What I’m Reading: William T. Vollmann – The Ice-Shirt

Among the saga-inspired novels I have been reading for my project, William T. Vollmann’s The Ice-Shirt manages to be simultaneously the one closest to the original sagas and the most contemporary one; it also is by far the most original and innovative and promises to be the beginning of an outright masterwork.

The masterwork in question is Seven Dreams, a series of seven novels (four of which having been published as I am writing this) dealing with the encounters between native American Indians and Europeans. The Ice-Shirt is the first volume in that series, and it’s about Norse and Inuit, about how Europeans first came to Vinland and how they immediately began to change it to fit their own preconceptions. It is a retelling of several sagas and few Inuit myths, a historical novel and a travelogue about modern-day Greenland, it is fantastic and journalistic, fiction and non-fiction, entirely subject and very matter-of-fact. It’s not like anything else I have read and for me marks the discovery of what might very well be one of the greatest living novelists.

Yes, I’m gushing a bit, but The Ice-Shirt is astonishing on so many levels that I do not even know where to start. Maybe with the sheer ambition of Vollmann’s project which seems to aim for nothing less than re-inventing the historical novel. Traditionally, historical novels have aimed to make history come alive for the reader and claimed a more vivid and immediate access to lived history than was possible to historical science, relying not on dry numbers and reports but on memorable characters and a rousing tale. This is both the appeal and the problem at the heart of the historical, as writers ineluctably had to invent things, create fictional characters, imagine events, make up thoughts and dialogue for historical characters –  all of which became somewhat problematic with modernism and the crisis of representation that brought with it an increasing awareness that the fictional nature of those tales undermines their claims to present history, that they give the reader not the historical truth but just made-up tales. Vollmann is very aware of this problem, he calls his novel “a pack of lies” in the first few pages, and he is not being coy but means it seriously.

The Ice-Shirt is not a postmodern novel either,  however – there is a tradition of the postmodern historical novel, starting (as far as I can see) with John Barth’s The Sot-Weed Factor, that gleefully embraces its fictional nature, abandons all pretense of presenting a plausible historical plot and focuses on language and structure instead – John Barth writing a whole novel in 17th century English in The Sot-Weed Factor, or Umberto Eco approaching the Middle Ages by way of a Sherlock Holmes narrative in The Name of the Rose. Which does avoid the problems inherent in representation, but has a distinct (and possibly unavoidable) tendency to fall into the other extreme of over-emphasizing fiction with the inherent danger of subsuming historical language into a general language-game and thus ending up with a historical novel that has nothing historical about it.

The Ice-Shirt (and, I assume, William Vollmann’s entire Seven Dreams sequence) does neither of those things (or maybe both, depending on your own perspective), but marks an entirely new approach to the historical novel. That approach distinguishes itself from the traditional historical narrative by not aiming to be a representation of historical events but instead mainly basing itself on a text, and sets itself apart from the postmodern approach by treating that text consistently as truth, no matter how outlandish its claims might appear to a modern-day reader.

In The Ice-Shirt, that text are the Icelandic sagas, and the first of many astounding things Vollmann does in this novel is that he takes them utterly at face value, treats them like they were a factual historical document, supernatural elements and all. This means that for a large part The Ice-Shirt is a retelling of Icelandic sagas (mainly the two Vinland sagas, but with elements of some others thrown in, like the Ynglinga saga); Vollmann even goes so far as to assume the persona of an Nordic bard, William the Blind (which is an interesting choice of name and alludes, I assume, not just to his bad eyesight). As he also adopts the style and tone of the sagas (showing, here as in other places, an almost uncanny stylistic versatility), the novel might easily have drifted towards becoming a mere pastiche of the sagas – but even a cursory look at a random page will show that it is very far from being derivative.

