Saturday, January 26, 2013

No-nonsense openings then and now

My Nordic kinsman Thjostolf the Thinker is no great shakes as a farmer and too given to moody self-analysis to be a great warrior in the business world. An executive must feign passion where none exists, what most people call lying, and Thjostolf couldn't do it (though when a colleague, in the course of lighthearted office persiflage, called Thjostolf weak rather than morally upright, Thjostolf cleft him in twain, from collarbone to hip, with his great sword.)

One day Thjostolf suggested that similarities existed between the Icelandic sagas and the pulp and paperback-original crime fiction I sometimes read.

"Behold," he said, indicating the opening of Egil's Saga:
"There was a man named Ulf, the son of Bjalfi and of Hallbera, the daughter of Ulf the Fearless."
and "Dig this," pulling out his tattered reprint of Charles Runyon's The Anatomy of Violence:
"Each evening a twilight wind blows through Cutright City."
"And this," voice hushed, as he read from a text we both regard with near-scriptural reverence:
"Kells walked north on Spring.” * 
Thjostolf was right. In each case the author plunges right into the story, wasting no words. Arnaldur Indriðason, the best of the current Nordic crime writers, claims inspiration from the Icelandic sagas, though I edged toward the door as I reminded Thjostolf that Arnaldur attributed their concision to economic necessity rather than love of laconic prose. Ruminations, false starts, lengthy description, useless adverbs, and seventy pages of the hero dipping his madeleine in a cup of tea would have made a prodigious waste of calfskin, the expensive material on which the Icelanders set down their stories.

But Thjostolf just nodded and reminded me, in turn, that Josef Škvorecký once had a character suggest the Nordic sagas had inspired Dashiell Hammett. Škvorecký may have been taking the piss, but Hammett, the sagas, and punchy openings of the kind offered above will appeal to readers who like their stories brisk, their prose clean, and their humor deadpan.

Speaking of clean prose that wastes no words, I reminded Thjostolf, I have to get back to work on the copy desk. Thjostolf, who hates a bad sentence as much as I do, tightened his hand on the grip of his sword but said nothing. Maybe he'll make an executive after all.
======================
* Fast One, by Paul Cain

© Peter Rozovsky 2013

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23 Comments:

Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Peter

All that is true, but its also probably true that when the stories were subsequently told orally, the storyteller would embelish the calf skin version with all the adjectives, descriptions and diversions that he wanted.

January 27, 2013  
Blogger R.T. said...

I will take you at your word that Icelanders jotted down sagas on calfskin. However, when I was in Iceland for a few years--many centuries after the writing of the sagas--I saw very few cows or calves. Instead, I saw plenty of sheep and horses, and those critters had long been a staple of Icelandic animal husbandry. Perhaps the cattle were hidden from my view when I traveled among the volcanic farms and pastures. I wonder, then, if medieval Icelanders might have used sheepskin instead. So, to satisfy my curiosity, though I do not doubt your assertion, I am going to do some research into saga writing.

January 27, 2013  
Blogger Kelly Robinson said...

You always make the most thought-provoking comparisons. Yet again, my gears are turning.

January 27, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Adrian: And pundits of the time may have said that such a phenomenon cheapened literature. The sagas as we have them, though, were written down, I think in the thirteenth century. One and maybe more of them even have author's names attached to them. It would be interesting to know whether oral storytellers from the Nordic lands were as laconic as their successors who wrote stories down.

January 27, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

R.T., medieval Nordic animal husbandry is one of my weaknesses. Sheep and horses are plentiful in the sagas, but a quick search through an electronic edition of "The Sagas of Icelanders" finds plenty of mentions of coes, as well.

Also, don't forget that the sagas range widely, with settings in Norway, Denmark, Finland, Sweden, the Orkneys, the Shetlands, Ireland, England, and the Baltic as well as Iceland, so they could reflect the livestock situation in those areas as well.

But the calfskin reference is straight from the mouth of an Icelander: Arnaldur Indriðason. Whether he had his manuscript history right, I don't know.

