In which wallflower and Avathoir read each other’s favorite books without knowing a thing about them first.
6.41: The sense of the world must lie outside the world. In the world everything is as it is, and everything happens as it does happen: in it no value exists—and if it did exist, it would have no value.
–Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus
Past hope. Past kindness or consideration. Past justice. Past satisfaction. Past warmth or cold or comfort. Past love. But past surprise? What an endlessly unfolding tedium life would then become!
Avathoir: Behold, our first book not written originally in English! For background information, a little bit about the esteemed Halldór Laxness: He’s the only person from Iceland ever to win a Nobel Prize (1955), and he’s known for his leftist political views (he was a socialist and was a big critic of the Vietnam war) which are reflected in his lengthy books, which are for the most part historical epics about the lives of peasants in all their messiness and glory.
Under the Glacier represents a rather curious oddity in his bibliography. It’s his shortest work published in English at less than 250 pages, and takes place for the most part in the then-present of 1968. Rather than the social realism of his previous work this goes in many different directions: science fiction, religious fable, spoof, and severe-what-the-fuck. Imagine Twin Peaks set in Iceland and you’re close to the mark as you can get, but it really doesn’t even begin to describe how unusual this book is.
If I have to give you a summary, it would be this: a young prodigy known as Embi (short for Emissary of the Bishop) is sent by said Bishop to the Snæfellsjökull (pronounced “Snife-el-si-oh-kut) glacier to figure out just what is going on with the fact that the local pastor, Jón Primus (nicknamed for his ability to repair camping stoves, which is what most people in this book use because this extremely rural place barely even has electricity, much less full stovetops) won’t bury the village dead. Armed with only a tape recorder and an enormous willingness to be a good sport, Embi arrives at the glacier (which, it must also be said, is located alongside and on top of a volcano) and encounters people and logic unlike any he’s ever known, but that does not begin to describe what happens, which involves California hippies, a trucker who writes epic poetry, and at least one shapeshifter who may be immortal.
In other words, it’s a book begging for a cult following: Susan Sontag loved it (and her introduction at the front, the last piece of writing published while she was living at least and possibly the last thing she ever wrote) is a lovely summary of how the book fits into every contemporary category for long fiction, as well as explaining its tricks. That being said, it seems much more ignored in his wider work then his Peak Peasant Novel, Independent People, and generally seems to have almost no wider footprint. I’ve got some theories as to why (including the intentionally clunky way the book is formatted and written), but it’s the kind of thing that frustrates you and make you want to start handing out copies to people.
wallflower, as the second strange book I’ve thrust upon you, what did you think of this one? What was your reaction to it? Did it speak to you in any way or leave you cold (forgive me the pun)?
wallflower: Under the Glacier in one single perfect sentence, Embi to Pastor Jón’s newly returned wife (who is one of those potentially immortal shapeshifters): “What do you say about the notion that your soul was conjured into a fish three years ago and preserved up on the glacier until this evening?” Coming late in the novel, Embi has seen enough and we’ve read enough that the line is hilarious, completely unsurprising, and the lack of surprise is part of the funny. That sentence renders an animistic religion with technical precision–just prior to this, Embi carefully describes the container in which the fish/soul was buried. In her introduction, Sontag notes that two of the genres that describe Under the Glacier are philosophical fiction and science fiction, and that sentence illustrates that: Embi carefully renders a world that’s a realization of a philosophy, not the one we live by.
Twin Peaks is a good point of comparison, but I got the sense of Voltaire’s Candide walking through a landscape like Welcome to Night Vale: the story of a young man, essentially good-hearted, essentially optimistic, moving through a world where the standard lines of reality have long ceased to function. Everything is worth his attention, even if it makes no sense; at least in the form of his report, he’s a great listener and conduit for all the stories around him. (Laxness structures the novel as a series of short chapters, usually one encounter per chapter or two, and that gives it the feel of a report and a tour of fascinating people and ideas.) The overarching metaphysic here, setting the tone for most of the characters and all of the events, gets stated by Pastor Jón late in the game (although he says in different ways all through): “Whoever doesn’t live in poetry cannot survive here on earth.” Sontag’s multiple classifications of this story are useful, no doubt, but you can drop all of them in favor of a single descriptor: epic. Under the Glacier is a story of things too strange to be assimilated into anything defined as our shared reality: they can’t be analyzed, only witnessed; and as Pastor Jón sez (and to flip Joan Didion), we listen to these stories in order to live.
