Ólafur Jóhann Ólafsson (Olaf Olafsson): Höll minninganna (Walking into the Night)
I have been fortunate enough to twice visit San Simeon, better known as Hearst Castle, home of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, though in this book Hearst himself is adamant that it not be called a castle. Hearst has appeared in fiction in other books, though interestingly enough, the Wikipedia link does not refer to the two books on this site in which he appears – this one and Aldous Huxley‘s After Many a Summer (US: After Many a Summer Dies the Swan). San Simeon is a magnificent place, opulent to excess and beautifully situated on a hilltop in a remote part of California, overlooking the sea. If you are not able to visit it, you can get a glimpse of what it is like in the most famous fictional incarnation of Hearst, the film Citizen Kane. This novel is set, to a great extent, at San Simeon, while Hearst lived there.
Christian Benediktsson – he has anglicised his name from the Icelandic Kristjan – is Hearst’s factotum at San Simeon. He is responsible for ensuring that everything goes well, from the way the table is laid to ensuring deliveries are made, from looking after the comfort of Hearst’s guests to being at Hearst’s personal beck and call anytime, day or night. He has an army of staff to assist in this task. In particular, there are three rules that must be obeyed. Bad language is forbidden. Guests must not get drunk. This means that they are limited to the number of drinks they can have and, if they look as though they are getting drunk, then they must not be served any more alcohol. This applies, in particular, to Marion Davies, Hearst’s mistress who has habit of sneaking alcohol in. The final rule is that there is to be no extramarital sex. Any guest indulging in extramarital sex will be asked to leave the next day. This is somewhat hypocritical, as Hearst was sleeping with Marion Davies, while he had a wife and family back East.
The story is told in a mixture of the first and third person but it is generally easy to see who is referred to. The focus is on Kristjan. We follow his daily life at San Simeon, which he never seems to leave. He is devoted to his job and Hearst. The story starts in 1937. We know that Hearst faced huge debts at that time and a court-ordered liquidation of many of his assets led to his losing much of his power. We follow these events in the novel, as the parties dry up, many of the huge amount of items he bought are sold and Hearst is disempowered. Kristjan does not get paid for a long period (he does not seem to mind) and spends as much time with the court-appointed administrator as with Hearst.
But there is another story going on at the same time. Much of what we learn initially is in letters to someone called Elisabet, letters which Kristjan writes but does not send, merely putting them in a drawer. We gradually learn about Kristjan’s earlier life. He came from a poor family – his father was a fisherman – and he had had to make his own way. He had gone to Copenhagen, where he worked as a waiter. He had studied on his own but could not afford to sign up for classes at the Commercial College at Copenhagen, as he would have liked. While working as a waiter, he met Elisabet, an Icelandic woman, who was much better-off than he was. Her father was a successful importer-exporter. He pretended that he was studying at the College and later produced a forged diploma from it. Elisabet takes to him and they eventually get married. He joins her father’s firm and soon discovers that it is heavily in debt. He tells no-one but gradually makes the firm a success again. Elisabet and her relatives thinks he has been handed a successful company on a silver platter. During World War I, he travels to the US, where he does business with Andrew Jones. He meets and falls in love with Jones’ fiancée, Klara, a Swedish exotic dancer. A succession of events finds him meeting Hearst while working at the Waldorf and, eventually, being hired by Hearst.
One of Olaf Olafsson’s favourite themes is about people making a mistake in their past and trying to repair the damage that the mistake caused, though that is not always really possible, as things inevitably change. While this theme comes through in this book, the main interest is undoubtedly in Kristjan’s time at San Simeon and his relationship with Hearst and, to a lesser extent, with Marion Davies. Kristjan tends to keep his feelings and thoughts to himself, not telling his wife about the problems her father’s firm faced and not telling Hearst over the sixteen years that he works for him anything about his private life. Whether you admire the phlegmatic Icelander who makes a selfish judgement call in his life which has a profound effect on others may depend on your point of view but there is no doubt that Ólafsson tells a fascinating tale both about Kristjan and about Hearst.
First published 2001 by Vaka-Helgafell
First published in English 2003 by Pantheon