Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Anti-American Writer

Anti-American Wins Nobel Prize
A documentary by
Halldór Thorgeirsson

   Last year I received a screener of this documentary, a concise and literate look at the life of Halldór Laxness.  Such notables as Jane Smiley, Brad Leithauser, Günter Grass, Morten Thing and Chay Lemoine expound upon the political intrigues which swirled around Iceland's only Nobel laureate throughout his lifetime.

   Laxness came into his own as writer right after the end of World War I, a war which had effectively killed the romantic novel. As a spirit of "irrational exuberance" emerged on both sides of the Atlantic, Laxness, struggling with his his personal problems, entered a monastery, an episode which served as the basis for his "Catholic" novel The Great Weaver from Kashmir. He then spent time in Canada and the U.S. where, witnessing the failure of capitalism and developing an acquaintance with Upton Sinclair, he embraced the Socialist ideas which greatly influenced his novels.

   The documentary shows Laxness traveling throughout Europe in the 30s where he denounced by the Nazis and deceived by the Soviets. Leftist writers in Denmark promoted and translated his work, aiding his ascendance with readers in Scandinavia. In Iceland, his views on class struggle and his push for modernization of the Icelandic language and literature actually caused him to be brought to trial for its 'incorrect' use. The occupation of Iceland by the British, followed by the establishment of an American Naval base, was perceived as a threat to Icelandic identity causing Laxness to publish his satirical novel The Atom Station. This novel prompted Icelandic politicians to notify the U.S. ambassador—suggesting that he was a tax evader— and bringing attention from the U.S. State Department and the F.B.I.. This caused Laxness to be effectively blacklisted; some aspects of these actions remain state secrets.

   The film is a little rough round the edges, some stock footage is not in proper sequence, but the interviewees are excellent, especially Günter Grass, who deftly explains the political situation of European writers in the inter-war era.  It also has clips from Halldór's humiliating televised renunciation of Stalinism in the 50's.

   I don't know where one might be able to see this, although I've read that it is for sale in Iceland. I haven't been able to find any references to it in English. An excellent overview of the man and his effect on Icelandic culture. Thanks again to Chay Lemoine, who sent me this fascinating video.




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Monday, November 24, 2014

Wanda in Art School

   A recent exchange with my blog-pal Shoshanah (concerning powers nimrodic) pushed the noted Artist/Writer/Translator Wanda Gág back to the forefront of my limited attention span.

   Here are a few images from her college days, circa 1916:



   Wanda and her gal pals:



   I've read that she was no slouch on guitar:



   Wanda in one of her "moods":



   On the steps of the Art School (now MCAD):



   And, finally, this self-portrait done on a grocery bag:



   Photos are from Wanda's personal albums and correspondence held in The Kerlan Collection,  Andersen Library, University of Minnesota.




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Friday, November 21, 2014

Special Effects



   After Sean returned from the grocery he spent time going through his mother's things: all those personal effects which had been shipped to Tina en masse after her death. He put all of his mother's clothes into boxes intended for the thrift store. Mary and Tina had both looked at them previously, noting that they were now at least fourteen years out of date and suited neither of the women's tastes or sense of style, neither woman wanted to wear business clothes from the nineties. Sean's mother's computer was a relic now, it did boot up however, and he was able to transfer the files to a portable hard drive through the adapters he had brought from Seattle. Sean would deal with her hardware when he disposed of his own college computer. He put aside a box of his mother's papers. Mary was napping; she had been asleep when left to get groceries and was sleeping again when he got back. Just as he finished loading the car with his mothers clothes, Mary came out of the house with her laptop.

   "Drop me off at the Mudpie, will you? I've got to get in touch with the law office." said Mary. "I think I've finally recovered from last night. Your grandmother can be a hard person to have hanging around—on the inside."

   "Tina told me that you had had another 'visit' from Emily." said Sean. "Are you alright?"

   "It's a little unnerving at first, to have someone else living in your head. But she's on my side. I'll be fine."

