flashing from the seats, and at that moment he was transformed from a couch potato into an entrepreneur.
His idea was very simple. He himself thought it was also brilliant. He was going to raise Brimstone butterflies. In humongous greenhouses, he would breed prodigious quantities of Brimstone larvae and then manipulate the pupation in a cooling chamber in order to somehow synchronize the emergence of the adult insects.
He was going to cripple the confetti industry by inducing tens of thousands of Brimstones to do something almost impossible to achieve with, say, three Peacock butterflies. That was his plan. He had seen hundreds of white doves released when events were launched on television. Bright yellow butterflies would be much prettier. “You know, perfect.”
I told him the truth, that I thought his idea was just a tad optimistic, but that I would give a lot to see the result on a live broadcast, especially if it was raining. Thousands of butterflies floundering around on the grass, looking for something to hide under. It will make sports history, I said. He never called back. Neither did the genius who called to hear what I thought of the chances of leasing a little land on the island, which isn’t hard to do. He wanted to start an organic horseradish farm, which didn’t sound impractical either, I remarked. But to then sell it for the production of environmentally friendly tear gas to be used at riots? What was I supposed to say?
* * * *
The man who loved islands was, of course, Lawrence himself, and the story was an allegory about his constant wandering among different cultures and philosophies. When I finally got my hands on the book, I was disappointed. Was this all? A man inclined to misanthropy buys an island intending to mould it to his own personality and make it his own world, but agriculture doesn’t pay and his servants cheat him. So he sells the island and moves to a smaller one, with fewer servants and still fewer illusions, stands there in the wind and feels nothing, no joy, no longing, but has a child with the housekeeper’s daughter, whereupon all desire dies within him with such sickening finality that he has to flee again, to a third island, just a rock in the roaring sea, where he loses his mind among lumpish, bleating sheep and finally freezes to death in his primitive shack. One of the man’s final pleasures is that his cat vanishes and never reappears.
Only he still derived his single satisfaction from being alone, absolutely alone, with the space soaking into him. The grey sea alone, and the footing of his seawashed island. No other contact. Nothing human to bring its horror into contact with him. Only space, damp, twilit, sea-washed space! This was the bread of his soul.
Frustrated, I stuffed the book back on the shelf and thought, this story is about neither islands nor love.
A couple of years later, I read it again, and then again, periodically, many times, especially when life on the island grew rigid from the pressure of encircling darkness and tragedy of a kind that the newcomer doesn’t see. My first impression of that text no longer fit. Lawrence had seen something that on certain days I wanted to call true.
Out of the very air came a stony, heavy malevolence. The island itself seemed malicious. It would go on being hurtful and evil for weeks at a time. Then suddenly again one morning it would be fair, lovely as a morning in Paradise, everything beautiful and flowing. And everybody would begin to feel a great relief, and a hope for happiness.
The parents in the story say that by living on the island they are not doing right by their children. Those who have no children feel they are not doing right by themselves. Yes, that’s how it is, exactly.
But everything fell into place with the flies. In exercising control over something, however insignificant and apparently meaningless, there is a peaceful euphoria, however ephemeral and fleeting, which Lawrence manages to evoke when he has his alter ego on the islands recover his balance by means of more or less primitive botanical collecting. On the first island he seeks shelter in his well-filled library, where he is absorbed in endless labour on a book about all the flowers mentioned by the Greek and Latin writers of the ancient world. Later, on the second, smaller island, he fills his prison with a sometimes enthralling effort to compile a complete catalogue of all the plants on the island.
It is only on the third island that he loses all interest in botany. “He was glad. He didn’t want trees or bushes. They stood up like people, too assertive. His bare, low-pitched island in the pale blue sea was all he wanted.”
“Buttonology” is what it’s called—disrespectful but accurate. As a collector, the man who loved islands is by disposition a classic buttonologist. He compiles catalogues. The idea is to be exhaustive, to include everything. In this way, the buttonologist differs from the mapmaker, whom he resembles and can easily be confused with. But the person who makes maps can never include everything in his picture of reality, which remains a simplification no matter what scale he chooses. Both attempt to capture something and to preserve it. And yet they are very different.
What bothers me is that on occasion the buttonologist, as in Lawrence’s case, seems to be merely an erstwhile mapmaker, now well on his way to madness. It’s just a phase.
