Where (and When) Are We? [Tómas Jónsson, Bestseller]

On this week’s Two Month Review podcast, we’ll be discussing the Biography, first composition book, second book, and third composition book (pages 1-31) 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.

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This initial post is probably going to be straightforward and short, but I think it’s worthwhile getting things started by trying to lay out the most basic elements of this book—like who’s talking, and when is this taking place—while also starting to hone in on Guðbergur’s unique sense of humor.

Let’s start with a bit of a simplified timeline for these four sections based out of quotes from the book:

I think it would be easiest to begin this way, this First Book, and move without further delay right to the kernel of the matter, thus: during the first years of World War II, I took some lodgers into my apartment, Sveinn and Katrín, a married couple with five children: Stína, who died; Dóri, their son; an infant boy; and a small cat, Títa,           he naps soft and warm against me as I write and has come back, together with Anna and Magnús and Dóri           I think they’re all grown up and moreover there’s a new addition to the crowd, Hermann, I hear them call him,           cursed forever is the day they returned,           and the musician, who rented the small bedroom on the other side of the partition, i.e. this bedroom where I now live, after he moved into the other bedroom, which is much smaller.

And then a bit later in that same section:

I have been forced to take ignorant people into my property’s square footage           but are there any laws against lawlessness           who makes laws dictating that apartments cannot stand empty and unoccupied in the struggle over housing           am I bound to be a sacrifice to the homeless and improvident, me who is almost blind, deaf, enfeebled [. . .] my mistake from the start consists in being frugal, from deciding to own whyever I did so and Sveinn and Katrín gave notice and left the apartment standing empty for a while           the option was to welcome Magnús and Anna following their relationship with Katrín and Sveinn and Anna is a distant relative of mine, both on the side of the great Bergsætts, the chief family of this country, descended from the kings of Norway at the time of the Settlement, all the kings and queens and princes and princesses on the way to inherit a country a family with joint ownerships it is split into entrepreneurs and intellectuals

In other words, due to Icelandic law (I assume, although can’t find reference to this on the Internet), Tómas Jónsson was forced to take lodgers into his apartment. First off, during World War II, Sveinn and Katrín lived with him. Then, they left, and for a time he was alone. After that (starting in the 1950s and running through the 60s?) Magnús and Anna came to live with him, Anna being a distant relative who also agreed to take care of him in his bedridden state. There’s also a musician, who will become a major character later in the novel.

As you can tell from the very start, the chronology in this book is jumbled. (Total understatement.) Which is why keeping track of these names—and when they lived with Tómas—can be really helpful. Sveinn and Katrín were first, Magnús and Anna came later. This won’t always be a key to deciphering things, but it is a definite help at the start.


Who is Tómas Jónsson?

What we know so far is that he is—at least in the most current now—an old, nearly blind (see all the bits about the government provided guide dogs), bedridden man who needs Anna’s help.

yes: according to the terms of the lease it is Anna’s duty to come three times per day at a minimum and change me though she does not come when needed most so it dries on me all by itself and what does Anna do then but turn her nose up and fuss over the strong odor in the room

He’s also someone who refers to himself on several occasions as being “frugal.” Which is a quality that shows up a lot in Laxness’s Independent People as well. (I’m reading that in conjunction with my reread of this, so I can’t help but see parallels and divergences.) And even when he’s not talking about his “General Thrift” money envelope (oh man, does he remind me of my mom), he’s demonstrating his fiscal conservativeness in other, more rant-like ways:

Clearly someone was wasting electricity late into the depth of night. After this incident, I set myself this rule: to take out the fuses from the board each evening. Before I went to bed I made sure to check that the lights everywhere were extinguished. The electricity bill was enough of a burden on me already, sparing as I was with light. And I dropped into the lease conditions some new clauses about light-times in the apartment (I was idiotic enough to include light and heat in the rent): on weekdays in all the shady months, lights must be turned off after 11:30 p.m.; moreover, the housework must stop by then and the apartment must be silent, with the exception of weekends, when the light-time is extended by one hour. And a clause about the use of lights around the major festivals: a) A week before the big festivals, christmas and Easter, the rules that apply on weekends will be observed (to allow for baking and the consumption of baked goods); b) On christmas eve, according to ancient traditions, the lights shall stay on, but the tenant shall replace their bulbs, ones with a smaller wattage. Instead of conventional bulbs, only 15-candle bulbs are allowed. In a chandelier with more than four arms, there must only be two bulbs. All wall sconces and standing lamps must be extinguished. Special provisions for light over the summer months: the homeowner reserves the right to remove all the fuses from the fuse box, other than the one labeled kitchen, and store them in his own room. Final clause: should a situation arise in which someone needs light after the lawfully-approved light time, he must have a flashlight available so he can go in and out of the house. Non-negotiable clause: The use of oil- or candlelight is strictly prohibited because of the risk of fire. Exemption from these regulatory clauses: If a student is in the apartment, he shall be authorized to have a night lamp on, provided the landlord is notified in advance of the bulb size and how long the student intends to read into the night.