Avathoir: I like that you’re talking about stories here, because you’re getting at what I think Laxness is really exploring here, which is about how to quantify something that cannot be quantified. The world Embi travels through isn’t one without logic but simply one which he is unable to understand the rules, or at least write them down. Take him trying to get to the church, which has lost the stairs so now the only way up into it would be if someone could levitate four feet into the air and open the door. Perhaps a better example: most of the time Embi tries to get something to eat he’s given food that isn’t inedible, but is simply food everyone else can eat he cannot.
Which brings us to the subject of religion. The literal title of this book is Christianity at Glacier, which is appropriate but part of the joke, because what the residents of the glacier practice can’t be called Christianity, at least in a recognizable form. They’ve instead shifted into something of a paganistic culture, bent on the glories of nature (Jón describing the natural world to Embi about halfway into the book is perhaps the most moving section of the novel) and with that it means that understanding is lost. Embi comes from a world of Evangelical Lutheranism, where Centuries of Tradition and Scholarly Debate mean that everything is known, and now the only question is interpretation. In Glacier, nobody knows anything really, but they know what those things mean to them.
The very structure of this book makes this clear, and here’s where I want to get into how this book can be frustrating if you’re not ready for it: it’s written quite literally as Embi typing up his recordings, resulting in a script format when the occasional gorgeous paragraph of description here and there (along with Embi’s occasional snark). Nowadays when there are people writing entire novels in court records or secretarial minutes we’re used to the formatting, but Laxness was staking out such new ground (and on a typewriter rather than a computer, where formatting is easy as an inedible cake) the book can be a little confusing until you “get” it.
That all in mind, what are some highlights from this book for you? In what aspects does the book frustrate (such as the formatting?) I must confess the epic poetry writing trucker is one of my favorite characters, and apparently the California hippies are based on a real group of people that were kicking around Iceland when Laxness was writing the book. Is there specific stuff that stands out you’d like to talk about?
wallflower: as someone who comes from a scientific training and mindset and has done other things since then, I’m always a sucker for a story about trying to make sense of out of the fundamentally nonsensical. (Safe is my go-to here, but you could include Seven and Zodiac as well.) The format helps with this theme, a lot: in the Bishop’s office, there are no more miracles, only order; at Glacier, it’s the reverse, and Embi’s prose struggles for the whole book to connect the two. He’s not in any way stupid or dogmatic in his thinking, and he’s not a totally impartial observer either. (One of my favorite comic beats comes early, when he abbreviates himself as EmBi and then immediately adds “Hereafter Embi.” Hermes Conrad would do the same thing.) He grows to accept this world as it is; the strongest literary/cinematic I get here is the great 1984 film Local Hero, which matches Laxness’ tone well: another story about an outsider falling under the spell of a place that can’t be fully explained, and with a woman who may not be, strictly speaking, human playing a major role.
Getting a little more into the specifics of Snæfellsjökull’s strangeness: Pastor Jón asks “I thought the Creation was still going on. Have you heard that it’s completed?” and that may be what characterizes Glacier: this is a place where the world has not been completely given to us and therefore is not subject to the dominion of Man. Like you said, Snæfellsjökull’s citizens don’t practice Christianity; how could they, when even the Old Testament here hasn’t fully started? Another recurring motif that fits into this rug o’ theme is Pastor Jón insisting on the inadequacy of words to relate experience: “it’s a pity we don’t whistle at one another, like birds. Words are misleading. I am always trying to forget words.” When God completed the Creation, he then gave to Adam the power to name things, and Pastor Jón reminds us that at Glacier, it’s too soon for that. Going farther into allegory, he gives us an image of God: a tiny bird (“a snow bunting abandoned in all weathers”) that can’t be blown down, no matter how strong the wind–a wonderfully Northern metaphor, that.
