Laxness, Halldór (Halldór Guðjónsson) (23 April 1902 - 8 February 1998)
Halldór Laxness (Halldór Guðjónsson) (23 April 1902 - 8 February 1998)
(Translated by Alison Tartt)
This entry has been revised from Kress’s Laxness entry in DLB 293: Icelandic Writers.
BOOKS: Barn náttúrunnar: Ástarsaga (Reykjavík: Hall dór Kiljan Laxness, 1919);
Nokkrar sögur (Reykjavík: Ísafoldarprentsmiðja, 1923);
Undir Helgahnúk (Reykjavík: Bókaverslun Ársæls Árnasonar, 1924);
Kaþólsk viðhorf: Svar gegn árásum (Reykjavík: Bókaverslun Ársæls Árnasonar, 1925);
Vefarinn mikli frá Kasmír (Reykjavík: Halldór Kiljan Laxness, 1927);
Alþóðubókin (Reykjavík: Jafnaðarmannafélag Íslands, 1929);
kuœðakver (Reykjavík: Acta, 1930; enlarged edition, Reykjavík: Helgafell, 1949),
Salka Valka, 2 volumes (Reykjavík: Menningarsjóður, 1931, 1932); translated into Danish by Gunnar Gunnarsson as Salka Valka (Copenhagen: Hasselbalch, 1934); translated from Danish into English by F. H. Lyon as Salka Valka: A Novel of Iceland (London: Allen & Unwin, 1936);
Í Austurvegi (Reykjavík: Sovétvinafélag Íslands, 1933);
Fótatak manna: Sjöþœttir (Akureyri: Þorsteinn M. Jónsson, 1933); “Ungfrúin góóa og húsið” translated by Kenneth G. Chapman as The Honour of the House (Reykjavík: Helgafell, 1959); “Nýja Ísland” translated by Axel Eyberg and John Watkins as “New Iceland,” in Seven Icelandic Short Stories, edited by Ásgeir Pétursson and Steingrímur J. Þorsteinsson (New York: American-Scandinavian Foundation, 1960), pp. 151–166; “Lilja: Sagan af Nebúkadnesar Nebúkadnesarssyni lífs og liðnum” translated by Eyberg and watkins as “Lily: The Story of Nebuchadnezzarson in Life and Death,” in Great Stories by Nobel Prize Winners,
edited by L. Hamalian and E. L. Edmond (New York: Noonday Press, 1959), pp. 317–328;
Sjálfstætt fólk: Hetjusaga, 2 volumes (Reykjavík: E. P. Briem, 1934, 1935); translated by J. A. Thompson as Indeþendent People: An Epic (London: Allen & Unwin, 1945, New York: Knopf, 1946);
Straumrof: Sjónleikur (Reykjavík: Heimskringla, 1934);
Dagleið á fjöllum: Greinar (Reykjavík: Heimskringla, 1937);
Heimsjós, 4 volumes (Reykjavík: Heimskringla, 1937 1940); translated by Magnus Magnusson as WorldLight, Nordic Translations Series (Madison: University of wisconsin Press, 1969);
Gerska œvintýrið: Minnisblöð (Reykjavík: Heimskringla, 1938);
Sjö töframenn: Þœttir (Reykjavík: Heimskringla, 1942);
Vettvángur dagsins: Ritgerðir (Reykjavík: Heimskringla, 1942);
Íslandsklukkan, 3 volumes (Reykjavík: Helgafell, 1943 1946); translated by Philip Roughton as Iceland’s Bell (New York: Vintage, 2003);
Sjálfsagðir hlutir: Ritgerðir (Reykjavík: Helgafell, 1946);
Atómstöðin (Reykjavík: Helgafell, 1948); translated by Magnusson as The Atom Station (London: Methuen, 1961);
Snœfríður Íslandssól (Reykjavík: Helgafell, 1950);
Reisubókarkorn (Reykjavík: Helgafell, 1950);
Gerpla (Reykjavík: Helgafell, 1952); translated by Katherine John as The Happy Warriors (London: Methuen, 1958);
Heiman eg fór: Sjálfsmynd œskumanns (Reykjavík: Helgafell, 1952);
Silfurtúnglið: Sjónleikur í fjórum þáttum (Reykjavík: Helgafell, 1954);
Dagur í seen: Rœða og rit (Reykjavík: Helgafell, 1955);
Brekkukotsannáll (Reykjavík: Helgafell, 1957); translated by Magnusson as The Fish Can Sing (London: Methuen, 1966; New York: Crowell, 1967);
Gjörningabók (Reykjavík: Helgafell, 1959);
Paradísarheimt (Reykjavík: Helgafell, 1960); translated by Magnusson as Paradise Reclaimed (London: Methuen, 1962; New York: Crowell, 1962);
Stromþleikurinn: Gamanleikur í þrem, þáttum (Reykjavík: Helgafell, 1961);
Prjónastofan Sólin: Gamanleikur í þremur, þáttum (Reykjavík: Helgafell, 1962);
Skáldatími (Reykjavík: Helgafell, 1963);
Sjöstafakverið (Reykjavík: Helgafell, 1964); translated by Alan Boucher as A Quire of Seven (Reykjavík: Iceland Review, 1974);
Uþþhaf mannúðarstefnu: Ritgerðir (Reykjavík: Helgafell, 1965);
Dúfnaveislan: Skemtunarleikur í fimm þáttum (Reykjavík: Helgafell, 1966); translated by Boucher as The Pigeon Banquet, in Modern. Nordic Plays (Oslo: Universitetsforlaget, 1973), pp. 23–135;
Íslendingasþjall (Reykjavík: Helgafell, 1967);
Kristnihald undir Jökli (Reykjavík: Helgafell, 1968); translated by Magnusson as Christianity at Glacier (Reykjavík: Helgafell, 1972); translation republished as Under the Glacier (Reykjavík: Vaka-Helgafell, 1990; New York: Vintage, 2005);
Vínlandsþúnktar (Reykjavík: Helgafell, 1969);
Innansveitarkronika (Reykjavík: Helgafell, 1970); “Sagan af brauðinu dÿra” translated by Magnusson as The Bread of Life (Reykjavík: Vaka-Helgafell, 1987);
Yfirskygðir staðir: Ýmsar athuganir (Reykjavík: Helgafell, 1971);
Guðsgjafapula (Reykjavík: Helgafell, 1972);
Þjóðhátíðarrolla (Reykjavík: Helgafell, 1974);
Í túninu heima (Reykjavík: Helgafell, 1975);
Úngur eg var (Reykjavík: Helgafell, 1976);
Seiseijú, mikil ósköp (Reykjavík: Helgafell, 1977);
Sjömeistarasagan (Reykjavík: Helgafell, 1978);
Grikklandsárið (Reykjavík: Helgafell, 1980);
Við heygarðshornið (Reykjavík: Helgafell, 1981);
Og árin líða (Reykjavík: Helgafell, 1984);
Af menningarástandi, edited by Ólafur Ragnarsson (Reykja vík: Vaka-Helgafell, 1986);
Dagar hjá múnkum (Reykjavík: Vaka-Helgafell, 1987).
