Friday, July 15, 2011

suddenly the hour of liberation came for this yearning creature

Cliffs and birds, I say: cliffs and birds.

The language of the Faroe Islands is anciently spoken but only recently brought to print, and when the people open their mouths they come closer to the Vikings than anyone else bar their neighbours across the cold blue sea to the north-west in Iceland.

"It was a collection of folk tales that was to give Faroese its written form," writes Hedin Brønner in the introduction to Faroese Short Stories. "V.U. Hammershaimb, publishing the tales in Copenhagen in the 1850's and again in the late 1880's, created an orthography based on etymological rather than phonetic principles." Hammershaimb borrowed the old ð, which is used by only two other living alphabets, the Icelandic and the endangered Elfdalian.

(Elfdalian is the Anglicised spelling of a word that is also Övdalian, Övdalsk, Övdalską, Älvdalska or Älvdalsmål, a language in Sweden with a small number of speakers, three thousand, roughly, living in Övdaln, and most of them over forty-five.)

The Faroe Islanders imported a printing press in 1852 "but it was then used only to print material in the Danish language" until "the appearance of the first newspaper in 1890." Then there was "a landslide" of Faroese printing. "Polemic articles and pamphlets joined forces with patriotic poetry." At that time the Islands with their steep shores and green fields were ruled from the mainland by the Danish crown, and the island patriots were saying, See us, we are not another group of Danes, we are ourselves, we are Faroese, with our kvæði songs and our grindadráp hunt, the gannet, the seal, the neat and local sheep, and an evident amount of sexism, as only men are allowed to club whales to death and have their short stories translated by Hedin Brønner.

Literature in mainland Scandinavia was already well-evolved by the time the Faroese began to write their fiction, and so this collection, whose oldest writer was born in 1871 and the youngest in 1932, is a kind of compression of a national literature, a pressed-down strata, the youth of a literature and its developed adulthood existing almost simultaneously, with some stories that are folk tales arranged for the page (the storyteller's ums and ahs and digressions removed, the story proceeding from start to finish at the same steady pace, which is the pace of your reading, and no interruptions unless you want them; no one has to go to the toilet, no one burps, no one speaks) and other stories that have been informed by the author's tertiary education on the mainland, prankish in a literary way, the author taking joy in the act of writing, of sentence-making, noodling with words on the page, one written thought leading to another, and the second one more extravagant than the first, the glee of a writer one-upping himself.

William Heinesen, prince noodler, opens his Night of the Storm with a hurricane tearing the roof off a house owned by two seamstresses. "Cloth and drapery flapped about their cheeks, and patches and half-finished garments fluttered through the air like frightened birds," he writes. Then he is inspired further, he becomes specific, he sees the scene and a single garment grabs his eye. "A nightgown stood leaning out of a broken window, desperately gesticulating in the wind, but suddenly the hour of liberation came for this yearning creature. It got loose and went heavenward with rapid wingbeats." Now that he has gone from the general cloth to the specific and personalitied nightgown he merges them, and we have a general mass rushing full of specifics and characters. "And the ravaged house continued to spew forth more of its homeless contents -- wood splinters and sticks, ashes and paper and most of all -- cloth. Wet remnants and rags, long ribbons and tapes whipped at the faces of rescuers and spectators.. Indeed, the impecunious old seamstresses' modest tatters and rags had been stricken with uncontrollable fury and were carrying on an obsessed reign of terror."

The distance between him and Bruno Schulz here is very narrow, but Heinesen doesn't cross into the other man's dreamland. He's too jocular for the uncanny. The story has a sad end, but the author is an author of digressions, and in these digressions he takes real joy; the story on the whole seems to be a vehicle for digressions. When he decides to give two characters a love affair that ends unhappily ("for tragic and compelling reasons") it isn't enough for him to tell us that the young man was miserable and left the island, he first has him join "the English Mission and get baptized again," and then set out on his long voyage, sending his sister "sympathetic letters from foreign lands," until finally he dies, but the author doesn't simply say "he died," no, instead "he went down with a British ship in the Mediterranean during the First World War," and what's more, the courtship became the subject of "a moralizing ballad, 'Flowers of Sin.' No one knows," says Heinesen, lying, "who composed it, but it is to be found in the collection known as Absalon Isaksen's First Book, which is kept in the archives of the Tórshavn library."

