Jonas Jonasson’s novels are hard to miss in Sweden, with their striking and consistent titles and cover designs. Yet at the same time they’re nearly invisible, fading into the background, precisely because they’re everywhere: the books that everyone’s read, to the point where it feels not at all urgent because at this point you’ll pick it up via cultural osmosis. So I never gave much thought to Hundraåringen beyond rescuing it from the junk pile at a friend’s apartment just to have it around—just in case—but promptly forgot about it, except to periodically confuse it with A Man Called Ove. What finally got me to pick it up was 1) a personal recommendation from a friend and 2) its appearance as Sweden’s entry in the EuroVision book contest.
“Finally, we’re releasing more than Nordic noir into the world,” I thought.
An SFI classmate years ago described Hundraåringen to me as “a Swedish Forrest Gump” and that just about covers it: 100-year-old Allan, as the title suggests, climbs out the window of his room at the senior home on the morning of his birthday because he’s just utterly fed up with living there. (If I’m reading later subtext correctly, it’s more an act of depression than adventure.) Things start happening as soon as he encounters a young man with a suitcase at the nearest bus station, and the adventure afterwards is interspersed with his life story, which is filled with some of the most significant events and people of the twentieth century. There Allan is in the margins of the Spanish civil war, the development of the atomic bomb, the downfall of the Soviet Union, and on and on it goes. Throughout all of this, Allan is phlegmatic and unflappable, escaping from political prisons and dispatching would-be criminals with fatalistic indifference.
Jonasson is careful—or thorough, maybe, is the better word?—to make use of every detail so that simple gags become essential plot elements. These moments would fall flat in a more serious or melodramatic story, and feel like deus ex machina, but because the whole story is farcical from beginning to end it instead becomes just a more elaborate joke, elevated from physical comedy to long-form setup and payoff.
From a translation perspective there are a couple words and jokes that I’m curious to see handled in English, so of course now I have to read it again in English. But by all accounts it seems to land well with English speaking readers.
Fresh out of college, I read At Swim-Two-Birds at the recommendation of a friend who went on a bit of an Irish literature kick after studying at Trinity College Dublin. Not long after that, I stumbled across The Best of Myles on a visit to The Strand in New York City; so well disposed was I to Brian O’Nolan that I added it to my basket. Plus it was an old, possibly original hardback edition (and pretty beat up at that), and I’m a sucker for old books.
And then it languished in my collection for something like thirteen years!
Push came to shove when an Irish co-worker moved into a new apartment. “Wouldn’t that make for a reasonably appropriate housewarming gift?” I thought. And then later, as I read it: “It certainly makes more sense in his library than in yours.”
Not that I didn’t enjoy it, or that it’s not funny, but I’m not Irish and I have yet to do an obsessive deep dive into Irish history*, so a good portion of the references were beyond me, including the occasional section written in Irish. Hardly surprising, considering that O’Nolan’s “Cruiskeen Lawn” column anthologized in the collection was written in both English and Irish.
An overall fun read, and a reminder that I should dip my toe back in the pool of O’Nolan’s novels. There aren’t that many, after all, so might as well read the entire collection.
*The universe seems to have heard my request in this matter and brought Fintan O’Toole as a guest on one of my favorite podcasts. I immediately put a hold on We Don’t Know Ourselves at the Stockholm library.
Sometimes the books we read transcend their mere bookishness in the world and become something akin to life milestones, mementos of a particular point in our lives. Under the Net is a fantastic book on its own, made all the more fantastic for me because I bought it at the now-defunct “What The Book?” in Seoul and read the bulk of it in Gimpo airport, hoping against hope that a seat would open up after I missed my initial flight to Jeju. (One did. I had a great time.) Naturally that specific copy that I own, with the handwritten note to the previous owner and a What The Book? receipt still in it, immediately transports me to South Korea in July 2012. But any discussion of that book in general, or Iris Murdoch generally, will also bring along memories of that time of my life.
Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow and Jerome K. Jerome is similarly of a specific time for me, though in a grimmer way. An acquaintance recommended it (another left field book) sometime in 2019 and close on to winter I was reading a free ebook version from Project Gutenberg on the subway to work. I remember closing the ereader app and pocketing my phone as I came up the stairs of Hötorget, dawn only just getting started, everything still half-dark. I remember pulling my phone out on my way home in the evening and dashing off a quick message to them to say, Thanks for the rec, this is hilarious! before opening the ereader app back up for the return trip.
And then I didn’t have many commutes for a long time after that, for some reason!
I also forgot about Idle Thoughts for a long while, though whether that’s because of Covid or because of my own distractability is hard to say. Here I am, three years later, and I finally finished it, and now the book has become emblematic of my journey through coronatider.
Well, that’s a bit melodramatic. I have a good memory for a lot of things, but I would be hard pressed to summarize the entire collection and tell you which essays I finished before Covid, which during, and which after (if you want to say that there’s an after, which is debatable). Another book that needs no review, no introduction, no hype; Jerome has earned his place in English literary history. But for all of that historicity, reading Idle Thoughts today feels surprisingly fresh and relevant. Plus ça change.