Jan 1, 2009

Great Weaver from Kashmir

The Great Weaver from Kashmir, by Halldor Laxness. Translated from the Icelandic by Philip Roughton. Brooklyn: Archipelago Books, 2008. 450 pgs. Originally published in 1927.

This book didn't cast a spell over me as so many of Laxness' books have. The plot, characterization and descriptions aren't as elegant as his later works. The main character, Steinn, is not a likeable person, nor does he have the fascination and sympathy of Laxness' more developed anti-heroes (such as Bjartur of Summerhouses). Dilja, the other main character and Steinn's love interest, is tepid. The book clearly was written by a very young man: it takes itself too seriously. The sometimes gentle, sometimes raucous sense of humor that is woven through most of Laxness' books isn't evident here.

The plot concerns a young man who is handsome and charismatic, egotistical, possibly brilliant, and entirely selfish. Steinn relates that his most precious gift is that he has been given "an aesthetic soul, the ability to worship the glory on the visage of things." This is an important distinction, for he struggles with seeing the essential rather than the superficial. He exemplifies the opposing natures within man: soul and body, perfection and perdition. The entire novel deals with Steinn's efforts to find, achieve and maintain salvation--at whatever cost to others.

Steinn's family and friends in his native Iceland are introduced, and he then departs for Europe to travel, write, and search for perfection. In a chance encounter on a train, Steinn meets a French monk, Father Alban, who becomes the key to Steinn's self-discovery. Steinn pretends to be interested in learning about Catholicism, but instead simply expounds his own pretentious, shallow ideas to Fr. Alban. Later, as Steinn becomes disillusioned and hopeless, he seeks out Alban, and in desperation asks him for help. Alban serves as a teacher and spiritual guide, and Steinn gradually comes to desire the love and salvation of God. But he vascillates, and falls back into false arguments and self-justifications. Steinn's story becomes tedious as his inability to learn from his mistakes, and his pretentious self-importance wears thin.

Yet the book has some very rewarding passages. The only way I can account for the beautiful eloquence with which Fr. Alban elucidates the love of Christ is to assume that the words spring from a fountain within Laxness himself. Laxness spent time at a monastery in Belgium in his early twenties, and came to embrace Catholicism. Presumably much of Steinn's questioning and discovery mirrors Laxness' own. The passages narrating the religious journey are some of the loveliest explications I have read of God's love, outside of the Bible.

This is where the Weaver from Kashmir proves its worth: it asks the important questions, and attempts to answer them. Where does man's idealism lead, what is our journey, how do we seek perfection, what is the highest value in our life? How do we avoid fooling ourselves that what we want is what is best for us? Does God exist and does he exemplify perfection, does he forgive us and offer us redemption? What should be sacrificed in order to gain salvation?

Finally, another compelling reason I enjoyed this book is because it caused me to ask the following questions about my beloved author, Halldor Laxness. Did his early religious experiences enable him to see how humble all men are, and how we are all beloved in the eyes of God? Did this help forge Laxness' affinity toward people who are downtrodden, imperfect, simple, common...and uncommon? What led to Laxness' own empathy for people who strive for perfection in their own ways, and fail countless times? Is this the beginning of his unusually compassionate portrayal of the beauty and the value in the most imperfect characters that he created?

The Great Weaver from Kashmir has been described as the first major novel of a world-renowned novelist. Why did it take so long for it to be translated into English? Despite the failings of the book, I can't imagine. It is a fascinating glimpse into Laxness' personal life, and into his beginnings as a writer: he wrote it when he was in his early twenties. And it offered me a chance to ask so very many questions, and to enjoy thinking about the answers.

When I finished this review (a wee bit late!) I had the luxury of enjoying both Professor Batty's review, and one written by Bill Holm. Batty once again sums things up cogently:
If Laxness hadn't been such a good writer this book would be as insufferable as trying to engage in meaningful conversation with a verbose, narcissistic young man.
Bill Holm's review really added to my understanding and enjoyment of the book. He has some interesting comments on Laxness' impact on Icelandic literature in the 20th century, and some fascinating insights into his beliefs. Holm's review reminded me that Laxness' books were effectively unavailable in English until recently. I pointed out to my husband that my Laxness conversion wouldn't have been possible 12 years ago, when English editions weren't available. He replied laconically, "that is what has prevented you from having to learn Icelandic." That, and my intellectual incapacity, I fear.

Holm has a quote I loved:
Americans are sometimes not too sure where or what Iceland is, but for the literary, it is a sort of holy land...
Thank you Batty, Bill, and Halldor!

And I'll end with a quote from The Weaver that appealed to me:
He became sad with homesickness, like an ancient Icelander.


Professor Batty said...

This book really shows how much "depth" Laxness had in the spiritual side of his other characters. Still, it was quite a jump in his writing quality to Salka Valka, and then to Independent People- he must have done some "growing up" after Weaver. Speaking of weavers, the Weaver and I watched "The Sea" last night. I might do a review...

... so this leaves only "Happy Warriors" left in our quest!

Jon said...

Thanks Rose! Just restarting "The Fish Can Sing" and spending way too much time on snow removal. Looking forward to more of your and Batty's contribution to my literary education.

Rose said...

Batty, hope to hear what you thought of The Sea. How many puffins will you give it? How many do you think I did? How does the Weaver vote?

Jon, I hope snow removal chores are tapering off for both you and Batty. I'm really looking forward to your thoughts on Fish Can Sing. Maybe you'll let me post your reaction to it? Or maybe Batty gets first dibs on you as a guest reviewer? I know your time off from classes is brief, but you could write a brief paragraph if you're short on time...unless you're constitutionally unable to do brief, like me (sigh)

Professor Batty said...

... I've found another review which I've linked on my review.