Reviews — From the November 2016 issue

Flesh and Blood

The Saga of Halldór Laxness

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Laxness’s Nobel citation commends his “vivid epic power, which has renewed the great narrative art of Iceland.” The allusion is to the sagas, Iceland’s chief cultural treasure, a vast body of prose narratives composed and compiled between the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries. The sagas record the lives and exploits of Icelanders from the settlement generation in the ninth century to near the end of the medieval period, including Leif Eriksson and his famous voyage to America. An inextricable mixture of myth and history, they are central to Iceland’s popular imagination and constituted its major contribution to world literature — at least until Laxness came along. They are narrated in a style we’d now describe as minimalist-realism, inflected at times by a surprisingly modern sense of irony. Milan Kundera was being cheeky, but he wasn’t exaggerating, when he said that had they been written “in the language of one of the major nations,” we “would have regarded the sagas as an anticipation or even the foundation of the European novel.”

Since the sagas are notable in no small part for what they include, it is equally important to take note of what they omit. Psychological interiority is not so much proscribed as inconceivable. Self-reflection is excluded a priori as a possibility for the characters, as it apparently was for the authors. People are what they do, not what they feel about what they’ve done, and though concepts of honor and loyalty figure strongly, practical application of these principles is typically restricted to a willingness to kill, to die, or to pay somebody off for having killed his kin. One killing or battle breeds the next, ensuring that more sagas will be written.

Whatever else they are, the sagas are “poems of force” in precisely the sense meant by Simone Weil when she wrote of the Iliad, “The true hero, the true subject, the center . . . is force. Force employed by man, force that enslaves man, force before which man’s flesh shrinks away.” The sagas, tales, and related lore would make up several dozen Iliads. If this was his cultural heritage, Laxness must have wondered, what exactly had he inherited? And if this was his nation’s greatest cultural currency, how could he think of it as anything but blood money?

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is the author of three books of fiction, the most recent of which is Flings (HarperCollins). His article “Lucid Dreaming” appeared in the November 2015 issue of Harper’s Magazine.

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