Perceived Humiliations, The Board, and the Dangers of Desire [Tómas Jónsson, Bestseller]
On this week’s Two Month Review podcast, we’ll be discussing the fifth composition book and VI (pages 69-139) from Tómas Jónsson, Bestseller. As a bit of preparation, below you’ll find some initial thoughts, observations, and quotes.
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As always, you can get Tómas Jónsson, Bestseller for 20% off from our website by using the code 2MONTH. It’s also available at better bookstores everywhere.
Over the next few weeks—or the next few podcasts, next few chapters—you’re going to get a much clearer picture of the main themes of Tómas Jónsson, Bestseller and, more interestingly, how complicated it is to read and react to these core ideas. I don’t want to go too deep on this before we get to those sections of the book, but to provide a sort of outline of the narrative’s engine: There’s a great tension in this novel revolving around the desire to mythologize the past/masculinity/national pride/the self, and the inherent dangers in doing so.
At times Tómas is aware of how troubling this impulse can be, critical of nationalism, concerned about the men trolling the streets for drunken ladies and lewd moments. At other times we get Tómas saying some awful shit about his lodgers, and maybe doing some inappropriate things. (Although, as you’ll see, some of these implied activities are buried under heaps of ambiguous and contradictory information.)
In the “fifth composition book” we get a couple of key bits that set up future readings of Tómas’s character. Specifically, this is a chapter in which perceived humiliations—and a general discomfort with self—fuels Tómas’s current aggressive crankiness to everyone around him. This oftentimes puts the reader in an awkward position where, on the one hand, you feel sympathetic to Tómas, but on the other, he does (or says, or writes) some reprehensible shit.
Couple quick examples from this chapter, which is loaded with lines about all the disrespect Tómas has, and does, suffer.
Lying pancake-flat without moving my legs or joints in order to protect myself: the threshold, gold bronze baseboards, the faucet tips, the cabinet doors, sensitive to ridicule because of my outtie, when everyone use has a beautiful innie, each and every member of the Homeowners’ Association. I could not go to the meetings because of the risk that someone would bend down and say: There’s some sort of pimple poking out your knitted vest. Perhaps it is just a button made of bone on my trouser string, I would say. He would believe me, and soon a rumor starts that I have a wart on my belly. People’s curiosity would increase, ending with a proposal for required swimming for the organization’s members; no one is allowed to leave, or else he would lose his favorable rental terms. And when I stood there naked (having given up on finding an old-fashioned swimsuit, the sort that offers privacy above the navel; swimming trunks nowadays only cover a man’s genitals), the belly button, Angler, would be exposed (I had named my navel Angler), and they would burst out laughing and say: rent, and rent at high cost.
And then there’s this extended description of how Tómas views himself, punctuated by an invasive bit of disrespect at the end:
In a large mirror, between the nymphs and satyrs on the ashtray, I loomed large, made into a massive picture: an almost globular head with a freckled scalp and hairy ears: gray, obstinate tufts. The image turned carefully to the side: deep folds on the neck, slightly red (clear now) from friction against a stiff collar. A night-shadow beard, white and mad-spiked, peeks from the vein-split skin; a thick club nose with coarse nostrils and a greasy bridge; moss-eared; under the shoulder straps of his undershirt, by the bluish vein-marked chest, grow frost gray blotches; his abdomen swells out over thin curd-white feet which reveal the picture is sitting in a chair: the image steps onto the chair, lifts his torso and rakes white nails over the curd-white flesh of his clammy, cold belly; the image tries to perform some desperate hand movements but becomes increasingly thwarted in spite of his morning’s exercise; it presses its face fast against the mirror to examine its mouth: the red uvula dripping drool; a throat covered with blue veins; the scabrous palate; the lappet under the tongue; the darkened teeth. The treads of the teeth marked by seventy-seven years cycling past. The image got goose bumps and sighed as it thought: I’ve become this sorrowful old picture. He plunked himself on the rim of the tub and sighed again. This man deserves rewards for his age and his decency. Here you sit. This is you. No, I was not allowed to think like that for long. The door was grabbed from outside, the knob yanked, twice. What, is the door locked, who’s loitering on the toilet. I dove into my clothes, hesitated a moment, and doggedly resisted. I and I alone decide how long I will sit on the toilet, I thought.
And then there’s this succinct statement of defeat and despair:
I threw myself on the bed, defeated. Obviously I was not man enough to openly oppose disgrace even in the confines of my own home.
These self-deprecating, woe-is-me sentiments are offset in this chapter by Tómas’s general complaints about his lodgers (like the public affection between Sveinn and Katrín), and their kids, (the forever lonely Tómas is irked by both). He insults both females in various ways—the creepy bathroom scene with Katrín, then the insults of Anna as a “devious personage”—before merging them into one (Annakatrín), imaging one of them basically raping him, then creating an odd sort of folk tale in which a woman seduces the old king (stand in for Tómas) in order to get some of his royal blood into her offspring, thus giving her cause to take over the kingdom (or apartment).
Like I said at the start, there are times where you feel for this old, unrespected crank; there are times when you see him lashing out at possibly imagined abuses in ways that are pretty off-putting.
