A Week in Books: From digital-media mogul to novelist

Boyd Tonkin
Sunday 21 July 2013 02:32

How would you picture the digital-media mogul who launched PlayStation for Sony and so rapidly seized control of millions of young minds (not to mention parents' wallets) all around the world? As a loud-mouthed, cigar-chomping Manhattan monster, forever in transit between his analyst and cardiologist? As a sinister, pasty-faced geek in a reversed baseball cap, uniting the intellect of Stephen Hawking with the taste of Bart Simpson? The truth turns out to be less credible - and more fascinating - than any stereotype.

You would, surely, never envisage this titan of the digital age as a quiet and reflective literary novelist from Iceland. Yet Olaf Olafsson, who is about to publish his third novel, writes drafts of his sensitive fiction in longhand. He praises ink-on-paper as "a great technology" and tried hard to delay his own children's exposure to computer-games consoles and their "primitive" narratives. He also does a day-job that puts the standard novelist's second-string of university teaching - or newspaper columns - rather in the shade.

Now the vice-president for technology strategy at Time Warner in New York, Olafsson previously ran its digital division after joining the cross-media giant from Sony. There, the Reykjavik-born physics graduate had risen from a humble research job in the mid-1980s. He founded the company's digital entertainment branch, and helped to make PlayStation the free-time distraction of choice for a rising generation that now tends to find it that bit harder to pick up and stay with such subtle, grown-up fiction as, well... Walking into the Night by Olaf Olafsson (Faber £10.99). Inspired by a true story the author heard about a fellow-countryman's grandfather, the novel traces in flashback the life of an Icelander on the wing: Kristjan Benediktsson. In the late 1930s, Kristjan has ended a career packed with evasions and disguises by serving as the trusted butler to the near-bankrupt US press baron William Randolph Hearst - and his mistress, the dimmed starlet Marion Davies - in the grandiose castle at San Simeon on the Pacific coast.

Straight away, two eminent ghosts threaten to haunt this tale: first, of the self-effacing butler's story, perfected by Ishiguro in The Remains of the Day; and second, of the mad, doomed splendour of San Simeon, immortalised by Welles in Citizen Kane. On the whole, Olafsson sidesteps both spectres. In a mosaic of deftly-written fragments, Walking into the Night shows how Kristjan the poor fisherman's son re-made himself over and over again, as a prosperous Reykjavik merchant, as a dutiful bourgeois father and husband, then as a wheeler-dealer - and reckless lover - in New York on the brink of the Jazz Age; and, ultimately, as the discreet gentleman's gentleman who keeps his own secrets by safeguarding his master's.

Kristjan finds relief from a "soul troubled by restlessness" in drawing the birds of Iceland and California. The novel, too, proceeds via colourful sketches of a life in flight. It switches between Europe and America, past and present, first- and third-person, always shaded by a striking sense of the thrills and losses of the migrant's progress.

Some of Olafsson's senior colleagues might fret about his portrait of Hearst as an out-of-touch media tycoon marooned in obsession. The rest us us can just enjoy an elegant and moving novel that knows, and shows, the value of tact, selection and economy. However, I doubt that Olafsson will set a trend for delicate watercolour fiction among the digital aristocracy. After all, he was born back in 1962. In their line of business, that makes him almost as much of a Jurassic-era throwback as the pixellated dinosaurs that star in some favourite PlayStation games.

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