Islandia by Austin Tappan Wright
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Islandia is a keeper. It’s one of those books that lives on your shelf and which you gaze at lovingly from time to time, considering whether this is the time to crack it open again or not. You don’t want to do it too often for fear that you might dilute some of its power (and let’s be frank: it’s a looong book), yet you don’t want to let your immersion in its world go too long between visits. This is one of those books that I would use to refute M. John Harrison’s argument that world-building is the death of good fiction. This work by Austin Tappan Wright is the only one whose breadth and depth has come close to the example set by Tolkien.
Like the latter author Wright worked on his world, and the stories it contains, for the duration of his life. Since his childhood, Wright was creating Islandia, including elements of its language, geography, culture and history. Upon his death he left reams of manuscript that were ultimately edited by his daughter into a unified whole, and what was born was apparently a sensation when it was first published. It was a world unlike any other, and the care and attention given to its genesis by its author in no way detracted from the power of the human story he told — it actually served to make it all the more palpable.
What to say about Islandia? It has sometimes been classified as a fantasy novel, and I suppose it is one inasmuch as it details the life of a vividly imagined country (perhaps the most vividly imagined one I have ever experienced) modeled on the utopian ideals of its author, but it is also very much about the “real-life” concerns of its very ordinary protagonist. There is no epic quest, save that which each of us makes in our own lives, especially in our youth, when we are making the decisions that will shape who we are to become. Added to that is the risk of a country upon the verge of making a decision that will either change it forever or leave it behind and surrounded by enemies.
Two stories intertwine in the book. The first concerns Islandia and its political and social crisis: should it embrace the world and open its borders to outsiders or should it remain true to the old ways and follow Islandian ideals. The second is the story of John Lang, a young man who becomes consul for the United States in Islandia and goes through the dual processes of learning about himself and his direction in life while also learning about this strange new country. It proves to be a culture that he grows to deeply love, but which is utterly alien to everything he has ever known.
Our story begins when John Lang encounters the strange and taciturn Islandian exchange student known simply as Dorn during his days as an undergraduate at Harvard in the early 1900s. The two meet at a party where Lang’s own feeling of awkwardness draws him to the steady and assured Islandian. From this simple beginning a deep and lasting friendship grows. As a result of this friendship, and Lang’s fascination with Dorn (which borders on hero-worship), Lang soon develops an interest in Islandia, going so far as to study the rudiments of its language and its literature. Eventually Dorn leaves to return to his homeland and Lang is left feeling out of sorts. With no real direction after university and having lost his best friend, Lang begins to daydream about the strange country about which he had heard so many tales. Serendipity soon intervenes and an opening for the position of American consul is brought to Lang’s attention by his business tycoon uncle. It appears as though a party in Islandia is agitating for greater openness with other countries and is proposing that they cease their heretofore unbroken policy of isolationism. Lang’s uncle and his high finance cronies see dollar signs in this opportunity and who better for them to place in the position of consul than the young and aimless John Lang, a boy certain to uphold the wishes of his betters? Thus Lang goes through the formalities of applying for the job, not fully aware of the role he is meant to play, certain he is unlikely to get the position, and hoping only to see his old friend once more.
At first, Lang’s is shocked by Islandia’s quiet agrarian pace, the strange social customs and expectations, and the utterly different way of looking at the world. Further, Lang’s best friend is a member of the family that is spearheading the opposition to opening Islandia’s borders. What will Dorn think of Lang when he discovers that he is in essence working for the other side? Still, beneath Lang’s shock and worry is a growing love for, and even understanding of, the ways of this “backward” country. Lang eventually meets his old friend and finds that his fears were unwarranted. Dorn doesn’t even really understand Lang’s concern.
Lang travels extensively and immerses himself in the culture, becoming more and more enamored of this new and strange land. Despite numerous warnings he falls in love with an Islandian woman not once but twice, though he soon discovers that his position as a foreigner could make his ability to attain anything so lasting as a lifetime relationship with an Islandian woman near impossible – unless the isolationists lose the political debate. Lang finds himself divided. He struggles to be a good consul, loyal to his home and profession. Success at winning his country’s desires will also satisfy his personal yearnings, but it will cost all that his closest Islandian friends hold dear. So Lang fights against his own “better” judgment and all concepts of what is realistic or pragmatic in the name of a beautiful ideal that will mean the end of his own personal hopes and dreams.