One more quick thing about the “fifth composition book” before moving on, and that’s the very last paragraph in which a new “I” emerges, seemingly the musician living with Tómas who gives us a hint of Tómas’s reality:
I remember how the man was utterly opposed to her dress, practically allergic to it. It sometimes happened, especially in winter, that they would meet by chance in the hallway early in the morning, as she tussled at coat hooks “herding the kids by their ass-ears,” as she put it, off to school (the children were not particularly eager to learn). They got a lot of pleasure from the electric guitar (and also its square meter sounds; it was astonishing to me that the man Tómas could measure sound in meters); I played in a dance band at night while studying at the university. If he should pass in the corridor during this tussle, she made sure to swing her hip into him, as he made a detour in attempt to avoid conflict and sneak out. This little contact resulted in the appearance the next day of red patches on the lower part of his forehead between his eyes; they spread around his nose and eyes. These spots gave way to gray scabs, a kind of dandruff crust. He was always fiddling with his nose and rubbing the dandruff from his eyebrows with his fingertips, blowing it away so the dust didn’t land on his jacket. He twitched and groped instinctively about his eyebrows. This chaffed skin plagued him typically for three to four weeks, then disappeared, but his forehead flushed in the cold. [. . .] The first day in the refectory, I was quite surprised to see old Tómas Jónsson there, sitting next to me at the table. I partially pitied the man, how cautiously he went to dinner with that skin on his forehead it was; primarily because of the appearance of these fish-scales that his eyes seemed weary of pleasure, marked by life, though food seemed to awaken pleasure in him.
There’s a lot that could be unpacked from “VI.” But to keep this post somewhat readable, and to keep some surprises for the podcast and your own personal reading, I’m just going to focus on two things—The Board and Tómas’s ridicule of writers.
The Board section takes place from pages 117-139, and is one of the most lucid, compelling sections of the book so far.
In brief, Tómas—along with seemingly all other major characters—take their meals at this particular refectory. The dining hall is split into two main sections—the inner room and the outer room. As with most any lunchroom ever, the “less important” people sit in the outer area, and the most important sit at The Board—the main table in the inner room.
Although there was no visible boundary between the rooms, except the plinths and flowers, the pensioners were divided according to their rank at work. In the inner room sat people who engaged in clean work; in the anterior were others who performed dirty work. [. . .] At the long table in the inner room, which in canteen parlance was The Board [. . .] The nucleus of the Board was four bank employees (I never reached this nucleus), a woman, two ladies who worked alternately in stationary stores or bookstores, a year at each place in sequence, they said, to make life varied and diverse. They were nicknamed the porcelains. Also in the nucleus were two middle-aged women and a housing adviser who never spoke to anyone, or rarely. The Board was considerably snobbish, looking down on we who claimed to have an all-round understanding of the human being.
This section is spectacular in its detailed account of the way The Board functions. In particualr, Ólaf and Sigurdur—both of whom were introduced earlier as bank employees, with Ólaf taking the promotion Tómas believed he deserved—are fleshed out, and act as sort of stand ins for the pompousness and blather of The Board as a whole. The Board is exactly the sort of group of people who know everything, yet like to pretend they’re intellectually curious. They debate politics in passionate tones, but switch opinions whenever it will get them more attention or score some points on their opponents. They’re incredibly proud and invested in the grand history of Iceland, yet ridicule the young students who adopt traditional Icelandic names when they come over to study the sagas and folklore. It’s a ball of contradictions, and exactly what you can imagine such a group of people would be like.
And where’s Tómas in all of this? Not on The Board, but not in the outer room either. He’s on the fringes, watching and judging, feeling both slighted and superior. Being Tómas Jónsson, in other words.
There’s so much greatness in this section, in the way that Bergsson—through the voice of Tómas—lays out the internal politics of this dining hall. It’s a section that comes at the perfect moment, grounding the reader in an entertaining fashion that also fills in some gaps about what’s come before. But again, given how fun—and relatively comprehensible—this section is, I’m just going to leave things there for now.
And just for fun, let’s end with some of Tómas’s comments about writers. (Once again, we have his sort of line-straddling—he’s making fun of writers, in a book that he’s writing . . . a biography . . . that’s going to be a bestseller.)
In truth, fiction is a superstition spun in the fabric of people who neither know nor want to know life itself. LIFE IS NOT IN BOOKS. If the writers and poets wrote about men at work and during their leisure, fiction would be superfluous. Should a writer, however, construct some narrative that does not exist in reality but rather takes reality’s place, i.e. the only true fiction, fantasy and imagination, then no one can understand it but the writer himself (supposing even he understands it). With this eliminated, nothing should be left but writing biographies. Fictions are useless to every living human. On the path of life, people meet others who are much closer to their problems and to real environments than those in novels.
The following reasons are the basis of why I do not read literature:
I do not read novels. They are written with secret revenge in mind, the revenge of craven writers who shrink from coming clean and spitting filth and obscenities in the faces of people on the street. [. . .] Writers are not physicians but the carriers of infection who weep from their various individual sores and bestow those same sores upon the nation. [. . .] Writers are always being revived. The dead must stay dead, I say. I want to beat them all to death. I have gained a new understanding of death: I kill a writer every time I read a book. Why should writers live longer than anyone else. Do they achieve more. They have no legal right to extra days than we who complete our full day’s work up to evening.
Of course, as he says elsewhere, “Note: I am invariably writing a veiled self-portrait.” All of Tómas’s internal contractions are about to get ramped up, so prepare yourself.