Laxness: hypothermia in the Interlake

laxnessberet

Chapter 3

After Valdi told me about the desperate night on the road after Laxness’s reading, I wasn’t able to come back to the nursing home for two weeks. I’d had time to make notes and think over what he’d revealed. I asked him but he wouldn’t tell me the name of the farmer’s wife.

“She was,” he said, “blonde and slightly plump in a good way, a healthy way, the kind of way that makes a man want to hold onto a woman.”

“But were they, you know, are you sure…”

“Maybe, maybe not. Laxness was far gone. He wasn’t a robust man. The wet and cold had made him hypothermic. She spooned potato soup broth into him. He was shaking with cold. It was not unknown in Iceland in those circumstances, for a woman, even two of them, one on each side to get into bed with a man in hope of saving his life. In Iceland, they didn’t have electric blankets or even stoves. They survived the winter on body heat, theirs and their animals. You use what you’ve got. You know that in Iceland, if a traveler came to your house, your eldest daughter undressed him, got his soaking wet clothes off, helped dry him. It was just the way things were done. Who knows what they did in Germany? She was Catholic German. When she heard him chanting  a Latin prayer she thought an angel had fallen from heaven. She may just have been rubbing his hands and feet, trying to get circulation into them.”

“And this driver?” I said. “How reliable was he?”

“When he wasn’t drinking, he was very reliable. If you don’t believe my sources, then don’t ask. There’s no point in my telling you anything.”

“The story is incredible.”

“So is the story of Hjalmar getting lost on Lake Winnipeg in a storm and his legs freezing solid and his walking on them all night. I guess you don’t want to believe that either because teachers have cushy jobs and if someone does something they can’t, they refuse to believe it.”

“I know about Hjalmar,” I protested. “I’ve heard how he had his legs amputated and then cleared his land on his knees.”

“People like you,” he always said people like you when he was annoyed, “would have been whining and applying for disability benefits and expecting someone else to come and clear your land.”

He’d said this before but I still got huffy. “Just because I teach school doesn’t mean I’m a whiner. Everybody can’t be a farmer.”

“The Chinese had it right when they ordered all the teachers to work on pig farms during the summer.”

I looked at my watch even though there was a large clock on the wall of his room. “I guess I’d better be going,” I said.

“There’s no need to be like that,” he replied. “I could use a cigarette.”

“Your daughter says you are not to smoke,” I said.

His daughter was a librarian who lived in Brandon, Manitoba. She had married, divorced, remarried, divorced and went to Hawaii when she had the opportunity. Hawaii was a lot more attractive than Gimli, she said, especially in winter. It was about a five hour drive from Brandon to Gimli. “That’s quite a distance,” I once said to Valdi. “Not distant enough,” he replied. “I keep hoping she’ll retire to the Okanagan.”

When she appeared at the nursing home, the staff found jobs to do in distant parts of the building. You would have thought Valdi would have looked forward to her visits but they inevitable turned into shouting matches.

He was lonely. There was no doubt about that. I think that’s why he put up with me. That, and the fact that I brought him cigarettes and, sometimes, a bottle of brandy.

“Don’t be a prick,” he answered. “I can see the package in your pocket.”

I pushed him down to the dock. There was no point in trying to have a conversation while we were moving. For one thing, he was too busy checking out the tourist babes going in and out of Tergesen’s store. “There must be a terrible shortage of cloth,” he said as he admired a couple of women in shorts.

He wanted an ice cream cone so we stopped at the restaurant on the corner and I bought him a strawberry cone. “Babelicious,” he said between licks. “Oh, to have two good kidneys and two good legs. Life isn’t fair.” He was studying some of the women going by. “By the time you learn the moves, there’s no point in making them.”

“There’s no volleyball today,” I said. I could see where his mind was going.

“Too bad,” he said, “we’ll have to make do with what’s available.”

We got settled beside the fountain at the foot of the dock.

“Laxness was the greatest writer Iceland has ever had,” I said.

“Snorri Sturlusson was better,” he replied. “No contest.”

