Exact contemporaries of Laxness, this group of Faroese authors created a fascinating body of work concerning Faroese themes. Any fan of Halldór’s work would be rewarded by checking out these writers.
William Heinesen, (1900-1991) is the most celebrated and prolific writer of this group. He was also an accomplished artist and composer. Heinesen wrote in Danish; his most famous translated novels are probably The Good Hope and The Lost Musicians.
The Lost Musicians intrigued me, I had seen it favorably compared to Halldór Laxness’ majestic The Fish Can Sing on more than one occasion. I found this to be a quite different sort of book. Both stories take place in a very small geographical area on an island in the North Atlantic, but while Fish is told from the very personal point of view of a boy slowly growing into manhood, The Lost Musicians has a much broader scope—its ensemble cast of misfits, wastrels and drunkards careen from one misadventure to another—it builds steam as it careens toward a wild climax and then slows to a poignant conclusion. While not a happy ending, it is not one without hope. The Good Hope is a historical novel concerning a young Danish pastor's struggle with corruption in the Faroes, I found its grimness to be a real challenge, I’ve been unable to finish it. Heinesen is a concise writer who seems to perfectly capture the low humor and salty vernacular of the Faroese underclass (there is a lot of drinking in The Lost Musicians!) He offers no judgments on the actions of these hapless musicians, nor does he bestow upon them any elevated status. If Heinesen has any underlying theme in the book, it may simply be a faith in the validity of ordinary existence triumphs over pretension and fatalism. Definitely worth a look to anyone who is open to the idea of exploring this little-known culture.
Heinesen also wrote numerous short stories. Lanterna Magica was written with the stated intention of it being his final work, Heinesen’s final go at a chronicle of the memorable people and events from his long life. The stories are simultaneously magical and realistic: love unrequited, passions leading to ruination, life in a small town in all its facets; told with all the joy and heartbreak which they entail. Tiina Nunnally’s elegant translation is always concise and poetic. These are simple stories, masterfully told. A travelogue, if you will, to the ends of the earth and the center of the human heart. Highly recommended.
Heðin Brú’s (1901-1987) novel The Old Man and His Sons was first published in 1940 (Feðgar á ferð) and it reflects the turmoil of life in the Faroes as it changed from a primitive society into a more modern one. Brú wrote in Faroese, and his terse language reflects this fact. Faroese is a very concrete language and abstractions are not common. The writing is pithy, dryly ironic at times, and extremely down to earth. Simple in its language, Brú’s mastery of understatement and his use of dialog to examine the issues of aging and generational conflict make this a surprisingly moving story. Ketil, a vital seventy-year-old, is caught between his traditional self-sufficient hunter-fisher-farmer existence and his sons' lives of working for wages and living on credit. The story starts with an intensely graphic account of a whale massacre. After the slaughter, Ketil overbids on a quantity of whale meat because he doubts if he’ll have the strength to participate again. The rest of the book deals with his efforts to raise money to pay for the whale meat while trying to deal with his unsympathetic adult children. One thing this novel shares with The Lost Musicians and Barbara is an open-ended resolution. Life goes on. Recommended, but Brú’s terse writing and his humble protagonist’s lifestyle may not suit every taste.
Jørgen-Frantz Jacobsen(1900-1938) was a tragic figure. Barbara is his only novel and was written as he was dying from tuberculosis. The manuscript was taken from his deathbed and prepared for publication (the book wasn’t finished) by his friend William Heinesen. First published in 1939, it quickly became a classic of modern Scandinavian literature. Barbara is a tale of an 18th-century Faroese woman who remains a free spirit with an eagerness for sexual adventure in spite of the consequences. She acts thoughtlessly at times but has no personal sense of sin.
Although the plot is simple, it is not the standard fallen woman story. The effects of her actions can be tragic (for her lovers), but she is not evil. Some of the townsfolk call her “wicked Barbara” but others are not so harsh in their judgment, for she brings light into the dreary lives of many. Her only vice, if it may be termed such, is that she can't be tied down to any one man. This conflict is played out over a variety of locales in the Faroes, these set-pieces are described with a sumptuous, almost cinematic quality. Barbara's sensuality, as well as the descriptions of well-drawn secondary characters, come to life through the absolutely fabulous writing. The ambiguous ending meshes with the story's lack of rigid moralizing.
The first English translation of Barbara was done by Estrid Bannister, who was a friend of Jacobsen and was the real-life model for Barbara. In comparing the translations, I found that Johnston writes somewhat stiffly, as if he were preserving the Danish sentence structure, while Estrid’s 1948 Penguin version possesses a special charm of its own, with its fluid and natural style. Jacobsen’s letters and essays suggests that if he had lived he may have become a giant in Scandinavian literature. Highest recommendation.
Faroese Short Stories
Twenty-five stories by nine Faroese authors,
Translated and introduced by Hedin Brønner
Twayne Publishers, New York, 1972
Mads Andrias Winther contributed three very short tales about life’s injustice and the narrow-mindedness of the common folk. Sverri Patturson wrote of a clever fisherman who managed to catch a shark and a persistent farmer's battle against a couple of crafty ravens.
Hans Dahlsgaard’sNelson’s Last Stand is the story of a feeble-minded villager who was not a dim as he seemed.
William Heinesen has six stories here, his is the most polished writing. His magical The Celestial Journey is simply wonderful in the way it goes from realism to fantasy and back again. His story The Night of the Storm touches upon a Sapphic relationship between two reclusive elderly women whose life together is torn apart: first by a storm and then by the “good intentions” of the village women. Absolutely devastating.
Heðin Brú has seven stories. He might be the best pure storyteller of the lot, his tales are alternately funny and wistful. His charming story The White Church, told from the point of view of a five-year-old, is one of the finest Christmas stories I have ever read. It would appeal to children and adults alike. The Long Darkness is a harrowing account, also told from a child's point of view, of the progressive blindness of one of the villagers.
There are four additional authors, each of them telling slice-of-life stories which reveal life in the Faroes as timeless and plain but rich in the human experience. I found this to be a wonderful and touching book. The stories transported me to another place and time with an elegant and unsentimental simplicity. Although the book is not common there is no shortage of reasonably priced copies at Amazon or Abe’s books: