A reader should approach with caution any book that has won a whole bunch of awards. A reader should also approach, with all of their little brain cells firing at top speed, any book by an author who has won an international literary award for their work, like the Nobel Prize in Literature or the Man Booker International Prize. Finally, the reader should sit down and do some serious critical reading of such a book, without being overwhelmed by the author’s fame. So that’s what I set out to do with Halldór Laxness’ The Fish Can Sing. However despite all my caution, I was entirely disarmed by the book – I fell for its charm, and I was so taken with it that my critical thinking just ebbed away.
Darn that Sjón and his list of favourites! And double darn that old, dead writer Laxness for weaving his magic from the grave! What a thing to leave behind you when you die – not one, but 22 novels like this one, in which the beauty and the fascination can still grab and haunt the reader.
What is it about this novel, published in 1957, that still holds appeal for today’s readers? I was skeptical since I thought he is an Icelandic writer, and being from a small island with a small number of people (most of whom aspire to be poets) he might just be a big fish that can sing, in a little pond, pardon the pun. I thought of many “regional” authors whose novels are typical of their country or region and somehow have failed to transcend those domestic limitations. But that’s not this one, ladies and gentlemen. That’s not Laxness.
First, I thought it is just a precisely and cleverly crafted historical novel, set in Reykjavík, Iceland. It’s difficult to say exactly which period it is set in, since it covers decades – but I estimate it is round about 1874 to the start of World War I, 1914. The main character is a boy named “Álfgrímur”, who grows up as an adopted child in a poor family living in a little place called “Brekkukot”. The man he calls his grandfather, “Jón of Brekkukot” fishes for herring, cod, lumpfish and other fish from his little boat out at sea, and sells the fish from the wheelbarrow he pushes through town – an honest but not very profitable way to earn a living. The family’s house is really very small but is home to many people and guests.
“I must tell you that to the south of the churchyard in our future capital city of Reykjavík, just where the slope begins to level out at the southern end of the Lake, on the exact spot where Guðmundur Gúðmúnsen (the son of old Jón Guðmundsson, the owner of Gúðmúndsen’s Store) eventually built himself a fine mansion-house – on this patch of ground there once stood a little turf-and-stone cottage with two wooden gables facing east towards the Lake; and this little place was called Brekkukot.” (p. 1)
(By the way that “ð” in Icelandic orthography is pronounced like a soft “the” as in “weather” or “breathe” in English.)
Every word counts
As is the case with many well-planned narratives, when I had finished reading it I suddenly realized the importance of that sentence, above, on page 1: it represents the social and economical disparity in Iceland at that time between the worker class and the upper or moneyed classes – the business people, educated people, academics, priests, government officials and people working for the Norwegian King and government. In this novel, every word, no matter how simple and plain, counts.
I really must commend Magnus Magnusson, the translator of this novel from the Icelandic in 2000, who died in 2007. He did an excellent job. If it is this effective in English, imagine how hard-hitting it must be in Icelandic.
The working class people
The story is told from Álfgrímur’s point of view. He describes how he becomes a singer, so the novel is also about the “One Pure Note”, which people believe a truly great singer can achieve. There is no denying that Álfgrímur and his grandparents are poor, but they are decent and respectable, and interesting people come to live in the attic of their little house like permanent visitors, or they come there to die. Subtly, through various incidents and flashbacks, Laxness shows the reader that old Jón of Brekkukot and his wife are people who are truly honest and fair, and that they have no social aspirations and no affectations. They understand what people are at heart – they can see them for what they really are. They pass this uncanny skill on to their grandson, Álfgrímur.
The bourgeoisie and upper classes
On the other hand, there is the “Gúðmúnsen” family, who are the richest people in town, and who own the biggest store in town. I imagine that they live in Danish style, with their salt in fancy salt-cellars on their table, while the working class people just have the salt of the sea, and their salted, dried fish – it’s that kind of social dichotomy.
