Authors: Halldor Laxness
“This beautiful and heartbreaking novel has haunted me ever since I was lent a rare copy years ago, and I am delighted that what is clearly a masterpiece by a relatively uncelebrated genius will now be available to a wide audience of book lovers. If there is any justice in the world, the name Laxness will soon become a house hold word, at least in those households where timeless works of the imagination are cherished.”
“Laxness has a poets imagination and a poets gift for phrase and symbol…. Bjartur is a magnificent and complex symbol of peasant independence.”
The New York Times Book Review
“A strange story, vibrant and alive.… There is a rare beauty in its telling, a beauty as surprising as the authentic strain of poetry that lies in the shoving, battering Icelander.”
“A saga that somehow contrives to recapture the broad, clear air of older Icelandic tales.”
“[Laxness] gives a large picture of life under primitive conditions, [he] writes vividly, using irony with vigorous effect; amid the brutality and squalor there are rich moments of humor and poetry.”
Halldór Laxness was born near Reykjavik, Iceland, in 1902. His first novel was published when he was seventeen. The undisputed master of contemporary Icelandic fiction and one of the outstanding novelists of the century, he has written more than sixty books, including novels, short stories, essays, poems, plays, and memoirs. In 1955 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. He died in 1998.
Under the Glacier
FREE OF DEBT
YEARS OF PROSPERITY
There are good books and there are great books and there may be a book that is something still more: it is the book of your life. If you’re quite lucky, you may chance upon a novel which inspires so close a kinship that questions of evaluation (Is this book better than merely good? Is it some sort of classic?) become a niggling irrelevance. Luck has everything to do with it. Anyone who cares seriously about fiction eventually will get around to
The Brothers Karamazov
and if you’re somebody whose closest literary attachment is to a book of this staple sort, you will not be graced by the particular haunted feeling of good fortune I'm talking about; you will have, instead, the assurance of knowing that your keenest literary pleasures were preordained. One looks differently on the book of genius that, even in a long bookworm’s life, one might never have stumbled upon.
The feeling I'm describing may account for Henry Millers declaring that Knut Hamsun’s
is “closer to me than any other book I have read.” Or John Fowles’s reverence toward Alain Fourniers
he Grand Meaulnes:
“I am, in short, a besotted fan, and still feel closer to Fournier than to any other novelist, living or dead.” Or Randall Jarrell’s obsession with Christina Steads
The Man Who Loved Children.
Or what Rilke felt about Jacobsen, particularly his
(“Of all my books, I find only a few indispensable … the Bible, and the books of the great Danish author Jens Peter Jacobsen.”)
No doubt Miller and Fowles and Jarrell and Rilke recognized
that greater novels were to be found than the objects of their devotion. But what does greatness signify once you have met the book that was made for you? For what we are talking about is a sort of imperishable romance, in which the flaws of a book are as endearing—as treasurable—as the flaws in the face of one’s sole beloved. This is the real thing: a head-over-heels incredulity that there exists in the universe so perfect an imperfection.
And the book of my own life? Halldór Laxness’s
I remember vividly my initial encounter with it. I finished its last chapters one late afternoon in Rome, seated in an all-but-deserted café. Outside, a storm had abruptly blown in and a chill autumn rain was lashing the streets, and I read as though furtively, hunched over the pages. I did this for two reasons. The light had turned dim. And I didn’t want anyone to notice I was steadily weeping.
It always strikes me as a bitter irony that, in urging the book on someone, I often must first identify its Nobel Prize-winning author. But the fact is that Laxness won the Nobel many years ago, in 1955, and that he represents the smallest country ever to produce a Laureate: Iceland, with its population of roughly a quarter of a million. Until this edition, the book had long been out of print in English.
I might never have read
had I not, in the summer of 1984, spent two weeks hiking in Iceland. However obscure a figure Laxness may be to Americans, in his native land he is a colossus without peer or parallel, and anyone drawn to Iceland will get around to him before long. The Icelandic literary tradition is of course illustrious, but nearly all the medieval sagas and poems that are its capital glory remain anonymous. Before Laxness emerged, prodigiously and prolifically (his career began in 1920, when he published his first novel,
Child of Nature,
at the age of seventeen), Iceland had never produced a modern writer of anything like international reputation. He has been translated into more than thirty languages.
