The Ambassador

I was very pleased to be able to review The Ambassador by Bragi Ólafsson for The Second Pass this month. As I’ve said before, I was more or less enthralled with Bragi’s previous novel, The Pets, and attempted to foist it off on anyone who gave me even the slightest indication that they were in need of a book recommendation. The Amabassador was another satisfying read which bore some pleasant stylistic/thematic similarities to its predecessor, while branching into much different discussions as well.

While preparing my review of the book, I was compelled to go back and read Jonathan Lethem’s article “The Ecstasy of Influence: A Plagiarism,” which was published in Harper’s in 2007. It honestly didn’t resonate with me much at the time, but in light of some of the events in The Ambassador (the main character is found to have plagiarized unpublished poems by his deceased cousin)–and the questions that Bragi raises about authorship, creative output, and ownership of an idea–the Lethem article was very useful to me. If you have a subscription to Harper’s, you can read the article in their online archive, and I’d very much recommend it. If not, I felt the the following quotes were particularly relevant to the text, although they didn’t make it into the final edit of my review:

“Literature has been in a plundered, fragmentary state for a long time.”

“…it becomes apparent that appropriation, mimicry, quotation, allusion, and sublimated collaboration consist of a kind of sine qua non of the creative act, cutting across all forms and genres in the realm of cultural production.”

“Most artists are brought to their vocation when their own nascent gifts are awakened by the work of a master. That is to say, most artists are converted to art by art itself. Finding one’s voice isn’t just an emptying and purifying oneself of the words of others but an adopting and embracing of filiations, communities, and discourses. Inspiration could be called inhaling the memory of an act never experienced. Invention, it must be humbly admitted, does not consist in creating out of void but out of chaos. Any artist knows these truths, no matter how deeply he or she submerges that knowing.”

At any rate, do check out The Amabassador (and The Pets)! My review is available on The Second Pass website, or the full text is below.


After a recent reading in a small, internationally stocked New York bookstore, Icelandic author Bragi Ólafsson prepared to answer questions from the audience about his newly translated novel, The Ambassador. But rather than asking about the novel, or a previous novel (The Pets, published in the U.S. in 2008), or his prose style and writing inspiration, or even his former gig as the bassist in The Sugarcubes (a band fronted by Björk), the audience put him in the awkward position of providing a complex overview of the entire nation of Iceland — its history, relationship with Europe, and the collective feelings and opinions of its 320,000 inhabitants. Some of these questions veered toward the literary: one participant asked for a summary of the state of all Icelandic fiction, as well as an update on the popularity of crime fiction within mainland Scandinavian countries such as Sweden. Another was curious as to how the current economic crisis was affecting Icelandic poets — “Are they isolated? Are they upset?” This took the conversation to a more purely financial place, with other guests asking Bragi (Icelanders don’t go by their last names, which are patronymic, even in formal contexts) to summarize the events that led to the downfall of the Icelandic banking system, and what, if anything, could be done to resolve the situation.

Bragi answered each inquiry with remarkable civility, but it seems comically appropriate that a reading for The Ambassador would both force the author to become an impromptu emissary for his country and so quickly devolve into absurdity. Bragi is a master of the straight-faced farce, the simple situation that becomes suddenly and astonishingly convoluted. This was showcased to great effect in The Pets, in which the main character, Emil Halldorsson, spends the entirety of the novel hiding under his bed while an unwanted guest breaks into his home, drinks his imported liquor, and invites his friends over for a party.

As a rule, Bragi’s characters do not attend to social mores or banal niceties. They actively defy them, forcing anyone they come into contact with (including the reader) to negotiate an entirely unfamiliar brand of social interaction — one bereft of expected politeness, full of bumbling awkwardness and a host of errant choices that compound as the novel progresses. It’s part of what makes his work so engaging. As he explained prior to his reading, “It’s not very interesting to describe nice people.”

The Ambassador opens during a shopping trip to an upscale men’s clothing store in Reykjavik. Sturla Jón Jónsson, a fiftyish building super and published poet, is purchasing an expensive “English-style Aquascutum overcoat” that he’s coveted for quite some time. He’s bought the coat just in time for an upcoming trip to a poetry festival in Lithuania. As his departure nears, Sturla Jón has had a spate of good fortune: not only has he been selected the sole representative from Iceland at the festival, he’s also just published a new volume of poetry and won almost 10,000 kronur in the university-run gambling hall.

