History. A Mess. by Sigrún Pálsdóttir (transl. Lytton Smith) ‘This day, after I was redie, I did eate my breakfast’

Cover image for History. A Mess. by Sigrún Pálsdóttir Given that I live with an historian whose PhD we both suffered through, it was inevitable that I would read Icelandic writer Sigrún Pálsdóttir’s History. A Mess. That and it’s published by the excellent Peirene Press who have recently moved to my hometown. Pálsdóttir’s novella follows an unnamed narrator convinced that she’s discovered the identity of England’s first woman artist while transcribing the journal which forms the basis of her research. Five years later, things go disastrously wrong.

I suspect that his reaction would be sensible. And prudence is no use to me now. My problem calls for a radical solution.

When her scientist husband gets a job in Britain, our narrator goes with him taking up graduate study with a professor who points her at a seventeenth-century text whose interpretation will bolster his own career. Transcribing S. B.’s journal is a tedious process, each day beginning with the same sentence, but after almost a year our narrator comes across a single line on which her entire argument will hinge. Five years later, in the final stages of writing up her thesis and back in the archives, she discovers something that undermines her findings throwing her into a quandary so severe that she becomes ill. Back in Reykjavik, living in a rented apartment hastily arranged by her mother, our narrator begins to unravel. She’s done what she can to ward off disgrace when her thesis is published but cannot find it in herself to destroy the evidence. Driven to distraction, she eventually turns to her mother for help.

Fear is that little darkroom where misconceptions are developed.

Pálsdóttir’s book is a distinctly disorientating read. As our narrator becomes increasingly unhinged, she explores memories, hallucinates, has imagined conversations and frets about what she has done – we don’t find out what that is and how it has come about until the final section of the book. There are flashes of dark humour: her didactic mother, always to be consulted on matters of art, is almost a figure of fun yet she is the person who has wielded most influence on our narrator, the person she turns to in order to rescue her reputation. It’s not an easy read – Peirenes often aren’t – but I found it fascinating. Some descriptions of the withdrawal into a tiny, abstruse world which only the researcher understands rang loud bells for me. I’m relieved to say H emerged from his PhD unscarred but then he didn’t have to resort to our narrator’s tactics, at least not that I’m aware.

Peirene Press: Bath 9781908670755 173 pages Paperback

29 thoughts on “History. A Mess. by Sigrún Pálsdóttir (transl. Lytton Smith) ‘This day, after I was redie, I did eate my breakfast’”

  1. Well. This does sound a fascinating and probably rewarding read. It doesn’t jump out as one I should buy for myself, or encourage the library to buy, so I wonder if I will get the chance to test it out?

    1. They’re always rewarding! I think studying for a PhD should come with a health warning. When H was supervising quite a few of his students had problems. It’s so isolating.

  2. As a current PhD hopeful, I can attest to how very easy it can be to lose perspective, even identity, in the quest for thesis gold…

  3. I had to laugh at “whose PhD we both suffered through” — that was definitely true of my husband and me. I was his proofreader at least twice, and had to do all the cooking, etc. during the manic last few weeks before submission. I didn’t realize Peirene had moved premises. This sounds vaguely similar to Hustvedt’s The Blazing World.

  4. Oh this sounds very interesting. I like how Pereine are so good at finding short but intense fiction. Not always easy reads but generally very rewarding.

  5. Well, PhD should not be that stressful. One of my professor used to say if it’s stress for you you better give it up. That was in Europe where I made mine. When I taught at universities on the American continent I was amazed how easy it’s there in comparison.
    Nevertheless, we think we would like this novel. We’ll have a look at it.
    Thanks for making us aware of this author
    The Fab Four of Cley
    🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

  6. This sounds fascinating, the Icelandic setting particularly appeals. Though with the central character moving to England for a while adds an extra interest quite apart from the story of her research, which makes for a good story itself.

  7. I stopped reading Peirene’s books a few years ago, mostly because I was finding them too depressing. It’s a shame, as I like their core concept – short books that can be read it one or two sitting, new voices from Europe etc – but I wish they weren’t so overwhelming / intense! This does sound quite intriguing though, and I can see why you were attracted to it given the connections it sparked…

    1. I do know what you mean. Some have been a bit too much for me – Soviet Milk and The Empress and the Cake, for instance . This one’s not a walk in the park but it’s not as harrowing as either of those two.

  8. “History. A Mess” is an engaging and thought-provoking book that challenges readers to reconsider their understanding of history.
    The authors argue that historians have often ignored the messiness of history – the multiple and competing interpretations of events, the long-term effects of decisions made by individuals and societies, and the interconnectedness of events across time and space. Instead, they propose a more nuanced and interdisciplinary approach to history that takes into account the messiness of historical processes.
    One of the strengths of this book is its accessibility. The authors write in a clear and engaging style, using vivid examples and anecdotes to illustrate their arguments. They also draw on a wide range of disciplines, from sociology to geography, to show how different perspectives can shed light on complex historical phenomena.
    Another strength of the book is its relevance to current debates about the role of history in society. The authors argue that by acknowledging the messiness of history, historians can better equip themselves to address contemporary issues such as social inequality, environmental degradation, and political polarization.
    However, some readers may find the book’s arguments challenging, particularly those who have a more traditional view of history. The authors are unapologetic in their critique of the discipline, and some readers may find their arguments confrontational.
    Overall, “History. A Mess” is a valuable contribution to the field of history. It challenges readers to rethink their understanding of the past and offers a compelling argument for a more interdisciplinary and nuanced approach to the discipline.

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