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The Lost Musicians

Author: William Heinesen

Translator: W. Glyn Jones   Cover design: Marie Lane   Cover illustration: William Heinesen  

Heinesen spent most of his life in the Faroe Islands and, despite being little known here, was considered for the Nobel Prize. The Lost Musicians concerns a small group who resist the religious ban on music in the Faroes at the turn of the last century. Based loosely on real events, it blossoms in Heinesen's hands into a major work.

Alastair Mabbott in The Herald

Set in a small Faroese town, this novel is based around a group of amateur musicians who turn to music to cope with their own personal tragedies. A new translation of William Heinesen's classic, this novel has been named one of the most important Scandinavian novels of the 20th century.

Rosanne White in The Big Issue

William Heinesen was, by a long way, the best writer that the Faroe Islands have ever produced. Which isn't intended to sound like a back-handed compliment, there’s just no other way to put it. Many have him down as the most important Scandinavian novelist of the 20th century, and he only declined a Nobel prize because he thought it should go to someone who wrote in Faeroese, which he didn't. After the social realism of his earlier novels, his newly translated 1950 novel, The Lost Musicians was something of a departure, it being a satire set in the earlier part of the 20th century, when a Christian temperance movement was trying to impose a total prohibition. It is peopled by villagers and fishermen who heartily enjoy drinking, dancing, feasting, a little fighting and, more than anything else, playing music.' Now if these music makers whose story is to be told below had seen to their work here on earth instead of striving to reach the heavens in that curious way of theirs, then things might have gone far better for them in this, the pettiest of all known worlds.' Thus the way is set for Ankersen, the puritanical bank manager and villain of the piece, to infiltrate the community and convert the villagers to his cause. A patchwork story told in a peculiar omniscient but disjointed voice that seems to align it with the oral tradition, The Lost Musicians takes a long while to get going, then builds towards a crescendo of farce and tragedy in which nothing less than 'the cosmic struggle between life-asserting and life-denying forces' is played out.

Laurence Phelan in The Independent on Sunday

Marooned in the north Atlantic between Iceland and Norway, the Faroe Isles are famous for little besides dried mutton and twice drawing with Scotland at football. Indeed, the thinly fictionalised island of this new translation by W. Glyn Jones of William Heinesen's 1950 novel often seems as much a prison as a homeland. The pursuit of happiness is hardly helped by the local Baptists, headed by tactless Ankersen, the spearhead of the prohibition movement. Set against his priggish faith are a colourful crew of musicians and layabouts: Sirius is a frustrated poet, the Crab King a mute dwarf, Ole Brandy a belligerent pillar of the community and Ura the Brink a cliff-dwelling fortune teller. One of their glorious but destructive drinking sessions is the stage for the novel's key incident, in which money is stolen and a young cellist blamed. The result is a tale of stereotypically northern European sensibility, in which merriment is bright, brief and viewed through the fug of booze, and desperation chips at the hardiest of souls. Heinesen's intriguing novel walks a fine line between a fable and a social document.

Jane Smart in The Guardian

William Heinesen's masterpiece is an epic struggle between good and evil. Although set in on a small island the book is full of larger than life characters, like the formidable bank manager Ankersen, the scurrilous Matte Gok, the enormous blacksmith Janniksen and the amateur musicians. Heinesen succeeds in making the everyday world of Torshavn at the beginning of the 20th-century the stuff of a Greek tragedy.
Personally I have never read any of William Heinesen's work and via The Lost Musicians experienced the Faroes with sheer excitement which lead me through the pages with ease. Virtually all artistic activity on these eighteen small islands in the North Atlantic stems from the inspiration of an overwhelming natural environment, which I would never have known about without the famous Faroese author, painter, and composer William Heinesen(1900-1991).

Jenny O'Kane in The Big Buzz

The Lost Musicians regales the stories surrounding a group of amateur musicians in a small Faroese town. The remarkable thing about this book is that it is told as an old-fashioned story, and all the way through you feel that you're in the capable of a natural and very confident raconteur. The stories flit from character to character yet the narrative never really loses its way. Add to this the quirky Brecht-meets-classical-symphony structure and you have a delightfully perfect book.

