The magical and the elemental, from Halldór Laxness
By Richard Rayner


"Summer up here in the north is beautiful," my Finnish father-in-law once said. "Last year it was on a Thursday." The great Icelandic novelist Halldór Laxness develops this idea in his masterwork, "Independent People": "They stood in bogs and pools, in water and in mud, the close-packed clouds about them interminable, the wet grass whistling drearily under the scythe. The scythe grew heavier and heavier, the hours refused to pass, the moments seemed to stick to them as soggily as their sodden garments; midsummer."

Life is bleak and wild up there by the Arctic Circle. Mere survival constitutes a tough proposition, and such survival entails more than the endless battle against the cruelties of a climate, which can at least be witnessed, observed, prepared for. Iceland, like Finland, is a proud and tiny nation that struggled long for independence and whose fate has been squeezed, pummeled and decided by empires. Individual citizens find themselves and their country powerless in the face of unseen world forces that shape or torture their lives. Hence, in "Independent People" (1934), poor crofters ghoulishly hope for more slaughter in the trenches of France during World War I so that army uniforms will go on being made and the price of the wool they shear from their sheep will continue to rise. A global disaster that has turned briefly to their advantage doesn't last, though, and the grind of uncertainty soon returns. Having no other choice, they live stoically, a condition that is in their DNA -- and one that would be an unthinkable affront to most Americans, accustomed as America is to the luxury of calling its own shots.

Laxness is often described as a writer who reinterpreted the classic Icelandic sagas of the 12th and 13th centuries. This doesn't tell the whole story. Of course he was influenced by his country's extraordinary contribution to world culture. How could he not be? From the sagas he drew a laconic, matter-of-fact tone, characters who talk little but brood lots before launching into sometimes catastrophic action, as well as plots whose big moments might be recognized only retrospectively. In such novels as the "Iceland's Bell" trilogy (1943-46) and "Under the Glacier" (1968), he rarely hits the narrative nail on the head but sidles around that nail, observing it wryly, saving the hammer for later. But as novelist Jane Smiley, herself a scholar of the sagas and one of Laxness' foremost American champions, rightly observes, there's much more to his stuff than faux medievalism.

Laxness was born in 1902 in the capital city of Reykjavik, then a tiny fishing port "where people still wore the same kind of home-made moccasins which peasants in Europe used to wear a thousand years ago when towns did not exist and therefore not cobblers either." From this backwater, he launched a determined journey into modernity. He came to the United States in the 1920s and tried to make it in Hollywood, befriending Upton Sinclair, one of his literary idols. Suspected of being a socialist -- not a good idea in America at the time -- Laxness faced deportation in 1929 until Sinclair and Stephen Crane's daughter, Helen, intervened.

Back in Iceland, Laxness translated Hemingway -- and Sinclair too. As another war loomed in Europe, his books were banned by the Nazis. Meanwhile, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover tried to stop Laxness from getting his U.S. royalties, which were considerable once "Independent People" became a Book of the Month Club selection and sold 450,000 hardcover copies. Hoover feared that those greenbacks would fall into red Icelandic hands. In 1948, Laxness wrote his polemical novel, "The Atom Station," revolving around the U.S. military's presence in Iceland and its plans to build a nuclear base. The following year, he won the Stalin Peace Prize. He denounced Stalin and won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1955. He died in 1998, having published more than 60 works. This was a man who engaged with, and in some way conquered, the world.

The allure and ultimate desirability of such engagement is the subject of "The Fish Can Sing" (Vintage: 272 pp., $14), the latest Laxness work to be reissued and with an introduction by Smiley. This 1957 novel is narrated by the orphan Alfgrimur Hansson, who tells, in a meandering way, of his relationship with the mysterious Gardar Holm, who has left Reykjavik and achieved worldwide fame as an opera singer. "We were born and bred each on his own side of the same churchyard and have always been called close kinsmen, and many people have confused us and some have even taken the one for the other," Alfgrimur observes. Throughout the novel, Laxness dangles the possibility that Gardar might be Alfgrimur's phantasm, a double who is by turns glamorous, brilliant and fraudulent. "In his suitcases, which were of good quality and fairly new, were found bricks wrapped in straw and nothing else."

That image, like many in the novel, is quietly haunting and visionary; Laxness habitually combines the magical and the mundane, writing with grace and a quiet humor that takes awhile to notice but, once detected, feels ever present. Alfgrimur can't quite decide whether he really wants to leave Iceland and become a star like Gardar or stay at home and be a lump fisherman. Only for the truly Northern soul would this seem a dilemma.

"The word 'love' was never heard in our house, except if some inebriate or a particularly stupid maidservant from the country happened to recite a verse by a modern poet," notes Alfgrimur in a chapter in which Laxness delves deeply into his people's mistrust of show and all things verbal. "If the person under discussion was more dead than alive, one said: 'Oh, he's a bit low.' If someone was dying of old age, one said, 'Yes, he's off his food these days.' About someone who was on his deathbed, it was said: 'Yes, he's packing his bags now, poor fellow.' "

"The Fish Can Sing" doesn't aim for the grand sweep of "Independent People." It's a more intimate book in which Laxness seems to reflect on his roots and the troubling nature of his celebrity. But, like all his narratives, it has a strange and mesmerizing power, moving almost imperceptibly at first, then with glacial force. "The world is a song, but we do not know whether it is a good song because we have nothing to compare it with," Laxness writes. His sometimes-demented mixture of laughter and sobbing isn't for everyone, but those readers who come to know his world and tone will find him unforgettable.


Richard Rayner's Paperback Writers column appears monthly.


The Short List (also new in paperback):


"Bang Crunch: Stories" by Neil Smith (Vintage)

In his first story collection, Canadian writer Neil Smith takes visceral life and death subjects and boldly handles them in a style both impish and direct. In "The B9ers," members of a cancer recovery group take gleeful revenge on a con man. "Isolettes," which deals with a disaffected young mother's journey through the hell of a neonatal intensive care unit, recalls the intense irony and despair of Lorrie Moore's classic "People Like That Are the Only People Here." The title story, "Bang Crunch," tells of a disease that causes a young girl to live her life at tragically accelerated speed. Smith's writing has real spark and energy, and he also aims for the heart. It's a fizzing debut.