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The Long Ships

June 28, 2010 | by

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. Read More »

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