Almost immediately upon arriving in Vilnius, however, he finds out he has been publicly outed in Iceland for plagiarizing unpublished poems by his deceased cousin. Shortly after, his prized overcoat is stolen in a restaurant. Both events precipitate increasingly outlandish behavior on Sturla Jón’s part. To replace his lost garment, he steals an expensive overcoat from a different restaurant, only to find out that the man he robbed is a prominent American benefactor of the poetry festival. When one of the organizers accuses him of the theft, Sturla Jón abandons the event altogether, opting to hide out under an assumed name in a Vilnius boarding house.

Much bubbles under the surface of this seemingly simple, comic story of petty theft and a literary festival gone awry. The Ambassador is awash with Sturla Jón’s drifting and tangential memories, each adding an additional layer of nuanced development to his character and his complicated relationships. We’re introduced to his father, an aspiring filmmaker and librarian who is only 15 years older than his son. Sturla Jón’s mother, an unstable alcoholic, has recently taken up posing topless for local artists. His talented young cousin, Jónas, killed himself only days after promising to give Sturla Jón the manuscript for his first book of poems. There’s even a crossover character from The Pets, a teacher named Armann Valur. The rich back story and well-realized secondary characters add a fullness to the narrative, and a sense of Sturla Jón’s deeply interconnected community at home.

Perhaps the most productive recurrent theme in The Ambassador is creation, the question of to whom a creative idea, artistic product, or particularly powerful turn of phrase belongs — if it belongs to anyone at all. As it turns out, Sturla Jón is entirely surrounded by other authors and artists, not only his fellow poets at the festival. Before he’s left Iceland, several strangers and acquaintances — the man who sells him his overcoat, a neighbor in his apartment building — reveal that they, too, are artists of some stripe. Arriving in Lithuania, Sturla Jón shares a table with a Russian man at a strip club who is writing a novel, and a cab with a woman who is also a poet. His coat is later stolen (he believes) by a street musician playing Rod Stewart covers. “[P]eople everywhere around him seemed to have a need to tell him about their own desire to create,” Bragi writes. And for his part, Sturla Jón absorbs all of this creative output, internalizes it, and makes it his own.

Bragi complicates the ethical questions of authorship and plagiarism. Sturla Jón is an avid reader, for whom inspirational quotations, powerful metaphors, and particularly vivid images create a backdrop to all of life. He is constantly recalling lines of poetry, song lyrics, or descriptions that seem so apt, so perfect in describing his own experience that he feels as if he could have written them. Here, he is waiting at a bus station in Lithuania:

He remembers a quotation he noted down in his black notebook shortly before leaving Iceland, a quotation he’d come across by chance . . . in a book which contained the musings of poets on their duty to explain the meaning of their poems. And when he opens his notebook as he sits there on the hard wooden bench outside the bus station . . . he feels as if these words by the English poet Donald Davie, published in 1959, are his own . . . [Y]ou could easily convince yourself that it was pure coincidence that they’d been printed in a book in England before Sturla’s handwriting had fixed the lines in a black notebook.

Haven’t most authors — and most readers — had a similar experience when first coming across a resonant line or passage? The Ambassador isn’t interested in wrapping up any debates about plagiarism — or any of Sturla Jón’s offbeat misadventures. It relishes the journey, and offers plenty of unexpected insights and ironic humor along the way.



The Shadow Woman

Following a recent foray into the Åke Edwardson ouvre (with Sun and Shadow), I read and reviewed a previous installment in the author’s Erik Winter series, The Shadow Woman. I’ll have to admit disappointment with this title. I had some reservations about Sun and Shadow, but the elements that really paid off in the end–the characterization, domestic/personal-life plot lines, and pacing–were just not nearly as strong in The Shadow Woman. And it’s not that Edwardson was lacking for material in this installment. In fact, he gives himself almost too much to work with: transnational biker gangs, racially motivated violence, alienation within immigrant communities, a bacchanalian summer festival in Gothenburg…the list goes on.

I do feel, however, that perhaps Edwardson deserves a bit of a pass for some of the weaker aspects of The Shadow Woman, particularly if one is reviewing it against other titles in the Erik Winter series. Because it is actually a much earlier installment in the series than many of the books that have already been translated. It was originally published in Sweden in 1998, and was, I believe, only the second novel in the Winter series–it’s no wonder that in the intervening years Edwardson became more adept at characterization and plot pacing.

I understand that particularly when introducing a new, foreign (translated) author to American audiences, a publisher really has to make a splash in order to retain the attention of readers for future publications. So it makes some commercial sense to have published a more refined title in the Winter series first, in order to really make an impression on American readers. To my knowledge, Sun and Shadow, the third installment in the series, was the first book translated into English, followed a year later by Never End, which was actually chronologically correct. Frozen Tracks was translated next (also chronologically correct), at which point, they went back and translated the first book in the series, Death Angels, followed by The Shadow Woman.

