Scandinavian

HUNGER BY KNUT HAMSUN

If you continue to lose weight, she said, I’ll have to put you in hospital. My mother thought that I was starving myself. She spoke about it as though it was a conscious decision, as though I had decided to stop eating, out of vanity perhaps, when it was simply the case that I could no longer keep food down. I was fourteen years old, and being sick was easy. I didn’t need to force it. I didn’t tip my fingers down my throat and waggle them around. The vomit came when called, like a well-trained dog. She had always over-fed us, my brother and I, because it was the only thing she could do. For a while I had thrown her meals out of the bedroom window, but I couldn’t live with the guilt. What little money we had went on this, on fattening the rats that gathered below. So I did my duty. I ate, and that was important; but I wasn’t hungry. My shins burned when I walked, my mouth cramped when I talked too much, and I frequently lost consciousness, but I never knew hunger. I would, I thought, die happily without ever knowing what it felt like to want anything.

“God had poked His finger down into my nerves and gently, almost without thinking, brought a little confusion among those threads. And God had pulled His finger back, and behold–there were filaments and fine rootlike threads on His finger from the threads of my nerves. And there remained an open hole behind His finger which was the finger of God, and a wound in my brain behind the path of His finger.”

That Knut Hamsun’s first novel was published in 1890 is, with each new reading, increasingly surprising to me. This is not because it seems so ahead of its time – although many have made that argument – but rather because it strikes me as largely out of time. There is very little in it that dates it, that ties it to a specific period. The horse and carriage, the writing with pencil on paper, and one or two other moments or incidents, are the only real indicators. In terms of style, there are elements of Dostoevsky’s supernatural realism, but on a meagre scale. Hamsun’s unnamed protagonist is less intense, less obviously a front for an ideology or ethical-philosophical system; and certainly the author himself was less concerned with intricate plotting. In fact, there is little more to Hunger, in terms of action, than an exceedingly poor man wandering around Kristiana, that ‘strange city which no one leaves until it has set its mark upon him,’ which is now known as Oslo.

The most obvious interpretation of the book’s title is that it refers to the central character’s starvation, to the frequent days he endures without being able to eat. He is, as noted, wretchedly poor, and so cannot afford to. At times he becomes so desperate that he chews on wood shavings, or sucks a stone, or nibbles at a bone that he has procured from a butcher for an imaginary dog. Only occasionally – either through luck, charity, or his own hard work – does he come by a little money and therefore legitimate food. When denied basic sustenance the body will, of course, suffer, eventually wither and ultimately break down. Frequently he feels weak, his legs twitch and become unsteady, his head pounds, and his hair falls out. Even when he does take in food he throws it back up because his stomach is unused to it, it cannot handle it. Yet perhaps the biggest indication of his physical deterioration is how often people run away from him or try and avoid coming into contact with him, such as the woman who presses closer to the wall when he walks past. Indeed, the man’s body is in such a bad way that even he notices it, and cries over it, when it is often the case that the person involved, as I know myself, is ignorant of what is happening to them.

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However, this aspect of the book is, although disturbing, not particularly interesting. For me, anyway. Perhaps it is too familiar, too close to my own experience, but I think there’s more to it than that. That someone who doesn’t regularly eat would be physically weakened, would waste away, is predictable, natural, and therefore hardly worth devoting your attention to. I’m reminded of what I wrote about Lolita, which is that if all that book has to say is that pedophilia exists, and this is how grooming works, then it was a waste of time to write it. In any case, what is engaging about Hunger is how Hamsun shows that the mental and the physical influence each other. When the man eats he feels ‘stimulated,’ more stable and lucid, and ‘capable of a greater effort’ where his own writing is concerned. Conversely, when he is without food, his mental state worsens, resulting in wild mood swings. At times he is ‘nervous and susceptible’; he is timid, apologetic, despairing, pathetic, and self-pitying. On other occasions, he becomes inexplicably angry and even sinister, such as when he goes in search of confrontation or starts to follow a young woman with the intention of ‘frightening’ her. One understands in these moments that it isn’t only his appearance that alarms the locals.

