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The man who brought Iceland in from the cold

The Nobel laureate's ungainly but fascinating 1927 novel, finally available in English, is considered to have made modern literature possible in his homeland.

November 23, 2008|Bill Holm | Holm's many books include "The Windows of Brimnes: An American in Iceland" and "The Heart Can Be Filled Anywhere on Earth."

The Great Weaver From Kashmir

A Novel

Halldor Laxness

Translated from the Icelandic by Philip Roughton

Archipelago Books: 446 pp., $26

Americans are sometimes not too sure where or what Iceland is, but for the literary, it is a sort of holy land -- a small population (300,000 for the whole country), a harsh and obscure geography on the edge of the Arctic, that has nevertheless produced a major European literature for a thousand years. An argument might be made that only the language (old Norse, craggy and wildly inflected) and the literature have kept the country alive -- and mostly independent -- for a millennium.

But one difficulty in owning this distinguished literary ancestry is that your writers go on forever imitating the glories of the Middle Ages, neglecting the world around them -- the modern, whether language, style or subject. So it was in Iceland in 1900. Nobel Prize-winning novelist Halldor Laxness was born there on a farm outside Reykjavik in 1902 and lived so long (until 1998) that his life encompassed the entire 20th century. He did his best to get "the whole catastrophe," as Zorba the Greek says, into more than 60 books -- from 1919 until almost the end. "The Great Weaver From Kashmir" was the young Laxness' bulldozer to clear the first road into the 20th century. Icelandic writers assure me that whatever foreigners might think of this fascinating but shaggy beast of a book, they understand that it made modern literature possible in Iceland. You could now write past the Sagas, whatever their noble history.

After a long disappearance from print in English, Laxness is back in force on American bookstore shelves. "Independent People," his most famous work, reappeared in 1997 after a 41-year absence, followed in this decade by six more major novels and now a seventh: "The Great Weaver From Kashmir," published in 1927 but Englished now for the first time by Philip Roughton. Readers can see what he was like as a young writer before he quite became the Nobel genius. The seeds of Laxness' style, his view of the world, his irony, his humor -- and his power to wring the heart -- are all there, but like bird chicks, they've not quite assumed their full adult feathers, their size or their grown-up wisdom.

Readers afraid of "hard" names (as in Dostoevski) had better get used to jawbreakers like Steinn Ellioi Grimulfsson, the boyish Byronic hero of this romance, and Dilja (the "a" is pronounced "ow") Thorsteinsdottir and her doomed husband Ornolfur Ellioasson, the fish magnate. For this book is, before anything else, a romance: boy and girl inseparable since childhood, girl first neglected, then rejected, not for a lover but for the Catholic Church and for vaulting intellectual ambition: "I've made a pact with the Lord about becoming the most perfect man on earth . . . remade so that I might compose perfect poems on the beauty of God. . . . I am the Great Weaver from Kashmir." Well, then. "I think you might have lost your marbles," says Dilja. The reader will be inclined to agree, though their strained love and conversation continue frothing for 400 pages.

Laxness makes a duke's mixture of styles and techniques to pursue his narrative. The book begins with straightforward third-person narrative, proceeds with an exchange of letters, then a picaresque travel narrative with shifting voices and points of view, then dream sequences and more. On a train trip through Europe, Steinn, our hero, meets a priest who is the canon of a Benedictine Abbey. Steinn lectures him at length (even on sexuality!), and the smart old priest just listens, lets him babble on about Nietzsche, Strindberg, Croce, Freud and myriad others -- in other words, the generative ideas of 20th century fiction and thought. Laxness gives us the excitement of a smart young fellow of 23 trying his chops, seeing what can be done that's new in an old language.

"The Great Weaver" is not a prudent book: It contains little of the combination of tenderness and irony that distinguishes the major Laxness and, unless I miss it in the translation, little of Laxness' continual humor. Even at his most tragic, he is always a very funny writer in his later writing -- but the young don't seem to find themselves comfortable as objects of humor. "The Great Weaver" generates great excitement (a kind of breathless speed) that reminds me of the mad energy of "On the Road," though I doubt Laxness typed "The Great Weaver" on a single scroll. Laxness confessed, in a 1948 edition, that his book's "main fault is that it was never rewritten." He called it "children's literature" from an energetic boy of 23.

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