Editions: Vefarinn mikli frá Kasmír (Reykjavík: Helgafell, 1948);
Salka Valka (Reykjavík: Helgafell, 1951);
Íslandsklukkan (Reykjavík: Helgafell, 1952);
Sjálfstætt fólk: Hetjusaga (Reykjavík: Helgafell, 1952);
Þœttir (Reykjavík: Helgafell, 1954);
Heimsljós (Reykjavík: Helgafell, 1955);
Jón í brauðhúsum, illustrated by Snorri Sveinn Friðriksson (Reykjavík: Vaka-Helgafell, 1992).
PLAY PRODUCTIONS: Straumrof: Sjónleikur, Reykjavík, Leikfélag Reykjavíkur, 29 November 1934;
Úr myndabók jónasar Hallgrímssonar, Reykjavík, Trípólileikhúsið, 26 May 1945;
Íslandsklukkan, Reykjavík, Þjóðleikhúsið, 10 October 1950;
Silfurtúnglið: Sjónleikur í fjórum, Þáttum, Reykjavík, Þjóðleikhúsið, 9 October 1954;
Strompleikurinn: Gamanleikur í þrem, Þáttum, Reykjavík, Pjóðleikhúsió, 11 October 1961;
Prjónastofan Sólin: Gamanleikur í Þremur Þáttum, Reykjavík, Pjóðleikhúsið, 20 April 1966;
Dúfnaveislan: Skemtunarleikur í fimm Þáttum, Reykjavík, Leikfélag Reykjavíkur, 29 April 1966.
RECORDINGS: Íslandsklukkan (the play production), Fálkinn, 1966;
Laxness les úr eigin verkum, Vaka-Helgafell, 1989;
Únfrúin góða og húsið, read by Halldóra Björnsdóttir, Vaka-Helgafell, 1999;
Kristnihald undir Jökli, read by Halldór Laxness, Vaka Helgafell, 2002.
OTHER: Laxdæla saga, edited, with a preface, by Laxness (Reykjavík: Ragnar Jónsson, Stefán Ögmundsson, 1941);
Hrafnkatla, edited, with a preface, by Laxness (Reykjavík: Ragnar Jónsson, Stefán Ögmundsson, 1942);
Brennunj´s saga, edited, with an afterword, by Laxness (Reykjavík: Helgafell, 1945);
Alexanders saga, edited, with a preface, by Laxness (Reykjavík: Heimskringla, 1945);
Grettis saga, edited, with a preface, by Laxness (Reykjavík: Helgafell, 1946);
Jóhann Jónsson, kvœði og ritgerðir, edited, with a preface, by Laxness (Reykjavík: Heimskringla, 1952); republished as Jóhann Jónsson, Ljóð og ritgerðir (Reykjavík: Menningarsjóóur, 1986).
TRANSLATIONS: Ernest Hemingway, Vopin kvödd (Reykjavík: Mál og menning, 1941);
Gunnar Gunnarsson, Kirkjan á fjallinu (Reykjavík: Landnáma, 1941–1943);
Voltaire, Birtíngur (Reykjavík: Helgafell, 1945);
Gunnarsson, fráa blindhúsum (Reykjavík: Landnáma, 1948);
Gunmrsson, Vikivaki (Reykjavík: Landnáma, 1948);
Hemingway, Veisla í farángrinum (Akureyri: Prentverk Odds Björnssonar, 1966).
Halldór Laxness is both an international author and a thoroughly Icelandic one. He wrote almost exclusively in Icelandic, took his subject matter from the realities of Icelandic society and history, and produced a body of work deeply rooted in the Icelandic epic tradition. At the same time, his work has universal appeal. “Heimurinn er einmitt hér, á Óseyri við Axlarfjörð” (The world is right here, at óseyri in Axlarfjörður), he remarks in one of his first novels, Salka Valka (1931, 1932; translated from Danish into English as Salka Valka: A Novel of Iceland, 1936), which takes place in a poverty-stricken fishing village in one of the most remote areas of the country near the Arctic Circle. A major theme in the work of Laxness is the conflict of nationality-how to belong to one’s own country and the whole world at the same time.
Laxness was extraordinarily prolific and versatile as a writer. During his long career he published more than sixty books, representing many genres-novels, short stories, poetry, plays, and autobiographical sketches and memoirs. He was no less productive as a cultural commentator and wrote many essays on literature, education, religion, and history as well as on social, political, and environmental issues. He was always a controversial figure, especially in his younger years, because of his radical themes and political views. He considered himself first and foremost an epicauthor; he believed he understood social issues no better than anyone else. Indeed, it was for renewing the great narrative art of Iceland through the epic power of his work that he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1955. Through his novels he has won more fame than any other Icelandic author since Snorri Sturluson and the nameless authors of the Icelandic sagas. His works have been translated into more than forty languages and published in countries around the globe. For Icelanders, Halldór Laxness has become a national icon, and his house, Gljúfrasteinn, has now been designated a national museum.
