Jan 13, 2008

Iceland's Bell

Iceland's Bell, by Halldór Laxness. Translated by Philip Roughton. Introduction by Adam Haslett. New York: Vintage Books, 2003. 425 pgs. Originally published 1943-46.

"If I could get away with a one-line introduction, I would: Halldór Laxness rules." Thankfully Adam Haslett extends his introduction to thirteen pages: it is well worth the price of admission to Iceland's Bell. Who is Adam Haslett? An acclaimed author, but more important to me, a devotee of Laxness--one who articulates with grace and style many of the reasons that I love Laxness so.

Haslett nails the characteristics of Laxness novels that make them so outstanding, he pinpoints the features of Iceland’s Bell that make it unique, and he delineates many of the qualities that make Laxness' writings so universal. Reading his introduction is enlightening. But we'll get back to Haslett in a bit--first, let's talk about the novel itself.

Iceland’s Bell was written a decade after Independent People. The plot is based on an historical event of the seventeenth century that resulted in forty years of litigation. The novel has a picaresque flavor, and offers something to please every reader. It is much more than an historical novel: it contains elements of intrigue, drama, pathos, love, vivid landscapes and varying scenes, and colorful characters with idiosyncratic personalities.

A major character is the marginal farmer, Jón Hreggviðsson. Jón steals cord (fishing line), is forced into labor, and is charged with killing the (Danish) King's Hangman. (It's unclear whether Jón actually killed him or not.) He is conscripted into the Danish army, and his fortunes rise and fall. He becomes embroiled in the middle of a love affair between Snæfríður, the most beautiful woman in Iceland, and Arnas Arnæs, a Royal Advisor modeled on the life of Árni Magnússon (the Icelandic book collector/scholar).

Snæfríður Iceland's Sun is the strongest, most compelling character in the book. Her fortunes also wax and wane, yet she is indomitable. She is willing to fight for her principles to the end, and the following speech conveys her determination and forthright nature, and reveals the Icelandic sense of identity:
Excuse me for speaking up, excuse us for being a race of historians who forget nothing. But do not misunderstand me: I regret nothing that has happened, neither in words nor thoughts. It may be that the most victorious race is the one that is exterminated: I will not plead with words for mercy for Icelanders. We Icelanders are truly not too good to die. And life has meant nothing to us for a long time. But there is one thing that we can never lose while one man of this race, rich or poor, remains standing; and even in death this thing is never lost to us; that which is described in the old poem, and which we call fame: just so my father and my mother are not, though they are dust, called ignoble thieves.

This story moves from one incident, character, country, to another, and back again; from pain to humor, and back again; from the despicable yet delightfully sardonic Jón to the noble yet fatally stubborn Snæfríður. It's is typical Laxness Art.

And now, some quotes from Haslett:

The bleakness is so total, and perhaps more importantly is delivered in prose so thoroughly nonchalant, that laughter is the only possible relief. ix ...we see the unflinching generosity Laxness has toward all his characters. x

And, the one I truly identify with:

Reading my first Laxness novel is one of those experiences that I look back on with a kind of jealous fondness, loving the memory of it but wishing it hadn't ended. viii

This 2003 edition is the first English translation of Iceland’s Bell, and I hope more of Laxness’ books will become available in the near future.


Professor Batty said...

... Arnas Andreas' speech on pp. 387-8 is another one for the ages. No wonder Icelanders are such "Independent people".

Rose said...

Give us the goods, Batty! I like this part: "...when German fishing villages and German market towns have been built on Iceland's shores...what then will be the lot of the Icelanders, who wrote such celebrated books? They will have become...fat servants of a German puppet state. A fat servant is not much of a man. A beaten servant is a great man, because in his breast freedom has its home."

Professor Batty said...

... I wonder how how much Laxness directed this at the Nazi regime (which would have loved to have had a base in the North Atlantic) or possibly even at Britain and the US occupying forces, in Iceland at the time he wrote this.

Rose said...

Yes, and I think you'll enjoy my current read, "Friends of Freeland", which also has a lot of interesting social/political stuff in it. Watch for a review soon ;-)