In the Fifties, in his fifties, the Icelandic writer Halldór Laxness entered a stretch of broad and seemingly easeful creativity. This was an Indian summer whose angling northern sunlight invested the most earthbound objects in his books—stone walls, turf huts, paving stones, spindly trees—with a clement and redemptive glow. A number of plausible explanations might account for why this writer, whose turbulent earlier novels had been painted in blood reds and icy grays, chose now to portray his characters in golds and ambers. Perhaps the change in palette mirrored the literal gold of his Nobel Prize, awarded in 1955, when he was fifty-three. Or perhaps it reflected the gratifications of a happy second marriage and a growing brood of daughters. The mellowing effects of simple aging may have had something to do with it. Or maybe the change is best understood as another phase in a protracted artistic evolution: Laxness was a peripatetic soul, both physically and artistically, whose literary career was marked by sharp veerings and departures.
Two of these books from the Fifties, Paradise Reclaimed and The Fish Can Sing, have recently been reprinted in English. They are siblings in tone as well as date of origin. (The Fish Can Sing was published in Icelandic in 1957, and while Paradise Reclaimed did not arrive until 1960, it is the work of Laxness in the Fifties, post-Nobel.) It may well be that Laxness’s most productive period was already behind him. The Thirties were for him a sort of decennium mirabile, during which he completed three epic novels, Salka Valka, Independent People, and World Light. Independent People and World Light seem to me unmistakable masterpieces—two of the great books of the last century.*
All such appraisals of Laxness’s career must be qualified and hedging, of course, for those of us who admire him but cannot read him in the original. A number of major books remain untranslated into English, and some translations are patently unsatisfactory. I have Icelandic friends who swear that Laxness’s pastiche/spoof/ homage to the medieval Sagas, Gerpla, is his most brilliant creation—a conclusion no reader is likely to reach who knows the book only through its wan rendering into English as The Happy Warriors. (To be fair to its translator, it may well be that Gerpla, a tour-de-force reworking of the medieval Norse idiom, is essentially untranslatable.) Others insist that, for sheer beauty of language, Laxness’s volumes of memoirs, which appeared in the Sixties and Seventies and have not found their way into English, are incomparable. To non-Icelandic speakers, such rumored glories may have something of the tantalizing air of the legendary lost volumes of the library of Alexandria. Still, there’s a sizable compensation in seeing Paradise Reclaimed and The Fish Can Sing reemerge as handsome new paperbacks. As consolatory presences, they abound in all the right virtues: grace, humor, neatness of construction, intelligence, tenderness.
Paradise Reclaimed is rooted among the bleak realities common to Laxness’s novels of the Thirties: the rural isolation of struggling Icelandic farmers; generations of grinding poverty; a sense of lawlessness masquerading as law, as the large landowners systematically cheat and manipulate their humbler neighbors. In Paradise Reclaimed, as in Salka Valka and Independent People, a young and ignorant farm girl is seduced and abandoned. Youthful yearnings often crash brutally to earth in Laxness’s novels.
Yet nothing too calamitous can unfold in a literary atmosphere as poised and benign as that of Paradise Reclaimed. The overriding tone is a beguiling hybrid of the medieval Saga, with its comfortably self-conscious storytelling (“what distinguished the farm we are now to visit for a while was the loving and artistic care with which the owner made up for what it lacked in grandeur”), and the classic fairy tale. The book’s hero is Steinar of Steinahlídar, a nineteenth-century farmer on the south coast of Iceland who is renowned as a craftsman, “equally skilled with wood and metal.” Given the region’s poverty, Steinar has little opportunity to exercise his talents:
It had long been the custom in the district to point out the dry-stone dykes and walls of Hlídar in Steinahlídar as an example for aspiring young farmers to follow in life; there were no other works of art in those parts to compare with these carefully built walls of stone.
Within this hard-bitten countryside something extraordinary happens to Steinar: the birth of “the finest animal in the south,” a surpassingly handsome white pony. (“If there were ever a case of immaculate conception in Iceland, then this was it.”) The richest men in the district compete to buy the creature, but in his tittering, soft-spoken way Steinar demurs. For all his poverty, he resolves instead to undertake a quixotic pilgrimage: he will journey to the plains of Thingvellir, Iceland’s spiritual capital, and present the pony as a gift to the visiting Danish king. Steinar’s expedition has an unexpected consequence. Along the way, he meets up with an itinerant missionary, Bishop Didrik, an Icelander converted to Mormonism whose family is now based in Utah. Didrik suffers repeated beatings at the hands of his fellow Icelanders, who resent a man who challenges not only their religion but also their notions of the limits of earthly ambition:
“In Salt Lake Valley it’s quite usual for any one farmer to own ten thousand ewes in addition to other livestock,” said the Mormon. “How are the prospects in your millennium?”