In a nutshell that is the story of Wright’s novel. Through Lang’s eyes we learn all about the Islandian way of life, which is where Wright is able to build the utopian elements of his story. He contrasts the placid, certain and ultimately satisfying Islandian life with the hectic, confusing and often anxiety-ridden life of the “civilized West.” Despite his obvious belief that a world built according to Islandia’s customs would be an eminently better one, Wright also makes clear how strange a world it is to us. It is in fact so strange that many of the foreigners we see there cannot abide the place. They seem to suffer an almost physical aversion to all things Islandian: “Islandia is hell to me,” one character, Jennings, confesses. Lang notes that this man’s modern American sensibilities and desires were his undoing: “Islandia was too much for him.” Despite his own inclination towards all things Islandian Lang also finds his own road of assimilation a long and painful one. Dorn tells him, “…but you aren’t one of us” and Lang feels that there “…was the old torture in this. Islandia again turned upon me its alien, stony face. In my heart I rebelled.” Islandia and its customs are a force that seems almost insurmountable and they are almost never really questioned by those raised under them. When faced with the possibility that Jennings’ paramour Mannera may have decided to contravene Islandian ways and adopt those of America there is no sense that this might be a valid personal choice for her to make. Islandia knows best. The people and their country truly are one in a way that we will likely find it hard to fathom. (Or if we do, we’d likely find it a bit scary.)
Just what are these strange ways? At one point Dorn notes that a foreign philosopher once described Islandian philosophy as “Hedonism with a kind heart.” Emotions and feeling, and one’s “tunefulness” to them and their urgings, are the foundation of Islandian life; with the central importance of the three concepts invented by Wright: alia, ania, and apia with the allied concept of tanrydoon. Simply put, alia (which is probably the most significant element of Islandian thought) is one’s love of place, but also of family as they are related to that place. There is an absence of selfishness or purely personal interest in this aspect of Islandian thought. One is always looking to the long view of one’s place and family across generations. The cultivation of one’s land thus becomes the project of generations, as though each Islandian family are building their own equivalent to a great cathedral, building up year upon year the beauty, productivity, and ultimate fulfillment of their home:
[Lang] sensed the absorbing interest of the immediate task that also is integrated with all other tasks of one’s life into a rounded whole, because one’s land and one’s farm is larger than oneself, reaching from a past long before one began into a future long after one is dead — but all of it one’s own.
Ania is deeply tied to this and represents one’s love for one’s spouse, one’s “alia-sharing lover.” This is the person with whom one feels so strong a connection that both are willing to take on the same alia, the same place as their own and express their combined love through the children they produce. Apia is purely sexual (as well as what we would call “romantic”) desire. It may, and should, be a part of one’s ania, but the latter is not defined by it and can even survive the loss of it. The concept of tanrydoon is also closely allied to alia and represents the fact that one has given a portion (usually a specific room) of one’s home to another. It is the highest honor one can bestow on another, since one’s home is an integral part of one’s identity and it in effect makes them a real part of one’s family. No matter what happens in the future that person will always be welcome.
Another significant aspect of Islandian thought is the concept of “tunefulness” to one’s life. One is contented by what is rather than constantly striving for what is not. The Islandians posit that modern American ways which directly contravene this produce a case where “… the father and the son are of different civilizations and are strangers to each other. They move too fast to see more than the surface glitter of a life too swift to be real.” This isn’t an altogether invalid criticism, but sometimes Wright seems excessive in his championing of the slow and sure way of life that spans generations. He admits that the flipside may hold the possibility of stagnation and an apparent lack of opportunity for one to truly excel, but he does not really give this argument the credit it deserves. In the end, I think that Wright is not as naive as he may sometimes appear and his ultimate point may be that the price of utopia is to give up one good for another that is, perhaps, better. Is it better to continually progress in a world that may become more and more alienating, leaving us less and less satisfied, or to delve completely into the fullness of a simpler life that may bear the risk of stagnation? In which does a human (both the individual and the group) find greater peace, fulfillment, and security?
