Gentlemen was originally published in Swedish in 1980, and received great reviews all over Scandinavia. It has been excellently translated into English by Tiina Nunnally. Östergren is a great storyteller, and it is good that the novel is now available in English, even though it took quite a while.
Klas Ostergren’s novel covers 40 years, and the main story is the tale about the Morgan Brothers in post war Stockholm and around Europe. Henry, the oldest, is a boxer with his tie always done in a Windsor knot, a jazz piano player, a composer, a bartender, and also an old-fashioned gentleman with a Gatsby-like capacity for turning life into a feast. Leo is his younger brother and somewhat of a star poet, philosopher, political provocateur, and a drunk as well. Their strange tale is told by a certain Klas Ostergren – the narrator of the story. He is a beaten up and scared young writer who hides in a Stockholm apartment and writes the story of its disappeared inhabitants: the odd, flamboyant and perhaps even charismatic Morgan brothers. He may be a friend of the two brothers – exactly what is a little unclear. He tells the stories of their strange lives, their relationships, and their adaptation to the changing times and circumstances.
Henry is – to me at least – by far the most interesting, and perhaps even somewhat of a magnetic personality. Leo is strange – one he has suffered a mental breakdown and has the ability to bring down a disaster at any time. It is Leo, of course, that involves them in a scandal with illegal weapons and gangsters. Soon the three men – the Morgan’s and the narrator – find themselves trapped in a dangerous plot.
One possible take on the book is to view it as a story about how a younger man becomes enthralled by an older one – that is, how the narrator/author is taken under the wing of Henry Morgan and perhaps “seduced” by him. And Henry helps him find work and introduces him to his wily friends. To a large extent, this is the story of the first section of the novel.
Henry lives his life on a very on a grand scale. He finances this by selling off his grandfather’s rare book collection and other various small capers. Leo, on the other hand, lives smaller and is concerned primarily with preserving his sanity. Klas, is sucked in, seeks desperately to understand it all, and most certainly enjoys the grandness of it all. But grasping the big picture is not at all an easy job – there is international scheming and intrigue, as well as politics and business, and large hidden forces at work affecting Henry and Leo, and, of course, Klas as well. Klas struggles, yet seems to never be sure of what he experiences – what was real, what was he just imagining, and what has he overlooked or completely forgotten?
Gentlemen is viewed by the Swedes as perhaps the most important literary work to emerge from Sweden in the past thirty years. Whether it is true, I am really not so sure. It is a tremendous novel, and a wild ride to read – enjoyable as well – but as yet I am still uncertain as to its greatness. To the extent there is greatness, it is with the story more than with the writing itself – it’s the story that keeps you turning the pages. But regardless of what it is – you can be the judge of that – it is definitely a book well worth reading.