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Laxness the Great

Paradise Reclaimed

by Halldór Laxness, translated from the Icelandic by Magnus Magnusson, with an introduction by Jane Smiley
Vintage, 304 pp., $13.00 (paper)

The Fish Can Sing

by Halldór Laxness, translated from the Icelandic by Magnus Magnusson
London: Harvill, 246 pp., $13.00 (paper)

1.

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.

2.

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.

  1. *

    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.

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