Winter’s tales: Halldor Laxness on love and ice – and fire

“Not much ever happened to him but weather.”
— Willa Cather, A Lost Lady

I think of love stories in winter weather. Perhaps it’s my own small town South Dakota youth calling, remembering my own 60s romance with the love of my life, cold winter nights parking at a turn-out on the gravel road out past the airfield, burning gas, fogging the windows — all manner of heat, and dreaming a life not far different from the one we’ve had. So I can relish without regret cold love stories that are tragic, like William Dean Howells’ A Modern Instance, which begins with a winter sleigh ride, or a poignant tale like Willa Cather’s A Lost Lady, with its blue shadows of the winter season and its intimations of the longer blue shadows of human behavior. Even thinking of it brings one of those who-can-tell-what-is-in-a-human-heart shivers.

But here is a cold-storage love story, one that pushes beyond what’s between a woman and a man, beyond the temperament of a season, striking at the ice or fire dilemma of creation itself.

“Where does creation end and destruction begin?” Here’s the preacher’s answer, in the form of a parable about a horse swept over a waterfall:

“He was washed ashore, alive, onto the rocks below. The beast stood there motionless, hanging his head, for more than twenty-four hours below this awful cascade of water that had swept him down. Perhaps he was trying to remember what life was called. Or he was wondering why the world had been created. He showed no signs of ever wanting to graze again. In the end, however, he heaved himself onto the riverbank and started to nibble.”

This derelict minister, Pastor Jon, has himself fallen from grace in Halldor Laxness’ novel Under the Glacier. His parish church stands at the foot of the glacier, its broken windowpanes boarded over, its door nailed shut, and its pews and altar stolen and used for firewood during “the spring of the great snows” several years past. Pastor Jon is now more tinker and local repairman than preacher to his flock. And into this strange world –- the center of creation or the end of the world, depending on who is consulted –- steps the narrator, who calls himself “Embi,” short for Emissary of the Bishop of Iceland. This young prelate has been sent to make inquiries and gather facts regarding rumors of strange goings on at the glacier parish.

Embi arrives in time to witness the confrontation between Pastor Jon and Dr. Godman Syyngman, known as the “Tycoon,” the “emissary of world capitalism.” Seems they love the same woman, the enigmatic Ua (pronounced “ooh-a”), the pastor’s wife, who left him thirty-five years ago for the Tycoon, and who, now, perhaps, has been dead for three years, and, perhaps, is embodied in the form of a beautiful salmon, frozen in a casket that is buried somewhere in the face of the glacier that looms above the settlement and that, as metaphor, “arches over the secrets of the earth.”

The Tycoon plans to unbury and reincarnate the woman/fish, employing principles of “cosmobiology,” a combination of science’s blacker arts and New Age mumbo jumbo, foreshadowing –- the novel was published in 1969 — cloning and stem-cell creationism in our own time. (Laxness, Iceland’s most famous author, who won the Nobel Prize in 1954, intimates many dark things about American hubris, not only science, but also the Vietnam War and empire run amok.)

There’s a riotous cast of minor characters, a glacier chorus: the “fairy-ram woman,” with second sight and a passion for bad coffee and sweet cakes; the sheriff, a man searching for big horses on the fog-bound glacier; the poet who drives a twelve-ton eighteen-wheeler; the provocative, sharp-tongued widow bearing a scrubbing brush and soap-water into the tumble-down church; and the World Redeemers, the Tycoon’s American assistants, the hirsute, poncho-blanketed trio of southern California professors who are there to jump-start the Tycoon’s “reanimation” project.

And screeching birds and bleating, grass-eating sheep dot the sky and landscape, ubiquitous all. “There have mercifully always been sheep present whenever mankind was saved,” says Pastor Jon.

Under the glacier, the church is a “horse-fair of souls,” a fitting place for the bargaining and haggling that goes on between Pastor Jon and the Tycoon — a classic clash of wills, pitting the marvelous against the scientific, spiritualism against rationalism, intuition against intelligence. They agree that we each bear the burden of creation on our shoulders, but disagree whether we should accept life or do something about it.

Ua does appear finally, and by merely showing up –- or, perhaps by merely appearing to show up –- stops the show. Ua is the “mysterious good-evening bidder.” She’s the Ur-female everywhere and nowhere. She’s part Willendorf Venus and part St. Theresa. She’s the one who never sleeps and the ghost of fragrant odor. The men are embarrassed, hauled up short, shamefaced all, “not unlike little boys who are caught pulling up turnips in someone else’s vegetable garden.”

So what is saved, resurrected, revealed in this marvelous story? The Bishop’s emissary doesn’t judge or edit, he merely records, but he has a good ear for finding a “glimmer” of meaning in the goings on. And Pastor Jon has much to say and brings it out in spits and spatters, glacial detritus and trash talk: Man sees with the eye of T-Rex, the “big newt,” rather than with the “eye that dwells deepest in universal space.” Man returns to dust, as his language is so much dust in the mouth. “It’s a pity we don’t whistle at one another, like birds,” he says. “Words are misleading. I am always trying to forget words. That is why I contemplate the lilies of the field, but in particular the glacier. If one looks at the glacier for long enough, words cease to have any meaning on God’s earth.”

“The flower of the field is with me,” says Pastor Jon. “During the winter it lives in my mind until it resurrects again.” The pounding his life has absorbed, his fall from grace and the great loss, Ua, his wife, the love of his life, missing for thirty-five years and dead the last three — she’s “fused with my own breath,” he claims, “never gone from me for a single moment.” “I am like that horse that was dumbfounded for twenty-four hours. For a long time I thought I could never endure having survived. Then I went back to the pasture.”

If that’s an end that doesn’t break your heart, you’ve never loved as I have.