Icelandic émigré novelist Olafsson (Absolution) offers a grim look at chilled middle-aged marriage in 12 stories titled after the months of the year. Olafsson delivers the basic facts of a situation or marriage in a monotonous, uninflected prose that is, in its portentous flatness, utterly compelling. His characters, most hailing from Icelandic stock and thoroughly assimilated into American life, suffer from severely impacted emotion that threatens, when gently triggered, to spew volcanically. Tomas, the bland, typically diffident protagonist of "January," contacts his former live-in girlfriend after 10 years during an overnight flight delay in New York, finding to his shock and dismay that Maureen is sick and probably dying. While he might make amends for his previous emotional cowardice, his instinct is to flee. In "June," a controlling father's disappointment at his daughter's marriage to a gutless American doctor (rather than a firm, outdoorsy Icelander) leads to a weirdly Freudian set of maneuverings by both father and son-in-law. And in several pieces, an old, undisclosed affair resurfaces after decades to haunt a marriage, leading one wife ("August") to mutter upon her husband's revelations of early unfaithfulness: "It was all built on sand." Olafsson's Nordic realism à la Bergman holds a ghastly fascination. (Feb.)Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Valentines: Storiesby Olaf Olafsson
From the acclaimed Icelandic author of Absolution, The Journey Home (now about to start filming under Liv Ullmann’s direction) and Walking into the Night: a haunting collection of thematically linked stories that encompasses the twelve months of a year, capturing the most candid moments between lovers, husbands and wives, parents and/i>/i>… See more details below
From the acclaimed Icelandic author of Absolution, The Journey Home (now about to start filming under Liv Ullmann’s direction) and Walking into the Night: a haunting collection of thematically linked stories that encompasses the twelve months of a year, capturing the most candid moments between lovers, husbands and wives, parents and children–when truths and true feelings surge to the surface and everything changes.
Olaf Olafsson’s fans will recognize the perfect restraint and precision–and quick wit–with which he characteristically explores these dark epiphanies, when the heart is suddenly laid bare, whether by love or betrayal, disenchantment or regret, or the shock of loss. While their settings range from the East Coast to the West Coast, from Paris to Slovenia and Iceland, these contemporary stories probe the complexity of modern relationships over time. A wife realizes her closest confidante is much more than that. A father tries to make his new lover into the image of his late wife. A lusty photographer confronts his own mortality. A couple’s long-anticipated anniversary vacation opens onto the past. A husband, a wife, a child, a boating accident: no harm done . . . and yet?
Each of the twelve stories reveals another element in the agonizing nature of passion, diminished and yet sustained over time. This is a powerful work of fiction from one of our most gifted and subtle international writers at work today.
“An impressively mature and wide-ranging book, both geographically and emotionally . . . Soulful and thoughtful.” –The New York Times Book Review
“Compelling . . . Akin to Thomas Mann . . . An astonishing story of confusion,
loss and denial.” –Chicago Sun-Times
“A novel lifted by love, friendship and cooking. [The protagonist’s] is a hard, unflinching life, and one skillfully revealed.” –Time
“[Olafsson’s] understatement allows the tragedy to build until it speaks finally and devastatingly for itself.” –The New Yorker
Praise for Walking into the Night
“Olafsson, a tremendous talent, has written an unforgettable novel.”
–The Boston Globe
“A work of genuine art–so poignant, so thoughtful, so brilliantly conceived and constructed . . . This is the way books were meant to be written.”
“Quietly moving . . . An evocative tale of grief and hope.”
–The New York Times Book Review
- Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
- Publication date:
- Edition description:
- Product dimensions:
- 5.24(w) x 7.97(h) x 0.62(d)
Read an Excerpt
By Olaf Olafsson
PantheonCopyright © 2007 Olaf Olafsson
All right reserved.
He had suspected he might have to spend the night in New York. The plane had left an hour late from Iceland and circled for a long time over Kennedy Airport before getting permission to land. The pilot had said there were problems on the ground with ice and strong crosswinds, and for a while it looked as if they would have to land somewhere else. But at last he began the descent, the flight attendants took their seats and those who were afraid said their prayers, promising to lead better lives in future.
Tomas, a seasoned traveler, wasn't worried. He knew there wouldn't be any flights to Chicago till the following day so he decided to go into Manhattan and spend the evening there. He liked the city and often traveled there on business, particularly when he was younger. Once there had been talk of his being transferred there, the time when Ira Taubman and Harry Poindexter decided to retire and the company worried they would lose contact with important clients on the East Coast. But the old men had prepared the ground for Tomas and their other successors and the transition was smooth. This was a relief to everyone but it gave Tomas pause for thought because the old men had always been considered indispensable. He had blurted this out to Taubman when they ran into each other at the sauna some months later, and the old man slapped him on the back with an indulgent smile and said: "Noone's indispensable in business, Tomas my boy. Not even you." Having already concluded this himself, Tomas was able to join in his laughter. Taubman had always been his model, easygoing and levelheaded, never pressuring his clients. Tomas had learned from him not to push shares that he wouldn't buy himself or chase short-term profits. Taubman and Poindexter had earned respect. They phoned their clients every day, knew the names of their wives and kids, even what car they drove. Although he never got himself a computer, Taubman always had an answer ready and his desk was impeccably tidy. When the market took a dive he was the one everyone called. He kept his head, neither buying nor selling till the volatility was over. A bachelor like Tomas, he was always meticulously dressed, even after he retired. He had introduced Tomas to his tailor, a painstaking, reasonably priced man who never forgot to praise Tomas for not putting on weight.