This report about sheep-farming in the Promised Land seemed to take everyone aback for a moment.
“Our Saviour is our Saviour, God be praised!” testified one God-fearing man, as if to brace himself against this enormous holding of sheep.
Didrik’s unflappability in the face of scorn and hostility impresses Steinar, who eventually concludes that the Mormon is his “destiny.” Notwithstanding the ancestral claims of Steinar’s farm (its stone walls bespeak the enduring artistry of his great-grandfather, “who rebuilt the whole farm in the last century after the big volcanic eruptions that destroyed every wall in the place”), he chooses to leave it, and the wife and children to whom he is devoted, in order to pursue spiritual wanderings that in time land him in Denmark, in Scotland, and in the Rocky Mountains, the “New Zion” of the Mormons’ Utah, where he contemplates “the truth in mountain form.”
Steinar’s story is at once idiosyncratic (it is based upon an actual person) and, from an Icelandic standpoint, universal: Steinar is but one of thousands of his countrymen who forsook their starving nation in the nineteenth century and emigrated to the New World. Those were grim decades for Iceland (something like 20 percent of the populace fled a homeland no longer capable of supporting them), but Laxness chooses to recall the era with fondness and good humor:
In those days it was still considered wicked out in the country to do anything simply because it was enjoyable…. Dancing was the devil’s work, and had not been performed in Iceland for many generations. It was not considered seemly for young unmarried people to tramp on one another’s toes except at most, perhaps, in order to have illegitimate children.
Laxness speaks fondly also of the Mormons, among whom he lived for a time, out in Utah, while researching his novel. The doggedness and self-abnegation of their long pilgrimage appealed to Laxness, who was himself a pilgrim soul. Earlier, in his twenties, he had converted from Lutheranism to Catholicism and moved into a Benedictine monastery in Luxembourg. In his thirties, with kindred fervor, he espoused, and ultimately repudiated, Soviet-style communism.
One might have supposed the Mormon church would have seen to it that Paradise Reclaimed never went out of print; they ought to have done so. The book may well be the most affecting work of art the church has yet inspired from any one person. It must be the most improbable: this lyrical novel by a Lutheran/Catholic/Communist Icelander who wandered off to Utah in order to peer more closely at a world religion born not in the ancient Mideast but in the nineteenth-century Adirondacks.
Much has happened to Steinar by the end of the novel: he has been introduced to the Dutch king and to other royalty of Europe; he has embraced a new religion and lost a beloved wife; he has moved to Utah and constructed a home for his remaining family; as a widower, he has adopted polygamy. Yet you might also say that nothing has happened to Steinar. In the book’s final chapters, he journeys back to Iceland as a Mormon missionary and eventually makes his way to his old farm, Steinahlídar, which lies in ruins. Although he has returned to his native land for the purpose of converting souls, it seems that a more pressing task confronts him: “And with that, Steinar of Hlídar went on just as if nothing had happened, laying stone against stone in these ancient walls, until the sun went down on Hlídar in Steinahlídar.”
The reader’s final vision of Steinar coincides with a final vision of Steinar’s own:
Then he happened to look up at the steep mountain above the farm, at the fulmar, that faithful bird, sweeping with smooth and powerful and deathless wingbeats high up along the cliff-edges overgrown with ferns and moonwort, where it had had his nest for twenty thousand years.
If Steinar finds in Mormonism a new faith, he glimpses at the novel’s close an old faith as well—the fulmar’s, that “faithful bird”—and, by extension, an insight into a landscape and its custodial spirit that impose indelible claims upon him. Here, too, on the south shore of Iceland, is the “truth in mountain form.” In devoting so many of its pages to foreign countries, Paradise Reclaimed is an unusual book in Laxness’s oeuvre. All the more fitting, then, that it serves as one of his most touching tributes to his homeland’s inhospitable, inviting terrain.
