A Freakish or Enchanted Kingdom: Early Impressions of Iceland Through the Writings of Halldór Laxness

February 27, 2016 § Leave a comment


To prepare for a trip to Iceland—a country noted for, among other things, its literary culture, boasting the greatest number of books published per capita—I picked up a title by the country’s sole Nobel laureate, Halldór Laxness. There are six titles currently in print that have been translated into English (all but one by Magnus Magnusson). The Fish Can Sing (published in 1957 as Brekkukotsannáll, or “Annals of Brekkukot”) seemed one of the more accessible.

Laxness was born Halldór Guðjónsson in 1902 and took his name from Laxnes, the homestead in Mosfellsdalur where he grew up. Lax in Icelandic means ‘salmon’; nes means “cape, promontory, headland.” I am making the educated guess that Laxnes means something along the lines of “salmon cape,” i.e., a port at which salmon is caught. He did not spend his entire life in the country. By the 1920s he was in the United States, living mostly in Hollywood; he spent much of the 1930s in the Soviet Union. By the time he was awarded the Nobel Prize, in 1955, he was one of Iceland’s most famous and cosmopolitan citizens.

The narrator of the The Fish Can Sing, Álfgrímur, is an adult looking back on his orphaned childhood, living in the fishing village of Brekkukot. His grandfather is a fisherman and it is expected that Álfgrímur will follow in that tradition. Thirty years before the emergence of Björk, the most famous person from Iceland is also a world-famous singer: this time, a male opera singer named Garðar Hólm. When Garðar returns to his homeland, he strikes up a friendship with Álfgrímur, and attempts to cultivate the boy’s talent as a singer in his own right, thereby setting up a tension between the traditions of the homeland and a yearn to set out to test one’s limits.

The Fish Can Sing paints a portrait of a country aware of its smallness and coming to terms with its place in the world at large, and this is conveyed through the village’s ambivalence with which it receives Garðar. The reflective narrative feels apt to the Icelandic saga tradition. It feels as though Laxness wrote the book expecting—perhaps due to sheer dearth of countrymen—that most of the people who would read it would be those who had never lived in Iceland and would seek explanations for why and how things were done. And there is a wryness layered throughout the book, not only to allow the village to celebrate its eccentrics, but also, much like Garrison Keillor’s tales of Woebegone and its residents’ sturdy Lutheran un-apology, to position the tale as a nostalgia of the folly of national youth and parochialism:

The word “love” was never heard in our house either, except if some inebriate or a particularly stupid maidservant from the country happened to recite a verse by a modern poet; and moreover, the vocabulary of poems like these was such that if ever we heard them, cold shivers ran down our spines, and my grandfather would seat himself on his hands, sometimes out on the garden wall, and would grimace and jerk his shoulders and writhe as if he had lice and say, “Tut tut!” and “Really!” On the whole, modern poetry had the same effect on us as canvas being scratched.

Susan Sontag wrote about Halldór Laxness in one of her final essays before she died in 2005, focusing on another novel, Under the Glacier (Kristnihald undir Jökli, 1968), which she credited for its seamless spanning of multiple genres (science fiction, allegory, philosophical, visionary, fantasy) and its positioning as an epical response to Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth.

Imagining the exceptional, which is often understood as the miraculous, the magical or the supernatural, is a perennial job of storytelling. One tradition proposes a physical place of entry — a cave or a tunnel or a hole -which leads to a freakish or enchanted kingdom with an alternative normality. In Laxness’s story, a sojourn near Snaefells does not call for the derring-do of a descent, a penetration, since, as Icelanders who inhabit the region know, the glacier itself is the center of the universe. The supernatural — the center — is present on the surface, in the costume of everyday life in a village whose errant pastor has ceased to conduct services or baptize children or bury the dead. Christianity — Iceland’s confession is Evangelical Lutheran — is the name of what is normal, historical, local. (The agricultural Viking island converted to Christianity on a single day at the Althing, the world’s oldest national parliament, in 999.) But what is happening in remote Snaefells is abnormal, cosmic, global.