What this means is that the less the man has, the more in need he is, the more mad be becomes, and subsequently the more unlikely it is that he will receive help. Because extreme vulnerability is unappealing. That is part of the tragedy of the novel, and of life itself. At his most demoralised and despondent, he turns to God, but not with any conviction or genuine faith, more in order to rail against Him or doubt Him. His luck is so bad, he thinks, that his existence must be at the whim of some higher power, or is at least evidence of the fact that he has been abandoned. Yet if anyone is to blame for his predicament it is he himself. Indeed, the most fascinating aspect of his character, and the novel as a whole, is how much responsibility he has for, how much he contributes to, his own downfall. Take, for example, his insistence on helping the tramp, to the extent that he pawns his waistcoat in order to give him some money. It’s absurd, funny even. To be starving, to have so little, and give away your possessions or money, to people, in fact, who are probably better off than you are. The first time I read the book I couldn’t take it seriously, precisely for this reason. It wasn’t until I read it again that I began to understand.

The title of the novel refers to starvation, of course it does, but it also has a broader meaning or significance. Hamsun’s protagonist is stripped of, or denied, or just plain lacks, almost all of life’s essentials, almost all of the things that sustain us. He hungers, yes, but not only for food. He hungers for love, for sex, for work too, none of which he has access to. The only thing that he has, or that he can at least fool himself into thinking that he has, is his dignity. He helps the beggar because he does not want to be seen as being too destitute to give charity. He has next to nothing, but at least he can do that, at least he can still help others or attempt to. Similarly, when he sees a man carrying a bundle, he wants to take it from him and carry it himself. One might say that he cares too much about what people think of him – he blackens the knees of his trousers so that they will not look too worn, for example – and, yes, that is part of having dignity too, but, in my opinion, he cares more about what he thinks of himself. Isn’t that vital? To be able to tolerate the person you are. Yes. It may be at some point in your life that other people cannot bear to look at you, but I hope that you are always able to look at yourself.

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KZRADOCK THE ONION MAN AND THE SPRING-FRESH METHUSELAH BY LOUIS LEVY

What will be related here is, like the novel by Louis Levy around which much of the action revolves, a ‘dreadful and bloody mystery’, one that is still not entirely understood by me. I make these notes, therefore, not in order to bring clarity to the situation but as a kind of exorcism. I write as a means of relieving myself of a burden and to bring a semblance of peace and order to my own soul. My patient, who I have always known as Kzradock, but who may in fact be someone, anyone, other than that man, was referred to me by the police as a paranoid schizophrenic. However, early in my treatment of him I doubted this diagnosis. When he screamed ‘Kzradock!’ I, like the police, understood this to be his name, certainly, but other of his utterances, and most persuasively the look in his haunted eyes, suggested to me some form of secret knowledge, a mystery, or story, that ought not to be ignored. In short, I doubted his madness, and, in turn, ended up doubting my own sanity.

I was making my morning rounds of the institute when I looked in upon Kzradock. He was standing in the corner of his room, his back to the wall. Often in situations such as these I would pass on to the next room without interfering, for the man was not harming himself, but on this occasion something compelled me to enter Kzradock’s cell. I greeted the man with a sincere good morning, and he, without turning around to face me, took up his familiar refrain: ‘Kzradock! Violently shaking hands! Hmm. Collapsing…under the burden. Eyes…ah…a consuming fever!’ I wondered whether I ought to administer a sedative, but I suddenly wished to have another go at getting him to expand upon his seemingly incoherent ramblings. I asked him to whom it was that he referred. ‘Kzradock!’ he screamed. And then to my surprise he spoke, near moaned, these new, strange, barely comprehensible, phrases: ‘Fever! Fresh Onion Man! Levy, Louis-Methuselah. Doctor! Oh doctor! I don’t exist! Please help me!’

I considered these new offerings to be a kind of breakthrough. Certainly, he had not referred to me as a doctor before, which suggested that he recognised who I was and, perhaps, where he was. Kzradock, I said, gently, who is the Fresh Onion Man? Levy Louis? ‘Kzradock and the doctor,’ he replied. I am the onion man? ‘No!’ he screamed. ‘You, like me, don’t exist!’ And then he began to weep. I thought at this point of ending our conversation, for I could see that it was especially distressing. I was about to leave when, conveniently, one of my attendants entered the cell and told me that there was a call for me in my office. When I picked up the phone, however, the line appeared to be dead. But as I listened closer I heard a crackling sound, something like tin foil being scrunched up into a ball; and then, faintly, I heard, or thought I heard, a voice say: ‘Kzradock is a character, doc.’ Hello? Hello? Who’s there? ‘It’s a book, you fool.’ What’s that? A book? Hello?

