Friday, October 06, 2006

Mother of Pearl: Agnes Walsh and Halldór Laxness, Excerpt #2 from an essay by Stan Dragland

The following is the second in a series of excerpts from an essay by Stan Dragland (and conversation between Stan (SD) and Agnes Walsh (AW)) published in Brick 68 (Fall 2001).

Mother of Pearl: Agnes Walsh and Halldór Laxness (continued from October 3)


I met my first Icelander in Alberta, on the Orthopaedic ward of the University Hospital in Edmonton while I was a relief orderly in the summer of 1963. He had hurt his back badly and had to spend the days stretched out on a Stryker Frame. A big man for that narrow, rigid rig. Did he have to sleep on it? He was not allowed to turn on his own, so at regular intervals the nurse and I would make an Icelander sandwich by lowering the top (or bottom) of the frame onto him, securing it, strapping him in and then, Ready? On three. One, two, THREE, we’d spin him 180 degrees to his stomach (or back), then remove the bottom (or top) and there he’d be, still flat but with gravity pulling at a different side of him. I admired Mr Stryker’s invention and I greatly enjoyed flipping the Icelander.

I’m telling this to Agnes and Marnie in the kitchen of the Fitzpatrick Street house in St. John’s. How has it come up? I can’t recall it ever coming up between 1963 and now, 1997. Something in the conversation released the Icelander and my conversation with him about Halldór Laxness’s Independent People, my only contact with anything Icelandic up to 1963. Yes, he certainly had read the novel and he was mildly surprised that I had.

He might have been more surprised had he known how accidentally I came to the book. Laxness was not unknown in 1963. He had won the Nobel Prize in 1955, after all, “a remarkable and exceptional achievement,” according to his translator, “for an author writing in a minority language in the smallest, youngest nation in the western world.” This is forgetting the ancient sagas that Laxness folds into his novels, but what did I know of such things in high school? I happened on this most famous novel of Iceland in the Oyen High School library, a random collection without any sense to it and the town’s only library when I was a student in the late 1950s. There was a bigger library in my office when I retired from teaching. I read all the fiction in the high school library -- everything except The Golden Dog. Out of all those shabby hardcovers, only Independent People stayed with me, that and Les Misérables in the fancy Val Jean edition. Years later, when I bought the whole edition in a used bookstore, what was I looking for? The years before order when I moved from book to book like water seeking its own level?

The hard, hard life of Bjartur of Summerhouses in Independent People, bleaker even than the lives of the Andrews and Vincent families in Bernice Morgan’s Newfoundland novels -- whatever Agnes said to recall this epic struggle of a nobody is lost in the story of her own fascination with Halldór Laxness that she told us at the kitchen table. I had the feeling the story was surprised out of her. I could tell she was inside her life, not outside watching for anecdotes to dine out on. “We neither of us perform for strangers,” says Miss Elizabeth Bennett to Mr Darcy in Pride and Prejudice. Talk and not silence greases the gears of the world, but I don’t talk, not freely, and I’m drawn to other stoneboats of speech: heavy, hard to get moving.

In Alberta, for me, Iceland was frozen in its name. Now, in Newfoundland, the name begins to melt as I discover that the whole country is heated by thermal springs, though a cup of coffee in Reykjavík costs $5.00 Canadian -- no wonder Icelanders charter planes to shop in Halifax and St. John’s at stores displaying those Velkominn signs -- and that they won their fish wars while we lost ours.

Loving Halldór Laxness’s writing, especially The Atom Station, Agnes decided one day in 1989 to call Mr. Laxness up. Newfoundland to Iceland, long distance, yes, but a thinkable distance, not like Alberta to Iceland in the late 1950s -- though Iceland was then in one way more real to me than my own province: I’d never read about Alberta in a book.

How to reach Mr. Laxness without a number? Call information. Let’s see, 011, 354
and then 0 for the Reykjavík operator.
I’m trying to reach Mr. Halldór Laxness please.
Ah, Mr. Laxness. Mr. Laxness has three numbers. There is his house, his office, and his

country house. That is where Mr. Laxness is at the moment, at his country house. But I
regret to say that this is not an opportune time to call. At the moment Mr. Laxness is
not well.
Is it serious?
No, an indisposition. But he is not taking calls.
Well then, thank you very much.

The life that sings, the rich green slope of the irony in Halldór Laxness’s books, sprouted a need in Agnes to find out how the man was but not to make herself known to him. She never spoke to him, not that day nor any other. It wasn’t necessary. She had a satisfying semi-annual Laxness conversation with various Reykjavík operators for most of a decade, though it had been a few years since the last call when we talked in the Fitzpatrick Street house in 1997, the year before Halldór Laxness died.

AW (e-mail response to -- diplomatic correction of -- the above):

Hi Stan, I’m taking your piece and I’m playing around with it. Not because there’s anything wrong with it but because it got me interested in thinking back over it all again. Here goes a bit of fun. It’s just my own fun. It does not mean that I think you should change a thing. I dial the info operator number and a woman answers in what I assume is Icelandic but it sounds a bit like English too. I say I am looking for a phone number for a Mr. Halldór Laxness, a writer from there who probably lives in Reykjavík or has an office number at the university. She cuts me off with yes, yes, of course Mr. Laxness, but he isn’t at the university any longer. He has retired, he is an old man. Oh, I say, surprised at the stream of information, is he well known then in Iceland, I ask. Well, yes, of course, everyone knows him here, she tells me. I see, I say. I didn’t know at the time that everyone in Iceland reads everything. Perhaps I’ll take his home phone number then, I say. All right, hold a moment, I have it right here ... ah, but that’s right, she says, he isn’t home now, he’s in Bangkok at a world peace conference. But I’ll give you his number and you can try him next week. I took it knowing I would never call. Six months later I dial the Icelandic info operator again and ask for his phone number, although I haven’t lost it. The operator gives it to me. I ask if he is in the country. Yes, she says, she thinks so. I ask how old Mr. Laxness is, if she knows. She pauses, says, let me see, one moment. I hear her speak in Icelandic. I hear several voices with questioning intonations. She comes back and says, we think eighty-five. Ah, I say, and do you know if his health is ok. Oh yes, she assures me, he is very active, travels a lot. Good I say. I tell her I am calling from Newfoundland and that he is a favorite writer of mine. I ask if she likes his work. Oh yes, he is an important writer for the Icelandic people. Yes, I say and I thank her. I called back about twice a year for some years to check on him. I used to imagine the operators would check in on him after their shift. Probably discuss something in one of his novels, but that was taking it too far. When I read a few years ago that he had passed away I couldn’t help but think about the operators.
Love, Ag