Apr 11, 2009

The One Pure Note

The Fish Can Sing, by Halldór Laxness. Translated from the Icelandic by Magnus Magnusson. London: Harvill Press, 2000. 246 pgs. (First published with the title Brekkukotsannáll, 1957.)

Welcome to Brekkukot:

Thanks, Batty

On the shore of Lake Tjörn in Reykjavík, at the beginning of the 20th century, a coming-of-age tale unfolds. In this small, turf-and-stone cottage called Brekkukot, Álfgrímur Hansson views the world around him.

Álfgrímur's foster grandfather, Björn, is a man with his own moral code, the foundation of which is absolute generosity. Bjorn wants for no more than he needs, and he shares whatever he has with those whose needs are greater than his own. Hence Brekkokot, though small, functions as a sort of refugee camp for the dispossesed. Álfgrímur himself is one of those refugees: his last name, Hansson, indicates that his father is unknown. His mother was on her way to America from somewhere in Iceland, and left Álfgrímur with Björn.

Álfgrímur's foster grandmother is yet another beneficiary of Björn's compassion. After her husband and three children (all named Grímur) die, she comes to Brekkukot, and the elderly, unmarried pair keep house together. Álfgrímur's natural mother wishes to name him Álfur, and his foster grandmother wants to call him Grímur (a reference to rímur--Icelandic poetic songs?), and so he becomes Álfgrímur. I don't think that the grandmother's name ever comes up in this book--she is as shadowy figure, as steadfast and integral as a beating heart. She is silent and nearly invisible, yet omnipresent. As little as Álfgrímur knows about her, so much more she means to him.

This Icelandic tale is told in the first person, which allows us not only to sympathize with the narrator, but also to feel his confusion, and to discover things along with him. Alfgrimur's outlook at the beginning of the book is typically childlike: he accepts his life, his fate, unquestioningly. He doesn't wonder why his mother left him, why his household is filled with itinerant people of little means, or why his family has few material possessions. In fact, there is no "why" to be answered, for he hasn't asked the question. His life just Is.

As Álfgrímur becomes more aware of the people and the events outside the small world of Brekkukot, he begins to wonder and to question. The people around him don't provide too many answers, which adds to the realism and charm of the novel. Aren't we all left to figure things out on our own, pretty much? And the answers we are freely given usually aren't the ones we ask, or the ones we want.

Álfgrímur's first questions concern themselves with the enigmatic Garðar Hólm, who is a kind of cousin to Álfgrímur. Garðar acquired his name along with his fame as Iceland's World Singer. He was born Georg Hansson; being fatherless isn't all that he has in common with Álfgrímur.

Álfgrímur has yet to understand the bond he shares with Garðar. As he and Garðar walk down Löngustétt,

Suddenly I felt a hand under my chin. "I thought it was myself," said Garðar Hólm ... I gaped at him at first, tongue-tied, and finally replied, "No, it's me."

As we read The Fish Can Sing, we ponder, along with Álfgrímur, what the Superintendent does for a living, the nature of the strange people who come to stay in the mid-loft at Brekkukot, whether we will ever hear Garðar Hólm sing, what will become of Little Miss Gúðmúnsen as well as the lovely Blær, the appeal of lumpfish, and whether the learning of Latin will benefit Álfgrímur. These questions, and so many more, flavor the book with a subtle confusion akin to being a very young man or young woman all over again.

As a librarian, I couldn't help but relate to the description of The Icelanders' University, as enacted at Brekkukot:

From time immemorial it has been the custom in all sizeable farms in Iceland to have a good reader available to read sagas aloud or recite rímur for the household in the evenings; this was the national pastime. These evening sessions have been called the Icelanders' University. Old people who had attended this university for eighty years or more came to know the curriculum pretty well ...

I felt a sense of recognition at the feelings evoked in Álfgrímur by the woman who comes to Brekkukot to die. As she dictates to Álfgrímur, he comments:

This woman must surely have been descended from Snorri Sturluson. One thing is certain, that she never deviated from the most stringent standards of Icelandic prose style...Unfortunately, she failed to realize that one can set one's literary standards so high that it becomes impossible to utter a single word ...

