Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Another Kind of Icelandic Mystery

Snæfellsjökull, Snæfellsness, Iceland, 2004

Under the Glacier (Icelandic title: Kristnihald Undir Jökli)
by Halldór Laxness
Vintage International, 2005
Originally published by Helgafell, Reykjavík, in 1968

I've been flirting with writing a "proper" review of this book for several years- it may well be that the book is unreviewable. Susan Sontag took a stab at it in the introduction of this edition, assigning it to nine different genres in an attempt to define it:

Science Fiction
Tale, Fable, Allegory
Philosophical novel
Dream novel
Visionary novel
Literature of fantasy
Wisdom lit
Sexual turn-on

I think she might have been splitting hairs, her first seven categories overlap quite a bit and the last two are really stretching it. It is extremely Icelandic, especially the laconic humor and pragmatic philosophy of Pastor Jon Primus, the "fallen" pastor whose dereliction of duty is the reason the young seminarian "Embi" (EMissary of the BIshop) has been dispatched to the Snæfells parish.

The naive Embi, with his tape recorder and note-book, duly records all the happenings in the parish. He is a perfect tabla rasa who has been instructed to "Note down everything relevant..." and ".. simply say and do as little as possible." As the book proceeds, Embi is privy to numerous dialectic discussions between all sorts of odd individuals: Pastor Jon, new-age pilgrims and their spiritual leader, colorful locals, and ultimately a woman who was/is Pastor Jon's wife, or perhaps something more. Embi finds that he becomes more and more caught up in this strange dream-world. He resists at first, but as the story progresses he ceases to be the rational, passive observer: he becomes the dreamer, and the report to the bishop becomes a fantastic vision.

Anyone who has read more than one or two of Halldór's' books will find familiar themes, but here they are stated more obliquely, and gentler, with fewer polemics. While reading this book I got the distinct sense that Halldor knew this novel might be his last hurrah- his final novel of ideas- and he made every word count. Funny, understated and wise, this book will reward the open-minded reader, especially one who has at least some understanding of Icelandic culture. It is a great book.

My other Laxness reviews (and much more Laxness material) can be found at Laxness in Translation.

By Professor Batty


Anonymous Caroline said...

I would have started with this one if you hadn't told me otherwise. I'm about to finish The Fish can Sing and will proably post on it Sunday or Monday. It's incredible. I was so astonished to find someone like Leadbeater mentioned. I can see that it is very Icelandic. I wouldn't say it is an easy read but very enjoyable. I feel better prepared for Under the Glacier.

Blogger Professor Batty said...

Looking forward to your review.

Hang on to your hat when you begin Under the Glacier!

Anonymous Jon said...

Finally made it through The Great Weaver and started Paradise Reclaimed. It will soon be time to reread and expand again. I even got through a chapter in Paradise while on Valium (waiting for a "procedure" in Duluth). Couldn't do that with the Weaver.

Blogger Professor Batty said...

I just about abandoned Weaver.

Anonymous Beth said...

Hah! I like your review and it accord very well with my own reading and opinion of the book! Thanks for connecting over at my blog! (I agree completely with what you said about Sontag.)

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