A Bit of Halldor Laxness – Book Reviews

Since I’ve been reading a lot of medieval Icelandic sagas over the past year, I’ve often thought to myself that I should read a bit of more  contemporary Icelandic literature. A simple Google search prominently displayed Halldór Laxness‘s name. Laxness was an Icelandic author who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature for his novel, Independent People, in 1955. I marked Independent People as a book to read some time ago, but I’ve held off on reading it because it is a longer work and I was unfamiliar with the the author’s style. So I resolved to see if he had any other, less daunting books on which a new reader could cut their teeth. Upon deciding that, I promptly forgot about Laxness until I made a literary pilgrimage to Concord, Massachusetts and Walden Pond this past October. My wife and I were exploring downtown Concord, and being a bookworm I had to visit The Concord Bookshop especially considering the town’s literary heritage. Whenever I go into an independent bookstore, I always feel the obligation to buy something. As I browsed I came across some prominently displayed Halldór Laxness books on a shelf in the middle of the store, and my notion of reading some of his shorter works before attempting Independent People came rushing back into my mind. There were a few options (though I don’t remember what all those options were). After reading the descriptions of each book I opted for the shortest, Under the Glacier, as the back cover claimed it to be a funny novel. It sat on my shelf for a month before I finally got to it (most books on my shelf wait much, much longer), and what I found was a real treat and a new favorite author (I have several).

under

Under the Glacier, by Halldór Laxness. Translated into English by Magnus Magnusson.

Under the Glacier tells the story of an unnamed protagonist whose acumen and ability to write in shorthand has caught the attention of the Bishop of Iceland. The Bishop calls the young man into his office one day to ask a favor, and asks the narrator to go to the town near Snæfellsjökull to investigate the state of Christianity in the town and its residents as there have been disturbing reports of strange occurrences in the area for some time. Chief among them are the fact that the pastor has apparently boarded up the local church, allowed a mysterious building to be built next to the church, has refused to perform funerals, and has reportedly deposited an object resembling a casket atop the nearby glacier. Not to mention the pastor has been abandoned by his wife, but has not sought out divorce and remarriage as a clergyman should. The young man is given the title “Emissary to the Bishop of Iceland,” or “Embi” for short, and told that the church just wants the facts; they don’t want him to adulterate the report with his own, negligent opinions. Embi quickly finds himself in the village under the glacier where mystics from around the globe gather to “overcome death.” Poor Embi has to put up with these frustrating characters as he tries to perform the duty entrusted upon him by the bishop, and in doing so learns of the haunting presence of a woman named Uá, who, when he meets her himself, will lead him both to the utmost passion and frightful devastation.

Let me start off by stating outright that Under the Glacier is not a book for everyone. That doesn’t mean it is a bad book by any means! It is actually quite excellent, but the narrative style may not appeal to many readers. The narrative is told in a semi-stream of conscious style as a report both written and recorded on cassettes by Embi. As such, Embi usually refers to himself as “the undersigned,” “Embi,” and sometimes in the first person. The narrative style also leads to confusion to know who is talking at any given moment. Compounding all this is the heavy symbolism that pervades the novel. If you can make it through all this, then you’ll love Under the Glacier. It is a wonderfully literary work that is unafraid to wear its influences on its sleeve, ranging from the Icelandic sagas, Norse and Christian mythology, American modernism, and Derridaean Deconstruction, and it reads like an amalgamation of these influences with a dash of Faulknerian southern gothic style thrown in. Students of literature, and especially literary theory, will find fertile, humorous ground under Snæfellsjökull, even if Embi does not. Others may find it a difficult read that begins and ends nowhere whilst making little sense in between, but maybe that is the point after all.

Paradise

Paradise Reclaimed, by Halldór Laxness. Translated by Magnus Magnusson.

While I enjoyed reading Under the Glacier, I began to suspect that it was not very indicative of Laxness’s other works. I wanted to get a better sense of Laxness’s typical writing before tackling Independent People, so I decided to check out his other books that are readily available in English. While reading descriptions I came across Paradise Reclaimed and without hesitation decided it would be the very next book I would read because it tied my interest in Icelandic literature to Utah, which is where I grew up.

Steinar of Hlíðar is an impoverished farmer living in Iceland during the latter half of the nineteenth century with his wife and two children. By luck or magic, Steinar becomes the owner of a wonderfully beautiful horse that is the envy of his neighbors and the great love of he and his family. Hoping to improve the situation of his children, Steinar takes the horse to Þingvellir to present it to the Danish King who is visiting to commemorate the 1000th year of the settling of Iceland by Vikings. The king thanks him profusely and Steinar wends his way back home on foot. At Þingvellir, he had happened across a Mormon missionary, Bishop Þjoðrekur, who he encounters again on his way home tied to a post outside a Lutheran church. Steinar unties the Mormon. These two actions, presenting the horse to the king and assisting a Mormon missionary, set in motion a series of events that will leave Steinar’s family destitute and Steinar himself far away in Spanish Fork, Utah where he works as a brick maker of no small skill to fund his family’s immigration.

This is an achingly wonderful book. It is beautifully told with many layers of symbolism and narrative enveloping. It often reads like a saga of old and is definitely in conversation with some of the great sagas that relate Iceland’s adoption of Christianity around the beginning of the eleventh century. Laxness doesn’t shy from criticizing where criticism is due, but his criticism isn’t generalized and is quite fair. Layered symbolism permeates the novel and may often leave readers pondering if the real world is just a magical illusion, or vice versa. And, at the end, it all circles back to where it began with Steinar of Hlíðar mending a fence in his own, personal paradise. Few books have left me quite so emotionally exhausted as this one, and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in modern Icelandic literature, any Utahn who may have an interest in the Icelandic immigrants that settled in Spanish Fork during the latter part of the nineteenth century, or anyone who just likes to read a good book.

With these two books under my belt, I feel confident in tackling Independent People in the not too distant future.

 

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