The Great Weaver from Kashmir, Halldor Laxness (trans. Philip Roughton). Archipelago Press. 516pp, 26.00.
Airless tundra, fiery geysers. Swooping mountain peaks reflected in crystalline lakes. One wonders what the Romantic poets would have come up with had they exchanged the quaint wilds of the Lake District for Iceland’s savage bounty. Perhaps one of them would have ended up like Steinn Elliði. Their luck, then, that they stayed home.
Halldor Laxness’s 1927 novel The Great Weaver from Kashmir is the tragic story of “the living incarnation of the type of man who has seen the light of day in the last ten, twelve years . . . [the] man of the spirit of those times that have pilloried the history of mankind.” This man, the 18-year-old Steinn Elliði, starts his journey by all but declaring himself a superman and sailing off from his native Iceland to subdue the Continent with art.
Fatefully, he passes the night before leaving with Diljá, whom he has known since childhood. Although Elliði bravely denies it, it’s clear the two are in love. We see just what kind of a man Elliði is when, on his last Icelandic night, he whispers to the girl he loves that he must tell her something. Diljá, a young sixteen, stays up to the unbearably late hour of 1:00 am waiting breathlessly for word from her love, but when Elliði finally makes their rendezvous he brings not a declaration of, nor even so much as a passionate kiss; he delivers a lecture. First he regales Diljá with tales of his loose, alcohol-inflected behavior with members of the opposite gender (Diljá had imagined him a virgin), and then he congratulates himself—quite pedantically—on swearing it all off in service of God’s glory.
A chaste man is a holy man; whatever he does is holy. Chastity is the fount and foundation of what old chronicles call virtue. Chaste men, and no others, are possessed of a strong will, unfailing powers of accomplishment, an all-seeing intellect, an affectionate heart, an alien beauty, and a magnetic personality.
One might argue with that last attribute, especially when the chaste man in question is quoting George Bernard Shaw at an adoring young lady: this barrage comes just after Elliði declares that “marriage is an ignominious capitulation.”
So, we know that Elliði isn’t a romantic in the carnal sense (at least not any more), but he is quite so in the sense of the romantic artist. He will suffer for his art, and he will make Diljá suffer with him: just before leaving he exacts a promise from Diljá that neither of them will ever marry, and then, as their last shared act before he sails, “they squeezed each other’s hands as hard as they could and gazed with drowning eyes at each other’s lips.”
It is to Laxness’s great credit as a novelist that by the end of The Great Weaver from Kashmir we have come to sympathize with his callous anti-hero’s agonized existence, instead of greeting each new agony as a just punishment. It’s not that Elliði doesn’t deserve what he gets—he is, after all, a poor little rich boy off on a self-serving search for identity. But his battle with his soul is genuine, and the tragedy is that in this battle Elliði is horribly overmatched. It’s hard to scorn a man whose struggles are so futile, who self-sabotages his quest for inner peace at every turn. A latter-day Elliði might very well be diagnosed with a severe mental disorder.
As with many of his other novels, here Laxness’s tale is told in broad strokes, reaching back to Iceland’s celebrated mythic traditions while also consciously moving the nation’s literature onto a more modern footing. In a few instances the then-young author tarnishes this considerable achievement with ripe melodrama, but in the vast majority of cases The Great Weaver from Kashmir is far more of an epic than a soap. The suffering is grand, the ideas are weighty, and the characters are larger than life. Although Elliði and Diljá are far from one-dimensional, they never quite break free from the archetypical rods that prop up their spines; Elliði in particular is a puppet, pointedly led to find solace first in art, then Marxism and fascism, then religion. Yet, this epic treatment feels appropriate in the context. From the moment Elliði triumphantly declares his intentions to become the Lord’s great chaste poet, no ingenuous reader can doubt the imminence of his fall, and yet the tragedy is still palpable when a battered, almost unrecognizable Elliði returns to Iceland to heap scorn upon his last opportunity to reclaim his place at Diljá’s side. Laxness’s story is an almost perfectly plotted arc, and although we are constantly conscious of the direction in which we are headed, Elliði’s life is nonetheless deeply felt and full of surprises.