My problem with this is not that I don’t think that the full series is worth translating into English–it absolutely should be translated. But crime fiction aficianados are, as a rule, staunch series readers, and particularly fond of detectives. And once you know what happens in a detective’s life somewhere down the line–because you’ve read later books–it can be not-a-little frustrating to go back and try to forget all that when you’re reading an earlier book. Edwardson also makes references to former cases that he’s worked on in other novels. So if you’ve read a later title, you have a sense of what happened in previous cases and books. As such, it would have been nice if it had been possible to publish one of the later titles in the series and then go back and start at the beginning, once the audience had a favorable impression. Then the rest of the translations could have all been chronological.

Ah, but I digress with all this kvetching. The full review of The Shadow Woman can be read below, or on Reviewing the Evidence, here.


It’s a sweltering August in Gothenburg, Sweden, and the city is buzzing in the midst of the raucous annual Gothenburg Party. While excitement is high due to the festivities, a series of violent events continue to trouble the local police force, led by Detective Inspector Erik Winter. Having spent his summer lounging in cut-offs, learning to appreciate hard rock (in lieu of his preferred Coltrane), and bouncing back from a transnational murder investigation (as took place in Death Angels), Winter vigilantly jumps into a new homicide case: an unidentified woman found strangled in a quiet park. Although the woman’s identity remains unknown, Winter is shocked to discover that she had definitely been a mother. His murder investigation suddenly becomes a suspected kidnapping as well.

While readers familiar with the Winter series will be glad to have another of these titles available in English, however, The Shadow Woman lacks the depth of characterization and strong pacing that have made some of Edwardson’s previously translated titles (such as Sun and Shadow) so compelling. Perhaps this can be credited to the fact that the novel is actually a rather early installment in the Winter series—it was originally published in Sweden in 1998. In this earlier articulation, Winter is more caricature than fully drawn character. His personal life—which in other books offers an intimate window into his professional skills and shortcomings—is kept very much in the background, leaving the reader to get to know Winter through strained jokes about his out-of-date musical knowledge (he refers to The Clash as a “new band”) and the fact that he wears designer suits as “a form of protection against the apprehension that constantly threatened to force its way into his body.”

The novel is also permeated with a palpable tension that doesn’t truly pay off. As the story opens, one of Winter’s police colleagues, Aneta Djanali, a woman of African descent, is subjected to racially-motivated harassment during the Gothenburg Festival and viciously attacked. Edwardson uses Djanali’s attack—as well as a gang-related shoot-out in a busy city square and an immigrant man holding his son at gun point in front of the police station—to create an atmosphere of escalating violence in Gothenburg. Aside from the murder, these events feel to be mostly filler. The murder investigation labors on, and for most of the novel, everything else is treated as an afterthought. Even more frustrating is Winter’s apparent omniscience throughout the case. In a moment of almost laughable coincidence, he somehow guesses the murder victim’s first name before her identity is confirmed.

Ultimately a lackluster installment in the Winter series, The Shadow Woman remains thin in both character and plot development. And while Edwardson’s dedicated fans may enjoy getting a glimpse of the star detective before he became Sweden’s youngest-ever Chief Inspector, new readers to the series would be well advised to start elsewhere.



In Defense of Henrik Pontoppidan (and Other, Lesser-Known Laureates)

Thanks to Pete for pointing out Adam Gopnik’s New Yorker piece about this year’s Nobel Prize winner, Mario Vargas Llosa. It’s a humorous piece, and though perhaps it doesn’t tread new ground with regards to its criticism of the Nobel Prize (and how much we as a literary community still value it, despite our kvetching about the award winners each year), Gopnik does get in some nice quips. (My personal favorite being “The Nobel thus not only crowns a career but provides the basis for a fine future Javier Bardem/Antonio Banderas movie.”)

All the same, I’d like to take the opportunity to defend one of the lesser-known Nobel Laureates who are laughingly brushed off in the article: Henrik Pontoppidan. Says Gopnik,

Last week also revealed that, however much we may discount the Nobel Prize, we still prize it. No matter how many times the worthy losers console themselves with their fellows—who wouldn’t rather be in the company of Proust, Auden, and Nabokov than of Erik Axel Karlfeldt and Henrik Pontoppidan?—we’d all still take the meatball if the Swedes would only offer it. You would have thought that the second-rate nature of some prize-winners would have produced a general degradation of the prize. If you give the Oscar to the likes of “Ordinary People” and “Chariots of Fire” often enough, won’t your prize be worth a bit less? Just the opposite: the more often an established prize goes to a dubious candidate the more valued it becomes.

