Friday 5 April 2024

The Critic

 by  Ólafur Gunnarsson 

(from the short story collection Herörin og fleiri sögur Forlagið 2023)

It is fair to say that he had been at my heels like a wolf since I started writing. It was not the bad reviews of my books of poetry, novels and short stories that bothered me the most, but the fact that  the man could never remember my name.

He had this to say about my first book of poems: "Bleak miniatures from Reykjavík nightlife. The author is set in clay.”

We first met at the publisher's Christmas party. I wanted to show that I harboured no ill feelings towards him, so I said hello and introduced myself. I could see no sign on his face that he knew who I was, even though he had led many people to show me sympathy after that bad review. 

My next work, two years later, was a five hundred-page novel about seafarers. I had been foolish enough to mention in an interview that I was writing the Independent People of the sea, and his response to the book was not positive: “The author has made it clear that he is writing a novel about seafarers inspired by Halldor Laxness’s rural chronicle, something that evades my comprehension. Of this it can only be said: unlike father, unlike son.”

And then he wrote a contemptuous full-page article. Yet it was the publisher's Christmas party, and I wanted to let the jerk know that he hadn't hurt me with the nasty stab in the back he had inflicted. He stood with his glass of white wine in the group of authors, giving a speech that I knew would be well received. I walked up to the group, offered my hand, and was about to introduce myself: Björn Örlygsson. However, he beat me to it and said, "Well, hello there, Gummi." The group chuckled, and I  retreated in embarrassment. The room around me misted over, and I staggered toward the exit to catch my breath and steady myself in the winter air. That is how those holidays went, and I no longer found any joy in my book about the seamen and their families. Some readers did praise me, but what pleasure was there in it when the wolf had already torn the heart from the book?

I began to keep track of what he produced. Sometimes he wrote provocative stuff but none of it was harsh. None of it approached the disgust he had let out about me. 

To my great astonishment the publishing house released a book by him, an anthology of Icelandic literature in which he was extensively involved. I wasn’t even mentioned in it. Presumably he didn't want to get his hands dirty. Another critic wrote a review of the anthology where he came to the conclusion that "Karl Kristjánsson's article on Laxness’s work is rubbish." I sang with joy! There, he got a taste of his own medicine. I walked around the city that day like the hero of Hamsun’s Hunger, crooning to myself far into the night:  “Rubbish, rubbish, the article on Laxness’s work is rubbish.”

It was time for the Christmas party, and I was looking forward to it. I was certain that Kalli the Critic, as he was known, would not dare to show up. But, lo and behold, the boor made his appearance. And he was in a good mood. I hesitated to greet him, thinking that the harsh criticism might have affected him, but that wasn't the case. He shook my hand and said, “Well, hello there, Gummi.” However, I could still see in his eyes that he knew who I was.

"My only joy was that his hand was cold, like a frozen haddock. It revealed his inner self. That he felt bad. 


Now nine years had passed. In these nine years, I had published five books, all of which had received positive reviews except from Kalli the Critic.

I decided to put everything into the writing of my next book and throw caution to the winds. What did I have to lose? The articles of my tormentor had had such an impact that my status with my publisher had been significantly weakened. I delivered a lengthy book in which I leaned towards the style of Joyce’s Ulysses. And the reception was instant. “It is a pleasure for me,” he wrote, “to make  the author of this novel feel it is a vain hope that the scribblers of our time can measure themselves against the great bards, Laxness last year, Joyce this time.”

So that was that. But during the time I worked on this book it was only by intensely training with weights that it was possible for me to calm my nerves because of the review I knew was coming. I could now bench press 124 kilos.

I went to the Christmas party again. I felt as though everyone was staring at me and whispering, and some of the staff of the publishing house didn't even bother to greet me. That's how it was for me with the people who published my books. I couldn't let it pass without going to greet the man. No one should suspect anything bad about me! And then he replied to my greeting with these words:  “Yes, hello there, dear Gummi.”

Dear Gummi.

“My name is Björn!” I shouted.  “I am Björn! And your article about Laxness’s work was rubbish. Rubbish. Rubbish. Rubbish.” 

It cut to the quick, but none of the authors who witnessed this outburst dared to smile.

I know where you live!" I exclaimed. "Do you realise that I know where you live?"

He did not respond, and I stormed out of the party, my mind far away. I wandered through the streets of Reykjavik in the cold and dark until dawn.

Now spring has come, the birds are singing, and the verdict was delivered today. It states, among other things: "The accused was found guilty of assaulting the victim outside his home. The assailant attacked the victim and caused various injuries: facial injuries, as the assailant stomped on the victim's head. Bruises on the neck. Also, injuries to the chest. A finger dislocated from its joint. Fractures from repeated kicks to the side. After the assault the victim has suffered from severe depression and is afraid to leave his home due to a fear that the assailant is waiting for him. As a result, the court's decision is that the assailant should pay the victim two million kronur in compensation and serve a nine-month conditional sentence. Additionally, he must cover all the legal costs of his defender, one hundred and seventy thousand kronur, as well as the fees of the victim’s  lawyer, one hundred and sixty thousand."

The verdict was delivered today.

The critic was present, and for the first time he greeted me by my full name.

My right name.

Of course I am indifferent to this verdict. Regarding the judgment, the defendant has this to say: People should not write criticism if they are in poor physical shape. 

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