21 September 17 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This week Patrick Smith (Best Translated Book Award judge, The Scofield) joins Chad and Lytton to talk about this incredibly powerful section of the book, which raises all sorts of topical ideas about adhering to national myths and the problems of masculinity. This is also the section where Hitler shows up, and where a character literally eats himself out of house and home. And this podcast is a crucial one in helping frame the way this novel simultaneously holds up and undermines a variety of dangerous, unpleasant ideas. After listening to this, we hope you will have an even broader and more nuanced understanding—and appreciation—of this great novel.

Reminder! On September 30th, we will be recording the final episode of this season of the Two Month Review at Spoonville & Sugartown in Brooklyn as part of Taste of Iceland. The First Lady of Iceland, Eliza Reid, will kick things off at 2pm with a lecture and reading, then at 3pm, Lytton and Chad will discuss the final section of Tómas Jónsson, Bestseller (and take audience questions), followed by a recpetion at 4pm. It’s free to attend, so come on out and see us do this live!

Feel free to comment on this episode—or on the book in general—either on this post, or at the official GoodReads Group.

Tómas Jónsson, Bestseller is available at better bookstores everywhere, and you can also order it directly from Open Letter, where you can get 20% off by entering 2MONTH in the discount field at checkout.

Follow Open Letter, Chad Post, Lytton Smith, and for more thoughts and information about upcoming guests. And follow Patrick Smith for a variety of literary insights and other commentary.

And you can find all the Two Month Review posts by clicking here. Please rate us on iTunes and/or leave a review!

The music for this season of Two Month Review is Long Year by The Anchoress.



14 September 17 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This week Norwegian translator and ALTA Fellowship recipient David Smith joins Chad and Lytton to talk about the next forty pages of Tómas Jónsson, Bestseller. The two sections covered this week are wildly different from one another, opening with a much more fragmented, poetic bit then transitioning through a hilarious, yet creepy, moment in which Tómas pees all over the laundry room into a more straightforward section—but one that still brings out all the wild contradictions in Tómas’s character and this book itself. This week’s episode also includes Chad reading a section that’s perfect for a voiceover movie trailer. (And yes, he reads it in exactly that voice.)

Feel free to comment on this episode—or on the book in general—either on this post, or at the official GoodReads Group.

Tómas Jónsson, Bestseller is available at better bookstores everywhere, and you can also order it directly from Open Letter, where you can get 20% off by entering 2MONTH in the discount field at checkout.

Follow Open Letter, Chad Post, Lytton Smith, and for more thoughts and information about upcoming guests.

And you can find all the Two Month Review posts by clicking here. Please rate us on iTunes and/or leave a review!

The music for this season of Two Month Review is Long Year by The Anchoress.



11 September 17 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Over the next couple weeks, you’re going to hear me mess up this announcement on podcast after podcast, but on Saturday, September 30th at 3:30pm Lytton and I will be recording the final episode of the second season of the Two Month Review LIVE at Spoonbill & Sugartown in Brooklyn.

This will be part of the Taste of Iceland events taking place from September 28th through October 1st. There will be music events, film screenings, food tastings, art exhibits, and, of course, literary readings. Here’s a link to the official announcement for the literary stuff, which starts with Eliza Reid, the First Lady of Iceland, talking about Iceland’s story tradition, following by this:

Immediately following The Write Stuff literature discussion by Eliza Reid, join in the live recording of Chad Post’s Two Month Review podcast as it dives into the classic Icelandic epic, Tómas Jónsson, Bestseller, by Guðbergur Bergsson. Featuring a reading from renowned Icelandic translator, Lytton Smith, the live recording will cover the last section of the book many consider to be the “Icelandic Ulysses.

This recording of the Two Month Review is the culmination of a season long analysis of Bergsson’s work, with each episode meticulously dissecting, discussing and appreciating Tómas Jónsson, Bestseller section by section and page by page. With rotating guests that include famous authors, booksellers, translators, and other readers, the podcast is perfect for anyone interested in plumbing the depths of this fascinating novel about the dangers of nationalism, chamber pots, and death.

We’ve never done this live before, so . . . . come on out to support us! We’ll be covering the last bit of the book, looking back on it as a whole, and taking questions from the audience. Should be even more shambolic than our usual recordings!

