In addition to featuring various Icelandic tunes this week, I also want to highlight a number of works of Icelandic literature that are available in English translation. And since Halldor Laxness is Iceland’s one and only Nobel Prize winner, he seems like the perfect author to start with.
Laxness was born in 1902 and died in 1998, and wrote dozens of novels, story collection, and volumes of poetry during that time. His most well-known book is probably Independent People, a novel about Icelandic farmers in the early part of the twentieth century. But rather than focus on that particular book, I’d rather highlight Under the Glacier, translated from the Icelandic by Magnus Magnusson, and which is available in a pretty Vintage edition with an introduction from the late Susan Sontag.
First, check out the jacket copy:
Nobel laureate Halldór Laxness’s Under the Glacier is a one-of-a-kind masterpiece, a wryly provocative novel at once earthy and otherworldly. At its outset, the Bishop of Iceland dispatches a young emissary to investigate certain charges against the pastor at Sn?fells Glacier, who, among other things, appears to have given up burying the dead. But once he arrives, the emissary finds that this dereliction counts only as a mild eccentricity in a community that regards itself as the center of the world and where Creation itself is a work in progress.
What is the emissary to make, for example, of the boarded-up church? What about the mysterious building that has sprung up alongside it? Or the fact that Pastor Primus spends most of his time shoeing horses? Or that his wife, Ua (pronounced “ooh-a,” which is what men invariably sputter upon seeing her), is rumored never to have bathed, eaten, or slept? Piling improbability on top of improbability, Under the Glacier overflows with comedy both wild and deadpan as it conjures a phantasmagoria as beguiling as it is profound.
And if that isn’t compelling enough, here’s the opening of Sontag’s introduction:
The long prose fiction called the novel, for want of a better name, has yet to shake off the mandate of its own normality as promulgated int he nineteenth century: to tell a story peopled by characters whose opinions and destinies are those of ordinary, so-called real life. Narratives that deviate from this artificial norm and tell other kinds of stories, or appear not to tell much of a story at all, draw on traditions that are more venerable than those of the nineteenth century, but still, to this day, seem innovative or ultra-literary or bizarre. I am thinking of novels that proceed largely through dialogue; novels that are relentlessly jocular (and therefore seem exaggerated) or didactic; novels whose characters spend most of their time musing to themselves or debating with a captive interlocutor about spiritual and intellectual issues; novels that tell of the initiation of an ingenuous young person into mystifying wisdom or revelatory abjection; novels with characters who have supernatural options, like shape-shifting and resurrection; novels that evoke imaginary geography. It seems odd to describe Gulliver’s Travels or Candide or Tristram Shandy or Jacques the Fatalist and His Master or Alice in Wonderland or Gershenzon and Ivanov’s Correspondence from Two Corners or Kafka’s The Castle or Hesse’s Steppenwolf or Woolf’s The Waves or Olaf Stapledon’s Odd John or Gombrowicz’s Ferdydurke or Calvino’s Invisible Cities or, for that matter, prono narratives simply as novels. To make the point that these occupy the outlying precincts of the novel’s main tradition, special labels are invoked.
Tale, fable, allegory.
Literature of fantasy.
Convention dictates that we slot many of the last centuries’ perdurable literary achievements into one or another of these categories.
The only novel I know that fits into all of them is Halldor Laxness’s wildly original, morose, uproarious Under the Glacier.
Sontag loved a lot of books, and is quoted on a ton of them, but regardless, this is some pretty high praise. And her introduction carries on for a number of pages, explaining how Under the Glacier fits into several of these categories—“Science Fiction,” “Philosophical novel,” “Dream novel,” “Comic novel,” and “Visionary novel.” In many ways, Laxness is the one Icelandic author everyone should read, and if you’re going to start anywhere, why not start with a fairly wild 240-page novel that blew away Susan Sontag?
Just to give you a taste, here’s an extended quote from the beginning of the novel:
The bishop summoned the undersigned to his presence yesterday evening. He offered me snuff. Thanks all the same, but it makes me sneeze, I said.
Bishop: Good gracious! Well I never! In the old days all young theologians took snuff.