Put a boy ashore on an islet and watch what happens. He’ll charge around it. Every time. He bounds from stone to stone along the edge of the water like a happy animal, living proof that the word “territorial” derives from the same root as “terrier.” He’s exploring his territory, following the coastline along its entire length like a cartographer, searching for driftwood and flotsam. Only then does he explore the interior of the island with the buttonologist’s blessed tunnel vision.
Purple loosestrife sways in the light sea breeze. The heavy smell of seaweed. Arctic terns!
* * * *
There are millions and millions of insect species here on earth. Of these, hundreds of thousands belong to the multifarious order of flies, Diptera. Houseflies, dance flies, robber flies, hoverflies, thick-headed flies, soldier flies, snipe flies, picture-winged flies, fruit flies, flesh flies, blowflies, stable flies, marsh flies, shore flies, louse flies, dung flies, parasite flies, stiletto flies—every imaginable name. In Sweden alone there are 4,424 different species, according to the most recent figures. New ones are discovered constantly.
Of all these very different fly families, I am interested only in hoverflies, also called flower flies. But even these are far too numerous to cover in the course of one lifetime, except superficially. Scientists have identified more than 5,000 hoverflies in the whole world, and there are undoubtedly thousands more that haven’t yet been discovered or named, that simply exist God knows where. The 368 species of hoverfly found in Sweden to date are undeniably manageable. But our country is very large and verdant, and the days are so packed with impressions and clamourous information that I am forced to limit myself so as not to lose sight of something I am forever seeking.
Therefore I collect only on the island. Never on the mainland.
So far I have managed to capture 202 species. Two hundred and two. A triumph, believe me. Only the difficulty of explaining is greater.
Not even on Öland or Gotland—those comparatively gigantic islands, where generations of entomologists have been capturing flies for all they’re worth since the time of Linnaeus—not even there, over the course of a quarter of a millennium, have they managed to identify as many species as I have over the course of seven years here. The number says something about the island, and perhaps something about the depth of the buttonological pitfall, but most of all it says something about the possibilities of the sedentary life. When I get old, maybe I will pursue my hoverfly studies only in my own garden, sitting here in the sunshine by the meadowsweet and the butterfly bush like a caliph in his pleasure garden, the pooter hose in my mouth as if it led to an opium pipe.
Don’t misunderstand me. We’re talking about hunting for pleasure, nothing more. Of course I could name a number of very good, very sensible reasons why a person ought to collect flies. Scientific reasons, or environmental ones. And maybe I will, later, but it would be hypocritical to begin anywhere but with pure recreation. Anyway, I’m no missionary. Few collectors are. If anything, it’s probably solitude that gets us to make up reasons that other people can understand. If I say that I collect hoverflies principally to map out changes in the local fauna, practically everyone will understand, even applaud, what I do. But it’s a lie. Because enjoyment is so awkward. People who have not fallen into the trap themselves know nothing. On this point I am in agreement with Thomas De Quincey, who in Confessions of an English Opium-Eater dismisses all who believe they know something about the effects of intoxication on a restless soul.
[With regard to] all that has been hitherto written on the subject of opium, whether by travellers in Turkey (who may plead their privilege of lying as an old immemorial right) or by professors of medicine, writing ex cathedra, I have but one emphatic criticism to pronounce,—Lies! lies! lies!
He did in fact destroy himself with opium, completely. He sank so far that his broad interests during a particularly critical period were reduced to the study of the national economy, a subject which at that time was thought to be reserved for “the very dregs and rinsings of the human intellect.” Of course he could also have confined himself to a description of the drawbacks, the misery of addiction, for there he was the greatest expert of them all—in precisely the same way that we entomologists can expand endlessly on the unpleasant effects of environmental devastation on the tiniest of creatures.
And nevertheless, the rapture of intoxication seeps in between the lines.
But, to quit this episode, and to return to my intercalary year of happiness. I have said already, that on a subject so important to us all as happiness, we should listen with pleasure to any man’s experience or experiments, even though he were but a ploughboy, who cannot be supposed to have ploughed very deep in such an intractable soil as that of human pains and pleasures, or to have conducted his researches upon any very enlightened principles.
Now, with the best will in the world, I cannot pretend that I have ploughed very deeply into the soil of joy, and into that of misery hardly at all, but however it happened, I began to get a distinct feeling that René Malaise had.
On a good day, his trap might give me a thousand insects.
But that was only the beginning.
From THE FLY TRAP by Fredrik Sjöberg, translated by Thomas Teal. Copyright ©2004 by Fredrik Sjöberg. Translation copyright © 2014 by Thomas Teal. Reprinted by permission of Vintage Books, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.