Review written by Alison Crane & read live on bookshow 14th august 2014
I read this book before going to Iceland - since discovered that Laxness is a national hero - he’s the only Icelandic writer to have won the Nobel prize for literature and also Iceland has more writers, more books published and more books read, per head, than anywhere else in the world. Writing and reading is sort of in their DNA as Icelanders have been telling stories since the first settlers.
I can unreservedly recommend this book - it’s long, at times challenging but hugely rewarding, very wise, it’s funny, it’s sad, humane and thought provoking- you feel you learn something about the human condition.
Laxness wrote the story in 1934. and tells the story of an impoverished sheep farmer, Bjartur, who’s sole quest in life is to live as an independent man and be beholden to no one. His family and home live miles from anywhere in a hovel- a dark, dank, turf-roofed farmhouse on a glacial moor = the family occupy one room and the animals live downstairs - it’s a croft that he spent 18 years scraping togtehr to buy and now he won’t accept help from anyone. Each day is a challenge to bring in enough food for the family.
He’s a fascinating flawed protagonist - at times seemingly heartless - his family go hungry as he won’t accept help from anyone, he refuses to help his daughter out when he finds out she’s pregnant. But you know he’s got SO much love for them but he’s misguided - being beholden to no-one is his operating principle - be strong, be proud, don’t show weakness. It means that when you do see him make loving gestures (only really happens at end) it’s heartbreakingly moving.
‘Townsfolk have no conception of the peace that Mother Nature bestows…They think only of their clothes and find momentary comfort in foolish fashions and other such worthless innovations…The countryman, on the other hand, walks out to the verdant meadows, into an atmosphere clear and pure, and as he breathes it into his lungs some unknown power streams through his limbs, invigorating body and soul. In the fragrance that is bourne so sweetly to his nostrils, in the quietude that broods so blissfully round him, there is comfort and rest.’
The endless rain - like waterfalls between the planets
The landscape is both a thing of great beauty but also harsh and unforgiving. IT’S SO IMPORTANT
THE WISDOM AND HUMOUR;
Often Bjartur and fellow farmers chew the cud..
WW1 breaks out bringing prosperity to Iceland: ‘Each maintains that his country is in some way more holy than the other’s, though in strict reality France and Germany are both exactly the same country.’ (He’s seen pictures of them both and they look the same)
Debates whether they are meet in heaven on the day they’ve murdered each other: Do they forgive one another in heaven for having murdered one another? In the second place, do they perhaps thank one another in heaven for having murdered one another and thus helped one another on the way to heaven? Or, in the third place, do they go on fighting with undiminished imbecility in heaven? And if they murder each other afresh, where do they go then?’
There’s the old woman - ancient at start and can’t seem to die. She says she doesn’t know whether she’s alive or dead and sometimes it takes her all day to remember which one she is. She doesn’t believe the world war really exists because she doesn’t believe in the world - that there is a world outside of Iceland.
He describes her as being ‘like a candle the Lord has forgotten to snuff.’
One of the richest books I’ve read for a long time.