World Light

World Light

by Halldor Laxness


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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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780375727573
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 10/08/2002
Series: Vintage International
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 624
Sales rank: 609,314
Product dimensions: 5.10(w) x 8.00(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Halladór Laxness was born near Reykjavík, Iceland, in 1902. His first novel was published when he wsa seventeen. The undisputed master of contemporary Icelandic fiction, and one of the outstanding novelists of the century, he has written more than sixty books, including novels, short stories, essays, poems, plays, and memoirs. In 1955 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. He died in 1998.

Read an Excerpt

Book One

The Revelation

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 Ljósavík.

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, Jónas, 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, Júst, 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, Karítas, the mother of the farm girl, Kristjána.

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 Karítas felt constrained to say, "Serves him right, the lazy little so-and-so!" And young Kristjána 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 Karítas 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 Kristjána 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.

Magnína, 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.

On the other hand there were times when she would do him a kindness quite without thinking. There was boiled salt fish for the midday meal, and in the evening there was hash and pickled tripe with pieces of sheep's lung thrown in; sometimes the evening meal was only pickled tripe and milk. But the days were very long and the sea and the sky were gray and dull, and it was snowing on the mountain on the other side of the fjord, and she would be alone in the loft with the boy, and it seemed as if life would never end and never get any better. Then she would slip down to the larder and find herself a slice of rolled tripe or a piece of pickled brisket or some pickled lamb fries. The boy slavered on to the spelling book and she cuffed him on the ear and told him to stop spitting on the book. Then she would give him a piece of the brisket, right out of the blue, without any show of affection, as if nothing could be more natural. And his mouth and his throat and his whole body would feel wonderful for a while.

When he was eight years old he had read the book of Icelandic Folktales, and Bishop Peter's Short Stories, and St. Luke's Gospel, which made him cry because Jesus was so alone in the world. On the other hand he could never get used to thinking of Vídalín's Book of Sermons* as a book at all. He had a great longing to read more but there were no other books there except one, The Felsenburg Stories,* which Magnína had inherited from her father. No one else was allowed to read that book; it was a secret book. He had a great longing to read The Felsenburg Stories and all the books in the world—except the Book of Sermons.

"If you mention The Felsenburg Stories once again, I'll thrash you!" said Magnína.

Early on, he had come to suspect that in books in general, but especially in The Felsenburg Stories, was to be found that indefinable solace he yearned for but could not name. Magnína wrote out the alphabet for him, but only once; she had no time for more because it took her so long to form each letter. In any case there was no paper, and even when there was, no one was allowed to waste it. He would furtively scratch letters with a stick on bare patches of earth or in the snow, but he was forbidden to do that and was told he was writing himself to the devil. So he had to write on his soul.

Kamarilla, the housewife, was the implacable enemy of literature. When it became apparent that the boy had an unnatural desire to pore over letters, she told him the cautionary story of G. Grímsson of Grunnavík.* He did not call himself "Gudmundur Grímsson" as other people would; he used only an initial and added a place-name, to imitate the gentry. It was a dreadful story. G. Grímsson of Grunnavík was a good-for-nothing poet and wrote a hundred books. He was a bad man. When he was young he would not get married, but had thirty children instead. He hated people, and wrote about them. He had written a host of books about innocent people who had never done him any harm.

"No one would have anything to do with a person like that, except the ugly crones he brought upon himself in his old age. In their old age, people get what they bring upon themselves. That's what comes of thinking about books. Yes, I knew him well in his time, that Gudmundur, always poring over his books, never tried to earn a living for himself or for others. He was a terrible scoundrel. I was just a snotty little girl at the time. He lived all by himself in a hovel on the other side of the mountains, beside another fjord, and God punished him with a leaky roof and various other things. That showed him how much good it did him. He sat in an oilskin in the living room and the rain dripped onto his bald head because he wouldn't earn a living for himself and for others, drop after drop trickling down his neck because he was always poring over his books. God was punishing him. But his heart was hardened and knew no humility, and he went on writing a hundred books by the feeble glimmer of an oil lamp, two hundred books. And when he dies it's obvious enough where he'll go, because God doesn't like having books written about people; only God has the right to judge people. Besides which, God himself has written the Bible, which contains everything that needs to be written. Those who think about other books sit alone and destitute by a guttering light in their old age, and fiends and devils afflict them."

But the story had quite the opposite effect to what was intended. Instead of acting on the boy as an edifying parable, it beckoned him irresistibly to something forbidden and alluring; his imagination dwelt on books with redoubled eagerness after hearing about the punishment of this lonely sage and his hundred books. Often the boy was overwhelmed by an uncontrollable yearning to write down in a hundred books everything he saw, despite what anyone said—two hundred books as thick as the Book of Sermons, whole Bibles, whole chests full of books.

His name was Ólafur Kárason, usually shortened to Óli or Lafi. He was standing by the bay. There were oyster catchers and purple sandpipers there, too, which scampered a few steps up the beach before the incoming wave whose foam swirled around their slender legs as it broke and soughed back again. He always wore the cast-off clothing of the brothers, who were big men. The seat of his trousers reached down to the backs of his knees and each trouser leg was rolled up at least ten times; the arms of his jersey reached a long way beyond his fingers, and he was always having to roll up the sleeves. He had a green felt hat which had been a Sunday-best hat in its youth before the rats got at it; it came well down over his ears, and the brim rested on his shoulders. He decided to call himself "Ó. Kárason of Ljósavík." He addressed himself by this name, and talked a lot to himself. "Ó. Kárason of Ljósavík, there you stand!" he said. Yes, there he stood.

His foster mother was rummaging in the lumber box one day for something she had lost, with the boy behind her, when out of the rubbish came the remains of a tattered old book.

"Can I have it?" asked Ó. Kárason of Ljósavík.

"Certainly not!" said Kamarilla. "The very idea!"

But even so he managed to get hold of the book without his foster mother's knowledge, and he stuck it under his jersey and kept it at his breast, close to his heart. He tried to read it in secret, but it was printed in Gothic lettering and the title page was missing. Every time he thought he was beginning to understand the book someone would come along and he would have to hide it hastily under his jersey again; he was often very close to being caught. What could there be in his book? He kept his own book against his own heart, and did not know what was in it. He was determined to keep it until he grew up. But then pages began to drop out of it here and there, and it became more and more difficult to read the longer he kept it hidden next to his bare skin. It was as if the book had been dipped into a pot of fat.

There was often an itch at his heart because of the book, but that did not matter. It was a secret to own such a book; it was really a kind of refuge, even though he had no idea what was in the book. He was sure it was a good book, and it is fun having a secret if it is not anything wicked—one has plenty to think about all day, and one dreams about it at night.

But on the first day of summer the secret was discovered. Kamarilla the housewife made him change his underclothes after the winter; this ceremony took place up in the loft in the middle of the day, and he was taken unawares by it. He peeled off his clothes one by one, and his heart beat furiously; finally he took off his shirt. There was no way of hiding the book any longer. It fell to the floor.

"My goodness me!" said his foster mother. "God have mercy on me; what the devil's the child got under his shirt? Magnína, come and see this dreadful sight!"

The boy stood before them, stark naked and anguished, while the two women examined the book carefully.

"Who gave you this book?"

"I sort of just f-found it."

"Yes, it's just as I thought. Not enough to be going around with a book, but a stolen one at that! Magnína, put this devilish thing in the fire at once!"

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