"What’s it all about, Álfgrímur?" Thoughts on Laxness’ The Fish Can Sing
This gem of a novel was my introduction to Halldór Laxness, and I am grateful for Rose’s recommendation. I am also thankful that I came to the novel first with some small background knowledge of the sagas [editor's note: she's being modest]. Contemporary Icelandic literature and poetry have much in common with the medieval classics. I suppose that is because modern Icelanders can quote the sagas as easily as they do the day’s headlines (perhaps more so).
I can’t help but wonder: does our Rose take her name from Lykla’s calf? Here are a couple of observations I would like to share.
Álfgrímur (possibly from alfr, meaning elf, and grimmr, meaning fierce, although he is neither) is a character who reminds me a great deal of Forrest Carter’s protagonist Little Tree in the semi-autobiographical novel touted by its author as “A True Story.” Does this matter? No; I just find it interesting! I suppose both of these novels are “true” in some larger sense of the word. Both characters are young men raised by grandparents, surrounded by various colorful figures, who quietly take a stand against the accepted norms of society. Additionally, both characters often find that words are more of a burden, less of a gift.
I find this view of “words as problematic” intriguing since both books are written by men whose art seems more poetry than prose. For instance, at the beginning of Chapter 10, Álfgrímur observes,
At home in Brekkukot we did not acknowledge all the concepts which are now all the rage, and indeed had no words for them. All sorts of talk that was in common currency outside the turnstile-gate at Brekkukot struck us as mental illness; words which were commonplace elsewhere sounded not only strange to our ears but were downright embarrassing to us, like smut or other shameless chatter.
Later, he acknowledges that in his home,
… words were too precious to use – because they meant something; our conversation was like pristine money before inflation; experience was too profound to be capable of expression ….
Similarly, in The Education of Little Tree the young boy notes in Chapter 8 that his grandfather said,
... if there was [sic] less words, there wouldn’t be as much trouble in the world.In fact, the old fellow
... favored the sound, or how you said a word, as its meaning.
A further explanation of love and understanding according to Little Tree’s grandparents is not to be missed. Like the pair of elders in The Fish Can Sing, Carter’s novel provides a tender example of marriage in its truest form between two tender hearts.
Hearts love well and truly in the Brekkukot cottage, although love is unspoken and affection is not demonstrated physically. Rather than being a cold home devoid of feeling, the stoic, independent and somewhat eccentric inhabitants create a loving family bond closer than most blood relations. Álfgrímur has no desire to achieve the world’s standards of success; to him, happiness is being a hardworking lumpfisherman.
Happiness is truth and authenticity in a well-lived life: the one, the elusive pure note of the novel, I believe. For Álfgrímur, happiness exists easily at Brekkukot. I would like to write more in support of this theme: of celebrity versus anonymity, of service versus servitude, of chasing after wealth versus contentment, of ribbons and bows versus the flowers of the field. Will Álfgrímur find happiness elsewhere following his travels on the mail-boat? With his moral compass firmly established, I have high hopes for him wherever he goes.
Lisa can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
Thank you, Lisa!