SURVIVOR: anna karenina (leo tolstoy)*
CHALLENGER: the long ships (frans g. bengtsson)

a viking boat on the roof (detail)

joe and i spent an hour in a danish bar on ingólfsstræti when we were in reykjavik in march. it was just the sort of dour nordic place you'd envision after reading a bunch of stieg larsson novels:** the carpet smelled of old lager and misanthropy, a couple of crew-cut older men were sitting by themselves and scowling at their newspapers, and the bartender seemed mortified when i asked for the house darts. it was a far cry from the tentative-but-ultimately-jolly bar scenes everywhere else in town, and it made me so sad for denmark; just think of all the dead and dying dreams that must have seeped into its gorgeous midcentury furniture.

i was leery of that fuggy danish manliness when, as i purchased michael chabon's wonder boys several months ago, amazon first tried to sell me on frans g. bengtsson's the long ships.*** what could a seventy-year-old novel about a-viking a thousand years ago (note that "viking" is both a noun and a gerund here; vikings go a-viking) have for me? chabon's gushy paris review essay introduces the long ships, and he will brook no skepticism: "[T]his novel, first published in Sweden during the Second World War, stands ready, given the chance, to bring lasting pleasure to every single human being on the face of the earth. [...] When you arrive at its bittersweet, but mostly sweet, conclusion, I trust that you will turn to your shipmate, your companion in adventure, and swear by ancient oaths, as I hereby swear to you: It is really good." well, i liked the master and commander movie back in the day, and that was a sausage party on the high seas. why not?

the long ships follows orm tostesson, a doughty young skanian son-of-a-thane who's clocked with an axe while defending the family sheep from marauding jomsvikings; he's spirited away with the livestock so that he can row in place of the man he killed and is a valued member of the crew until he's captured and enslaved by the caliph of córdoba. the long ships is full of enslavement and re-enslavement on all sides - women in particular tend to get smuggled around in barrels and dangled from the sides of ships - but the principals seem to take it in stride (as do a few of the women?), much as a taxi driver does when you cut him off for once. hauled from your ship and tossed ashore to grow limp like produce while your captors prep new shackles for you? ah, well; best to compose poetry and save your strength so that you'll be ready when the time comes to drown your overseer in boiling pitch. equal emphasis on the poetry and the pitch.****
So the Vikings were defeated, and their victors rowed ashore to examine what they had won and to bury their dead. They cleared the decks of the ship they had captured, throwing the corpses overboard, and began to rummage through its cargo, while the prisoners were led ashore and sat down on the beach, well guarded, with their arms bound. There were nine of them, all wounded. They waited for death, staring silently out to sea; bout there was no sign of Berse's ships or of their pursuers.

Toke sighed and began to mumble to himself. Then he said:

"Once, thirsty, I
Wasted good ale.
Soon shall I taste
Valhalla's mead."

Orm lay on his back, gazing up at the sky. He said:

"At home in the house
That saw me grow
Would I were seated now
Eating sour milk and bread."

But none of them was sicker at heart than Krok; for ever since the beginning of their expedition, he had regarded himself as a lucky man and as a hero, and now he had seen his luck crumble within the hour. He watched them throwing his dead followers overboard from what had been his ship, and said:

"The plowers of the sea
Earned for their toil
Misfortune and a foul
And early death."

Toke observed that this was a remarkable coincidence, that three poets should be found in such a company.

"Even if you cannot fully match my skill at composing verses," he said, "yet be of good cheer. Remember that it is granted to the poets to drink from the largest horn at the banquet of the gods."
oh, snap! predictably, the (frequent) nordic poetry slams are my favorite bits of the long ships; less predictably, perhaps, they jostle for favor with all sorts of things. i had an acute renaissance faire phase in elementary school / junior high / (cough) high school (i was wa-ay over at the wizardy end of the nerd spectrum), and it should go without saying that i enjoy an enthusiastic yuletide death match; i also enjoy viking curses ("may she toss perpetually in the whirlpool of hell among sword-blades and serpents' fangs!"), practicality ("It takes time for landlubbers to appreciate the beauty of life at sea. With this wind, though, they can vomit to windward without its blowing back into the face of the next man, and many quarrels between irritable persons will thereby be avoided."), and tolerance.
Brother Willibald bent down, picked up a large stone, and flung it with all his might.
"Love thy neighbor!" he grunted as it left his hand.
The stone struck King Sven full on the mouth with a loud smack. With a howl of agony, he crumpled on the horse's mane and slithered to the ground.
"That is what I call a good priest," said Rapp.
unlike chabon, i wouldn't argue that the long ships has something for everyone; i lent it to my friend megan, one of the most valiant readers i know, and she failed (though she strove mightily) to appreciate orm and his colleagues; she failed, in fact, to make it through the book at all. how, then, is one to know if it's worth one's while?
More years ago than I like to recall, I was a student of medieval literature at Cornell University. During my first year of graduate school I signed up for Old English, Introduction to Medieval French, Chaucer, Middle High German Literature, and the Icelandic Saga in Translation--we were serious students in those days. I learned a lot, but the Icelandic sagas completely bowled me over: Think spaghetti westerns with swords—only more thrilling. Except for the fact that it was written in the middle of the 20th century, Frans G. Bengtsson's magnificent book is essentially just such a saga, and if you love heroic literature, whether it be Njal Saga or Tolkien's Lord of the Rings or Philip Pullman's Dark Materials trilogy or Robert E. Howard's tales of Conan the Cimmerian, The Long Ships is the best end-of-summer treat you can possibly imagine.