Undersigned: Oh, I’m not much of a theologian. Hardly more than in name, really.
Bishop: I can’t offer you coffee, I’m afraid, because madam is not at home. Even bishops’ wives don’t stay home in the evenings any more: society’s going to pieces nowadays. Well now, my boy, you seem to be a nice young fellow. I’ve had my eye on you since last year, when you wrote up the minutes of the synod for us. It was a masterpiece, the way you got all their drivel down, word for word. We’ve never had a theologian who knew shorthand before. And you also know how to handle that phonograph or whatever it’s called.
Undersigned: We call it a tape recorder. Phonograph is better.
Bishop: All this gramophone business nowadays, heavens above! Can you also do television? That’s even more fantastic! Just like the cinema—after two minutes I’m sound asleep. [. . .]
Bishop: What do you say to putting your best foot forward and going to Snaefellsjokull to conduct the most important investigation at that world-famous mountain since the days of Jules Verne? I pay civil service rates.
Undersigned: Don’t ask me to perform any heroic deeds. Besides, I’ve heard that heroic deeds are never performed on civil service rates. I’m not cut out for derring-do. But if I could deliver a letter for your Grace out at Glacier or something of that sort, that shouldn’t be beyond my capacities.
Bishop: I want to send you on a three-day journey or so on my behalf. I’ll be giving you a written brief for the mission. I’m going to ask you to call on the minister there, pastor Jon Primus, for me, and tell him he is to put you up. There’s something that needs investigating out there in the west.
Undersigned: What’s to be investigated, if I may ask?
Bishop: we need to investigate Christianity at Glacier. [. . .]
What I want to know, because I happen to be the office boy at the Ministry of Ecclesiastical Affairs, is first of all why doesn’t the man keep the church in good repair? And why doesn’t he hold divine service? Why doesn’t he baptise the children? Why doesn’t he bury the dead? why hasn’t he drawn his stipend for ten or twenty years? Does that mean he’s perhaps a better believer than the rest of us? And what does the congregation say? On three successive visitations I have instructed the old fellow to put these matters right. The office has written him all of fifty letters. And never a word in reply, of course. But you can’t warn a man more than three times, let alone threaten him—the fourth time the threat just lulls him to sleep; after that there’s nothing for it but summary defrocking. But where are the crimes? That’s the whole point! An investigation is called for. There are some cock-and-bull stories going around just now that he has allowed a corpse to be deposited int the glacier. What corpse? It’s an absolute scandal! Kindly check it!
For the next several weeks we’ll be highlighting a book-a-day from the 25-title Best Translated Book of 2008 fiction longlist, leading up to the announcement of the 10 finalists. Click here for all previous write-ups.
The Great Weaver from Kashmir by Halldor Laxness, translated from the Icelandic by Philip Roughton. (Iceland, Archipelago)
The Great Weaver from Kashmir is the first of four books from Archiipelago that made the Best Translated Book of 2008 fiction longlist, and the only Icelandic book to make the list. (Considering the fact that only four books from Iceland were published in English translation this year, that’s not a bad ratio.)
In addition to being the only Icelander to make our list, Laxness is also the only Icelandic author to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. He was given this distinction in 1955, not too many years after the publication of Independent People and Iceland’s Bell, two of his most well-regarded novels.
Great Weaver is one of Laxness’s first novels, written in 1927, but never before translated into English. It reads like a first novel—somewhat autobiographical (Steinn, the main character in the novel, converts to Catholicism, as did Laxness) and put together in a raw, somewhat innovative way that illustrates Laxness’s burgeoning talent. For me, it calls to mind F. Scott Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise, which breaks into play format at one point and feels like it was written by a novelist still trying to figure out what you can do with a novel.
The plot of Great Weaver centers around the aforementioned Steinn, who, at the opening of the book is a young, romantic poet about to leave Iceland for an extended stay abroad, where he hopes to become “the most perfect man on earth.” In a traditional romantic young man way, he thinks this can be accomplished through poetry and rebellion (especially against religion) and pursues a destructive bohemian lifestyle before attempting to commit suicide and undergoing a sea change leading him to join a monastery. Back in Iceland, he’s got a young woman named Dilja waiting for him, and their remote, sordid love affair is the main tension of the book.
