1 Nov 2010

Review of Halldor Laxness' The Fish Can Sing

I have recently, very slowly, read nobel prize winning Icelandic author Halldor Laxness' novel The Fish Can Sing (Brekkukotsannáll). This was a very important experience for me, and I would like to document my reactions to it, if you will indulge me.

For a long while it has been my intention to read some of his work, but I had a strong sense that I should wait until the time was right. A few weeks ago my subconscious informed me that it was time. I selected The Fish Can Sing on the basis that it was the cheapest of his English translations available on Amazon, and was delighted to discover that it had been translated by (mastermind presenter) Magnus Magnusson. I have read a number of sagas translated by him and consider him to have done a very fine job of them.

At its best, the novel is beautifully written, with each phrase dripping with devastatingly understated emotional power. This work contains some of the very best prose poetry I have encountered: I found myself haunted by certain passages and sentences, particularly by the stoic humanity of the nostalgic Iceland presented as the foil to the tainted petty bourgeois present in the book. In this I was reminded very strongly of the Orcadian author George Mackay Brown, and I was ecstatic to be able to draw such strong comparisons across the Norwegian sea.

To a certain degree this book has a similar sentimentality for a lost past to Cider With Rosie, which was published in the same year (1959). That this book treats this idea at face value dated it somewhat for me. I need my cultural nostalgia to be a little more disguised.

It's hard to be certain working from the English translation, but at times the novel uses Icelandic, Danish, Nynorsk, French, German and Latin, all for different effects. This must have been a struggle to render for a language-illiterate english speakers. At times Magnusson has to resort to "...they prayed in Nynorsk" or "more in Danish than Icelandic", whereas presumably the original Icelandic assumes the reader can interpret the different languages used. The short French, German and Latin passages are left in their original forms, which is appropriate to their use in the novel to highlight certain character's naivety, both positively and negatively.

I enjoyed the Icelandic setting, which is a particular interest of mine, and picked up on a number of cultural references and nuances (undoubtedly I missed many more), such as unflagged references to sagas, that perhaps would be prohibitive rather than enhancing for a casual reader with no knowledge of the setting.

At times I felt physically stunned by cunning revelations in the structure of the threads running through the book. But I also felt little compulsion to carry on reading. These were characters that I related to, but that I felt perhaps deserved respect and privacy. The sympathetic characters were not the sort of people who would naturally have placed themselves in the spotlight and I felt presumptuous demanding and explanation of their world. The novel is almost entirely devoid of plot (plenty of fate, but little causality) and I did not feel like there was any question I wanted answered or any narrative idea to see through to the conclusion. In this respect it was like a long description interspersed with discourse. Each morsel was as rich as a five-aurar cake, but nothing beyond gluttony and work ethic drove me on.

Another strong criticism I have is that the writing standard was very variable. Chapter 15 was a sophisticated maelstrom of poetry and ideas, but Chapter 16 read like something written by a self-important university student on a wet afternoon. I found it hard to believe it was the same writer. The last third of the book read like it had been written before the earlier passages, as things which were already introduced were reintroduced and other subtle changes occurred without explanation.

This is a great book that I highly recommend. But had I written it myself, I would have seen only its shortcomings. There are glorious, heart-stopping moments, but it does perhaps add up to less than the sum of its parts. I'll read more Laxness in the future, but Mackay Brown's Greenvoe is possibly a better example of this class of novel.


  1. Very accurate perception that some parts were written at different times. Some chapters were first published (in a different form) as stories. There is also very strong allegorical currents in the book which are hard to grasp without being Icelandic or doing further study.

    You might enjoy "Iceland's Bell" - it's a historical novel, but thankfully has footnotes.

    Chapter 16 is pretty much a distillation of Halldór's religious beliefs.

  2. Thanks for your comment Prof. I just today finished reading The Atom Station which I thought was a class above The Fish Can Sing and was more what I was hoping for from Laxness. Really great stuff.

  3. For a satire, I think "The Atom Station" has held up pretty well.

    My review is here:

    Reviews of all of Laxness works in English (by myself and others) is here:


    I'll be checking out your blog, I like your review style.