   They drove into town where Sean dropped Mary off at the coffee shop and then went on to the thrift store, dropping off his mother's clothes. He took a stroll around the store; it was a habit from his college days when he would rebuild his wardrobe every few months. Those trips he made in college weren't about needing clothes, they were about building a new identity.  Although his current tastes ran toward Generic Pacific Northwest, he hadn't dropped the habit completely. He hadn't had much luck lately in Seattle; most quality menswear he found there was usually worn out.  Decorah might be different he thought, as he picked up a wool Pendleton shirt. It was his size, but when he tried it on it was cut strangely;  it was one of those modern made-in-Mexico shirts.  Someone else evidently couldn't wear it either.

   Back in the coffee shop, Mary had connected with her lawyers. Everything was quiet in Seattle, with no further developments in either her or Sean's connection to the sale of ADR. The legal team had kept a monitor on activity concerning the picture of her naked that had turned up on the internet and found that new postings of it had suddenly ceased; it was also disappearing from forums where it had been previously posted. Her lawyers thought it might have something to do with the fallout from a recent celebrity phone hacking case and that no site operator wanted to undergo of that kind of criminal investigation.

    "Any news from Seattle?" Sean said, as he sat down next to Mary with a cup of coffee and a scone.

   "Good news, that is to say, no news." said Mary. "Anything good at the thrift store?"

   "No. But they did take my mother's clothes. Can I use your laptop to check my mail?"

   "The ultimate test of a relationship. I guess this means that we might as well get married, it's like sharing a bathroom. I'm done with it for now, I'm going outside and check out the town a little. I'll be back in twenty minutes or so."

   "I'll put the seat down when I'm finished. See you in a bit."

   As Mary left the shop she noticed a storefront across the street. It was apparently an antique store of some kind. There was no proper sign but its windows were filled with miscellany: obsolete machines, broken toys, rusty tools and retro appliances. There were also small paper signs taped on the windows, hand lettered, containing rants concerning religion, politics and world unrest. She went up to the door and found it to be unlocked. Mary opened it timidly, then walked inside. The shop's interior was full of things arrayed as if they had been in a gentle explosion: one strong enough to place them chaotically around the room, but gentle enough that nothing was destroyed. Mary started to get a sensation of cold descending again, although this time she remained in control of her emotions.

   "Hello? Is anybody here?" Mary said. She heard a rustling sound coming from the back of the shop, followed by a high, reedy voice:

   "I'm here, just having a little tea." An elderly man emerged from the rubble. He was tall, but stood erect, with piercing blue eyes, thin white hair, and pale, almost translucent skin. "How can I help you?"

   "I… Is this an antique store, or a museum?" said Mary. The feeling of Emily's presence was getting stronger. "I was curious, I hope I'm not intruding. There are so many interesting things here."

   "Well it isn't really a store, but it isn't exactly a museum. That said, everything has its price." said the man. "You aren't from around here, are you? Are you a student at the seminary?"

   Mary felt a tightening in her larynx. She began to lose control of her vocal apparatus and to her surprise found herself speaking in Emily's voice.

   "Edwin Duddle, this is Emily speaking. This woman you see before you is Mary, she is going to marry my grandson, Sean."

   "Emily? Is that you, speaking through another?" said Edwin, recognizing the voice. He took this manifestation calmly, almost as if it were something which had happened to him every day. "I've been waiting for your return."

   "Edwin, will you give Mary the book I left with you?" said Emily.

   "I will do that thing for you, Emily, I will get it." Edwin went to the rear of the store, back into the office from where he had emerged. By the time he returned with the book, Mary had full control of her faculties again. Emily was not present.

   "Emily's gone. Mr. Duddle? Did you know Emily Carroll?" said Mary.

