Tómas Jónsson: Bestseller

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Tómas Jónsson: Bestseller

(Tómas Jónsson: metsölubók, 1966)

Sometimes referred to as “the Icelandic Ulysses”, Tómas Jónsson: Bestseller caused quite a stir when it was first published in 1966 and is heralded as having ushered in a new era of modernism in Icelandic literature.

The book is the first-person account of the eponymous Tómas Jónsson; a cantankerous retired bank clerk who sits down in his decrepit basement apartment to write his memoirs – which he is certain will become an instant bestseller. What follows is a humorous and at times exhausting barrage of grievances, rants and intertextual wordplay, as Tómas rails against Icelandic society in general and the fellow inhabitants of his apartment building in particular. With delightful scorn, delivered through the querulous voice of a ubiquitous everyman, Guðbergur captures the anti-establishment zeitgeist of the time in an expertly manipulated satirical critique of the vanguard of the old. As Tómas lashes out at anything and everything, his diatribes poke fun at the egoist national identity of the “blue-eyed Viking”, so readily sprouted by that creature known as “the Icelandic blowhard” – often spotted in Reykjavík hot tubs delivering their unfiltered opinions about the news of the day.

The impact of Tómas Jónsson can be felt in the works of the generation of Icelandic writers that followed in Guðbergur’s footsteps – including Bragi Ólafsson and Einar Kárason. Now, more than fifty years after the book’s initial publication, Tómas’s voice also carries a certain commonality with the feeble rage expressed in today’s comment sections and message board echo-chambers. In his translation, Lytton Smith captures the original text’s wrathful exuberance and sets Tómas, a personification of the nation’s raging id, free into the English-speaking world.