What I think is most interesting about this book is the way that it mixes other forms and not terribly necessary information along with this primary storyline. Right after developing the anxious relationship between Steinn and Dilja, and Steinn’s eminent departure, Laxness leaves all that behind to give us a series of letters from Steinn’s mother about an affair that she had. And the way that Dilja’s story and Steinn’s develop in parallel is very well done. The characterization is strong (although Steinn remains a sort of enigmatic, troubled figure throughout—another element that makes the book compelling), the translation very fluid, and the descriptions of Iceland and Icelandic life very informative.
Larissa Kyzer wrote a full review of this title for us a while back, which is much more comprehensive than my description above and is also worth reading for the quotes from the book.
A few years ago I had the opportunity to visit Iceland on an editorial trip. It was a wonderful experience, and in addition to finding out about a number of authors, publishers, etc., I also had the opportunity to see a few interesting sites, including Þingvellir (or “Thingvellir”), which is a geologically and historically famous site, and the setting for part of this novel, and the Halldor Laxness museum, which is remarkable in part for the outdoor swimming pool he had and the lectern that he stood at to write. Since international literature is a great way to encounter other cultures, I thought it might be interesting to include both of these relevant links.
It seems fitting that we run this review of Iceland’s only Nobel Prize winner right after the Le Clezio announcement, and while Bragi Olafsson (our Icelandic author) is on his reading tour.
Larissa Kyzer—who reviewed The Girl with the Dragon Tatoo for us last month—wrote this review of the first Halldor Laxness book to be published in translation in quite some time. Published by Archipelago Books, The Great Weaver from Kashmir is considered Laxness’s “first major novel,” and it’s great that this is now available to English readers.
Over the past week, Bragi’s talked about Laxness quite a bit, about how incredibly funny his works are, and how contemporary Icelandic writers struggle to get out from under his shadow of influence. A few of Laxness’s other books are available in paperback—including Independent People—but for those who haven’t read Laxness, this seems like a great place to start.
If the international community recognizes Iceland for something other than Björk, vikings, and glaciers, it is undeniably the country’s historic and richly diverse literary tradition. Deemed by the Swedish Academy to be the “cradle of narrative art here in the North,” Iceland not only has the legacy of the sagas to its credit, but also a remarkably active community of poets and storytellers. As Icelandic author and journalist Birna Anna Bjornsdottir has noted, bibliophilia is part of the national character, and writing is an activity frequently practiced by “non-professionals”:
We sometimes claim that everyone in Iceland is a writer. Sure, it’s hyperbole, and as such slightly out of character for a literary tradition long characterized by understatement and restraint. Still, approximately 1,000 books are published here each year for a population of about 290,000, one book per 290 persons . . . The mailman moonlights as a veggie chef, and the DJ teaches kindergarten during the day. Both have a couple of books of poetry out . . .
But if Iceland is a nation of authors, it is still a relatively isolated one, with only a fraction of its works translated into other languages each year. Even Halldór Laxness, the so-called “bard of the Icelandic people” and recipient of the Nobel Prize in 1955 (Iceland’s only Nobel Laureate, keep in mind), has faced a relatively sparse translation rate. Of the 51 novels he produced in his lifetime (not to mention the plays and poetry), only a handful have been translated into English. Which makes Philip Roughton’s forthcoming translation of Laxness’s “first important novel Verfarinn mikli fra Kasmir (_The Great Weaver from Kashmir_) very exciting.
But The Great Weaver from Kashmir should not be mistaken for a “posterity” translation. A novel which captures the conflicting passions and pitfalls of youth into one tragicomic character, Kashmir can be read as a revisionist approach to Siddhartha—a rendering of one man’s search for spiritual enlightenment becoming confused and complicated by the zealotry and naivete of youth. Its protagonist, Steinn Elliði, is a self-aggrandizing, willfully divisive, and talented young poet who leaves Iceland on an impassioned, though obscure, quest. “In search of perfection” and planning to author “fifty perfect poems for God,” Steinn is the embodiment of adolescent enthusiasm—a man-child who believes himself to be uniquely capable and uniquely misunderstood. In a particularly delightful scene, Steinn rhapsodically enumerates his great potential for his foster-cousin, Diljá, who has been in love with him since childhood:
“. . . I’ve made a pact with the Lord about becoming the most perfect man on earth.”
