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B+ : a grand but ultimately far too simplistic vision, and a curious kind of romance-novel
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The complete review's Review:
Islandia is narrated by an American, John Lang. While a student at Harvard he befriended Dorn, an undergraduate from Islandia, a nation about which Lang then knew little more than that it lay:
facing the Antarctic, on the edge of the Karain semicontinent in the Southern Hemisphere, that it was inhabited by an obscure Caucasian race with perhaps some dark intermixture, that it was pagan and hostile to foreigners, that the Islandians had rooted out the missionaries who had settled there in the forties, and that our school geographies gave it only a few lines because it was ruled by a peasant oligarchy, was agricultural and primitive, and had no trade.Curious about the Islandian language, Lang quickly picks up a working knowledge of it. He's somewhat at sea after graduating, drifting to law school and then into working for his Uncle Joseph, a successful businessman who runs what is essentially the family firm, Lang and Company, but Lang's familiarity with Islandian proves to be a possible springboard: the government of Islandia has signed a treaty opening itself up slightly, for a trial period, willing to receive diplomatic or consular offices from a select few countries, including the United States. With Uncle Joseph's help, Lang is able to secure the position as the first American consul to Islandia.
After a long voyage, Lang arrives in Islandia to take up his post at the beginning of 1907. The nation is a constitutional monarchy; there is a young king, Tor, but a council of national representatives rules under an elected premier -- at the time, Lord Mora. It was Lord Mora who concluded the country-opening treaty, and who actively hopes to open it more, with the Mora Treaty that he has proposed and that is soon to be voted on.
Mora is from one of the great families of Islandia, while Dorn is the son of Lord Dorn, the main oppositional family, who wish to keep things as they are (including keeping foreigners at bay). Family dominates the social and governing structures on Islandia, and family means a great deal there. As Lord Dorn explains at one point:
In Islandian life, the natural unit is the family and all else is subservient. This is not true in foreign countries. They often announce that the family is the foundation of the state: but by family they mean the small domestic group of husband, wife, and children, not the continuing of generations on the same land; and when they say that this group is the foundation of the state, they mean that if husbands and wives are faithful and have many children , the state will flourish. For them the family is good because it is a foundation for something more important.Families have controlled the same land over centuries in this largely agrarian society, the different clans the dominant political powers in the country's different regions. (Dorn does admit, early on, that: "Technically 5 or 6 per cent of the people own 90 per cent of the wealth, but in practice and law they have such duties to the rest that they can't deprive them of a comfortable living and something over"; that seems to have worked out -- so far .....) Entirely self-contained and sufficient, Islandia is, however, not an island; it is just a part of a larger one, and while the physical border to the rest of the Karain continent is fairly clearly marked by a mountain range, there is an awareness that the country might face threats both from land and sea. And, for example, the Germans have already established themselves rather firmly elsewhere on the continent -- and are among those pressuring Islandia to open up and take part in international trade.
Lang's duties in Islandia are not too taxing or time-consuming. With ships only very occasionally arriving, communication with the United States is limited and slow, and there are few American visitors that he has to help (Islandia has a 'Hundred Law', limiting the number of foreigners allowed in the territory at any one time). The American government does, however, expect him to promote American interests -- which very much includes opening up the country to foreign trade, so that it can be properly exploited, with and after passage of the Mora Treaty. Lang's friendship with Dorn (and then his family), however, incline him to favor the Islandians continuing their traditional -- and isolated -- ways.
Lang is something of a romantic, both in his growing appreciation for the old-fashioned ways of Islandia -- and in matters of the heart. A fellow countryman has no problem at least satisfying his urges in the capital's red light district, but Lang finds himself incapable of that; he longs for true love -- and soon thinks he's found it in the person of Dorn's sister, Dorna. She would seem to reciprocate his feelings -- but it's not that simple. There is, of course, the issue of his foreign-ness, which certainly complicates matters; as Dorna tells him:
But there is something that stands between you and us. Don't make me tell you what it is. I am not sure that I know.There's also something else standing between them -- what Dorna refers to as her 'problem', which she also prefers to remain vague about (though clearly she knows exactly what she might have to expect). At least she promises that it will soon be resolved -- as it then is, though not in Lang's favor; they are, indeed, not meant to be a couple, though they continue to have strong feelings for one another.