He was born Halldór Guðjónsson in Reykjavík on 23 April 1902 in a little rear house at Laugavegur 32. His parents, Guðjón Helgason and Sigríður Halldórsdóttir, made their home on a main thoroughfare of the capital, a city with a population of six thousand at that time. When Halldór was three years old, the family moved to the farm Laxnes in Mosfellssveit (the Mosfell district) near Reykjavík. His parents farmed, and his father also worked as the foreman of a road crew in the summers. Halldór’s sisters, Sigríóur and Helga, were born at Laxnes in 1909 and 1912, respectively. Halldór later took the name of the farm as his pen name and surname, Laxness (literally, “from Laxnes”). In the first volume of his memoirs, Í túninu heima (1975, In the Field Back Home), he describes his childhood at Laxnes. Although these years in the country were priceless and laid the foundation for the rest of his life, he says that he was lucky to have been born and bred on the longest city street in Iceland, for he did not have to spend years purging himself of the hayseed. Laxness recalls his parents with warmth and respect. His father, who had grown up in the country, was a self-educated man who both read and spoke English; he was also musically inclined and played the fiddle. Music was a favorite pastime in the home, and neighbors from all over the countryside gathered there to play their instruments and sing. “Allar bernskuminníngar mínar hafa undirleik aftónlist” (All my childhood memories are accompanied by music), says Laxness in Í túninu heima. The sounds that filled the house stayed with him for the rest of his life, and music as a motif figures prominently in his works. Laxness describes his mother as temperamental and so reserved that he felt he never really knew her. She was a “huldukona” (hidden woman), he says, and he felt her presence as his guardian as long as she lived-and even longer.
In addition to his parents and the musical environment at Laxnes, a strong influence in young Halldór’s life was his maternal grandmother, Guðný Klœngsdóttir, who lived with the family. Halldór was attached to her and as a child sat next to her on the bed as she spun and kept him amused with nursery rhymes, songs, and ballads. In the autobiographical sketch Heiman eg fór: Sjálfsmynd æskumanns (1952, Leaving Home: self-Portrait of a Young Man), Laxness says that his grandmother was not the least interested in current affairs, politics, or technological advances, but she spoke a purer form of Icelandic than anyone else he ever knew. This grandmother, who gave Laxness an appreciation for the land and the past, appeared later in his work as a positive symbol for bygone times, in odd contrast to the modernism he was otherwise quick to espouse.
By his own admission, Laxness had an aversion to physical labor, and members of the household often lost patience with his malingering ways. His mother, however, understood her son’s interests and spoke up for him. Reading constantly, he spent every waking hour with his books. At Laxnes he wrote thousands of pages, filling up many chests with notebooks crammed with novels, short stories, poems, essays, and journals. He evidently built a bonfire and burned them all before he was sent off to school in the autumn of 1915 after completing the rural grammar school.
In the winter of 1915–1916 Laxness attended the technical school in Reykjavík, where he was an erratic pupil, especially in draftsmanship. He also took organ lessons, for his father was convinced of his musical talent and had given him a harmonium. That winter he wrote a long novel that emulated Elding (1889, Lightning), an equally long historical novel by Torfhildur Hólm that depicted Iceland’s adoption of Christianity. In 1882 Hólm, who was born in 1845, had published Brynjólfur biskup Sveinsson (Bishop Brynjólfur Sveinsson), which was about an eminent Icelandic bishop of the seventeenth century. It was Iceland’s first novel by a woman as well as the first historical novel in modern Icelandic literature. In Sjömeistarasagan (1978, The Chronicle of Seven Masters), the second volume of his memoirs, Laxness says that during his childhood he vowed to be a better writer than Hólm. Echoing the title of her book, Laxness called his novel “Afturelding” (Dawn), which he described as six hundred densely written pages. He later claimed that the manuscript had been lost and that he could not even recall two consecutive words of it.
Many Icelandic writers, including Hólm, lived in Canada for many years or settled there permanently. When Laxness was growing up, the Icelandic immigrations to America had largely come to an end, but they were still fresh in people’s minds and frequently mentioned. As a child, Laxness was engrossed by the migrations, and they later came to symbolize in his work the dilemma of being an Icelander-whether to stay or leave. In his works Laxness links the westward journeys to the Icelandic language, poets, and poetry, and also to women. His first published works, in fact, were two short epistolary essays concerning the Icelandic immigrants. Appearing in June 1916, one in the children’s magazine Æskan and the other in the children’s column of the Icelandic Canadian paper Lögberg, they were signed “H. Guðjónsson of Laxnes.” In both pieces Laxness praises the Icelandic Canadian children for their verses and anecdotes, and pronounces them to be generally much better writers than Icelandic children-with some exceptions, he hastens to add. He tells them all about Iceland and encourages them to learn Icelandic verses and to read the Icelandic classics. In November of that same year, Laxness wrote another epistolary essay for the children’s column in Lögberg. He again discusses poetry and Icelandic nature, offers some quotations from Icelandic poems, and concludes by sending some of his own verses-the first of his poems to appear under his name. In these poems he implores the Canadian Icelandic children never to forget the homeland and closes with these words: “Ég tel ykkur aðeins Í útlegó!” (I regard you as merely being in exile!). In the same year, Laxness published a few poems and stories in newspapers and magazines under the pen name “Snær svinni” (Snær the Wise). In November 1916, for the Reykjavík newspaper Morgunblaðið, he wrote an article under his own name about an old clock that belonged to a maternal great-aunt.
In the winter of 1918–1919 Laxness entered Reykjavík’s secondary school. Unhappy in school, he neglected his studies and immersed himself in writing. At the end of the term he dropped out of school and ended his formal education forever. In 1924 he took the examination for a high-school diploma but did not pass.
In the summer of 1919, when Laxness was seventeen, his father, only forty-nine years old, died of pneumonia. Laxness had just completed Barn náttúrunnar: Ástarsaga (Child of Nature: A Romance), his first published novel, self-published that autumn under the name “Halldór frá Laxnesi” (Halldór from Laxnes).
