An Unclear Light

While waiting for a friend this afternoon, I finished the last few pages of Halldór Laxness’ big old novel, World Light. I’d searched it out after reading a piece on Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson, who’d recently premiered a video performance based on the book, and who continues to be so moved by the tale that he still breaks into tears when reading from it.

Well. I’ll give it credit for throwing out some great moments of unexpected (and often beautiful) phrasing,* and for going all out, in terms of condemning the nastiness of capitalism, politics, poverty, institutional religion, and the moneyed classes. And I’ll also grant that something intangible in the author’s process or thought is definitely going on here, something that saves the story from turning into one more Goethian chunk of bleeding-heart romantic youthfulness and overwrought dolor. For instance, I’m intrigued by the fact that I’m not at all sure how Laxness the person (or author) really views the eventually exasperating naïveté of his main character. While Ólafur isn’t dissed by the narrator for his cluelessness and apparent inability to understand people’s lies and machinations, I’ve no real idea whether the author means to say to us, “Poor sap; everyone preys on a fool,” or whether, even while the writer recognizes how obviously rotten everyone is to everyone else, he pretty much approves of what he sees as a noble character unwilling to bow to The Way Things Are. Part of the interesting confusion/brilliant portrayal of inept youth here lies in the fact that this main character, for whom poetry is his all, is sometimes so literal-minded that I’m amazed his first real love affair ever came to anything, instead of the girl huffing off, realizing her come-ons were a lost cause.

It’s also unclear to me how Laxness views poetry, especially Ólafur’s trite verses. In real life, did he get behind the celebration of folk rhymes and anything in verse, just because it was verse? Poets abound in this novel, tramping all over the countryside, and it’s apparent that there are some pretenders among them. But I can’t figure out where poetry stands, or should stand, for the author, when faced with what constitutes the everyday, and I wouldn’t venture any guess about what makes a poem good in Laxness’ eyes.

In brief, I’ve no idea why Kjartansson (or his dad, apparently), has such a strong reaction to this novel; maybe it’s something to do with sharing a knowledge or understanding of a culture.** And while I’m glad I read the book and learned something about a new-to-me author, I don’t feel any strong need to dive immediately into his other writings; in a way, his work feels similar to at least one other fellow Nobel laureate, Sigrid Undset, whose epic/s may have been historically informative to some degree, but whose work leaves me feeling pretty neutral.

At any rate, World Light is tons more satisfying than this weight, otherwise known as The Uses of Enchantment, that I’ve been dragging around with me for over a month now. I’m hoping to summon enormous amounts of strength and willpower this weekend, and finally get through the damn thing once and for all. There’s a grueling saga worthy of some poetry.

 

 

* A few examples [Halldór Laxness, World Light (New York: Vintage International, 2002) :
– “… to part from her was as beautiful as an incurable sorrow.” (125)
– “One day you were kissed, and it meant everything; next day, you were not kissed.” (196)
– “‘But don’t you think it would be better to keep those two things separate, the church on its own and the airplane on its own?’ ‘What’s the difference between Christianity and aviation?'” (353)
– “Whiplashes cannot be misunderstood.” (401)

** Probably my most memorable literature-related reaction of  “WTF??!” was precipitated by finding out that Björk’s favorite novel is (or was at the time I read the article about her) Georges Bataille’s The Story of the Eye.

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