The event is free, and will be followed by a reception. But they do ask that you RSVP on Facebook so that they have an idea of how many people to expect.

Hope to see you in a few weeks!

8 September 17 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews section is a piece by Sarah Booker on Yuri Herrera’s Kingdom Cons, published by And Other Stories.

Sarah Booker is a Spanish-to-English translator and doctoral student at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Her translation of Cristina Rivera Garza’s The Iliac Crest will be published with the Feminist Press in October, 2017.

Here’s the beginning of her review:

Yuri Herrera is overwhelming in the way that he sucks readers into his worlds, transporting them to a borderland that is at once mythical in its construction and powerfully recognizable as a reflection of its modern-day counterpart. Kingdom Cons, originally published in Spanish in 2004 and translated by Lisa Dillman, is Herrera’s third novel to be published in English (though the first he wrote in Spanish) and it completes his loosely-connected triptych of border novels. In his other novels, Signs Preceding the End of the World (2015) and The Transmigration of Bodies (2016), Herrera tackles the experience of crossing the border, the conflicts between crime families, and the effects of disease within the context of the US/Mexico border. Taking on the upper echelons of narco-culture in this text, Kingdom Cons examines the possibilities of language, artistic creation, and the construction of power in a way that feels staggeringly contemporary and necessary.

Herrera’s writing can perhaps best be characterized by the ways that he blends myth and reality. In Kingdom Cons, a drug lord becomes a King, his cartel is depicted as his court, and his palatial residence is transformed into his kingdom. This structure can partly be explained by the author’s writing approach; in an interview published in “Latin American Literature Today”: http://www.latinamericanliteraturetoday.org/en/2017/april/literature-political-responsibility-interview-yuri-herrera-radmila-stefkova-and-rodrigo, Herrera explains that he writes lists of words that he will not use (such as Mexico, United States, border, drugs, and narco-trafficking) as a way of avoiding clichés, but this also means that his writing takes on a more mythical feeling as it is distanced from the specific culture depicted. While it clearly engages with the genre, Kingdom Cons is not a narco-novela because of this approach and the underlying critique of narco-culture that is embedded in the novel.


For the rest of the review, go here.

7 September 17 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This week author and translator Idra Novey joins Chad and Lytton to talk about one of the most challenging sections of the book so far. Not only is there a proliferation of children whose voices constantly interrupt Tómas’s thoughts, but there are a few more unsettling bits that raise questions about what we should believe about Tómas’s narrative and morality. (Questions that will be further addressed next week.) They also talk about the brilliant ways in which Lytton balances all these various registers, and the poetry that shines through Tómas’s curmudgeonly rants.

Feel free to comment on this episode—or on the book in general—either on this post, or at the official GoodReads Group.

Tómas Jónsson, Bestseller is available at better bookstores everywhere, and you can also order it directly from Open Letter, where you can get 20% off by entering 2MONTH in the discount field at checkout.

Follow Open Letter, Chad Post, Lytton Smith, and for more thoughts and information about upcoming guests. Also, you can support Idra Novey by following her on twitter and buying her novel, Ways to Disappear, which is available now.

And you can find all the Two Month Review posts by clicking here. Please rate us on iTunes and/or leave a review!

The music for this season of Two Month Review is Long Year by The Anchoress.



5 September 17 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Summer intern David M. Smith, translator from the Norwegian, 2017 ALTA Fellow, future guest on the Two Month Review, conducted this interview with Duncan Lewis of Nordisk Books.

Proving there’s more to Scandinavia than macabre crime fiction (not that there’s anything wrong with that) and—hygge (always hygge), Nordisk Books is a small UK press specializing in Nordic literary fiction, started in 2016 by Duncan Lewis. With two translations released in its first year and more on the way, Nordisk Books has pushed bold, challenging works whose authors (many of them women) are responsible for much of the innovation in Nordic literature today. Nordisk Books first crossed my radar when I found out they acquired the English rights to Gine Cornelia Pedersen’s Zero, a novel I loved in the original Norwegian. Recently I was able to ask Mr. Lewis about his experience starting a small, one-man press.



David M. Smith: How did you first get interested in Nordic literature? What are your all-time favorite authors and books from the region? And what ultimately led to the creation of Nordisk Books?

