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The Ambassador by Bragi Ólafsson

…wrapped in a beautifully designed jacket
which will protect the poet's work from
dust, from the passage of time, and from use.
If we learn one thing from Bragi Ólafsson’s surly, sarcastic and epicurean narrator, it might be that the punishment does not always fit the crime. Indeed, reluctant poet Sturla Jón Jonsson (no, not that Sturla Jón; I mean the other, less well-known, non-peasant poet) manages to mostly get away with a number of minor misdemeanors, emerging relatively unscathed and unrepentant, and with a beautiful and intelligent woman on his arm to boot. For starters, although we don’t know this straight away, he’s stolen a large part of his latest collection of poetry, free from freedom, from his deceased cousin who, it turns out, became suicidal over the relationship he had with Sturla Jón’s own mother. He then writes a truly poisonous speculative article about the literary festival he has been invited to attend as an ambassador of Icelandic literary endeavor. Whilst in Lithuania (a country with an even smaller international literary tradition than Iceland and therefore, so Sturla Jón imagines, an even less relevant nation than his own) he loses his luxurious overcoat only to steal one from an American businessman in a café in an act of self-righteous revenge. He then fails to discharge his ambassadorial duties by drinking heavily (not in itself something unusual given the contemporaneous dipsomania evident) and deliberately missing buses and leaving gatherings on spurious pretexts, preferring instead such diverse sensuous entertainments as visiting a burlesque club in the company of two shady Russians or seeking satisfaction in an alleyway with a reeking Lithuanian prostitute. He is challenged over the theft of the coat, eventually, after a gentle upwelling of suspicion, but the claimant in his plagiarism case withdraws his accusation and his irreverent attitude at the festival eventually wins the heart of a Belarussian poet, with whom he is setting up a future home by novel’s end. He’s also considering the ultimate treachery – abandoning his art! Added to the gentle neglect of his ex-wife, children, and father, his list of crimes gives the lie to his continuing sense of moral superiority.

With no comeuppance, it might feel a little like Sturla Jón gets away with it, in the narratively unsatisfying sense, and it risks a lack of readerly sympathy with the character. However, unlikeable and mildly reprehensible as he might become over the course of the novel, his perfidy is what makes him less a cardboard cut-out villain and more an intriguingly unreliable narrator. He’s Will Self’s perfidious man, an incongruous but recognizable mix of sensitive and insensible, contemplative when considering his future as a writer, but with a bull-headed intransigence about nearly everything else. The trauma of his twenties, when his cousin commits suicide, the overshadowing presence of his mother, his own literary reputation, all are greeted with a typical casualness as if they were simply words on a page and not formative experiences and considerations of note.

In places it’s amusing, witty and sardonic, and whilst not as overtly entertaining as The Pets, the first and my favourite (and only other?) English translation of Ólafsson that I’ve read, it’s still full of clever observations, and is a wry commentary on literary pretensions and all those forty-somethings weary of the buffeting of early adulthood.


How's about that then?

Selected Holiday Reading - The In-Betweeners Abroad

I always try to travel light, a goal, something with which those among you with bookish leanings will empathise, that is challenging for someone intending to do as much reading as they can whilst ignoring as much culture and scenery as is possible. So huzzah and indeed hurrah for the generic e-book reader and its market competitors. Ten years ago I would likely have suffered a paroxysm of disgust for any apologist of the hated technology. Now, it seems, I must take one everywhere I go for more than one night.

The trip to which I am coming, an August sojourn by ferry to Santander and then by VW through Calabria, the Basque country, and north through Aquitaine, Poitou-Charente, Pays de la Loire and Bretagne, was a chance to get some serious reading under the belt. Twelve days of driving, drinking, books and beaches. The only 'real' books that made the trip were The Vagabond's Breakfast, of which more anon, and All The Days And Nights which, as I was on a deadline, I quickly …

The One from the Other by Philip Kerr

Philip Kerr is an author I have been reluctant to attempt to review for some time. His Berlin Noir trilogy cost me some hours of sleeplessness and in the end I decided to skip a review and just be happy to have read it and therefore move it from the pile of unread novels, via the edge of my desk where the “to review” pile occasionally falls over on to the typewriter and spills my pen pot across the floor and thus causes significant risks when stumbling blindly about the room at night too drunk to remember where my bed is or having just been jolted awake by the boy shrieking from the next room and running asleep into walls and doors, to the back half of my giant Ikea bookcase where novels that have been read and have caused my self-esteem to shatter on the diamond-hard edges of someone else’s talent currently reside, gathering dust and moisture until hitting the mildew tipping point and becoming physically dangerous in their own right. This awesome crew consists mainly of Will Self, Jo…

Augustus Carp, Esq., By Himself: Being the Autobiography of a Really Good Man, by Henry Howarth Bashford

So it goes that, for one reason or other, I was asked recently* to recommend a list of classic British comic novels that one might take on holibobs, to be read at the pool, on the beach, or in this case at a sprawling, crumbling ancestral seat in the heart of Ireland during a month-long fishing expedition.
Unfortunately, every suggestion I made was knocked back, either for reasons of personal (bad) taste or because it had already been read. I thought long and hard** and serendipitously, most likely due to having read this post from the most excellent Neglected Booksblog, but equally likely due to a ringing endorsement from Anthony Burgess at some point or other, I came upon Augustus Carp Esq, a book I noticed I had on my e-reader, although how and why it was there is anybody’s guess.
Penned by a notable English physician, one which any blog of note would not neglect to mention once was physician to a contemporaneous English King (George the something?), it is ill-in-keeping with any of …

The Quiddity of Will Self by Sam Mills

It’s hard to say, when asked as I was recently at a meeting of local writers (who you can follow on Twitter if you wish), who might be my favourite author. If you look at my book shelves, you might see groupings of books by modern authors such as (WARNING - gratuitous alphabetical roll-call):
Paul Auster, John Barth, Richard Brautigan, Thomas Bernhard, Jim Bob, T.C. Boyle, Karel Čapek, Jonathan Carroll, Stephen Donaldson, Glen Duncan, Tibor Fischer, Peter Høeg, Michel Houellebeq, Bohumil Hrabal, Ismail Kadare, Andrey Kurkov, John D McDonald, Harry Mullisch, Haruki Murakami, Cees Nooteboom, Victor Pelevin, Thomas Pynchon, Jon Ronson, and Kurt Vonnegut (my usual go-to favourite when I don’t have the energy to explain).
In addition, you might just spot every book ever published by one William Woodard "Will" Self (minus Sore Sites which mysteriously vanished while moving house a few years back). Whilst a fan, and also willing to admit experiencing an embarrassing and sometimes di…