Barn náttúrunnar is about an Icelandic Canadian real-estate agent named Randver, who returns to Iceland after thirty years in winnipeg and starts a new life as a farmer. He meets the innocent Hulda (a name that means “hidden woman”), a free-spirited young woman who lives in the mountains and spends her days singing, composing her own poems and songs, and playing the guitar. When Hulda loses interest in Randver for a time, he takes up drinking, forgets his native language, and reverts to speaking English. Barn náttúrunnar is naive and imitative of the exoticism that characterized the works of the Icelandic writers who had moved to Denmark and were writing in Danish. The book was not well received: the author was labeled a “child” and the story “childish” by Arngrímur Jónsson in the newspaper AlÞýðublaðið(Folk Newspaper) on 6 November 1919. The critic, however, reminded Icelanders that they should coddle the country’s young writers to keep them from moving abroad and writing in a foreign language. In the preface to the second edition of the novel, published in 1964, Laxness calls Barn náttúrunnar his best book, because it preserves the sounds of childhood. It was his farewell to this period of his life.
without waiting for his novel to come out, Laxness sailed to Copenhagen in the summer of 1919. There he rented a room and put his calling card on the door: “Halldór frá Laxnesi. Poëta.” This first trip abroad, which lasted less than a year, is described in the third volume of his memoirs, Úngur eg var (1976, Young Was I). Immersing himself in literature, philosophy, and religious questions, he Was captivated by the Swedish modernist August Strindberg and by the Chinese mystic Lao-tzu.
About this time several Icelandic writers were making names for themselves in Denmark, writing in Danish. They included Jóhann Sigurjónsson, Guðmundur Kamban, and Gunnar Gunnarsson, all born in the 1880s. Laxness perhaps aspired to joining the group, for he soon tried his hand at writing short stories in Danish. Three of them were published in the respected newspaper Berlingske Tidende:”Den tusindaarige Islænding” (The Thousand Year Icelander, 19 October 1919), “Thordur i Kalfakot” (Thordur at Kalfakot, 20 February 1920), and “Digteren og Zeus” (The Poet and Zeus, 2 May 1920). The stories were later published in Icelandic in the author’s first volume of short stories, Nokkrar sögur (1923, A Few Stories). As its title suggests, “Den tusindaarige Islænding” depicts the archetypal Icelander and his struggle with the forces of nature. The protagonist is Helgi, a farmhand who lives by the heroic code of the Icelandic sagas and believes in the pagan gods. His opposite is the cosmopolitan artist Heiðbæs, who comes to the farm to paint. When a volcano erupts following a massive earthquake, the frightened artist is intent on fleeing, while Helgi fearlessly rushes out to rescue the livestock. The young woman, who is being courted by both men, no longer has any doubt about which one to choose. “Thordur i Kalfakot” is about a poor farmer who struggles to survive on a remote patch of barren land and turns to rustling sheep to feed his starving children. Unlike the thousand-year Icelander, Thordur is defeated not only by the forces of nature but also by a hostile society. The story is Laxness’s first to portray the Icelandic subsistence farmer, a subject that he wrestled with for decades. “Digteren og Zeus” concerns an Icelandic poet living abroad and his most trusted friend, a dog named Zeus. In his preface to the second edition of Nokkrar sögur, published in the collection Þœttir (1954, Stories), Laxness dismisses these early stories, saying that in those days he could write a whole story in the length of time it would now take him to write one sentence, for he had not yet learned the art of striking out words.
When Laxness returned to Iceland early in the summer of 1920, he seems to have already given up the idea of writing in Danish. The scholar and poet Sigurður Nordal was being hailed for his story “Hel” (The Goddess of Death), which had appeared the previous year in Fornar ástir (Ancient Passions), a collection of Nordal’s short stories. Written in a fragmentary, lyrical prose style, the story concerns a young man who ventures out into the world to find himself but then returns home as an old man to face his death. Nordal’s poetic use of language in “Hel” apparently demon strated to the young writer new possibilities. In paying tribute to Nordal’s literary genius many years later, he acknowledges that “Hel” was a turning point for him–for a young Icelander to think of writing in Danish suddenly seemed absurd when there was a chance of writ ing such fine Icelandic.
The year following Laxness’s return from Denmark in 1920 is the subject of the fourth and last volume of his memoirs, Grikklandsárið (1980, The Year in Greece)–a somewhat misleading title, as Laxness had never gone to Greece but had only dreamed of doing so. For most of this time he lived at home with his family at Laxnes in addition to pursuing his studies and fre quenting the coffeehouses in Reykjavík. In the autumn he accepted a position as a tutor on a farm in Hornafjörður in southeastern Iceland, in those days one of the most isolated regions of the country. The children of the household turned out to be generally older than he was, and he had ample time for reading and writing. While there he worked on a long novel titled “Salt jarðar” (The Salt of the Earth), but he never finished it, and the manuscript is now lost.
In the autumn of 1921 Laxness again set out to see the world, traveling around Europe and spending most of his time in Germany and Austria. At Innsbruck he wrote a philosophical book titled “Rauða kverió” (The Red Booklet), written in red ink and clearly influenced by Strindberg. The book was not published until several decades later when most of it was incorporated into Heiman eg fór. Evidently, Laxness’s ultimate destination on this trip was America, perhaps with the idea of settling there. To that end he applied to the Canadian authorities for a permit to reside in Saskatchewan, where he intended to work on a relative’s farm. Apparently, his application was either lost or processed too late, for when Laxness arrived in New York in the spring of 1922, he was promptly sent back to Europe on the same ship that brought him. During the return voyage he wrote the short story “Júdít Lvoff,” published in Nokkrar sögur. In his preface to the second edition in Þœttir he says that the story shows a clear dovetailing of certain characteristics that stayed with him over time. He is obviously referring to the conflict between Iceland and the outside world, the Icelander and the cosmopolitan. The story is narrated by a writer who, as an Icelander and a man of the world, mediates between these two realms. The title character is a wild and exotic young Russian woman who comes to Iceland and seduces an innocent, hardworking farmer’s son. She leaves the country, promising to come back, but then marries a rich American businessman and settles in America. In this story Iceland is poor and primitive but genuine and true. Foreign countries are superficial, treacherous, and rich. In the end the American businessman offers to introduce the writer to his friends in Hollywood.
