Thursday, 2 August 2012

Warm Words and Cold Hearts

I'm not sure if this happens to anyone else, but whenever I read a good book by a writer from another country, I immediately want to read more, not just from that particular author, but also from his compatriots.  The point to this long, and rather overcomplicated, opening sentence is that after enjoying Sjón's work I was on the lookout for more Icelandic fiction - which brings me to today's review :)

Twice in a Lifetime is a collection of short stories by Icelandic writer Ágúst Borgþór Sverrisson, one I noticed on the website of Comma Press and requested a review copy of.  It's a slender volume, comprising ten stories running to just over 120 pages, set in Iceland over the past few decades, and it's a book you could run through very quickly indeed.  It's probably best though to space the stories out, and that is how I approached the book.

Many of the stories feature modern men, some behaving very badly.  In Exchange of Guilt, a man whose happy existence is based on his brother's misfortune takes advantage of his luck to iron out a problem which his own behaviour has caused.  Of course, when you try to cheat fate, there's always the chance that fate will try to cheat you back. Another unlikeable character is the protagonist in The German Teacher's Wife , an arrogant young student who looks down on his girlfriend but uses her to finance his studies abroad - until the money suddenly runs out...

However, not all of Sverrisson's main men are like that.  In A Sweet Shop in the West End, a man in his thirties tries to connect with his step-son, reminded of his own relationship with his mother's partner.  While this part of his life seems to work, his beautiful wife, at first so loving, appears to be taking advantage of his good nature.  In The First Day of the Fourth Week, a contemporary story of post-GFC Iceland, a man made redundant tries to fill his day, unable to cope with the unexpected feeling of unemployment, waiting for something, anything, to turn up...

These two stories reminded me a little of some in Clemens Meyer's collection, All the Lights, and while Meyer's characters are, on the whole, a little more working class and down on their luck than Sverrisson's, there is a strong resemblance in the ground the two writers tread.  The stories deal with real life, nothing too exotic or flamboyant; in fact, were it not for the occasional reference to geothermal energy and Kronur, you could have trouble placing the stories geographically.

One element which ties the stories together is a sense of retrospection, many of them being specifically dated.  Quite apart from Lunch Break, 1976 (the shortest of the stories, one in which a stressed-out office worker comes home and has a rant about a sheep's head left in a saucepan...), several of the stories have the year clearly stated, as if the writer wants to impress the importance of the time from the start of the very first page.  While there is no explicit sense of nostalgia, the reader gets the sense that we are meant to be looking for something in the past, something which has perhaps been lost.

On top of this preoccupation with the past, several of the stories focus on problematic relationships, marriages that have run their course.  In addition to the stories mentioned above, After the Summer House, the longest of the stories in the collection, focuses squarely on a marriage in crisis.  It takes place over a few years in which a couple visit their friends in the country during the summer holidays.  On the first visit, their friends' marriage seems to be strained; on the second, they have built their dream summer house and appear to be much happier.  But is everything really OK?  And how does this reflect on the protagonist's own relationship?

This story was probably my favourite of the ten.  It deals with the way relationships change and what people have to do to keep them fresh, and make sure they continue to work.  The protagonist here is a man who prefers to live in his own world, lost in old magazines and music, and he doesn't realise that this is probably not the best thing for his continued happiness.  I think I'll move on before it all gets a bit too close to home...

Before I wrap up though, I should mention the translators - particularly important as there are three of them!  Most of the stories are translated by the team of Maria Helga Guðmundsdóttir and Anna Benassi, but The First Day of the Fourth Week (which appeared in a previous Comma Press collection) is translated by Vera Júlíusdóttir.  The stories are easy to read, but the style sometimes switches between being slightly formal and more colloquial - an aspect which I suspect is more down to the writer than the translators :)

Twice in a Lifetime is well worth a read, and I'm hoping to have another look through it soon as I suspect there are still more secrets there to be uncovered.  As for Iceland, well, I'm definitely hoping to make a (literary) return trip in the near future.  Any suggestions will be gratefully received :)