Authors: Halldor Laxness
Table of Contents
The modern Icelandic alphabet has thirty-two letters, compared with twenty-six in modern English. There are two extra consonants (ð and þ), and an additional diphthong (æ). Readers may find a note on the pronounciations of specifically Icelandic letters helpful:
ð (Ð), known as “eth” or “crossed d,” is pronounced like the (voiced)
þ (Þ), known as “thorn,” is pronounced like the (unvoiced)
æ is pronounced like the
The pronunciation of the vowels is conditioned by the accents:
á like the
é like the
í like the
ó like the
ö like the
ú like the
ýlike the ee in seen
au like the
ei and ey like the
Please note that asterisks (*) within the text indicate explanatory notes to
be found on pages 407-425.
At first glance,
has a few strikes against it when it comes to attracting American readers. To begin with, there is the author’s name. Who is Halldór Laxness anyway? And then there is that country in the title. Am I really going to settle into a long novel about Iceland of all places? And did we mention the story takes place in the seventeenth century and revolves around forty years of intractable civil and criminal litigation? Headed for the exits yet? If so, I have some simple advice: stop. You’ve stumbled upon a beautiful and hilarious novel by a superb writer. This first English translation of
confirms the author’s place among the best novelists of the twentieth century. If I could get away with a one-line introduction, I would: Halldór Laxness rules.
Readers who have encountered this one and only Icelandic Nobel laureate are most likely to have read his 1934 classic,
Out of print for some time, it is now enjoying a revival and a widening readership thanks to a handful of devoted writers and editors who have championed his work in the last several years. I myself am the beneficiary of these efforts. A friend recommended
to me a few years ago. I bought it with some trepidation, my gut telling me this would be one of those worthy, difficult books that ennoble through struggle. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Reading my first Laxness novel is one of those experiences that I look back on with a kind of jealous fondness, loving the memory of it but wishing it hadn’t ended.
Many of the same pleasures, in particular a mixture of laughter and awe unique to Laxness, can be found in
Written a decade after
the novel has a broader geographical and political scope than that book and is more expressly concerned with national identity and the role literature plays in forming it. It is also a tale of colonial exploitation and the obdurate will of a suffering people. This description might lead one to imagine an earnest and patriotic work, which
most certainly isn’t. That’s because Laxness has done here what so many other writers who reach for large, historical themes fail to do: he’s retained his sense of the absurd.
“There was a time, it says in books,” the novel opens, “that the Icelandic people had only one national treasure: a bell.”
This bell rang at the courthouse on the site of the national assembly where all the major business of government and the courts took place. As the story begins, one of the three central characters, Jón Hreggviðsson, a miserably poor farmer, has been arrested for stealing cord, or fishing line, a commodity that every poor person in Iceland seems to be after. Pressed into labor for the Danish crown, which then ruled Iceland, Jón Hreggviðsson is made to cut the bell down from where it has hung since time immemorial in order that it be melted down and its copper used in the rebuilding of Copenhagen. The Danish capital has been ravaged by the Swedes and now Iceland is being stripped of its meager wealth to finance the repairs. This insult to the pride of Iceland and the dignity of its courts heralds a descent into the misprision of justice that the characters will contend with for the rest of the book.
Within a few days’ time, Hreggviðsson will be whipped for insulting the king as he cut down the bell (and a more harrowing description of that punishment I have never read). After this harsh treatment Jón gets drunk with a group of his tormentors, including the man who flayed his back. In his typically laconic style, Laxness doesn’t suggest anything perverse in this; they just happen to be traveling in the same direction. Lost in a swamp, Jón passes out drunk and wakes to find the dead body of the king’s hangman nearby. The judicial haggling over whether Hreggviðsson is responsibile for this death will, before the novel is over, ruin the reputations of several Icelandic aristocrats and send the man himself into an endless series of prisons and workhouses. It will also make him a pawn in a love affair between a royal advisor and the most beautiful woman in Iceland.
will recognize in Jón Hreggviðsson a character cut from the same cloth as Bjartur of Summerhouses, that ignorant and violent bore whom the novel’s readers can’t help but love. Hreggviðsson is perhaps even more violent and boorish than Bjartur. Upon returning from the workhouse in the second chapter, he finds “his sister and aunt, who were both lepers, one glabrous and palsied, the other nodous and ulcerous, [sitting] downcast in their black veils out by the dungheap, holding each other’s hands and praising God.” Being drunk, “he began immediately to beat his wife and his idiot son. His fourteen-year-old daughter laughed at him and his aged mother embraced him tearfully: these he did not beat to any considerable extent.”
