As an unloved foster child on a farm in rural Iceland, Olaf Karason has only one consolation: the belief that one day he will be a great poet. The indifference and contempt of most of the people around him only reinforces his sense of destiny, for in Iceland poets are as likely to be scorned as they are to be revered. Over the ensuing years, Olaf comes to lead the paradigmatic poet's life of poverty, loneliness, ruinous love affairs and sexual scandal. But he will never attain anything like greatness.
As imagined by Nobel Prize winner Halldor Laxness in this magnificently humane novel, what might be cruel farce achieves pathos and genuine exaltation. For as Olaf's ambition drives him onward-and into the orbits of an unstable spiritualist, a shady entrepreneur, and several susceptible women-World Light demonstrates how the creative spirit can survive in even the most crushing environment and even the most unpromising human vessel.
Solitude and its consolations-fleeting moments of divine and earthly illumination-are the central themes of World Light, a massive novel by the Icelandic writer and Nobel laureate Halldcr Laxness. Released in trade paperback on the 100th anniversary of Laxness's birth, the novel tells the story of Olafur, an orphan boy who yearns to write poetry. His love for books-"he had a great longing to read... all the books in the world"-consoles him for his harsh treatment at the hands of his adoptive parents and accompanies him into adulthood as he contends with socialism and communism and an unhappy marriage. A new introduction by Sven Birkerts provides much useful background information and explication; the translation by Magnus Magnusson is fluent and accomplished.
Copyright 2002 Reed Business Information, Inc. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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October 07, 2002
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Excerpt from World Light by Halldor Laxness
of the Deity
He was standing on the foreshore below the farm with the oyster catchers and purple sandpipers, watching the waves soughing in and out. He was probably shirking. He was a foster child, and therefore the life in his heart was a separate life, a different blood, without relationship to the others. He was not part of anything, he was on the outside, and there was often an emptiness around him. And long ago he had begun to yearn for some indefinable solace. This narrow bay with its small blue shells and the waves gently rippling in over the sand, with the cliffs on one side and a green headland on the other--this was his friend. It was called Ljosavik.
Did he have no one, then? Was no one kind to him except this little bay? No, no one was kind to him. But on the other hand, no one was downright unkind to him, not so that he had to fear for his life. That did not come until later. When he was teased, the teasing was mostly in fun; the difficulty was in knowing how to take it. When he was thrashed, the thrashing arose from necessity; it was Justice. But there were many things which did not concern him, thank goodness. For instance the elder brother, Jonas, who owned several sheep and a share in a fishing boat, once threw a basin of water over his mother, Kamarilla, as she was going down the stairs one evening. That was nothing to be concerned about. But when the younger brother, Just, who was also a sheep-farmer and boat-owner, amused himself by picking him up by the ears because it was such fun finding out how much pain the dear little chap could stand, that did concern him, unfortunately.
In springtime the brothers dug holes through the overhanging banks of the river farther up the valley and guddled for trout; then they threw the living fish at the boy toddling unsuspectingly nearby and shouted, "It bites!" That made him frightened, and the brothers found that great fun. In the evening they put one of these fiendish trout in an old wooden bucket right beside his bed. He thought the devil himself was in that pail. That night when he tried to sneak downstairs in mortal terror to take refuge with his foster mother, they cried, "The trout will jump out of the pail and bite you!"
"They're just making it up," said the housekeeper, Karitas, the mother of the farm girl, Kristjana.
Then the boy did not know whom to believe. You see, he could not be sure about anything these two women told him. They had very protruding eyes. Once he forgot himself when he had been sent to fetch a pony; he had been thinking about God and watching two birds paddling around on the foreshore. Needless to say he was thrashed for shirking. But while his foster mother was bringing out the birch from under her pillow, the widow Karitas felt constrained to say, "Serves him right, the lazy little so-and-so!" And young Kristjana added, "Yes, he's always shirking!"
But when he was thrashed he was never smacked very hard, only just a little because God's justice is inescapable: God punishes all those who shirk. When the thrashing was over, he pulled up his trousers and wiped away his tears and sniffed. His foster mother went downstairs to see to the evening meal. Then the widow Karitas came over and patted his cheek and said, "Pooh, God doesn't care at all, you poor wretch--as if He had time to bother about that!" Young Kristana groped inside her bodice and brought out a warm piece of half-melted brown-sugar candy she had pilfered from the larder that morning: "Crunch it up quickly and swallow it down at once, and I'll kill you if you tell anyone!" That was how kind and good and affectionate they could be because they had seen him being thrashed; and when they were kind to him, he did not think their eyes protruded much after all. They were never very unkind to him when there was no one else present.
Magnina, the daughter of the house, taught him to read from a tattered old spelling book they had there. She loomed over him like a mound and pointed at the letters with a knitting needle. She cuffed him on the ear if he got the same letter wrong thrice, but never hard and never in anger, almost absentmindedly, and it did not worry him. She was stout and solid and blue in the face, and the dog sneezed whenever he sniffed at her. She wore two pairs of enormously thick stockings because her feet were always cold; the outer stockings were always hanging down and the inner stockings were sometimes hanging down, too. She never teased him for fun and never told lies about him to get him into trouble; she never picked on him when she was in a bad temper, and she never wished him down into the bad place. But she never came to his rescue when he was being teased or when he was being beaten without just cause; she never took his side when lies were told about him, and she was never cheerful.