Icelandic-born Olafsson (The Journey Home, 2000; Absolution, 1994) tells the life story of William Randolph Hearst’s fictional butler—deftly and grippingly.
Even when they’re married around 1910, in Iceland, something is amiss between handsome Kristjan Benediktsson and his lovely bride, Elisabet: Kristjan, the son of a simple fisherman, feels outranked by Elisabet, who performs Mozart on the piano and whose successful father, in import-export, is locally prominent. Still, an effort is made, the couple has four children, and, when Elisabet’s father dies, Kristjan takes over the business (and rescues it, in fact, from the fiscal abyss). But Kristjan likes his business trips to New York only too well (WWI has closed Europe’s markets to him) and likes them even better after he meets the beautiful Klara, Swedish, a dancer, the fiancée of a New York business associate, and—when he falls in love with her—the beginning of a terrible darkness for Kristjan. In 1918, he returns to Reykjavik, intending to stick by his family for keeps—until a letter from Klara , saying she’s pregnant. Without even a goodbye, Kristjan steals away, books ship, reunites with Klara—and later holds her in his arms as she dies following an abortion. And so it is that Kristjan, desolate, fallen so low as to be waiting tables at the Waldorf, catches the eye of Hearst, who so likes the handsome Icelander that he makes him his individual servant whenever he’s at the Waldorf—and then, in 1921, takes him out to San Simeon, where he’ll stay for the next 16 years, trusted and impeccable butler in the great palace that entertains celebrities galore and houses Hearst’s lovely mistress, Marion Davies. And then? Well, it’s now 1937, the Hearst fortune isn’t what it was, and . . . but let the reader find out.
Clear-eyed and captivating, Olafsson writes effortlessly, seemingly incapable of a dull paragraph or page. His people are real, period atmosphere and detail unobtrusively perfect, his novel a gem and small masterpiece.