Tomas's father had been American, his mother Icelandic. He grew up in Chicago, an only child, but moved to Iceland with his mother after his father died. He was a teenager at the time. They rented an apartment by the harbor and his mother got a job in the claims department of an insurance company. Tomas finished high school in Reykjavik but went back to the States to attend university, first Chicago State, then Northwestern. He hadn't been unhappy in Iceland, but he never put down roots there, missing his old home by Lake Michigan.
In recent years Tomas had made it a rule to go to Iceland for New Year's. He generally arrived on the twenty-seventh or twenty-eighth of December and left on January second. His mother lived in an old people's home but was still joyful and energetic. He would meet friends and relatives, inviting up to a dozen people to dinner at the Grill or Hotel Holt on New Year's Eve. His mother looked forward to this evening all year. She was always in great form and before the night was over she never missed a chance to ask her son when he was going to get married. He usually smiled, took her hand and said: "Who knows, Mom?" because he didn't want to disappoint her.
But this time the question made him stop and think. He had known it was coming yet still found himself lost for words. Recently he had been wondering whether he would always be alone. He was not young anymore and had recently begun to suffer from a sense of discontent that had never plagued him before. He had been jolted just before Christmas when he visited Taubman and the old man told him: "I talked to Maureen the other day. She asked about you. She's now living in New York."
He had only once been in what people call a serious relationship. That was ten years ago when he lived with Maureen. She was several years younger than he and worked in advertising. They had met at Taubman's seventieth birthday and walked together into the garden of the hotel where the party was being held. There they sat on a bench under a tree and talked. It was late but still warm, the lights aglow among the flowers and shrubs and a cheerful din coming from the hotel. She moved closer to him without any apparent design and her laugh was bright and artless. She was wearing a white backless dress and he gazed at her long, slender neck and her shoulders, which were so delicate that he wanted to touch them out of simple curiosity. He called her at work several days later and invited her to dinner. She accepted gratefully and her voice sounded as bright and genuine over the phone as when they had sat in the garden. Two months later she moved in with him. Although it had been his suggestion, he was not prepared. He was set in his ways, never having had to worry about anyone but himself since he had left home. His life was neat and orderly; his days were all the same. He was in the office by half past seven on weekdays and woke early on weekends, read the papers, tidied up, took a walk around his neighborhood or visited galleries before going to the sauna that he and Taubman frequented. On Saturday evenings he dined with friends. He lived a simple life, taking care to have a routine for everything and avoid upsets.
He had always tried to keep his feelings on a tight rein. His psychologist traced this to his father's death. They had been very close and when his father had passed away he had silently blamed his mother for not grieving enough. Tomas mentioned this to his psychologist once he began to trust him. They discussed the past at length and eventually concluded that it had been out of care for Tomas that his mother had never broken down in his presence. He regretted having judged her, even if only in thought.
He had difficulty adapting to the change of routine, and Maureen assumed that he felt she was in his way. She wasn't demanding but sensitive and every now and then felt the need to tell him how much she loved him. He, on the other hand, did not make unprompted declarations; it was not his way.
When he felt he was finally growing used to living with her, she broke off their relationship. They had then lived together for more than a year and he had begun to enjoy waking up before her and watching her sleep. But he never told her that and refrained from touching her while she slept. He felt lucky to have met her and expected a happy future. He was speechless when she said it would probably be best for them to go their separate ways.
"I don't think you love me," she said.
He was about to try to convince her that she was wrong and ask her to stay but abandoned the attempt. He thought that maybe his love wasn't adequate, maybe there were others who were capable of loving more passionately. It wouldn't be fair for him to get in her way. He imagined that she had already met someone who was better for her but couldn't bring herself to tell him.
He helped her move and called her regularly for the next few weeks to hear how she was doing. Perhaps she felt he was nursing her as if she were one of his clients, but she talked to him anyway and tried to sound cheerful. Then she asked him to stop calling.
"You needn't worry about me," she said. "I'm going on vacation and when I come back I'm starting a new life."
They hadn't met since. Apart from hearing that she'd moved to Europe he had lost touch with her. So had Taubman, and Tomas had stopped asking him about her. He hadn't forgotten her, though, and once in Paris he caught himself looking for her. He found this strange, as he had no idea where in Europe she lived. But he could picture her in a city like Paris with her long, slender neck and those birdlike shoulders. Paris or Rome or Florence. That's where shoulders like those belonged.
