Good literature is not just about great ideas, good stories, dramatic situations interlaced with well developed thoughts and reflections. Literature is also about a writer-specific form, the specific style of how to say things. And this is what makes writers so unique and recognizable. You quickly can tell if a text which deals with a train ride through south-eastern Europe is by Thomas Pynchon, or Agatha Christie or Joseph Roth. Similarily, despite many novels and short stories are located in San Francisco, you will quickly recognise which one is a Raymond Chandler, because of his special style of writing: sober, precise, and very illustrative, with a certain distance to his characters, and by leaving any judgement to the reader.
Bad literature can be easily identified by the absence of style, or by the adoption of a very uniform style. A bad example are the Scandinavian crime stories which saw an inflation on the book discounts and the best seller lists. I guess they all follow the blood trace of the ordinary readers appetite for explicit described cruelity, for their suspicion that behind a seemingly harmonic society must be the worst degree of murder and slaughter-house sensation, and that after 5 p.m. every office clerk turns into a zombie or a werwolf, hunting for young flesh. Most of these crime novels also fuel the stereotype that moral values in the society are maintained only by a small, usually female minority.
If I open a book of this genre, I don’t recognise a style difference, whether its is by Adler Olsen, Stig Larsson, Henning Mankell or others of this school. Their style is simply indistinguishable, and therefore no style at all. The form is like Ikea, for a quick and cheap consumption to fill some empty time with some easy to get sensation.
There is, thanks god, much better literature coming from Ikea land, and one of the finest examples is Lars Gustafsson. He is not only a brilliant narrator, a great magician of merging reality, utopia, and philosophic reflections, but in addition he is a great stylist. After reading one of his novels, whether the plot is situated in Swedens Västmanland county, or in an Italian castle, or in a Berlin villa or a students dorm in Austin/Texas, you have the good chance to recognise any other of Gustafssons euvre. And this not because any names of the acting characters re-appear in the next book, a cheap trick used by the notorius Swedish crime writers in a helpless attempt to make their mass-production sequel books recognisable, by telling us again and again about the adventures of Wallander or Lisbeth Salander.
Lars Gustafsson does not need such a cheap trick to make his literature unique and recognisable. And how resilient Gustafssons style is I recognised only recently, when in complete ignorance of his Swedish mother tongue dared to translate two unpublished texts, assuming they were of his authorship, by using Googles translate function. The first text I received by e-mail, signed by Mr. Gustafsson personaly and carrying his e-mail address, one that my mail program properperly recognised because we had exchanged some correspondence before. What surprised me was that suddenly Gustafsson wrote to me in Swedish, maybe he wanted to challenge my promise from some years ago to learn the language in order to read his next books before they are translated by the publisher. But of course, I did not made much progress, and instead I quickly copy/pasted the whole message into Google Translate, and within a second or two, I could read a cry for help, explaining that Lars Gustafsson got pickpocket in London and without any cash or credit card left, has to sleep rough for the next night unless he can buy a ticket home, for which he asks me for some financial support. At this moment, I did not paid too much attention to the writing style of the message, first assuming that even a great literature stylist as Lars Gustafsson might not use his full talent at each and every short communication, and secondly, at least at this stage, I did not trusted a computer generated text translation to preserve a writing style. But this notion I had to revise short after. But what confused me a bit was that I received this emergency e-mail, supposedly from Lars Gustafsson, right at a weekend when Munich was hosting a three-days series of Skandinavian literature and poetry, with Mr. Gustafsson beeing scheduled to read from his books and poems on the first and the last day. When I called the organizers to investigate how Mr. Gustafsson could quickly be brought to Munich, to my surpise they could ensure me that he has already arrived in town some days ago, on a regular flight from Stockholm. So apparently, he never had been pick-pocketed in London, and the emergency mail was a fake one produced by some internet criminals to raise money from people they identified after hacking Mr. Gustafssons address list.
The week after hearing him reading some of his poems and essays in Munich, I had a look at his internet blog, curious to see if he already wrote something about his visit to Munich and this fictious London crime with him as the robbed victim. Everything new I found there was a text by Mr. Gustafsson recalling a former visit to Portugal. The few words I could decipher from the Swedish text were “globalisation”, “tourism”, “Fernando Pessoa” and “Baixa Alta”. To get at least some ideas what Lars Gustafssons relation to Portugal are, I again used Google to translate his blog post from Swedish to German. And within some milliseconds, I was reading a typical Gustafsson essay, in this incoparable style of linking some marginal observations of a daily life with deep philosophical reflections, sentences void of any didactic selfsufficiency, but entertaining and inspiring for the reader. And this very unique, recognisable style made it almost undamaged through a computerized transformation, so that the text finally was not much worse than one translated by a professional translator of the publisher.
It is hard to tell, of course, if Google is realy so sophisticated that it can adequately translate any personal text to other languages and maintain the personal flavor, or if it is mainly the powerful style of Mr. Gustafssons language that makes his text so resilient to a computerized conversion. In this case, for sure, I could clearly tell which text was a real Gustafsson, and which one was a fake using his stolen e-mail address.
In maybe not too far a future there will be a new Google program, not to translate texts from one language to another, but from one style to another. So one could than take a text from an instruction manual and convert it into a Lars Gustafsson style instruction manual. Would this be an adequate essay, fiction or non-fiction ? For sure not, because style without ideas is still no literature, not a penny better than all the cheap best seller with their action-plots so hastily cobbled together. Good literature needs both, clear, crisp ideas to develop, wrapped into a great style. And Lars Gustafsson is one of the few modern authors who is a master of this skill, and there is no Google program in sight to replace this talent.