Back in Europe, Laxness stayed several months in Denmark, mainly on the island of Bornholm. There he met a young Icelandic woman, Málfríður Jónsdóttir, and in April 1923 had a child, María Halldórsdóttir. The news that he was to become a father came as a great shock to Laxness and was one of the factors in his decision to enter a monastery. With the help of the Danish writer and Catholic Johannes Jørgensen, he was admitted to the Benedictine monastery of St. Maurice de Clervaux in the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg toward the end of 1922. In January 1923 he was baptized a Catholic by the bishop of Luxembourg and adopted the name of the Irish martyr Kilian (missionary bishop beheaded at Würzburg, circa 689). Laxness then called himself Halldór Kiljan Laxness, publishing his books under this name until 1963, when he dropped the Kiljan moniker.
In the monastery Laxness kept a diary, which he published sixty-five years later, along with a prologue and an epilogue, as Dagar hjá múnkum (1987, Days with Monks), his final book. In the diary he describes his daily activities, which consisted of reading and writing, regular prayers, and theological discussions with the masters of the novices. The Gregorian chants impressed him most of all.
In the monastery Laxness wrote the novel Undir Helgahnúk (1924, Under the Holy Mountain), which tells the story of Snjólfur and Kjartan, two Icelanders who become friends while studying in Copenhagen. Snjólfur marries an American widow and moves with her to Canada, whereas Kjartan returns to Iceland and becomes a country parson after marrying an Icelandic woman who has grown up in Copenhagen. Many years later, after the death of his wife, Snjólfur moves back to Iceland with his young daughter, Áslaug, and takes up farming the land at Kjartan’s parsonage. Kjartan’s wife, a sensitive, artistic woman who can no longer bear the isolation of rural life, commits suicide. The story then shifts to Atli, Kjartan’s son, who has his mother’s antistic bent as well as a longing to see the world and become a great man, and to Áslaug, who feels that she has been taken away from a beautiful country and brought to “þetta ljóta land … á öfugum stað á jöróinni” (this ugly country… on the wrong side of the earth).
In October 1923 Laxness left the monastery, committed to becoming a Catholic theologian and devoting his life to God. After a sojourn in England, where he stayed for some months in Jesuit and Carthusian monasteries, he returned to Iceland early in 1924. “Það var gott að koma aftur heim” (It was good to come back home), he concludes in Dagar hiá múnkum.
In England, Laxness started a draft of Heiman eg fór, which he finished in Iceland in 1924 but did not publish until 1952. Subtitled Sjáfmynd æskumanns (A Self-Portrait of a Young Man), a pointed allusion to James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young man (1916), one of the pioneering works of European modernism, Heiman eg fór has clear autobiographical elements. Laxness rejects all that is traditional and preaches modern times. Icelanders would be better off, he argues, if they would forget their heritage and open themselves up to the outside world. He pronounces Heimskringla (circa 1220, Orb of the World) by Snorri Sturluson the most boring work he has ever read and the language of the Icelandic sagas insignificant compared with the beauty of modern literature in Danish and English.
Laxness had planned to write a sequel to Undir Helgahnúk but gave up the idea in favor of a “meis taraverk” (masterpiece) about Leif the Lucky (Leifur Eiriksson), which, as he revealed in a letter to a friend in August of 1924, was to be a fashionable, monumental novel. This fashionable novel about the Icelander who discovered America in the year 1000 also came to naught. In 1925 he published an essay defending the Catholic Church, kaÞólsk viðhorf: Svar gegn árásum (Catholic Views: A Reply to Attacks), occasioned by the attacks of Þórbergur Þórðarson in Bréf til Láru (Letters to Lára), which had appeared the previous year. He devoted most of the winter of 1924–1925 to his surrealistic poem “Únglíngurinn Í skóginum” (The Youth in the Woods), which he tinkered with for months and which turned out to be his most expensive poem, as he remarked in the 1949 edition of kuœðakver (A Booklet of Poems, originally published in 1930). He had planned on going to Sicily that spring to work on a new novel and had assurances of a travel grant from the Icelandic Parliament. But when “Únglíngurinn Í skóginum” appeared in the periodical Eimreiðin in January 1925, the avant-garde style of the poem created a scandal, and Parliament withdrew the grant.
In an interview with Laxness that appeared in Morgunblaðið (13 December 1924), he was asked whether he was now back in Iceland for good. “Nei, nei, nei” (No, no, no), he answered, and went on to say that he did not even live there. He had intended to amuse himself in Iceland for only a few months, but now it was likely that he would have to suffer the boredom of staying on into the spring. When he was asked about his next destination, he replied, “Suóur,-alfarinn. Jeg er vantrúaður á pólarloftslagið” (South-for good. I’m skeptical of the polar climate).
In the spring of 1925 Laxness once again left the country, this time for Taormina in Sicily, where he spent the summer working on Vefarinn mikli frá Kasmír (1927, The Great Weaver from Kashmir) in sweltering heat and a swarm of insects, stripped down to his monocle, as he phrases it in his literary memoir, Skáldatími (1963, Poet’s Time). That summer he also wrote articles about various social issues and sent them home to be published by the Icelandic press. These articles included “Drengjakollurinn og íslenska konan” (Bobbed Hair and the Icelandic Woman), which created quite a stir when it appeared in Morgunblaðið on 9 August 1925. That autumn Laxness headed north with great relief and finished the novel over the winter at the monastery in Clervaux. In the spring of 1926, when he returned to Reykjavík with the manuscript in hand, he could find no publisher to print a work “eftir nýtt sení, samanskrifað uppúr öllu Því sem Þá var efst á baugi í tímanum, að surrealismanum ekki undanskildum” (by a new genius, cobbled together from everything that was then in vogue, including surrealism), as he says in Skáldatími. Thus, he decided to publish the book himself, and it appeared in eight installments in the first half of 1927.