Duncan Lewis: My original connection to the region and its literature is from a period of six years (2005 – 2011) where I lived in Denmark, first in Aarhus and later in Copenhagen and Helsingør.

The original idea for Nordisk Books was really inspired by two things. Firstly, Karl Ove Knausgård’s description in the (I think) sixth tome of Min Kamp (My Struggle) of how he came to set up the press that he runs with his brother and friends, Pelikanen. One of their main goals was to publish exciting foreign fiction which had not found a home in Norway (for example, they have put out books by authors such as Ben Marcus).

Secondly, I felt that there was—and is—a huge interest in Nordic culture in the UK, but that from a literary perspective, not much was making the bookshops outside of the crime thriller genre. I thought it would be interesting to try and redress the balance a little. The UK public has recently shown itself to be more open to translated culture—think of the success of Les Revenants and Broen on television—and sales of translated fiction are on the rise.

As for favourite authors, the overall goal of Nordisk Books is really to publish contemporary, new fiction—I guess what used to be called “avant-garde.” So there may not be many that are well known, yet. I do like what I’ve read of Laxness, Hamsun, Carsten Jensen, and Michael Strunge. However, my real aim is to introduce people to some of the pulsating, raw energy that exists in current Nordic literature. The likes of Gine Cornelia Pedersen, whose debut novel is the latest that I’ve signed, is exactly the direction I want Nordisk Books to be going in.



(Love/War by Ebba Witt-Brattström, Translated by Kate Lambert)


DS: What was your publishing experience before starting Nordisk Books? What about the enterprise has surprised you, challenged you?

DL: None. I have worked in banking since 2006, which is to say, excluding stints in bars, cleaning a kindergarten and working behind the till at Disneyland Paris, my whole career. This is still my full time job and Nordisk Books is something I run in my—ever diminishing—spare time.

I started Nordisk in February last year and I’m fairly pleased with what has been accomplished so far. I’ve managed to work out the basics of the publishing environment; I have connections within a number of great publishing houses in Scandinavia, I’ve succeeded in releasing two books (one of which I translated and both of which I typeset) and in acquiring the rights to two more. I think the real challenge is, of course, getting the voices of these authors heard. There is evidently an enormous amount of competition. How many books does the average person read in a year, even a voracious reader? And think how many books there are out there. So the real work is in finding ways to get the attention of booksellers and the people buying books, without having a multi-million-pound marketing budget.

DS: What are some of the ways you have gone about promoting your titles?

DL: For example, I’ve been out with birthday cupcakes to lots of booksellers in London when it was Nordisk Books’ first anniversary (didn’t work) and have contacted bookstores directly over Twitter as well as going in to see them with copies of books to talk about what I’m trying to do (did work). Additionally, I held a couple of screenings of a film that the writer of Nordisk’s second book directed, which had great reviews in Norway and went down pretty well here. Once you start thinking about all the ways these books and their authors can reach people, there are plenty of ideas that start flowing.

DS: How did you decide upon Tom Kristensen’s classic novel Havoc as your first title, and what was the motivation behind updating the existing English translation?

DL: The Nordisk Books edition from last year uses a translation from 1968, by a Swede, Carl Malmberg, that was published in the US. I simply adapted this to British English and modified a few parts here and there, where I felt that the original had inaccuracies.

But as regards the idea behind starting with Havoc, so to speak, I thought it was important to start with a strong work to establish the label. Havoc was written in 1930 and is one of the most widely read and recognised works in modern Danish literature and I feel incredibly proud to have brought it to an English speaking audience.



DS: What other titles have you published and which are forthcoming? How do you generally decide what titles to publish?

DL: The second title was You can’t betray your best friend and learn to sing at the same time, by the Norwegian, Kim Hiorthøy. Hiorthøy’s book is a compact volume of 40-odd flash fiction-type short stories as well as drawings, which together form a wonderful reflection of the absurdity of everyday life.

The next book, to be published later this year, is Love/War, by the Swede Ebba Witt-Brattström. The novel was heavily inspired by a 1970s work by a Swedish-speaking Finn, Märta Tikkanen, telling the tale of the breakdown of the author’s marriage with her abusive husband. Like Tikkanen’s earlier work, Love/War is told in a semi-verse like form and has been hugely successful in Sweden, having been made into both a play and an opera, not least due to the public interest in the real-life couple behind the fictional narrative.

