Scandinavian literature

DOCTOR GLAS BY HJALMAR SÖDERBERG

I have a [deserved] reputation for being brutally honest. I lack tact; and good manners too, probably. I will, for example, tell someone if they are boring me. Indeed, there is a guy at work who I will not even allow to speak to me. If I see him opening his mouth I walk away. I’m an arsehole, basically; but I refuse to waste my time, and other people’s, engaged in conversation that isn’t worthwhile, and I refuse to lie about my feelings. Who do these lies benefit exactly? Why are people so petrified of the truth? In any case, I have often wondered how I would react to being in a profession that demanded some level of dishonesty from me, such as a doctor. To work as a GP one must, no matter how tired or irritated or disgusted, feign interest in all your patients’ minor and major ailments, one must give the impression of absolute sympathy at all times…

Tyko Gabriel Glas, the protagonist in Hjalmar Söderberg’s acclaimed Swedish novel, is in just such a situation. It is, I believe, appropriate that Söderberg chose to present his novel in the form of diary entries, because we consider a diary to be someone’s truth, to be the one place that one can be honest, no matter how alarming that truth might be. In his private thoughts, as set down on paper, Glas makes various admissions. He acknowledges, first of all, that he perhaps entered the wrong profession. ‘How can it have come about that of all possible trades, I have chosen the one that suits me least?’ he states. His bedside manner may be faultless, and kind and helpful words always on the tip of his tongue, but, in reality, the image that he presents to his patients, and to the world-at-large, is a false one; he is not who he appears to be; necessarily so, for an honest doctor would be a doctor without visitors.

“A pregnant woman is a frightful object. A new-born child is loathsome. A deathbed rarely makes so horrible an impression as childbirth, that terrible symphony of screams and filth and blood.”

One of Doctor Glas’ regular visitors is the Reverend Gregorius. While Glas fails to feel the expected good-will towards a number of his patients, he reserves a special, intense kind of disdain for the clergyman. Indeed, Gregorius’ introduction into the novel occurs while Glas is trying, unsuccessfully, to hide from him. [‘Impossible to escape!’ he laments]. As the two converse politely, the doctor considers the ‘odious physiognomy, like a nasty fungus,’ and when Gregorius admits to having a bad heart, Glas, in his thoughts, is delighted. In fact, he wishes death upon the parson, so that he might be rid of him ‘once and for all.’ This exchange, which is handled wonderfully by the author, with its mixture of blandishments and bile, occurs very early in the novel; and so one understands, almost from the beginning, that Glas isn’t merely someone who chose a career for which he is unsuited, but is potentially a very dangerous, but certainly emotionally unstable man.

web-doktor-glas_001---kopia (1).jpg

[Georg Rydeberg as Doktor Glas]

This is not, of course, to say that Glas does not have reason to feel antipathy towards Gregorius; he is, in fact, incredibly easy to dislike, at least as filtered through Glas’ lens. The main reason for this is his treatment of his wife, Helga, a woman some years his junior. Early on, Glas assumes the Reverend is ‘plaguing the life’ out of her, and as the novel progresses this proves to be the case. What this plaguing consists of is a relentless desire for sex, [almost] to the point of forcing her. There are plenty of novels – Middlemarch, for example – that deal with an unhealthy and regrettable relationship between an older man and a younger woman, but one must applaud Söderberg for not flinching in the face of the more squeamish questions these kind of unions might raise; which is to say that he directly acknowledges what we all think: that the poor woman must find being mounted by an old codger she doesn’t love deeply unpleasant. That he goes even further than this and touches upon the issue of rape within marriage, an issue that we are still not comfortable with even now, is extraordinary, especially considering that the novel was published in 1905.

In terms of Gregorius, he is shown to be, or the main characters consider him to be, a loathsome hypocrite. The idea being that he gives the impression of being a pious man, and yet he cannot  – even at the risk of his own health, and the obvious resistance from his wife – give up on getting his rocks off; that, in other words, he preaches moderation, understanding, and so on, but is incapable of these things himself. His wife even accuses him of using his religion as justification for his desires,  as though he is manipulating the word of God in order to suit himself. In this way, the heart problem from which he suffers is clearly symbolic. He has a bad heart, we’re repeatedly told, and I don’t think one is meant to take that only literally. Indeed, Glas actually has a dream in which he removes the defective organ.

