Sunday, 13 November 2011

An independent Icelander

Bjartur of Summerhouses is the unlikely hero of Halldor Laxness’s most famous novel, Independent People. He's not a bad man, but a difficult and stubborn one, who loses in one way or another two wives and a surrogate daughter through bloody-mindedness. Is his story one of a farmer surviving doggedly in the face of a mythic curse he affects not to believe in, or the age-old – and, alas, still topical – struggle-in-vain of a have-not against the bunch of smug have-it-alls who, Laxness insisted, still ruled the Icelandic roost in the mid 1930s?

Independent People is rich and ambiguous enough to hold both these elements in play, and so much more. I'm hardly surprised after the more off-piste singularity of Under the Glacier. This earlier masterpiece's staggering humanity makes you care for the self-sufficient sod who blinds himself to the possibility of wider sympathy until the end of the novel. It’s a typically understated victory when he finally looks at his daughter’s younger child and utters ‘Heavens, what a helpless-looking object…Yes, mankind is rather a pitiful sight when you come to look at it as it is in actual fact’. And Bjartur has persistently refused to look ‘actual fact’ in the face as he clings on to his croft and his livestock in a remote Icelandic valley.

Yet for all that he’s a worthy object of our sympathies. I never quite warmed to Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Summer Will Show, because the heroine can be such a cold character; the author meant her to be so, but somehow failed to involve us into the bargain. Bjartur has his attractive sides, all paradoxical. He’s a gruff plain-speaker and a poet, an old-fashioned one obsessed with rhymes rather than content, who nevertheless keeps alive in a snowdrift by reciting all the epics he knows, ranging from the heroic to the erotic. And he loves his sheep more than anything else, which of course leads to tragic results for both other people and a poor cow who makes a memorable appearance half way through the novel.

The other characters’ consciousnesses zoom in and out of the picture, often with such incomparable vividness that you wish you saw more of them. Perhaps my favourite chapter comes at the beginning of the second part, where the seemingly endless time between waking and dawn on a winter’s day for an imaginative young boy is so evocatively conjured. Laxness could have written an entire novel through this character’s eyes alone had he wanted. But Nonni and his spiritual sister, Asta Sollilja, for all that we see into their souls, disappear from the canvas for whole swathes. And the elder brother Gvartur comes into focus at a late stage, just when you think Laxness has no interest in him.

Unfolding a terrific yarn over time, this masterpiece doesn’t always communicate its ironic side effectively, though that may be something to do with J A Thompson’s translation. The irony can be overwhelming from the moment Laxness takes us through the profitability of the First World War’s slaughter for the Icelanders, and on to the snares of the banks and the co-operatives which made ‘interest-slaves’ of so many in the 1920s and 30s. But this is still fascinating, for it proves that little has changed either in Iceland – prophecies of 2008 are rife – or here. The scene where Bjartur meets a protester in town and belatedly realizes they’re brothers under the skin, the dispossessed against authority, could have been written today.

And, yes, it hit me with some force yesterday, listening to a debate about the worldwide demonstrations on the World Service, that we really are at a make-or-break junction in history. The opponents were putting their views across about the sometimes unbelievably courageous folk of the Arab Spring as contrasted with the Occupy movement in the relatively privileged west. A very prim young man argued that the protesters in the Middle East were fighting for democratic institutions which we’ve had for hundreds of years, and which he thought the Occupy group simply wanted to dismantle. Not dismantle, said his brilliant opponent, an Arab professor at an American university, modify. The system’s broken, it needs changing; Republicans and Democrats are in total deadlock; after the last crisis the bankers all went on as before, but they no longer can.

I’d agree with that. And I thought it was all crystallized brilliantly by another pro-democracy speaker from the University of Hawaii, who said the common link between these very different fights going on in different parts of the world was the discrepancy between expectation and reality. It really is as simple as that. We have indeed created a lost generation of educated young people, many of whom will be lucky when they come out of university to get a job stacking shelves. They should be glad of that, said the prim young man. They deserve better, said the Arab and Hawaiian academics; we’ve never had a greater capacity, through technology and innovation, to deliver work for all, and we don’t know how to make it function any more. I agree with them on that too, of course. Interesting times indeed: adapt and/or change, since going under isn’t an option for humanity.

