What I’m Reading: George Mackay Brown – Vinland

Another novel that is part of my small reading project with books inspired by Icelandic sagas, and one I probably would have liked considerably more if I had not read it directly after William T. Vollmann’s awe-inspiring Ice-Shirt. It still was a decent read, and I guess it helped that it was by far the slimmest volume so far.

One surprising but very enlightening side effect of this project is that by reading (more or less) in a row several novels tackling the same historical period, you get a very clear image of the differing ways in which they approach that period and mold it into an artistic form – it’s almost like a small encyclopedia of the historical novel. While William Vollmann’s The Ice-Shirt attempted to merge an authentic reconstruction with a contemporary perspective in a unique blend of fiction and non-fiction, George Mackay Brown places his emphasis firmly on the contemporary – Vinland is a novel that does not describe history for its own sake but uses it as an allegory for the present (much like many Science Fiction novels do, which makes me wonder if that might not point towards a more profound affinity between the two genres – something to keep in mind for further reading).

Vinland is partially based on the same Vinland sagas William T. Vollmann used, but mostly draws from the Orkneyinga saga, the “History of the Earls of Orkney”. In the novel Brown, who himself lived for most of his life on the Orkney Isles, tells the story of Orkney-born Ranald Sigmundson (a character who, as far as I can tell, is not in the sagas but who Brown made up for this novel) from his childhood to his death. This life story starts out very eventful – as a boy, Ranald finds himself part of Leif Erikson’s expedition to Vinland, encounters the natives there, then travels to the court of the Norwegian king and takes part in the battle of Clontarf. Up to this point, the novel is everything you would expect a novel about Vikings to be, with lots of adventure, exhilarating sea travels, glorious battles. But then Ranald’s grandfather dies, and thins take an unexpected turn – he returns to Orkney to take over the family farm, and from that day on never leaves again – at first, he still takes some part in politics, but withdraws more and more, and what had started out as a rousing adventure tale ends as a quiet and somewhat melancholy meditation on country life.

Brown eradicates all supernatural elements from the sagas and fills his tale out with small details of medieval everyday life and a realistic psychology for his characters. But in spite of that, and in spite of Vinland following the Orcadian power struggles of the time in some detail and its inclusion of several highly atmospheric set pieces, it is quite obvious that the novel is not really trying to paint a portrait of the past. Instead (and I do admit being somewhat annoyed at this, perhaps unjustly so), Brown keeps throwing analogies to the present at the reader – when, for example, Ranald becomes increasingly disgusted with petty politics and power games and the wars they tend to result in, this is clearly a present-day comment on present-day events even if they come dressed up in a historical costume. Which might not even be necessarily a bad thing, but is done so blatantly and heavy-handedly here that it drew several groans and repeated eye-rolling from me. Also, Brown falls occasionally short of of the state of current debates – a novel published in 1992 really should know better than to describe the natives of Vinland as noble savages who practice a harmony with nature that has supposedly been lost to Western civilization. (And if you’re now wondering what’s so civilized about the Vikings – so did I.)

In spite of all this, I still ended up enjoying Vinland, and this was solely due to the writing which is hauntingly beautiful – the prose, emulating the style of the sagas, appears very simple, almost simplistic on first sight, but develops a flowing, lilting rhythm over time that gently draws the reader in, almost without them noticing, and suddenly you find vivid, entrancing pictures being conjured in front of your eyes by the text. It is all very quiet and unassuming and has an increasingly melancholy air about it the farther the novel progresses. Vinland might be (especially if compared to Vollmann’s wild, sprawling, avant-garde extravaganza of a novel) craftsmanship rather than art, but there is a certain dignity in its very simplicity that I found very calming, and Brown’s prose is gorgeous.

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


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