After that he had been wary in his dealings with women, taking care not to rush into anything. His relationships didn't last long. The women wanted a commitment.
From the airport, Tomas booked a hotel room while waiting for his baggage. He knew the Plaza Hotel was now closed so he tried elsewhere. He liked the old hotels best, where the furnishings were heavy and venerable and time seemed to stand still. Of course he could have spared himself the journey into the city and taken a room at one of the airport hotels, but he knew he wouldn't feel at ease there. Once he had caught the flu and been stuck in an airport hotel in Seattle and the memory still haunted him. The room had been bare, the lighting cold, and all that he could see from the window were a parking lot, a freeway and a warehouse with the logo of a foreign airline. He could still remember the emptiness and silence in the middle of the day, the dirty carpet, the foul-tasting tap water. Overwhelmed by a sense of dread he had checked out, even though he was still running a high fever. It had taken him longer to shake off the dread than the flu.
There was a long wait for the baggage. His thoughts went to Maureen while bags from an earlier flight wound their way past. He had been thinking of her on the plane and after landing, when it became clear that he wouldn't make it to Chicago that night. "She asked about you," Taubman had said. "She's now living in New York."
He loathed being forward. He never cold-called prospective clients, preferring instead to let middlemen make initial contact. But she had asked about him and fate was leading him to the city._Finally he decided to take a chance and called directory assistance.
Maureen Egan. There were two by that name, one on East Seventy-fifth, the other in SoHo. He thought it more likely that she would live on the Upper East Side and quickly tapped the number into his phone so he wouldn't forget it. Yet he didn't call her right away, feeling he needed to give it more thought. It had been such a long time. Ten years. But she had asked after him, and although he hadn't pressed Taubman for any more information he had sensed from the old man that she had asked out of interest. "Apparently she's single again," he had said.
He didn't call until he was in the taxi. It was snowing and traffic was moving slowly.
He almost hung up but stopped himself. When she finally came to the phone he recognized her voice immediately.
"Tomas? I can't believe it."
"I'm sorry to bother you."
"You're not bothering me."
"Taubman told me you were living in New York."
"Where are you? It's a bad connection."
"I'm in a taxi on my way into the city. I was wondering if we could meet."
"I understand if you can't. I just thought it would be good to hear your voice. Taubman told me you were living here now."
"Yes, I moved."
"I understand if you're busy. I shouldn't have bothered you."
"No, we should meet."
"I was going to fly to Chicago tonight but they've canceled all the flights. Are you free tomorrow morning?"
She didn't answer immediately.
"I can't do tomorrow morning," she said then.
"I understand. Perhaps we could just meet next time I'm in town."
"Where are you staying?"
He told her.
"That's not far from here. I could stop by."
"Are you sure that's not an inconvenience? With the weather . . ."
"What did Ira tell you?"
"He said you'd asked about me."
There was a silence, and Tomas was about to repeat that they could just meet another time when she cleared her throat and said: "I'll come by around ten-fifteen."
He was in Manhattan just after nine. The hotel was in the Sixties, between Madison and Fifth. He was greeted warmly and the lighting in the lobby was dim and cozy. His room faced the street, and the porter who carried up his luggage for him said that things had been very busy over the holidays but were now quieting down. There were cut flowers in a vase on the coffee table and chocolates on the pillow. Tomas ran himself a bath.
At ten he went downstairs. He had reserved a table in the library next to the bar where you could have your meals brought to you as you sat in the deep, comfortable armchairs. A fire was burning in the hearth, its warmth reaching out to him and the flames casting a glow on the wood-paneled walls.
Feeling good after his bath, a change of clothes and a slap of aftershave on his cheeks, he decided to have a drink. He savored it slowly while studying the menu the waiter had placed on his table. Maureen. After all these years. Would she have changed? Would she still be as genuine and warm? As . . .
He didn't finish the thought. She was in the doorway when he looked up, wearing a warm coat. She looked the other way so at first he wasn't sure it was her. But when she moved her head his heart leaped and he hurried over to her.
"Maureen," he said.
"It's so good to see you."
They smiled. Not sure whether to shake her hand or kiss her, he did neither.
"It's so good to see you," he repeated. "How long has it been?"
"Ten years," she said.
"Ten years," he repeated as if taken aback. "Are you sure?"
"Yes," she said. "It's ten years."
He helped her out of her coat and handed it to the waiter. They went into the library, she leading the way. She had always been slim, but he thought she had lost weight. Yet she looked good, her face smooth and her eyes clear, though perhaps she seemed a little tired. The veins in her neck that he had stroked so often were still faintly traced.
Excerpted from Valentines by Olaf Olafsson Copyright © 2007 by Olaf Olafsson. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Olaf Olafsson was born in Reykjavík, Iceland, in 1962. He studied physics as a Wien Scholar at Brandeis University. The author of three novels–The Journey Home, Absolution and Walking into the Night–he lives in New York City with his wife and three children.
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