Read a prettier version of this exact review over here!
I was expecting to completely and utterly love this. I ended up just mostly
loving it. Disappointment can be so, so hard.
This book works as so many different things all at once that it only just barely edges out being a masterpiece. I'd been meaning to read it for awhile, without actually knowing anything about it, when it stared up at me from the NYRB table at the Brooklyn Book Festival for cheap. Later, I took a look at the introduction, only to see Michael Chabon refer to it as being the last 19th century novel, despite being written in the 1940s. He put Tolstoy, Dickens, Dumas, and a few others all into one sentence in describing this phenomenon. Well, that was all I needed.The Long Ships
is a novel that, if you like to compartmentalize, can be a straight-up adventure story, or a dark comedy, or a travelogue, or a sociological study. Of course, the beauty is that it is all of those things, and almost always makes them work together perfectly. In showing such an unflinchingly detailed view of the ways and beliefs of Norsemen at the turn of the 11th century, Bengtsson makes his reader love and hate a vanished society that is in the process of vanishing even as the book progresses, though none of them know it. (How would
one know that some random new God that had been brought up would eventually supplant all
of the ones you already had?) Our hero, Orm, is loyal and smart and valorous... but he's also a violent pillager who's mostly just lucky. But Bengtsson writes the kind of story that one would read in the old sagas, wherein the only moralizing to be found is in line with the morals of the period: i.e. murder, theft, and rape are just fine so long as you do them to those who aren't your people
. (This is why the worst villains of the story are other Norsemen who've broken that rule.) It works because the book is, in its entirety, written from the sort of detached, ironic narratorial standpoint that never endorses anything: it explains, it gets a little snarky, and it let's us draw the conclusions. It's probably this narrative voice that leads, largely, to Chabon's point about the book being 19th century in style -- it is very much like The Three Musketeers
in the way we simultaneously celebrate and denigrate our characters and their ways: The most loyal of men can't be trusted around too much gold, everyone's a murderer, and women really are chattel most of the time... But it's so much fun!
The plot meanders in a few spots, and there are times when the narrative voice is a little too detached (I would've liked it if some of the action had been set up better), but for the most part it works wonderfully. Orm takes three voyages in the book, coming home for what would be the end of most historical adventures, only to go on and keep the plot running wherever he happens to be, stopping often to venerate the names of old chieftains of his who weren't really all that great in the first place, and later to extoll the virtues of his new Christian religion, which he really does not understand.
The strange nominal embrace of Christianity is one of the book's best threads, actually. The spread of this religion is such a strong part of the story, and yet we never know if this sardonic narrator considers this spread to be a good or a bad thing. Sometimes Christianity brings mercy, often it doesn't, sometimes it changes age-old traditions, and sometimes it does absolutely nothing.
The role of women is particularly interesting in The Long Ships, because part of Bengtsson's unflinching attention to detail and accuracy comes through in the sadly real fact that women in this society had very little power (gaining some in marriage, if they were lucky) and were largely at the disposal of the strong men around them. It doesn't age as badly as most older historical adventure books because the author doesn't try to modernize his character to match his own current sensibilities, (which would now be out of date) he simply turns a cynical eye to the past -- a past that, for all its horrible sexism, is also immensely different from the Western European pasts that we've grown so accustomed to. The women here are certainly owned and often only matter insofar as treating them well or ill will affect the men in their lives, but they are also allowed to have, loudly express, and act upon their sexual desires, and they are not considered to be ruined as a bride if they're known to have actually, you know, had sex
before. These facts in no ways mitigate the problems with the society shown here, but it speaks to the fact that what we're shown is (I think) a relatively true-to-life depiction of this time and place, at least as far as opinions and mores are concerned.
The feats portrayed are probably less realistic. This book -- and I should've pointed it out earlier -- is full of bad-ass, exciting battles and escapes that lead to strange adventures and a huge cast of weird characters (many of whom, in the finest adventure story tradition, come back when they are least expected). The story is unbelievable and down-to-earth, full of violence that is both fun escapism and a disturbing look at terrible people, and these contradictions are handled by way of a beautifully written (and translated) narrative that works to make everything so very darkly funny. You come for the action and adventure, stay for the wry snapshot of a vanished culture, and leave feeling surprisingly wistful about those characters and the very ideas of age and change. It's really, really fun.