The Filter of Innocence

February 25, 2016 § Leave a comment

On the occasion of the death last week of Italian author Umberto Eco, the New York Review of Books shared his 1985 essay on two institutions of American childhood, Krazy Kat and Peanuts.

They affect us because we realize that if they are monsters it is because we, the adults, have made them so. In them we find everything: Freud, mass culture, digest culture, frustrated struggle for success, craving for affection, loneliness, passive acquiescence, and neurotic protest. But all these elements do not blossom directly, as we know them, from the mouths of a group of children: they are conceived and spoken after passing through the filter of innocence.

Wonderland at Washington Square Review, Now Online

February 19, 2016 § Leave a comment

Activists walk up to Sweet Pea on the sidewalk and with garlicky breath explain that the Salvation Army is an organization that traffics in hate; those coins clinking in that little metal kettle aren’t putting poor kids in clean khakis, they’re funding the beheadings of gays in Uganda and the purchases of tiny drone helicopters used to buzz abortion clinics.

Last year I was fortunate enough to have a story published in Washington Square Review #36 (Summer/Fall 2015). Now the good folks there have put all of the content from that issue online, that including my story “Wonderland.” I’m excited and grateful to be able to share it.

Shed Those Dowdy Feathers

February 12, 2016 § Leave a comment

British writer Margaret Forster, who wrote the novel Georgy Girl and collaborated on the screenplay for the 1966 film with Peter Nichols, died on Monday at age 77.

Her New York Times obituary calls Georgy, played by Lynn Redgrave, “a precursor of Bridget Jones … big, plain and saddled with an annoyingly pretty roommate.”

I haven’t read the book, but the film struck me as having deeper moral questions than its swingy London setting and whistly theme song gave it credit for. There is the dark class commentary from the outset–Georgy is disappointed at her parents for settling to work as servants to a millionaire named Leamington, who then selects Georgy as his mistress, to the point of drawing up legal documents, as well as the shadow cast by roommate Meredith’s hedonistic lifestyle. After becoming pregnant, Meredith tells her lover, Jos, that she’s aborted two of his children previously and practically shrugs at the decision to keep the third. There is Georgy, in spite of her parents’ work, essentially volunteering herself as a servant to Jos and Meredith and nanny to their unwanted child, and ending up as the object of Jos’s seduction while Meredith is giving birth.

The behaviors are abominable, and there is no believable love in the story at all, except Georgy’s for the child in her care. And when she ultimately runs away with the newly-widowed millionaire Leamington with the infant that they’ve all but adopted, there’s a sense that the message of the movie is how conveniently people can get used as means to an end. The lyrics to the radio-friendly theme song turn deeply cynical for the end scene, and the Seekers come off as an Oompa-Loompaish Greek Chorus:

Who needs a perfect lover
When you’re a mother at heart?
Isn’t that all you wanted right from the start?
(Well didn’t you?)

Hey there, Georgy girl
Now that you’re no longer on the shelf
Better try to smile and tell yourself
That you got your way
(You’ve made it!)

Hey there, Georgy girl
Now you’ve got a future planned for you
Though it’s not a dream come true
At least he’s a millionaire
So don’t despair!
You’re rich, Georgy Girl!
You’re rich, Georgy Girl!
You’re rich, Georgy Girl!

What I Read in January

February 7, 2016 § Leave a comment

A slow month to start 2016, with a couple of hard biters.

Fat City, Leonard Gardner. I have written before about the literary tradition of boxing, and this novel, from 1969, re-introduced by NYRB Classics and made into a 1972 film directed by John Huston, adds another niche to the ranks, even though I wouldn’t say that the soul of the book has anything to do with boxing.

Set in the 1950s in Stockton, California, the two main characters are Billy Tully, an ex-boxer gone to seed looking to shape himself up and get back into the ring, and young hopeful Ernie Munger, who is trying to make something of himself after unexpectedly learning he will be a father.

