January 6, 2008


From Halldór Laxness, the magical and the mundane: The mesmerizing power of the Icelandic novelist (and Nobelist) is displayed in a reissue of 'The Fish Can Sing.' (Richard Rayner, January 6, 2008, LA Times)

Laxness is often described as a writer who reinterpreted the classic Icelandic sagas of the 12th and 13th centuries. This doesn't tell the whole story. Of course he was influenced by his country's extraordinary contribution to world culture. How could he not be? From the sagas he drew a laconic, matter-of-fact tone, characters who talk little but brood lots before launching into sometimes catastrophic action, as well as plots whose big moments might be recognized only retrospectively. In such novels as the "Iceland's Bell" trilogy (1943-46) and "Under the Glacier" (1968), he rarely hits the narrative nail on the head but sidles around that nail, observing it wryly, saving the hammer for later. But as novelist Jane Smiley, herself a scholar of the sagas and one of Laxness' foremost American champions, rightly observes, there's much more to his stuff than faux medievalism.

Laxness was born in 1902 in the capital city of Reykjavik, then a tiny fishing port "where people still wore the same kind of home-made moccasins which peasants in Europe used to wear a thousand years ago when towns did not exist and therefore not cobblers either." From this backwater, he launched a determined journey into modernity. He came to the United States in the 1920s and tried to make it in Hollywood, befriending Upton Sinclair, one of his literary idols. Suspected of being a socialist -- not a good idea in America at the time -- Laxness faced deportation in 1929 until Sinclair and Stephen Crane's daughter, Helen, intervened.

Back in Iceland, Laxness translated Hemingway -- and Sinclair too. As another war loomed in Europe, his books were banned by the Nazis. Meanwhile, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover tried to stop Laxness from getting his U.S. royalties, which were considerable once "Independent People" became a Book of the Month Club selection and sold 450,000 hardcover copies. Hoover feared that those greenbacks would fall into red Icelandic hands. In 1948, Laxness wrote his polemical novel, "The Atom Station," revolving around the U.S. military's presence in Iceland and its plans to build a nuclear base. The following year, he won the Stalin Peace Prize. He denounced Stalin and won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1955. He died in 1998, having published more than 60 works. This was a man who engaged with, and in some way conquered, the world.

The allure and ultimate desirability of such engagement is the subject of "The Fish Can Sing" (Vintage: 272 pp., $14), the latest Laxness work to be reissued and with an introduction by Smiley. This 1957 novel is narrated by the orphan Alfgrimur Hansson, who tells, in a meandering way, of his relationship with the mysterious Gardar Holm, who has left Reykjavik and achieved worldwide fame as an opera singer. "We were born and bred each on his own side of the same churchyard and have always been called close kinsmen, and many people have confused us and some have even taken the one for the other," Alfgrimur observes. Throughout the novel, Laxness dangles the possibility that Gardar might be Alfgrimur's phantasm, a double who is by turns glamorous, brilliant and fraudulent. "In his suitcases, which were of good quality and fairly new, were found bricks wrapped in straw and nothing else."

That image, like many in the novel, is quietly haunting and visionary; Laxness habitually combines the magical and the mundane, writing with grace and a quiet humor that takes awhile to notice but, once detected, feels ever present. Alfgrimur can't quite decide whether he really wants to leave Iceland and become a star like Gardar or stay at home and be a lump fisherman. Only for the truly Northern soul would this seem a dilemma.

Posted by Orrin Judd at January 6, 2008 9:13 AM
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