Friday, June 14, 2013

Discovering Halldór Laxness: The Fish Can Sing

Recently a friend loaned me The Fish Can Sing by the Icelandic author Halldór Laxness. I couldn't put this book down and was sorry when it was over. It's a coming-of-age story set in the early 1900s, paralleling Laxness's own childhood, and it paints a vivid picture of a now-lost way of life.

Above: a painting of Halldór Laxness by Einar Hakonarson, 1984. Laxness has a wry sense of humor, and he depicts ordinary people with exquisite care. When he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1955, he talked in his acceptance speech about his grandmother--"who taught me hundreds of lines of old Icelandic poetry before I ever learned the alphabet." 

He spoke also of the moral principles she instilled in him: "never to harm a living creature; throughout my life, to place the poor, the humble, the meek of this world above all others; never to forget those who were slighted or neglected or who had suffered injustice, because it was they who, above all others, deserved our love and respect, in Iceland or anywhere in the world. I spent my entire childhood in an environment in which the mighty of the earth had no place outside story books and dreams. Love of, and respect for, the humble routine of everyday life and its creatures was the only moral commandment which carried conviction when I was a child." All of this comes through loud and clear in The Fish Can Sing.

Above: Laxness reading at his home, which is now open to the public as the Gljúfrasteinn Laxness Museum. (These images are from the museum website.) Laxness wrote over 60 books as well as essays, plays, and poetry, and he remains the best-known Icelandic author of the twentieth century. His most famous book is Independent People, a sprawling epic novel described by Annie Proulx as "one of my top 10 favorite books of all time." Part of the reason why he's not better known in the U.S. is that his books were unavailable in English or out of print for many years. Then there are his socialist views and the fact that he adamantly opposed the establishment of an American military base in Iceland after World War II.

Laxness said, "Human beings, in point of fact, are lonely by nature, and one should feel sorry for them and love them and mourn with them. It is certain that people would understand one another better and love one another more if they would admit to one another how lonely they were, how sad they were in their tormented, anxious longings and feeble hopes.”

You can watch video of Laxness accepting the Nobel Prize by clicking here, and learn more about the Laxness Museum by clicking here.