The Icelandic landscape photos are mine; image of some 9000 G006 demonstrators at Austurvollur was taken in Week 6 of Iceland's Kitchenware-Revolution protests in October 2008.


Susan Scheid said...

If you were to choose the Laxness to start with, what would you say? (I have The Fish Can Sing on my shelves somewhere; don't know why exactly I never got to it.)

As for the parallels to today, I do hope something positive can come out of the protests, though it's hard, at least for me, to see the path to success as yet.

David said...

As this is only my second, I'm not qualified to say: one 'Halldor' who sometimes visits might know better. He's a great fan of The Fish Can Sing, which I'd read next if I hadn't already bought World Light.

If you're in the mood for an epic which can hold its head up in the company of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, I'd say Independent People. If you want something slighter and unique, Under the Glacier would do. Both encourage me to read everything this man has written that's been translated.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this. I'm going to see if I can get hold of Independent People while down in the city next week. With end of year vacation coming up, the timing may be right.

David Damant said...

" We don't know how to make it function any more". This ("any more ") is a delusion. We NEVER knew how to make it function...macro-economics needs fifty years and another Keynes. If we knew, governments would make it happen

We have some ideas by trial and error. Free markets work best but not perfectly (we have no reason to suppose that any system will work perfectly) So in a free market environment we need to control the money supply ( put up interest rates and make mortgages more expensive ) Get the financial institutions to get their balance sheets in order( further restricting mortgages) Stop increasing government spending ( on NHS and social benfits) etc etc

In other words stop doing what everyone would like. The governments one cannot forgive but one can understand ( they have public pressure on them) but the independant central banks and financial regulators should have said "STOP". Maybe in 2002 or 3

Would that have pleased those now protesting? That is how Mrs Thatcher turned the UK economy from the worst to the best in Europe - what an achievement . But she is still being criticised

However if the authorities as above do the right thing in future the system will be shown to be properly structured - as far as we can see.

David said...

You still, I think, completely miss the (in)human aspect - the fact that bonuses still being paid out at last while educated youth couldn't get a job came to seem unequal beyond even the (you would say necessarily) unequal world of capitalism. And that, it seems, WILL be redressed, but only if people group together and shout loud enough. It's taken too long.

David Damant said...

The question of bonuses is part of the quite separate problem of executive pay - starting in the USA and affecting the largest companies is this country, not just the bankers. This question does indeed need addressing. If the authorities had done as I suggest and restricted the money supply the profits of banks and their scope for bonuses would have been reduced, but I do not think that that would have assisted much in addressing the problem you quite rightly delineate.

You assume that I believe that capitalism produces inequality in incomes and indeed it does - to eliminate that inequality leads to inequality in power and in freedom over everyone's own life. But I do NOT believe that those income inequalities should not be regulated - indeed like every other aspect of the free market one has to look for places where it needs controlling

Nevertheless I STRONGLY suggest that your point is separated from "who caused the crisis", as otherwise we shall never get to a solution.

Susan Scheid said...

An interesting dialogue going on here, once again, which led me to see what economist Paul Krugman, who is a guide of mine on how to think about this, has been saying. I hope you will forgive the large quote, from his October 16, 2011, column in the New York Times, but I thought his perspective quite useful and on-point:

For the financialization of America wasn’t dictated by the invisible hand of the market. What caused the financial industry to grow much faster than the rest of the economy starting around 1980 was a series of deliberate policy choices, in particular a process of deregulation that continued right up to the eve of the 2008 crisis.

Not coincidentally, the era of an ever-growing financial industry was also an era of ever-growing inequality of income and wealth. Wall Street made a large direct contribution to economic polarization, because soaring incomes in finance accounted for a significant fraction of the rising share of the top 1 percent (and the top 0.1 percent, which accounts for most of the top 1 percent’s gains) in the nation’s income. More broadly, the same political forces that promoted financial deregulation fostered overall inequality in a variety of ways, undermining organized labor, doing away with the “outrage constraint” that used to limit executive paychecks, and more.

Oh, and taxes on the wealthy were, of course, sharply reduced.