“We know Laxness wrote his books. We’re just guessing at who wrote Egil’s Saga.” Egil’s Saga, at least a fragment of it, goes back to 1240. The saga is about the life of Egil Skallagrimmson, an Icelandic farmer who is also a poet. The family is known to be shape shifters, crafty and violent. Egil kills his first person when he is seven years old. It’s that kind of a story. Valdi thought it was much better than Pride and Prejudice or even Romeo and Juliet, both of which I taught. Literature for wimps, he called them. Chick lit. No wonder boys don’t want to read, he often said when we discussed education. Give them Vikings and raiding and pillaging and they’ll eat it up.”

He licked the ice cream drips off his fingers. “I need a smoke,” he said. “I can’t concentrate when my brain is craving a smoke.”

I reluctantly took out the cigarette package. There were people with children gathered around the fountain. The mothers narrowed their eyes at me. I could hear what they were thinking. Giving that poor old man in the wheel chair cigarettes to hasten his death. I kept waiting for someone to come over and give me a lecture.

I refused to put the cigarette into my mouth and light it. I’d quit years before and I wasn’t going to start again. Instead, I put it in his mouth and lit it with his purple plastic lighter that I was afraid was going to one day burst into flames in my pants’ pocket.

Valdi Vigfusson knew he had me by the short hairs. He knew that the writing I most admired was that of Halldor Laxness. Laxness was Iceland’s most famous writer. Laxness had received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1955 for his novel, Independent People. However, I thought he should have received the Nobel Prize a number of times, for books like Christianity Under Glacier and Iceland’s Bell. The novels are brilliant and brave. Living in a country with a tiny population, around 100,000, related to a large number of people, he risked satirizing Christians, farmers, and Vikings. Iceland’s official religion is Lutheranism, its major occupation was farming and its most treasured memory were the glory days of the Vikings.

As Iceland’s only Nobel prize winner, Laxness has had his life written about many times. Every detail is known. Except for his visit to New Iceland, Manitoba. Here, there was the possibility of writing something new, of filling in part of his life.

Iceland has had a peculiar history. There were no native people living there when disgruntled Norwegians and Danes left Europe and settled. There were some Irish priests; however, they fled before the onslaught of pagans. The Little Ice Age hadn’t started yet and it was possible to grow grain crops. Enough grain that some was exported to Europe. Some of the early settlers said there was butter dripping from the grass. Misleading advertising isn’t new.

There was no paper around so when the oral tales of Viking derring do and feuding were written down in Iceland in the 1300s, vellum, treated cow hide, was used. Those tales, the sagas, became one of the foundations of Western Literature. Then nothing. It’s not that people quit telling stories but most of the stories, if not folk tales about the huldufolk or trolls, were a retelling of Viking tales from the Golden Age.

Icelanders gave up their independence voluntarily. They couldn’t stop fighting among themselves and so asked the Norwegian king to be in charge. Big mistake. The chieftans kept swearing their loyalty to the Norwegian kings in return for appointments and gold until the independence for which they’d sailed to Iceland was gone. And then Denmark conquered Norway and got Iceland as a bonus. Iceland didn’t shrug off Danish control until 1918 and didn’t become a republic until 1944. Centuries had passed. In the meantime, except for a few wealthy and powerful families well connected to Denmark everyone lived in abject poverty. They were indentured servants, cheap labour.

And then, for no particular reason, Halldor Laxness appeared. He started writing at the age of seven.  Later, when he published his novels, a lot of Icelanders didn’t like his writing because it affronted their dignity. He made fun of their state church, of their precious, romanticized Vikings that the Nazis had also latched onto to promote their racial superiority. He mocked the Icelanders who had gone abroad to Utah to become Mormons. When he won the Nobel Prize, a lot of Icelanders, particularly those in power, were torn. They didn’t like this Lutheran turned Catholic turned Communist turned God knows what. At the same time, they couldn’t help but be proud. They’d have preferred it if one of their social and economic elite had been recognized. They were so used to their entitled positions and their belief that they were superior to everyone else that they were dismayed that someone from the lower class could receive more recognition than them.

When Laxness came to New Iceland, he hadn’t won the Nobel prize. His life and career were largely ahead of him. His writing, because it did not romanticize Icelandic history offended many. And then, to make matters worse, he chose to read the short story, New Iceland, to the assembled multitude.