Laxness considered Vefarinn mikli frá Kasmír the first of his works that deserved to be called a novel. Shortly after its publication, in an interview in the 24 August issue of Heimskringla, he explained that the work had grown out of a need to explore various problems that weigh most heavily on the soul of modern man. In Vefarinn mikli frá Kasmír, Laxness rebels against the Icelandic literary tradition in both subject matter and style. The protagonist of the novel, Steinn Elliói, is a modern cosmopolitan man and a writer, a sponge for doctrines that he constantly flaunts. Much like Laxness himself during this period, Steinn wants to sever all ties with the past and dedicate himself to the latest trends instead. He says that to refer to a work that had been written before 1914 would never enter his mind, even though he is thoroughly versed in all the world’s literary masterpieces. Nevertheless, the author chose for the book an epigram in Latin from Paradiso, Canto 17, of Dante’s Divine Comedy (circa 1307–1321), in which the poet is urged to tell the truth despite the ill that may befall him: “Tutta tua vision fa manifesta” (Make mani fest your whole vision).
Steinn Elliði’s megalomania, stoked by his desire to become “fullkomnasti maðurinn á jörðunni” (the most perfect human being on earth), is repeatedly exposed by the young woman Diljá, who becomes the other protagonist in the novel. In contrast to Steinn Elliói, who seeks a higher goal, Diljá represents sheer sexuality and, as such, is God’s antithesis and rival as well. The story ends in Rome, where Diljá has come to “liberate” Steinn Elliói, who has entered a monastery. Her efforts are in vain; he rejects her and chooses God instead.
The story is told primarily through Steinn Elliði’s rambling confessions and monologues but also through letters, such as those that Diljá writes to Steinn Elliði but does not send; philosophical discussions; literary quotations from eclectic sources; and Steinn Elliði’s surrealistic poems. Vefarinn mikli frá Kasmír is an extravagant mix of the Icelandic and the foreign, the old and the new, often conveyed in carnivalistic scenes, grotesque metaphors, and paradoxical expressions.
Vefarinn mikli frá Kasmír was a breakthrough for Laxness as an author, and along with Þórbergur Þðróarson’s Bréf til Láru, the novel is regarded as the harbinger of modernism in Icelandic literature. Yet, in its day it received mixed reviews, and its author was accused of writing everything from rubbish to obscenity. A different opinion was expressed by the critic Kristján Albertsson in his laudatory review in the periodical Vaka in 1927, and his opening words have become proverbial in Icelandic literature: “Loksins, loksins, tilkomumikið skáldverk sem ris eins og hamraborg upp úr flatnesku islenzkrar ljóða– og sagnagerðar síð!ustu ára! Ísland hefur eignast nýtt stórskáld-” (At last, at last, an impressive literary work that rises up like a monolith from the flatness of Icelandic poetry and fiction of recent years! Iceland has gained a new bard–).
In the epilogue to the second edition of Vefarinn mikli frá Kasmír in 1948, Laxness noted that when he finished the novel, he had written his way through Christian dogma and let go of it. Shortly after returning in 1926, he spent six months in the eastern part of Iceland collecting material for another book because he wanted to “re-do” Steinn Elliði in the guise of an Icelandic farmer, as he says in Skáldatími. He also published a series of critical newspaper articles about poverty in the rural areas of Iceland. They included “Raflýsing sveitanna” (The Electrification of Rural Areas), in which he argues that electricity could be brought to an entire dis trict for the money that is wasted on one good-for-nothing scoundrel of a parson.
With Vefarinn mikli frá Kasmír Laxness was also finished with Europe and made plans for another trip to America. In May 1927 he again crossed the Atlantic, this time sailing from Glasgow to Montreal. That summer he stayed among Icelandic Canadians in Manitoba, visiting Icelandic settlements, delivering lectures, and reading from his works. This period produced one of his most celebrated short stories, “Nýja Ísland” (translated as “New Iceland” in Seven Icelandic Short Stories, 1960), which first appeared in the Icelandic Canadian newspaper Heimskringla on 19 October 1927 and was later reprinted in the short-story collection Fótatak manna: Sjö lættir (1933, People’s Footsteps: Seven Stories). It tells the story of an Icelandic farmer who leaves his farm with his wife and four children and settles in New Iceland. However, his dream of a better life is soon shattered: he is forced to take a backbreaking job digging ditches; two of his children die in an epidemic; the land proves to be too poor to cultivate; and the family is split apart. The story, a variation on the theme of the Icelandic subsistence farmer, was met with disapproval by Icelandic Canadians, who did not appreciate being described as destitute pioneers.
The real purpose of Laxness’s trip to America was to make his way to Los Angeles, the center of the motion-picture industry, which became his destination in late fall of 1927. In a letter written to a friend shortly after his arrival, he described his surroundings this way: “Hollywood. Goldwin Studios. Laski Studios. Universal Film. The Movies. Movie actors. Movie Stars. The movie game.” He went on to say that he had assumed the name Hall d’Or “in movie circles” and was finishing an essay on “cinematography and creative art,” which he intended to submit to the ten largest newspapers in the world. This essay was never published, however, and nothing came of the lecture he was contemplating “on the Spirit of the Nordic Classics” and “the dramatic value of the Sagas.” Around the same time Laxness drafted script treatments in English for two screenplays–”Kari Karan,” from his Danish short story “Digteren og Zeus” of 1920, and “woman in Pants” or “The Icelandic Whip,” which later became the foundation for his novel Salka Valka. With his exotic descriptions of life in the Far North, Laxness intended to make his mark in Hollywood, much as Icelandic writers had done in Denmark. According to the treatment for “Kari Karan,” the characters are “rude, naive and primitive,” driven by “uncultivated passions,” and the dog Zeus is renamed “Viking.” For a time M-G-M seemed interested in a movie about Salka Valka, the “woman in pants,” but the project never materialized.