The two men are almost too cleanly complimentary in trajectory: while Munger marries his girl and builds up swagger, Tully is divorced, alone, and uncertain about his prospects. (There’s a parallel to Bull Durham at play here.) They fall under the tutelage of the same trainer, Ruben Luna. Tully gets involved with a woman named Oma. And it becomes apparent that Stockton, with its dive bars and gyms and motels, is meant to be its own character, full of dark corners in which to search for a sliver of hope:

The posters were up along Center Street when the bus unloaded in Stockton. There was one in the window of La Milpa, where Tully laid his five-dollar bill on the bar and drank two beers, eyeing the corpulent waitress under the turning fans, before taking the long walk to the lavatory. He washed his face, blew his dirt-filled nose in a paper towel, and combed his wet hair.

On El Dorado Street the posters were in windows of bars and barber shops and lobbies full of open-mouthed dozers. Tully went to his room in the Roosevelt Hotel. Tired and stiff but clean after a bath in a tub of cool gray water, he returned to the street dressed in a red sport shirt and vivid blue slacks the color of burning gas. Against the shaded wall of Square Deal Liquors, he joined a rank of leaners drinking from cans and pint bottles discreetly covered by paper bags. Across the street in Washington Square rested scores of men, prone, supine, sitting, some wearing coats in the June heat, their wasted bodies motionless on the grass.

Belching under the streetlights in the cooling air, Tully lingered with the crowds leaning against cars and parking meters before he went on the Harbor Inn. Behind the bar, propped among the mirrored faces in that endless twilight was another poster. If Escobar can still do it so can I, Tully thought, but he felt he could not even get to the gym without his wife. He felt he same yearning resentment as in his last months with her, the same mystified conviction of neglect.

The term Fat City is midcentury slang for a situation of ease and comfort. How fat is the city, though, really? Gardner’s book winks with sarcasm, as though it knows the answer all along.

The Cost of Living, Mavis Gallant. I have made no secret of my love for Mavis Gallant, not just for the spark and fluidity of her prose but the fact that many of her stories are set in Montreal, a city near and dear to my heart. This batch of “early and uncollected stories” (“early” here meaning the span of years 1951-71) feels a bit more ramshackle than the ones in Varieties of Exile, but also show more of a willingness to experiment, with characters whose dissatisfactions are pushed to the forefront, loud enough to prompt them to challenge whatever expectations of grace and decorum surround them. The last story is a 40-page novella, “The Burgundy Weekend,” about a young and well-to-do Montreal couple, Lucie and Jerome Gerard, who vacation in France. They arrive to find that their hostess is away in Paris for a funeral, her granddaughter explains to them. “A resistance thing. They are old and keep on dying.”

Lucie’s discomfort throughout the stay is in sharp contrast with relaxed Jerome, who stays up late in conversation with the granddaughter, Nadine:

Lucie put the picture down. She was homesick. France was worse than any foreign country because the language was the same as her own. And yet it was not the same. It had a flat and glassy surface here. She felt better with her own people. That was where she came to life. Girls talked to each other at home—you didn’t feel this coldness, this hostility. Walking about the room, she stopped at a card table. “Would you like me to play Scrabble with you?” she asked Nadine.

“After dinner, if you want to,” said Nadine. She was remembering everything she had been told to do and say. “If you don’t object, we shall have our dinner in here instead of the dining room. My grandmother might be on the eight o’clock news. Also, Marcelle, that was Marcelle you saw—“

“With the mustache,” said Lucie. Jerome stared, Nadine stared, and Lucie told herself, It was a mistake, but not a bad one.

Language brings about a disruption with the familiar: the news in France involves “a change in French methods of teaching grammar.” Lucie, noting Nadine’s smoking habit, says that “women smokers are always making little private slums,” to which Nadine replies, “All our neutral descriptive words are masculine.” “A brute. A person. A victim. All feminine,” Jerome responds.

Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game, William Kennedy. I’ll confess to a shallow reason for choosing to read this book: I knew it had a scene involving a bowling match. It occurs early in the novel and uses terminology such as baby split and Jersey hit that made me think the author knew a thing or two about bowling. Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game (1978) is the second book of a trilogy set in Albany during the Great Depression, a trilogy beginning with Legs (1975) and ending with Ironweed (1983), which won the Pulitzer Prize.