However, one must not forget, as previously noted, that one only ever gets to see Gregorius as Glas does, and the doctor is, let’s say, not entirely without bias, for he has a not so innocent interest in the man’s wife. So when he is writing about the parson’s ‘grossly indecent behaviour’ one could legitimately see it as little more than jealousy. Moreover, the rest of the information, the juiciest bits in fact, the worst accusations, are provided by Helga Gregorius, and her word shouldn’t be accepted without question either, for who can say that she can be trusted? Certainly, she has a reason to want her husband dead, having mistakenly married him and then started an affair with another man. It is possible, therefore, to see her as something of a cynical manipulator, who plays upon the doctor’s feelings and naivety. Glas is a strange, ‘solitary’ man, who lacks experience with women; he is, in fact, a virgin, who has only ever once held a girl’s hand and touched her breast.

“We know so little about one another. We embrace a shadow and love a dream.”

I have now read Doctor Glas twice, and it is always interesting how one’s perception of a novel can change. The first time, I was aware of sex playing a part in the narrative, but I did not realise just how much it dominates the work.  Of course, there is the central issue of Gregorius’ libido; but sex is actually everywhere, on almost every page: Helga’s affair, her awakening as a woman in the bed of a man she actually desires;  a couple fucking in a graveyard; the multiple abortions that Glas is asked to perform, unwanted pregnancies resulting from grubby, illicit liaisons; the doctor’s frequent dreams of a naked Helga, who he calls a ‘feminine flower,’ and so on. Indeed, in terms of the the latter, one could make a case for Glas’ murderous impulse being caused by extreme sexual frustration. Again, it is Glas’ words, and observations, that we have access to, and so it is he that sees sex in everything, on every corner; and yet he considers himself to be a man who is completely in control of himself, a man who is actually disgusted by sex. ‘So much suffering for so little pleasure,’ is how he describes the act.

I hope that I have given the impression that Doctor Glas is a complex novel. One can see it as progressive, as sympathetically, seriously engaging with a multitude of important, controversial issues, such as the previously mentioned sexual rights [and rape] within marriage and abortion, as well as euthanasia and suicide. Equally, one can enjoy it as a fine example of the ‘unreliable narrator’ genre, with murder and psychosexual drama thrown in for good measure. Regardless, what is certain is that Glas is something of an existentialist anti-hero. By his own admission, he is not tied to conventional morality or duties. When he decides not to help the pregnant women who want him to abort their unborn children he does not do so because he thinks abortion is wrong, but rather out of fear of compromising himself. Likewise, his attitude towards murder is that it is permissible in certain circumstances, when the ‘rotten flesh’ needs to be cut away to preserve the healthy.

THE BIRDS BY TARJEI VESAAS

The other day I was talking to a man who, impolitely, one might call ‘slow,’ and I felt myself getting annoyed and losing patience. He was easily confused; often repeated himself; and stuttered terribly. ‘I’ve had three strokes,’ he said, and I nodded, thinking this was merely an example of the strange compulsion people have to inform others of their problems or ailments. But then, a moment or two later, I realised that he was offering me this information as an excuse, as an explanation. He had obviously picked up on my irritation, and I felt ashamed, as, I suspected, he did too, but for different reasons. There are, of course, a lot of horrible things that can happen to a human being, but it strikes me that the loss of mental agility, and being aware of this loss, at least some of the time, must be a particularly potent kind of misery.