A primary goal of travel, it seems to me, is to fall so thoroughly in love with some city that you begin to feel nostalgic, even a little resentful, about its having existed before you arrived on the scene. It’s a little like romantic jealousy—this longing to walk the city’s earlier streets, to behold earlier vistas. In the Eighties, when I lived for three years in Japan, I began to feel that way about Kyoto and its environs, especially as refracted through Gouverneur Mosher’s Kyoto: A Contemplative Guide. Despite its title, the book was pretty much useless as a source of tourist information, being wildly out of date about schedules and laughably inaccurate about prices. But Mosher’s passion for postwar Kyoto, blessedly spared the bombings that had decimated so many other major Japanese cities, was pure and irresistible.
Unless they’re Icelanders, few people are likely to feel the same way about Reykjavik. (I must confess, having once lived there for a year, that I’m one of those who do; I work every day under a watercolor entitled Reykjavik, 1862.) Yet those who harbor a special affection for Iceland’s thriving capital will cherish The Fish Can Sing, which offers a luminous portrait of an earlier era, when sheep grazed in fields now given over to tapas bars, Internet cafés, and tanning studios. And even those who wouldn’t know Reykjavik from Riyadh also ought to cherish The Fish Can Sing, for it’s a haunting, universal depiction of potent but taciturn loyalties among a makeshift, thrown-together family.
The novel begins as wonderfully as any I know:
A wise man once said that next to losing its mother, there is nothing more healthy for a child than to lose its father. And though I would never subscribe to such a statement wholeheartedly, I would be the last person to reject it out of hand.
The book’s hero is a boy named Álfgrímur Hansson, who, abandoned by his mother, is left in the care of two elderly people whom he calls his grandparents, although they are not related to him and are not, it turns out, married to each other.
The family is mired in poverty—a harrowing condition in much of Laxness’s fiction but one that, in the numinous atmosphere of The Fish Can Sing, produces no serious deprivation. Álfgrímur is a blissfully happy child and it is late in the story—he is nearly twenty years old—before he ascertains that others might view him as underprivileged. The daughter of a wealthy merchant asks, “Do you dislike me because you’re poor and I’m rich?” Álfgrímur has no reply:
I was at a loss to know how to answer her, and looked at her in some amazement. I had never before now heard that I was poor—such a thing had never even occurred to me. I took it as a rather ill-chosen bit of teasing.
Álfgrímur can envision no higher or finer ambition in life than to follow his grandfather’s line of work: he means to fish for lumpfish in a small open boat. Yet as this bittersweetly elegiac novel makes clear, this is a doomed profession. Álfgrímur’s grandfather himself observes: “And now Gudmunsen’s Store and the rest of them have got big ships which in one haul can catch ten or twenty times as much as my little boat can carry and with that I and people like me are finished here in the Bay.”
Álfgrímur’s tranquillity is disrupted by the periodic arrivals and departures of a magnetic, mystifying figure: Gardar Hólm, the “nation’s favorite son.” Gardar is a celebrated singer. He is an artist operating on a scale his countrymen can scarcely compass: he has captivated all the major capitals of Europe, he has triumphed in the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires and the Sultan’s palace in Algiers, he has performed for the Pope. As one Icelandic newspaper headline has it: “THE WORLD LISTENS TO ICELAND.” Gardar’s station in life would appear to place him unreachably above a penniless orphan like Álfgrímur the aspiring lumpfisherman, but as it happens the two of them grew up, a quarter-century apart, in the same neighborhood, “each on his own side of the same churchyard.” And Gardar’s mother is cousin to Álfgrímur’s grandmother. The links between the two ramify over time as Álfgrímur, too, becomes obsessed with music and the potentiality of the human voice. Gradually it grows evident that Gardar is both a forerunner and a shadowy doppelgänger to Álfgrímur: “But one thing was certain: I can scarcely remember the time when he was not the distant murmur behind the blue mountain beyond the sea in my own life.” And, with each chapter, the ties between them take on more unsettling overtones, since Gardar is unmistakably headed toward a tragic end.
In Iceland’s national literary imagination, Gardar Hólm is something of a Jay Gatsby. Like Gatsby, Gardar is a reinvented man, with a new name; he was originally called George Hansson. He is also perhaps the most memorable fraud in his country’s literature. Gardar’s international triumphs eventually turn out to be something cooked up by an Icelandic newspaper for its eagerly credulous subscribers, hungry to hear that one of their countrymen has “carried Iceland’s name far and wide across the sea.” Today, half a century after the novel’s debut, Gardar Hólm remains a social touchstone in Iceland; The Fish Can Sing is invoked whenever the issue of worldly reputation arises. The “Gardar Hólm phenomenon”—a suspicion that only international renown has substance and reality—speaks to a recurring fear that a small and isolated island-nation is forever at risk of allowing others to make its own artistic and moral judgments.
