"Tomás Jónsson, Bestseller" Release Day!
Fans of challenging, cerebral, modernist epics, rejoice! Today marks the official release date of Tómas Jónsson, Bestseller by Guðbergur Bergsson, a masterpiece of twentieth-century Icelandic literature, the fifth Icelandic work Open Letter has published to date. This is a book that is sure to launch a thousand dissertations and books of commentary—both about the book itself, and about Lytton Smith’s masterful translation.
Joyceans, Pynchonians, and David-Foster-Wallacians (yes, I just made that word) should be especially drawn to Tómas Jónsson, Bestseller. But to aid those who are unfamiliar with the novel’s author, background, and allusions (i.e. the 99.9 % of the world’s population not from Iceland), Three Percent will be rolling out a lot of secondary material in the months to come: essays, interviews, and podcasts to help orient the brave reader who decides to take the plunge. (As previously mentioned, this title will be the focus of the second season of the Two Month Review podcast. Subscribe now so that you don’t miss a single episode of this entertaining deep read of this incredibly funny book.)
For the next couple months, we’ll be selling copies of the book for 20% off via our website. Just enter the code 2MONTH at checkout.
To whet your appetite, here is the (rather unusual) press release Lytton and I came up with to promote the book to reviewers and booksellers. It gives a good idea of why this book is so rewarding, even if it is so hard to pin down.
For Immediate Release: Tómas Jónsson—Bestseller
Translated from the Icelandic, Guðbergur Bergsson’s Tómas Jónsson is a pulp commercial novel about a stalwart hero defying his times.
No, that’s not right. A compendious, genre-twisting modernist novel, it keeps retelling itself, correcting itself.
Second Attempt: Tómas Jónsson, Bestseller?
We need a clickbait gallery of the books that are the Ulysses of their particular country. Three Trapped Tigers by G. Cabrera Infante is the Cuban Ulysses for its inventive, manic wordplay. The Tin Drum by Gunter Grass could be the German Ulysses for its historical importance and length.
The representative from Iceland would have to be Guðbergur Bergsson’s Tómas Jónsson, Bestseller. Flip your copy open to any page and you’ll realize immediately that you’re encountering a novel that, like Ulysses, rewrote the rules of what a novel can do. Lists, false starts, sections without punctuation, italicized stories within digressions, flashes of concrete poetry—all within the mindscape of Tómas Jónsson, a man bed-bound (or not), his mind wandering and failing him (maybe).
No one wrote like this in Iceland in 1966 when Tómas Jónsson’s polemic hit the scene. Halldór Laxness had won the Nobel Prize a decade earlier, and Tómas took swings at his historical, realistic novels with their noble rural characters and dramatic plots. International bestsellers, they were seen as the most sophisticated and praise-worthy representation of Icelandic art and the spirit of Icelanders.
Bergsson didn’t just veer away from that mold: he shattered it, calling into question and undermining the core values of Icelandic nationalism. An iconoclast of the artistic order, many writers in Iceland today think Bergsson—born in 1932, the author of over twenty-one books, including novels, poetry collections, and works of children’s literature—is the Icelandic author who really deserved the Nobel Prize.
Which is why everyone in Iceland owns a copy of Tómas Jónsson, Bestseller. Although not that many of them have actually finished it.
Third Draft: Tómas Jónsson, Bestseller
No. Tómas Jónsson, Bestseller is less like Ulysses, and more like Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude—which Bergsson translated into Icelandic.
As with Marquez, reality is stretched past its limit in Bestseller: the idiom “eaten out of house and home” takes physical shape as characters find their apartments shrink in size with every bite of every meal they take.
Considered to be Bergsson’s masterpiece, Tómas Jónsson, Bestseller is, at its most basic level, a novel about a retired bank clerk who, senile and enraged at contemporary culture, decides to write his memoirs, ambitious to pen a bestseller like celebrity CEOs do, using his book to rage against the dumbing down of Iceland, against what he sees as moral dissolution, how the number one value in modern life is how “driven” or “enterprising” you are, and so on and so forth for notebook after notebook, filled with starts and stops and revisions and rants and so much more.
Fourth Press Release: Sjón on Tómas Jónsson, Bestseller
Sjón, one of Iceland’s most famous writers, was recently asked which contemporary Icelandic authors were current inspirations to his work. He had this to say:
The grand old man of Icelandic literature is Guðbergur Bergsson and I keep being influenced by his modernist novels from the 60s as well as some of his later works. Luckily for English readers his early masterpiece Tómas Jónsson, Bestseller will be published by Open Letter in the U.S. next year. It is the greatest attack ever launched against the overblown ideas behind the official image of the Icelandic national character. It is a picaresque, Rabelaisian, joyful experiment where the main character even assigns a passport to his penis: Occupation: Toy. Height: 18 cm. Eye color: Red. Etc. Like all works that are watershed events his best novels have made writing both easier and more difficult for those of us who followed in his wake.
This is good blurb material, even if some readers don’t like penis jokes and others aren’t familiar with Rabelais. But the world needs attacks against overblown, nationalistic ideas. It’s both good and scary how timely this novel is.
The Fifth Release: Tómas Jónsson, Bestseller
Better yet: the comparison should be William H. Gass’s The Tunnel, what with the old man rants and textual games. This is not an easy novel to understand—a statement Tómas Jónsson embraces right from its start. Is art supposed to be something we understand? Should it reflect the values and trends of the moment, regurgitating what the occasional book reader—who has never read Ulysses and owns an un-opened Book Club edition of One Hundred Years of Solitude—would like so as to reaffirm their preexisting ideas?
These are some of the questions that will be addressed in the weekly Two Month Review podcast (and series of posts on Three Percent) for Tómas Jónsson, Bestseller taking place over August and September. Co-hosted by Open Letter’s Chad W. Post and poet-translator Lytton Smith (who has referred to this as the most difficult and important translation he’s ever done), the podcast will provide a deep dive into Bergsson’s novel chunk by chunk, recapping and appreciating the book while exploring its more Joycean-Marquezian-Gassian bits, providing a wider historical and literary context. All of these podcasts will be available on iTunes, Stitcher, the Three Percent website, or wherever you get your podcasts.
Be sure and take advantage of the 20% discount (enter 2MONTH at checkout), subscribe to the podcast, and join in the discussion about Tómas Jónsson, Bestseller over at Goodreads. And stay tuned over the next week for a number of other posts about this incredible novel.