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!
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