I put down the phone, almost slammed it down, and looked around my office. The room was full of books, for I have always been a keen reader. I went over to the shelves and scanned them intently. Kzradock, Kzradock, Kzradock. Every single book was called Kzradock The Onion Man and the Spring Fresh Methuselah and each was written by Louis Levy. Ah, I’m lost, I thought to myself. I’ve gone mad! Kzradock has infected me with his madness! I took one of the books from the shelf and opened it. The pages were blank. I was on the verge of collapse when one of my attendants, the same attendant as before, entered my office. ‘You have blood on your hands,’ he said sheepishly. What? Is Kzradock dead? ‘No, your hands, doctor, are bleeding.’ I looked down at my hands. They were red. ‘A papercut!’ I screamed at the man. He smiled and nodded and then handed me a piece of paper. What’s this? ‘A police officer gave it to me just now.’ Which police officer? No, don’t say anything! You may leave!

I knew that something was amiss with that attendant. He was, I was sure, in on a plot to ruin me. He was, yes, a co-conspirator. Perhaps, I thought, he has even drugged me. In any case, I opened the note and read: esteemed author, Louis Levy, who died in 1940, will today, September 10th 2017, give a talk about his famous novel Kzradock The Onion Man and the Spring Fresh Methuselah. Although sensing a trap, I noted the time and address and, realising that I had only twenty five minutes to spare, immediately left the institute. When I arrived at the appointed place, however, the talk was over and Levy was answering questions. ‘Yes, I would say that it is a Gothic novel. There is an insane asylum, of course, and murder, or at least the suggestion of murder, and a ghost. There is a scalping too! And there are, if you will allow me to quote myself, references to a hall of pain and an underworld of horrors. But it is, on the surface at least, as much a detective novel, but a confused kind of detective novel, whereby one isn’t sure who exactly is investigating – is it Mr. Wells or Monsieur Carbonel or Dr. Renard? – or whether there has even been a crime!’

A round of applause. A hand now sprang up, a small and hairy hand, a hand much too small and hairy to be human. I looked closer and noticed that the entire audience was made up of mongooses. ‘How do you feel, Mr. Levy, about the popular description of the novel as pulp?’ Levy grinned back at the mongoose. ‘Oh, I feel as though that term, that genre, is applied to books often as a kind of insult, or back-handed compliment at least. It is a way of saying that a story is fast-paced and fun, but not too taxing; that it is rather stupid, but enjoyable. It denotes low quality literature. Well, I guess my book is fun – what with the puma, and the man with the tapeworm, and all that – but, if I may say so, it isn’t stupid nor low quality.’ Another round of applause from the mongooses. I put up my hand. ‘Yes, you, the man in the doctor’s coat.’ What, I stammered, does all this mean? Who are you? Who am I? The book…I don’t understand. ‘He hasn’t read it,’ whispered one of the mongooses. ‘Philistine!’ hissed another.

I quickly realised that I ought to leave. I pushed through the crowd, which had now started to turn on each other. Mongoose leapt at mongoose, teeth bared, aiming for the throat. Pools of blood began to form on the floor. Wider, higher. Up to my knees. I waded through it. At this stage the mongooses had stopped fighting and were, instead, starting to drown in an ocean of their own blood. As I reached the door I looked back. ‘You don’t exist!’ one of the mongooses shouted, his head barely visible above the blood. ‘This isn’t real, it’s a book. Kza…Kzr…the meaning…is madness.’ I wanted to exit, to make myself safe, and yet I could not, I had to speak to the mongoose. What do you mean? ‘The book, if you had read it, you philistine, has all the answers…memory and madness…Kzradock is the mind in collapse, the soul when over-burdened…think, man, about yourself…how have you been feeling lately? Well?’ I had to admit I had not been quite myself. ‘What is reality? That is the book’s ultimate, profound question. Is it what you experience? Can what you experience be wrong? What does it mean to be of healthy mind, doctor? Is it when you can trust what you experience? Can you ever trust it?’

I wanted to reply, to converse further, but the head of the mongoose finally disappeared. So instead I pushed open the door of the auditorium and walked through, but rather than finding myself on the street, as I expected, I was, in fact, facing a wall, the wall of a cell in my institution. And, and as I turned around…there in front of me…was myself. ‘Good morning,’ I said to myself. ‘How are you feeling today?’ Kzradock! I screamed. ‘Tell me more,’ I replied patiently, ‘who is Kzradock?’ The Onion Man…I…I’m Kzradock! Louis Levy! Please! ‘And who is Louis Levy, Kzradock?’ Me…I’m…Dr. Renard de Monpensier…this is insanity…who are you? Who am I? Oh please…Spring Fresh book! Fever! Fresh Onion Man! Levy, Louis-Methuselah. Doctor! Oh doctor! I don’t exist! Please help me.

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.

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[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.

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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.