No Icelandic ponies were harmed in the writing of this post, or Zink's essay. (Photo by john.purvis, CC BY-ND 2.0)
Novelist Nell Zink, in n+1, takes readers on a rambling but sharp journey through writers and novels of the 20th century in the name of exploring realism, compassion, and justice in fiction. Midway through the piece she introduces writer Halldor Laxness; if Icelandic fiction is low on your to-be-read list, get ready to fall into a Google abyss thanks to Zink’s description.
Take Halldor Laxness’s stupendous magnum opus Independent People, surely a gem among novels. It will make you want to strangle your landlord and the Icelandic pony he rode in on, and that’s a fine thing; a shift of power to a larger class of people can transform society in positive ways. But it’s just a story. The 20th-century intellectual project mentioned above doesn’t happen to Laxness. He’s all about injustice. His is not an exhaustive analysis of life, just a political one, and it seems accurate mostly because (face it) you know nothing about Iceland in 1900. I mean, by age 15 you could dismiss Gone with the Wind as bullshit, but Independent People will remain plausible to you forever because it’s about farmers in Iceland, the fishing and banking nation that put “ice” in its name as a warning to would-be farmers. There’s not going to be a meta moment when Laxness asks why you bought a long novel about starving children just so you could watch them starve.
Peter Lessing died in his flat, of a heart attack, in the early hours of 13 October 2013, aged 66. His mother, Doris Lessing, died four weeks later, on 17 November 2013, aged 94, in the adjoining house. An interconnecting door had been cut into the shared wall and was always left open. This very nearly tells the story of their lives as mother and son, in the sense that we know our planet is part of our universe, but there remain gaping holes of incomprehension that no one is going to be able to fill no matter how much detail their story is told in.
It was a famously cold winter. I’d come from a snowbound Hove, where I’d spent hours sitting and brooding, wrapped up but shivering on the frozen pebbled beach staring out at an icy sea, writing poetry about seagulls and loneliness (no longer extant, thank heavens, though that’s not to say that I wouldn’t write about seagulls and loneliness like a lightning strike if I once let my guard down). London was cold, too. But Charrington Street was warm. Doris was particularly proud that she had had central heating installed in her new house, which had been bought, I imagine, with the proceeds of The Golden Notebook, published the year before. In the first week or two, friends came and sat around the kitchen table for lunch and supper, for me to meet and for them to meet me, Doris said. We went to movies, first to see Brando in Mutiny on the Bounty with Joan, who had been a staunch friend and fellow Communist Party member, and in whose house Doris had lived, and been looked after, for several years when she got to England with her small son, Peter. Writers, poets and theatre people came to supper, Alan Sillitoe and his wife, the poet Ruth Fainlight, Arnold Wesker and his wife Dusty. Naomi Mitchison. Ted Hughes, Christopher Logue (whose recording of poetry and jazz, Red Bird, I’d bought with my pocket money at St Christopher’s), Lindsay Anderson, Fenella Fielding. A Portuguese couple, described to me as ‘a poet in exile and his glamorous wife’, would remain friends of Doris, about the only ones who did, until her death. R.D. Laing was a guest a couple of times. I watched amazed as his wife (the first, I think) actually closed her eyes and dropped into sleep every time he started to speak.
I was thrilled to meet people whose work I’d read or heard of. I’d read all of Sillitoe and taken part in play-readings of Wesker’s work at school. At Doris’s I read Laing’s The Divided Self and The Self and Others, and found a good deal in them that chimed with my experience of a mad nuclear-family life. I was aware of being on show, and was very cautious. I took the opportunity my novelty gave me to find out how to behave among these strangers. Doris made stews, boeuf Stroganoff, salads, trifles, and we drank wine, Algerian red and Portuguese rosé. I sat, watched and listened. On one occasion, Doris took me to lunch with the Sillitoes, around whose table were some visiting Russian literary types, and Robert Graves. I was even more silent than usual, having a marked taste for older, old men actually, and being quite overwhelmed by Graves’s grey curls and the beauty of his pronounced Roman nose, as well as his grave pronouncements about art and life, none of which I remember. I was mortified that he failed to address a single word to me, although I would have stuttered into sawdust if he had. The following day, Alan told Doris that Graves had asked who that attractive young Russian girl was, and what a pity it was that she spoke no English.
“I think a writer’s job is to provoke questions. I like to think that if someone’s read a book of mine, they’ve had—I don’t know what—the literary equivalent of a shower. Something that would start them thinking in a slightly different way perhaps. That’s what I think writers are for. This is what our function is. We spend all our time thinking about how things work, why things happen, which means that we are more sensitive to what’s going on.
“It’s just habits. When I was bringing up a child I taught myself to write in very short concentrated bursts. If I had a weekend, or a week, I’d do unbelievable amounts of work. Now those habits tend to be ingrained. In fact, I’d do much better if I could go more slowly. But it’s a habit. I’ve noticed that most women write like that, whereas Graham Greene, I understand, writes two hundred perfect words every day! So I’m told! Actually, I think I write much better if I’m flowing. You start something off, and at first it’s a bit jagged, awkward, but then there’s a point where there’s a click and you suddenly become quite fluent. That’s when I think I’m writing well. I don’t write well when I’m sitting there sweating about every single phrase.”