Saturday, August 13, 2011

poor finery

When I started the last post I honestly imagined that I was going to segue into the subject of our local library, and not flit around over schools and meat pies and Simone de Bouvier's hair. Have you tried menudo? I did for the first time on Saturday and my appretite curled up at the smell, but I wonder now, after diluting the soup and cooking it some more, and adding lemon juice and finding it edible, if the tripe was underdone and it was the excrement itself I was smelling, sunk and strayed into in the deep tissue of those intestines,* and who can deny an intestine the right to smell like that, when digestion was its original purpose and not the posthumous appearance, chopped and mutilated, in soups, where the filaments that were meant for active purposes instead float out limply in the washy currents, like shag carpet underwater? "Soup," says the intestine, "goes in me; I do not go in it," and it would go on complaining like that helplessly as the universe was reordered around it, while its cousin in spirit is the pig who was executed in 14th-century France for eating the face off a baby, "and why," asks the pig, seriously bewildered, "when it was food like any other food? I've been eating food for years and no one has ever --" It looks at the baby's parents for an answer and sees that they are miserable. "There is something there," says the pig, "if someone could explain --" but it is dead.

M. was tickled when I didn't eat the tripe soup straight away because, he says, I am usually the one ordering a duck's tongue or a grasshopper "to find out what it tastes like," and as I eat I appeal silently to the skies, see, here is something interesting in my life (which is less strenuous than that of the duodenum), I am eating the tongue of a duck.

"Also," I say to the skies, on speaking terms with the firmament, "also, I have read Jørgen-Frantz Jacobsen's Barbara, that prize jewel of Faroese literature, which the library was going to throw away." When I tried to run it through the check-out machine I discovered that it had been removed from the system, and the librarians only managed to lend it to me by reclassifying it under this title: on the fly items. We cancelled it, said one of them, because nobody was borrowing it. We were going to sell the book. Someone must have put it back on the shelves by accident.

The illustration on the front cover is a reproduction of a painting by William Heinesen, the same Faroese author who wrote the short story about the two women in Tórshavn losing their house in a storm. Jacobsen is a plainer writer than Heinesen, by which I mean that he never goes baroque, he never spirals off into side stories about ships or ballads or other ideas that might have caught hold of his curiosity. If he considers those things he never lets us know. As I read I was thinking, "If Heinesen had written this it would have been different, I would have heard about the history of Barbara's house, and the private lives of the sailors, and other miniature tangents would have appeared on the story like gargoyles and knobs on an old church, not essential to the structure, but giving the book such a specific aesthetic that finally you decide that the structure is there for them, it is the addition, it is the part you need to make excuses for."

I wouldn't classify those two writers together at all if they didn't have the same nationality; I wouldn't compare them; it wouldn't occur to me. If Heinesen's story is a beast with twenty legs then Jacobsen's is a sleeker organism, running toward a single end, which is the downfall of the title character -- a sad downfall from the author's point of view, because Barbara makes herself vulnerable by constantly falling in love, and he presents this lovingness to us as evidence of a large, eager spirit. "Was there any game that she did not immediately want to play?" one character wonders. She has "lively eyes" that give "quick green glances," often shining or fluttering in translation, "Her eyes shone, she was like a lighted candle among them." She is vigourous, she is physically adept, she volunteers to carry heavy loads of peat in a leyp: "There was no stopping her, she laughed gaily, and everyone admired her." When a shopkeeper offers her a secret inspection she invites a friend along -- she is not selfish, she likes to spread her bounty, she loves to make a situation bigger. She does not lay plots or anticipate the plotting of others. She is an innocent. Exultation is her natural state. "Barbara's eyes shone, her voice bubbled like a spring, she grew prettier and prettier in her zeal for beauty." A new man enters the story and she falls in love with him, and then another one comes along and she loves him too. She's a polyamourist in a monoamourous society. She'd make a good Mormon husband.** But other Faroese gossip about her and her lovers grow jealous. The large spirit will be thwarted by the consequences of its own excess. "[S]ome called her wicked Barbara."

All of this has been sketched in by the end of chapter one, so Jacobsen's purpose from there on is to complicate the idea: he decides that he needs surprises and different perspectives. He introduces an intellectual character who chats with his friends about the merits of an impulsive life, he points out one of the dangers of her openness when the shopkeeper falls in lust and begins to turn people against her, he brings in other nationalities -- Barbara falls for a mainland Dane and then a Frenchman, and we watch as this embodiment of the islands makes love to outsiders while the native Faroese shopkeeper seethes and grouses. (If that makes the book sound like pro-Faroe propaganda then I'll point out that this shopkeeper is Jacobsen's meanest and most bitter, petty character.)

He has a dozen ways to thicken the story (Heinesen disperses; Jacobsen thickens), and there's a good example of this close to the end, when Barbara asks a group of men to help her catch her fleeing lover, and the men agree, even though they know that this particular action she's taking is against the law. And so this extra detail about the law (which would not be there if Jacobsen didn't know something about the concrete environment in which his story is set, and Barbara is an excellent book for anyone who wants to see concrete details of the Faroes leaking into a fictional story, for example, the author tends to shorten the name of Tórshavn to just Havn, as the South Africans I know like to shorten Johannesburg to Joeys or Jo'burg) means that Doom is hanging over this chase. Even if these people reach their object they will not be comfortable, there will still be strife in their lives, they will not be able to sit easily and say, "Good, that's over;" they will still be tense in spite of their success. And this tense half-muted expectation of a threat characterises the end of the book. People are defeated, but there are more problems to consider than the immediate experience of defeat. Life goes on and it will be miserable.