(washington post book world columnist michael dirda, bn.com)
bearing in mind that my love for nearly all things even remotely icelandic undoubtedly clouds my judgment, i think dirda nails it. as the golden afternoons contract and it becomes necessary to snuggle beneath plaid things and take up tales of adventure, the strong-stomached among you should give orm & co a try; as david foster wallace noted in a childhood poem, they'll kill you very well.

VICTOR: you know what? i was going to say that i couldn't send anna to its maker in good conscience, but i'm feeling bloodthirsty. the long ships is the most entertaining thing i've read all year. the count is down.

imaginary reading group discussion questions

01 have you ever been to a danish bar? did it suck?

02 in happier news of danes (news of happier danes?), are you the person who told me i should listen to the raveonettes? you were so right.

03 is it granted to the poets to drink from the largest horn at the banquet of the gods?

04 if you find yourself on the nerd spectrum, where are you?

05 has fall fallen where you are?

06 what's the most entertaining book you've read this year?

*previous battle here.

**i've read one.

***the southern provinces of sweden belonged to denmark in 980-1010; while bengtsson was a swedish novelist, i lump him in with the mean old danes.

****"[Töglag] was the latest and most difficult verse-form that the Icelandic poets had invented, and indeed his poem was so artfully contrived that little could be understood of its content. Everybody, however, listened with an appearance of understanding, for any man who could not understand poetry would be regarded as a poor specimen of a warrior; and King Harald praised the poem and gave the poet a gold ring. Toke plunged his head between his hands on the table and sighed disconsolately; this, he muttered, was real poetry, and he could see that he would never be able to succeed in writing the sort of verse that won gold rings."


Amanda Moo said...

Devoted to NYRB editions as I am, I'm pretty furious with you for killing Anna off in this manner. 
Just getting that out there.

01 No.
02 Also no.
03 It is!
04 I haven't reached Level Viking if that's what you mean.
06 Treasure Island

Amid Privilege said...

01 No, but I have been to a Swedish disco and it was quite jolly.
02 No again.
03 I hate poetry. It makes me sad. I miss the words that get left out. Poets can still drink from the long horn if they want to.
04 Mmmm all kindsa nerdish nerdling goes on here.
05 You know the answer. You know the sun is as hot as ever although the air has cooled. You know that light that was pale yellow is now the color of ginger ale. You know I'm ignoring the dead branches in the garden and still plucking tomatoes.
06 The second book in the Game of Thrones series. Lotsa slaves and swords and beasts but most of all sigils and heraldry. I think I want my banner creature to be an elephant. You?

kidchamp said...

@amanda: i warned you that my haircut would shake things up.

@lisa ideally? a snow leopard. literally? a weasel.

07 could we all maybe read the magicians this fall? please?

Katherine Cortes said...

07 yes! Let's.
03 they ought to get something. They seem pretty screwed in this realm.
04 Pretty run o the mill literary mag nerd. The current WH Communications Director called me Queen of the Nerds in 8th grade.

I can never remember all the Q #s when trying to answer them. But fall, yes, kinda. The rains haven't started seriously but the temps are cooler and we're into the harvest time.

Milkmaid's dumb friend said...

06: The Girls by Henry de Montherlant. 0?: I'm totally reading The Long Ships. (I too thirst for blood.)

valya said...

03 if it's mine to grant, you poets can have it. even wine gives me hangovers now.

04 someone rather uncharitably grouped me with the "ogres" on campus once, but usually i fall in the know-it-all goody-two-shoes realm of nerddom.

05 it's been 100 degrees here this week, but we've figured out how to deal: we made pumpkin popsicles.

06 a nonfiction about positive discipline. yeah, i know. maybe i should join your wizard book chat.

kidchamp said...

@katherine i got called "encyclopedia o." for most of elementary school. did you guys have this sort of conversation at harvard? i feel like we spent a lot of time explaining our nerd-origins in our freshman dorm. "i loved terry pratchett!"

@MDF i look forward to your bengtsson feedback. apparently there's an old film version starring poitier as almansur, leader of the moors; perhaps we can film crit that up this winter if things get boring. i'll let you be pauline kael?

@valya the wizards are coming for you, man. 

*random example. i'm pretty sure no one loves terry pratchett.

Hannah Mae said...

01. Yes, and no.  It was to watch a game during Euro 2004, and Denmark, improbably, tied Italy. At the end of the game, there was a brief and comprehensive explosion of joy from every corner of the city at once, and then everybody quietly filed out of the bar and that was that.