Vollmann never lets his readers forget that they are reading work written from a contemporary perspective by a contemporary author. One – and the most obvious – way in which he achieves this is by interspersing passages describing his own travels in Iceland – those serving the double function by marking the distance to the past, but also to underline that Vollmann is essentially writing non-fiction here. Or maybe it would be more correct to say that The Ice-Shirt is a novel written with a non-fictional attitude. It does not at all read like a novel, even a multiple-character, protagonist-less novel like Dos Passos’ Manhattan Transfer or his USA trilogy. The narrative reaches from mythical pre-history to the end of the 20th century, encompassing a multitude of characters and voices; and while it eventually comes to focus on the Norse colonization of Greenland and the tale of Freydis Eiriksdottir in particular, it still swerves in several different directions and different times. It is like Vollmann was willfully ignoring or intentionally breaking every single rule ever made in regard to novel plotting (and I would not be surprised if that was exactly what he did) – and yet, The Ice-Shirt nowhere comes even close to being the amorphous mess it by all rights should be, because Vollmann keeps it all together on the level of theme and motif, weaving a very tight web of images from whose interrelations rises a complex edifice of metaphors and symbols.

Vollmann bases his novel on a documented historical discourse rather than a more or less imaginary version of events, the sagas themselves rather than what they might be referring to, but at the same time does not dismiss the claim of that discourse to veracity from an advanced 21st-century point of view. Instead, he takes the sagas by their word and in this way shows us the sagas and the world they originate from in an entirely new way and also gives us an entirely new form of historical novel, one that is aware of all the problems and complexities of writing about history as any postmodern historical novel but at the same time manages to give us a sense of that history as vivid and intense as any tradionalist historical novel. The Ice-Shirt is by no means an easy to read novel – it demands a considerable amount of concentration and attention by its readers and does not reward them with the pleasures a well-rounded story arc conveys, or even just of things falling into place. With all its formal and linguistic brilliance, the novel remains a very messy affair, but I think it is precisely by virtue of this tension that it achieves a degree of immersion which to the best of my knowledge is unprecedented in the historical novel genre. I am very keen on reading more of Vollmann’s Seven Dreams sequence (and in fact am, as I’m writing this, almost halfway through Fathers and Crows) and starting to suspect that the series might well turn out to be one of the major literary achievements of your time.

(This post is part of my Iceland and Beyond reading project.)

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4 comments

  1. Wow. How could I read all of that without wanting to read this for myself? After all, you have been right on so many other saga-related matters. 🙂 I admit that I’m a bit nervous about the complete deconstruction of the usual narrative structures, but hey, it’ll do me good to break out of the usual straightforward historical novel and try something a bit more challenging. Maybe I’ll read the sagas first, because then I’ll get a better idea of what he’s trying to do. But your post is high praise indeed. ‘One of the major literary achievements of our time’? Clearly a must-read!

  2. Well I can’t promise that you’ll like it, but I think I can guarantee that The Ice-Shirt will be a reading experience unlike any other. I’ve had my eye on Vollmann’s work for a while – he does seem to polarize people who apparently either can’t stand his stuff or think it’s the greatest thing since sliced bread (or at least since Thomas Pynchon). I seem to have ended up in the latter camp, not just having enjoyed The Ice-Shirt but also feeling just as (if not even more) excited over Fathers and Crows (about Jesuits and Indians in French Canada at the beginning of the 17th century) which I’m currently reading. He never seems to do what you’d expect him to, which I suppose can be very frustrating but he is such a brilliant writer, I haven’t really touched on just how versatile his style is, or how intense his nature descriptions, and I could have gone into a lot more detail about his imagery…

    Anyway, reading the sagas first probably is a good idea because then you get an idea just what he did with them, not to mention that they’re fun to read in themselves. 😉 If you ever do get around to reading Vollmann, I’m very curious as to what your reaction will be.

  3. I’m glad you are enjoying it, Vollmann is one of the greatest living American writers, and he is not read nearly enough. The Ice-Shirt is, in my mind, the least of the Seven Dreams novels. Vollmann himself has said that, given the chance, he would rewrite the novel, as there was a lot about the finished product he didn’t like. The Rifles and Fathers and Crows are masterpieces, on the other hand.

  4. After reading The Ice-Shirt and two thirds of Fathers and Crows I’m inclined to agree regarding Vollmann’s greatness. And while I also think that Fathers and Crows is even better, one should keep in mind that writers’ self-assessments are notoriously unreliable. 😛 Also, I can’t help the impression that Seven Dreams really should be considered as a singe work, with The Ice-Shirt as introduction and overture – the themes might get fully developed in later volumes, but they’re already all there in nuce.

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