Where Gardar Hólm and Jay Gatsby part company is in the matter of ultimate corruptibility. Unlike Gatsby, whose material quest leads him down ever more sullied pathways, there’s something inalienably noble about Gardar. Fraud though he may be, he has the soul of a man who has been granted a vision of art’s transcendence. Both Gardar and Álfgrímur have been helped along the way by Reverend Johann, the ancient pastor who conducts simple ceremonies in the churchyard beside their childhood homes. He instructs them in an elevated ideal: “Even though I’m not very good at singing, I know that there is one note and it is pure.” You might call Reverend Johann a philosopher of music:
But in all good men there lurks a true note, I won’t say like a mouse in a trap, but rather like a mouse between wall and wainscoting. But it is a special grace if God allows them to sing the note that they hear. I am old now, and my voice has never recovered from breaking; I have never had the good fortune to sing the note I hear inside me. But that note is just as true for all that.
Later in the novel, Gardar supplies a terse addendum to Reverend Johann’s lesson, one that perhaps explains why he keeps canceling the Reykjavik concerts that would provide his countrymen with a chance finally to hear the singer who has delighted the whole world: “‘There is the one note,’ he said, almost in a continuation of Reverend Johann’s words. ‘But he who has heard it, never sings again.'” In the end, Gardar’s internal contradictions overwhelm him and he winds up a suicide. Nonetheless, we believe him when he asserts that his burden is something he would not remove or repudiate even if he could:
But remember one thing for me: when the world has given you everything, when the merciless yoke of fame has been laid on your shoulders and its brand has been stamped on your brow as indelibly as on the man who was convicted of the worst crime in the world—remember then that you have no other refuge than this one prayer: “God, take it all away from me—except one note.”
The arrival of The Fish Can Sing and Paradise Reclaimed brings to four the number of Laxness novels now readily available in English. If this is a small portion of his total output, it creates a sufficient shelf of books to confirm that one of Laxness’s great themes (the great theme, to my mind) is giftgiving. (It might be more accurate to argue that the great theme of Laxness’s books is giving and taking. For if the gentle side of Laxness’s temperament endlessly mulls over the miracle of altruism—the gift that comes with no strings attached—the social crusader inside him rages tirelessly about theft, particularly the chicanery by which the rich landowners rob the poor.) In Paradise Reclaimed, it is the impulse to bestow a gift (an extraneous gift, intended for somebody in need of nothing) that propels Steinar to leave his family farm in search of the Danish king, thereby initiating the string of events that culminates in his building a future home for his family in the mountains of Utah. The plot of The Fish Can Sing hinges on a series of gifts, concluding with the painful and uplifting revelation that Álfgrímur’s grandparents have sacrificed their one possession, the family home, on behalf of their adopted grandson.
No imagined action did more to kindle Laxness’s literary imagination than a gift from one poverty-stricken soul to another. Independent People is full of heart-wrenching moments (it is, page for page, the most heart-wrenching novel I know), but arguably none more stirring than when a doddering old woman bestows upon her grandson a kerchief and the pick with which she cleans her ears. The boy is saying goodbye to the only family he knows. Young as he is, he’s about to emigrate, alone, to America. It’s hard to imagine, in the context of the child’s departure for the New World, a less practical pair of presents. And hard to imagine, in such a context, a more poignant bequest. For the old woman has given the boy “the only thing she has.”
Like Álfgrímur, Halldór Laxness was largely reared by grandparents. His father worked on road crews and was away a good deal. Biographical material about Laxness is scanty in English and the one useful book, Peter Hallberg’s Halldór Laxness, is out of date and out of print. But even if your knowledge of Laxness were restricted to his novels, you might safely deduce that the central figure in his growing up was a grandmother or grandmotherly figure. In book after book, in key moment after key moment, Laxness eulogizes a woman who instinctively, while making no show of her good works, ministers to others. Álfgrímur’s grandmother is a memorable example:
She never mentioned the cat without a slight grimace of distaste, as if this creature were some abominable family fetch which had dogged her and her kin from time immemorial. The cat was called Brand, and never had other than four titles of address: “that devil,” “disgrace,” “pest,” or “bane.” Never on any occasion did my grandmother pat the dog or stroke the cat; yet she had a constant supply of fish-skin and bones in the pocket of her skirts. I should add that she was nevertheless the only person in the house to whom these two stray creatures attached themselves unconditionally and unreservedly.
