On The Other Hand

Icelandic Author Halldór Laxness (1902-1998)

Icelandic Author Halldór Laxness (1902-1998)

In yesterday’s blog post, “[Not] The Nobel Prize for Literature,” I blasted the Swedish Academy for awarding prizes to a lot of mediocre writers who have not stood the test of time. As with all annual awards in the arts—and I include the Oscars and the Pulitzer Prizes in this as well—there are a goodly number of clinkers, but there are also some real finds.

Probably the one Nobelist whose work I have discovered and grew to love, perhaps the greatest is Halldór Laxness, Iceland’s sole laureate in literature. In the last few years, I’ve read mot of his work that is available in English translation, including such masterworks as Independent People, Iceland’s Bell, The Atom Station, and World Light.

Although no one I know has ever read any Laxness, I regard him as a giant of world literature. In 2013, I even visited his house in Mosfellsbaer (see below).

Gljúfrasteinn, Home of Halldór Laxness

Gljúfrasteinn, Home of Halldór Laxness

Other Nobelist authors whose work is little known today, but whose work I love,are Knut Hamsun of Norway, Ivan Bunin of Russia, François Mauriac of France, Ivo Andrić  of Yugoslavia, and Miguel Ángel Asturias of Guatemala.

Sometimes, the awards like the Nobels are useful, when they are not tainted by politics. It is said that Jorge Luis Borges of Argentina lost his chance at the prize when he accepted an honor from Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet. At that point, one leftist member of the Swedish Academy essentially said, “Over my dead body!”

Iceland’s Bell

A Long Review of Halldór Laxness’s Great Novel

A Long Review of Halldór Laxness’s Great Novel

The following is a review I published on Goodreads.Com yesterday:

There are several Icelands in history. Best known is the Iceland of the Vikings, roughly from the time of settlement in the 9th century to the transfer of the country to the Norwegian King Haakon in the 13th century. Then we skip the better part of a millennium to come to the hip modern Iceland, land of the runtur and of bankruptcy.

In between those two extremes was the Iceland of poverty and servitude. The Danes took over Iceland from the Norwegians and installed their merchants, gifting them with monopolies that made the merchants wealthy, but impoverished the natives. Halldór Laxness, the country’s only winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature (in 1955), wrote Iceland’s Bell to remind his countrymen of the utter waste and fecklessness of the Danish rule. (This theme is similar to the same author’s World Light, which is set in a later period.)

Iceland’s Bell is set early in the 18th century and is presented in three acts, each with a different hero. We begin with Jon Hreggvidsson of Skagi, who is arrested for stealing a length of cord. (Apparently, the Danes, not needing fish themselves, deliberately made it harder for the Icelanders to feed themselves with the piscine riches of their island.) Things go from bad to worse for Jon, who is then arrested for murdering the hangman who whipped him for his crime. But he is let loose on the night before his hanging by …

Snæfriður Bjornsdóttir, daughter of the magistrate who sentences Hreggviðsson, is a young beauty whose hand in marriage is sought by Icelanders of the best families. Unfortunately, the fair maiden weds a drunk, though really she loves the Icelander Arnas Arnaeus, a thinly disguised portrait of Arni Magnusson, famous for collecting texts of the old Icelandic sagas and advising the Danish king how to control his subjects.

Arnaeus is a patriot of sorts, but an unfaithful suitor to Snæfriður. His belief is that the texts which he has collected, and which are almost burned in a massive fire in Copenhagen, are the source of his people’s pride and fame. It is Arnaeus who says, “A fat servant is not much of a man. A beaten servant is a great man, because in his breast freedom has its home.” On another occasion, he says, “I regret nothing that has happened, neither in words nor thoughts. It may be that the most victorious race is the one that is exterminated.”

And under Danish rule, Iceland did come close on several occasions to being utterly annihilated, from plague and smallpox; from the volcanic eruption at Lakagigur in the 1780s that led to an even more vicious plague; and starvation.

Laxness is not only a great Icelandic and Scandinavian author: He is perhaps one of the very best novelists of the Twentieth Century—period! His love for Iceland and its sad plight shows itself frequently throughout the book:

Over verdant lowlands cut by the deep streamwaters of the south hangs a peculiar gloom. Every eye is stifled by clouds that block the sight of the sun, every voice is muffled like the chirps of fleeing birds, every quasi-movement sluggish. Children must not laugh, no attention must be drawn to the fact that a man exists, one must not provoke the powers with frivolity — do nothing but prowl along, furtively, lowly. Maybe the Godhead had not yet struck its final blow, an unexpiated sin might still fester somewhere, perhaps there still lurked worms that needed to be crushed.

I have now read all but three novels by Laxness that have been translated into English. I intend to read them all, and to hope against hope that the novelist’s other work finds a translator.

The Source of the Greatest Song

Icelandic Nobelist Halldór Laxness (1902-1998)

Icelandic Nobelist Halldór Kiljan Laxness (1902-1998)

He lived through a broad swath of the Twentieth Century, won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1955, yet is mostly unknown outside his little country. I have read most of his novels now, and will probably finish Iceland’s Bell by Thursday. There are many of his contemporaries with inflated reputations: There are few who are more deserving of all the praise the world can bestow upon them.

Reading his work, one is often startled by the insight of Halldór Laxness, as in the following quote:

This was the first time that he has ever looked into the labyrinth of the human soul. He was very far from understanding what he saw. But what was of more value, he felt and suffered with her. In years that were yet to come, he relived this memory in song, in the most beautiful song this world has known. For the understanding of the soul’s defencelessness, of the conflict between the two poles, is not the source of the greatest song. The source of the greatest song is sympathy.

He has written many novels, stories, poems, plays, and essays; but only the following are available in English translation:

  • The Great Weaver from Kashmir (1927)
  • Salka Valka (1931-32)—long out of print
  • Independent People (1934-35)—probably his most famous work.
  • World Light (1937-39)
  • Iceland’s Bell (1943-46)
  • The Atom Station (1948)
  • The Fish Can Sing (1957)
  • Paradise Reclaimed (1960)
  • Under the Glacier (1968)

The only ones I have not read are the first two and the last one. I would rate Independent People, World Light, and Iceland’s Bell as his best works—though all are worth reading.

The Laxness Novel I Am Now Reading

The Laxness Novel I Am Now Reading

I have always been amazed by relatively small countries that have produced great writers—people like Augusto Roa Bastos of Paraguay, Czeslaw Milosz of Lithuania, Ivo Andric of Bosnia, V. S. Naipaul of Trinidad, Gyula Krúdy of Hungary, and Franz Kafka of Czechoslovakia. But smaller than the smallest of the above is Iceland, with only 300,000 or so people.

Sometimes big things can indeed come in small packages.