Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Drifting Snow

Drifting clouds
Dry weather
A Day in the Woods
September Night
Drifting Snow
Fire of Frost
Winter Morning
One Flower

This is a list (admittedly unrepresentative) of chapter titles from Independent People, the Halldor Laxness novel which I first read in the cold winter days of February 2003. What struck me then was the almost Japanese quality of these titles - not just in what they convey but in the way that Laxness chose them over more obviously descriptive ones (The Tale of Genji is does something similar). For example, 'Drifting Snow' could more simply have been called 'The Funeral', as that is what it is about. There is drifting snow, which makes the coffin hard to carry, and in which, after the body is lowered into the grave, three crofters with bare heads sing "As the one blossom." But it is typical of the writing that Laxness sums the scene up with an element of the Icelandic landscape, in this case suggesting the way that time will quickly erase the memory of the sheep farmer's wife.

Annie Dillard wrote in the New York Times: 'Iceland grips Mr. Laxness. Northern open lands beyond tree line, over which vast skies change, inspire scenes of metaphysical simplicity. The slowly changing lights at dawn and dusk suggest eternity, and midsummer nights invite dreams. Protestant rigor lies thin over pagan dread. On the other hand, the cruel soils of high latitudes require backbreaking labor. The injustice of hard-working poverty provokes writers to analyze or rage. Nature is both ruinous and fabulous, and people love both temporal justice and spiritual beauty. A redshank's cry over the wastes seems a human soul calling into immense silence. ''One hopes that one may be able to hear it after one's death also,'' Mr. Laxness writes, ''that one may wander about the marshes of a night, the night before Ascension Day after one's death, and listen to this incredible story; yes, this story and no other.'''


James Golden said...

I read Independent People probably 10 years ago. What I remember now is mostly the landscape.

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