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A whole world in a fly

Simon Willis finds a man who collects hoverflies, unlocking a world of wonder

Simon Willis | May/June 2014

ENGLISH TITLE  The Fly Trap 
AUTHOR  Fredrik Sjoberg 
ORIGINAL LANGUAGE  Swedish 
TRANSLATOR  Thomas Teal 

If you were to make a list of unlikely subjects to lure readers, hoverflies might be near the top. But that hasn’t stopped this book becoming a bestseller in Sweden. Fredrik Sjöberg is an entomologist and hoverflies are his thing, specifically those found on the island in the Stockholm archipelago where he lives. Bugged, so to speak, by the narrowness of his obsession, he casts his net for an explanation, and ends up with a buzzing swarm of meditations—touching on everything from the fiction of D.H. Lawrence to the paintings of Rembrandt—about the value of limits, and how rich the world can look when viewed from a niche. When tourists on the island ask Sjöberg why he collects flies, he sometimes says it’s about slowing down. “As soon as I raised the subject, it was as if everyone in the whole world was...a fly collector.”

One of the pleasures of the book—in Thomas Teal’s brisk and breezy translation—is its fund of stories. Its presiding spirit is the forgotten entomologist René Malaise, whose expeditions took him to Kamchatka and Burma, and whose interests included plate tectonics and the lost city of Atlantis. But his life is also a cautionary tale about spreading yourself too thin. Sjöberg’s insight is that there is freedom in confinement—like “sleeping better with the door closed”—and that our sense of the world’s wonder can be refined by circumscription. Reading an ecosystem is like reading a book: “The more glosses you know, the richer the experience becomes.” Nature’s greatest riddles, he says, are often solved by focusing on its footnotes.

Particular Books, now out

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