With its 99.9% literacy rate (seriously), and a roster of great authors (Halldór Laxness, Hallgrímur Helgason) that belies the fact that it has a smaller population than Bakersfield, the nation of Iceland could fairly be called a book lover’s paradise. (There’s even a “Library of Water” there, which, according to my Icelandic American partner, delivers exactly what it promises.)
It could also be called a rock lover’s paradise — it’s home to the acclaimed band Sigur Rós; the world’s most beloved swan-clad chanteuse, Björk; and — because no nation can claim rock cred if the stiffest available beverage is lemonade — Brennivín, nicknamed Black Death, an ungodly strong schnapps that tastes like rye bread soaked in sulfuric acid and then set on fire. (I speak from experience here. Bitter, bitter experience.)
With that in mind, it’s not entirely surprising that Iceland has given the world one of the best novels written by a former rock musician.
(Two quick notes: I have an unopened bottle of “Black Death” that Bragi brought for me during his tour. His description of how nasty—and strong!—Brennivin is sort of scared me off. But if anyone wants to give it a go . . . And secondly, in the category of random promotions, in addition to Björk and Sigur Rós, anyone interested in cool Icelandic music has to check out Múm, especially Go Go Smear the Poison Ivy. Incredible CD. And now back to The Pets . . . )
After describing the plot of the novel—Emil’s frightening old acquaintance Havard shows up in Reykjavik and, through a sequence of events you simply have to read, ends up in Emil’s living room while Emil hides under his bed for hours narrating this novel—Schaub makes his case for The Pets as the great rock novel.
So what we have is 157 dark, scary and unbelievably funny pages, much of which is narrated by a man hiding under his own bed. That might not scream “rock” at first blush, but the novel is infused, in its own way and very much on its own terms, with music. Emil is a borderline-obsessive jazz fan who takes maybe a little too much pleasure in his Miles Davis collection; Havard’s musical tastes run toward playing Elvis Presley’s “Hound Dog” ad nauseum and, at one point, buying a ukulele for no discernible reason. Kraftwerk’s paranoiac “Computer World” makes a brief appearance, too, at just the right claustrophobic time.
But if you were building an argument for the true rock novel being as unselfconscious about rock as possible, The Pets could be Exhibit A. More than most fiction that concerns itself with music, Bragi’s novel captures the dark side of rock — paranoia, fear, self-doubt and the cowardice that’s sometimes, maybe often, the flip side of rock-star braggadocio.
Of course it’s possible that this is all rock-nerd wishful thinking, and that Bragi didn’t intend to write a slyly great rock novel, but rather just a less slyly great novel. Perhaps it’s just his biography getting in the way. I don’t think so, but either way, we win. So how long do we have to wait for English versions of his other books? Open Letter, get Janice Balfour on the phone. Takk!
Oh, and about future books of Bragi’s, next fall we’ll be bringing out The Ambassador, which is being translated by Lytton Smith as I type. (I’ll post a sample in the not-too-distant future . . .)
Bragi Olafsson’s The Pets came out a few months ago, but with Iceland and its overturned government in the news these days, it’s a pretty good time for reviews to be appearing . . . Just this week two new reviews came out, the first being Lara Tupper’s piece in The Believer, which puts Olafsson’s novel about a man stuck hiding under a bed in some nice artistic company:
In a few ways, The Pets parallels Paul Auster’s City of Glass, which Ólafsson translated into Icelandic. Both focus on chance meetings; both feature a linguist. Auster’s interest in possessions, or loss of possessions, seems influential as well: the duty-free liquor in The Pets is a source of comedy and a partial cause of Emil’s extended entrapment—that and his inability to face the messy entanglements in his living room. Emil, frozen by embarrassment, unwilling to emerge, instead worries about the mishandling of his CD collection.
Ólafsson, who cites David Lynch as an influence, enjoys comic “scenes that are very shallow and profound at the same time.” The bed premise affords exactly this sort of comedy.
