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The remarkable thing about literature in translation is that there can be an entire Ulysses just sitting around for decades, unknown until someone translates it—and boom, suddenly it exists in our world.
Such is the case with the 1966 Icelandic novel Tómas Jónsson, Bestseller by Guðbergur Bergsson, which is often compared to Ulysses and which was a complete revelation that forever transformed Icelandic literature. This mammoth, enormously complex and playful novel has been carefully translated by Lytton Smith into English and is now available to readers from Open Letter Books.
In addition to being a translation of such Icelandic authors as Jón Gnarr, Bragi Ólafsson, and Kristin Omarsdottir, Smith is also a poet whose collections include The All-Purpose Magical Tent, which was selected by Terrance Hayes for the Nightboat Books Poetry Prize in 2009, and While You Were Approaching the Spectacle But Before You Were Transformed by It. In addition, his poetry has appeared in literary journals and magazines including The Atlantic, Bateau, Boston Review, and Tin House.
Scott Esposito: If you know one thing about this book, it’s probably that Tómas Jónsson, Bestseller has been called the “Icelandic Ulysses.” In the world of literary translation we definitely see our share of such claims, and it is true that many of them are quite legitimate and useful, but they are a thing one tends to take with a grain of salt. So I’m curious to know your own take on this description of the book. Do you see similarities there?
Lytton Smith: The translator Michael Scammell introduced me to the importance of “touchstone” texts in the target language, the language you’re translating into—texts that might be comparable to the experience a reader in the original language would have. In that sense, Ulysses, or perhaps Finnegans Wake, make good comparisons: they’re poetic in that they play with words and the meaning of language even as they have onward momentum and narrative causality. So thinking back to Ulysses as a reader helped: I read it in a group, with a compendious books of notes with us, often out loud, and that’s a different, wonderful, reading experience—I hope some readers of Tómas Jónsson, Bestseller do that, too.
But I also want to throw out two other touchstones, perhaps more important to me. The first is Moby-Dick, which I had in mind because it’s a work of self-conscious national construction which is composed and pastiched from myriad places. Tómas Jónsson, Bestseller is much more ironic, suspicious and critical of the national myth, but the two texts go together well—not for nothing does Bestseller end on the high seas! And then there’s Lawrence Sterne’s 18th century The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, largely because of the importance to both books of the unreliable narrator. I love books that explore the unreliable narrator—Ford Maddox Ford’s The Good Soldier is one of the books I keep re-reading—and thinking of those types of novel helped me think about Bestseller.
What matters most about Bestseller, though, is that it’s a sort of anthology: it contains stories within stories. So I was also thinking about Moby-Dick and other texts that share that approach: you’re reading one story, come across another, and get influenced by that. David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas and Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad were often in my mind, in quite different ways. Perhaps we’re less looking for the perfect touchstone than some kind of Venn diagram of myriad touchstones!
SE: Hearing you talk about stories within stories, unreliable narrators, and works on the level of Moby-Dick and Tristram Shandy, it’s clear that this is a rather sizable, complex book. So this may not be the easiest thing to do, but could you give us a sense of what this book is about in terms of plot, character, theme, etc?
LS: You’re right that the plot is hard to sum up, but I’d say this: Tómas Jónsson, a retired bank-clerk living in a basement apartment in Reykjavík, decides to write a best-selling autobiography, both to lament the diminishing quality of Icelandic people—particularly the increasingly soft men—and to laud its culture, through stories about an opera singer who Hitler chased around Europe and the first black baby born in Iceland, among other things. Along the way, he digresses into meditations on owning property—the book’s plot can be measured by which story a character lives on: the ideal is to progress from basement apartment to first then second or even third floor, and Tómas, despite a life of hard white-collar work, has ended up in the basement, subletting rooms. It’s a novel about disability—he’s blind for at least part of it, and bedridden, and needs carers—and about intimacy—hearing subletters having sex, revealing one’s bodily functions—and within in Tómas tries to make a case for innocence against charges of rape.
SE: As with many of the titles you’ve brought up here, this is a text that is extraordinarily playful and abounds in wordplay. For you as the translator, is rich prose like this more of a pleasure or a pain? What were some of the memorable challenges of this text?
LS: It’s a tremendous pleasure, but also a responsibility: as a poet, I’m trying to make language supple and energetic in the ways I believe poetry, and poetically minded prose, can be, but as a student of Icelandic modern and ancient (I started out learning Icelandic by learning Old Iceland and studying the Icelandic Sagas at University College London) I’m trying to be responsible to the whole sweep of that history. For instance, the character Bósi appears in places, a bit-part. I eventually learned that is the name of the main character in a less celebrated, less ancient saga (from the group known as “fornaldarsögur Norðurlanda,” not part of the classic canon)—and his saga is known for its pornographic nature. So there’s another level of challenge: you can’t teach the often esoteric history of Iceland, but you’re wanting to keep avenues open for readers who might disappear down the rabbit hole and search out all the references. And such is the author’s own compendious, deft mind, that you know you’re going to miss things.