   "Oh yes, Miss… Mary. I knew her, it was 1946, just after the war. I was just a kid, in high school with her daughter Tina. That was when she came back from New York, and had her second child, Marilyn. I knew her. I spent quite a bit of time at the Carroll place. Emily taught me drawing. She told me many strange things. And now she's back, in you. It's her way. Tina knows about these things too." Edwin said, handing her the book. "I see that your instruction has begun."

   "It has." Mary said, and as she said it she could see that Edwin's head was ringed by a faint circle of light; a halo. Mary knew that it wasn't a physical manifestation, but it was projected onto him from her understanding- a 'gift' from Emily, no doubt. Mary felt that it was a sign that she could trust this man.  She looked down at the book, at its binding which had some of the same characters as the ledger which Tina had given her. She put it in her purse and said:

   "Edwin Duddle, I accept this as a gift from Emily, coming through you."

   The old man reached out and gently touched Mary's fingers.

   "I've been waiting so long." he said.

  

  

Fiction




Comments: 4


Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Sugar Mountain


Pascal Pinon press conference, Reykjavík, 2009

Oh, to live on sugar mountain
With the barkers and the colored balloons
You can't be twenty on sugar mountain
Though you're thinking that you're leaving there too soon
You're leaving there too soon…

                      ~ Neil Young

   The end of a dream, childhood's end. In Neil Young's Canada it was turning twenty, when 'kids' were no longer allowed in an amusement park for youngsters. I've been nurturing my own dream these last fifteen years; a dream abetted by many fine people on both sides of the Atlantic. For me, Iceland's allure was always more than its natural wonders, although they are considerable.  Right from that first windy March day when I stepped into the Keflavík terminal.  Iceland: its nature, its people, and its culture, have held me in their thrall.  As I became further immersed in its literature, cinema, music and theater, I was overwhelmed.

   Recently, however, I've been losing the spark.

   Icelandic pop music, always quirky, is an acquired taste, but a taste that needs to be nourished for it to thrive. Except for a few reliables, I'm starting to starve. My limited impressions of the recent Iceland Airwaves music festival (from what I was able to see on line) wasn't encouraging: in the span of four years since I last attended it appears to have morphed from a mix of unique, artistic, and very musical acts to a uniform parade of post-punk screamers.  Of course I wasn't there, and subtlety never goes over very well in video clips. Still, it's a marked change: music made with an emphasis on shock value, more of a unpleasant burlesque than an expression of the human spirit.  A freak show. Looking back, I was spoiled and/or lucky in my Airwaves experiences (2006 and 2009).  In 2012 I attended some good shows (not in Airwaves) but some of the acts, although polished, were an exercise in cognitive dissonance, i.e., Icelandic bands playing in a faux American style. I won't despair of Icelandic musicians yet: there seems to be a trend of them becoming astute social commentators and political activists.

   Iceland is a literary beacon, and it that area it continues its appeal. The problem here is dilution, the market almost dictates more Icelandic mystery fiction following Arnaldur Indriðason's successful Inspector Erlendur series.  I'm guilty of it myself. And after reading the third or fourth work of mediocre Icelandic fiction in a row I find the whole genre to be losing it's appeal. The more esoteric works still captivate me so I won't give up on Ice-Lit quite yet.

   Icelandic films, when I can see them, are still excellent, but the economic hardships imposed on the industry since the Kreppa has reduced their amount and distribution. Again, the world cinema market in films is over-saturated. I find it hard to choose anything to watch.

   Nothing lasts forever. The most poignant example of this is the musical group Pascal Pinon (pictured above, at the age of fifteen) who created a body of work which perfectly expressed the dilemmas inherent in a girl's coming of age. Of course, now that they have matured, they couldn't continue to play the ingenues; adult women having to perform songs of their adolescence would be mortifying. I'm grateful for that which they have accomplished.