Following this will be Gine Cornelia Pedersen’s phenomenal, prize-winning debut novel, Zero. Pedersen is mainly known in Norway for her starring role in the TV series, Young and Promising, soon to be aired on Channel 4’s Walter Presents in the UK. The book tells the story of a girl growing into adulthood, at the same time as her mental state deteriorates.

To be honest, the choice of books has been very personal so far, entirely based on works that I have seen value in and wanted to put out in the UK. That’s one of the pleasures of running your own publishing company!



DS: Describe your relationship as an editor with both the original authors of the books and the translators.

DL: So far, so good. It’s an interesting process translating a book into English from a language which is spoken by comparatively few people. It of course gives the author access to a far greater number of potential readers, but the fact that Scandinavians tend to speak excellent English means that they are also keen to ensure, understandably, the quality of the translation and production generally. I see this as a good thing, it certainly keeps me on my toes.

As for translators, I only have admiration for this work. Whilst I translated Hiorthøy’s book myself—with plenty of input and assistance from the author—I wouldn’t attempt more lyrical works, such as the next two books. Maintaining not just the sense of the source language but also the feeling of it when reading the book is an incredibly difficult feat, which is why I’m so excited about the translation I’ve just received for Love/War.

DS: Where do you see it all going now that Nordisk Books has been up and running for a while?

DL: Good question. It’s still early days really. My main focus is on building out the list, both in terms of adding more authors from Denmark, Sweden and Norway and in terms of looking at works from Finland, Iceland, the Faroe Islands etc. The challenge for me personally with the latter countries is that I can’t read the original texts myself, so I need to let go some control of the project. Other than that, it will just be about strengthening the sales network in the UK, to try and get more of these books that I’ve worked so hard on into more of the fantastic independent bookshops across the country.

1 September 17 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews section is by Tiffany Nichols on The Invented Part by Rodrigo Fresán, published by Open Letter Books.

Tiffany went all-in while reading The Invented Part, even keeping track of each time the title phrase was used, among other lists (which, considering the manner of the novel, I think Fresán himself would appreciate!). You can see her list here.

Here’s the beginning of her review:

Imagine reading a work that suddenly and very accurately calls out you, the reader, for not providing your full attention to the act of reading. Imagine how embarrassing it is when you, the reader, believe that you are engrossed in a work only to have the work identify and criticize your lack of attention. Yes, my phone was next to me at all times while reading Rodrigo Fresán’s The Invented Part, and often I was tempted to dash off 140 character reactions to the work, only to be shamed by it a few lines down in the text. This is part of the charm that is The Invented Part. Weaved throughout it are reflections and criticisms of our shift from the written word on a page to a screen. The timing of the publication of the English translation is perfect in light of the behaviors of our current news cycle, the relationships our elected officials have with Twitter, email, the methods used to inform themselves of “reality,” and our current dilema of phrasing through what is real and what is fake.

The Invented Part can be summarized as creating a discourse around the question: How do writer’s view their craft, reality, and relationships with readers and with those individuals who play a role in their lives? The response is addressed through distinguishing the invented part—the part that is created by a writer—and the real part—the reality leveraged by the writer. Through this work, the protagonist, The Writer, draws or focus to the question of our relationship with writers, books, and technology and the literary industry, which frustrates The Writer and causes him in turn to question the role and future physical presence of literature. The Writer is disillusioned with the state of the literary industry and thus decides to travel to CERN and merge with the Higgs boson, resulting in a transformation into invisibility and omnipresence. The publication of the English translation of The Invented Part also coincided with the five-year anniversary of the announcement of the discovery of the Higgs boson particle, also known as (to the dislike of most physicists) the God Particle and largely believed to provide matter with mass.


For the rest of the review, go here.

31 August 17 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Having announced the judges and details for the 2018 BTBAs just a couple days ago, it’s an appropriate time to revisit last year’s winners—in particular Extracting the Stone of Madness by Alejandra Pizarnik, translated from the Spanish by Yvette Siegert, and published by New Directions. Below you’ll find some remarks from Yvette, along with an audio recording. Enjoy!

