Callum McAllister reviews HISTORY. A MESS. by Sigrún Pálsdóttir

Translated from the Icelandic by Lytton Smith (Open Letter Books 2019)

In an interview with Splice, translator Lytton Smith explains 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.” Many contemporary Icelandic authors, such as Sjón for instance, write in the tradition of Sagas. As such they are more concerned with storytelling as a craft, fidelity to emotional truth above accuracy to facts, and the potential of surrealism and magical realism as dominant literary modes. Notions of absolute truth are given little weight—at least, not at the expense of a good story.

Yet Sigrún Pálsdóttir’s novel, History. A Mess., centers around a seemingly hard historical fact: a single page of text, the existence of which could make or break an academic career.

The novel opens with our protagonist, 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 her supervisor’s 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.” 

Although a description of S.B.’s diary, these lines could equally describe the narrator’s own testimony. The novel is told entirely through her first-person 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 the narrator returns to her native Reykjavík, very little changes: she spends much of her time in deliberate isolation indoors.

Alone in her apartment for days on end, she suffers from persistent migraines and intense “imposter syndrome,” a feeling familiar to any female academic in a traditionally male-dominated field. But we soon learn that she has made an apparently dramatic discovery. A single page of S.B.’s diary, a single passage, suggests something far more interesting than authorship of a famous portrait. It suggests that S.B. may have been a woman: Britain’s first professional female artist.

The manuscript, and by extension her own research, now seems deeply profound. Buried in S.B.’s unremarkable prose, she finds proof of her womanhood: “And now the mundanity itself had gained meaning; there was some feminine behavior to that! To these dreary repetitions.”

And yet, everything remains the same: despite this discovery, the narrator’s thesis remains inexplicably unfinished. Returning to Rekyjavik, she spends her life locked in her apartment, ignoring the outside world. We see the comings and goings of family and friends, though through the voice of the narrator they seem somehow mute. Indeed, our narrator’s testimony takes on the quality of the manuscript she has been reading. Her world is humble and domestic, dreary and repetitive.  

And then out of the mundane, there appears something new: a mysterious door in her apartment: “Am I creating suspense and expectation out of the unsaid, seeking something to rack my brain over amid my intolerable existence? Might I have taken it upon myself to imagine a door, given the dead-end my life has run into?”

It transpires later in the novel that the door is merely a door: nothing lies beyond it, except a small closet. But it does not matter, ultimately, 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, too. We soon learn that the narrator 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 attempt to hide the truth. She defaces the manuscript, tearing out the offending page without taking the time to properly understand what it says, and returns to Reykjavík prematurely 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 skilfully conveys her neurotic, internal experience, which often expresses possibilities, thoughts, speculation, and interpretations instead of an external reality. Smith’s prose makes heavy use of the passive voice throughout, 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 lingering reminder that our experience is being constantly mediated through our narrator. Much of the novel takes place entirely within her own imagination, comprising theoreticals and possibilities rather than concrete actions. Take one passage where she imagines her friends on a weekend away, a trip she was invited to attend but turned down:

“I lie awake, eyes closed. I know my friends are not yet going to bed; they’ll be up in the paneled living room. [...] Are they talking about me right now? Shouldn’t they be asking themselves what’s up with my thesis; most of them must know I should have finished it by now. Bonný immediately comes to my defense [...] No, it’s rather unlikely such a conversation is taking place at the cabin.”

Passages transition from first-person singular to first-person plural, and then second-person, until the self entirely evaporates from the text, and until conjecture becomes certainty. Throughout the novel, a passage will begin as speculation, but a few sentences later the 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.

However, 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.

At one point in the middle of the novel, her father-in-law speculates “‘What would happen, for example, if this manuscript you spent so much time researching vanished? Perished. What would happen to your research? Could you still submit your dissertation?’”

Unwittingly, his question probes at some of her deepest insecurities. However, the idea that a missing manuscript could nullify one’s research is, in some ways, ridiculous. It implies that the academic’s job is tantamount to nonsense in the absence of lasting evidence and indisputable facts. History is more slippery than that. She leaves his question unanswered, but wonders herself: “Is archival research a special case of the general messiness of life?” Instead of grappling with what that might mean, she locates that “messiness” within herself, blaming her own inadequacies for the tangled web of history.

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 also interpreted. This kind of research is a meaningful act in itself, regardless of what it uncovers. It’s worthwhile even if the manuscript is mislaid or destroyed, just as a translation still has literary merit even if the original is lost.

Without seeming to realize it, the narrator has a knack for this kind of literary interpretation. When reading the diary of S.B., 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, the narrator unintentionally excavates the personal histories of people she sees on the street, reading them like found texts, and imbuing them with her own interpretation and flair: “Guðlaug Otterstedt’s narrative rises before me; the sentences arranged one after another, and 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 retold and rewritten in 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, what they mean to us, and how they inform the present. In the final pages of the novel, when we finally 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 in a manuscript, which were once overlooked and are destined one day to be forgotten again. The truth is irrelevant in comparison to that infectious idea—that perhaps, lost somewhere in the words of a forgotten diary, there might be evidence of the first female artist in British history. That the great stories of history might lie in unremarkable manuscripts.