Many years before, the Gúðmúnsens realized that one of their butcher boys, called “Georg Hanssen”, son of a poor, single mother, “Kristín”, could sing. Or at least sing loudly. This boy becomes a world-famous opera singer, or so say the people of the remote island, Ísland, where he’s from. Judging from the newspaper articles coming from all over the world, he is the most famous exporter ever of Iceland’s culture, goes by the name “Garðar Hólm”, is incredibly wealthy, and travels the world in style.
The novel’s plot is largely about the mysterious Garðar Hólm and the fact that he somehow never sings where the people of Iceland can hear him. Álfgrímur proves that he too can sing, when he reveals his natural talent by singing at the burial of an unknown man, and so his grandparents send him away to get an education and learn music.
The mystery of Garðar Hólm
Does Garðar Hólm ever sing in the book? Is he revealed as a fantastic singer or a hoax or a mystery? Answering that would spoil the ending of the book, which quite took my breath away.
What I can reveal here is that the entire Gúðmúnsen clan is a nouveau riche bunch of money-grubbing, no-talent, pretentious people. At the final big event in the book, the store owner, “Björn Gúðmúnsen”, tries to show off his German skills, since all things Danish and German were considered to be very posh at that time. He throws German phrases into his speech but in fact he is saying something random and silly that you would find in a German grammar book. With reference to the need to show off Icelandic art and skills, he says “er ging in ein Wirtshaus hinein um zu Mittag zu essen” – meaning “he went into a tavern to have lunch”. Or when toasting his wife, “er setzte sich an einen Tisch und nahm die Speisekarte”, which means “he sat at a table and picked up the menu”. None of his family members or his guests have any clue he is spouting baloney.
In Ísland people want the fish to sing
Laxness slowly immerses the reader into life on the island, where everything in the big outside world is viewed as fabulous and desirable, and every thing and person on the island itself as mediocre and in need of titivation. For that reason, the wealthy people tie bows around every object in their houses, even the pets.
This explains the title of the book. The store owner and main man in town, Björn Gúðmúnsen, says:
“…salt-fish has to have a ribbon and bow. And it isn’t enough that Icelandic fish should have Danish ribbons and bows; it has to have the ribbon of international fame. In a word, we have to prove to the rest of the world that ‘the fish can sing just like a bird’. And that is why we who sell the fish have made great efforts to improve the cultural life of the nation to show and prove, both internally and externally, that we are the people who not only haul the grey cod out of the depths of the sea but also tie a ribbon and a bow around its neck for the delectation of the world…” (p. 201)
What a stupid idea. The unadorned, un-singing fish, and the people who fish them, are good enough as they are. What the wealthy people of Reykjavik effectively achieve with Garðar Hólm is to put bows and ribbons on him, like with a fish, and he sings, like a fish. Or not. But that’s for you to find out.
Not pastoral – scathing
This realization emerged slowly as I progressed through the book, and what I also realized is that this charming little historical novel, which is devoid of sex, murder and mayhem, and seems so pastoral, is not so innocuous at all. It is an intense, scornful condemnation of the Icelandic politics of that time:- the slavish obedience of Danish rule, the veneration of all things Danish, German and foreign, the lack of respect for independent, poor, working-class people, and the lack of faith in the future of an autonomous Iceland. I wanted to laugh at the silliness and stupidity of the people but at the same time it made me feel sad and a little put off.