A cone of silence, a conspiracy of muteness, descended over Laxness’s visit to New Iceland. Although he came to Gimli, Manitoba, and stayed for a time, I never heard his name mentioned. Not once. His books weren’t in the school library.

So, Valdi Vigfusson from Vidir was important, not just important, but critical, because he had knowledge, not first hand, but directly second hand from his mother and father, about the reading and the visit.

If you want a warm reception, you need to tell people what they want to hear and, what they want to hear, is how wonderful they and their ancestors are. They want to be reassured. Instead, Laxness told people that their  Lutheranism was a fraud, their Vikings were a bunch of brainless galoots, and the local elite were charlatans.

I liked Valdi from Vidir. He was grouchy at times, sarcastic, difficult, but not without reason. His parents came from Iceland because they were no better than serfs. Iceland never went through the Industrial Revolution. There were no roads and no wheeled vehicles in Iceland until the early 1900s. People lived on isolated farms. Many never saw a foreigner in their entire lives. On their immigration papers, they called themselves farmers. There were no farmers in Iceland. They planted nothing. Grain wouldn’t ripen and vegetable crops were limited to some root vegetables that were planted at the insistence of the Danes. The only crop was hay. There were no trees. They came to Manitoba and found themselves isolated in heavy bush. Valdi’s father, Gudmundur, did not know how to use an axe. He’d built a house in Iceland from lava blocks and turf. There were no lava blocks and turf in Manitoba. There were trees. Lots of trees. They lived in a hole in the ground with a roof over it through a hellish winter while he learned to chop down trees. The land wasn’t much good for growing grain but he didn’t know that.

They had a quarter section of land and eventually got a cow, a couple of sheep, then another cow, and learned to eat rabbits and squirrels. They figured out where they could grow oats, rye, barley, wheat, flax. They raised pigs.

And Laxness was right when he said that the wives of the Icelanders had to work as domestics. They weren’t independent. There were times when Gudmundur and Gudni went out to work for wages. He worked on the railway and she worked as a domestic in Winnipeg. Those were hard times. But they persevered and had something they would never have had in Iceland, their own land. In Iceland, in times when the weather was good, they  might have had a piece of marginal land on the edge of the lava desert, they’d have paid a killing interest rate on the mortgage and with no money to pay the mortgage would have been share croppers, giving the landlord and the church part of everything they produced. They would have paid a ridiculous amount to rent cows and sheep, and would have lived in a turf and rock cave without any heat. There’d be no heat because there were no stoves, there were no stoves because there was hardly any fuel except poor quality turf and, in some locations, brown coal that also burned poorly, gave lots of smoke and not much heat.

Valdi had numerous jobs as he was growing up, learned farming from his parents and, eventually, bought a farm with better land than his parents. He raised beef cattle and grain and hay the rest of  his life. He farmed until he was eighty-five. Until then he’d only been in a hospital once in his life and that was because his arm was broken when hay bales fell on him. He resented his failing kidneys, spoke harshly about them and to them and, if his kidneys were in reasonable shape, would have had knee replacements. He did not want to die in a bed in a nursing home. He wanted to die on his farm in the cab of his combine.

His daughter threatened to have him tested for Alzheimer’s but it wouldn’t have done any good. He hadn’t made her Power of Attorney or Executor. He’d had the same lawyer all his life until the lawyer died and now the lawyer’s son was his POA and Executor. They had a good relationship. The lawyer’s son called him Uncle Valdi and sent him Christmas and birthday cards.

“She wants the money,” he said. “She wants me to retire so she can retire. She wants to go on cruises. If she wants the farm, she can come and work the farm.”

She thought he was crazy to be living alone on a place five miles from town. “Sell the farm, sell the farm,” she’d yelled. “People ten years younger than you are retired.” That was when he was seventy-five. She was still yelling the same thing when he was eighty-five. He moved into the nursing home when he was eighty-eight. He refused to sell the farm.