The coming vote on the Mora Treaty by the national council is a major turning point, deciding whether the country will open up and become part of the larger trading world, or remain turned inwards. Lang notes that technological advances, such as a railroad, would also benefit Islandia -- but Dorn argues against it:
Speed, is that progress ? Anyway, why progress ? Why not enjoy what one has ? Men have never exhausted present pleasures.When he arrived in Islandia, Lang was an 'Alterator' -- one of those who believed Islandia had to change with the times:
I felt that no country could stand apart from the rest of the world as Islandia did. Accepting alteration as an inevitable evolutionary process, I wished it to come to pass in a form that would do good to Islandia, to the United States, and to the rest of the world.Once there, however, and once he has immersed himself in the lifestyle of the Islandians, he changes his tune, and comes to think that Dorn might be onto something, that there is a lot to be said for keeping things as they are. Of course, this is a problematic attitude for a foreign government's representative to have -- and the State Department expresses its dissatisfaction with his job-performance. Torn between allegiances, Lang eventually finds it easier (or truer to his self) to side entirely with those who want to preserve Islandia as is; as a consequences of what are seen as his failures he is replaced as consul, and while he could stay on as an American representative in a lowlier position decides instead to quit government service entirely -- doing so conveniently before the vote on the Mora Treaty is to take place.
The final debates over the Mora Treaty and then the vote are the centerpiece of the novel -- coming near the midway point and surprisingly dramatic for a clash that has been bubbling in the background but hardly really come too strongly to the fore before then. The foreigners expect to get their way, but Lord Dorn and his allies have been working hard -- investing a great deal of their time and money -- to make their case. One side wins this battle -- but is that just prelude to a bigger war ? (As, indeed, one of the arguments against defeating the Mora Treaty was that if Islandia does not voluntarily open up they may be forced to by foreign military might -- with the Germans and their proxies lurking near, just over the mountain-border .....)
Freed from his official duties, Lang can enjoy himself on his own in this country he has grown to appreciate so much -- albeit only for less than another year, as Islandia strictly limits the time foreigners can spend there. He has become close to several local families, visiting them and working as part of them, in the Islandian way. And while he continues to long for lost love Dorna, he has found another woman who also has strong feelings for him; she too maintains she can not marry him, but is willing to be his partner for the time being -- a great relief and joy for Lang. Still, he can not be other than an outsider; as she tells him:
You don't know how you seem to us, Johnlang -- like a strange lost creature who has wandered in from another world !Which, of course, he has.
There is much discussion of the several kinds of love Islandians refer to. Apia is the most straightforward -- lust, or sexual love -- but in this family-centric (whereby 'family' extends across generations and time) society alia, "one's love for one's home place and family as a going thing" (the two being related), is also very important -- as is ania, a desire for marriage and that kind of bonding-commitment to the other. In the various relationships that develop -- the marriages Dorn and Dorna enter into, as well as Lang's relationships -- these feature prominently, an Islandian variation on trying to find 'true love' that takes into account the obligations one has to country and family(-line). Lang's outsider status, in particular, complicates his ability to form the kind of meaningful relationship he seeks; confusingly for him, he achieves them on a certain level -- entering both deep romantic and sexual relationships -- but finds his partners unwilling to make these permanent: there are surely few novels in which a character proposes marriage so frequently and insistently (and yet to no avail) as Islandia. (As one local tells Lang, when he explains: "I want her to marry me": "I feel sorry for you both".)