I was stumped by a simple description of Tómas getting up one morning, laboriously doing everything you’d expect him to do (swinging his legs out of bed, stretching) and amid this all there’s a reference to him emptying his socks. Was he turning them inside out? An Icelandic friend and author pointed out the contraction involved: you can use “skin-sock” as a euphemism for penis in Icelandic, so TJ is taking a piss—that’s quite a few steps of association, and it’s one reason I love the writing of Guðbergur Bergsson, but it makes the task difficult. I think I could spend my life translating this book; there will always be more to uncover. Which is another reason to have collaborative rather than isolated, individual reading: we’ll each discover from one another.
SE: I have read that this is a very, very well-known book in Iceland—the sort of thing that everybody owns, or at least everybody knows about. Could you give some since of the impact of this book on Icelandic literature and the Icelandic language?
LS: The impact was huge, and still is. I think it’s hard to contemplate an equivalent in the UK or the US. Bestseller skewered a set of cherished ideas about what a novel was meant to be for, how it was meant to be written, and what the Icelandic nation was. Against a prevailing romanticized idea of rural purity and wisdom, the sort of pastoral celebrated in Hálldor Laxness’s earlier (but not later) novels, Bestseller recognized the corruptions and injustices, the danger of that myth. And the publication hugely divided the reading population—which in Iceland is just about the entire population. Almost every review was scathing. The keepers of prevailing culture indicated he’d destroyed everything, which was about the best compliment he could receive. But what’s crucial, and something I learned from the scholar Daisy Neijman, is that Guðbergur Bergsson’s achievement is stylistic as much as in terms of content: she points out that he’s anti-mimesis, suspicious of the kind of word that claims to replicate experience. Every time you think you’re identifying with a character, the narrative doubles back on itself. (And I should mention that, beyond all this, Guðbergur is a notorious figure who is prone to outlandish and controversial statement about other authors—he can be exacting/dismissive, depending on your perspective – and wider culture. I hesitate to focus on the author rather than the book, especially with a book like this, but his continuing divisive impact on Icelandic life shouldn’t be understated.)
One metaphor that Bergsson himself has used for the role of the author is that an author is involved in creating “groups of islands.” We start off writing in a particular geography—say, Iceland—but, he argues, the author should be less concerned with this originating geography and more with creating some set of places (it’s telling he uses islands as the metaphor, not constellations or cities or something) which creates “another possible world,” even, he argues, a “mother tongue” existing in his works. So there’s a sense in which this most Icelandic of books is also aware of a universe that exceeds Iceland.
It’s telling that I’m writing to you in the wake of Donald Trump Jr.’s e-mails. Tómas Jónsson, Bestseller, really is about the danger of us trusting the narrative rather than questioning the narrator. I think that’s a lesson many of us—on all sides of the political spectrum—need to learn again. It was an education to be working on this book this past year.
SE: Hearing about the radical impact that Tómas Jónsson, Bestseller had in Iceland, I’m curious to know about Bergsson’s work following that book. This was (I believe) his second published novel, in 1966, and there has been quite a steady output since then, going right up into 2014. What is the work since then like, and is there something of a shadow cast over it by the impact of this early, major work?
LS: One of the key incursions made by this book was that it advanced the novel by skewering the fetish for biography, particularly for overly laudatory biographies: Tómas is an anti-hero, fleshly and led by appetite, and as such he’s both true to Icelandic culture and a way to parody it. In one sense, nothing Guðbergur wrote lived up to this—it’s been in three editions in Iceland, over the years—but it’s also true that the effect of it in 1967 exceeded the number of readers: perhaps like D.H. Lawrence’s Women in Love, far more people had an opinion on than had actually read it. (There’s a bit of a joke today that everyone in Iceland owns a copy but almost no-one has finished it. That’s not quite fair, but it’s like Don Quixote or Infinite Jest: you’d want to be able to say you’ve read it, but perhaps haven’t.)
That’s not to say he hasn’t had great successes and continued cultural importance: there’s a museum devoted to his life and works, he’s been the subject of international symposia, received from the King of Spain the award De la orden de Isabel la Católica, a huge deal for Spain, translated numerous writers including Gabriel García Márquez and Don Quixote (twice!) into Icelandic, and his own books have won acclaim. The other book he’s most known for is probably The Swan, because it won the Iceland Literary Prize in 1991; it explores the sufferings and toils of rural life, in ways that Bestseller touches on, but it’s an inverse of that book in that it’s set in the country whereas Bestseller is really set in the city and aware of the country. Plus the protagonist is a young girl, not a near-senile man. It was translated into English by Bernard Scudder. But there are other gems: he also received the Icelandic Literary Prize in 1997 for a book whose title translates as “Father and Mother and The Mysterious Power of Childhood,” a fictional autobiography. And his novel Sú kvalda ást sem hugarfylgsnin geyma, a title usually translated as “The Mind’s Tormented Love,” also uses diaries and the conceit of a man writing in his basement. I’d see the shadow cast by Bestseller more as a reaching, that it’s exploring themes that other books also turn to. And Guðbergur’s continued success make clear he’s far from a one-hit wonder: Bestseller may be his most important book, but it’s so because of the literary environment of the time, not necessarily because it’s his most accomplished or read.
