Dec 10, 2009

Laxness Anniversary

The Honour of the House, by Halldór Laxness. Translated by Kenneth G. Chapman. 2nd editon. Reykjavík: Helgafell,  1985. 131 pgs. Originally published in Icelandic in 1933.





Professor Batty traveled all the way to Iceland this October to discover and purchase another Laxness novel--one that we didn't even know was available in English. Way to go, Batty! Today is the 54th anniversary of the day Halldór Laxness received the Nobel Prize for Literature, and we are celebrating that occasion by publishing tandem reviews of our latest discovery.

This novel tells the tale of an Important Family in a small town in (it appears) east coastal Iceland. The Deacon father and and his wife have two children, both girls. Each travels abroad to Denmark in her twenties to experience the wider world.

Similar circumstances, but different personalities. Thurithur, the eldest, is gone for two years. She is impetuous, temperamental and beautiful, and her father worries that she might get into trouble. No, says her mother, her character will protect her, as
... in a well-bred young girl self-respect and beauty were to be found in the proper proportions.
Thurithur returns, more tempermental and more beautiful, but still virtuous.

Rannveig, the younger sister, is a homebody, who excells in the hand arts and doesn't desire to travel. She has a calm, reliable disposition, and has the deepest care and love for poor people or those in trouble.
A peculiar trait of hers was this: that she should not only be incapable of living at odds with anyone but rather need to spread her love over all.
Rannveig goes to Denmark as well, but returns early. She inexplicably begins to put on weight round her waist.

The chapters in the book show Laxness in his typical fashion, seducing the reader with lyricism and beauty, then forcing the reader to acknowledge that alongside beauty lies pain, loss, and death.

The first chapter, "A Day in Late Summer" talks of shimmering mirages, resplendent castles, warmth, desire, benevolence, beauty. Chapter two, The Good Land, invites the reader to see Denmark from the eyes of the protagonist, with luxury, culture, and good taste , castles, parks, and the arts. Chapter three, The Wedding, begins with veiled irony (there is no wedding), and we begin to see Rannveig from the eyes of her neighbors. All's well ... , chapter six, brings irony to the forefront as we see that all does not end well, even though a marriage might have legitimized Rannveig's situation. The very last chapter, The Norn Father's Feast, moves the story from a particular situation, family and geographic location to the realm of myth and legend.

This book really captured my interest. The characters and the plot are revealed quickly, which served to draw me into the story. Just as I was feeling comfortable with the characters and the pace of the story, it seemed as if the lens of my reader's eye zoomed out, and I was looking at the characters from a more impersonal distance. I found that frustrating.

As I pondered why Laxness chose to put me--and his readers--in this position, I concluded that his story shows how honor and pride can dehumanize and separate people. People become symbols rather than individuals, and intellectual constructs become more important than human feelings. This is a lesson worth keeping in mind and learning anew each day, for me, for anyone.

Our Laxness novel rankings are here and here.
Thanks to Bridgewater College, Va, for the interlibrary loan!

9 comments:

Professor Batty said...

Halldór's description of Rannveig's life starts with her about the same age as Salka Valka is when that book ends. I wonder if Honour contains parts of a projected third book in the Salka story?

Rose said...

hmmm. That would be interesting food to chew over ... if I owned the book! (she said jealously).
Give me a better idea of what you're thinking of ...

Rose said...

I guess both books take place in Oseyri?

Professor Batty said...

Nothing specific, just that this story was written at about the same time, and the setting and character were similar. I bet some icelandic scholar has already written a paper on this topic.

John said...

Halldór has a thing for women in his literature. To me, they are emblematic of Iceland for him. They begin to shed their individuality and personality and become Iceland, with all the good and bad that is implied there.

Hapi said...

hello... hapi blogging... have a nice day! just visiting here....

Devon Ellington said...

I've got several of the books in my TBR pile -- I'm not sure if that volume is one of them. If not -- I'll have to hunt it down!

Rose said...

Devon, I'm curious which Laxness books you have in your TBR pile ;-) Have you read any of his books yet?

Jim said...

I thought my Laxness days were over when a few years ago I finished the last of his readily available translations. Happily I recently managed to get my hands on The Honour of the House. As soon as I began to read I remembered why I devoured all his books in the first place. For me it is typical Laxness. A simple story, beautifully told with engaging characters. I read it with a slight smile on my face throughout. I've also managed to get hold of 'A Quire of Seven'. A collection of 7 of his short stories translated by Alan Boucher. I'm not sure when they were written but looking forward to these now.......