LITERARY MUD WRESTLING
In this corner, Halldór Laxness, swinging his 600-page hardcover World Light. And in that corner, Ayn Rand, ready to headbutt with her Fountainhead. Seems like an odd pairing for literary battle? Both published around 1940 and reflecting the spirit of the times. Socialism, fascism, a world in economic crisis grasping for big solutions, totalitarian ideals, revolution, war.
My thesis: What makes Halldór Laxness shine is exactly what tarnishes Ayn Rand.
A novel is a thesis in prose. The book sets out to make a statement, however nebulous, the point proven through the course of the narrative via the reader’s enlightenment. The author can state in so many words a philosophy, as Rand does, but unless the reader feels it, it’s just a bunch of words. In World Light the reader feels a spiritual elevation that is encoded in the story, the words. The further you read the more you understand. Whereas by the end of The Fountainhead, one is left with the cold realization that you’ve just finished a cheap bestseller. You only did read it to the end to find out what happens.
Nothing against cheap bestsellers. If only I could write one I’d be rich and famous. What makes Rand’s bestseller so annoying to read is the pretense that her writing has the depth of meaning. Meaning is rather meaningless simply stated. Her philosophy of objectivism states its case clearly in The Fountainhead. Simply put, each of us has a place in the world order of the free market if only we pursue honestly what each is best at. The great architect should build. The rest should content themselves with hammering nails, I suppose. Just make sure you hammer with all your heart. The neo-con’s dream? Or a bold con. No matter how many times she types the point it doesn’t ring true. Principally because according to her own thesis, Ayn should have stuck to typing. Her book is not the work of a great author.
And Halldór’s is? His character is not just an unsuccessful poet, blundering and naive, but perhaps not a very brilliant one. And yet, the point of the book screams out at you from every page. You feel the light, even when the poetry is rather dull. The story shines. No matter how insufferable the poet’s life gets, the creative act in writing his poetry shines a light on his dim world. And the realization that he’s not a great poet does not diminish the light. It makes the point all the more poignant.
One other difference. Whereas Rand is as humorless as any neo-con, socialist or fascist, Laxness for all the sadness he depicts is rather funny. Even downright silly. At one point the house of the desperate man is put on its side by a mob of free-market diehards. A bit of metaphoric architecture to take the piss out of Ayn’s flimsy facade. Halldór’s greatness does not rely on propping himself up as an author or writing superhuman characters to erect his prosaic house. Humor and emotion are his bold humble vision. The proof is in the pudding. The light is enough to make us read on.
And isn’t this a lesson for us all, from the bottom up. We write to see that light, to feel the greatness that exists around us, without need for politics, polemics, social order, propaganda or even money. What a rude thought.