Jacobsen's Faroese live in a landscape of constriction and infinity, small groups kept straitened by open seas. There is water running up against them everywhere, in the sea, or in a river, or a brook, a waterfall, or in a storm, or snow, or mist, or in the peaty ground itself, or on the grass, "They walked in the dew-wet grass," and even inside the houses: "Barbara went to the window and drew helpless drawings and lines in the moisture." "Water there was in God's plenty on Faroe," agree the citizens of Havn as they exchange it with French sailors for wine. The stretches of sea between the islands hold people apart, and so do the mountains, those incredibly high steep peaks; and even the seasons hold them apart. "Their passage out through the long Sorvag's fjord was in darkness. It was a long row that awaited them, which was otherwise almost never undertaken in winter." The rowers are bringing their pastor to Mykines, the westernmost isle of the Faroes. He promised he would visit the Mykines people at Christmastime. They have been part of his parish for more than a year now, ever since he moved to the Islands, and he has never seen them.

Give him flat ground, a road, and a car, and he could have been there fifty times already. But every trip is wonderful, every trip is exhausting, every trip is an effort.

"They pulled manfully on their oars and were in good heart. On both sides dark nesses and frost-covered fells glided by. When they came into the mouth of the fjord they could discern the distant Mykines in the starlight, thrusting up like a single mountain out of the western ocean, shining white at the top. But its sides were black and steep, and allowed no place for snow." The village is excited. "Pastor Paul had hardly set foot on shore before the bell in the little sod-roofed church began to ring joyfully and scatter its tones into the bright morning air. It was a glad day for everyone on Mykines." People crowd into the church and the author shifts us from a panoramic description of the landscape down to the domestic level of the humans, who are exchanging hellos, but we have already seen that the island around them is mighty and inhospitable. "Mykines grew bigger before the bow in the early winter sunshine, flame-red and crude in its wild, jagged might. It was a vision and a terror all in one." Against this backdrop sounds the little ring of the bell.

The Faroe Islands in Barbara are like this throughout: all wildness and constraint mixed in together, small gestures outclassed against vast landscapes. Barbara is the only one who tries to live up to the sheer mad force of these seas and cliffs. The unstable world is life itself to Jacobsen's Faroese, and this life is especially developed in his heroine -- she is more changeable, more physical, more expressive, than anyone else, and yet confinement is necessary for her too. The limited society of the island makes her an object of gossip but it also protects her. When other characters wonder what would happen to her if she migrated to the largeness of a mainland city they conclude that she would become indistinguishable from a prostitute and the author doesn't disagree. In the city the framework of respect and tutting that surrounds her at home would vanish, and she would be ordinary.

From a reader's perspective you could argue that she is something ordinary, that she is yet another example of the literary Wild Girl, one of those old-fashioned nature-maidens, all passion and no brain, sexual without guilt: medicine for the scholar, grandmother to the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. (Penelope Fitzgerald ponders her in The Blue Flower.)

But Barbara is not any random bit of land, she is specifically the Faroes, and so she is overwhelmed by the French and the mainland Danes, she offers herself to them, she cuts down flowers for their food, and when she marshals the forces of the sea against them (in the form of rowing sailors who "could do nothing else under Barbara's eye" except obey her) she falls short, she fails, the foreigners are larger, they are stronger, they are puissant, they can afford expensive ships, and her bedraggled situation is summed up on the final page in a description of the luggage she thought she would take with her to Copenhagen, "rubbish and tawdry"-- this is the first time the heroine has had this kind of description thrown at her by her author, behold, despair, he deserts her, he turns cruel -- "randomly huddled-together," "trash," "poor finery" -- and here, not in love, is her moment of terrible exposure.

* the stomach actually. I've just looked it up.

** Only a minority are polygamists and the rest disown them, I know, but Barbara likes to marry the men she loves, and if she could only find a church in which wives were allowed to take multiple husbands it would solve a lot of her problems, although the husbands would still get angry when she paid more attention to A than to B or C than to D. I don't suppose it would be a very good solution.

This copy of Barbara (Norvik Press, 1993) was translated by George Johnston. He adds: "The novel was translated into English once before by Estrid Bannister, a friend of Jacobsen and in many respects the original of Barbara. Penguin published her translation in 1948, and it has long been out of print."


  1. If you wanted to buy the 1948 edition (I love comparing translations), it's available here for $5.86:

  2. That's tempting. I'm thinking of asking the librarians if I can buy this copy when I take it back -- it's already cancelled and they're only going to send it down to the library shop, so let me save them some time.

    I like this Polish cover:

  3. I like it too. I haven't been able to read your recent posts, because you're giving away the endings to things I haven't yet read.

  4. My other regular reader, the Russian dentistry spambot, will pick up the slack. (Why dentistry I don't know, but my Stats page tells me it's a loyal customer.)