01 July 2015

The Fly Trap by Fredrik Sjöberg

Summary from Goodreads:

A Nature Book of the Year ( The Times (UK))

“The hoverflies are only props. No, not only, but to some extent. Here and there, my story is about something else.”

A mesmerizing memoir of extraordinary brilliance by an entomologist, The Fly Trap chronicles Fredrik Sjöberg’s life collecting hoverflies on a remote island in Sweden. Warm and humorous, self-deprecating and contemplative, and a major best seller in its native country, The Fly Trap is a meditation on the unexpected beauty of small things and an exploration of the history of entomology itself.

What drives the obsessive curiosity of collectors to catalog their finds? What is the importance of the hoverfly? As confounded by his unusual vocation as anyone, Sjöberg reflects on a range of ideas—the passage of time, art, lost loves—drawing on sources as disparate as D. H. Lawrence and the fascinating and nearly forgotten naturalist René Edmond Malaise. From the wilderness of Kamchatka to the loneliness of the Swedish isle he calls home, Sjöberg revels in the wonder of the natural world and leaves behind a trail of memorable images and stories.

When I started blogging, if you had told me that one day I would jump at the chance to read and review a memoir by an entomologist (and one who lives in Sweden and studies hoverflies, whatever those are, at that), then I would have had a hearty chuckle.  Probably a long one.

But that memoir is the core of The Fly Trap - the reasons why Fredrik Sjöberg lives with his family on an island (Runmarö) off the coast of Sweden, nearer to Stockholm, and studies hoverflies.  (If, like me, you don't know what-all constitutes "hoverfly", this is a hoverfly; they are quite good mimics and look a lot like bees or wasps - called Batesian mimicry, which is something I actually remember from Biology I in undergrad - and can be distinguished from bees by having only one pair of wings, not two pairs as bees, etc., do).  Sjöberg collects hoverflies not simply because that's his academic discipline, but for the satisfaction of collecting the specimens, classifying them, and displaying a collection.  Sjöberg brings in the term "buttonology" - coined by August Strindberg his short story "The Isle of the Blessed" - to describe the lengths to which one goes to perfect one's collection and taxonomy.

The mention of Strindberg brings me to why everyone should read The Fly Trap, whether you care about insects and the environment or if you think that bugs are the grossest thing on Earth and you don't give a rat's backside about hoverflies.  The Fly Trap is so much more than a nature memoir.  It opens with Sjöberg's recollection of his time working in the theatre - there aren't a lot of ladies in entomology, if you get his drift - cleaning up after Peter Stormare (yes, that Peter Stormare) who was required obliged to urinate live on-stage every performance of Sam Shepard's Curse of the Starving Class.  He discusses the pleasures and oddities of living on an island with an excellent biosphere, first by invoking the D.H. Lawrence story "The Man Who Loved Islands" and then by detailing the strange phone calls he takes from people wanting to talk to the resident biologist about their insane "environmental" get-rich plans.  John Wyndham's The Day of the Triffids (which I am currently reading on Oyster) comes into play when describing the thrill of finding a plant species alien to the island.  He makes a joke about Freudians and dung beetles.  He sneaks in a few thoughts on Milan Kundera's novel Slowness because the Czech entomologist character is based on a real person Sjöberg knows. Sjöberg's voice is wry and cheeky as he weaves art and literature around the pursuit of hoverflies.  Kudos must be given to the translator, Thomas Teal, for creating a wonderfully readable English translation.

Throughout the book Sjöberg pieces together the life story of René Malaise, a Swedish entomologist and explorer who studied sawflies and amassed such a huge collection that museum curators are still sifting through specimens from his last expedition in the late 1930s.  Malaise was an iconoclast, to say the least.  He invented the Malaise trap (which Sjöberg uses himself) and developed a fascination with art, leading to a small art collection amassed in the aftermath of the two World Wars.  Which may or may not have had a Rembrandt.  That went mysteriously missing...and that Sjöberg searches for in the final chapters of The Fly Trap.  Malaise, unfortunately, wound up on the wrong side of science history by backing the "constriction theory" of geology (which was the loser to "plate tectonics") and writing a book titled Atlantis to back up his claim.  Sjöberg tracked that book down, too.

So you should read The Fly Trap!  It was a fun, quick read that was perfect for laying on the couch in a patch of sun with the fan going (I don't like outdoors, there are insects and spiders and things...).  This is a great book for fans of H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald (and if you haven't read H is for Hawk, do that) with similar blends of microhistory/microbiography, memoir, and description of environment.  Happy reading! And ignore that pesky fly buzzing around your head....

The Fly Trap is available in the US wherever books are sold.

Dear FTC: I received an advance review copy of this book from the publisher.

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