The other is from Bill Marx at PRI’s The World, which focuses more on reading this novel in light of Iceland’s financial implosion:
Let economics professors conjecture about how and why Iceland flat-lined; fiction probably furnishes more understanding of the self-destructive reasons behind the country’s financial breakdown. Creative writers often deal with accounts due, moral, financial, and otherwise; they can also train a prophetically comic and/or philosophical eye on the national collective unconscious, in this case a blend of cowardice, blindness, and greed.
I suspect that is not what novelist Bragi Ólafsson set out to do in this breezily acidic short novel (first published in 2001), but as a study of radical denial, a small scale vision of blindfolded lemmings marching toward the cliff, The Pets works as a raffishly amusing allegory of utter irresponsibility. It blows a warning whistle that sounds far outside of the Arctic Circle.
Ironically, Ólafsson himself was once a lucrative Icelandic export; he played bass in The Sugarcubes, Björk’s first band. The Pets, the first of his four novels to be translated into English, received critical acclaim in Iceland, as have his other books. Judging by this tale, Ólafsson specializes in a kind of impish deadpan, wry studies in what happens when the links between real estate and the psyche break.
The book (which we did in a beautiful—and cheap—paper-over-board edition is available at bookstores everywhere, on our website.
Below is a recording of Bragi Ólafsson reading from The Pets and having a conversation with Lytton Smith (who we hope will be translating Bragi’s next book The Ambassadors for us) as a part of the Reading the World Conversation Series on October 7th, 2008. We’ll be announcing the spring line-up for the Series soon!
This month there are two Open Letter books available through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program: The Pets by Bragi Olafsson and The Taker and Other Stories by Rubem Fonseca. So any and all LibraryThing users should request a copy.
We conducted this interview a few months ago, but thought we’d run it in its entirety today, since his book is now available and will be shipping to bookstores in the very near future.
Bragi Ólafsson was born in Reykjavik, and may be most well known for playing bass in The Sugarcubes, Björk’s first band. After recording three albums and touring the world, he quit making music and turned to writing. He is the author of several books of poetry and short stories, and four novels, including Time Off, which was nominated for the Icelandic Literature Prize in 1999 (as was The Pets), and Party Games, for which Bragi received the DV Cultural Prize in 2004. His most recent novel— The Ambassador (which Open Letter will publish in late 2009)—was a finalist for the 2008 Nordic Literature Prize and received the Icelandic Bookseller’s Award as best novel of the year.
The Pets is now available in Janice Balfour’s translation (978-1-934824-01-6; $14.95) will be the first book of his to appear in English.
Bragi was kind enough to answer some questions about his work and life over e-mail.
Open Letter: As a writer, you started out writing poetry and have even done some playwriting. How did that transition—from poet to playwright to novelist—take place? Have you continued writing poetry, or have you shifted your focus exclusively to the novel?
Bragi Ólafsson: My first literary idols were poets, so it seemed obvious to write poetry. I wrote my first texts when I was 13 or 14 years old. These poets I read were mostly Icelandic, and through them and their translations of European and American poets I came into contact with “foreign” literature, and started appreciating a lot of modernist prose and playwriting. The writer who has probably influenced me the most, and served as the biggest encouragement, is Harold Pinter. But as I knew that I would never be able to write plays as good as his, I decided to concentrate on poetry, and eventually prose. However I’ve written some radio plays for the State Radio, and one play for the City Theater. And now I’ve been commissioned to write a play for the National Theater. After I published my first novel I’ve gradually stopped writing poetry; somehow I have become intimidated by its form. I think I have realized that the novel is the form that suits me the best.
OL: You translate as well, right? How did that come about?
BO: I have translated some poems and Paul Auster’s City of Glass. The reason why I translated Auster’s book is that my publisher asked me to do it. I don’t consider myself as a translator. But I have great respect for Paul Auster, he has written some excellent books, and edited a very good anthology of Twentieth Century French Poetry. A person who likes Max Jacob doesn’t have to worry about anything.
OL: Turning to _The Pets_—one of the most striking things about the book is the fact that for most of the novel, the main character, and main narrator, Emil is trapped under his bed. Was this a restriction you set out for yourself at the beginning of the novel, or did it occur naturally during the writing process?