There are aspects of Islandia that are compelling and seductive (not to mention convincing), but also others that I know would drive me batty if I lived there (not to mention that seem somewhat problematic). As with any utopia, Wright’s Islandia requires human beings to behave somewhat different from what I would consider “normal” human nature. It would only take a tiny group of dissidents to destroy Islandia completely, and it is a bit hard to believe that such a thing never occurred in all of its history. In the final analysis, Wright was aware of the problems inherent in utopianism and used it as a tool for criticism and the suggestion of alternatives, as opposed to saying “I have figured it out, now go live exactly like this!”
Despite this depth, I never found Wright too heavy-handed in his project. He is not simply detailing a life-like world, for he never loses sight of Lang and his own personal story. This really is a novel about growth and change and the decisions we must make in order for those things to occur. Lang’s personal road to learn about, and love, Islandia as both a country and a set of ideals on which he can base his life is a hard one. Especially hard for Lang is the realization that his great love for Dorna will never be returned. His hope for happiness founded on her is rejected. What follows is a fairly accurate and moving description of the effects of depression on Lang.
There were steps on the stair. Ears heard them, but they were a sound from another world and were no concern of the frozen existence that was myself. But a man turns to face those who at unexpected moments are heard approaching from behind. Reason said that the tall figure with the sunburned face and tired, but brilliant dark eyes, carrying a saddlebag and coming forward, was a friend — was Dorn. It also said that men do not usually sit at a desk doing nothing. Reason was aware that such idleness lays one open to curious questions and, to what is worse —– sympathy. My heart was beating, and therefore, I knew that his sudden coming was a shock, and to feel so little of the old warmth and gladness — to feel nothing at all — brought a vague regret… At the mention of Dorna my blood stopped and then ran swiftly. She was real again. A fire burned in the cold deadness and pain came once more.
This episode particularly rang true to me. I have felt that. The book is built upon many such episodes of “real life” and the psychological realism of Wright’s story is part and parcel of the whole.
The final segment of Islandia describes Lang’s return to the States, the courtship of his American friend and correspondent Gladys, and his final return to Islandia with his bride-to-be. It is perhaps the most problematic part of the novel. Lang’s love for Gladys, at least in the earlier parts of it, did not ring as true to me as did his love/desire for Dorna and Nattana in the earlier sections of the book. Gladys’s difficulty in adjusting to her new life, however, was portrayed very realistically. Often in these episodes I found myself thinking Lang was being a real dink. He seems to forget that his own assimilation to Islandia took almost two years and was fraught with complications, and yet he seems to react as though he thinks Gladys should come to it in a matter of weeks. While Lang may be certain that he has found his ultimate happiness in the prospect of an alia on a remote farm in a foreign country with only thoughts of a contented day-to-day life in which there
…would be the smell of burning leaves in autumn, rain that meant more than the need of overshoes and an umbrella, sun enjoyed not merely because it brightened the world and made me warm, wind and clouds watched with daily interest, and the earth that was more than the foundation for my house and the place where my feet rested…
and the prospect of children to continue it, it is a bit much to expect the same immediate response from Gladys. For here there “… would be no theatres, no opera, no illustrated magazines, no developed sophisticated art, none of the highly flavoured pleasures of the Western world.” Despite Lang’s admitted attempts to describe such things to her, Gladys can certainly be forgiven for finding the reality harder to accept than the idea. In many ways, his relations to her he is “more Islandian than the Islandians,” as it were. There are also uncomfortable parts in Gladys’ struggle to “become Islandian” which perhaps were true enough representations of the attitudes of Wright’s time, but still felt a bit squicky to me. In them Gladys herself willingly desires to be ruled, in some sense even owned, by Lang in order to give her life meaning, and it was Lang who had to be the one to break her of this habit, to free her to be truly Islandian. In essence he had to make their love not be the only thing to which she could cling or rely on for her own happiness. It’s a sentiment I can agree with, but somewhat difficult in its achievement.
Readers will either love or hate Islandia (with the understanding that “hate” probably means readers just are not compelled to read it beyond the first few chapters). It is definitely an experience, or at least it was for me, and one that I will look forward to having again.