I’m fairly organised with my reviewing and tend to have a schedule drawn up, at least for the next few weeks. However, that timetable occasionally goes out of the window, particularly when books I’ve been looking forward to arrive, and that was certainly the case with today’s choice. Icelandic writer Jón Kalman Stefánsson has long been one of my favourite authors, and when I finally received a review copy of his latest book in English (albeit a relatively early work) from MacLehose Press, I didn’t hesitate to drop everything and get down to business. Luckily, my decision was rewarded, so I’ll tell you all about it now – I’m good like that 😉
Summer Light, and Then Comes the Night, translated as ever by the wonderful Philip Roughton, is a novel made up of interlinked stories set in a small village on the Icelandic coast some time towards the end of the last century. In eight tales, many connected by brief interludes narrated by Stefánsson’s familiar Greek chorus of anonymous locals, we make the acquaintance of a number of prominent characters who pass their lives a few hours away from the big-city lights of Reykjavík. The setting is certainly a humble place, almost as far from the major world centres as it’s possible to be, yet the village is also full of a life of its own, and it’s this that the writer explores in his well-crafted pieces.
After a brief prelude providing a quick sketch of the village, we’re off to say hello to the locals, including a good number of unusual souls. There’s the director of the Knitting Company, whose dreams in Latin lead him to abandon his work and marriage to become a scholar, educator and star gazer (hence his nickname of the Astronomer), and Jónas, a quiet youth, who’s a policeman by trade and an artist and birdwatcher by vocation. There are plenty of notable women around, too, such as Sigríður, the stern beauty keeping things running at the local Coop, and providing the local men with a workout for their hearts at the same time.
Each of the chapters of Summer Light… focuses on one main story (with slight tangents) but helps form a larger tapestry of tales. Many characters are introduced in the first piece, telling of the Astronomer’s sudden epiphany, only to later reappear and have their own histories explored in more detail. The Astronomer’s son, Davið, who scarcely warrants a mention in the first part, eventually pops up again several times with his own work and personal issues. However, it’s the enigmatic Elísabet who steals the show without saying a word, catching the attention with her quiet beauty (as the male chorus catches its breath) until her turn in the spotlight arrives.
As much as the focus is on the people, though, the true star of the show is the village itself, with Stefánsson creating a snapshot of life in a small rural community on the verge of change. Even in this remote outpost of civilisation, the modern world does intrude in the form of lectures, fitness clubs and widescreen TVs:
Comforts besiege us, leaving us barely able to hold our heads above them, we doze off, we dream and our dreams merge with the colourful pamphlets from travel agencies, they slip into television schedules, they’re reproduced on the Internet.
p.71 (MacLehose Press, 2020)
But these mod cons tend to bring doubts in their wake, and it’s the role of the chorus to vocalise these suspicions, forcing us to wonder whether life really is getting better.
There’s a good reason for these metaphysical musings (in a remote community with long winters, there’s also plenty of time for them), and the very fine line between life and death explored here is a typical JKS preoccupation. His chorus (in other books it’s explicitly stated that they belong to the dead…) repeatedly return to the idea, and this uneasy straddling of the two realms is perhaps most evident when strange things start happening up at the Coop. Lights go out one after another, and bags of feed fall off the shelves, perhaps unsurprising given that the building was erected upon the site of an ancient murder…
With death just a step, or a sleep, away, the villagers need to think about a pressing question, namely what’s it all about:
But sometimes, and especially right before sleep overcomes us at night and the day has passed with all its restlessness, when we’re lying in bed, listening to our blood, and the darkness comes in through the windows, sometimes there awakens the deep and uncomfortable suspicion that this newly passed day was not used as it should have been, that there’s something we should have done but we simply don’t know what it was. (p.141)
One way of looking at Summer Light…, then, could be as a study of people working out how to get through the days as best they can. For the Astronomer, that entails learning Latin and blowing all his money, selling his house and cars to buy old first-editions of classics, while the less cultured simply use alcohol to numb the pain, often to devastating effect. Of course, there are always those who are naturally happy, such as Jakob, the village’s lorry driver. The shortest chapter here, ‘Bliss’, touches on his happy life spent trundling back and forth between the village and the capital – but then happiness was never as interesting as misery.
For most, though, it’s affairs of the heart (or the groin) that help them through the days, and one of the features of Summer Light… is its pervading sense of erotic tension. The writer reveals his creations’ barely repressed needs, and the book crackles with sexual energy. Among the many kisses and one-night stands, the tale of Kjartan and Kristín stands out, a story devoted to the open-air affair between two neighbouring farmers that will literally end in flames. A better example, though, might be that of Elísabet, a young woman who bewitches the village with her calm beauty, always floating serenely above them until the return of a long-lost lover – at which point she makes it very clear that she’s just been waiting for the right man all along.
And yet despite all this lust, the overwhelming impressing Stefánsson gives us is that it’s not sex but love that makes the world go round, and this is what he leaves us with in a heartbreaking final tale. Here we spend some time with the lonely, divorced farmer Benedikt, watching as he struggles to allow himself to fall for the statuesque Þuriður. Running away on a short trip to London, he finally comes to a realisation:
Benedikt is sitting in a pub with a pint of beer in his hand, watching people pass by, the heavy river of life, he thinks about the city’s size, its history, the mummy, he drinks his beer and feels devastated at how all of this, the mummy, the multitude, the city’s history, is nothing but rubbish, completely insignificant, compared to one single woman in a small village in a country that’s far from everything except eternal winter and suffocating darkness, a land that would be completely uninhabitable if that warm ocean current didn’t flow around it. (pp.242/3)
It’s all wonderfully done, but the tragedy is that we’ve met Benedikt before and know he’s unlikely to have a happy ending – we’re just not sure exactly how the fates will conspire against him.
Summer Light… is another wonderful book by a master storyteller, and I’m sure I’ll be revisiting this many times in the years to come. Sadly, although there was a bit of confusion about the actual release date, it appears that it was overlooked for last year’s International Booker Prize, which is a shame as I would have put this ahead of many of the actual longlisters. Nevertheless, it’s a winner in my eyes, and I’m not quite finished with the book yet…
…come back soon to see what else I have to say about it 😉