It's not like the women he is drawn to don't have strong feelings for him as well -- but that isn't quite enough. Wright harps on the difficulties -- ultimately, impossibilities -- of their loves a lot, which can get a bit tiresome, but occasionally it does rise to some impressive heartfelt depths, as when one of the local women responds to yet another of Lang's declarations:
But when you say we would decide, we would choose, you and I, we ! we -- oh, Johnlang ! your we melts me so !After resigning his position, Lang's days in Islandia are numbered -- foreigners are only allowed to remain in the country for a year, the exception made for diplomatic officials under which he arrived no longer applying to him -- but he decides to stay as long as he can and he immerses himself for the remaining duration in Islandian life to the fullest, visiting and living with those he has bonded with, and helping out on their properties. When in the borderlands he also agrees to help maintain a watch, as incursions from the north are feared. An act of heroism on his part during this time then also changes his status, the king himself making the case that Lang is deserving of an exception, and be allowed to remain and settle in Islandia, should he choose to.
Lang is tempted -- but believes he must first return to his homeland and determine whether there is a place for him there, and he asks for and is given a year away to decide whether or not he will take up the generous Islandian offer.
His family is pleased to see him back in the United States, but disappointed that he seems so pleased with himself and his life. The way they see it:
You are nearly thirty. Apparently you have wasted two years of your life. You aren't anywhere, John. You have made a failure of the diplomatic service.Uncle Joseph welcomes him quite coldly, but that's mostly just an act; he merely wants Lang to prove himself -- which he does soon enough, back at work in the family business -- and is soon enough eager to have Lang follow even more directly in his footsteps. Lang goes along with things for the time being, willing to give life in the United States a chance, before he makes his final decision of whether ot not to return to Islandia -- knowing that: "It must be one life or the other with no afterthoughts. They are very different".
The question of a life-partner also hangs over him, as he comes to see that it is unlikely that he could ever find the kind of true love both he and she would expect if that she is Islandian. But, from before the time he first left for the distant land, there has been a girl -- now woman -- whom he has remained in touch with, exchanging letters all the while -- Gladys Hunter. While in New York he reconnects with her, and they meet up on occasion. Uncle Joseph warns him off of her -- her background isn't fine enough for him -- but the friendship holds. As to it becoming more -- well, if his choice is Islandia, she suspects: "I don't think I would be suited to Islandia".
As the time for his decision whether to stay or go approaches, it becomes ever clearer to Lang:
Islandia was in my senses -- I saw, smelled, and tasted it. It was in my blood as love is in the blood, welling up continually insisting upon itself and its existence, whatever one thinks, whatever one's occupationUltimately, the choice is an easy one for him -- even as it disappoints his family and means leaving behind a different kind of alia, the firm of Lang and Company, passed down from his grandfather to his Uncle Joseph and destined, if he so chose, to eventually be his. But he see a different future for himself, in what amounts to a different world. Wright's critique of the American (business-focused) way of life is almost incidental here -- so clear-cut does he make the choice between primitive paradise and the soulless, too-fast life found in the rapidly industrializing Western world.
The (long) conclusion to the novel sees Lang return to Islandia and settle down, on a farm bought from the Dorns, so that he has his own homestead to build on -- and with the partner he has chosen, one he is convinced he will be able to find ania with, despite hurdles that have to be overcome and hardships that will have to be faced.
It is an odd, almost anticlimactic turn the novel takes, much of the drama petering out after the decision on whether or not to open up the nation is reached by its council, halfway through the book. Any potential as to how the foreign powers might react to that decision, once it is reached, is almost entirely dissipated; Islandia remains surprisingly secure in its isolation, a forgotten safe haven and idyll -- a world apart. Islandia turns out not to be a novel about how this is possible, and the consequences of a nation excluding itself from the larger world- and trade order -- all that is, ultimately, simply a given -- but rather a romance.
