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Halldór Kiljan Laxness (Iceland, 1902-1998)

Below is an excerpt from his novel The Atom Station, published in 1948, a comedy about an American who offers to buy land for an atomic war base in Iceland. It is told from the point of view of a country girl who works as a maid in the house of her Member of Parliament. Through her eyes, the reader sees the contrast between the ancient culture of the Sagas in the north, and the new rootless urban culture of the intellectual society of the south. This is the opening of chapter 5, At my organists’s:

Judging by pictures on postcards, one would think that musicians had been gods, not men. But now I learned that the world’s greatest composers have been the most wretched outcasts of humanity. Schubert was considered by good-class people in Vienna nothing but an uneducated boy who did not even know anything about music; and he revenged himself, indeed, by composing a cheap tune like Ave Maria that even country people in the north know; and died of malnutrition at about the age of thirty. Beethoven did not even get a rudimentary petit-bourgeois education; he could only just use a pen, no better than a farm hand; and he wrote a ludicrous letter which is called his Testament. He fell in love with a few countesses, rather like an old hack falling for stud-mares. In the eyes of good-class people in Vienna he was first and foremost just a deaf eccentric, badly dressed and dirty, not fit for decent company. But these two outcasts stood high in society compared with some others of the world’s greatest composers. Many of them were employed by comic-opera kings and were kept to play for them while they were feeding—including Johann Sebastian Bach, who, however, wasted even more years quarreling with the bourgeois riffraff of Leipzig. Haydn, the world’s greatest composer of his time, was frequently beaten by the Esterhazy family, for whom he was a workman for thirty years; he was not even allowed to eat at their table. Mozart, the man who most nearly reached the celestial heights, stood lower in the hierarchy of society than the lap-dogs of the petty kings and bishop-oafs who used him as a drudge. When he died of misery and wretchedness in the prime of his life, not a living creature followed his coffin to the grave except for one mongrel; people made the excuse that it had been raining; some said they had had influenza.
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translated by Metheun & Co Ltd

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