How much of someone’s memoirs do you need to read and how much of their story do you need to know before you can judge their character? Would you need to understand their relationship with every other person in the world? Hegel proposed as much in his interpretation of the universe in its entirety, referred to as “the Whole” or “The Absolute.” For Bertrand Russell, in his A History of Western Philosophy, “there is an underlying assumption” in Hegel’s philosophy “that nothing can be really true unless it is about Reality as a whole.” In other words, knowledge of any individual cannot be considered valid until every fact about reality is taken into account, however trivial or unrelated it may seem.
The essential nature of the seemingly trivial had already been mockingly underscored in Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, written over thirty years before Hegel’s first published work. Rather than construct a linear narrative, Sterne based this fictitious autobiography on the chaotic nature of one human’s relationship with the world, and found artistry in the mayhem of successive digressions replete with philosophical musings, eccentric characters, and life events that so many other authors of his time had dismissed as wholly insignificant. The work Tristram Shandy sets out to write never progresses beyond his infancy; the work Laurence Sterne does write raises the question of how much of a person’s life is truly relatable.
Despite never having been translated into Icelandic, Sterne’s radical recalibration of storytelling’s fundamentals—in particular, style, structure, and the criteria for relevant content—laid the groundwork for many other texts that would come to influence Guðbergur Bergsson’s modernist work Tómas Jónsson, Bestseller. Now, half a century after its original publication in Icelandic, this magisterial work been translated into English by Lytton Smith. In this “memoir,” a popular genre in Iceland at the time it was written, Tómas, a resentful, senile, self-absorbed retired bank clerk, elaborates on the minutiae of his life spanning World War II through the year of the novel’s publication in 1967. Through Tómas’s numbered composition books, we are privy to his anal-retentive habits, and idiosyncratic thought processes whose landing points include the intricacies of chamber-pot usage, the inherent amorality of money, and the invention of the ballpoint pen. Non-linear and largely absent of temporal markers, Tómas Jónsson, Bestseller is an unruly, borderless flow of life episodes and digressions, the latter in the form of folkloric tales, theater acts, dreams and a mini-essay. Yet as much as Tómas feigns to be in complete control of this text supposed to be his autobiography, it is the co-habitants of his world who come to define him. He suggests as much at one point, through a statement in line with the Hegelian view of human relations: “Does man, as an individual, only exist to the extent that he is a context for other people?” Bergsson, who would also garner recognition as a children’s book author and translator from Spanish (most notably of García Márquez and Cervantes), cemented his legacy with this genre-defying novel. Although a controversial figure over the years for his outspoken opinions on Icelandic culture, he is now widely revered by many of his compatriots, such as the writer Sjón, who referred to him as the “grand old man of Icelandic literature”; among his cohort, only Halldór Laxness, the country’s sole winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, outranks him in literary stature.
In Tómas Jónsson, Bestseller, Bergsson’s originality is partly attributed to the number of stylistic elements he employs to make us question his narrator’s wavering grasp of reality. First, there are his prose-style variations. Among the most prevalent forms is a stream-of-consciousness technique, lacking in punctuation, comparable to the “Penelope” chapter of Joyce’s Ulysses (the latter is commonly proffered as the novel’s English-language counterpart), often reflecting a lack of cohesion between thoughts. In Tómas’s digressions, there is a bizarre and playful tone reminiscent of Pynchon, Foster Wallace, and Gombrowicz, (and, similarly, Jónsson’s effervescence hardly disguises the darker elements of his work) that keeps at bay any notion of realism. Secondly, there is his erratic use of typography: inexplicable gaps, random capitalization and lowercasing further add to the semblance of an unsteady mind.
