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Ólafur Jóhann Sigurðsson: Bréf séra Böðvars (Pastor Bodvar’s Letter)

This is not really a novel but merely a long short story but, as it was published separately in both Icelandic and English, it is appearing here. It tells of one day in the life of retired pastor Bodvar V Gunnlaugsson or, as he has on the nameplate by the door of his flat, pastor emeritus. As the title shows, the book starts with his writing a letter. He is writing to Svava, his only daughter, who lives on Long Island and whom he misses. However, he can think of nothing to say. He abandons the letter and only returns to it towards the end of the book. Again, he can think of nothing to say- nothing much happens in his life – and then says how much he misses her and, finally, decides to write about her great-grandmother Katrin, reminisce about her childhood, encourage her to learn some patriotic poems and give her some fatherly advice. In the meantime, he has a fairly uneventful day, though he does try to work on his memoirs, Fragments of Memory, but makes little progress. Indeed, he has made made little progress for some time, finding it difficult to concentrate as he gets older. He also writes occasional articles for The Church Journal but, to his wife’s disgust, asks no payment for these articles.

Bodvar lives with his wife, Gudrid. They clearly do not get on well, constantly bickering and disagreeing. He is easy-going and tends to generally want to avoid any confrontation. She is a determined woman and thinks that he should stand up for himself more. He has spent the morning shopping, rereading an article he has written and cleaning his pipe. After lunch, he had read the paper and had dozed a bit. The first evidence of conflict comes when his wife turns on the radio and listens to one of her favourite radio programmes. As far as he is concerned, it was this squalling and squalling, awful noises, like cats yowling. When there is finally a song that he can enjoy listening to, one of Schubert’s lieder, she turns the radio off. He decides to go out for a walk but Gudrid wants to accompany him. He wants to take a few bits of bread to feed the ducks but she is reluctant to give him any bread, as she is saving it to make bread-and-butter pudding. Finally, she reluctantly gives him a few bits but she carries the bag. She does not like his hat and he does not like hers. He talks to the neighbour in the downstairs flat but she is critical of them. Things get worse when, on a whim, he goes off to the baker’s to buy a loaf of bread so that there will be enough for the ducks, while she feeds them with the bread she had brought and then, to his disgust, proceeds to throw the empty bag in the water.

Things get even worse when they meet Gussi. Gussi had painted their old house several years ago but they had not seen him for a while. Gudrid is happy to chat to him but Bodvar considers that he is a wastrel. He seems to be going out for a boat ride and but is going to shoot eider ducks, which are a protected species. Bodvar is even more annoyed when Gudrid asks him to paint their roof, which is rusty, both because Bodvar is unaware that the roof needs painting and that she should not be asking someone to paint it, without consulting the neighbours. Just to annoy him, she calls him by his middle name, Viktor, which he hates and which she knows that he hates. Disagreements continue between the two till they get home, when he returns to his study and tries to resume writing the letter to Svava.

Bodvar is aware that he should not react to Gudrid’s remarks. He who ruleth his spirit is better than he who taketh a city, he says to himself. He had been a writer. Indeed, he has written some poems, which he keeps hidden away and he is considering destroying, as he does not want anyone else to see them, though he had been thinking of giving them to the National Library. He even gets some small stipend from the government for his writings. It is this writing – his memoirs, his articles and his letters to Svava – which have kept him going but which he increasingly neglects. It is an interesting little tale, well told and with a tinge of sadness that two lives have faded away the way Pastor Bodvar’s and his wife’s have, with something of a surprise ending. It is one of the few of his works translated into English.

Publishing history

First published 1965 by Heimskringla
First published in English 1985 by Penumbra Press
Translated by George Johnston