I would like to thank the judges for selecting Alejandra Pizarnik’s Extracting the Stone of Madness: Poems 1962-1972 for this year’s Best Translated Book Award for poetry. (It was 2 AM in Switzerland when I heard the news. I was up late doing my Portuguese homework.) Heartfelt gratitude to my brilliant editors at New Directions—Tynan Kogane, Jeffrey Yang, and Barbara Epler—for everything they did to bring this book into the world. Thank you, as well, to Ana Becciu and Mónica de la Torre, for their commitment to Pizarnik’s poetry, and to Mieke Chew for accepting the award in my absence. And, finally, thank you, Chad and everyone at Open Letter, for doing the remarkable work you do on behalf of literature and/in translation.

There are always those books that obsess you and won’t let you go. Alejandra Pizarnik’s devastating work is like that. I was 20 years old when I entered her tortured world (the lilacs, the dolls, the cadavers and gardens and crows). Sometimes, what begins as an obsession will flourish into an impulse to translate. That impulse becomes a full creative act, akin to writing a novel or gathering the pieces for a poetry collection. It was never my conscious ambition to become a literary translator, but like Pizarnik, I am the daughter of immigrants and have been translating and interpreting since childhood, so nothing could feel more natural, more grounding. Her writing teemed with an urgency that resonated deeply and that practically demanded my advocacy. It felt like a relentless kinship. What’s more, the desire to find an English for these vibrant, harrowing poems came from an almost tactile artistic need. The result is that I grew up while translating Pizarnik. The experience was exhilarating, often brutal. Our minds got very close; our languages matured together; and her solitude inhabited and changed me. As I translated and revised, I was often the same age as Alejandra when she was writing collections like Diana’s Tree and A Musical Hell. Soon I will be older than she was when she died, and that feels like uncharted territory. It’s at once thrilling and terrifying to receive a prize for something that has been a part of my life like this.

The book’s title comes from a painting by Hieronymus Bosch called De keisnijding (1494; Prado Museum, Madrid), which, in English, is known interchangeably as The Cure for Folly or Cutting the Stone or The Extraction of the Stone of Madness. This work depicts trepanation, a medieval surgical technique believed to relieve various diseases, like migraine, and to remove madness, which was believed to manifest as a tumor in the skull. I opted for the gerund extracting in the title in order to convey the actual process depicted in Bosch’s piece, which in a way parallels Pizarnik’s process of creation.

César Aira once said that Alejandra Pizarnik “was not only a great poet, she was the greatest, and the last.” To hear from readers and writers who have been changed and wrecked by this book has been an extraordinary privilege. I am grateful to the BTBA for this opportunity to share Pizarnik’s work.

—Yvette Siegert
May 2017

Museo del Prado.

31 August 17 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This week, Jacob Rogers—translator from the Galician and bookseller at Malaprop’s in Asheville, North Carolina—joins Chad and Lytton to talk about Tómas Jónsson’s next two “composition books.” Included in these sections are a long bit about the “board” and the general hierarchy of Tómas’s dining hall, the ways in which he’s both an insider and someone on the fringes, and the role of the U.S. military base in Iceland’s overall development. These sections are crucial in fleshing out both Tómas’s character and that of Iceland as a whole, while adding a lot of interesting—and funny—details about his everyday life.

Feel free to comment on this episode—or on the book in general—either on this post, or at the official GoodReads Group.

Tómas Jónsson, Bestseller is available at better bookstores everywhere, and you can also order it directly from Open Letter, where you can get 20% off by entering 2MONTH in the discount field at checkout.

Follow Open Letter, Chad Post, Lytton Smith, and for more thoughts and information about upcoming guests. You can also follow Malaprop’s on Twitter, and Jacob on Instagram.

And you can find all the Two Month Review posts by clicking here. Please rate us on iTunes and/or leave a review!

The music for this season of Two Month Review is Long Year by The Anchoress.



30 August 17 | Chad W. Post | Comments

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.

You can also download this post as a PDF document.

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.

And be sure to join the Goodreads group and subscribe to the Two Month Review Podcast on iTunes, or wherever you get your podcasts.

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.

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