It’s interesting and revealing to read this novel after Pynchon, especially after Against the Day. As Sontag notes, Snæfellsjökull is the place where Jules Verne set his portal for his Journey to the Center of the Earth; Pynchon riffed on this idea too back in his most massive novel. Laxness does what Pynchon did, but on a much more fine-grained scale and with more attention to the characters: what would it be like to live in such a place? What would its community, rituals, and religion be? Laxness renders the answers with a lot of humor and care for humanity.
I’ve been talking mostly about Pastor Jón and Embi; you’ve mentioned a lot of the supporting cast here. What did you think of them? If we take this as a philosophical novel, how do they contribute to the philosophy here?
Avathoir: Every resident at the Glacier represents a possibility. Whether it’s the California hippies who seem to have stumbled out of Hair or our easily irritated truck driver whose poetry is nonetheless pretty good (this is such a minor thing most writers wouldn’t think about: dashing off the art within art as either jokey trifle or not bothering to make you believe the hype. Laxness doesn’t let a single joke be anything else than utterly polished). Again, this makes me think about how much this novel is tied into the fact that it’s set in 1968: the world was still industrializing in many regards but globalization had yet to occur: residents don’t have electricity, they use camping stoves, and they don’t mistrust outsiders as much as seem to be speaking in a completely different tongue. And again, of course they would: they all, to paraphrase Joseph Campbell (who I would have hoped read this book) they follow their bliss. The trucker lives an existence not dissimilar to the poets like Wallace Stevens and e e cummings, people who were able to access the world of dreams despite their utter mundanity in their task. The hippies of course are the standard peace and love types, and it’s kind of weird to think this came out right before that image was shattered forever, but I think it’s telling that Laxness has affection for them rather than scorn, the same kind of bewildered love he has for everyone.
Bewildered love might be the term I should use to describe the last of the main characters: Úa (pronounced “oooh-ahhh”, which is apparently what men called her every time they saw her, so she went with that.) by far the most mysterious character in the book. An apparently immortal shapeshifter who’s married to Jón Primus (who won her affections against the patron of the hippies years ago) she’s just come out from her time in the form of a salmon (there’s no time, just move ahead) and while deus ex machina wouldn’t be the proper term to describe what her affect on the plot is (mostly because it’s a farce anyway) but her presence sort of makes everything irrelevant. Embi interviews her, and she instantly sees through him. In a remarkable final sequence, the story takes its final form (a romance and novel of desire) as Embi essentially elopes with her, commandeering a car after finally finding someone who loves him (the secret loneliness of Embi is one of the plot line’s most subtle, but it makes for such beautiful sequences when you realize how much of an undercurrent it is). It might be a bit creepy that she’s both a maternal figure to Embi and also takes his virginity, but we’re not going to be judging here. Anyway, she and Embi are about to drive off for a new life and stop at a house for a night when something…happens. In an instant, Embi comes back to his “Senses” and ends up fleeing the glacier.
It’s amazing when a book can change everything in its last two pages like it does here. But I worry I’m getting ahead of myself. wallflower, do you want to expand on the supporting cast a bit before you offer your own thoughts on Úa’s section of the plot? Or do you want to dive into just what the hell happens right now?
wallflower: One of the neat things about the supporting players here is that they’re all just as puzzled by Embi as he is by them. The citizens of Snæfellsjökull have a way of doing things, and as far as they know, that’s how they’ve always done them, so they’re just as puzzled by and curious about this strange-o with his tape recorder and reason and his somehow not wanting to subsist on gallons (OK, liters) of coffee and cake after cake after cake. I really like your expression “bewildered love,” because that’s the theme of the book entire. When Jesus told us to love one another as ourselves, he laid down the biggest challenge of Christianity, one that we’re still coping with all these centuries later. How do you love what’s different from you as if it wasn’t different? Laxness shows one way: to live in this world of continual surprise, continual strangeness, and to accept it–and for the strangeness to accept you.
