This month’s Asymptote Book Club selection, History. A Mess. by Sigrún Pálsdóttir, asks us to reconsider our understanding of how history is constructed. The protagonist, an academic who “leads an almost unpunctuated domestic existence of solitude and paranoia,” makes a shocking discovery about the secret identity of a seventeenth-century writer—and then seems to disprove her own theory. As the protagonist becomes increasingly unstable, her erratic prose leads the reader to reflect on the tenuous boundary between stories and history.
Lytton Smith’s translation of History. A Mess. is the twentieth title selected by the Asymptote Book Club, which brings outstanding translated fiction to readers each month. You can sign up to receive next month’s book on our website or join the online discussion on our Facebook page.
Translator Lytton Smith told Splice that “the Icelandic language doesn’t have two distinct words for story and history. It uses the same word, saga, and so those two ways of writing are more closely connected for Icelanders than they are for us.” As such, they are more concerned with storytelling as a craft, fidelity to emotional truth above accuracy to facts. Yet Sigrún Pálsdóttir’s novel, History. A Mess., seemingly centers around historical fact: a text whose existence could make or break an academic career.
The novel opens with a nameless female historian in the midst of a thankless transcription. She has spent six months poring over the seventeenth-century diary of “S.B.,” looking for solid proof of a theory: that S.B. painted the famous British portrait of Viscount Tom Jones. But in the first two hundred pages, she finds nothing except “rigid, rather uninspiring testimony to a humble existence, an existence to which it was practically impossible to accord any greater meaning.”
These lines could equally describe the narrator’s testimony. The novel is told entirely through her voice, as she leads an almost unpunctuated domestic existence of solitude and paranoia. In Oxford, her life consists of relentless academic research, without end and seemingly without value. When the novel jumps forward in time and she returns to her native Reykjavík, little changes: alone in her apartment for days, she suffers from persistent migraines and intense “imposter syndrome,” a feeling familiar to any female academic in a male-dominated field.
We soon learn that she has made an apparently dramatic discovery. A single passage in S.B.’s diary suggests something far more interesting than authorship of a famous portrait: S.B. may have been a woman, Britain’s first professional female artist. The manuscript—and by extension, the narrator’s own research—now seems profound, yet everything remains the same: her thesis goes inexplicably unfinished and, returning to Rekyjavik, she spends her life indoors.
Then out of the mundane, there appears something new—a mysterious door in her apartment: “Might I have taken it upon myself to imagine [it], given the dead-end my life has run into?” It transpires later that the door is merely a door: nothing lies beyond it. But it does not matter whether it was imagined or real, because its very possibility is disturbing to the narrator. She imagines that people might live behind it, or that it leads to another building. She covers it with a shawl, hoping that no one else will notice it, and frequently hides behind it herself when she hopes to go unseen.
This echoes her approach to her thesis. We soon learn that she discovered another page in the artist’s diary, one that she believes disproves her theory and confirms that S.B. was, in fact, a man. Her reaction is, once again, to hide the truth. She defaces the manuscript, tearing out the offending page without taking the time to properly understand it, and returns to Reykjavík in order to flee potential academic scrutiny.
The narrator’s prose begins to break down under the weight of her panic and self-doubt. As her state of mind becomes increasingly fraught, Lytton Smith’s adept translation conveys her neurotic inner experience, which often expresses speculation instead of external reality. Smith’s prose makes heavy use of the passive voice, creating the sense of a self that is somewhat removed from the fray of life. This, along with the use of indirect and reported speech, is a reminder that our own experience is being constantly mediated through our narrator.
Some passages, however, transition from first-person singular to first-person plural, and then second-person, until the self entirely evaporates. A passage will begin as speculation, but a few sentences later qualifications are dropped. Instead of “I think,” “I imagine,” or “I know,” events are simply stated, as though uncomplicated and factual. As references to the self begin to abate, we forget that we are reading someone else’s testimony and begin to take speculation as hard truth.
This is the nature of written testimony. Our experience of the world is filtered through the lens of self, just as our understanding of history is comprised of arbitrary accounts and found documents, which cannot help being misinterpreted or even lost. History is not a list of incontrovertible facts. At the end of the day, a manuscript is a constructed literary text—one that needs to be not just transcribed but interpreted. This kind of research is a meaningful act in itself, regardless of what it uncovers.
Without seeming to realize it, the narrator has a knack for such literary interpretation. When reading S.B.’s diary, she takes what she finds within its mundane entries and runs with it, creating a story that adds meaning to her personal life. Later in the novel, she unintentionally excavates the histories of people on the street, reading them like found texts and imbuing them with her own interpretation and flair: “I realize they will finally get their meaning, once put together into a whole. In my retelling, it goes like this.”
That retelling, like the stories of the great Icelandic sagas, may be more valuable than what really happened. What matters is how we tell stories of the past, and in turn, how they inform the present. In the final pages, when we learn the truth about S.B.—or at least, what the academic consensus will be—it feels somewhat unimportant. The narrator’s anguish looks like a grand farce: so much pain over a few words, once overlooked and destined to be forgotten again. The truth is irrelevant compared to that infectious idea—that the great stories of history might lie in unremarkable manuscripts.
Callum McAllister is a writer, musician, and bookseller from Bristol, UK. He is assistant editor of The Cardiff Review, a magazine of contemporary writing. His work has also appeared in Entropy, Full Stop, and The Millions. He tweets at @CallyMcA.
Read more from the Asymptote Book Club: