Books discussed in this article
It is as though certain landscapes, including the Sweden of the writer Stig Dagerman (who died in 1954 when he was thirty-one), have their own sound. Northern landscapes such as his come to us without elaborate description or embellishment, or any display of easy feeling. Light is scarce and so too emotion is rationed, or held within and never made easy. The spirit is wary and the past comes haunting and much is unresolved. Mist, wind, clouds, short days, the proximity of the sea, the quickly changing weather, poverty or the memory of poverty, all suggest a world in which little can be taken for granted. In other places too such as Ireland, Scotland, Canada, Iceland, the northeast coast of the United States, novelists, short-story writers, and poets have mined this sense of scarcity and found an austere poetry, a hard-won truth.
Gray shadows, raked light, a sense of washed color, ghostliness and grief, with an aura of absence and the withholding of easy information, and the presence of stark and austere drama, appear too in the work of certain northern visual artists, such as the Danish painter Vilhelm Hammershøi, the Irish painter Patrick Collins, the Danish filmmaker Carl Theodor Dreyer, or the Swedish director Ingmar Bergman. Some of the icy melancholy in their work appears too in folksongs and in the music of Sibelius.
In the work, say, of John McGahern and Eugene McCabe in Ireland, or George Mackay Brown and Don Paterson in Scotland, or Alistair MacLeod and Alice Munro in Canada, or Halldór Laxness and Guðbergur Bergsson in Iceland, or Alice McDermott and Elizabeth Bishop’s early life in the northeastern United States (Bishop also spent much of her childhood in Canada), or Tomas Tranströmer and Stig Dagerman in Sweden, language has been pared down to match feeling, and feeling is all the more piercing in its effect, and filled with coiled and gnarled expression, because it is so watched over, so restrained.
A word is a tentative form of control, grammar an enactment of how things stand. But nothing is stable, so words can lift and have resonance, can move out, take in essences as a sponge soaks in water. Thus language is rooted in simple description, and then it blooms or withers; it is suggestive, has some flourishes, or a tone and texture that have odd delights, but it has all sorts of limits and failures. If words are a cry for help, the calm space around them offers a resigned helplessness.
In these northern societies, language is also a way to restrain experience, take it down to a level where it might stay. Language is neither ornament nor exaltation; it is firm and almost desolate in its purpose. Our time on the earth does not give us cause or need to say anything more than…
This article is available to subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all articles published within the last five years.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.