Exultant with this invention he veers back to the seamstresses. "But now we shall hear further of what happened to the two old seamstresses …" None of these details are necessary to the story, the fact that the young man joined the English Mission, and died during the First World War are incidental, and The Night of the Storm could have proceeded equally well in an A-to-B sense if the author had written, "And then he left the Faroe Islands on a ship and never returned."

But by the time one of the seamstresses dies at the end, the wealth of details associated with her is so rich and bright and thick (she is enchanted royalty, the fairies keep on giving) that her death is the end of something more vital than a basic A to B, and I wanted her to come back so that I could have more of the vengeful modest tatters and "young fellows from the Seamen's School" who perform chain dances and sing "the tragic but at the same time gloomily-delightful Køngens Son of Engelland, the tale about the English king's son who went down with his gilded vessel off Jutland." (Heinesen loves the worldmaking power of adjectives, not just a vessel but a "gilded vessel," and a character who is a smith is not just a smith, he's a "berserk smith": and this is more exciting, like decorations on a Christmas tree. The author's habit of going off on tangents makes it seem almost likely that at any moment he could decide to follow one of these adjectives and conduct the story away in that direction -- into an exposé of the Faroese berserk smith community, or a history of gilded English ships.)

The chain dances have made him veer off again, and he resumes: "But back to the two homeless maidens …" And as I write this I realise that the plainly-told folk tales in Faroese Short Stories might have the narrative of the storyteller's stories, but Heinesen has the storyteller's style, the open possibility for endless side-thoughts, and additions, the speaker responding to his own mood with another invention, oh yes, not only this but also that, and another thing as well, now I'm going to tell you something else, now watch as I … and I have a glimpse of writing as a further form of speaking, the piling-up of ongoing thoughts, formed and shaped and sent out, and made larger.

Dedalus Books published an English translation of Heinesen's The Lost Musicians in 2006, and there's a sample of the book online.


  1. You should be given the post of 'Grand High Ideal Reader' in whichever country (I can't quite tell yet whether it's here or the US) that you end up calling home.

  2. Right now, after looking at I don't know how many severely dramatic representations of waterfalls, birds, rocks, slopes, turf thatch, and sheep, I'm about ready to move to the Faroe Islands and call that home, although M. warns me it will be cold, and I don't speak Faroese or Danish. I said I'd take a jumper to deal with the first and I don't know what to do about the second. According to Wikipedia there are spare houses in the town of Gásadalur on the island of Vágar, in an area that seems to be made completely of grass, stone, and clouds. You can stare at the basalt stacks or across the sea to Tindhólmur and Gáshólmur. I'm fairly enchanted. I know from your blog that you've travelled around Europe -- have you ever been to the Faroes?

  3. Strangely enough, we just received an email from my brother-in-law, who is there with my sister-in-law and some friends. He sent a photograph of what he claimed was the Department of Foreign Affairs of the Faroes. Sadly, there was no space in the picture for any landscape - not even a single blade of grass. You might need more than one jumper, I suspect - plus thermal socks, a hot waterbottle and some raincoats as well.

  4. I hadn't thought of rain, but of course, the place looks so green, of course they must have rain. Now I'm trying to find a picture of it online -- the Department, I mean -- and having no luck, although I've discovered its fax number, telephone number, and the address of its PO Box in Tórshavn. The 360cities site doesn't seem to have any panoramic pictures of Faroese Ministries, but I've gone inside the Tourist Information Centre and noticed that someone has been dripping water on the floor. (,88.82,70.0 ) Clean ceiling. Great stonework around that city. Your brother- and sister-in-law are lucky to be there.