One Hundred Years of Solitude,
with which it shares family resemblances,
in its opening pages evokes the dawn of time. García Márquez’s novel commences on a blue morning
when the boulders in a streambed look like dinosaur eggs.
first chapter summons up the days when the world was first settled, in 874
—for that is the year when the Norsemen arrived in Iceland, and one of the books wry conceits is that no other world but Iceland exists. The tale takes place among farmers habitually so impoverished that they “died without ever having transacted a business deal involving more than a few dollars at a time.” These are men who might venture outside their valleys once or twice a year, hiking to a little fishing village to purchase a few provisions; for them, even Reykjavik is a misty dream.
The book is set in the early decades of the twentieth century but the dates of individual events are hazy.
is a pointedly timeless tale. It reminds us that life on an Icelandic croft had scarcely altered over a millennium; the seasons shifted, but the overall pattern of want and hardship and stoicism endured. Midway through the novel, however, off at an unimaginable distance, something called the Great War erupts. Normally, there would be nothing noteworthy in this (on the Continent, people were forever “hacking one another to pieces like suet in a trough”), but this time the conflict lifts to unprecedented heights the prices for Icelandic mutton and wool. Even the poorest of farmers begin dreaming of an emancipation from their tight, tethered poverty.
War or no war, freedom has always been the aim of the book’s hero, Bjartur. When the story begins, he has just finished slaving for eighteen years on the farm of a man he despises, the bailiff of the district, in order to save money enough to purchase a pitifully modest holding, Summerhouses, and a handful of sheep. Bjartur of Summerhouses views the Great War coldly and gratefully: “I only hope they keep it up as long as they can.” Ultimately, though, he cannot concern himself with the “madmen” in the South—or with most of the people around him. Of far more significance are his sheep. On their welfare his world depends. He is fighting his own World War, at once the most significant and the most risible conflict on the globe—the smallest war ever fought. He is a “generalissimo” whose troops consist purely of a dog that helps him with his sheep.
His existence is less simple than it looks, however. For his world of everyday deprivation, like that of García Márquez’s peasants, is
encircled by a zone of enchantments. At the edges of life, magic is always afoot—although in Bjarturs case, all magic is black magic; the miraculous is no less malign than the mundane. Hence, his combat is two-tiered. He contends with the hostility of nature. And he contends with supernature—a curse. Long ago, the valley in which Summerhouses lies was inhabited by a murderous, blood-drinking witch, the fiend Gunnvor, who formed an unholy alliance with the infernal spirit Kolumkilli. She was eventually brought to justice (she was dismembered), but her scheming spirit still blights the valley. To propitiate her, it is customary for passersby to place a rock on the cairn devoted to her memory. But not Bjartur, who scorns the “nonsense these old wives let their heads be stuffed with.”
Gunnvor and Kolumkilli embody an unholy—an infernal—marriage, and it would seem that one legacy of their union is the withering of romantic alliances in the solitary valley where Summerhouses stands. Bjartur marries twice. His first wife, a furtively miserable woman, evidently agreed to move into his hovel only because she was, unbeknownst to him, pregnant by the son of the hateful bailiff. She dies in childbirth, alone. His second wife, a sickly, broken-spirited woman who during the dark arctic winters scarcely rises from her bed, eventually collapses and dies after a horrific, famished spring.
Occasionally it is borne in upon Bjartur that his women are torturously unhappy. He senses uneasily that they, perhaps in response to his crushing, ruthless drive for self-sufficiency, have reserved some sector of their minds he cannot reach. But in time there comes to Bjartur a different sort of romance, a new form of “marriage.” The child of his first wife survives its mother’s death and Bjartur rears it as his own. This child, granddaughter to the bailiff, belongs to the “enemy.” But it turns out that Bjartur, for all his aloofness, harbors a clumsy warmth toward infants; he views them with some of the same tenderness he feels toward baby lambs. Looking down for the first time at this newborn girl, he
Marvelled that it could be so small and delicate. “You can’t really expect it to be much of a thing,” he added apologetically,
“the way mankind is such a sorry affair when you come to look at it as it actually is.”
