Aug 17, 2008

In Search of My Beloved

In Search of My Beloved, by Þórbergur Þórðarson. Translated from the Icelandic by Kenneth G. Chapman. Introduction by Kristján Karlsson. Vol. 1 of The Library of Scandinavian Literature. New York: Twayne, 1967. (First published in Icelandic in 1938.) 119 pgs.

Þórbergur Þórðarson (1889-1974) was an extremely prolific writer. Of his 47 books, this is the only one that has been translated into English. In Search of My Beloved has an unfinished feel to it, which isn't surprising since is actually part of a larger work, Þórðarson's first autobiographical book: An Icelandic Aristocracy (1938). It conveys the ingenuousness and naiveté of youth, and the paradox of love's intoxication and paralysis, its optimism and despair. This is a good window into the author as a young man, and it left me wanting more.

The introduction to this edition describes a quirky, intriguing man. He had many interests, and was "poet, essayist, parodist, storyteller, polemist, folklorist, grammarian, and autobiographer," as well as being interested in Esperanto, socialism, supernaturalism, and spiritualism.

As for his writing, he was a word collector, with a "peculiar meticulousness of mind."

the great romanticist was also a born rationalist with a scientific turn of mind and an innate need for relentless self-observation. What he observed struck him as highly comic and, when he began to exploit his personality in writing, his readers found it even more amusing than he did himself. At his best, he gives the distinct impression of not knowing how funny he is.

His writing demonstrated great "knowledge of Icelandic language, speech, folk myths." Karlsson describes Þórðarson's writing as lucid, spare, and free of affectation. Þórðarson was a large influence on the writing of Halldór Laxness.

Þórðarson's character, the semi-autobiographical "I" of the story, isn't overly ambitious and would like nothing better than to spend his time composing poetry, dreaming of his love, and drinking with his friends. But love alone won't feed him, so he travels to Sigulfjord to look for a job in the herring industry. The descriptions of Sigulfjord were interesting to me, having spent time in the area a few years ago. In fact, most of the action of the story was in places I had been, and it was really fun to imagine the young Þórðarson there one hundred years ago.

As you might expect of a story about a young man, one misadventure follows another. He and his friends are always out of money and resort to scams, credit and the low life in order to get along.

They were, as I, looking for work, were penniless and homeless, as I , and, also as I, ate at the Post Office for one crown a day, always on credit. It was a true joint shipwreck and we tried desperately to save ourselves by forming a sort of philosophical common front against any and all meditations on the blessings of this life.

As the summer goes by and they still haven't found employment "our relationship to the Post Office was by this time anything but lyrical." Finally employment on a herring boat opens up:

Life now took on a different tone than it had had on the streets of Sigulfjord. My companions became violently seasick and huddled only half conscious in some bare bunks down in the filthy, reeking cabin. They were no longer lyrical.

At one point, a more experienced "friend" of his gives him advice on love. He learns that women want to be made love to ... and all along he'd thought they want to be respected from a distance!

I tossed and turned, plagued by the most piercing pangs of conscience. What a fool I'd been! What an idiot!

Full of wisdom, he sets off to see his beloved and win her. But as he walks through a remote mountain path, night sets in, a full moon appears and a new vision overwhelms him.

I was filled with a heavenly exultation that lifted my thoughts far above this wretched earth, this myopic world of jails and lawyers. Even my beloved was swept aside like a speck of dust in a blazing ray of light. At that moment all was foolishness and vanity except The Eternal.

His insight into The Eternal is short-lived. Things are no longer lyrical when he meets with his beloved again.

This is a lovely little book, and I wish it were possible to read the entire work, or to be able to read A Letter to Laura, thought to be one of his best books.

When we toured the museum at Gerði, we were a bit perplexed. The museum was a huge room, with many vignettes of Þórðarson's life: each area recreated a scene from his life, complete with all of the objects pertaining to the time period or place. There were pictures, artifacts, furniture, books. It was hard to reconcile so many different things being linked to the life of one person. After reading the introduction to this book, it makes more sense, and I wish I could visit the museum again and see it with different eyes.

Speaking of Gerði, the home place of Þórðarson and the location of his museum, we were stunned by pictures in the museum that showed the mountain directly behind the museum. These mountains were amazingly steep and rocky, sheep grazed there, and the photographs showed men high up the mountains retrieving sheep and lowering them down with ropes.

I thought of these pictures when reading a recent article in the Iceland Review. It mentioned that some sheep in the West Fjords have been outfitted with GPS transmitters in their collars. Some farmers herd their sheep on foot or on horseback, but sheep farmers in Gerði have to climb high mountains and use ropes to retrieve their sheep. I'm thinking GPS technology might be of interest to them!



Andrew Clarke said...

If you enjoy books that deal with life and show a Norse influence, you might like to look at "Outcasts Of Skagaray". There are sample chapters on to get a feel of the book. If you decide to read it, I would be glad to hear what you think. Best wishes, anyway.

Darien Fisher-Duke said...

Thanks, Andrew. Good luck with your book!

Professor Batty said...

... fascinating... another one for m list!

magnusk said...

Umm the farm's name is Hali, not Gerði.

Darien Fisher-Duke said...

Magnusk, you're right--I take it that Hali is the name of the homestead or farm on which he grew up, Suðursveit is the location of the farm, and Gerði is the name of the guesthouse that is located, as is the museum, on the Hali property at Suðursveit. Have I got that right? Thanks!
Batty, let me know if you want to borrow the book.

Chris said...

There's now one additional Þórbergur Þórðarson title available in English (though it's hard to obtain out of Iceland): The Stones Speak, published by Mal og Menning in 2012. There's a review in Icelandic Times:

I've read the book and it's quite wonderful.

Darien Fisher-Duke said...

Chris, thank you so much for the heads up on this. I just happen to be in a position to send a courier to Iceland this fall to pick it up for me. I'm delighted to have another Þórðarson book to look forward to!