Olaf Olafsson

"Walking into the Night"

(Reviewed by Mary Whipple NOV 11 2003)

"I'll always be a stranger here, so there is little to remind me of what I miss, and this makes it easier for me to discipline my thoughts. Though I can still be caught unawares. It doesn't take much, no more than the outline of a pale cheek glimpsed through the trees. I try to perform my duties diligently and occupy my mind with as many small details as I can, because it makes the time pass faster and prevents things from stealing into my mind."

The true story of a successful Icelandic businessman, husband, and father who ran away to become a butler in a foreign country is Olafsson's inspiration for this novel of guilt and its relentless grip on a man's psyche in the aftermath of his "escape" from home. Christian (formerly Kristjan) Benediktsson, the seriously flawed main character, has been the butler to William Randolph Hearst for sixteen years when the novel opens in 1937, at Hearst's famed Read excerptcastle, San Simeon. Though conscientious and proud that he has never had to spend a single night in the servants' quarters, Christian tells us in the opening pages that he is haunted by ghosts of the past. A soft breeze can, at unexpected moments, cause him to imagine someone breathing on his neck: "Klara, is that you again?" he whispers, unexpectedly, while working on the guest list for one of Hearst's costume balls.

Recently, too, he has begun writing letters to "Elizabeth," filing them away, rather than mailing them. As he reminisces about events that occurred in 1909, with his courtship and marriage to this same Elizabeth, he expresses his admiration and love for her, and the reader immediately becomes caught up in Christian's past and the reasons for his escape from Iceland. Christian had made a huge journey, socially, from a poor fishing community to a position of prominence in Reykjavik and had married a woman he adored, yet he abandoned it all, suddenly fleeing to Copenhagen, where he discovered "I could leave the past behind." Becoming Hearst's butler, a few months later, "I felt as if a whole new world was opening up before me," Christian explains. "It was as if [San Simeon] had been built expressly for me to lose myself in, and I managed to do so successfully for years." Now, however, the past has invaded his consciousness, and he tries to assuage his guilt by telling himself that "wanderlust is the sign of a born traveler, this longing to be free," while admitting that "when I am depressed I see how pathetic an excuse this is."

In addition to Christian's life in Iceland, Olafsson also gives us the life of William Randolph Hearst, his parties and guests-David Niven, Bette Davis, Carole Lombard, Rudolf Valentino, and Clark Gable, along with the omnipresent actress Marion Davies. Though there are some sharp contrasts in terms of scale, the reader quickly sees innumerable parallels between the life of Christian and that of Hearst himself. Christian's affair with Klara is not unlike the long-standing relationship between the married Hearst and actress Marion Davies, and the financial house of cards which Hearst oversees reverberates in the financial shakiness of Christian's shipping business in Iceland, the consequences differing only in degree. Both men hope they will be able to create new worlds in San Simeon.

The futility of this hope is reflected in the striking nature imagery with which Olafsson describes San Simeon, which is by no means a paradise, however much Christian and Hearst would like to think it is. "Before Hearst arrived with his plans, there was nothing on these hills but sunbaked gravel, the odd oak that had managed to put down roots...[and] dry creek beds which ran out in the middle of the plain, having abandoned the attempt to reach the sea." The old fishing village of San Simeon lies "so empty and silent it seems even the Almighty has overlooked it." No matter how much control Hearst may try to exert over the outside world, San Simeon's natural state is one of desolation.

Christian's life, too, is closely linked with nature. He abhors the confinement of Hearst's zoo animals-the lion, antelope, leopard, and puma, with their constant roaring--because "None of them belonged here." He once rescues a mouse from inside the house, takes it outside to the garden, covers it with a leaf, and feeds it cheese, noticing "that its gaze showed unconditional trust." He is particularly sensitive to birds and even tries to paint the bluebirds which have nested outside his window, though he is unsuccessful in capturing their color. Other birds bring back memories: a sandpiper, an eagle catching an eider duck, a godwit, an oystercatcher following a casket, a golden plover. Yet despite his seeming identification with the birds, Christian cannot overcome his own nature-the inherent selfishness we have seen in his treatment of his family and Klara. He tells us, "This morning I woke up early because I'd made up my mind to try to draw the hawk today. The bird is lying on my table; I shot it yesterday. It had been making a nuisance of itself."

As the story of Christian's life unfolds, and his remorse-filled memories continue, the past begins to catch up with the present. When, in a natural disaster reminiscent of hell, the laurels in the ravine near the castle catch fire and burn, and Christian, working tirelessly, saves the residence, he is photographed and identified. The wire services of Hearst's newspapers feature the story, and his life at San Simeon becomes public knowledge. How he copes with his notoriety brings Olafsson's themes full circle.

The story of Christian Benediktsson is fascinating, the nature imagery brilliantly imagined, and the tie-in with William Randolph Hearst both effective and appropriate to the thematic development. Some readers may not agree with the romantic idea that the life of a man and that of nature are so closely tied that nature cares about what happens in a man's life. The symbolism and the parallels that exist between Christian, Hearst, and nature sometimes feel a bit forced, as if the author is choosing his plot lines so that the parallels with nature will work. Other readers may be disappointed by Olafsson's seeming belief that man is as incapable of changing his basic nature as are the birds in the trees and the lion and leopard in the jungle. Still, as Hearst points out, "We all have to believe that we're decent. No matter what, we have to believe that. For there are no innocents; life is full of mysteries and mistakes."

  • Amazon readers rating: from 7 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from Walking Into the Night

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About the Author:

Olaf Olafsson Olaf Olafsson leads two dramatically distinct lives. He is vice chairman of Time Warner Digital Media in New York City and is Iceland's best-selling novelist. In Iceland, The Journey Home became the highest selling work of fiction in Iceland's history.

He is the founder and former president and CEO of Sony Interactive Entertainment, Inc., a unit of Sony Corporation established in 1991. While at Sony Interactive, Olafsson built and managed the worldwide operations of Sony's entertainment software and hardware divisions and was responsible for the introduction of acclaimed Playstation™. He held several other positions at Sony, having begun his career at the company as a researcher in 1985.

Since November 1999, Olafsson has been vice chairman of Timer Warner Digital Media. He is responsible for developing strategic business plans for Time Warner's diverse digital media businesses and identifying growth opportunities for the company in the digital realm.

Olaf Olafsson was born in Reykjavik, Iceland in 1962. He studied as a Wien Scholar at Brandeis University where he received his degree in physics. He lives in New York City with his wife and two sons, while maintaining a residence in Iceland. He enjoys the arts, cooking, glacier skiing, salmon fishing, and soccer.

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