In The Birds, acclaimed Norwegian author, and one time Nobel candidate, Tarjei Vesaas tells the story of Mattis and his long-suffering sister Hege. While Mattis is an adult [he is thirty-seven], he appears to have the mental age, and physical capacity, of someone much younger. Certainly, Hege treats him like a child, looking after him, telling him what to do, and often humouring him in his strange preoccupations and mental flights of fancy. As far as the locals are concerned Mattis is ‘simple’ [his nickname is Simple Simon], and yet that strikes me as short-sighted. Mattis is not simple at all; he has a complex inner life, it just isn’t like most other people’s. For example, he says to Hege that she is ‘like lightning,’ referring to her flashing knitting needles, an association that is unusual, but imaginative, countering accusations of idiocy. Likewise, his experience with the woodcock, which plays such a central role in the early stages of the book, is full of intense, sophisticated and conflicting emotions.

John-James-Audubon-Woodcock

Crucially, and movingly, as with the man I mentioned in my introduction, Mattis does have self-awareness. He knows that people think him stupid and incapable; moreover, he regards himself that way too. This leads to him feeling frustrated, uncomfortable, and worthless. Indeed, there are two subjects that are particularly painful, which are ‘thinking’ and ‘work,’ two things at which he considers himself a failure. Yet, in spite of these ‘failures’ there are aspects of his character that I found admirable, and that, in fact, I could relate to myself. First of all, Mattis’ cosmic sense of wonder, his relationship with the woodcock, with which he attempts to communicate by leaving it messages, is really quite beautiful. Secondly, his honesty, his inability to be diplomatic, is refreshing. I dislike lying, even so-called kind lies; I am, in fact, incapable of them; I lack tact, frequently upsetting people by not telling them what they want to hear. Mattis does this too, for example, when he points out that Hege, who is three years his senior, is going grey.

It is probably clear by now that Mattis dominates the novel. The Birds is not written in the first person, but it is largely concerned with one man’s thoughts and feelings, his fears and desires, with Vesaas making use of a free indirect style. However, Hege, of course, still plays an important role, although one only really sees her through her brother’s eyes. For Mattis, Hege is wise and strong. Yet one must not lose sight, and to be fair to Mattis he doesn’t, of how hard life is for her. Not only is there a certain stigma attached to having a ‘simple’ brother, but he also cannot work, and so earns no money. He is no real company for her either, because she finds it impossible to communicate with him in any meaningful way, what with his peculiar concerns. To be in her situation must, at times, be like trying to interact with an alien species; it must be, and is, a lonely state of affairs. This is why she gets so upset about the grey hairs. Hege feels, understandably, as though life is passing her by, that, specifically, she has no life, that, as she says herself, she ‘gets nothing out of it.’

As I, or more specifically my parents, get older I have begun to think increasingly about old age, mental health, and our responsibilities towards our loved ones. My mother has been seriously ill recently, and so I have had to ask myself ‘If it came to it, would I be prepared to be her carer?’ Am I selfless enough to make the necessary sacrifices? One of the cruel things about life is that it forces you to confront these uncomfortable questions; you cannot lie to yourself, you have to be honest. What kind of person am I? The truth is, I’d rather not know. I am not saying that this is always the case, but there is a real sense in the book that Hege has spent much of her time in bondage to Mattis, that she has missed out on her youth, or her best years, in order to keep him. Mattis himself acknowledges that without her he would die; she is all that he has, their mother and father having passed away.

“This gave him another opportunity to use one of those words that hung before him, shining and alluring. Far away in the distance there were more of them, dangerously sharp.”

Before concluding I want to return to something I have briefly touched upon earlier in this review, which is communication, because this is, for me, one of the novel’s major themes. Throughout, Mattis fails to make himself understood to people, including his sister. The importance of the woodcock is a fine example of this. Numerous times he tries to articulate what the bird means to him, but he never manages it. This inability to express himself clearly, and Hege’s reluctance to engage her brother – perhaps due to weariness or fear – ultimately has tragic consequences. As the novel moves towards its climax, Mattis worries that he is losing Hege. To prevent the crisis that envelops the siblings all Hege need do is treat Mattis like an adult, or even a mature child, one who deserves a frank and in-depth discussion relating to the future; Mattis, on the other hand, ought to explain his concerns, but simply cannot bring himself to say what is on his mind, and so acts out instead. This is the saddest thing of all: that two people can love and care for one another so much, and yet be so blind to the needs of the other.