In California, Laxness became a socialist, not so much from reading socialist tracts as from watching the homeless in the parks, as he says in Allpókin (1929, The People’s Book), a collection of radical essays on social and cultural issues that he wrote near the end of his stay. He took an interest in the sociological novel and devoured the works of Theodore Dreiser, Sinclair Lewis, and Upton Sinclair. He even took the initiative of writing to Sinclair, and a friendship developed, which Laxness recounts in detail in Skáldatími. But it was the work of Ernest Hemingway that impressed Laxness most, especially the author’s unfailing ability to whet the concept of love with the concept of death, as Lax ness says in the preface to his translation of A Farewell to Arms (Vopninkvödd, 1941).
For a time, Laxness mulled over the possibility of writing in English, and his letters home about his future plans reveal a deep conflict between Icelandic and English, the novel and the movie. After his motion picture projects fell through, Laxness tried to market Vefarinn mikli frá Kasmír in the United States and spent much time translating it into English, with the help of his friend Magnús Á. Árnason, an artist living in San Francisco.
In May 1929 Laxness sent Sinclair the first chapters of his translation of Vefarinn mikli frá Kasmír for comment. In his reply Sinclair says that he has read the manuscript with great interest, despite the flawed translation, and that stories like these are “in the fashion just now,” so “it seems to me you should ´arrive’ in America.” Yet, Laxness did not “arrive” in America. He succeeded neither in breaking into the movie business nor in publishing a book in English. Instead, he found himself mired in controversy. In 1928, to commemorate Sinclair’s fiftieth birthday, Laxness wrote a tribute to his friend that also criticized American capitalism. The article created a furor in the Icelandic Canadian press when it appeared in the 27 December 1928 issue of Alþýðblaðið. Laxness was subsequently charged with treason by the immigration authorities in California, but the highly publicized case was dropped in the fall of 1929.
Laxness thus turned once more to the Icelandic hardscrabble farmer. During the last few months of his stay in America, he wrote a draft of a long novel that he titled “Heiain” (The Heath). The extant manuscript indicates that the work was intended as a trilogy about the Icelandic migrations. However, Laxness completed only the volume that takes place in Iceland, and the subsequent two volumes, “westra” and “An Icelander from Winnipeg,” exist merely as names inscribed on the title page of the manuscript. “Heiain” was never published, but it served as the basis of Laxness’s mas terpiece, Sjálfstætt fólk: He jusaga (1934, 1935; translated as Independent People: An Epic, 1945).
Over the next decade, the most productive years of his life, Laxness published fifteen books, including three lengthy novels, all consisting of multiple volumes. During this period he also traveled widely, both around Iceland and abroad-with trips to Europe, South America, and the Soviet Union-and was deeply involved in the cultural and political affairs of the day. He took part in establishing the Félag byltingarsinnaóra rithöfunda (Society of Revolutionary Authors) as well as Rauðir pennar (Red Pens), which came out annually between 1935 and 1939 and was the forerunner of the influential periodical T’ímarit Máls og menningar (Journal of Lan guage and Culture). Both Rauðirpennar and T’ímaritMáls og menningar published many of his essays. In May 1930 Laxness married Ingibjörg Einarsdóttir, whom he had met in the winter of 1926–1927. The ten-year marriage produced a son, Einar Laxness, born in 1931.
Laxness’s first book after his return from America was a collection of thirty-two poems, Kvæðakver, which was published in the autumn of 1930. In the preface he describes the poems as experiments in lyrical techniques, explorations into the world of the real and the surreal, the mundane and the absurd, composed in the burlesque style. He says that some of the poems are straightforward imitations, either of his own poems or those of others, and that a few can even be called parodies of poetic thinking. The poems thus broke with the formal, sentimental style of poetry that prevailed in Iceland at the time. Although Kvæðakver is Laxness’s only book of poetry, it was republished in 1949 with fortytwo additional poems. Many of the poems come from his novels, where they are integrated devices for expressing the feelings of the characters. He composed some of his best poems abroad-for example, the beautiful “Íslenskt vögguljóó á Hörpu” (An Icelandic Lullaby in Springtime), written in San Francisco in the spring of 1928. In the lullaby a mother sings to her child about the glory of the Icelandic spring and the coldness of foreign lands.
Published at the end of 1933, the short-story collection Fótatak manna: Sjö’wettir included new stories as well as some older ones from Laxness’s years in California, such as “Og lótusblómió angar... “(The Scent of the Lotus...), which is told from the viewpoint of a poor ten-year-old boy in San Francisco who supports himself and his sick mother by selling cigarette stubs that he picks up off the streets. The mood and setting are reminiscent of the motion pictures of Charlie Chaplin, whom Laxness greatly admired, especially for his interest in social issues and sympathy with society’s out casts. A similar story in the collection, “Lilja” (translated as “Lily” in Great Stories by Nobel Prize Winners, 1959), takes place in Reykjavík and tells about an old derelict whose one dream in life is knowing how to sing. The longest story in the book and one of Laxness’s best-known works of short fiction is “Úngfrúin góóa og húsió” (translated as The Honour of the House, 1959), which exposes the hypocrisy of a bourgeois Icelandic family when the younger daughter has a child out of wedlock.
Laxness’s 1934 play Straumrof: Sjónleikur (Short Circuit: A Drama) diverges sharply from his other works of this period and clearly reflects the influence of the prevailing trends in European dramaturgy. Like his four later plays, Straumrof is indebted to the theater of the absurd. The setting is a fishing lodge in the wilderness, where a winter storm has caused a power failure. In the ensuing darkness, a married woman seduces her daughter’s fiancé but then is spurned by him. In her desperate state she shoots her daughter. The play was performed in Reykjavík shortly after it was published, but it was unpalatable to Icelandic audiences and was quickly taken off the stage.
