Aug 15, 2007

What Kinds of Books Do Icelanders Write?

World Light, by Halldór Laxness. Introduction by Sven Birkerts. New York: Vintage, 2002. (Originally published 1937, English translation by Magnus Magnusson, 1969.) 605 pgs.

So to answer my question from 2002, you've seen a number of authors discussed in these pages. My all-around favorites remain the saga authors and Halldór Laxness.

I love Sven Birkerts’ description of Laxness’s huge literary presence:

World Light, like any of Laxness’s works…is but a boulder in a rockslide, one small part of what might be seen as a compulsive lifelong quest to fix a world to the page.
So let's get on with a review of another Laxness book!

This novel chronicles the life of a poet and mystic, an enigmatic man who calls himself Ólafur Kárason of Ljósavík. The story is based upon the life of an actual poet, and is filled with lyrical names that roll off the tongue or tickle the senses: Fótur-undir-Fótaræti, Þórunn of Kambar, and Júel J. Júel.

Ólafur’s childhood is bleak. His mother abandoned him, and he lives with an ignorant, cruel family that treats him like, well, a dog. He is plagued by terrible health. The vague maladies that aflict him make him unable to be a useful, contributing member of the family, and thus he is more and more despised .

There are occasional bright spots to Ólafur’s youth, however. First, a mystical faith awakens within him at an early age, and throughout his life he finds himself transfigured by beauty and by an intimate understanding of the higher realm.

Also, a surprising development is that one of the daughters of the family surreptitiously reads to him, and Ólafur discovers the world of words, books, poetry. His growing love of poetry gives his life meaning and unwavering purpose.

When it appears that Ólafur will never regain his health, his “family” has him carted off to some remote area where an erotic, witch-like woman cures him by a laying on of her hands (or something like that). As he regains health, Ólafur finds his destiny as The Poet. The novel ebbs and flows around the conflicting demands of the life of an artist—one who is in this world but not of it. His great sensitivity to beauty, to words, and to a higher being are gifts beyond value, yet they don’t prepare him for life. “Ólafur Kárason had always kept to himself and did not interfere in other people’s affairs; it sometimes also happened that he was not very familiar with his own affairs.”

The sensibility of the poet is an enigma to the one person who remains with him most of his life. His wife first meets him when he is young, ill, and impressionable. She is successful in making him feel an obligation to her, and although she was is an older, worn-out woman, who has no understanding at all of art or poetry, Ólafur honors his commitment to her. She becomes his Intended, and later his wife, the mother of his children, his ball and chain. Their relationship brings nothing but misery to either of them, but The Poet never successfully breaks it off:

Had he, who had chosen her for his lot, the right to punish her—for shortcomings she couldn’t help?...he felt pity for this one more keenly than ever before, and the pity fettered him more than any love could. She was a representative of that humanity with which he himself was inextricably bound up, burdened with emotions, sensitive and sorrowful in its quest for a way out of the darkness and the severity of its origins. Was one to despise and betray this humanity, one’s own humanity, because its instinctive quest for something finer and more beautiful hadn’t succeeded?

This books is much more than the story of a man, The Poet (although the story of The Poet is magnificent indeed). The story also has elements of the societal changes taking place in the early 20th, and religion, spiritualism, feminism. As the books draws to a close, Ólafur goes to meet his true love atop a glacier. As bleak as his life may be, his quest for the beautiful, divine, and eternal never ends. Ólafur is a flawed character in a flawed world, yet his odd world vision enables us to find a unique and unforgettable beauty, as well as hope.


Professor Batty said...

... Laxness certainly captures a "world-between" here. Between old times and modern, between sacred and profane, poetic and prosaic. Without this novel, would we even be aware of its existence, much less have it come to life in the glorious writing. Good review, I'm anticipating your next one...

Rose said...

Thank you, PB, and you notice you're getting a *preview*, what with the puffins and all ;-)
I was trying to make my review more concise--clearly I didn't succeed--and here you've done it for me, in three sentences!!!

Karen said...


I saw this new DVD in "Rolling Stone" and wondered if you had heard about it. I am going to buy it for the Library.

"Screaming Masterpiece"
Björk and Sigur Rós are just the tip of the hip that emerges in Ari Alexander Ergis Magnússon's lively, revealing documentary on the arctic island's singular pop scene. The subtitle ("1,000 Years of Icelandic Popular Music") is no joke. Amid the electro-rap of Ghostigital, Múm's laptop sparkle and the eerie art song of Mugison, singer Steindór Andersen fuses the Dark and modern ages, chanting ancient verse with haunted force against volcanic strings and Sigur Rós' frosty drone.

Rose said...

Wow, Karen. You never fail to surprise me. (On my doorstep, Iowa to Virginia, for my 50th birthday! TWO boston cream pies!--both with JOHN'S name on them, as he has pointed out several times, emphatically.)
And now this! This has been on my wish list for several years. But thanks to your reminder, I've just checked and see that I can buy either the CD or the DVD used for a mere $12. What am I waiting for?
I also resolved today, while driving back from delivering Peter to college, that I MUST purchase two more Benni Hemm Hemm CDs. I enjoyed listening to the one I do own, over and over, and must have more.
Prof. Batty, I'm thinking you have a comment here...

Rose said...

Make that new for $14.

Rose said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Professor Batty said...

... I saw Screaming Masterpiece in a Film Fest, I even blogged about it a little. It a bit frustrating, the clips can be too short or too long, but a must-see to find acts you might not otherwise hear about (and note those acts you might rather avoid altogether.) It is worth it just to see the performance of Oðinn's Raven's Magic. The CD might have a more complete performance of that piece. Good view of the club scene, most of the bands were shot at Iceland Airwaves 2005... It's kind of a mess, technically, but still a lot of fun... Amiina will be in Pennsylvania and D.C. in September...