Wright imagines an ideal society, based on community and family, and that can do without what it sees as merely the frills of modernity and technological advances. It is a deeply nostalgic work, harking back to a time when life was so much easier -- as he imagines it. It's rather problematic, in that he makes it so easy on himself -- and the Islandians -- who have to work hard and whose lives are fairly simple, but who are all so contented with their lot and able to overcome whatever hardships they face together. Set at a time when much of the world was already rapidly industrializing, with electricity, trains and the first automobiles, and mass-production, among much else, Wright presents an alternative that he sees as a much more agreeable state. But he does so with a fantasy world: no one on Islandia seems unhappy, and there are basically hardly even ever cross words; everyone is on board with the system, and pitches in to the best of their abilities; no one truly suffers. For much of the early part of the novel, there seems genuine political conflict, about the way forward -- but when that is decided, it just melts away; everyone accepts the outcome, and goes about their usual, simple business; there is no on-going argument or tension.
What Wright does consider, at great length, is love, in all its aspects: romantic as well as sexual, individual and as part of a community. What Lang seeks is that personal satisfaction of dedicating his life to an ideal that includes both work (preferably with his hands - the more honest kind of work ...) and someone at his side, with whom he can have a family, that then all becomes and adds up to something more than just him. It is how things work in Islandia, and he wants to be part of that -- and Wright makes it very easy for him to choose and realize these ambitions.
Ultimately, Islandia is far too simplistic. Wright allows threats to hover at Islandia's edges -- but even when they truly show themselves, they are dealt with rather easily (and, it seems, more or less finally, too: there is no real sense of this idyll facing some kind of on-going threat). Islandia can simply be Islandia -- and Islandia is very simple. So also, they can get by without technological advances; an imported sewing machine is about as big an advance as they trouble themselves with -- but that's okay for them. From the latest advances in transportation to the medical sciences, they can simply do without -- with Wright never really pointing out what they are missing, beyond that they can't get from one point to another as quickly as they otherwise might.
The relentless good cheer of everyone, the satisfaction with their lots -- even when they acknowledge that not everything is exactly what they might have hoped for (but you can't have everything ...) -- can make for an idyll that tends almost towards blandness -- but Wright's enthusiasm for his project works quite well against that. Even when relatively little happens -- as is the case for much of the novel --, Islandia is engaging reading, often exciting, even. Lang's back and forth with the women in (and out of) his life can get to be a bit much -- but this is a romance, and it's a pretty decent romance at that, the occasional melodrama notwithstanding.
There are missed opportunities here, of a deeper consideration of what it means for a nation to cut itself off from the world and technological progress, but Islandia's main failing is that Wright's imagined land ultimately doesn't feel convincing: it is too fairy-tale perfect, its citizens too content with their (rather basic) lots. Amazingly, Wright long gets away with it, because his portrayal is so vivid, especially of the local nature and conditions, -- Islandia really is a good read --, but his conviction alone -- and that's pretty much all there really is, as to the possibility of opting out from the world at large -- isn't enough to make this too-sunny picture convincing.
It's an interesting work, a quite compelling read and an unusual love story -- because love is ultimately Wright's main concern -- and Wright pulls off quite a feat here, with his grand vision, but it doesn't entirely work.
Note also that, in her Introduction to the novel, Austin Tappan Wright's daughter, Sylvia, offers some background about both her father and the text -- including the shocking admission that:
With the intelligent and sensitive help of Mark Saxton, then an editor of Farrar & Rinehart, I cut the original novel by about a third. This is its form today.She maintains: "Much of the cutting was of this sort of leisurely observation". Without what was lost it is of course impossible to judge whether or not the heavy cutting was justified; yes, even in this form it's a baggy, often leisurely-paced novel, but as a firm believer in a book being an author's vision, and outsiders having no business tinkering with it (especially when the author no longer can have a say in the matter) I am deeply disappointed that we don't have Wright's full, original version; I hope one day that too will be published.
- M.A.Orthofer, 10 January 2022
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American author and legal scholar Austin Tappan Wright lived 1883 to 1931.
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