Above, photos from the Herring Era Museum in Siglufjörður, Iceland, showing “…the ‘brakki’ [which] has been left largely in its original state, as the lodging for dozens of ‘herring girls’ who worked there during the summers [from 1907 to the end of the era in 1969]. Walking through their rooms on the third floor, one experiences the rich flavor of these times. The same can be said for ‘the office of the herring speculator’, the management office for the salting station and employees.” (Text: website of The Herring Museum, rtrvd. 2019-04-05. Photos: MF O’Brien, 2017)
Laxness himself made his point of view quite clear in his speech when he accepted the Nobel Prize:
“As I was sitting in my hotel room in Skåne, I asked myself: what can fame and success give to an author? A measure of material well-being brought about by money? Certainly. But if an Icelandic poet should forget his origin as a man of the people, if he should ever lose his sense of belonging with the humble of the earth, whom my old grandmother taught me to revere, and his duty toward them, then what is the good of fame and prosperity to him?” (Halldór Laxness, Banquet speech, on accepting the Nobel Prize in Literature, Stockholm, December 10, 1955, rtrvd. 2019-04-05)
All the right words for love
Laxness not only excels at the depiction of a lifestyle from when he was a young boy and Reykjavik was not yet a big city – I could so clearly see every scene in my mind’s eye. What he is really good at is depicting the core of people, their inner lives and their emotions. He uses all the right words to describe love in all its forms. He is particularly skilled at describing Álfgrímur’s grandparents. When the store owner Björn Gúðmúnsen offers to pay for him to go and study music overseas, to become another Garðar Hólm, his grandfather refuses the money, and his grandmother explains:
“…as far as Gúðmúnsen’s money is concerned, it has never been valid currency with us hitherto. Besides, I would have thought that the same thing applied to singing as has been said about poetry here in Iceland: ‘I write for my own contentment and not my own aggrandizement.’” (p.238)
“One should create art for one’s own contentment and not one’s own aggrandizement” is probably the moral of this story.
To finance Álfgrímur’s overseas tuition, and believing in his talent, his grandparents decide to sell their little house (see, that’s why that introductory sentence matters) and see him off at the harbour. At this point, I confess I had a big lump in my throat. Laxness knew how to move his readers emotionally with few, simple, direct words. I think I’ll always remember this scene.
“When the boat had gone a few oar-strokes away from land they were still standing on the beach, gazing after the boy whom an unknown woman had left naked in their arms. They were holding hands, and other people gave way before them, and I could see no-one except them. Or were they perhaps so extraordinary that other people melted away and vanished into thin air around them? When I had clambered up with my bag on to the deck of the mail-boat North Star, I saw them walking back together on their way home; on the way to our turnstile-gate; home to Brekkukot, our house which was to be razed to the ground tomorrow. They were walking hand in hand, like children.” (p. 246).
The plot and the character development comes together perfectly at the end. Laxness often digresses into little domestic details, incidental asides, character descriptions, background details, and so on, just lulling the reader into a sense of ordinariness. But in the process, he gently lays the building blocks for a tense climax and resolves everything within a few pages. The reader is left feeling like a huge cold wave has just washed over them – and wanting more. Looking back, I realized that there was not one word in the novel that did not contribute to the deeper meaning, the climax or the resolution. This novel certainly demonstrates why Laxness got that Nobel.
About the music in the novel
One of the themes of the novel is music and singing. When Álfgrímur finally sings in front of an audience (other than funeral-goers), he sings the hymn by Franz Schubert (music) and J. G. Jacobi (words), Ruhn in Frieden alle Seelen (Litany for the Feast of All Souls), written in 1831. That is quite a challenging piece of music to debut with – simply proving that Álfgrímur can really sing – and that he can actually understand German, unlike the businessman Björn Gúðmúnsen, but that he was humble enough not to let on that he knew.
Ruhn in Frieden alle Seelen (Litany for the Feast of All Souls)
Ruhn in Frieden alle Seelen, Die vollbracht ein banges Quälen, Die vollendet süßen Traum, Lebenssatt, gebohren kaum, Aus der Welt hinüber schieden; Alle Seelen ruhn [in] Frieden!
All souls rest in peace who have had done with an anxious torment, who have had done with a sweet dream, who, sated with life, hardly born, have departed from this world: all souls rest in peace! (Translation from German (Deutsch) to English by Emily Ezust)
Music video: Litanei auf das Fest Allerseelen D343 (1988 Remastered Version), Artist: Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau/Gerald Moore, Album: 21 Lieder, Licensed to YouTube by WMG (on behalf of PLG UK Classics); Public Domain Compositions, and 1 Music Rights Societies)