This is what has happened to me after reading Halldór Laxness: I have such high literary standards (for what I read, mind you...not for what I write!) that I have one scale of puffins for rating Laxness' books, and I use the same scale in an entirely different way for the works of other authors. Four Laxness puffins do NOT equal four puffins that are assigned to any other author.

This is the fourth or fifth time I have read this book, and still discoveries awaited me. As many times as I have read about the Eternity Clock, which tick- tocks et-ERN-it-Y, et-ERN-it-Y (see the description of Laxness' own clock that it is modeled on) and despite my tears when I got to see it in person at Laxness' home, this was the first time I really understood the concept of eternity that Laxness was describing. Álfgrímur considers:

How did it ever come about ... that I got the notion that in this clock there lived a strange creature, which was Eternity? ... It was odd that I should discover eternity in this way, long before I knew what eternity was, and even before I had learned the proposition that all men are mortal--yes, while I was actually living in eternity myself.

I finally comprehended what Laxness was saying, and found it to be so profound. Isn't this a defining characteristic of childhood: the feeling that time goes on forever? As children, we have no concept of the end of life. Childhood is the essence of eternity, and once we comprehend the concept intellectually, our eternity has ended--unless it should return upon our death.

Although I can't read Icelandic, it appears to me that this translation by Magnus Magnusson is nearly perfect. It expresses both the story and the sentiments beautifully.

This particular work of Laxness' is lyrical in its simplicity. To compare this book with his others is, to me, like comparing blues with jazz or with symphonic music. It is spare and lacks the complexity of his other works, yet has genuine depth. There is sweetness without sentimentality, and some of Laxness' familiar irony crops up ... just not as frequently as in his other works.

The Fish Can Sing remains my favorite work by Halldór Laxness. Having reread it yet again I am surprised to find that my appreciation for his other longer, more difficult, more complex and ambiguous works, has grown. I have come to enjoy his other books so much more, over time. I suspect that, as I continue to reread his different titles, my Laxness Personal Ranking might be as changeable as a river. A characteristic of truly great literature is a dual process of transformation: the book is transformed in the mind of the reader, with each subsequent reading, and the reader is transformed by the book.

What does the One Pure Note mean to you?

I'll be sharing some comments by other Laxness Fans soon. In the meantime you can enjoy Professor Batty's review of The Fish Can Sing!


John said...

I, too, remember the Eternity Clock. You have captured the mood of the book very well. If I didn't have so many other things to read, I would go back and read this one again.

Oh, yes, and Happy Birthday.

Jon said...

Lovely! I suspect that like the most worthy of things in this world that you get better with age. What birthday is this? Twenty-eight, twenty-nine? You shouldn't tell us! Have a Happy!

Professor Batty said...

I find it interesting that you referred to chapter 18 (When our Lykla Calves). The letter the woman from Landbrot dictates to Álfgrímur on her deathbed is almost unbearably sad and beautiful, absolute poetry. I'm amending my post so as to include it there.

John said...

I'm not sure how old she is, Jon. I robbed her from the cradle and consider her my trophy wife.

Jon said...

John, you have indeed done well!

Rose said...

Jon et al: maybe he hasn't done so well...

Rose's Birthday Portrait

9uy said...

I still haven't read anything by Laxness. This is a great initiative.

abi said...

Your insight into the eternity clock reminds me of the bit in Independent People (my personal Laxness favourite, and all time favourite come to that) where Nonni realises that he will die. From chapter 24, Winter Morning: "When anyone grows very old he becomes like a little baby again."
"And dies?" asked the boy.
It was a string in his breast that snapped, one of those delicate childhood strings which break before one has had time to realise that they are capable of sounding; and these strings sound no more; henceforth they are only a memory of incredible days.
"We all die."
This bit always makes me want to cry, the image of the string snapping is so perfect.

Rose said...

Thanks for sharing that, abi. That is so lovely, and now I look forward to re-reading that passage. Independent People didn't "click" with me until I was traveling in Iceland. Then it went from being a book I picked up and put down many times, to one that spoke to me, and I read it until the end.
I hope you'll consider commenting on some of the other Laxness reviews here; nothing pleases me more than to think about the effect that Laxness has on his readers.
I am thinking that you must be from the UK?