Lit React ~ Analysis & reactions on works of fiction.

29 Sept 2011

(Short Story) Lily: The Story of Nebuchadnezzarson in Life and in Death by: Haldor Laxness

(Reaction) An Unremarkable Life by: Antonio Conejos

Reading Lily, the short story by Haldor Laxness, propels the reader on a lovely back motion through the story, where events towards the beginning of the text only gain there full meaning in relation to events at the story's conclusion.

Simply put, Lily only makes sense after it doubles back on itself. This reliance on the past to explicate the present ensures the narrative tightness of the work, with each detail failing into its specific place by the end of the tale.

Laxness's short story describes a life on the margins, N.N. is so thoroughly anonymous that he has to be given a fictitious name because the author can't remember his real name. The author first notices N.N because of the latter's singing. Yet N.N. insists that he was not singing. Later in the story N.N. regales a little girl, named Lily, with stories of his youth. Even in his stories though, ...he never could sing. Her name was Lily. (These two lines go great together, they really illustrate N.N.'s loss and the sorrow this causes him.)

Eventually the alert reader pieces together that N.N. was once in love with a woman named Lily. And that she, even though she married someone else, was in love with him too. The author/narrator comments to Lily (the old woman who attends N.N.'s funeral, not the little girl who has the same name) that, He [N.N.] was always lonely. Lily, the mother of 13 children and grandmother to many more, who was married has lead a full life, replies, too was always lonely.

Unrequited love is hardly a matter for the history books and N.N. passes away without fanfare or announcement. So hasty is the burial, delivered like a shot, and of so little account is the deceased that the priest doesn't bother with original material and rehashes the brief funeral sermon he had held the week before over an insignificant woman from out of town.

Thus the passing of poor and unknown N.N. is mourned by only two people. The first, a young man who was attracted by the beauty of his melody (that one note was so long drawn out that from any consideration of reasonable proportion, one could have rightly imagined it to be the end of a great symphony) even though N.N. insisted he never could sing. The second, by a woman whom he loved and who it seemed did not love him but really did. In both instances, N.N. touched a life even though he was unaware of this.

Lily ends with a flourish that harkens back to an earlier detail mentioned by N.N., And here ends the story of Nebuchaddnezzar Nebuchadnezzarson, who spent only one night in the cemetery. This neat rhetorical nod to N.N.'s sole night among the dead works on multiple levels. In the context of Lily it could mean that since she loved him then he is not truly dead and will be remembered (this is perhaps an overly sentimental reading but still one justified by the short story. The line could be interpreted literally as since N.N's bones were removed for medical study, then he technically is not buried in the cemetery and thus spent only one night (while still living) there.

Personally though, I think the last line hints that N.N., the sad, destitute, decent man, paused no more on this earth and moved to a better place.


The seeming incongruities of this story, and how they are eventually harmonized, make for a fun read. Lily is at once accessible to the quick reader as well as subtle enough to entertain those of a more meticulous bent.

On a personal note, I think this is the first time I've ever read anything from an Icelandic writer. Must read more from that region in the future.

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