Reykjavík, 13. January 1943.
Tómas Jónsson.

(Going back to the first point about the “when” of this novel, the incident he refers to seems to be the first one related in the book, in which he hears some somewhat sexual sounds in the hallway and can see a light through his keyhole. He makes reference to Katrín later, which would fit with the idea that in 1943, after this “incident” in which light was wasted, he made these amendments to the lease.)

Frugal. In poor health. Nearly blind. Basically alone in the world. And yet, also someone who is rather learned. See this bit about naming the new guide dogs:

Tómas, as you know, we have gained a foreign import license from the necessary parties regarding a new shipment of dogs arriving after the New Year. So we have an opportunity to choose appropriately symbolic names for them. And it popped into mind, because the union of shop stewards has heard you’re outstandingly accomplished in many fields—didn’t you teach final exams outside school?—whether such a learned man as you might advise us. We were thinking of choosing dog names from famous dogs from history, or names that refer to the dimming of the sight. We already have, as you know, dogs with names like Trygg, Höðr, Oðin, Heimdallr. These are extremely popular. Höður was blind. Oðin one-eyed. Heimdallr had ears instead of eyes. I had to hold myself back from christening dogs after famous dogs in the movies: Rin Tin Tin and Lassie, although I know that this would prove amiable to most sponsors. Do you have any ideas for names?

And he also has this really great paragraph in which he touches on the impact major works have had on history and ideas of the self:

nothing is left but chaos           not since the great conquest of Gibraltar has the world been safe           after On the Origin of Species I am not explicitly created in the image of god           after the publication of Das Kapital the proprietary rights to my apartment are cast in doubt           undoubtedly I do not sleep the innocent sleep of a child following the publication of The Interpretation of Dreams even dreams are not innocent anymore nothing is innocent           the damned nineteenth century woke us up from innocence


And along with Tómas’s learnedness comes his edge. His ranting style, that takes off from one idea and runs scattershot (should be a mixed metaphor, but it also makes a ton of sense in the context of this book) until trailing off in a moment of repose and/or senility. (Footnote! This book reminds me of House Mother Normal by B. S. Johnson in its representation of the inner workings of a senile mind. I’ll try and get into that more next week.)

Here follows a short list of the main risks that beset the small population of the icelandic nation from 1939 up until the Marshall Plan:

a) Gymnastics softens the bellies of young men and makes them work-shy; b) bicycle saddles destroy young virgins—“the priority being that every husband enjoys his wife on their wedding night; for girls, bicycles are no different than promiscuity”; c) the extension of school-going nourishes debility in people and hardens the mouths of adolescents (Enemy No. 1, Brynjólf Bjarnason, K. fl.); d) Contraceptives, “which are nothing but the assassination of fine upstanding citizens who are alive and fertile in the seed of those who desire nothing more than to see the creation of The One” in the fullness of time (Enemy No. 1, Katrín Thoroddsen, K. fl.); away with sheaths from the breast pockets of all men’s jackets! A prophylactic-free land! All such new products in the stores amount to the end of the world, the plucking and eradication of the icelandic family. Merchants and shady dealers contribute to this I) with brilliantine, which renders Icelanders as bald as foreigners; II) burning people’s stomachs with mustard and ketchup; III) increasing everyone’s belching and wind by means of vegetables; IV) killing tourists in tents with canned poison in canned food; V) hollowing out the insides of people’s heads via radio; VI) importing sexually transmitted diseases and sexual promiscuity with open foreign underwear, “which must be carefully boiled in a high strength alkali soap before wear;” VII) increasing appendicitis by importing overpriced raisins with pits in them; destroying women’s brains with imports of high heels (2000000 blows daily to the spinal cord and cerebellum); all this that makes one’s wife indifferent to housework and child-rearing.

OK, that one’s funny, but maybe not the best example of the wandering off of thought and sense. Here’s something that gets a bit closer to what I’m talking about:

I cannot think of anything that lets toxins into the blood through the nervous system but something that brings peace and quiet and balance and beauty ABOVE ALL BEAUTY while I pray to the reaper to come or else the messenger with the guide dog and bell collar           they reckon they can teach me to place all my faith in a dog and later care for my belongings with kind intentions they are planning to save those who will never be saved forever improvident who know nothing but foul language and create so much trouble that everything must revolve around the invalids or else the whole community will become invalids and then how will money be taken from Tómas Jónsson

And my favorite line—maybe of all time:

I could punch the friendliness of these voices right in the mouth


Over the next couple months, Tómas’s situation and feelings about his lodgers, family, nation, will be expanded upon greatly. But for now, at least you have a bit of a setting in which to let his words spill forth. And don’t focus too much on trying to make everything fit, or understanding every single line. His writings in these notebooks are sporadic and represent his momentary thoughts and urges. They’re not written to be a coherent narrative or novel, but as a sort of last ditch chance to understand himself and his world. As such, it’s fragmented, contradictory, and, at times, steeped in either his private history, or that of Iceland. Keep reading and listening to the podcast though, and the book will definitely open up to you.

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