BO: After an English friend of mine told me of a rather unfortunate incident he had with a guinea-pig, cement and a water-hose, I wanted to write a story about a person who is assigned to take care of a few pet animals. I had some difficulty in finding the correct form and tone for the story, but one day when I was sitting in my living room, looking at the open window with a steaming hot coffee in front of me, I started to imagine some unwanted person coming through the window and me hiding under the bed, and all of a sudden that very idea and the story about the pets came together. Thus the method of telling the story existed from the start. But that the main character is trapped under his bed is not really a restriction, on the contrary it’s very helpful for the imagination of the person writing the story. In fact I would like to write more novels from that point of view, I feel comfortable under a bed, it’s probably something from childhood.
OL: A series of “the view from under the bed” books would be fantastic. . . . Personally, as the book went along, I got more and more anxious about how Emil was going to get out and how the situation would be resolved. (Being an ex-smoker, the few references to how long it had been since his last cigarette gave me vicarious nic fits.) I guess that’s what I would see as the main constraint—how is this going to end? And without giving much away, I have to admit that I was pleased and shocked by how the story was resolved. When did you know how the novel would end the way that it does?
BO: I’ve had lots of comments on how the novel ends. While many readers find it very frustrating, even feel betrayed, other readers think it is the proper ending to a story like this. One reader came up to me and told me that the ending of The Pets was the second best ending he had read in a book. I was of course very flattered to hear that, especially because this reader seemed like a “normal” person, not a literature student. And when I asked him what was the best ending he had read, the answer was: For Whom the Bell Tolls! It made my day.
I had not decided how The Pets was going to end when I started the book, and I think that decision came rather late in the writing process. I had tried two or three different endings but always felt I was betraying myself and the story by not letting it end the way it does. I think it’s a good thing when an ending of a book gives the reader the permission to decide for himself what has really been going on in the story and what will happen after he has read the last page.
But talking about strange or disturbing endings; there’s a book called The Golden Egg by a Dutch writer, Tim Krabbé. It was made into a very good film called Spoorloos, by a Dutch film director, and the ending of that film is probably one of the most unpleasant, and at the same time one of the most exhilarating, endings in film history. But then the same director remade the film for Hollywood, and what happened? The new film, which was called The Vanishing, got a happy ending, so that American movie-goers wouldn’t be too troubled by what they had seen.
OL: Returning to your earlier response for a second—I really can’t believe the guinea pig story is true! For me, that scene encapsulates what I really like about your book—it’s very funny, and at the same time slightly disturbing. Are there any authors/books that influenced your style and sense of humor?
BO: Yes, the guinea pig story is true. I didn’t see it happen myself but I’ve been in the backyard where it happened!
I try to avoid naming authors which I think have influenced my way of writing – because I don’t really know who have – but I very much like the humor and precision in Gogol, Chekhov and Pinter, and the novels of Evelyn Waugh, Italo Svevo, Thomas Bernhard and Saul Bellow, just to name a few very different authors. And the brilliant humor of Halldor Laxness, and another Icelandic writer, Thorbergur Thordarson, is very important for Icelandic writers and artists. But I’m no less influenced by films. Films like Playtime by Tati, La grande bouffe my Marco Ferreri and Mulholland Drive by David Lynch have some comic moments that I think about almost every day; scenes that are very shallow and profound at the same time. For example the scene in Lynch’s film about the meeting in the boardroom; it’s worth hundreds of books, it’s total genius (if that word means anything).
OL: On top of everything else, you also run the fantastically named publishing company, Bad Taste, in Iceland. Could you tell me a little bit about how it got started and what you publish?
BO: Before my friends and I formed The Sugarcubes we started the company Bad Taste. The Sugarcubes were actually formed in order to finance the publishing company, which it then did for five or six years. Bad Taste has been the leading independent record company in Iceland for 20 years, although we have never made any money out of it, only lost a lot of it. (Two years ago The Sugarcubes reformed for just one night to save Bad Taste from bankruptcy. And we succeeded.) We not only publish popular music but also modern Icelandic music and jazz, and historical recordings. Then we publish some books as well. My first book of poetry was published by Bad Taste in 1986, and two years ago I started a series of little books, called The Bad Taste Booklets, containing poetry, both translated and original, and prose.