Part of the pleasure inherent in reading The Great Weaver from Kashmir is its quiet modernism, which shows Laxness displaying a talent for mimicry. Aside from a few giddy scenes following a suicide attempt, the book doesn’t partake in a messy, Joycean exuberance. (Tellingly, Elliði never so much as mentions the Dadaists, Futurists, Surrealists, or any similar movement when discussing his art.) Rather, The Great Weaver’s modernist bent is to be found in the multiplicity of voices the author adopts while shepherding his protagonist through the utopian philosophies of his time. Never quite approaching Elliði through stream of consciousness, Laxness does draw near through rambling letters and what I assume is a journal. Thus we see Elliði moving from Nietzscheism (“I am one of those big strong men needed by the world to fight in the merciless battle against the enemies of mankind”) all the way to the dogma of a Benedictine sect: “If it is your will that I remain in darkness, may you be blessed. And if it is your will that I come into the light, may you again be blessed.”
Throughout these transitions, Laxness’s language remains agile and creative, always up to the imaginative battle of accommodating Elliði’s shifting sensibilities on their own terms. In the protagonist’s early, pondersome mode, he muses “The enigmas of life are stilled in my mind like water in a peat pit; they evaporate like standing water in the heat of summer.” And then, on the very next page, an equally aphoristic limning of Elliði’s rebelliousness: “It would be more fortunate to die than to be forced to take a seat on a bench with men who stitch up the rotten holes in society and urge the paupers to simmer their potatoes slowly.”
But then by the time Elliði discovers his vocation in the service of God, we can see how far from earthiness and decay the language has shifted. A monk tells Steinn about the cloister’s leader, Father Alban, “He is humble like the man Jesus Christ, stern like the judge Jesus Christ,” as if Jesus Christ were the beginning and end of simile. Indeed, by this point Laxness’s broad range of metaphor has contracted down to one tiny germ, Jesus Christ, the two words that Elliði most often draws on while describing his life in the cloister. And yet, once Elliði returns to Iceland and questions his faith, his language begins to flower: “He prayed the Lord’s Prayer nonstop, over and over again, incessantly, without rest, like a sailor who curses when his life is in extreme danger.” Later, attempting to draw inspiration from his beloved Imitation of Christ, Elliði is distracted by some insects and reflexively “kills two flies with one swat of the book.” What better way to sum up his spiritual agony?
The Great Weaver from Kashmir reaches us during boom times for the Halldor Laxness English-language enterprise. As late as 1995, all but one of Laxness’s 60-something novels were out of print in English. Now, with poet and essayist Brad Leithauser leading the charge, a number of Laxness’s great works are available in English and the 1955 Nobel laureate’s name is becoming well-known in the U.S. With such a trend toward Laxness over the last decade, it might be tempting to write off The Great Weaver from Kashmir as unnecessary, or mere bandwagoning. Quite untrue.
For the first part, although great headway has been made in translating Laxness, the fact remains that only a handful of his books are available in English, and The Great Weaver from Kashmir will certainly not crowd the stage. And for the second part, The Great Weaver would be worth reading even if we had a full library of Laxness at the ready. It is a fine work in its own right, a smaller epic to sit alongside the author’s expansive Independent People, the finest of his translated works. The Great Weaver is also markedly different from the Laxness books currently available: it shows the author adopting a protagonist entirely different from the downtrodden, impoverished rurals that populate later works. Much of The Great Weaver’s action also takes place on the Continent, as opposed to Iceland’s countryside, the scene of most of Laxness’s other translated novels.
Thus, The Great Weaver from Kashmir offers the best opportunity to see Laxness’s writing before he became occupied with the concerns that would take up the bulk of his career. A bracing, energetic read, this novel propels the reader through its substantial bulk as both Laxness the young writer and Elliði the young romantic seek to find the forms with which they are comfortable.
Scott Esposito edits The Quarterly Conversation.
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