I want to finish with some discussion as to Vesaas’ skill as a writer. He was, I believe, a poet as well as a novelist, and, well, it shows. I don’t like to throw the word poetic around when discussing prose, because I think that often it is used to denote flowery, overcooked sentences, but I find it apt here. The Birds is tight, evocative, beautiful. Vesaas displays wonderful control; his style is one of economy, whereby each word seems to matter. Moreover, there are at least three scenes – the fate of the woodcock, Anna and Inger, and the mushroom – that will stay with me for a very long time. If I had to compare the Norwegian’s work to that of another author, I would say that it is like a less curmudgeonly Patrick White, and that is a big compliment, because that pissy old goat could write like a motherfucker.

INDEPENDENT PEOPLE BY HALLDOR LAXNESS

In 874 CE a Norwegian chieftain, Ingólfr Arnarson, became the first permanent settler on the island that came to be known as Iceland. Ah, truly an independent man! One can’t help but think that Gudbjartur of Summerhouses, the dominant character in Halldor Laxness’ Independent People, would have approved of such a state of affairs. As the novel begins, Bjartur has purchased his own piece of land, after working, for eighteen years, for the Bailiff. This is, despite the measly nature of the land and the shabby dwelling upon it, a momentous occasion for him; he is, at last, a free and independent person. Indeed, Bjartur prizes this independence above all else, so that it becomes almost a mania with him. For example, in the opening chapter there is told the story of the witch Gunnvor, out of which has grown a kind of superstition that one must, when passing her so-called resting place, ‘give her a stone.’ Bjartur, however, refuses, even when his new wife begs him out of a fear of bad luck. He would, it is clear, rather make her unhappy than compromise his principles, than for one moment sacrifice the smallest amount of his freedom [i.e. his freedom to act as he pleases]. Likewise, when she later yearns for some milk, he makes it clear that he will not countenance it because he cannot produce it himself. Bjartur will not ask for anything from anyone else, as he sees this as begging; nor will he accept gifts either.

Iceland,_Carta_Marina

[Iceland on the Carta Marina by Olaus Magnus]

One might wonder then how one is to approach Bjartur, what one is to make of him, for there are elements of his personality and behaviour that are agreeable and elements that are, in contrast, entirely disagreeable. First of all, we instinctively root for those who strive for freedom; as we do those who live in accordance with their principles, and those who are prepared to work hard. However, his behaviour has disastrous results for his family. Hard work, principles, ideals, freedom, all that is well and good, but if the result is overwhelming misery then one must question whether it is worth it, whether the man who brings down this misery upon his family [if one wants to say that he does – and you do not want to blame economic conditions] is not actually a good person. This, for me, is one of the key questions that the novel raises: just how important are principles? Are they worth sacrificing your health and happiness for? I must admit that I was never really sure how I felt about Gudbjartur of Summerhouses. He has many admirable qualities, and he is capable of tenderness, but he is equally capable of monstrous behaviour.

“It was pretty miserable wretches that minded at all whether they were wet or dry. He could not understand why such people had been born. “It’s nothing but damned eccentricity to want to be dry” he would say. “I’ve been wet more than half my life and never been a whit the worse for it.””

It is interesting in light of all this to consider that Laxness was, by all accounts, a Maxist. Indeed, he is said to have visited Russia prior to commencing work on Independent People and was very impressed. Even without this knowledge it is clear that with the novel Laxness was, to some extent, making a political statement. Throughout characters engage in political discussions, pass comment on the governing of the country, and wax philosophical about the status of the working man. Moreover, it is significant that the title is plural; Laxness is clearly not, therefore, only concerned with one resolute man, but, rather, an entire country or class. It is worth noting, in this regard, that from 1262 to 1918, Iceland was ruled by Norway and then Denmark, and that the country itself only became independent in 1918, shortly before the novel was written.

