shining the spotlight on short story collections
Comma Press, September 2011
“In bed, the day flashes through his head in disparate fragments: a yellow bus, black plastic bags, deep wrinkles, a bread roll on a white plate, blank windows in the old factory building, a blue suit, a fat man eating a Danish pastry, bad communion wine, small soup bowls, blue overalls, the dripping from the kitchen tap, the woman from the ministry’s nod, cheap men’s shoes, a blind man talking to himself. The day is a collection of pointless and sad details and he feels there is no unity in the world anymore.”
Ágúst Borgþór Sverrisson, a writer, journalist and well-known blogger and commentator in Iceland on literature and politics, has published five collections of short stories – Twice in a Lifetime his latest – plus a short-novel, Hliðarspor (Sidestep) in 2007. He is widely regarded as one of Iceland’s most accomplished practitioners of the short form. He described the publication of Twice in a Lifetime as a watershed moment in his life; it is fitting that this collection concerns itself with life’s watershed moments. But what makes this collection so quietly brilliant, so startlingly lifelike, is Sverrison’s refusal to make these changes obvious: there are no sudden explosions or lottery wins or shoot-outs here. There are very few stories that follow traditional plot structures, no mysterious strangers coming to town, no bombastic villains to fight against, no ticking timebombs. Instead, the watershed moments Sverrisson describes move as slowly, as subtly as glaciers. “That’s what time is like: you don’t notice it passing until it has passed. Nothing seems to happen day-by-day; you don’t notice change until you realise that everything has changed.”
Often the changes that have been wrought upon Sverrisson’s characters are so minute they can only be seen as game-changing with the benefit of hindsight’s binoculars. There is a great deal of looking back. There are moments of reflection, and of nostalgia. Events are seen from multiple perspectives. They are “silent secrets” lent weight by time and experience. They become more significant when they are re-lived, re-experienced and re-evaluated. When they are lived twice.
When looked at through a different lens, the mundane, the everyday, is altered. It is given a narrative structure. Common or garden objects take on significance, become like totems to the characters. In the moving, yet wryly witty, The First Day of the Fourth Week, the protagonist has lost his job and has been forced to sell his four-by-four. He becomes fixated with the toilet mat, “a shaggy green rag” and then takes an inordinate amount of time to decide how to dress in order to reflect his new status as a member of the ranks of the dispossessed: “After a long deliberation he settles on a compromise, puts on a blue suit and a light blue shirt but leaves out the tie. He is pleased with his reflection in the mirror: the blue outfit is familiar and evokes a memory of normal days, the absence of a tie an appropriate acknowledgement of the change in situation.”
In The Birthday Present, Johanna becomes fascinated with her parents’ new bed, which has “two built-in ashtrays and a radio with a clock that told the time with green numbers and a colon on a dark screen.” The bed represents the innocent “good times,” but Johanna’s parents split up (a recurring theme in the stories) and her brother, Eirikur, eventually moves out to live with his girlfriend. Johanna: “hadn’t regretted his moving away, but after the phone call she felt an awakening nostalgia, an unclear memory of half-forgotten times: a close-knit family and parents who spoke kindly to her when she was little.”
Johanna begins to construct an imagined reality in which everything is as it was back then, in her rose-tinted world: “There she saw Eirikur and Bjorg in her mind’s eye, having dinner in the future with two children, a boy and a girl. Eirikur and Bjorg’s faces were blurry, but she gave Eirikur her mum’s friend’s moustache to make him look older. The children’s faces were clear, though: they were Eirikur and herself.”
In Disappearing into the World the protagonist admits: “I’ve always imagined that as an adult I would finally be free. Could spend my days making gory movies and sit at a custom-made card table at night, sipping whisky from a glass that slips into a round slot on the table when I set it down.” This is before we see experience has not brought him such freedom. Sverrisson excels in his description of the yearning his characters have for the people they once were, in a time of prelapsarian innocence. In many of the stories, life is not only “lived twice” but three times. As adults, the characters recall their childish dreams of who they might become when they grow-up, yet in the vast majority of cases, this does not correlate with who they have become.
“I was waving incessantly to myself (…) but (…) began to retreat into the distance and turned into a passenger ship that sailed out into the ocean, gradually disappearing from view. I watched myself turn into a small speck.”
In After the Summer House, music acts as a trigger for the protagonist’s memory of a time when he had the whole of life in front of him, aching with possibility: “By the time I’ve dried myself and dressed it’s almost as if I’ve got a hangover from the memory of vodka, or rather as if it’s just past noon on a 1978 Saturday again. I’m getting over a late night at the City Hotel and listening to this song, ‘White Room’, in my bedroom, singing both the lyrics and the guitar riff along with Clapton. Playing the song over and over again.” Experience however has made him bitter and cynical: “I have long ago stopped expecting any surprises in life, either good or bad…” All he expects now is the mundane: “The flavour of the canned beer evokes a feeling of emptiness, not because I dislike beer, but because there’s something about it that makes me feel that existence is bland.” He is uncomfortably aware of the emptiness of all his experiences: “Though I’m sure it’s not fun being fat, there’s something that I envy about Hannes’ greed. I was starving hungry myself when we sat down, but after a few bites the same feeling overwhelms me as with the beer earlier: life is bland.” Nothing is as wondrous or colourful as his memories of being young.
Perhaps the most evocative of the stories of memory and nostalgia is A Sweet Shop in the West End, in which Sverrisson brilliantly evokes the dynamic of remembering: “The shaving kit reawakened the vague memory that had first surfaced when the boy observed the driver. But now it assumed shape: he had seen a shaving kit in this bathroom before. He had long since forgotten it; it was so long ago and he had been so small. In the corner of his mind, a man in a vest appeared, his cheeks lathered with shaving soap. He smelled a cologne that was not inattentive but rather intimate, his face touched a man’s cheek, and the smell of tobacco mingled with cologne. He looked at buttercups and dandelions that had grown along a concrete wall. The sun’s rays bounced off a blue engine hood, and he could smell grass. Then something like a dream: he is laid down in a big bed, and something white blocks his view; it is warm and protective. But when he wakes up it’s gone and he’s alone.”
Sverrisson’s collection deserves to be celebrated from the rooftops. His stories of change are affecting and wise, and they bear more than the stain of truth. The people we once imagined ourselves to be are now distant memories, no more than small specks on the horizon.
About the reviewer: AJ Kirby is the author of five published and critically acclaimed novels, and two volumes of collected short stories (Mix Tape and The Art of Ventriloquism). His short fiction has been published in various magazines, journals, anthologies and across the web. He blogs at http://paintthistownred.wordpress.com/