SE: It’s interesting to hear you bring up Trump in this context—I suppose right now it’s a very unavoidable subject, but it also brings up a question that I’m always interested in when we’re talking about translations. What sorts of things would you say this brings to a U.S. context—words, ideas, plots, characters that you think can add something to our understanding of the world?
LS: Bestseller‘s very taken with the idea of meritocracy: one key subplot concerns Tómas being passed over for promotions he feels are owed him. It’s hard to know whether to side with his view or not: on the one hand, he seems to be a dependable kind of worker with great experience. On the other, he’s clearly old-fashioned and bumbling and the guys that get the management positions are perhaps scoundrels and fraudsters, but they’re also high-flying in ways he isn’t. We’re living at a moment where the first family is the manifestation of that process: they believe they’ve succeeded by merit, and many people want to buy into that because it would mean they, too, could succeed by merit. But merit has very little to do with it: privilege, nepotism, access to cash, and lack of scruples have more to do with it. At the heart of the book is a group called the Board or the Table, who eat together in a restaurant in Reykjavík. They’re the movers and shakers of Iceland, and there are definite hierarchies of who sits where. But the joke is that they’re insular and all they’re doing is eating: they’re less a Board than a table. And I think Bestseller can help us realize the illusion, see that the emperor’s new clothes are actually no clothes at all. The novel begins with the narrator trying to write his autobiography in a way that emphasizes his noble descent, and he has to give up right away: it’s nonsense. And that move seems one we need to make now: so much of what’s being said about transparency and such like is nonsense, literally: it doesn’t not accord with any definition of words in any dictionary or common usage anywhere. In one sense, this isn’t a political point: it should be possible to agree with Trump’s politics and still notice the nonsense. But either we’re so partisan that’s impossible, or so post-political that the politics doesn’t matter at all: the illusion does.
SE: Lastly, to circle back to what you were saying about Bestseller having a sense that there’s a whole world out there that exceeds Iceland, do you feel like this is kind of an Icelandic thing? I mean, there are some countries I could think of (e.g. America) where it seems that most authors don’t tend to be troubled by such thoughts when writing a novel. And as a related question, what was it like walking the line of keeping this book firmly rooted in what must be a very Icelandic sort of prose and culture, while also making it a work of its own in English?
LS: My sense of Icelandic literature, particularly contemporary writing—and much contemporary writing does owe a debt that starts with Bestseller, to the ways it exploded conventions and expectations of literature—is a beautiful paradox in which the world, both spiritually and geographically, is profoundly Icelandic, often including very esoteric meditation on dirt floor homes or sheep herding or the fishing industry, and yet will often draw on many languages (it’s not uncommon to encounter Danish, English, and German in an Icelandic book, alongside poetic coinages) and either allude to or reference directly other places and cultures and literary situations. Guðbergur is heavily associated with the town of Grindavík, but engages with it in ways that cast it as a kind of Florence. Kristín Ómarsdóttir’s beautiful and sad Hér (which I got to translate as Children in Reindeer Woods) exists in this no-place that’s both Iceland and non-Iceland, and it’s informed as much by her experience of Spain as Iceland.
I think many writers reach beyond the place they’re from or writing about, even as they’re writing about it. But that seems to be particularly common within the Icelandic writing I spend time reading—I’m not saying it’s true of all Icelandic writing (I don’t see it as much in the poetry, and not in the thrillers), but I don’t want to be an outsider claiming to know exhaustively all of Icelandic writing: there’s a sense in what I see is often pre-selected by publishers as right for translation. But I would feel comfortable saying that Icelandic insularity means, post-Bestseller, not a navel-gazing focus on one’s own small island, but on the fact that you need to be aware of a world beyond your island to recognize it is an island—and so Icelandic writings often tends to triangulate narrowly Icelandic phenomena via other cultural events. That’s not to say there aren’t blind spots: Icelandic writing can be years behind American when it comes to thinking through race, and one other challenge I had with Bestseller was working out just how much the novel was challenging racist tropes and where it was repeating them; the story-within-a-story about the black baby is going to be something that American readers take issue with, and should. So we have to be careful about being overly full of praise for Icelandic open-mindedness. I know there’s plenty of criticism of that from within Iceland. But I do think, to go back to one of your prior questions, we can learn something from Bestseller and Icelandic literature more widely: that there’s a way to be of one’s nation, aware of and engaged with the place you’re from, without being protectionist and closed-minded: to be nationally international, or something.