As my trip to Iceland Airwaves grew imminent in October, I rushed to the library and asked what they had on the shelf by Halldór Laxness. After first telling me there was nothing, they tried again and found The Great Weaver from Kashmir (it was filed under Halldór).
Well. What an introduction to the author. I may have been as frustrated by some medieval Catholic saint-philosophers back in college as I was by The Great Weaver, but I doubt it. Those authors were easy to write off entirely as tedious, dogmatic, and ignorant. They were simply wrong. But Laxness was so obviously, undeniably brilliant. His words were stark and modern as Hemingway but with an elegance that would make your heart ache. As much as you might want to scream in frustration and throw the book down, you also wanted to turn the page to find the next poetic jewel of philosophic wisdom or penetrating observation.
Aside: I know Icelanders get tired of having all their art related to their landscape. But isn’t it inevitable when the same words suit both so well? Stark, minimal, grand, imposing, austere, explosive, frozen. I think we never realize how much the environment we take for granted affects us, even when it’s obvious to those on the outside.
I have never detested anyone in fiction or real life like this protagonist, Stein Elliði. In the early chapters, we see how highly Steinn Elliði is viewed by others, but he is drawn so distastefully from the very beginning that I could hardly believe he was the main character. After he declares his intention to become perfect – to become the great weaver from Kashmir – I suspected that in the end, the down-to-earth love interest Diljá would prove to be the real weaver. Alas, my 21st-century feminist aesthetics were denied by Laxness 90 years ago, and poor Diljá, who started out so three-dimensionally, rotted into one of those cardboard-cutout women of 1920’s fiction who sob, “Oh, how you hate me,” before throwing themselves at men’s feet. (Seriously, women can be as stupid in love as the next guy, but has a woman ever lived who would actually do that?)
How many thousands of words would it take to convey how despicable Steinn Elliði really is – how tedious, self-righteous, self-absorbed, and annoying? If his tendency to discount the worth of those around him, to overestimate his own intelligence while blindly adopting one philosophy after another, never generating any new ideas of his own, and never sticking with anything for long are all characteristics I reluctantly recognize in myself, doesn’t that just make him more unbearable?
Throughout the book, I never knew when Steinn spoke for Laxness, and when the author found him as unbearable as I did. It seemed as if Laxness gave so very few of those beautiful pearls to Steinn. Certainly, the common sense proclamations of his earthy grandmother and the pure Diljá spoke to me the best. But Father Alban’s Catholicism was both beautiful and benign. It was hard to reconcile the stories I had heard of Halldór Laxness with the Catholic philosophy that he seemed to profess in Great Weaver. Some of the other ideas Steinn passed through seemed more likely, but they were described with such disdain, I couldn’t resolve the mosaic of philosophies into a picture.
When Steinn returned to Iceland and fell from grace, I thought the point was clear. Socialism and Catholicism be damned. Perfection lies in being a good Icelander; living a normal life in a beautiful place with a good woman. I liked that moral. It read pure and solid and wholesome and true.
But there were chapters left and at the end Steinn Elliði rejects Diljá, whom he has completely destroyed, with a trite admonition to seek God, and “his face was so radiant that she had never seen anything more beautiful in her life.” It read twisted and perverted and bleak and wrong.
Pages and pages of chauvinistic bile brought out a visceral reaction in me that made it sometimes challenging not to deface the book. I was perplexed that Laxness, through Steinn Elliði, could spew such debased gender philosophies while the women in the book were so realistic and believable (at least for the first two thirds of the book). How could he describe such specific characters and paint “women” in such broad, artificial strokes sometimes on the same page? Why did he give the steadfast Diljá so much reason to suffer, with no hope at all, when Steinn Elliði has nothing to complain about? He is offered the world, and chooses misery, only to apparently be rewarded with an epiphany at the end. As pointless as his suffering seems, I was glad to know he wasn’t happy for most of the book.
I was completely at a loss to know what to make of this book. I felt like I needed Icelandic Literature 305: Halldór Laxness’ The Great Weaver from Kashmir to understand it. Maybe, with a professor and 30 other people to discuss it for a quarter, I could unravel the philosophical threads of this Kashmiri carpet. But actually, it only took the Laxness in Translation blog to make my peace with the book.
The Great Weaver was Laxness first book. [Correction: It was an early work, but actually his third novel] Like his detestable protagonist, the author was a seeker, who having explored many philosophies, was, in fact, living as a monk in a Catholic abbey when he wrote the book. He left the monastic life shortly afterwards, so the ambiguity in the story that I couldn’t resolve was real. Laxness himself was feeling a different answer to the question, “So is it good that he’s a Catholic, or not?” than he let himself write.
Laxness, in his spiritual confusion, was as repelled by his autobiographical main character as the rest of us. Steinn’s obnoxious lecturing was a masterful re-enactment of Laxness’ own philosophical development, related with the unforgiving harshness of an ex-smoker explaining the typical excuses for addiction.
Struggling with the chaste life of a monk, Laxness’ stereotyping and generalizations conflating women in general with sin battled against his sharp writer’s mind that wanted to build rich, nuanced characters.
Reading the reviews on Laxness in Translation, it became obvious that I had chosen a very difficult entry point into the Laxness canon. There are flashes of insight in The Great Weaver which are apparently far more developed in his later works. This one only begins to hint at the rich portrayals of Icelandic people and places that Independent People and Iceland’s Bell are known for.
Best of all, everyone on Laxness in Translation agreed that the biggest flaw in The Great Weaver was that Laxness had not yet developed the humor that laces his other books.
Even when I hated it, I couldn’t deny that The Great Weaver from Kashmir was the work of a great artist, and I knew I would have to read more of his books to try to understand it. Now that I can look forward to the same beautiful prose and flashes of insight combined with dry humor and a greater appreciation for the human experience, I can’t wait to crack open the copy of Independent People I bought in Reykjavík. As soon as I finish this Neil Gaiman I’m working on…