Some of these elements are clear from the outset, where Tómas introduces us to the co-tenants of his basement apartment, families with omnipresent children who intrude most often upon the otherwise structured and pragmatic life he claims to maintain. So much so that he begins his memoir with a vague summary of the occupants who will feature prominently in its pages:
I think it would be easiest to begin this way, this First Book, and move without further delay right to the kernel of the matter, thus: during the first years of World War II, I took some lodgers into my apartment, Sveinn and Katrín, a married couple with five children: Stína, who died; Dóri, their son; an infant boy . . . . together with Anna and Magnús and Dóri I think they’re all grown up and moreover there’s a new addition to the crowd, Hermann, I hear them call him, cursed forever is the day they returned
Due to a housing shortage in Reykjavík, Tómas is forced by mayoral decree to rent out his home to others. Between the two families (excluding Hermann), each inhabiting the apartment in subsequent periods, it is Katrín who crops up most often in his thoughts. She may be the target of many of his most cranky and reprehensible remarks, but she nonetheless serves as a muse of sorts for Tómas. Likely envious from listening in on her loud, nocturnal lovemaking with her husband, he even goes so far as to name his soul Katrín, and in one composition book, envisions her as his romantic partner. She’s a protagonist in a couple of digressions as well: in one told by another character, she (or perhaps someone Tómas has assigned her name) is a famous opera singer in Nazi Germany whose fall coincides with that of the Reich; in another, she must deal with a horrific turn of events during a visit from her parents. Less important to Tómas is Anna, his caretaker and distant relative, whose identity he sometimes merges with Katrín’s, perhaps to compensate for the latter’s absence. Tómas’s perception of women (including his former coworker Miss Gerður) is a recurrent theme in Tómas Jónsson, Bestseller, as it reveals much about his own personality defects and dependencies (even if Bergsson’s personal stance isn’t entirely clear). More broadly, this constant fixation on the feminine could be viewed as a critique of the insecurities associated with midcentury Icelandic notions of masculinity.
One composition book is devoted to Tómas’s primary link to the world outside his apartment: “The Board.” A quasi-elite circle of dining partners at the refectory (a type of dining hall), The Board consists of members from various professions, such as bankers and engineers, and two foreign students who show more enthusiasm for “traditional” Iceland than any of the natives. Tómas is a former coworker and reluctant friend with two intellectuals who actively participate in its discussions: Oláf, cynical and antagonistic; and Sigurður, “rakish” in behavior and broken in spirit. Tómas’s depiction of The Board’s personalities and discussions, including their limited interactions with the working-class men who sit apart from them, offers the broadest glimpse into the troubling hypocrisies of Icelandic society. In perhaps the most telling example, The Board claims to be liberal in its tolerance of free speech, yet in its unaccepting stance towards dissenting views, reveals itself as resistant to such openness.
From Tómas’s perspective, Iceland is a nation that “lives indefinitely in pubescent fantasies of hope” with an overblown sense of its importance on the world stage. “Money-rich” and “dignity-poor” from the World War that made possible its independence from Denmark, it has transformed into a more urban society. This postwar shift from a largely rural economy to a relatively industrialized one undergirds Jónsson’s narrative; the once clear (or so Tómas claims) skyline of Reykjavík—which literally means “smoky bay” in Icelandic—has started to show traces of vapor, from the “factories and refuse dumps” of its “innumerable citizens.” It is an Iceland completely at odds with its romanticized self-image as a nation of farmers:
Now everyone is gathering in the city. Forces conspire in a wasteland. No one wants to keep doing the things he is already doing. Rural folk no longer want to stay in their farm lairs and watch the sun disappear into the glaciers and darkness fall gentle and quiet over the valley . . . . No, everyone wants to get lost in the throng and live an oppressed life . . . . These days, whining and cruelty pay best. Losers are rewarded everywhere, on the radio and in the press, and they act without consequence in movies. Everyone discovers he is needy. Why should people not pursue the renown that follows from inferior behavior.
Tómas, himself a needy and whiny man, vents often about this “inferior behavior.” Foremost among his grievances is the submissive nature of postwar Icelanders, their degradation through socialism and capitalism alike, and their inability to find meaning in either. In the case of the former, they have achieved an over-dependence on the welfare state. Through the latter, they lead an anonymous existence, in particular the working class: factory workers stake their hopes on the fleeting recognition of newspaper interviews, “little more than birthdates and years” that get “lost in a soup of names.”