The bleakness is so total, and perhaps more importantly is delivered in prose so thoroughly nonchalant, that laughter is the only possible relief. There’s no doubt Laxness intends it to be this way. Two hundred pages later, when Hreggviðsson returns to find his daughter on her bier, his retarded son laughing, and his wife cursing him, the author asks, “But what were these compared to the tragedies that had befallen the man’s livestock in his absence?” And he’s only half kidding. This is gallows humor to be sure, humor quite literally at the edges of death, which is what gives almost all of Hreggviðsson’s scenes their beguiling combination of lightness and profundity.
If Jón Hreggviðsson were its one and only hero,
might have ended up as a thinner version of
but Laxness sets the peasant farmer on a course that intersects with the daughter of Iceland’s magistrate, the beautiful Snæfríður, and the man she comes to love and struggle against, the royal advisor Arnas Arnæus. The latter, based on Árni Magnússon, the great Icelandic book collector and scholar, has come to Iceland in search of ancient books and manuscripts that might contain fragments of the Icelandic sagas. The soul of Iceland lives in its poetry and its tales of brave men, but in this country, the population has been reduced to using old vellum manuscripts as shoe leather, patches for clothing, and even for food.
When visiting with local gentry, Arnæus finds pieces of the most prized manuscript of all, the
among the hay and garbage that makes up the bed of Hreggviðsson’s mother. It’s on this visit to the peasant’s hovel that the young Snæfríður, afraid of Hreggviðsson’s leprous family, clings to Arnæus for protection. It will be many pages before the reader understands that Snæfríður is desperately in love with Arnæus, admiring the man who works tirelessly for the honor and reputation of his country.
From these early scenes, the book opens up into a rather elaborate plot. Snæfríður helps to free Hreggviðsson the day before his execution for murder and asks him to travel to Denmark with a message for Arnæus, who has returned to Copenhagen and his books without leaving word to his young admirer. Hreggviðsson’s journey through darkened jails and conscription in the Danish army is a surreal black comedy of its own. It’s only toward the middle of the novel that we return to Snæfríður, years later, on a dilapidated farm, still beautiful but married to Magnús, a murderous alcoholic layabout. In one of the most pathetic and grimly funny scenes in the book, Magnús, so drunk he’s weeping in a stranger’s field asking for his head to be cut off, signs a contract selling his wife for a cask of booze. When she is informed of this by a priest, our heroine, in good Laxness fashion, can only laugh. When Magnús does finally come after her with an ax (too drunk to hit his mark), she goes to her sister’s estate and there meets Arnæus again, this time in the role of a special crown prosecutor charged with cleaning up Iceland’s supposedly crooked and overly harsh system of criminal punishment.
It is difficult to imagine another writer capable of making an ugly, wife-beating failure into an appealing character, without resort to either misogyny or machismo. But Magnús is too wrecked even to achieve an intention we might dislike him for. And here we see the unflinching generosity Laxness has toward all his characters. Like a loving and forgiving god, he details their every miserable failure but never for the purpose of castigation or judgment. The human comedy of error—and in Laxness’s hands it is most definitely a comedy— is delivered up as a wry and occasionally absurd pleasure.
Regarding character, it is worth mentioning that contemporary readers are likely to find Laxness’s people lacking in what you might call modern psychological depth. We get no internal description of what people think or feel but rather come to know them almost exclusively through what they say and do to each other. Together with the historical setting, this at times gives the reader the sense that the book is an Icelandic saga of its own, with the flatness of characterization we associate with folklore. This is no doubt partially true. In an interview published in 1972, Laxness admitted to making a conscious decision to mimic the style of the sagas in this book. But there is more than copying going on here. Laxness is adapting the form of the modern novel to encompass the meanings and concerns of the saga tradition.