He’d never got to go beyond grade eight except for some short term agricultural courses in winter. However, he read both Icelandic and English and spoke some Ukrainian. Although, by any measure, the people in Iceland were poor, many of them poverty stricken, living on isolated farms, they were literate. Children were schooled at home, learning to read from both the divine and profane, the Bible and the sagas, plus anything else that managed to find its way from farm to farm. The tradition had followed the settlers to Canada. People read and discussed what they read in the evening while everyone worked at necessary tasks. The rooms at Betel, the nursing home,  aren’t very big but he’d sacrificed the clothes dresser for a book case that reached the ceiling, filled it with some of his books from the farm, and bought himself a come-to-me, a device with which he could reach up, grasp a book and pull it down. From time to time, a book would fall onto him. He kept the larger, weightier books on the bottom shelves. Which was good because some local histories weighed more than five pounds.In good weather, he also visited the local library which was just over a block away.

He had a good voice. He’d always sung with a couple of local choirs and on Saturday evenings, he’d joined a local group to sing at the nursing home. He’d driven in from the farm except when the harvest was on. He sang English songs with the choir but solos in Icelandic. Now that he’d had to leave the farm for the nursing home, he rolled down the hallway to the entertainment room where the choir performed.

He’d married later than many, probably around thirty-five. It had taken him that long to save up a down payment, buy a farm, get it running properly but even so he’d taken work with the municipality while it was available. His wife drove a school bus. She played the piano and they often had people over for supper and a sing-along.

His parents’ owned the section immediately east of him. It worked out well. They could help each other when the cattle were calving and at harvest time. If they wanted to go for a holiday during the winter, it was easy to pop over in the truck or on a snowmobile and do the necessary chores for a couple of weeks. When they died, he took over their property.

I’d known him to see him but not well enough to do more than say hello or nod as we passed on the street in or in the hardware store. He’d been friends with my grandparents and my parents. I sometimes saw him at church, although that was years before when I still lived in town. His wife was still alive then. I vaguely remember her as an attractive,  somewhat overweight woman who wore large hats. My parents had told me the courtship and marriage had taken the community by surprise. Valdi had already been designated a determined bachelor and his wife, Gudny, a spinster. Before they had married, she had worked for years as a clerk at the local drugstore.

I first went to see him in the nursing home because I was working on an article on farming in the area. I explained who I was and he’d eyed me rather suspiciously. He’d been a reluctant and grumpy source. He’d only recently moved into the nursing home and he hadn’t totally adjusted to the idea. “Pasta,” he complained to me, “Pasta, pasta. What do they think,  this is an Italian nursing home? Icelanders eat fish and potatoes. Meat and potatoes.” They’d had macaroni and cheese for supper that evening.

“There’s a restaurant just down the hall at the other end of the building,” I said. It was not a good way to start our relationship.

“Do you know what I’m paying to stay here for a month? It’s more than I earned in a year when I started working. Pasta is for peewees and Filipinos.”

“Filipinos don’t eat pasta,” I replied. “They eat rice.”

Silence descended. He glowered from under his bushy eyebrows. He had eyebrows like shelves and deep set eyes.

“Icelanders eat rullupylsa, brown bread, hakarl, dried cod, mutton soup. Rice!” he ended contemptuously.

“I was raised on rice pudding with raisins in it,” I said.

“Your mother was Irish,” he replied. “I knew her. She boiled her beef.”

My mother was Irish. She did not boil her beef. She was an excellent cook. One of the best cooks I’ve ever had the good fortune to know. She made beef stew with dumplings that was to die for. Valdi was lying through his teeth about the rice pudding. One of the biggest imports into Iceland in the 1800s was rice. They boiled it with milk. People in Gimli ate it regularly, cooked with raisins and with cinnamon sprinkled on top.

I wasn’t going to argue with him about my mother’s cooking. I said, “I heard that your father cut his first crops with a scythe. I want to know what that was like.”

“He bought the first swather in the district.”

“I want to know about the scythes.”

“Icelandic or Ukrainian? Straight or crooked?”

“Both,” I answered. “And if you happen to have some pictures of people scything, I’d appreciate it if I could have copies. You’ll get credit for them. It will say Photographs permission of Valdi Vigfusson.”

“From Vidir,” he said. “There are half a dozen Valdi Vigfussons around.”