   The medium of 'blogging' (what does that mean anymore?) has changed as well; it's hard to keep a fresh approach to something with a limited audience. Sometimes life gets in the way. That said, I'm still amazed at Alda and Auður's contributions over the past ten years: establishing world class portals that are the entry points into their wonderful, strange and troubled island. Auður, in particular, is going above and beyond what anyone expects of a blogger. In contrast, I've noticed that my 'Icelandic' posts here have dwindled recently and, unfortunately, a return trip to recharge my 'batteries' seems unlikely. The continuing economic hardships in Iceland haven't helped diminish my sense of pessimism either.

   I'm now twenty three times over, and then some, but Iceland still casts a spell.

   I'm thinking that I'm leaving there too soon.




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Monday, November 17, 2014

Kelly


Minneapolis, 1997

   Kelly was a refugee from art school; she worked in the photo lab with me for a few months. There were a lot of people in and out during that time: lots of jobs available, not much chance of advancement in the photo biz, therefore: easy come, easy go. While she worked there she did throw a party with music and a good mix of people. It was held in a very nice 1920s architect-designed house located in what was now a sketchy neighborhood which had seen better days.

   The flow of the party had definitely ebbed when Kelly began to read to us. Not poetry but pornography. It was some classic, literate, porn. It may have been The Story of O. Kelly proved herself to be an excellent interpreter; we were spellbound.

   A short time later Kelly and her husband left the city for a life on a dairy farm in rural Minnesota.

   It is unknown if she reads to her cows.




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Friday, November 14, 2014

Groceries



   "Mary's still asleep?" Tina said to Sean, who had just entered the kitchen.

   "She had a rough night last night, I think. She was up for a while, I don't know how late it was when she came back to bed." said Sean. "She's sleeping now, I didn't want to wake her."

   "We're just about out of groceries, would you be a dear and run into town for me?" Tina said, I've got a list."

   "No prob," Sean said, "is ice cream on it?"

   "Get what you like dear, enough to last us through the week. You have any idea how long you'll be staying?"

   "Oh, I don't know. It's up to Mary I guess. She has to talk to her lawyers this afternoon, something may have come up but I hope not, not before Thursday at the least." Sean picked up Tina's shopping list. "Is Fareway still the best store in town?"

   "It's the only real store, unless you wanted to drive all the way to Prairie Du Chien."

                            ————————————————————

   Sally O'Donnell closed her suitcase. She had spent the previous night in a flurry of activity, copying files and emails from Roger Ramsen's computer, visiting the hospital where Roger was in intensive care, talking with Roger's daughter Nora Clarkson (the wife of Senator Clarkson) and making arrangements to fly back to Seattle, where she had a condo. The prognosis on Roger was grim; if he did recover at all he would be significantly impaired. Sally knew that Nora would be consolidating her control over Roger's estate, Sally and Nora had never been close and since the disaster of 'Billygate' Sally had felt a definite chilliness from Nora. As a mistress, Sally knew she had no power and, having read Roger's will on his computer, knew that she was going be left out in the cold.  The USB drive she filled with Roger's files was insurance against getting blamed for any of Roger's misdeeds, criminal activities which Nora might try to pin on her. Sally was a partner in a company operating on the west coast that gave self-help seminars to failing real-estate agents. It wasn't a complete scam, but it had done very well after each burst housing bubble; Sally thought her role was that of a cheerleader—for the losing team.

                            ————————————————————

   "Is Sean around?" said Mary. Tina was making coffee.

   "Sean's in town picking up some things." Tina said. "Are you hungry? Can I make you some eggs? I don't have any bacon, or bread. Or would you rather have cereal? He said you had a bad night."

   "I'll take some eggs, and the cereal." Mary said. "I was up reading some of those letters to Emily that we found yesterday. Tina, do you know who 'John" was? He evidently wrote the letters, but the the return addresses had been torn off of all the envelopes."

   "That was probably one of her sugar daddies. Emily was discreet. It could have been anyone, that is, anyone with the money to support her in style. I took a look at those dresses you unearthed. She couldn't afford that kind of wardrobe with money she earned from her paintings."

   "Tina, about Emily." Mary said, quietly. "Emily came to me last night. It was as if she was in me, somehow. I heard her voice."