Before Tómas Jónsson, Bestseller’s publication, Icelandic novels largely ignored the social upheaval that Tómas believes to have undermined the country’s moral fabric. Although postwar writers began to experiment with modernism in other prose forms, novelists operated within the narrow confines of two seemingly incontestable premises. The first was the national myth of the self-resilience (“independence) and eternal wisdom of rural Icelanders. The second, closely linked to the first, was the long shadow of the epic-realist novel cast by Halldór Laxness. Although Laxness himself would eventually mock the Icelandic farmer’s stubborn insistence on living an independent, yet nonetheless meager existence in his iconic novel Independent People, it was his earlier works, pastorals that perpetuated the national myth, that came to define the only acceptable template for Iceland’s cultural arbiters. As the scholar Daisy Neijmann points out:
And it was Laxness more than anyone else who made the novel an important and respectable genre in Iceland, made its narrative potential measure up to that of the Icelandic saga in the minds of readers, critics, and other writers. He was the avatar of the epic-realist novel, and anyone who sought to subvert the genre was in a way challenging his dominating presence.
In her discussion of those writers “between those born around the turn of the century (e.g., Laxness) and [Bergsson’s] own generation” Neijmann also cites Bergsson’s declaration that a “whole generation of authors [was] lost inside the walls of Icelandic culture.” It was this stifling legacy that Bergsson sought to dismantle in Tómas Jónsson, Bestseller, and the result was a work that shocked much of Iceland’s reading public.
Among the causes of this outrage was likely his attempt to trivialize agrarian Iceland through satire, even as much of his ridicule was also directed towards urban Reykjavík. In one example, a banal tale about one farmer’s marriage to his farmhand, the characters are odd and simplistic, reflecting little of the admirable qualities typically attributed to them. Bergsson juxtaposes these scornful reimaginings with a contemporary Iceland where Tómas’s characteristics of greed and misanthropy are widely shared, and in doing so, suggests there are darker connotations underlying “independence” as a national ideal.
Bergsson’s attack on the central tenets of Icelandic novel-writing was deeply rooted in his style, in the irreality of experience it conveyed, an approach antithetical to portraying Iceland according to a common standard. Lytton Smith touches upon this in an interview for Scott Esposito’s Conversational Reading, where he cites Neijmann’s observation that Bergsson’s writing is anti-mimetic, or “suspicious of the kind of word that claims to replicate experience,” and as a result, produces an “unreliable narrator” (as with Tristram Shandy) in the character of Tómas Jónsson. This contributes to the contradictory and ambiguous information that Tómas provides to the reader, who is prompted to repeatedly question assumptions. As such, Smith deserves accolades not only for producing an exceptional translation but also for maintaining a deft balance of clarity and ambiguity in a text that is so deliberately misleading.
Lending further evidence to Tómas’s unreliability is his deficient sense of self-awareness or irony. He claims there is nothing in his life worth relating (“I have no remarkable experiences . . . . [my past] is as much hidden from me as is my future”) and gives reason to doubt his take on events (“an incident never has a reliable outline”), yet still views his memoir as an act of public charity. In addition, his allegedly superior outlook is undermined by his marginal role within society. At work, he gets passed over for a promotion, and either resigns or gets fired (of course, this remains unclear). He sits far removed from the center of The Board’s discussions. Due to poor sight and obesity in old age, he must depend on the assistance of others. He is a deplorable, though at times pitiable man, an outlier with some parallels to Dostoevsky’s “superfluous man” narrator in Notes from Underground. But he is not in any way an authority figure within or outside his apartment.
Through his work, Bergsson seems to propose that the only foundational truth underlying Icelandic (and more generally, human) experience is uncertainty. Yet it is uncertainty, whether about Icelandic identity or the cumulative meaning within Tómas Jónsson, Bestseller’s pages, that that will challenge and intrigue its readers. The hyper-concentration of details and cultural references in Bergsson’s writing offer countless opportunities to decipher the mental workings of one of the most distinctive narrators in world literature. Even if Tómas himself takes time to excoriate writers (e.g. “all writers pretend to be endowed with compassion and true faith,” “fiction is a superstition spun in the fabric of people who neither know nor want to know life itself), its relentless experimentation is a paean to the manifold possibilities of the novel. Much in the way that uncertainty about the course of their national literature in the wake of Tómas Jónsson, Bestseller enabled a whole generation of Icelandic novelists to embrace a new set of aesthetic principles, the novel lays a similar path before readers. Unchartered territory as an artistic experience, Tómas Jónsson, Bestseller offers innumerable rewards to those who choose to immerse themselves in its dark, ribald, yet strangely edifying meanderings. Even when the narrator doesn’t care if you to understand and believes (or wants us to think he believes) that “nothing normal can be true.”
Tyler Langendorfer is a New Hampshire-based translator from German and Spanish.