A modernist classic from Iceland, half a century old, makes its first appearance in the U.S.
He’s a mean man, a sick man. And, though “descended from the bravest, bluest-eyed Vikings,” Tómas Jónsson doesn’t strike much of a heroic figure; old and fast falling apart, hidden away in a basement flat, he spends his time filling the pages of composition books with reflections, sometimes aphoristic and sometimes stream-of-consciousness floods, on the things he has seen and done. “I am completely bound to the passing moment,” he records. “I am the passing moment. I am time itself. I have no remarkable experiences. I have no spare moments from the past.” Ordinary though his experiences may have been in the larger human story, they’re enough to sustain an off-kilter, often dyspeptic worldview. First published in 1966, a decade after Halldór Laxness became the first and so far only Icelandic writer to win the Nobel Prize in literature, Bergsson’s novel has a Joycean quality to it, Finnegans Wake as much as Ulysses, with portraits of the artist as a man at various stages of life, all of them querulous. Jónsson frets that he cannot be a real writer because he lacks a callused pen finger, and that’s only the first of his strict attentions to the body and its functions, as when Bergsson via Jónsson describes a woman eating a boardinghouse meal even as other diners “de-wind themselves with a couple of farts”: “She put it in her mouth on the tines of her fork, her jaws swinging to and fro, bjabb-bjabb, as the steak mashes down her esophagus down to the stomach grog-grog.” It’s not the most appetizing of visions, but Bergsson’s shaggy (and, in a couple of instances, carefully shaven) dog stories have a certain weird charm, even as it develops that Jónsson has discovered one great raison d’être for writing a memoir: revenge.
Nothing much happens on the surface of Bergsson’s yarn, but underneath there’s plenty of magma bubbling.