Yet if you accept that Laxness was concerned with an entire class or country, and one considers the Maxist sympathies, then his message seems somewhat obscure [although this may have much to do with my own ignorance]. Marx was himself concerned with labour, production, and the proletariat, all of which obviously play such a big part in the narrative of Independent People. For the German, giving up the ownership of one’s labour is to be alienated from one’s own nature, resulting in a kind of spiritual loss. This seems somewhat in line with how Bjartur is presented, a man who certainly does own his own labour. However, Marx also advocated that the proletariat should have class consciousness, that they ought to organise, and ultimately challenge the prevailing system, which is not at all in keeping with Bjartur’s behaviour and opinions, as he is suspicious of political engagement and, well, men-at-large. For example, when the Bailiff’s son, Ingolfur, broaches the idea of a Co-operative Society for farmers, which would, he claims, prevent exploitation, Bjartur isn’t at all interested.

If Bjartur was intended as some kind of anti-capitalist hero then the book fails, because he is not necessarily against capitalism [he defends the merchant], he is simply against anything, or anyone, he deems to be in some way attempting to deny him freedom or independence. For Bjartur, one can be as ruthless and money-grubbing as one likes as long as you don’t interfere with him. Moreover, this free man, this man who owns his own labour, only ends up exacerbating the suffering of innocent people. As the novel progresses, the reader may legitimately ask if he, or certainly his family, wouldn’t have been better off remaining in the pay of a wealthier employer, if that wouldn’t be a more comfortable and therefore rational way of living. In fact, while one might look to the Bailiff and his wife – who periodically appears in the text in order to make glib and patronising statements about the working class, about how only poor people are truly happy, and how much she envies them. She contrasts this, of course, with the hard life of being a bourgeois employer, where all your money goes on paying wages and one cannot [the horror!] afford that dress you’ve had your eye on for a while – as the capitalist villains of the piece, the more I thought about it the more I realised that Bjartur himself could be called a capitalist, just not in the way that we tend to understand that term these days.

When someone says capitalist we [or certainly I] tend to imagine someone rich, with at least one thriving business, which is run on the toil of hired workers. Well, Bjartur is categorically not rich; nor does he own a thriving business; and the only workers he has are his own family. Yet his situation is a capitalist model; his farm, although not at all flourishing, is a private enterprise and his family are absolutely exploited as a means of production. The kids, the wife, all are expected to put in extremely long hours, and far from being rewarded commensurate to their efforts are actually given very little to eat, live in wretched circumstances [a small, foul-smelling, leaky hut] and have only rags to wear; indeed, these workers are actually sacrificed in order to protect the business’ assets [i.e. the sheep, which are given preferential treatment]. It is likely that I am wrong about all this, as I am admittedly no expert on Marxism and so on, but It was only when this interpretation came to me that the politics of the novel started to make more sense. Marx wrote about the “despotism of capital,” and that phrase could be seen to sum up this book.

I worry that so far I have made Laxness’ work seem horribly dry and grim and unapproachable. I mean, it is grim, there’s no way of getting around that, but it is not without warmth and humour and beauty either. Bjartur, although a kind of tyrant, is also a funny character, particularly in the opening stages of the novel; and even when things are at their blackest there are still moments of absurd comedy, for example, when Bjartur says, “A free man can live on fish. Independence is better than meat.” Furthermore, there is some fine nature writing which acts as a contrast to the unrelenting drudgery. In fact, Laxness’ prose is what makes the novel bearable. While I dislike throwing the word poetic around, because I think it is often used merely as a way of describing so-called superior or flowery writing, it is apt in this case; the Icelander was, I believe, actually a poet; and, well, it shows.

