Wednesday, May 30, 2007

A Prose Excerpt from Halldor Laxness

This was my favorite chapter from Laxness' semi-autobiographical novel, The Fish Can Sing. It contains all of the hallmarks that makes Laxness such a unique and enchanting writer -- his love of nature, his respect for the old traditions and values of a culture, his preference for life experience over classroom learning, and most of all, his Icelandic heart. He was truly THE great literary ambassador for his tiny but incredibly imaginative country.

To set up this passage, the narrator was abandoned by his mother at the modest village home of his grandparents, a place called Brekkukot. He has been raised by his grandmother and grandfather, and this chapter describes his idyllic life with them and the moment in time when he realized he could not stay there and enjoy their company forever. With beautiful prose (even in translation), a keen eye and a penetrating human wisdom, Laxness captures the wide-eyed magic of youth, and the pain that comes when one realizes that one can't remain a child forever.


Chapter 19:
Morning of Eternity: and End

Late in the winter, my grandfather Bjorn started calling me at six o'clock every morning so that I could help him to see the lumpfish-nets in Skerjafjordur. These mornings have always remained fresh in my memory.

What happened? Nothing really happened, except that the sun was getting ready to rise. The stars are seldom as bright as they are in the morning, either because one's eyesight is clearest just after waking, or because the Virgin Mary has been busy polishing them all night. Sometimes there was also a moon. A tiny light had been lit in a cottage on Alftanes; probably someone was going out fishing. Often there was frost and frozen snow, and the ice creaked in the night. Somewhere out in the infinite distance lay the spring, at least in God's mind, like the babies that are not yet conceived in the mother's womb.

My grandfather had a large boat, and a small one. The small boat was used for lumpfishing; it was beached at the high-water mark in front of a shed in which we kept our gear. The boat was easy to launch; it went practically of its own accord if the rollers were placed correctly. And so we rowed out among the rocks and skerries to where the nets lay. Sometimes the gulls followed us in the moonlight. Lumpfish-nets are not normally hauled in; you row alongside them and gaff the fish, or else just grab them by hand, wearing mittens. I kept one oar out and held the boat in position while grandfather used the gaff.

My grandfather was always in a good humor and always reasonably cheerful, but never exactly jolly. He could be mischievous in an innocent sort of way, and enjoyed trying to out-row me. He also laughed if some of his snuff were blown into my eyes when he was taking a pinch, probably because he did not think it was manly to show if one's eyes watered. I never knew what he was thinking about, because he talked mostly in stylized phrases, both about the weather and about the fish. But I somehow felt that in this man's presence, nothing untoward could happen. I often thought to myself how good the Savior had been to send me to this man for protection and help, and I made up my mind to stay with him for as long for as long as he lived and always to catch lumpfish with him at the end of the winter. And I hoped to God that he would not go from me before I myself was well on the way to being as old as he; and then I would find myself a little boy somewhere and have him row out with me to the nets early in the morning when the stars were still bright at the end of the winter. In the moonlight, the gulls seemed to have golden breasts. If you looked down over the gunwale you could see the lumpfish gliding among the seaweed, feeding; occasionally they would even turn their pink-shaded bellies upwards in the water.

Sometimes we would fill both the hand-cart and the wheelbarrow with this fat fish. And just when the stars were really beginning to pale, we would cart our catch homeward straight across the Sands. Grandmother would give us coffee, and then we would go down town to sell the catch just as people were getting up. Grandfather would stop with his hand-cart somewhere in the square, and people would come along with money to buy lumpfish while others just came to greet him and discuss the weather. I was often sent with a string of lumpfish to bring to the regular customers; usually the maid came to the door with the money and took the fish, but sometimes the lady of the house herself would be there, or else, for some incomprehensible reason, the daughter of the house...

These mornings when we were seeing to the lumpfish in Skerjafjordur (and they were really all one and the same morning) -- suddenly they were over. Their stars faded: your Chinese idyll ended.

My grandfather had given me a sign to ship the oars. The boat came to a rest with its bows on a shelf of rock, and the red clusters of seaweed eddied around the prow in the calm sea as the sun rose. It was almost spring. Grandfather took a careful pinch from his snuff-horn, and then said,

"Your grandmother has been talking to me."

I kept silent, and waited.

"She says that according to Helgesen, the teacher, you can learn. We want you to have an education."

"Why?" I asked.

"Her people in the past were all educated men," he said.

"Then what will I be made to do?" I said. "Will I not be allowed to come out fishing with you again?"

"We were thinking of sending you to school, my boy, and making you learn what they call Latin. The idea is that you start in the autumn, if you are accepted. I went to see Pastor Johann; we have got a university student from Copenhagen to prepare you. There was some talk of you starting tomorrow."

I asked, "Are you then not going to wake me tomorrow morning to go fishing?"

He replied, "Your grandmother wishes you well, my boy. And so do I, even though I am ignorant."

And with these words he put out his oar and we pushed off from the rock and rowed ashore.

In Stephan G. Stephansson's biography it says that when the poet was a foster-child up north in Skagafjordur he saw some young men riding over the mountains on their way to school in the south one autumn. He was so deeply distressed by his own misery at not being able to go to school himself and become an educated man that he threw himself down on the heather out there on the moor and wept for a whole day. I have always found it difficult to understand that story. The thought of becoming a Latin scholar had never once occurred to me. I had never been impressed by seeing schoolboys walking around with their tattered books under their arm, nor had I ever wanted to be in their shoes. And now that I had been informed that I was to go and start learning Latin, I inwardly felt as if my grandfather had told me to become an organ-grinder or a scissors-sharpener -- the sort of riffraff that sometimes came over from Denmark during the summer.

It came like a thunderclap out of a clear blue sky. All my plans for eternal life at Brekkekot were destroyed. My joy in existence was shattered. The Great Wall of China, within which I was the Son of Heaven himself, was breached -- and not at the blast of a trumpet, but at a word. How bitter that it should have been my grandfather who spoke the word that ruined for me our turnstile-gate at Brekkukot. I broke down. I had not cried since I was small, because we did not cry at Brekkukot. I felt that nothing could ever console me again. I rowed and rowed with all my strength to keep pace with my grandfather, and cried and cried.

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