Prior to this, forgetting the purile Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the only Nordic literature I’d read was also by Nobel laureates (Kristin Lavransdatter and Growth of the Soil). Laxness was therefore up against some stiff competition, particularly as Growth made it into my Hall of Fame. How did he fare? Pretty well actually.
I’ve enjoyed all three of these classics immensely because all three share the same characteristics. Each focuses on one key character and follows them for decades of their life (or all of it in the case of Kristin). I was going to say that the writer explores the character but that would be to misrepresent this sample of Nordic writing. Characters remain as inscrutable as ever. This is not like the navel-gazing realism of Saul Bellow or self-absorbed David Copperfield.
Here instead, you only see precisely what the character wants to reveal to you. In the case of Bjartur, the paradigm of independent people, that’s not much at all. And it’s this inscrutability which makes the characters fascinating for me. You are constantly wondering at their opinions and reactions, decisions and interactions all the while doing your best to come up with some basis on which to form some kind of judgement of them.
So, Bjartur, determined against all that heaven and earth can throw against him, creates a smallholding from land which is regarded as cursed and raises a family and a herd of sheep and, everyone else be damned, he’ll do it his way or no way at all. But, wait a minute, how does he get this land in the first place? Oh, it turns out he’s paying off a loan. Not quite as independent as Laxness would have us believe then, despite episodes when he asks people to leave the family simply for offering him a cup of coffee later on in the book (I kid you not).
In fact, once I’d finished the book and saw that, later on still, he takes out another, much larger loan, I was not happy at all with the character that Laxness had created with Bjartur. It didn’t fit the message of the novel at all well. Not only is Bjartur quite vocal about his own independence but Laxness uses the characters to make some relatively contrived speeches about how independence is the only true patriotic approach for a loyal Icelander. The book oozes its political message in places. I did get a bit fed up of wiping this ooze off my brain when it was particularly gloopy.
Why then, after these criticisms, did I still rate this book highly enough to make the Hall of Fame? Well, it is beautifully written. Having been to Iceland, I was aware of just how accurately described the landscape and the weather is (I went in early August and it snowed!). There is a poetic lyricism that Laxness employs which perfectly matches the pace and power of the Icelandic environment. It’s a superb novel just for this.
In addition, this book is a stand-out classic in modern Icelandic literature and bagged the nation it’s only Nobel laureate. It’s heavily influenced of course by earlier Nordic writing, particularly Growth of the Soil, but because of it’s impact in its own nation, its legacy deserves to be recognised.
On top of this, there’s definitely a plot to it. You are constantly wondering where the next disaster is going to strike the family and what is going to happen to the children. All of them have plot lines of their own, some longer than others. Laxness can definitely write suspensefully; early on in the first book, there are three chapters beginning with Search which will captivate any reader and the third has an ending that is stunning. Throughout the book, the story keeps you wanting to read on but without any hyperbole or any effort to try and be clever. It’s just very, very good writing.
I’ve heard some criticise the ending, but I’ll not be doing so. It’s an intriguing one and this fits perfectly for me with the rest of the book, leaving me with many unanswered questions about Bjartur, the life I’ve shared with him and the life he’ll lead now that my part has ended. For me, that’s a great way to end a great book.
Key: Legacy | Plot / toPic | Characterisation / faCts | Readability | Achievement | StyleRead more about how I come up with my ratings