“Shortly afterwards it started raining, very innocently at first, but the sky was packed tight with cloud and gradually the drops grew bigger and heavier, until it was autumn’s dismal rain that was falling—rain that seemed to fill the entire world with its leaden beat, rain suggestive in its dreariness of everlasting waterfalls between the planets, rain that thatched the heavens with drabness and brooded oppressively over the whole countryside, like a disease, strong in the power of its flat, unvarying monotony, its smothering heaviness, its cold, unrelenting cruelty. Smoothly, smoothly it fell, over the whole shire, over the fallen marsh grass, over the troubled lake, the iron-grey gravel flats, the sombre mountain above the croft, smudging out every prospect. And the heavy, hopeless, interminable beat wormed its way into every crevice in the house, lay like a pad of cotton wool over the ears, and embraced everything, both near and far, in its compass, like an unromantic story from life itself that has no rhythm and no crescendo, no climax, but which is nevertheless overwhelming in its scope, terrifying in its significance. And at the bottom of this unfathomed ocean of teeming rain sat the little house and its one neurotic woman.”

Moreover, as with all great novels of some heft, there are certain scenes in Independent People that will likely stay with you long after reading the book. For me, there are two in particular. First of all, there is the chapter when Bjartur leaves his wife Rosa on her own over night with his favourite gimmer [one of the Rev. Gudmundur’s breed, no less!] as company. Rosa, who has been on edge ever since not being allowed to give Gunnvor a stone, sees in the sheep’s frightened bleating some kind of evil omen. Laxness takes this potentially ridiculous set-up and manages to imbue it with a creeping tension and horror, until Rosa finally snaps and executes the gimmer. It is, in my opinion, one of the most powerful descriptions of madness in literature. The other big favourite of mine is when Bjartur goes in search of the sheep, for he doesn’t know it is dead, and spots a group of reindeer. He decides, being a strong-willed independent man, that he is going to capture the buck for meat. This is no easy feat, of course. During the struggle he climbs upon its back and the buck takes him into the river Glacier in an effort to throw him.

When I read another of Laxness’ most well-known works, World Light, last year I felt as though the characters lacked depth; it struck me that they had a signature mood or quirk, and that is all. As I reread Independent People I was starting to get the same feeling about Bjartur; yes, he has mania for independence and freedom…I get all that, I enjoy it, but one reaches a stage where this point has been hammered home so frequently in the first one hundred pages that you start to worry about another four hundred of it. What sets this book apart from World Light, and many other lesser novels, is that Laxness knew when to change it up. So when Bjartur’s one-man-show [he has a wife, of course, but she’s only really there for him to harangue about independence] starts to creak a bit, when it’s becoming repetitive, the author introduces a number of interesting new characters. In a way, one could criticise this move, for it is so abrupt, but providing Bjartur with a new wife, mother-in-law, and children gives the book fresh impetus. Moreover, this family is more finely crafted, have a greater emotional range and a more sophisticated inner life; this is particularly true of the children, Nonni and Asta, who are wonderful creations.

I’ve never been one for child worship, for finding a child’s misfortune worse than any other; I find that attitude quite odd, in fact; but Asta, Bjartur’s daughter from his first marriage, ruined me. She was born in extraordinary circumstances, tragic circumstances, and her life at Summerhouses proceeds in a manner no less tragic. There are numerous books that have moved me, many that have needled my personal sore spots [which this one does too, actually – anything to do with poverty tends to affect me emotionally], but this, as far as I can remember, is the only book ever to make me cry, to provoke a tear into dribbling miserably down my cheek. And it is all Asta’s fault. I’m not even sure why she got to me so much; she’s a sensitive, trusting slip of a girl, who, in her naivety or innocence, wants so little [her joy at being given an old worn dress of her mother’s all but finished me off], but, crucially, unlike her father, she does want; she is inquisitive, eager to learn. Maybe it is that: desiring such meagre or basic things, and being denied them. Or perhaps it is simply that having been brought up by a struggling single mother I just can’t bear to see women unhappy. I don’t know.

It is worth noting, in conclusion, that, after all the exhausting and frequently oppressive bleakness, there is, towards the end, a tiny shaft of light, a few whispered comforting words that suggest that love, at least, will endure. Ah, hold onto those words, store them in your heart, because a little hope, even blind hope, is the most precious thing of all.

WORLD LIGHT BY HALLDOR LAXNESS

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.