OL: When I visited Icelandic publishers, I was fascinated by the idea that most of the works of fiction published in Iceland all come out during the same month—something that would never happen in America. What kind of challenges/opportunities does this pose for a publisher?
BO: Some traditions are good, but this old tradition of only publishing books in October and November is not one of them. The Icelandic reading public sees literature as Christmas presents, and if your book doesn’t catch any attention as such, it won’t sell any copies. Because of this the publishers behave like total barbarians in the five or six weeks before Christmas, they advertise like madmen on television and in the papers, and the books are mainly sold in the supermarkets. It’s not a very civilized situation. And the obligation on writers, to finish their books in time for the so-called Book Flood, is not good for literature’s sakes, obviously it sometimes results in half-finished books. And a writer that publishes a half-finished book is stuck with it for the rest of his (half-finished) life. And it’s a problem not only facing the writers but also the critics, as they have to read and review dozens of books in the space of some five or six weeks. I may not sound too happy about this – and I am not – but still, this hysterical book-craze in November and December is of course a lot of fun too, especially when you don’t have a book out yourself and can watch the other writers suffering.
OL: Are you working on a new book?
BO: Yes, I’m working on a novel which is related to my last novel, The Ambassador. This one has the working title The Screenplay, and tells the story of two men in their late sixties (a film director, educated in Czechoslovakia, who has never made a film after he finished his studies, and a playwright and a translator who has never actually had a play produced) who suddenly, with the help of an old acquaintance, a rich pharmacist, get the opportunity to write and produce a film of their own. But at the start of the novel one of the two guys, who’s called Örn Featherby, gets the news that his recently dead English father, who lived in Hull and whom he hadn’t had contact with in thirty years, has left him in his will a great collection of shoes, almost two hundred pairs that should fit his son. Örn decides to collect his inheritance, but because he has a bad fear of flying he has to travel by sea, and he and his friend, whose name is Jón Magnússon, go on a trawler to Hull, with the intention of using the time on board to work on their screenplay. The story is told by Jón Magnússon’s ex sister-in-law, who is also indirectly a character in the novel, so we follow the adventures of Jón and Örn Featherby through the eyes of a woman.
(Does this make sense? The novel itself probably doesn’t make any sense at all, but the description of it should . . .)
Selected Works by Bragi Ólafsson
Hvildardagar (Days Off, a novel), publ. Bjartur 1999
Gaeludyrin (The Pets, a novel), publ. Bjartur 2001 (in English, Danish, German and Spanish translation)
Samkvaemisleikir (Party Games, a novel), publ. Bjartur 2004
Sendiherrann (The Ambassador, a novel), publ. Mal og Menning 2006
Dragsugur (Draught), publ. Bad Taste Ltd 1986
Fjorar Linur og Titill (Four lines and a title), publ. Bad Taste Ltd 2006
Groid Hverfi (A Solid Neighbourhood), a radio play broadcasted by the State Radio in May 2003 (in English translation).
Belgiska Kongo (Belgian Congo), a stage play which has been performed at The Municipal Theatre in Reykjavík since May 2004.
Interview copyrighted © Open Letter, 2008
This morning, the second Open Letter book arrived — The Pets by Bragi Olafsson.
Just last week, Kirkus reviewed this, giving it the most positive review I’ve read in quite some time:
Icelandic novelist Ólafsson’s English-language debut is part Beckettian or even Kafkaesque black comedy, part existentialist novel in the Paul Auster mode, and part locked-room mystery in which the murderee is alive and well and hiding in the bedroom. [. . .] Dark, strange, elusive, compelling and oddly charming.
To celebrate this release, through the end of the month, you can purchase a copy through the Open Letter website for $10.50 (which seems absurdly cheap for a hardcover). Of course, you can always buy a subscription and get 6 books for $65 or 12 titles for $120.