LD in Buzz

A quirkier evocation of the far north is William Heinesen's The Lost Musicians (Dedalus), set in another poor but archaically villageois community, that of the Faroes where puritanism battled with music.

Books of the Year in The Sydney Morning Herald

'Far out in the radiant ocean glinting like quicksilver, there lies a solitary little lead-coloured land. The tiny rocky shore is to the vast ocean just about the same as a grain of sand to the floor of a dance hall. But seen beneath a magnifying glass, this grain is nevertheless a whole world…'

William Heinesen wrote this passage about the Faroe Islands in his novel The Lost Musicians, 1950. It is perhaps the most accurate description I’ve found of the feeling you get when you touch down there. The ocean is overwhelmingly present in every direction, a part of the experience at any point on the islands – you hear it, you smell it, you feel it everywhere. And yet you’re in the middle of a sturdy civilization, a unique and isolated universe with its own language, food, literature, and a history that goes back to the year 400. For the Faroese, the sea has always been a dominant character in their story.'

Boat Magazine

It’s said that Heinesen, who died in 1991, could have been a Nobel Laureate but declined to be considered because he wrote in Danish (his mother’s tongue) rather than the language of his home, the Faroe Islands. He was, nevertheless, a great chronicler of the Faroes, and this delightful novel from 1950 will definitely resonate with Scots readers who enjoy stories set in Shetland, Orkney and the Hebrides. Set in what is now the Faroes’ capital, Torshavn, at the dawn of the 20th century, it’s basically a series of interconnected vignettes revolving around a group of amateur musicians, the Boma Quartet, who strive to make life bearable for their fellow islanders despite attempts to thwart them by the more puritanical members of the community. With walk-on parts for local characters like Pontus the Rose, Ura the Brink and the Crab King, it embraces fights, gossip, unrequited love, death and all the usual business of small communities with charm and humour.

Alastair Mabbott in The Sunday Herald

While I have yet to step foot on the Faroe Islands, I daydream of doing so. 'Even from a distance the rocky Faroes begin to exert their power over the imagination. No one can sail past them with indifference. Like a jumble of broken and tilted layer cakes, like a mad dream, or like a setting for some Sinbadian adventure, they rise from the sea as a unique landmark midway between the Shetland Isles and Iceland,' writes Hedin Bronner in his book Three Faroese Novelists.

William Heinesen is one of the authors included in Bronner's tribute. As a boy, Heinesen explored the steep cliffs of the island of Vågø, one of the 14 islands that make up the Faroese archipelago. The forces of nature that shaped his childhood are strongly portrayed in the book.

The Lost Musicians is set in Torshavn, Heinesen’s home town and the capital of the Faroe Islands, in the early 20th century. Here, three brothers - Kornelius, Moritz and Sirius - sons of a church sexton and harp maker, eke out a living while pursuing their real passions, the creation of music and poetry. But the brothers are caught in a town - and time - overshadowed by Mr. Ankerson, the domineering leader of a local branch of the Christian temperance society, who, like a pit bull, charges into other families' affairs to set 'stray' behaviors on a new - and narrow - path.

Mr. Ankerson's religious fervor boils over when his illegitimate son arrives in Torshavn. To his dismay, and village gossips' delight, the much-anticipated welcome becomes a horrible embarrassment - the young man is muddy, rumpled and 'drunk to the gills.'

One can read The Lost Musicians incisively, finding allegorical references to the arrival of the prodigal son and exploring the author's perhaps cynical views of Christianity. But the story is also entertaining. The theatrics of village life in the Faroe Islands play out like a dramatic soap opera.

Margaret Williams in Literary Denmark:A Kingdom of Islands and Oceans

Heinesen is the least known of the 20th century masters of Nordic literature. The Lost Musicians may be his magnum opus and should be read by all who love universal tales taking place in the smallest of societies. In this case the place is Torshavn, the capital town of the Faroe Islands, home to a band of brothers seeking beauty through music and art in a world full of hardship and rife with religious intolerance and fanatic teetotalers.

Icelandic author Sjon recommends five favourite books

'The Lost Musicians to my mind is a masterpiece of magic realism.'