THE SUMMER BOOK BY TOVE JANSSON

Philip Pullman called this book marvellous, beautiful, wise and added that it is also very funny. I think someone might have spiked Phil’s tea. Marvellous, wise and beautiful, yes, it is all three of those things on occasions. Very funny, though? Er. Maybe some people’s funny bones are hellishly tickled by airy Scandinavian short stories about nature and human existence, but I can’t say mine was.

Tove Jansson, it seems necessary to mention, was the Finnish author of the Moomin series of books. She was, then, primarily a writer for children. However, in the last few years her adult novels, of which The Summer Book is one, have gained greater attention and praise. I’ve always thought that the distinction between children’s fiction [not to mention young adult etc] and adult fiction an odd and irritating one. We seem obsessed with the idea that things ought to be directed or targeted, more so to sell those things than for any other reason. I mention this because there is nothing about The Summer Book, aside from the absence of white Hippo-like creatures, to mark it out from so-called kid-lit; and certainly there is nothing that makes it unsuitable for or unappreciable by children. In fact, while some adults might find it dull and uneventful, I’d wager that kids, who are way more open-minded than we are, would see something of their own experience of the world in it and dig it on that basis.

In keeping with the tone of the work, Jansson’s prose style is direct and simple. There really is nothing challenging about The Summer Book, and that could be construed as a criticism, but it is not intended as one. While I absolutely did not have the profound experience that some readers and critics would like to convince us the book is capable of providing, I did enjoy it very much. If you liked that scene in American Beauty with the plastic bag floating around on the wind, if that scene made you gulp a little bit and squeeze your partner’s hand, then you’ll probably enjoy these stories too. I am keen to avoid hyperbole in this review, because I think that leads to disappointment; too many reviews of this book give the impression of it being something it isn’t. Take it on face value for what it is: nice. There ain’t nothing wrong with nice, yo.

I often alternate between the words book and novel in my reviews; they are, for the most part, interchangeable, of course. Not here though; The Summer Book is often called a novel, but it is no such thing. It is a series of connected short stories, featuring a child, Sophia, and her Grandmother. There is absolutely no more continuity beyond that [except the island where they live, and a father who is absent in all but name]. There is no narrative, no plot, and, actually, no character.

All of the stories, or episodes, are likeable and pleasant and worth reading, but one or two stood out for me. My favourite was The Cat, which involves Sophia adopting a moggy who will not return her affection.

“It’s funny about love,” Sophia said. “The more you love someone, the less he likes you back.”
“That’s very true,” Grandmother observed. “And so what do you do?”
“You go on loving,” said Sophia threateningly. “You love harder and harder.”

Eventually she exchanges the cat for one who loves her back, who sleeps on her bed and purrs madly. Only Sophia eventually comes to realise that she can’t simply transfer her feelings from one animal to another and so wants to make the exchange again.

“It’ll be awful,” said Sophia gravely. “But it’s Moppy I love.”

The morals, the lessons learned are all very obvious and straightforward, but that is not to say that we can’t all do with being reminded of them once in a while.

MYSTERIES BY KNUT HAMSUN

In the year 1882, Knut Hamsun’s roommate returned home to find the author in bed asleep. On the table was a knife, a cigar, and a note. The note read as follows:

Smoke the cigar and stick the knife into my heart.

Do it quickly, decisively and as a friend, if you value my affection.

Signed Knut H.

P.S. This note will be your defence in court.

Hamsun had painted an angel of death on the ceiling.

Was this a cry for help, a genuine bid for death, or a prank? Most agree on the latter, whilst also asserting, for the record, that Hamsun was clearly completely fucking bats. Now, I don’t agree with his methods, but I think you can see this incident in another way, a way that is linked to understanding the novel under review here. But, for the time being at least, enough about the author, what about me?