   "Yes. I know what that is like. Let her help you, but don't let her take over. She's only as powerful as you allow her to be."

   Mary ate her shredded wheat in silence as Tina scrambled four eggs. When they were done Tina placed the plate in front of Mary and said "Take it all, you're eating for two now."

   "More like eating for three. What do you think Emily wants with me? What is the purpose of all these revelations?"

   "What is the purpose of any revelation?" Tina said. "What good has any prophecy done? We're all still down here on the ground, crawling around as if we were ants on a big rock. Overall, nothing ever changes much. Changes? Indoor plumbing, now that was a change for the better."

   "When she's with me and even before that—ever since I became pregnant—I've felt on the verge of a greater understanding, a new awareness, something that could change the world."

   "Be careful, Mary. I'm not saying that to discourage you, I just don't want you to end up the way Jesus did."

   "Well, I'm not the blessed virgin, so at least that part of the story will be different. I'll be careful, but not timid."

   "That is your nature, is it not?"

                            ————————————————————

   Sean approached the supermarket checkout line with a full cart. The tabloid magazine cover stories were all about media stars—television, movies, music. The iceberg lettuce of culture, he thought, to be grazed upon and forgotten with no nutritional value. Still, it was hard to ignore. Sean's own taste of fame had been exceedingly bitter: arugula. He could understand why many celebrities eventually became hermits.

   "Hi Sean." said the cashier. "Do you remember me? Suzie Johnson? I heard you were in town."

   "Ah, oh yeah, Suzie. It's been a long time. How on earth did you recognize me?"

   "Oh, I followed that story about you, when you were in Iceland, you and your half-brother. Who's that woman who's here with you? I mean, I'm not trying to be nosy, but… you know, people talk, and you're probably the most famous person from Decorah."

   "Mary is my fiancee." said Sean.

   "Oh." There was a long pause in the conversation. Suzie finished scanning Sean's groceries. "What brings you back?"

   "We're in town to help Tina sort through my mother's things. She's selling the farm and moving into town. Last winter was pretty hard on her. How about you? What are you doing these days?"

   "I'm married, with a seven year old." said Suzie.  "She's great. Life is pretty good, I guess. No international adventures. Just a regular life. I never got out of Decorah."

   "It's good to hear that you're doing okay.  Nothing wrong with having a regular life."

   "Forgive me for asking, but when are you getting married?" Suzie asked.

   "Any day now… maybe Thursday."

   "Oh."

   As Sean put the groceries in the car he thought about how his life had played out so far, how different his path had been from Suzie's.  The play-acted 'wedding' which he and Suzie had performed when they were children had been silly, but was, in its own way, perfect. A moment of happiness; the same moment that everyone is searching for. And no matter how long the happiness may last it remains but a moment in time.




Fiction




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Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Young at Heart Records



 One of the things I used to look forward to whenever I went through Duluth was a stop at Young at Heart Records, established in 1959. Richard Wozniak, the proprietor, was in his sixties when I first discovered the store (while touring with The Explodo Boys) and he kept the shop open until he was well into his eighties.  All the musicians who had gigs in the Duluth area knew of the store. It was a little shy of the newest releases but was a treasure trove of older country, 40-80s pop, soundtracks, spoken word and other arcana. Richard was a friendly man, especially if he could connect with your interests. He wouldn't stock off-color records; he was averse to vulgarity. I heard a story about a collector who would only be in town on a Sunday; when he called Richard and explained that he'd only be in town for the day Richard said he wouldn't open "on the sabbath", although he did relent when the collector guaranteed to purchase $500 worth of stock.



   The heart on the threshold was only the beginning of his hand-made heart-themed decorations: lots of recycled doilies, valentines and magazine and promotional materials pasted on boxes and pink walls:



   Many of his handmade display bins ended up in the Minnesota History Museum. The Duluth paper ran an excellent series of stories on him and his wonderful shop.




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