“Why do you want to become so perfect?”
But he would not grant an answer to such an ignorant question. “I have vowed to leave no further room in my soul for anything other than the celebration of the spiritual beauty of creation . . . I am betrothed to the beauty on the visage of things. I intend to travel back and forth through existence like a jubilant monk of the world who beholds the smile of the Holy Mother in everything that exists. My bread and wine will be the glory of God on the face of creation, the image of the Lord on the Lord’s coins. I am a son of the Way in China, the perfect Yogi of India, the Great Weaver from Kashmir, the snake charmer in the Himalayan valleys, the saint of Christ in Rome.”
“I think that you might have lost your marbles!” said the girl, and stopped to look in his face, because she understood nothing.
Rather than resulting in any real sense of enlightenment, Steinn’s journey becomes progressively dispirited and confused. He cuts off already strained relationships with relatives and acquaintances, and travels alone, flirting with debauchery and misadventure throughout England and Italy. Eventually turning to the advice of a Benedictine monk, Steinn is baptized into the Catholic church and plans to join the monastic order himself. This decision reads as a horrible misstep, a tragic act of evasion, where the traditions and rituals of religious faith buffer Steinn from the emotional trials that face him in his life.
When awarding Laxness the Nobel Prize, E. Wessén stated that “All his important books have Icelandic themes.” The Great Weaver of Kashmir, however, should not be read as an “Icelandic” novel, particular to the trials and experiences of an Icelandic man. As a contemplation of the irrevocable mistakes one can make before he understands the consequences, and an empathetic portrait of youth gone astray, The Great Weaver from Kashmir is a novel that should resonate with audiences the world over.
On the occasion of the rerelease of The Fish Can Sing, Richard Raynor’s monthly Paperback Writers column features a nice overview of Iceland’s best-known writer, Halldor Laxness:
This 1957 novel is narrated by the orphan Alfgrimur Hansson, who tells, in a meandering way, of his relationship with the mysterious Gardar Holm, who has left Reykjavik and achieved worldwide fame as an opera singer. “We were born and bred each on his own side of the same churchyard and have always been called close kinsmen, and many people have confused us and some have even taken the one for the other,” Alfgrimur observes. Throughout the novel, Laxness dangles the possibility that Gardar might be Alfgrimur’s phantasm, a double who is by turns glamorous, brilliant and fraudulent. “In his suitcases, which were of good quality and fairly new, were found bricks wrapped in straw and nothing else.”
That image, like many in the novel, is quietly haunting and visionary; Laxness habitually combines the magical and the mundane, writing with grace and a quiet humor that takes awhile to notice but, once detected, feels ever present. Alfgrimur can’t quite decide whether he really wants to leave Iceland and become a star like Gardar or stay at home and be a lump fisherman. Only for the truly Northern soul would this seem a dilemma.
It’s worth noting that Rayner also mentions the rereleases of Handke’s The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick (FSG) and Bruno Schulz’s The Street of Crocodiles (Penguin) in the same column.
The L.A. Times has been a great paper for international lit coverage for years. Steve Wasserman was a fantastic book review editor, and David Ulin has been a more than admirable replacement. Susan Reynolds’s columns have always been insightful and the freelance reviewers like Tom McGonigle and Laurel Maury who have written for the Times are fantastic.
There’s no real point to this paragraph of praise, it just seems that we so frequently bitch about review sections, rather than highlighting the things papers do well.
On a sidenote, I breathed a huge sigh of relief last Friday when, minutes after posting the Missing Soluch review complaining about the lack of review coverage, I received the NY Times Books Update with its Islamic focus, and found that Missing Soluch again was overlooked.
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