January 27, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Kelly, you can see from the examples I cited --and Thjostolf will back me up on this-- that I'm not the only person who had found stylistic similarities between the sagas and certain strains of modern crime fiction. I don't mean to suggest direct influence or that Hammett knew his Snori Sturlsson, but merely to suggest that today's crime readers might enjoy the sagas, too.

January 27, 2013  
Blogger R.T. said...

I retract my skepticism about calfskin. A quick Google search led to me discover that cattle were in Iceland since the 10th century. I did not notice them when I was there (20th c.), but that is probably due to my larger fascination with the sheep, ponies, and Icelandic goddesses. Note that I was not fascinated with all of them for the same reasons. That would be weird!

January 27, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

So cattle must have arrived in Iceland with the early settlers. Read a saga today, and you may reading a story written in the thirteenth century relating evente of several hundred years earlier. There would be room for any number of anachronism in addition to the possibility of changing animal populations over time.

January 27, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Adrian, that's an interesting sequence of words, "subsequently told orally." One generally thinks of oral tales being codified and frozen once set down on paper (or calkskin).

January 27, 2013  
Blogger R.T. said...

http://www.thjodmenning.is/english/syningar_adal.htm = vellum = calfskin. (I stand corrected and edified!)

January 27, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Vellum is probably related to veal, I would suspect.

January 27, 2013  
Blogger seana graham said...

They probably used up all the cows writing sagas.

January 27, 2013  
Blogger R.T. said...

And I wish I had known about the Culture House when I was in Iceland. It would have been time better spent than all the time in clubs and bars. Ah, the not-so-good old days!

January 27, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, my heart bleeds for all those used-up cows. I wonder if sensitive scribes who had turned to alternative media would inscribe their editions with a notice that no cows were harmed in the writing down of this saga.

January 27, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

R.T., I'd like to catch a glimpse of those manuscripts, too. But you did not waste your time in Iceland than I wasted mine in Vienna by not visiting the Kunsthistorisches Museum.

Manuscripts under glass can be a letdown, seeing just a page or two at a time after one has spent years looking at splendid reproductions up close. That was my experience seeing the four pages of the Book of Kells on exhibit the day I visited Trinity College. But the Musee Conde in Chantilly displays the Tres Riches Heures of the Duc de Berry in way that permits up close contemplation.

Aye, and I have seen Declaration of Independence and Magna Carta from 1297 up close, too, inspiring sights both.

January 27, 2013  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Peter

The thing is the desire for stories is universal but until comparatively recently 95% of the population of Europe was illiterate, so these stories were undoubtedly recited or sung to people and no doubt embellished.

Its admirable when writers cut to the chase but its also admirable when they dont. As much as I admire say The Cold 6000 (and I do admire it very much) for me at least its a literary dead end.

January 27, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I grew up on Dr. Seuss's nonsense and I eagerly await arrival of my next thousand pages of Musil, so I know terseness is not everything.

What would be interesting is to trace the (alleged) current preference for terseness in English prose. A reaction to Victorian excess, perhaps?

January 27, 2013  
Blogger seana graham said...

If I'm remembering right, the Book of Kells was very hard to even see when I went to visit. But there was a lot of interesting stuff all around, which is usually the case with these kinds of exhibits.

January 27, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

When I visited Trinity College, four pages from the Book of Kells were on exhibit at a time (I don't know of often they are changed) flat under glass. They were not even tilted upward, which would have made it easier to see them.

January 27, 2013  
Blogger seana graham said...

Yes, I would probably feel more about it now, after all the Wakean mentions of it.

January 27, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Oh, the reading room was awfully nice. But exhibiting books and documents will always be problematic. It's impossible to show them safely in the manner in which they were intended to been seen--and used and read.

The best way to visit an exhibit of documents is to so steep one's self in the mystique and the history of the thing that one feels an instant charge when seeing the original.

January 27, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I think the steeping one's self in the mystique beforehand applies even more to non-illustrated documents, such as Magna Carta or the Declaration Independence.

January 27, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I'd got my pre-visit Kells mystique from studying art history, where I took a seminar that focused on the book.

January 27, 2013  

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