Cinema or Saga?

This summer’s summer reading has included Godfrey Hodgson’s More Equal Than Others and Halldór Laxness’ The Atom Station. Hodgson does a fine job of pulling together the latest data on inequality, and his is the sort of book you want to have around in order to rebut some of the more creative fictions that pass for conservative political theory. One would have wanted a slightly more economically and technologically literate writer (some of the slips in the discussion of internet technologies, or in his thoughts on economic indices, are toe-curling), but it’s a solid evidence-based look at what happens when you succumb, as America’s vanishing voters have, to the idea that what’s good for the first family is good for everyone.

Laxness – expertly translated by TV’s Magnus Magnusson – gives us an astute and wonderous look at precisely this moment, a moment when Iceland’s first families portray their needs as the needs of everyone. He puts an unschooled and savvy young woman from Northern Iceland into the home of a Member of Parliament in Rekjavik. Working as a maid, she sees the debauchery, mendacity, and dislocation of post-WWII middle-class Iceland. There’s a fair bit of romanticism, some of it tongue in cheek, as the North becomes the home of a rapidly vanishing and rugged humanity, untroubled by the childish and bourgeois demands of the psyche. The Icelandic sagas themselves don’t bother too much with psychological states as Ugla, our communist heroine, knows. But when the actions of those around her are so vicious, self serving, and distasteful, one doesn’t need to fuss a great deal with internal conflict. Many good set pieces send up, with a sour compassion, the follies of rich Rekjavik, Cinema or Saga? being one of the finer subtitles of such. And, as other reviewers have noted, it’s a book that’s lost none of its relevance. Highly recommended.