Have you ever looked at one of those glass break in case of fire alarms and felt an overwhelming urge to hit it? Or looked out over a high balcony and inexplicably, though absolutely not suicidal, wanted to jump? I have. In fact, I’ve felt that way a lot. It’s the desire to do something out of the ordinary, something to ruffle feathers, to make a mark, to shock yourself, or other people, out of the stultifying grind that is day-to-day existence. Once, when I was at college, I got up from my chair and sat on the table in the middle of one of the classes. When the teacher asked me what I was doing and if I was ok I replied that I felt claustrophobic. Another time, my first night in halls of residence at University, I drank [in one gulp] a pint of tequila and nearly died. Did I do it for popularity, to prove or ingratiate myself? Anyone who knows me knows I don’t give a fuck about that. I did it because it wasn’t the thing to do, because I felt distant from or at odds with what was expected of me in that situation, the accepted or expected behaviour of a new University student at a networking party. Am I bats too? Probably, but it at least allows me to empathise with Johan Nagal, the protagonist of Knut Hamsun’s best novel Mysteries [I’m not sure that’s worth nearly dying for, but never mind].

“What does the world know? Nothing! You simply get used to something, you accept it and acknowledge it, because your teacher has acknowledged it before you; everything is just a supposition—indeed, even time, space, motion, matter are suppositions. The world knows nothing, it merely accepts things…”

Nagal, a 29 year old man purporting to be an agronomist, arrives in a small town and proceeds – systematically, knowingly – to cause confusion and anguish among the locals. He does so very much in the ways described above in the opening paragraphs of this review: by behaving erratically, by doing not what is expected of him. So, for example, Nagal is honest when dishonesty is called for, and dishonest when he is expected to be truthful; he writes a salacious poem on a young girl’s tombstone; he throws money around in an absurd fashion; he tries to pay a crippled man to launch a glass at his oppressor, and so on. In one sense, he is the mystery of the title; he’s an enigma, a joker in the pack. But that title also has a broader significance in relation to what I’ll call the mysteries of life. What does that mean exactly? For me, Nagal is Hamsun’s way of exploring certain questions. such as how does one make sense of one’s time on earth? Can one inject life with meaning or should one submit to its meaninglessness? 

Nagal isn’t, for my money, just being a nuisance; he is adding salt to the dish in order for it to taste better. Why shouldn’t I lie outrageously? [What is a lie anyway?] Why shouldn’t I give a woman a ludicrous amount of money for an old beaten-up chair? Why, indeed. Before I read the book I thought it would be like Dostoevsky’s Demons, which involves a bunch of revolutionaries causing chaos and disorder in the name of nihilism. But Mysteries isn’t like that at all. For me, it is far closer to Henry James’ The Ambassadors; it is about grabbing life by the hair and shaking it about; it is twisting the nipples of the tiger…to get a reaction, to feel alive. That is another mystery: how can one feel alive when one is expected to bow politely to social convention? [Mysteries is, in one sense, a hippy book…albeit a dark and sardonic one.] And his methods do have some success, for he appears to awaken Dagny, a local hottie engaged to an officer. She is drawn to Nagal against her better judgement…and despite him killing her dog [the funniest scene in the novel is when Dagny tells Nagal that her dog has died inexplicably. She then asks him why his hand is bandaged. Nagal says, “your dog bit me.” Haha! No? Just me? The comic timing is exceptional].

Edvard_Munch_-_Separation_-_Google_Art_Project

[Separation by Edvard Munch]

It is worth mentioning that some readers have complained that Hamsun gives them, and Nagal, an easy out by suggesting that he is an opium addict; this is based on a story Nagal himself tells about having once or twice taken it. And, yes, it is fair to say that some of his behaviour is consistent with drug addiction. But, and this is what these readers appear to have forgotten, everything Nagal does and says is dubious, so why would you believe him on this? Also, I’ve read in relation to the novel that Nagal is mad. And madness is one of the themes, but not in the way that one expects. Hamsun seems to be saying: what is madness? Is being unusual or out of the ordinary madness? Perhaps. Nagal actually addresses this issue and claims that as his reason is intact he therefore can’t be mad. He’s not acting without self-awareness, he knows exactly what he is doing. One of the finest aspects of the book is how, like an annoying magician, he reveals his lies, the secrets of his art, to the people he is tricking or manipulating. It’s like, here, this is how I pulled it off! Mad? No, not by my standard. But we’ve already agreed that I’m mental anyway.