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.
Prose translators will likely disagree, but I believe translating poetry requires a significant level of talent, a commitment to the text, and near mania, all of which suggests that the undertaking is the greatest possible challenge. The task is to. . .
The biggest issues with books like The Subsidiary often have to do with their underpinnings—when we learn that Georges Perec wrote La Disparition without once using the letter E, we are impressed. Imagine such a task! It takes a high. . .
Following The Infatuations, Javier Marías’s latest novel seems, like those that have preceded it, an experiment to test fiction’s capacity to mesmerize with sombre-sexy atmospheres and ruminative elongated sentences stretched across windowless walls of paragraphs. Thus Bad Begins offers his. . .
Death by Water, Kenzaburo Oe’s latest novel to be translated into English, practically begs you to read it as autobiography. Like The Changeling, as well as many other works not yet released in English, Death by Water is narrated in. . .
Jocelyne Saucier’s Twenty-One Cardinals is about the type of unique, indestructible, and often tragic loyalty only found in families. For a brief but stunningly mesmerizing 169 pages, Twenty-One Cardinals invited me in to the haunting and intimate world of the. . .
We know so very little; so little that what we think to be knowledge is hardly worth reckoning with at all; instead we ought to settle for being pleasantly surprised if, on the edge of things, against all expectations, our. . .
Many of Virginie Despentes’s books revolve around the same central idea: “To be born a woman [is] the worst fate in practically every society.” But this message is nearly always packaged in easy-to-read books that fill you with the pleasure. . .
Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer’s La Superba is appropriately titled after the Italian city of Genoa, where, after escaping the pressures of fame in his own country, the semi-autobiographical narrator finds himself cataloguing the experiences of its mesmerizing inhabitants with the intention. . .
It took reading 44 pages of Intervenir/Intervene before I began to get a sense of what Dolores Dorantes and Rodrigo Flores Sánchez were up to. Recurring throughout these 44 pages—throughout the entire book—are shovels, shovel smacks to the face, lobelias—aha!. . .
As presaged by its title, contradiction is the theme of Peter Stamm’s novel, All Days Are Night. Gillian, a well-known television personality, remains unknowable to herself. And Hubert, a frustrated artist and Gillian’s lover, creates art through the process of. . .