Bary Forshaw in Nordic Noir

There's something refreshingly slow-paced about old-fashioned novels, written in the days before the creative writing academy, with its axioms of place, point of view and voice to be disturbed only knowingly by the extremely sophisticated. I’ve grown a little tired, I think, of brilliantly conceived openings and expertly revealed characterisation, thrown into merciless relief by razor-sharp editing. It might help sift an agent's reader’s heaving in-tray, but it doesn't necessarily deliver a great book in the long run. For that, a writer needs something that, unsophisticated as I am, I can only describe as heart.
This novel has plenty of heart, though it’s an aching one. A minor Danish classic, first published in 1950, it's an extended melancholy essay on where ordinary talent, if that’s not a contradiction in terms, goes when it has no scope for professional development. The musicians of the title are members of a modest family who earn modest livings on the isolated Faroe Islands as ferryman, schoolteacher, decorator, at which they are, in some cases, spectacularly inept. Music, for them, is a vocation, self-evidently; something pursued at leisure for its own sake; even the undisputed child prodigy, it is assumed, will soon be apprenticed to a tradesman, for what else is there for a boy in these parts?
I took quite a while to finish it, but I'll remember it for longer than most page-turners. Its episodes come together like a symphony in a minor key leaving a few indelible refrains. Heavy drinking features large, as does its nemesis, puritanical religious evangelism. Doomed love, lost fortunes, suicides - not much here goes according to the best-intentioned plans. What makes life count is stoicism, and hope. The poet and composer live on in their work, which will find recognition, it is suggested, they didn’t dream of in their lifetimes. And the orphaned prodigy will find his destiny in the end.
They are all men, of course, these musicians. Their women are wise and beautiful, objects of love and desire, and may even appreciate music, as an audience, but are not particularly creative. The artist’s gaze here is forever male. At this point I wished for a Hilary Mantel, who even as she strides through swathes of old-fashioned misogyny will throw in a precocious girl child just to remind us they too have always existed. However, there is much sombre mood-music to enjoy here, and alongside the shy geniuses and stoic and/or retarded girls, plenty of truly idiotic blokes.

Sarah Gellner in Tribune

William Heinesen is perhaps the most well known and profoundly Faroese artist blending mythological creatures with religious and political themes or social issues. Political figures are portrayed as trolls and naked witches dance under the moon in his satirical vision of Faroese life and mythology. An image of a fiddler and dancing girl summons his most famous novel The Lost Musicians as well as the Garden of Eden.

Visiting the Faroes in The Herald

William Heinesen(1900-91)- in his poetry, short stories and above all, six impressive novels – is his country’s chronicler, diagnostician and celebrant…
Heinesen knew at first hand the vulnerability of his Faroese kin - geographically isolated, unusually dependent on the elements for survival, and even today more churchgoing than other Nordic countries, with a culture of evangelism and charismatic sects, whether Plymouth Brethen or Seventh-day Adventists. Such anti-individualist movements, active from the mid-nineteenth century onwards, frequently showed downright hostility towards private, religious experiences and those guided by their own religious convictions. This hostility which could erupt into vicious and unequal conflict – for sectarianism came well-funded and linked to authority – stalks all of Heinesen’s richly worked fiction. The ugly incidents often pivotal to his narratives, and the tragic, sometimes brutal ends to the ordinary lives depicted, do not break up Heinesen’s surface realism. Rather they enhance it. The struggle between rival interpretations of where goodness and evil reside is an inextricable part of these mundane existences.
But Heinesen’s novels refuse to let individuals, however sympathetic, take over.The intensity of Heinesen’s gaze, the richness of his language, redeem the harshness of his subject. The humanity can feel as passionately as it does, however wrong-headed the cause, itself commands a kind of awed appreciation.
It is Heinesen’s novel The Lost Musicians that provides the vital key to his art. Heinesen was a musician as well as a painter and writer, and this book is constructed like a classical symphony. There are four main characters, string quartet players; the three sons of an Aeolian harp-maker and Mortensen, a frustrated intellectual exile from Denmark….The musicians stand, however. Imperfectly, for a life based on joy and wonder, also integral to Faroese culture.

Paul Binding in The Times Literary Supplement

RRP: £9.99

No. of pages: 320

Publication date: 30.11.2006

Re-print date: 21.04.2017

ISBN numbers:
978 1 903517 50 5
978 1 903517 62 9

World English