Generous Orthodoxy  

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Great novels in foreign languages

A few years ago I read that some literary figure in Europe (a member of the Nobel Prize for Literature committee, maybe?) said that American writers were somewhat provincial and not as good as they should be because so few Americans read literature in other languages. I’ve been thinking about that ever since. I’m sure many American readers have been as mystified as I to read the names of many of the Nobel winners—writers we have never heard of.

I have recently made a foray into the works of one of those mysterious Nobel winners: Halldór Laxness of Iceland, who won the prize in 1955. I got started when Iceland’s Bell, originally published in 1943, was finally translated into English in 2003 and was praised on the cover of the New York Times Book Review section. The review piqued my interest considerably, especially since I was deep into Tolkien and Wagner’s Ring at that time. Moreover, when I was a child I had read the Norse myths and, like C. S. Lewis, was completely enthralled by the whole concept of the North with its legends. Without realizing it, I was being drawn into the world of the Icelandic sagas. (I am embarrassed now to recall how much I hated Beowulf in college. But then, I hadn’t had Tolkien to teach it!)

I also remember being struck by the fact that there were more books per capita in Iceland than any other country in the world. At the time I did not know why that was. Now I know.

So I read Iceland’s Bell, and was completely bowled over. I got books about Iceland and pored over maps and photographs. I had fantasies of going there (although I think for me Iceland is actually more a land of the mind). I don’t know when I have been so enthralled by a novel. Since than I have been busy doing research, so I didn’t get around to Laxness’ undisputed masterpiece, Independent People (1946) until more recently, and I have just finished Under the Glacier (with an introduction by Susan Sontag, no less).

I don’t suppose Laxness is for everyone. Independent People, with its hundreds of pages of unremitting detail about unspeakable conditions in an Icelandic peasant’s croft, might be too much for some. One passionate lover of the book, when asked what it was about, quite rightly said, “Sheep.” And yet the main character, the poetry-loving sheep-farmer Bjartur, is surely one of the most memorable literary personages of all time, and the novel is almost Tolstoyan in its range. The story is leavened with rollicking humor throughout, but in places it is almost unbearable. For both reasons, I couldn’t stop turning the pages. Without doubt, Independent People belongs with the greatest of the classics.

Iceland’s Bell, however, is my personal favorite simply because, though it takes place in the Middle Ages, it is deliberately written in the style of the sagas and gives the reader a strong feeling of being in the very midst of the world of the vanished mythic North. I don’t remember feeling like that since I (like Lewis) was stopped in my tracks, as a child, by the news that “Balder the beautiful is dead, is dead!” The action in Iceland’s Bell is very easily traced on a map of Iceland and is based on real personages and real events having much to do with Iceland’s unique literary heritage, but it feels like a story from the universal world-consciousness…like the world of the Norns in the prologue to Götterdammerung.

A few years ago I enjoyed re-reading Kristin Lavransdatter, the three-volume epic tale of a woman in medieval Norway, written in the 1920s by Sigrid Undset. It is well known for its vivid depiction of life in the Middle Ages, and people can (and do) take “Kristin Lavransdatter” tours to all the places in Norway that figure in the book. Iceland’s Bell is, I suppose, superficially like that. But not really. Kristen has more likeness to Michener than to Laxness. Undset's novel has none of the saga atmosphere, none of the literary power, none of the mythic grandeur. With all due respect to the other Scandinavian countries, Iceland stands alone and Laxness makes us understand why.

Under the Glacier is a smaller work by Laxness, set in the mid-twentieth century, accurately described as “one of the funniest books ever written.” It is peopled by remarkable types with highly entertaining views on everything from religion and philosophy to elves and boiled fish (God help Icelandic food). It has a certain Laxnessian magic all its own; it seems thoroughly modern on one level, but one is hardly surprised to hear that people have seen fairy rams and walking ghosts, and to discover a character reminiscent of Kundry in Parsifal. This is not the Laxness novel to read first, but for a true believer it is certainly a treat. (Warning: don’t look for Lutheran orthodoxy here!)

The translations of the three books varies tremendously. Each was translated by a different person. The greatest translations are produced by persons who are not only fluent in the language being translated, but also gifted in the literary expression of the language into which the translation is being made. Edith Grossman, for instance, who translated Garcia Marquez, is rightly noted for the beauty of her renderings into English—and whoever it was who translated Shakespeare into Russian is widely considered a poetic genius. It is most unfortunate that of the three Laxness translations that I read, Iceland’s Bell is the worst. It contains countless infelicities in English which interfere with Laxness’ surpassing ability to make us inhabit the world of the sagas. Under the Glacier is serviceable without noticeable flaws in English, but Independent People (“Self-Standing Folk” in Icelandic) is a magnificent translation, by J. A. Thompson, with wondrous renderings of traditional Icelandic internally-rhymed verse.