The Long Ships
June 28, 2010 | by Michael Chabon
Unearthing a Viking treasure.
In my career as a reader I have encountered only three people who knew The Long Ships, and all of them, like me, loved it immediately. Four for four: from this tiny but irrefutable sample I dare to extrapolate that this 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.
The record of a series of three imaginary but plausible voyages (interrupted by a singularly eventful interlude of hanging around the house) undertaken by a crafty, resourceful, unsentimental and mildly hypochondriacal Norseman named “Red Orm” Tosteson, The Long Ships is itself a kind of novelistic Argos aboard which, like the heroes of a great age, all the strategies deployed by European novelists over the course of the preceding century are united—if not for the first, then perhaps for the very last time. The Dioscuri of 19th-century Realism, factual precision and mundane detail, set sail on The Long Ships with nationalism, medievalism and exoticism for shipmates, brandishing a banner of 19th-century Romance; but among the heroic crew mustered by Frans Bengtsson in his only work of fiction are an irony as harsh and forgiving as anything in Dickens, a wit and skepticism worthy of Stendhal, an epic Tolstoyan sense of the anti-epic, and the Herculean narrative drive, mighty and nimble, of Alexander Dumas. Like half the great European novels it is big, bloody and far-ranging, concerned with war and treasure and the grand deeds of men and kings; like the other half it is intimate and domestic, centered firmly around the seasons and pursuits of village and farm, around weddings and births, around the hearths of woman who see only too keenly through the grand pretensions of men and bloody kings.
It offers, therefore—as you might expect from a novel with the potential to please every literate human being in the entire world—something for everyone, and if until now The Long Ships has languished in the second-hand bins of the English-speaking world, this is certainly through no fault of its author, Frans Bengtsson, whom the reader comes to regard—as we come to regard any reliable, capable and congenial companion in the course of any great novel, adventure, or novel of adventure—as a friend for life. Bengtsson recreates the world of 1000 AD, as seen through the eyes of some of its northernmost residents, with telling detail and persuasive historiography, with a keen grasp of the eternal bits that pebble the record of human vanity, and with the unflagging verve of a born storyteller—but above all, and this is the most remarkable of the book’s many virtues, with an intimate detachment, a neighborly distance, a sincere irony, that feels at once ancient and postmodern. It is this astringent tone, undeceived, versed in human folly, at once charitable and cruel, that is the source of the novel’s unique flavor, the poker-faced humor that is most beloved by those who love this book. Though at times the story, published in two parts each consisting of two parts over a span of several years, has an episodic feel, each of its individual components narratives is well-constructed of the soundest timbers of epic, folk tale and ripping yarn, and as its hero grows old and sees his age passing away, that episodic quality comes to feel, in the end, not like some congeries of saga and tall tale but like the accurate representation of one long and crowded human life.
Nor can blame for the neglect of The Long Ships be laid at the feet of Bengtsson’s English translator, Michael Meyer, who produced a version of the original the faithfulness of which I leave for the judgment of others but whose utter deliciousness, as English, I readily proclaim. The antique chiming that stirs the air of the novel’s sentences (without ever overpowering or choking that air with antique dust) recalls the epics and chronicles and history our mother tongue (a history after all shared, up to a point, with the original Swedish), and the setting of parts of the action in Dark-Ages Britain further strengthens the reader’s deceptive sense that he or she is, thanks to the translator’s magic and art, reading a work of English literature. Toss in the novel’s unceasing playfulness around the subject of Christianity and its relative virtues and shortcomings when compared to Islam and, especially, to the Old Religion of the northern forests (a playfulness that cannot disguise the author’s profound but lightly worn concern with questions of ethics and the right use and purpose of a life), and the startling presence, in a Swedish Viking story, of a sympathetic Jewish character, and you have a work whose virtues and surprises ought long since have given it a prominent place, at least, in the pantheon of the world’s adventure literature if not world literature full stop.
The fault, therefore, must lie with the world, which as any reader of The Long Ships could tell you, buries its treasures, despises its glories, and seeks contentment most readily in the places where it is least likely to be found. Fortunately for us, it is in just those unlikely places, as Red Orm quickly learns, that the opportunities and treasures of the world may often be found. My encounter with The Long Ships came when I was fourteen or fifteen, through the agency of a true adventurer, my mother’s sister, Gail Cohen. Toward the end of the sixties she had set off, with the rest of her restless generation of psychic Vikings, on a journey that led from suburban Maryland, to California where she met and fell in love with a roving young Dane, to Denmark itself, where she settled and lived for twenty years. It was on one of her periodic visits home that she handed me a UK paperback edition of the book, published by Fontana, which she had randomly purchased at the airport in Copenhagen, partly because it was set in her adopted homeland, and partly because there was nothing on the rack that looked any better. “It’s really good,” she assured me, and I would soon discover for myself the truth of this assessment, which in turn I would repeat to other lucky people over the years to come. Gail’s own adventure came to an end at home, in America, in the toils of cancer. When she looked back at the map of it, like most true adventurers, she saw moments of joy, glints of gold, and happy chances like the one that brought this book into her hands. But I fear that like most true adventurers—but unlike Bengtsson’s congenitally fortunate hero—she also saw, looking back, that grief overtopped joy, that trash obscured the treasure, that, in the end, the bad luck outweighed the good. That is the great adventure, of course, that reading holds over what we call “real life.” Adventure is a dish that is best eaten takeout, in the comforts of one’s own home.
Michael Chabon is a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, and the author, most recently, of the essay collection Manhood for Amateurs. A new edition of The Long Ships will be released by NYRB Classics this July.