I’ve got my Nordic winter reading off to a fine start with this monumental novel by Icelandic Nobel Literature laureate Halldór Laxness. It delivered everything I was hoping: from snowstorms and sublime landscapes to an insight into the culture of a specific time and place to tips for becoming a stoic nordic survivor:
‘When he had eaten he went into the cave, where a great, flat block of stone, lying on some large pebbles, had served from time immemorial as a resting-place for travellers. On this Bjartur lay down to sleep, using his bundle as a pillow. He was practically the only traveller who paid a regular yearly visit to the cave at this season, and as he had acquired the art of sleeping on the block without ill-effect in any weather he was very fond of the place. When he had slept for a good while he woke up shivering. This shiver was a characteristic of the lodging, but it was unnecessary to lose one’s temper over it if one only knew the trick of getting rid of it. This trick consisted of getting up, gripping the block with both arms, and turning it round till one was warm again. According to ancient custom it had to be turned round eighteen times, thrice a night. It would have been considered a formidable task in any other lodging, for the block weighed not less than a quarter of a ton, but Bjartur thought nothing was more natural than to revolve it fifty-four times a night, for he enjoyed trying his strength on large stones. Each time that he had given the block eighteen turns he felt warm enough to lie down again and go to sleep with his bundle under his head.’
The Bjartur in the passage above is the novel’s hardy ‘independent man’ and he is on a mission to colonise his own patch of land, free from interference or dependence on anyone else. The novel tracks his progress towards this goal, starting when he first acquires a supposedly cursed region of wilderness. Between the supernatural and the all-too-easily explained hardships of sheep farming in rural Iceland, Bjartur has little to rely on but his stubborn determination and definition of self-sufficiency (mostly deciding which merchant or land-owner to be in debt to).
Laxness’s characters are believable, sensitive and rarely as superhumanly macho as Bjartur. The pathos of the novel comes from the futility of their own goals and ambitions in the face of Iceland’s geographic, economic and political reality. Ironically, the only real time of plenty for all the farmers is World War I; meanwhile they identify their fellow ‘independent men’ as the Russian serfs who ‘from time immemorial … had lived independent existences, like wild cats, or, more properly speaking, like Icelandic crofters.’
Independence and ignorance couple with incessant hardship to tie Laxness’ poor characters to their nearly intolerable conditions. I can’t say that this has been a cheerful start to my Nordic reading (though I did laugh at several points in the novel, including during the quotations given here). It has however given me a new insight into the literature of the far north, and made me very excited to see what else I will learn during my own bleak, London winter reading.