Friday, June 20, 2014

Guttersnipe Bookshelf: Halldor Laxness

Halldor Laxness
The Fish Can Sing
Harvill Press

translated from the Icelandic by Magnus Magnusson
originally published: 1957, this translation: 1966

For years now I’ve loved the work of Halldor Laxness, Iceland’s pre-eminent man of letters, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1955 but now is seldom read.  I am forever thrusting his books upon people and begging them to read him at once.  Usually I urge them to start with “Independent People”, which is regarded as his masterpiece.

This does not always go well.

One of my friends complained, “It’s 500 pages about sheep farming!”

I said, “Yes.  It is 500 UTTERLY SCINTILLATING pages about sheep farming.”

She was not impressed.  We’re still friends, but she views my opinions on literature with deep suspicion.

I reckon there are two alternatives if you wish to explore Laxness’ world and ‘Independent People’ seems a little daunting.  My personal favorite is ‘Under the Glacier’, Laxness hilarious fabulistic tale of discovery.  But ‘Under the Glacier’ is an exceedingly peculiar book that will not be to everyone’s taste.  (On the other hand fans of Murakami, Brautigan, and Philip K. Dick may unexpectedly find in it an entry point to Icelandic literature!)

If you are looking for something more “realistic”, then ‘The Fish Can Sing’ is a beautiful book, full of brilliant characters and what appears to be a uniquely Icelandic take on life .  Above all, this book is required reading for musicians, who may well resonate with its quest for “the one pure note”.  An additional benefit is that the meaning of life may or may not be revealed, by the superintendent, in Chapter 16.

I revere Laxness’ novels because they introduced me to an entire world that I’ve found nowhere else.  And there’s something else, too, if I can find a way to express it.  Laxness has his own special kind of sanity, with sad humor and compassion that never gets over-heated.  In the strung-out world where we live now, his novels are a very special refuge.

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