All of this was supposed to be justified by results: the paychecks of the wizards of Wall Street were appropriate, we were told, because of the wonderful things they did. Somehow, however, that wonderfulness failed to trickle down to the rest of the nation — and that was true even before the crisis. Median family income, adjusted for inflation, grew only about a fifth as much between 1980 and 2007 as it did in the generation following World War II, even though the postwar economy was marked both by strict financial regulation and by much higher tax rates on the wealthy than anything currently under political discussion.

Then came the crisis, which proved that all those claims about how modern finance had reduced risk and made the system more stable were utter nonsense. Government bailouts were all that saved us from a financial meltdown as bad as or worse than the one that caused the Great Depression.

David said...

Indeed, Susan, thanks for that eloquent quotation. Put even more simply, the other solution that I don't think is in DD's picture boils down to four words: tax the rich more (or at least more proportionately).

That won't happen in the States; there might just be some change in that direction here, though not if Cameron has anything to do with it.

Of course I realise that, my mind not running clearly along economic lines, anything I write is going to look naive. But I'm trying to understand, and some things do look obvious as first principles.

David Damant said...

My central point is that the crisis was NOT caused by the bankers but by the failure of the authorities to impose the regulatory tools which are in existance. The mixing up of that question with the size of executive pay works against the right solution to the problem of avoiding the same problems in future.

I suggest that the solution to executive pay is a matter for coorporate governance and not just putting up taxes. How to approach that is a matter for difficult discussion.

And NO ONE knows how to deal with unemploymemt whether of bright graduates or others. Throwing money at it as in the 60s and 70s clearly doesn't work. Of course one can see some limited initiatives but those do not get us very far.

I appreciate that ministers cannot say that they (like everyone else )do not know how to deal with macro-economic problems, but that would be the right start point.

David said...

Fair enough. Now, anyone for Laxness?

Susan Scheid said...

An emphatic yes to your last question: picked up Independent People yesterday. But first, having finally finished "Is There a Fish in Your Ear?" (about the art of translating), I must read Germania. Can't wait!

Howard Lane said...

Shame on me to be unaware of a nobel prize winning novelist, even from a small and (to most people) obscure country like Iceland. Iceland always brings to mind Bjork and I'm sorry you missed her performance during your visit. And Bjork I strongly associate with P J Harvey whose Let England Shake album is a more fitting war memorial/protest than any other I can think of for 11/11/11.

Her RAH gig was stunning despite the usual acoustic soup of amplified music there. Not a preferred rock venue, and Danielle was annoyed at having to sit in a box when she would rather have been moshing in the arena. Thankfully she didn't as we would have been thrown out. In fact she prefers the rawness of the earlier songs which goes to show how much Polly Jean's work has matured. I didn't feel out of place as a fifty-something at a rock gig, and in fact was sitting next to Jeremy Hardy.

I am 2/5 of the way through Patricia Highsmith's Ripliad after Crime and Punishment and now have Karamazov lined up. Dark waters all, so something more uplifting such as Laxness could go next on the list.

There is an interesting performance at LSO St Lukes of Dumitrescu's Hyperion Ensemble this Sunday, I saw them last night and was impressed.

Too left field and short notice for you I suspect but you may know someone who would like to review it.

Professor Batty said...

Some of us Laxness fans have put together a site devoted to Laxness' work, with reviews, commentaries and appreciations:

Most of his novels have been translated into English, although some are quite rare.

David said...

I can be left-field sometimes, Howard; how you label me! But I do find P J Harvey rather hard going.

Anyway, I'll check out the details of that concert. Ripliad (good way of putting it) is kind of dark-light, no? And I'm not sure Laxness is uplifting; his views on The Poor are a little blacker than, say, Fallada, whose Little Man, What Now? has oddly warmed the cockles of my heart.

Prof Batty, I'll take a look at that site when I have a moment's leisure. Next Laxness stop: World Light, with two Berlin interludes before it.

Howard Lane said...

Apologies: I did not mean to pigeonhole you but rather forewarn - it can be challenging stuff, and with improv it's a fine line between sublimity and banality...

Tonight looks good at The Warehouse in Waterloo with a Ligeti piano recital plus more prepared piano and electronics, followed by MESSIAEN “L’Abime des Oiseaux”,
XENAKIS “Charisma”, then more electronics...

I can't get to the Sunday concert because I'm double booked at the RFH.