Nora Gomringer

“In 1933, Laxness wrote this story of an early and not entirely willing emancipation attempt in a laconic, observant, parable-like tone,” writes the German poet Nora Gomringer about Laxness' The Honour of the House.

The Honour of the House or How to Ruin a Woman's Life

Nora - ÚtlenskWhile traveling a few weeks ago, I read The Honour of the House by Halldór Laxness, which caused me to look very sad during my train ride. So sad, in fact, that a stranger on the train offered to buy me tea so we could discuss my melancholy.

The young miss Rannveig, I began telling him, loses everything, bit by bit. Before losing her life she loses her children. Before the children, her happiness; before her happiness, her sister's love; before that love, her innocence; before her innocence, her childhood; before that her home and then everything, despite the best intentions of everyone involved. And there, I told the gentleman, who looked vaguely Nordic, there you have the sad, ruined life of a woman, and therefore a fellow-spirit, of another time, in a not-so-different world.

The gentleman offered to buy me M&Ms and I smiled gratefully, because it was such a nice gesture and because sugar is always of assistance to me. When Rannveig returns from her good-girl exile in Copenhagen, I continued – where she was supposed to make the acquaintance of cosmopolitanism, good society and a suitable man, but from where she instead returns with an illegitimate child (and no man to go with it) – her family sets in motion a process of separation, the culmination of which is a fenced-in idyll, a prison for the sinner.

In 1933, Laxness wrote this story of an early and not entirely willing emancipation attempt in a laconic, observant, parable-like tone. In 2010, I sit in a train coach and weep because of Rannveig's kindred spirit, and the countless others before and after her. But I also smile at the myriad of twists and turns, the evolutions of human existence, the way it revolves and devolves.

Dorothy Parker, that New York icon of style and nonchalance, once wrote something to the effect that a man was in a unique position to lay waste to a lady's life. However, in a wonderful story in the book Colonies of Love, the German author Elke Heidenreich also lists children as a contributing factor to the ruining an honest woman's life, sanity and serenity.

So, in the end, it's the men and the children – and in Rannveig's case also her own vulnerable nature – that make the manipulation possible. She is unable to defend herself, and, living in a patriarchal era, she is helpless against the will of the family. And thus, with everyone being a bit to blame, this life is simply thrown away.

With her reputation finally completely obliterated, she can still console herself with her son's love – though he is eventually taken from her – as well as the love of her young daughter, an extraordinary marriage and her own benevolent passions, which she can pursue. But before the whole thing comes to an end, Rannveig's daughter  passes away; her long-disloyal sister makes an appearance, and Laxness describes the encounter between the sisters as if it took place on some Olympean peak; a meeting of two Norse Norns, with one named Sincerity and the other Respectability.

So. This is what I told the gentleman, eating M&Ms and abandoning myself to the grand and puny issues of human nature, to the life of the good Miss Rannveig and the ambition of the pretty sister Thurid. At one point, the gentleman stood up from the table and left the dining coach, never to return. Meaning that a literary monologue of this kind is sure to ruin the mood, and, of course, one's figure.

Nora Gomringer, December 2010.

(Translated from the German by Steingrímur Karl Teague)

Nora Gomringer is one of the most recognized German-speaking poets of the younger generation. Although barely thirty, she has been active on the poetry-scene for over a decade. Nora is especially known for her slam-poetry, a genre in which the delivery carries no less weight than the actual words. She has received numerous awards and accolades for her poetry and performances, and has participated in literature festivals and slam events all over the world.

Besides being December's Reader of the Month at Sagenhaftes Island, Nora is currently part of a German-Icelandic team working on a project based on the Icelandic sagas. The group, comprised of three German authors and three Icelanders, spent time together in Iceland last summer, studying the material and roots of the sagas. In the spring of 2011, they will perform material based on their impressions. This repertoire will be performed in Iceland and across Germany as a prelude to the 2011 Frankfurt Book Fair.