Cover image for The tale of a dog : from the diaries and letters of a Texan bankruptcy judge
The tale of a dog : from the diaries and letters of a Texan bankruptcy judge
Gustafsson, Lars, 1936-
Personal Author:
Uniform Title:
Historien med hunden. English
Publication Information:
New York : New Directions, 1999.
Physical Description:
182 pages ; 21 cm.
Added Author:
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
X Adult Fiction Central Closed Stacks

On Order



Judge Caldwell, a comfortably married man for 30 years, has an affair; his stepdaughter comes home after being denied tenure at Harvard; and Judge Caldwell learns of the death of a Dutch philosopher-semanticist. What does all this have to do with a dog? Thereby hangs the tale.

Author Notes

Lars Gustafsson was born in Västerås, Sweden on May 17, 1936. He was a poet and novelist. He published his first novel, Vägvila: Ett Mysteriespel På Prosa (Rest on the Way: A Mystery Play in Prose), at the age of 21. His other novels include The Death of a Beekeeper and Dr. Wasser's Recept. His collections of poetry include The Stillness of the World before Bach, Elegies and Other Poems, A Time in Xanadu, and Selected Poems. He received numerous literary awards including the Prix International Charles Veillon des Essais in 1983, the Heinrich Steffens Preis in 1986, Una Vita per la Litteratura in 1989, a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship for poetry in 1994, and the Thomas Mann Prize in 2015 for his work and its influence on German culture. He taught philosophy and creative writing at the University of Texas at Austin from 1983 to 2006. He died after a short illness on April 3, 2016 at the age of 79.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 1

Publisher's Weekly Review

In the first of the 31 terse, cerebral chapters of Swedish writer Gustafsson's 1993 roman noir, Texan federal judge Erwin Caldwell watches the 16mm footage from the film of his birth in order to confirm that he in fact exists. His philosophical and moral inquiry is prompted by the sudden, suspect death of his one-time spiritual adviser and revered professor of semantics, Jan van de Rouwers. The latter's demise reveals‘traumatically for the Jewish Caldwell‘his past as a Nazi collaborator in WWII Holland. Caldwell, whose psychic breakdown Gustofsson narrates in cool and tidy prose, begins to dig into his own past after he confesses to the district attorney that he's responsible for a brutal unsolved murder. Through journal entries and correspondence with a college friend, Caldwell traces the murderous impulse that caused him first to beat a stray dog to death, and eventually to kill another human being. Meanwhile, his wife of three decades is overweight and drinks too much, and Caldwell finds relief for his pent-up rage in an affair with the 30ish owner of a campus bookshop whose possibly mad husband has disappeared while on a search for God. The unease fostered by Gustofsson's disjointed style becomes more palpable as this provoking, if occasionally dry and disjointed, novel nears its bleak end. The pellucid, pliant translation is, however, somewhat marred by jarring Britishisms. (Feb.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved



Chapter One The Film of My Birth     My father, a builder in San Saba County, had several hobbies that he pursued with an enthusiasm bordering on fanaticism.     One of them was 16mm cinematography.     I don't know how many cameras and projectors and cutting boards we found after he died. We sold most of them or gave them away. But I still have the films and one of the projectors. The films take up an entire cardboard box right at the back of the capacious wardrobe in the bedroom. There must be at least a hundred, depicting every possible occasion. Myself at seven and my -- as far as I can see -- happy three-year-old brother at his birthday party. My brother riding on ponies, on round-abouts, myself on the way to my first day at school.     I have to say that quite a few of the films look rather silly. They are dreadfully repetitive, almost as if the filming had been a kind of ritual, an attempt to preserve the memory of a contented family life in all its detail in a rather impersonal fashion. But then there are others that are particularly interesting. In fact I even have access to a film of my own birth. This record of my birth really is especially important to me. I keep it in a separate little container in the big cardboard box. I sometimes project it down in the kitchen when I can't sleep between three and five in the morning. It's much more fun than watching television (the horror films that some channels show at that hour just upset and depress me) or pacing all over the house, looking at a book here and a book there, rubbing at a real or imagined spot on the mahogany table in the living room. The film of my birth is quite short and has a lot of technical faults. Perhaps the most surprising thing is that a father-to-be was actually allowed to bring photographic floodlights and tripods and the rest of his equipment into a delivery room as early as 1936. Normally fathers were extremely unwelcome in delivery rooms in those days. Most probably my father was a good friend to several of the doctors at the Fredricksburg Centennial Hospital: he used to go fishing with some of them. Fishing was another of his many hobbies.     The pictures of the birth are a very flickering sequence with amateurish lighting, where all the interesting bits are repeatedly hidden by the midwife's back. You can see her white dress, the straps and the belt, everything rather too brightly lit. But then my mother's splayed legs come into view, with my head suddenly starting to push its way out. And the midwife holding me up for my mother to see, still with the umbilical cord attached. And then anonymous hands cutting it.     The whole thing is obscene, frightening and strangely fascinating. I avoid watching it too often, simply because I'm afraid of wearing it out. It's precious to me.     This film is literally the only answer I have to the question: Who am I? Or perhaps I'm mistaken. Perhaps it only tells me where I come from, not who I am. I sometimes ask myself whether it can be about me at all. You never see yourself from the outside to the same extent as when you see your own birth. (I sometimes even ask myself whether my own life is actually about me, and that, as you will realise, is a factor which has left its mark on my story; this tale of a dog, for instance, is not really about me in the slightest. And there is much else too, in the story that follows, that has nothing to do with me whatsoever.)     It would never occur to me to show the film of my birth to anyone else; not to my wife Claire (who doesn't even know it exists), nor to my children (who would be certain to laugh at it: there is no corresponding documentation of their own births). In itself it's absolutely trivial: masses of children are born all the time, every second in fact. But this is very special. It's a statement about myself. That I exist? Maybe.     No. It's also about something else, a mixture of terror and fascination, a terror that is reminiscent of how one felt in boyhood about sex. Something determined that I should exist, something that may have just been chance; something compelled me to be the person I am, to be one specific individual. If my parents hadn't met, that compulsion wouldn't have existed either.     How carefully I try not to fulfil this responsibility that I never sought! And how odd that I identify myself with it! It's not that I would prefer to be dead, I don't mean that. But I would prefer not to have to be a specific individual.     The strange thing is that despite all this the old film of my birth often makes me feel relaxed. I go back up to the main part of the house and on the way to my bed I look into my wife's bedroom and see her now rather overweight body (which nevertheless belongs to me) as a more solid shadow in the encroaching dawn. Wrapped up again in the warmth of my blankets, I turn on to my side and fall asleep like a child. Copyright © 1993 Lars Gustafsson.