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Tómas Jónsson

Guðbergur Bergsson’s <br><i>Tómas Jónsson, Bestseller</i>

Guðbergur Bergsson’s
Tómas Jónsson, Bestseller

Reviewed by Tyler Langendorfer

Despite never having been translated into Icelandic, Tristram Shandy’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 Iceland, 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 a 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...