Pontoppidan was an influential member of the so-called “Modern Breakthrough” movement in Scandinavia in the late 19th Century and won the Nobel–in an odd combo award with fellow Dane Karl Gjellerup–in 1917, for, as the Nobel committee rather anticlimactically put it, “his authentic descriptions of present-day life in Denmark.” His novel Lykke Per (Lucky Peter) is quite famous, although it–along with Pontoppidan’s other novels–has since fallen shamefully out of English translation.

I ran across one of Pontoppidan’s short stories, “The Royal Guest” in an anthology called The Royal Guest, and Other Classic Danish Narrative. It’s a wonderful story and after finishing it I instantly set about finding more of Pontoppidan’s work in English. There’s little to be found, unfortunately, although the University of Wisconsin did translate two more of his stories as part of their “Wisconsin Introduction to Scandinavia” (WITS) series. My personal favorite is “The Polar Bear,” which is just a lovely, lovely modernist story about a bohemian Danish pastor who is sent to minister in Greenland.

It was really on the strength of just these two short stories that I decided to try to learn Danish. I wanted to be able to read all of Pontoppidan’s (and other Great Danes’) work, and, if possible, make it available to others to read in English as well.  And so I’m going to take this opportunity to re-post the (very) informal review I wrote in 2008 on “The Polar Bear.” It (the story) is well worth your while, and is very cheaply available ($5 a piece) with all the other titles in the WITS series on the University of Wisconsin Scandinavian Studies website. Skål!


“The Polar Bear”
By Henrik Pontoppidan, Translated by James Massengale

I obtained a copy of The Polar Bear through inter-library loan. So, thank you, University of California’s Southern Library Facility, you really made my day. Or maybe even my year.

This was such a lovely short story, filled with the type of elegant, visual prose that writing instructors the world over are pointing to when they admonish their students to “Show!” and “Not Tell!” But even so, the dialog and the fluidity of the story are never bogged down in lengthy, over-flowered passages. Observe our first introduction to the novel’s protagonist:

Imagine for yourself, dear Reader, a large, flaming red face, with a snow-white, tousled beard hanging down from it; and hiding, here and there is the rough chinhairs, more old remnants of green cabbage slop, breadcrumbs or tan-colored snuff tobacco than one might find completely appetizing…It should also be pointed out that Pastor Muller was exactly six feet one and a half inches tall, that he had lost a finger on his left hand, and that he presented himself to the world, summer and winter, in the same marvelous costume, consisting of a moth-eaten dogskin cap with a visor, a pair of gray checkered trousers stuck into a pair of massive boots that stank sourly of whale oil, and a short, shiny old hunting jacket, a so-called “rump-cooler,” that was buttoned tightly over his huge, giant-like body…

The Polar Bear is a novella about Thorkild Muller, a reclusive, undereducated, and outcast Danish pastor who is reassigned to a parish in Greenland. Muller quickly finds a sense of belonging and fulfillment living with the Inuit, and becomes integrated into their nomadic society. In his old age, however, Muller returns to Denmark and finds himself unexpectedly embroiled in a confrontation with the Danish church.

It’s wonderful, which is actually extremely tragic, in that most of you won’t have access to a copy to read and those of you who do out there in Southern California don’t seem to take advantage of it. (The borrower slip in the back of the book shows that this was only rented from the library once in April 2005. So, shout out to my library buddy in California–you have excellent taste.)

As translator James Massengale notes in his Afterword,

There has been a real need, in our modern Scandinavian literature classes, for an exuberant story with no battle of the sexes, no lengthy account of awful diseases, no “depressing realism.” The Polar Bear was chosen partially as an answer to the common student reaction of the type: “do the Scandinavians always get depressed or divorce, or commit suicide in their stories?” The answer, as far as this novella goes, is certainly no; but that does not mean our story is simplistic, or that it lacks depth or “debate.” The choice also has the advantage of bring to students’ attention the name of an outstanding but less-known Danish author, Henrik Pontoppidan, who, despite winning a shared Nobel Prize for literature in 1917, has not remained within our American-Scandinavian teaching “cannon.” He needs to be reinstated, along with a number of other Scandinavian writers of both sexes who have been brushed aside by the great Ibsen/Strindberg steamroller and the restrictive policies of some of the larger publishing houses.

Bragi Olafsson Reading at 192 Books Tomorrow (10/5)

I mentioned in an earlier post that Bragi Olafsson (author of the recently published novel The Ambassador) was reading at Scandinavia House last week, but alas, I couldn’t make it. If you also had a commitment that evening but still want to hear Bragi read, you’re in luck! He’s reading tomorrow at 192 Books on 10th Ave. and 21st Street in Manhattan. Apparently seating is limited, so call 212.255.4022 to reserve your seat ASAP.