If I were ever to compose a list of my favourite books Independent People by Halldor Laxness would stroll into my top ten with a shit-eating grin on its face. So, I was sure that I was going to love the Icelandic author’s other work, especially the epic [in girth, at least] World Light. And yet I don’t know what to make of the book at all. Indeed, if I was inclined to use them I’d be scouring the internet for a head-scratching gif right about now. Without doubt, parts of it are great and parts of it are beautiful, and yet, equally, parts of it are poorly executed and large parts of it are simply baffling.
The book is split into three sections. All of them are concerned with the poet Olafur Karason. The first section is a Hardy-ish tale of a poor child who is mistreated by his foster family. We first meet Olafur by the shore, mournfully staring into the sea, and it is quickly established that he is a sensitive boy who, physically and emotionally, cannot meet the demands of working on a farm or even those of interacting with the boorish people who have taken him in; he is, rather, more drawn to nature, in which, he believes, God manifests himself. Indeed, he comes to experience visions that he takes to be signs from God; moreover, he believes himself to be, in some not especially clear way, in communication with God. I’ve read elsewhere that people often find this first section hard-going, and what with all the religious chatter, and brutality and bullying, I can understand that to an extent. I think people tend to find that kind of thing oppressive. I quite enjoy it though; and if you like the aforementioned Hardy or Patrick White or even Knut Hamsun then you’ll probably find much to like here too.
The second section is where it all goes a bit bats. In fact, the tone of the work changes so abruptly that it is jarring to read. For most of the first section Olafur is in bed with an apparently fatal illness. He is miraculously cured of this illness towards the end of that section by what he takes to be some kind of magic elf. Yeah, you read that right: magic elf. From the point at which Olafur can walk again the book becomes a kind of episodic tale reminiscent of Don Quixote or Candide. In true episodic-novel fashion most of the characters are essentially one-dimensional, with one exaggerated personality trait or catchphrase or situation [for example, the man who Olafur sometimes finds dead drunk in the middle of the road], and seem to exist merely in order for the author to make satirical points about, or jabs at, society.
Of course none of that is particularly odd. What distinguishes World Light from other episodic novels, and indeed from its own first section, is just how baffling the behaviour of these characters is. So, while the characters in section one are hardly realistic in a Zola-like manner [they are, in fact, more like the kind of petty, stupid, evil bastards you’d find in a Roald Dahl novel], in section two they are utterly bewildering. Take, for example, the three most prominent female characters: one is the girl who summons or is a conduit for the magic elf; she periodically appears in order to make strange, nonsensical, declarations or demands; another girl falls in love with Olafur, gets pregnant, and yet one day suddenly ups and marries someone else; the third is an older woman, a poetess who burns all her poems, who, as far as I could understand it, is physically young on top but old on the bottom. And that’s only the tip of the, er, iceberg [so to speak].
Now, I like this kind of thing, generally speaking, so nothing I have written so far ought to be construed as major criticism. However, more of a problem is the sense I got that Laxness either wasn’t fully in control of his material or his attitude towards it was, um, lax. What I mean by that is there are numerous points across the two sections where things were mentioned or plot points were developed only for them to be forgotten or discarded without explanation. For example, whatever happened to Olafur’s visions? Not only does he stop communing with God in section two, he appears to almost completely lose his religious feeling. That would would be fine if it were at least justified in some way by the author but it isn’t; it is almost as though the Olafur of section two is a different character altogether from the one we met before. There were points at which I wondered whether I just wasn’t reading closely enough, or whether my concentration was poor, which happens sometimes, but these inconsistencies were too frequent for them all to be put down to that.
Despite being superficially a book about poetry and poets and the search for beauty, and so forth, World Light is, without a doubt, really a political novel. Yet, even in this there is a disconnect between sections one and two. In the beginning the politics are subtle; Olafur is, as mentioned previously, being fostered; the family are farmers and his upkeep is paid for by the parish [something that his family often mention and appear to resent]. So, whatever points Laxness was making about poverty or the working person were made in an organic fashion, as part of a story; Laxness’ message is shown to you, rather than told; and, in this way, you, as the reader, have to work a little bit to get at what he wants you to take away from the book. However, in section two characters often engage in conversation about politics, about corruption, the state of Iceland, and how the working person is maltreated; the message is so heavy-handed during section two that even Dickens would have clucked his tongue. However, it isn’t all bad news; some of the political satire is good fun, like when Petur, the manager [which appears to be like a mayor], rambles on about the importance of the soul while he oversees the displacement and exploitation of the locals. At these times the book reminded me of Platonov’s brilliant The Foundation Pit. Indeed, while I know nothing about the history of Iceland quite a lot of what occurs in World Light is reminiscent of a collectivist communist state.
I was tempted when I used the word episodic earlier in the review to call the novel picaresque instead; indeed, it boasts almost all of the hallmarks of a picaresque novel, except that Olafur is no rascal or picar. In truth, he isn’t, as a character, much of anything, and that is, perhaps, the book’s biggest flaw. Of course, he could be, and I would guess that he is, a satire on a certain kind of Icelandic personality. Yet, for a non-Icelandic reader, who isn’t in on any potential joke, he mostly comes across as dull and insipid. In fact, by part three I was really quite tired of him. On one level Olafur is easy to figure out; he was mistreated early in life and so seeks to avoid confrontation. That is fine, psychologically sound even. However, there came a point in my reading when I realised that he is pretty much entirely about negation: he has no opinions, no personality, no interests [outside of poetry or literature – and yet after section one he doesn’t read a single book]. The more I read the more convinced I became that Laxness didn’t like him very much either, that maybe he intended him to be an example of someone who appears to be selfless but is, in reality, emotionally entirely self-serving; furthermore, that while he is a good poet, on the surface, he could never be a great one because he refuses to fully engage in life or open his eyes to or, rather, be interested in the truth of the world. As the genuinely great John Keats once wrote:
Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all.