There are a lot of games going on in Billy Phelan­–bowling, poker, billiards, the hustling ways that Billy makes his means—but they’re really front-stage matter for a book that is really about moral decline and the slippery code of honor among men. Those activities are about identifying suckers, who you can use to pull yourself up. Honestly only gets you so far. Luck gets talked about a lot. Albany is under the thumb of the McCall family political machine, and when one of Billy’s childhood friends, a scion to the McCallsy, is kidnapped, Billy is caught in the middle because one of the chief suspects is the broker who backed him in the bowling match. The kidnapping in Billy Phelan is based on a real-life event, the abduction of John O’Connell Jr., nephew of Albany Democratic Party boss Dan O’Connell, in July 1933.

The other main character is journalist Martin Daugherty, a friend of Billy and the McCall family who serves as go-between and is, from the beginning, an observer—he keeps score for Billy during the bowling match. But who also uses his column to explain give justification to Billy’s actions, which he knows will be picked up by machine members who read him. Daugherty has his own demons: his father, an artist, was absent as a parent, and now his relationship with his own son has become distant. Daugherty was acquainted with Billy’s father, and there’s a suggestion of surrogacy in his dealings—much like, as others have noted, the relationship between Stephan Dedalus and another journalist, Leopold Bloom.

With its intensity meant to evoke 1930s potboiler crime fiction, Billy Phelan is, like Fat City, a very male book, and doubles down on its maleness by bringing to the surface themes of fathers, sons, honor, and legacy. The book spends a lot of time on rules and order, particularly with regard to gamesmanship, which seems like a superficial measure of honor, and the noirish narration toes the line of ridiculousness:

Lucky. The line blew up in Billy’s head. He wanted the rest of Harvey’s roll, but time was running. Nick’s card game at nine-thirty with big money possible, and Billy wanted a cold beer before that. Yet you can’t call Billy lucky, just lucky, and get away with it. Billy’s impulse was to throw the game, double the bet, clean out Harvey’s wallet entirely, take away his savings account, his life insurance, his mortgage money, his piggy bank. But you don’t give them that edge even once: I beat Billy Phelan last week. No edge for bums.

Harvey faced the table. The seven ball hung on the lip, but was cushioned, and the cue ball sat on the other side of the bunch, where Billy, you clever dog, left it. No shots, Harv, except safe. Sad about that seven ball, Harv. But it can wait. Is Harv lining up to break the bunch? Can it be? He’ll smash it? Not possible.

“What’re you doing?”

“Playing the seven.”

Billy laughed. “Are you serious?”

“Depth bomb it. The four will kiss the seven and the bunch’ll scatter.”

“Harv, you really calling that? The four to the seven?”

“I call the seven, that’s enough.”

“But you can’t hit it.” Billy laughed again. He looked again at the bunch, studying the angle the four would come off the end. No matter where you hit the bunch, the four would not kiss the seven the right way. Not possible. And Harvey hesitated.

“You don’t want me to play this shot, do you, Billy? Because you see it’s a sure thing and then I’ll have the bunch broken, a table full of shots. That’s right, isn’t it?”

Billy closed his eyes and Harvey disappeared. Who could believe such bedbugs lived in a civilized town? Billy opened his eyes at the sound of Harvey breaking the bunch. The four kissed the seven, but kissed it head on. The seven did not go into the corner pocket. The rest scattered, leaving an abundant kindergarten challenge for Billy.

“You do nice work, Harv.”

“It almost worked,” said Harv, but the arrogance was draining from his face like a poached egg with a slow leak.

“Why didn’t you play a safe shot?”

“When I’ve got a real shot?”

“A real shot? Willie Hoppe wouldn’t try that one.”

“I saw you break a bunch and kiss one in.”

“You never saw me try a shot like that, Harv.”

“If you can do it, I can do it too, sooner or later.”

Billy felt it rising. The sucker. Lowlife of Billy’s world. Never finish last, never be a sucker. Don’t let them humiliate you. Chick’s face grinned out of Harvey’s skull. Going to work, Billy? Lowlife. Humiliate the bastard.

Where Am I?

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