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Posts Tagged ‘The Long Ships’

Staff Picks: Feckless Frenchmen, Old Philip Roth

October 8, 2010 | by

The hero of Emmanuel Bove’s My Friends, a wounded WWI pensioner with no friends, is possibly the most pathetic character in French literature. I invite corrections—there are so many feckless Frenchmen!—but first, consider this Seine-side gambit for drawing the attention of strangers: “As soon as a passer-by approached I hid my face in my hands and sniffed like someone who has been crying. People turned as they went past me. Last week I came within a hair’s breadth of throwing myself into the water in order to make it appear I was in earnest.” He never takes the leap, but the ending will wring your heart. —Robyn Creswell

J. M. Coetzee writes an elegant review of Philip Roth’s latest (what is it—twenty-sixth?) novel, Nemesis. I like that one heavyweight can address another in the literary ring. Writes Coetzee, “If the intensity of the Roth of old, the ‘major Roth,’ has died down, has anything new come in its place?” But before you click, a warning to all: Coetzee completely spoils the novel. —Thessaly La Force

A Google research paper examining how well computers translate poetry is less interesting for its findings—not all that well, just yet—than for its suggestion that our evolving Turing-test standards may be too high for most humans to reach, either. —David Wallace-Wells

The NYRB reprint of Frans G. Bengtsson's The Long Ships is an unrepentantly guilty pleasure that, in its own way, reads like a Viking version of Hustle and Flow (Michael Chabon praised its virtues earlier on this blog). Part of Bengtsson's charm is the characteristically black Scandinavian humor that seduces you into thinking that maybe the Middle Ages just got a bad rap. Witness the treatment given to unfortunate missionaries:

Such priests as did venture into those parts were sold over the border as in the old days; though some of the Göings were of the opinion that it would be better to kill them on the spot and start a good war against the skinflints of Sunnerbo and Albo, for the Smalanders gave such poor prices for priests nowadays ...

And then there’s the wonderful account of the trials and tribulations of a young raider on the scene, Red Orm, just trying to make a name for himself in a world of sacking and pillaging where problems never end: “The Vikings ransacked the fortress for booty, and disputes broke out concerning the women whom they discovered ... for they had been without women for many weeks.” After all, it's hard out here for a thane. —Peter Conroy


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 »