Bragi’s reading tour kicks off of October 6 with an event in Buffalo, then on the 7th he’ll have a reading and conversation with Lytton Smith here at the University of Roichester. On October 8th at 7:00pm, he’ll be at McNally Jackson in New York with Dubravka Ugresic, and on Thursday the 9th he’ll do a lunchtime event at Idlewild Books in NY, followed by an evening event at Book Culture (formerly Labyrinth) along with Mark Binelli.
Then, on Saturday, October 11th, he’ll be participating in the Twin Cities Book Festival, before flying off to Seattle for a reading at Elliot Bay Book Company.
I’ll post a more detailed schedule in a couple weeks, and of course, we’ll post any and all recordings of these events.
Yesterday, over at Booksquare there was an interesting post on “Why Publishers Should Blog,” that generated a bit of discussion:
Just as authors need to better market themselves and their books, so do publishers. While the audience for a publisher website is diverse — authors, booksellers, journalists, agents, readers, and more — talking about books on your website the same way you talk about books in your catalog simply isn’t cutting it. In printed material, you have various constraints. On the web, you have the ability to do something special: tell the world what excites you, the publisher, about a particular book.
Kassia then went on to point out some glaring faults of commercial publisher websites—which really is a fish, gun, smoking barrel situation. But she’s got a point. Publishers are light years behind in terms of web promotion, although indie presses, like Soft Skull, like McSweeneys, are much more personality driven, and it shows in the legion of fans who read and talk about their publications.
So, anyway, since we have this blog (which I hope gives readers some sense of the Open Letter “personality” so to speak, although our mission for this site goes well beyond promoting Open Letter books), I’d like to tell everyone about how excited I was to see Bragi Olafsson’s The Pets included in Josh Glenn’s Summer Reading List at the Boston Globe’s Braniac blog:
Open Letter, which, as I’ve mentioned, is a new literary imprint (housed at the University of Rochester) dedicated to publishing translations, is bringing out a 2001 novel of “cowardice, comeuppance, and assumed identity” by the former bassist for The Sugarcubes (Björk’s band). Ólafsson’s most recent novel, The Ambassadors, received rhe Icelandic Bookseller’s Award as best novel of the year, so he’s no flash in the pan. In fact, although the prose looks breezy and fun, he’s something of an Oulipian: For most of the novel, Emil — the protagonist — is trapped under his own bed.
(As a sidenote, I’m a big Josh Glenn fan—especially of his Generational Theory, which has lead to many a heated discussion at my house.)
This is a fantastic book, and as the first work of fiction we’re publishing, it’s a great representation of the type of books we’re into—fun, enjoyable, innovative in ideas and style . . . This even comes through in his interview:
After an English friend of mine told me of a rather unfortunate incident he had with a guinea-pig, cement and a water-hose, I wanted to write a story about a person who is assigned to take care of a few pet animals.
And I’m really pleased that Bragi will be touring the U.S. this October, appearing at Book Culture with Mark Binelli and at McNally Robinson with Dubravka Ugresic. (More on both of these events in the near future.)
I wish that I could give away copies of this book to everyone I know—and I wish we were publishing it now, since it would make a great beach book. (Though to be honest, I never go to the beach, and I’m not entirely sure what this “beach book” category is. But to me, reading an Icelandic book in the summer heat is deliciously ironic.)
Some of you may be aware of our other website—the official Open Letter books site. In addition to information about our titles, there’s also a page with OL merchandise, and more relevant to this post, a way to subscribe to our books. For $65 you can get the first six titles; for $120 you can get the first twelve, with a title arriving each month. With the majority of the titles being published in paper-over-board format, this is a really good deal . . . Although we have yet to advertise this, a number of people have already signed up, which makes me think that this type of subscription service is something people will be interested in . . .
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It’s a rare and wonderful book that begins and ends with violence and humor. At the start of Etgar Keret’s The Seven Good Years, Keret is in a hospital waiting for the birth of his first child while nurses, in. . .
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