He bestows on her, just the same, a lofty name: Asta Sollilja, or Beloved Sun-lily. She becomes his soul’s “one flower.”
In time, Bjartur’s sun-lily reaches the gangling verge of womanhood. When she is about thirteen, he guides her for the first time across the downs. After hours of trudging, she beholds, far off, a “strange blue color” that “seemed to embrace all the mysteries of distance.” She has to ask her father what it might be. It is the ocean, he tells her.
“Isn’t there anything on the other side, then?” she asked finally.
“The foreign countries are on the other side,” replied her father, proud of being able to explain such a vista. “The countries that they talk about in books,” he went on, “the kingdoms.”
They enter a fishing village and put up in a raucous and squalid lodging house, where they must share a bed. In the night, the frightened girl reaches innocently for her father and he, for a moment, responds to her sexually—he places a hand on her bare leg.
Aghast at himself, Bjartur leaps from bed and insists they strike off immediately for home. His daughter, having sensed nothing sexual in his touch, is thoroughly mystified. But Bjartur will henceforth see to it that nothing like a sexual exchange arises between them. Their “marriage” must be altogether virtuous.
Astas virtue soon crumbles, though. She becomes pregnant at the age of fifteen. On learning of the girls condition, Bjartur strikes her and expels her from his home.
So Asta sets out on her own, in an icy rain, in the middle of the night. She’s a fanciful child even yet, dreaming of a lover who owns “lands with sun-gilded palm-avenues.” But she will discover before the freezing dawn that her papery shoes are ripped to shreds and she is friendless in the wide world. Still, she never thinks of retreating, of begging Bjartur for another chance. For it turns out that she,
no less than this father of hers who is not her true father, nurtures a proud independence. Somehow she will get by.
Years pass. Bjartur had always perceived himself as a soldier whose “war” concerned sheep, but it turns out that the true conflict of the book is between father and daughter. Asta is the only person in the world who has ever managed to penetrate Bjartur’s leatherlike skin. She is an irresistible force. But he is an immovable object. And how (the reader is left continually wondering) can two such ever be reconciled?
I first picked up
with faint misgivings, somewhat put off by both its title and its subtitle,
(In the original, the book is called
—literally, Self-standing Folk—which doubtless is more inviting.) I feared I was about to encounter an uplifting story composed in a firm nationalistic tenor—a rousing testament to the valiant and indomitable Icelandic temperament. Was this going to be a land of too much steeliness and too little irony?
But one needn’t read very far to perceive Bjartur’s utter unsuitability as any symbol of a nation’s virtues. He’s far too quirky and crusty for that. And too big a fool. The book is as much mock as genuine epic. When Bjartur and his dog first stride into the valley, and he utters the first word of the novel—“No”—it’s clear that he’s a poor man’s Odysseus and his worm- and lice-infested dog is a cut-rate Argos.
Partly out of love for the book, I’ve now spent, all told, a year and a half in Iceland and I’ve met Laxness a few times. The first occasion was in 1986. He was then in his mid-eighties and growing confused and forgetful. When I spoke of my admiration for Bjartur, a look of perplexity gave way to one of alarm. “Oh, but he’s so stupid!” he objected.
“Oh, but he’s so
stupid!” I replied, and the old man peered at me and pondered darkly a moment; then his features cleared, and he abruptly laughed with pleasure.
Bjartur is a man who seemingly can hold in his head but one ideal—financial independence, the belief that “he who pays his way is a king.” In his eyes, abstract speculation is a pastime for layabouts.
At the rim of his thinking, though, other notions—strange ideas with arresting cadences—are forever seething. Gradually—almost shyly—the novel reveals that Bjartur is something of a poet. His verses, not surprisingly, have little to say. He’s a man in a perpetual muddle, who can expect to find no clarity in his lines. No, Bjartur comes to poetry, as to everything else, in search of a task to be fulfilled. He is enamored of the old
of traditional Icelandic verse, with its obscure kennings and intricate forms: “His poetry was technically so complex that it could never attain any noteworthy content; and thus it was with his life itself.”