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  • Richard Conniff writes about behavior, in humans and other animals, on two, four, six, and eight legs, plus the occasional slither.

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A Tale of Pooters & Malaise

Posted by Richard Conniff on June 28, 2015

9781101870150_p0_v1_s260x420This is a book review I wrote for yesterday’s Wall Street Journal:

Anyone who spends time in the field with people who study insects is likely to encounter the “malaise trap,” a tent-like device with a sloping ridge. Insects have a tendency to escape by moving upward, and this trap ingeniously encourages them to do so, into a collecting jar at the top. I always assumed the name “malaise” referred to the dreamy idleness of the collectors who rely on such an efficient device.

In his curious book “The Fly Trap,” Swedish journalist, translator and entomological enthusiast Fredrik Sjöberg corrects my mistake: The name comes from the inventor of the device, a peripatetic 20th century sawfly specialist named René Malaise. Mr. Sjöberg’s entertaining memoir is partly about his own unsuccessful attempts to write a biography of Malaise, partly about life on Runmarö Island in the Stockholm archipelago, where the author lives and Malaise sometimes visited, and mostly about Mr. Sjöberg’s own obsession with a group of insects called hoverflies.

The writing is whimsical, digressive and pleasingly devoid of anything too weighty or purposeful. Mr. Sjöberg attempts to pass off the hoverflies early on as “only props,” a means to write “about the art and sometimes the bliss of limitation.” But clearly they have a hold on him. Hoverflies are a worldwide family of insects, known for pollinating plants, attacking agricultural pests and achieving a magnificent degree of mimicry, mostly of wasps and bees. They are worthy of enthusiasm. For his part, the author, using a net, a tube-and-bottle device called a pooter, and a mega-Malaise—“a real monster,” of which he is inordinately proud—has collected 202 species on his island of just six square miles, and solved a puzzle or two that have eluded other specialists in the field.

“The Fly Trap” fits into a surprisingly rich genre of great and idiosyncratic writing about insects—from “The Insect World of J. Henri Fabre,” a 1991 collection of writings by a 19th-century French entomologist and “Life on a Little Known Planet” (1966) by Howard Ensign Evans, to recent offerings like “For Love of Insects” (2005) by Thomas Eisner.

Why the obsession with insects? Mr. Sjöberg toys with the idea that studying insects provides an occasion for “exercising slowness,” a means of escape from the “apparently universal, self-generating acceleration” of our technological world. This explanation makes the summer vacationers who pester him about his collecting practically quiver with delight. So Mr. Sjöberg promptly demolishes the idea: “If nothing else, the trend towards more and more, faster and faster, is preferable to its opposite because you can always get off an express train but there’s no good way to speed up a donkey caravan.”

In the same iconoclastic spirit, he takes a swipe a environmental pessimists as “gentle self-flagellants who hunker down beside ill-smelling compost piles” and always glow slightly “in the cosy darkness of approaching apocalypse.” He decides instead that his hoverfly obsession has to do with “exercising concentration. A focus so intense that I forget myself.”

He doesn’t do anything quite so predictable as suggesting that readers should step off the train, or at least notice the natural world whipping past out the window. But his knowledge of the succession of flowers, the insects they attract and the shifting colors of springtime on his island is likely at the very least to induce envy among commuters on the 5:22 to Ronkonkoma (or pretty much anywhere else): “Maple blossoms are greenish yellow, and the tender leaves a yellowish green—and not the other way around. From a distance, the mix of these two tones creates a third so beautiful that the language lacks a word to describe it . . . Just a week, maybe two, and then the alders burst into leaf in deadly earnest. I wish so profoundly that everyone knew.”

At times, the writing can be too whimsical. Mr. Sjöberg brings off the literary feat of making the reader care how many necrophagous insects might turn up on a dead badger (versus the 130 beetle species collected from a dead cat), but then neglects to deliver the answer. Mr. Sjöberg: the world wants to know!

His exegesis of a mystifying passage in the Bible is brilliant but also insufficient. It’s the one (Judges 14: 8-9) where Samson finds honeybees swarming in the carcass of a lion and scoops up the honey to eat and to share with his family. The conventional interpretation treats the honeybees as just an instance of the myth that insects could generate spontaneously from rotting meat. Mr. Sjöberg concludes instead that the carcass was infested with bee mimics, not bees, specifically the hoverflies of the species Eristalis tenax, which frequent carrion. But just as the reader cries “Aha!” the question arises: Dear God, then what was Samson eating? Mr. Sjöberg answers airily that the honey was just “one more in a long line of tedious later additions” to the Bible and one must hope that he is right.

What about René Malaise? He passes in and out of the narrative, now collecting in Kamchatka, now in northeastern Burma, always a bit of a ghost. On several of these expeditions, he traveled with adventurous and alluring women, who somehow managed to leave him out of the books they wrote afterwards. Perhaps they did not know what to say, other than that on one such trip, his ingenious trap raked in 100,000 insect specimens, many of unknown species. In later life, Malaise also collected paintings, ostensibly by Old Masters.

Mr. Sjöberg, upon learning this, shows up at an auction in Stockholm and buys one of them, paying far more than he can afford: “I was now the owner of a copy of a Rembrandt forgery. A small one. Probably stolen,” and yet once owned by the elusive Malaise. It is a sort of bookend to a house in southeast Sweden Mr. Sjöberg has earlier come close to purchasing in the book because the dilapidated two-seater outhouse in back was once owned by a forgotten poet named Esaias Tegnér.

Here is my theory: Insects attract so much great writing because eccentricity,​ close attention to detail and a heightened sense of the absurd are almost prerequisites in the field. Somehow in this book it all hangs together, and even takes wing.

 

Mr. Conniff’s latest book, “House of Lost Worlds​​,” is due out in spring 2016.​

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