Saturday, July 14, 2007

Independent People



So I've been reading, with increasing satisfaction and intermittent delight, Independent People. Halldor Laxness is certainly my current candidate for the Best Writer I Never Heard Of. I'm only about a quarter of the way into Independent People, but I'm already hooked. Even before the main characters are introduced and the story of their lives is set into motion, there is much to admire and take pleasure in, as in this passage from early in the book, describing the croft-house which will be the setting for much of what follows:

On a knoll in the marshes stand the ruins of an old croft-house.

This knoll is perhaps only in a certain sense the work of nature; perhaps it is much rather the work of long dead peasants who built their homes there on the grassy bank by the brook, generation after generation, on the other's ruins. But for over a hundred years now it has been a lamb's fold; here ewes and their lambs have bleated for more than a hundred springs. Out from the fold and its knoll, mainly to the south, spread miles of marshland dotted here and there with islets of ling, and through Rauthsmyri Ridge a little river runs down into the marsh, and another from the lake in the east through the valleys of the eastern moors. To the north of the knoll towers a steep mountain, its lower slopes scarred with landslides, and the tongues between covered with heather. The crags soar up from the landslides in sheer castellations, and in one place above the fold in the mountain is cloven by a gully in the basalt, and down from this gully in spring cascades a waterfall, long and slender. Sometimes the south wind blows the spray up and over the brink again, so that the waterfall blows backwards. At the foot of the mountain, boulders lie, scattered here and there. This lambs' fold, where once stood the bigging Albogastathir, has for the past few generations been known as Winterhouses.
I am taken here with the easy authority that arises from the patient accumulation of details: the croft-house itself is subordinated in the description, as it has been in history, to the harshly elegant landscape surrounding it. The first two sentences are workmanlike but unspectacular; anyone might have written them, even me. But as Laxness begins elaborating the description, the language takes on density and texture; the words become more specific and harder-edged, the landscape comes alive in the imagination: The crags soar up from the landslides in sheer castellations, and in one place above the fold in the mountain is cloven by a gully in the basalt, and down from this gully in spring cascades a waterfall, long and slender. Sometimes the south wind blows the spray up and over the brink again, so that the waterfall blows backwards. No, Dorothy, we're not in Kansas anymore. We're in an Iceland which is both literal and mythic. There are passages of gorgeous description like this often in the book.

When it comes to describing people, Laxness writes with similar patience and attention to detail. This conversation — not directly connected with the main plot of the story, but crucial to establishing the texture of the daily life of the farmers in Iceland — is worth quoting at length, because it illustrates how Laxness can be simultaneously be reporter, storyteller, and satirist. A group of men are at the wedding of Bjartur, who will become the main character of the novel:

The crofters were standing about on the paving in front of the door or leaning against the wall, making faces as they took snuff, or talking to the bridegroom. The conversation was the conversation of spring, the themes fixed and immutable, with the emphasis heavily laid upon the various ailments of the sheep. For years and years the tapeworm had been a national curse, but with increasing progress in canine hygiene some ascendancy had at last been gained over this ill-omened guest. Of late years, however, a new worm with, if anything, less patriotism than the old one had begun to make its presence felt in the sheep. This was the lung-worm, and through the tapeworm never lost its absorbing seasonal interest, the lung-worm showed with each fresh spring that it was rapidly ousting the former from pride of place as a subject of conversation.

"Well," said Thorir of Gilteig, "if you were to ask me my opinion I should say that there's nothing left to fear as long as you manage to keep them clear of diarrhoea in the wintertime. Even if the maggots are coming out of their nostrils I don't see why you should worry as long as their bellies are clean. And as long as their bellies are clean, surely anyone would expect them to stand the early spring grass. However, I may be wrong in this as in so many other things."

"No," said the bridegroom, "you're quite right. Ragnar of Urthasel, who they say is lying on his death-bed, was of the same opinion, and he was a genius with diarrhoea, I can tell you. But where it was lambs that were affected he was a great believer in chewing-tobacco. I remember he told me when I stayed with him a year or two ago that there were some winters when he gave his lambs as much as four ounces of the best; and he said that he would sooner stint his family of their coffee, not to mention sugar, than see his lambs go without their chaw."

"Well, no one ever praised me for my husbandry," observed Elinar of Undirhlith, the psalmist and commemorative poet of the district, "and I can't say that I mind at all, because I've noticed that those who worry most about making both ends meet prosper least in this world; fortune seems to make them her special sport. But if I was to give you my opinion, according to my own understanding, I should say that if the fodder does little to keep the lambs free of maggots, chaw will do even less. Chaw might well be of some help when things are desperate, but when all is said and done, chaw is chaw and fodder is fodder."

"True enough, every word of it," cried Olafur of Yztadale, swift of speech and rather shrill of voice. "Fodder is always fodder. But there's fodder and fodder, as I thought anybody could see for himself, considering the number of times zoologists have said so in the papers. And one thing is quite certain: it's in some of the fodder that the damned bacteria that produce the maggots are hidden. Bacteria are always bacteria surely, and no maggot was ever produced without bacteria. I thought everybody could see that for himself. And where are the bacteria originally, may I ask, if they aren't in the fodder?"

"I don't know, I don't argue about anything these days," replied Thorir of Gilteig. "We try to see that the animals have decent fodder; and we try to see that the children have a good Christian upbringing. It's impossible to say where the worm begins — either in the animal kingdom or in human society."

This piece cracked me up when I first read it, it cracked me up again as I typed it, and it's cracking me up again now. There's a multilayered subtlety, a tightly orchestrated dance of cooperation and competition between the speakers. They're taking what limited materials they have at hand — and the choice of material is part of the comedy — and managing to entertain each other and pass the time. As Laxness suggests, it's a conversation that has been and will be replayed over and over again at similar gatherings, a kind of ritual bonding procedure. I'm reminded often of Jane Austen as I read Laxness, and he does not suffer in the comparison.

The overall tenor of the book is, however, is not comedic. The life of the independent people of rural Iceland is not a comedy, and although Laxness is often transparently amused by his characters, he's also deeply sympathetic to them, and to the particular fate of this particular country. As Brad Leithauser says at the end of his lengthy and worshipful introduction:

Given Iceland's tiny size and its subordinate role in modern history (it did not declare independence from Denmark until 1944), it's hardly surprising that Laxness is generally perceived not only as the country's foremost artisan of the century, but as its most influential citizen. He looms larger than any modern statesman or religious figure. Not merely through his fiction but through his journalism and essays and political stands, he has shaped the mores of his rapidly changing nation.
He continues:

The reader who comes, unexpectedly, on the book of his life is apt to feel that nobody else fully appreciates it. This is an illogical feeling, of course — but why should our passion for books show any more sense than our passion for people? I'm continually having to rein in a boastful suspicion that I alone am Independent People's ideal reader...
Move over there, Brad. Coming aboard.


1 comment:

Myron Night said...

Having just returned from my first visit to Iceland, and now early in the process of reading Independent People, I concur re: the beauty and fluidity of Laxness' writing. The particular passage quoted here -- ending in "It's impossible to say where the worm begins — either in the animal kingdom or in human society." -- stuck with me, also.
I look forward to living with this novel for the immediate future.