And that strangeness isn’t always gonna be the innocent or fun kind. Laxness stages Úa’s arrival in a way that’s memorable and dislocating, even for this novel: she just appears in a scene, and first only as a voice. (The doubling of her voice will soon become a warning to Embi.) She’s traveling under the name Guðrún Sæmundsdóttir, but her presence as really only the second major female character here made me sure, on appearance, that she was Úa; she reveals that’s she’s Pastor Jón’s wife pretty soon, too. Her diction is slightly off from everyone else’s, placing her, again, as something stranger than anyone else here, and when she seduces Embi, it’s the most anyone in the novel, or in his life, has interacted with him.
In a novel of desire, the object of desire has to remain forever unobtained; that’s probably what makes this not a romance. (Although an Úa/Embi ongoing saga would be pretty darn fun.) Sontag calls the tone of Under the Glacier “merry and cruel,” and that’s the ending here: Embi seduced and abandoned, trying to get back home but also lost in the fog, running towards a car already sunk in mud. It took me back to Solaris, all the versions: Tarkovsky and Soderbergh end the story with the protagonist Kelvin reunited with a loved one (they pick different loved ones); Lem’s novel ends with Kelvin, on the planet Solaris itself (which is more than a little like Glacier), alone, “hoping that the time of cruel miracles was still not past.” Laxness is so gentle and high-spirited throughout, but the arrival of Úa changes the tone enormously; it’s a reminder that there can be real stakes here when she sez “You are bound to the ones you have awakened. You shall follow me to the ends of the earth.” (Again, one word: epic.) The risk was there all along: go to a foreign land, you might never come back.
Avathoir: I don’t necessarily believe Úa abandoned Embi. It’s more like her final transformation involves a process that finally overwhelms him, and he realized there’s only so much of this place he can take. There’s a coming to his senses, but also a wistfulness as he turns back. I wonder…is frightened nostalgia a thing?
Anyway, we know that Embi in at least one form makes it back to civilization: this novel is a collection of his recordings after all, and it stands to figure someone found it and wrote it down, and in that regard he lives. But you’re right: Embi’s gone too far into Glacier to ever return, at least not without leaving a part of himself there. He may meet Úa again, and he might not. Even so, it speaks to the power of Laxness’ vision, which remains a delightful UFO in his oeuvre and that of literature in general, that we understand and also curse his leaving. Laxness never wrote a sequel, but whatever Embi’s fate is, it will have the same bewildered, bedeviled love that Glacier provides its residents. He may be afraid now, but he will always be welcome.
wallflower: gotta say, I dig the idea of a Blair Witch Project-type version of this novel where Laxness tacks on a preface saying “In 1968, an emissary from the Bishop of Iceland disappeared while investigating Christian practices at Snæfellsjökull. A year later, his notes were found.”
A pleasure of this book that’s very much like Peace is how all the aspects of it work together: character, story, structure, and tone. Laxness found the right characters to live the story, the right language to create the tone, the right tone to tell the story, and the ending allows for this balance to get thrown off. As you and me and Sontag and probably every other reader gets, this is a funny book, but the ending isn’t. In No Country for Old Men, Carson characterizes Chigurh by saying “he doesn’t have a sense of humor”; someone once remarked that humor was an essential part of the world in the Coen Bros. universe, if not Cormac McCarthy’s, and if you don’t have that sense, something is seriously wrong with you. Laxness’ sense of humor is essential to Snæfellsjökull, a place beyond Embi’s or Jón’s or really any understanding, but in the end, even that isn’t enough.
Join us next time for a new installment of Blind Reads where we do the other half of the “Fire and Ice” installment, after which we’ll take a break to finally get to Inherent Vice for the Spiral (finally!).
Get ready also as we prepare the next installment of Blind Reads, where we’ll discuss the first graphic novel and first short story collection in the theme “Reactions to America.”