She is a soul-sibling to the grandmother in Independent People, who offers her departing grandson some homely valedictory advice: “I want to ask you never to be insolent to those who hold a lowly position in the world. And never to ill-treat any animal.”
There is surely no more “lowly position in the world” than that of a faceless corpse—a recurring image in The Fish Can Sing. Reverend Johann is occasionally asked to bury the washed-up bodies of drowned sailors, sometimes “just stumps of people.” He treats such fragmentary bodies with special piety and reverence, since it is his conviction that the faceless are “those whom the Savior loved above all others.”
Whether or not this was true of Jesus, it’s certainly true of Laxness, whose oeuvre might be viewed as a series of ingenious attempts to fix and memorialize those who would otherwise go unremarked and unremembered. The grandmother in The Fish Can Sing—in many ways the book’s most memorable character—is no one likely to catch the world’s eye. Physically, she could hardly be less prepossessing:
I cannot remember her otherwise than bowed and toothless, with a bit of a cough and red-rimmed eyes from having to stand before the open fire in the kitchen smoke of Brekkukot, and before that in other cottages whose names I did not know.
Even so, she’s an unforgettable presence. The aging Rembrandt who painted the haunting portrait of Margaretha de Geer in London’s National Gallery—a small but indomitable bird of a woman—would have instantly recognized Álfgrímur’s grandmother: one of the oldest, and oddest, of muses.
One quality that makes Laxness’s novels so morally uplifting is their air of tender but urgent gratitude. While his tone can vary widely from book to book—an inflammatory early novel like Salka Valka is miles away from the wry prolixities of Christianity at Glacier—the reader consistently feels that the books are conceived in a spirit of homage; they are some of the world’s most substantial thank-you notes. A critic might plausibly declare that all of Laxness’s books were written for that “bowed and toothless” old woman in The Fish Can Sing whom the household animals instinctively trusted. Or that all were written for that grandmother in Independent People who parted with her ear-pick and kerchief. Or for the young mother in Independent People—destined soon to die—who can give her young son nothing but her love of song. For to make any of these claims is to make all of them. It is to recognize Laxness’s allegiance to that universal impulse of giving that allegorical painters used to portray as Caritas.
In Laxness’s fiction the vital gift is often a literary gift—a patient passing along of verses, fables, anecdotes, songs, prayers. It is the gift of his country’s astonishing literary heritage, extending all the way back to the golden age of the medieval Sagas. Álfgrímur fondly notes of his grandmother that she was
such a well of knowledge, in her own quiet way, that if one pressed her and tried to find out just how much she knew, one never reached the bottom. She knew whole Lays off by heart from beginning to end. For the benefit of those who no longer know what Icelandic Lays are, I shall interpolate here that they are a form of poetry about heroes of olden times and mighty deeds from the days of the epic; this poetry is composed of intricately rhymed quatrains, sometimes so intricate that each strophe is a rhyme-riddle. A medium-sized Lay, that is to say one Lay-cycle, can be thirty poems, each one of them consisting of at least a hundred quatrains.
And how did she come by her stupendous riches? Where was she trained? What academy bred her? “My grandmother said she had learned to recognize the letters of the alphabet from an old man who scratched them for her on the ice when she had to watch over sheep during the winter.”
Who can do justice to such a woman? Laxness apparently believed that he could not. One of the reasons she kept reappearing in each new novel of his, in different guises, was that he had heretofore failed to requite her appropriately. What had he given her, what had he given the world, except some beautiful, imperishable books? That the world might judge otherwise—that the world might regard Laxness’s accomplishments as great and regard as meager those of the humble, dirt-poor people he memorialized—was but one more of those injustices, those skewed values with which his books so spiritedly quarreled. After reading and rereading Laxness for nearly twenty years, I feel confident of two connected propositions: that he was a genius, and that he felt unworthy of his subject matter. Still, he had the presence of mind to grasp that in that unworthiness lay his salvation. His books remind us of how fortunate is the writer who, long before he or she ever thinks of picking up a pen, has already learned to feel deeply—hopelessly—indebted.
October 10, 2002
Vintage will publish World Light, with an introduction by Sven Birkerts, later this month, in conjunction with a Laxness festival (films, seminars, a photographic exhibition) at the Scandinavia House in New York City, which runs from October 25 to December 31. For my evangelical views on Independent People, see “A Small Country’s Great Book,” The New York Review, May 11, 1995. ↩