One reaction to this hybrid, which I suspect many readers may have at first, is to dismiss the work as simplistic. If you look to fiction for news about what it’s like to be alive in the world today, why read a book in which self-consciousness, the philosophical linchpin of the modern condition, is more or less ignored? The answer is, I believe, that Laxness knows precisely what he is doing and is well aware of his choices as a twentieth-century writer.
is no act of nostalgia. Implicit in the narrative is an assertion of the role that a certain hardscrabble pragmatism and pride plays in surviving the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune—modern or ancient.
Toward the end of the book, after she has suffered through one indignity after the next, Snæfríður travels to Denmark to plead with the Danish governor to reopen the corruption case that has ruined her father the magistrate’s reputation. Finally, her patience gives and she rips into the corpulent aristocrat as they stand in his splendid hall:
Excuse me for speaking up, excuse us for being a race of historians who forget nothing. But do not misunderstand me: 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: I will not plead with words for mercy for Icelanders. We Icelanders are truly not too good to die. And life has meant nothing to us for a long time. But there is one thing that we can never lose while one man of this race, rich or poor, remains standing; and even in death this thing is never lost to us; that which is described in the old poem, and which we call fame: just so my father and my mother are not, though they are dust, called ignoble thieves.
Of course, this being a Laxness novel, it turns out her father
been a bit corrupt, but is, generally speaking, a good and respectable guy of the old school. Yet listen to the tenacity in her speech: “And life has meant nothing to us for a long time.” It’s a radical sentiment spoken by a woman whose people have lived through a degree of privation which it is difficult for most of us to imagine fully without the help of literature (one of the early descriptions of Hreggviðsson’s mother traveling through the plague-stricken landscape is a tour de force). And it is perhaps worth noting that billions of people in the world today live in conditions not so very different from those found in this novel: failing subsistence farming, poverty, sickness, and occasional famine. I have been more earnest in the last two sentences than Laxness is throughout the entire novel. My point is simply that it would be an error to mistake the quasi-folkloric style of
and Laxness’s work more generally for a lack of psychological or spiritual insight. Like many other great modernists, Laxness uses and transforms the grand narratives of his cultural past to create a stark, comedic vision of the human predicament every bit as profound as the more psychically probing novels of Mann, Faulkner, or Woolf.
In the final third of the novel, the scene returns to Copenhagen, where the political war for control of Iceland is being waged. Laxness opens this section with a brilliant skewering of royals and aristocrats at play. After all the deprivation we’ve seen to this point, the description itself performs the parody with no prodding by the author required. Snæfríður and Arnas Arnæus find themselves on opposite sides of the struggle. Arnæus considers taking up the governorship of the country if it were sold to German merchants; Snæfríður wants royal edicts to reverse the verdicts that Arnæus himself handed down against her father, and for that she needs the Danish monarch. Jón Hreggviðsson remains a pawn caught in the middle, dragged, beaten, released, and jailed again, never expecting more than punishment, and never seeming to give a second thought to his orphaned children. (Children don’t fare well in this book.)
The denouement brings Snæfríður and Arnæus together one last time and here Laxness indulges in what is perhaps the only real set piece in the novel, a short dialogue in which the two of them describe to each other what Iceland will be like once rid of its colonial paymasters. For one of the final improvements, “A splendid courthouse shall be raised at Þingvellir, and another bell hung there, larger and more melodious than the one that the king demanded from Iceland and that the hangman ordered Jón Hreggviðsson to cut down.” Thus, the justice of the old days will be restored, trade will become fair again, and a grand library will be built to house all the collected manuscripts. At this point, the reader can take an educated guess as to whether any of this idealism will ever come to pass.
Nationalism and good literature have always been uneasy bedfellows. One seeks to enforce an ideology, the other to lay pieties bare. Laxness is aware of this and in all his characters’ rantings about the doomed dignity of poor, suffering Iceland, we sense the undertow of parody. But there must have been part of him that did write out of a sense of historical grievance and a desire that his country’s stories be heard beyond the shores of that cold, rocky island out there in the North Atlantic, a country whose landscape he so lovingly describes. In
he pulls it off. He manages to have a free-flowing, open-ended conversation about the fate of his nation inside a compelling, even suspenseful novel. There are precious few writers about whom that can be said, Tolstoy being one of them.