Laxness’s articles from this period show that his opinions about literature had undergone a sea change. In “Borgaralegar nútimabókmenntir” (Bourgeois Modern Literature), which appeared in Rauðir pennar in 1935, Laxness describes his view of contemporary literature and lays out a new platform. He criticizes one author after another for what he calls the lack of a fundamental concept and a driving force–that is, the epic principle that he considers the premise of great narrative art. In his view this principle is implicit in the dra matic past of a nation, in sweeping vistas as well as the grueling struggle for survival, both of which Iceland has to offer. In his notebook jottings from this period Laxness observes that in the Icelander lies a certain dramatic sublimity that stems from the formidable landscape and the ludicrous battle to stay alive, and that a magnificence rests in the fate of the smallest individual. Thus, the life of the nation is an inexhaustible source of literary material.
Laxness’s three great novels from the 1930s brought him international renown and are still among his most popular works. Focusing on the life and destiny of Iceland’s common people, these narratives are broad, epic works of social realism. The first was Salka Valka, originally published in two volumes, Þú vínviður hreini: Saga úr flæðarmálinu (1931, O Thou Pure Vine: A Story from the Seashore) and Fuglinn í fjörunni: Pólitísk ástarsaga (1932, The Bird on the Beach: A Political Romance), republished in one volume in 1951. With the one-volume Danish translation in 1934, Salka Valka became the first of Laxness’s novels to appear in a foreign language. It paved the way for the English version, which was followed by translations into other languages.
Salka Valka, set in a small Icelandic fishing village in the early 1900s, tells the story of Salka Valka from the time she arrives in óseyri at the age of eleven until she reaches her early twenties. She and her mother, passengers on a boat to Reykjavík, have been put ashore in this remote and unfamiliar place because they do not have the full fare for the journey south. As elsewhere in Laxness’s work, the narrative often reflects the child’s point of view. Thus, the village and the grandeur of its natural surroundings are described through Salka Valka’s eyes as she goes with her mother, Sigurlína, in search of shelter and work. óseyri is a place of grinding poverty, primitive housing, bitter cold, disease, and infant mortality. Fishing, the mainstay of the village, is controlled by the oppressive local merchant. Eventually, the fisherman Steinþór feels sorry for Sigurlína and her daughter and takes them in, a move that gains him Sigurlína’s domestic and sexual services. But it is the daughter he desires, and after an attempt to rape her, he disappears, leaving Sigurlína pregnant. Salka Valka rebels by renouncing her sex: “Ég vil ekki sjá as vera stelpa. Ég skal aldrei verða kvenmaður eins og hún mamma” (I won’t be a girl, I will never, never become a woman–like Mother), she says to her friend Arnaldur, an educated young man who has taught her to read. To make the point, she wears trousers and bobs her hair. Sigurlína, on the other hand, finds refuge in the Salvation Army, especially in the hymn “O Thou Pure Vine,” which becomes her talisman until she finally drowns herself.
Arnaldur goes away to Reykjavík to study but returns many years later as a socialist agitator. By now Salka Valka is financially independent–she owns a cottage and has a share in a fishing boat. A brief but passionate love affair develops between them, and Salka Valka provides the impoverished Arnaldur with food and spending money. He succeeds in organizing a strike in the village and in driving out the merchant, but he is too weak-willed to see the revolution through. Steinþór returns, now rich, after a stay in America, the land of Arnaldur’s dreams. When Arnaldur gets his chance to go to California, Salka Valka gives him all her money for the journey. The story ends as he sails away while she watches from the shore, alone among the winter birds, a symbol of Iceland and nature.
The initial reaction to Salka Valka was ambivalence, even among socialists, who felt that it was inconsistent with a key doctrine of social realism–to create heroic literature for the working class. One of Iceland’s leading socialists, Einar Olgeirsson, complained that Laxness’s depiction of the labor movement was too much of a caricature. In his article “Skáld á leið til sósíalismans” (Writers on Their Way to Socialism), published in the periodical Réttur in 1932, Olgeirsson took Laxness to task for showing only poverty, not the power of the people to overcome it, and dismissed any possibility for the novel to become the heroic epic of the Icelandic working class.
Nevertheless, to find descriptions of the lower classes in Icelandic literature was a rarity at the time, as Laxness points out in a 1938 essay commemorating the writer Einar Kvaran–later reprinted in Vettvángur dagsins (1942, The Day’s Arena). In Laxness’s view, Kvaran’s most significant contribution as a novelist was the emphasis he placed on the value of the human. When Kvaran was young, Laxness explains, to go so far as to turn wretches and paupers into the heroes of a novel was a revolutionary position in fiction. The authors of the Icelandic sagas, Laxness says, took no notice of the common people–the downtrodden are not mentioned, and human worth is measured in heroic exploits. In contrast, Kvaran’s best characters are poor and defenseless, indicating his deep conviction that the human being is by nature a poor and helpless creature in the world.
Laxness’s next novel, Sjálfstætt fólk, originally published in two volumes with the subtitle Hejusaga (A Heroic Tale), is an ironic answer to both the socialists’ demand for heroic literature for the working class and the heroic ideal of the Icelandic saga tradition. The novel takes place in the first part of the twentieth century among small farmers on the remote and barren moors in the east, an area of the country that most Icelanders had abandoned in the migration period. Like Markens Grøde (The Growth of the Soil), Knut Hamsun’s idyllic novel of 1917 to which Sjálfstætt fólk is to some extent a response, the story centers on a pioneer trying to work his land. Bjartur–short for Guðbjartur and meaning “bright” or “fair”–has managed to purchase a small patch of moorland from the bailiff after working for him eighteen years as a farmhand. The property has been abandoned for more than a century and reputedly carries a curse, which Bjartur scorns. The moldering ruin of the old farmstead has been used as winter quarters for sheep and is thus dubbed “Veturhús” (Winterhouses). Bjartur rebuilds it from sod and rock and renames it “Sumarhús” (Summerhouses). Now an independent man, he moves in with his new bride, Rósa (who is pregnant by the bailiff’s son), and his dog, a horse, and twenty-five sheep.
Fanatically devoted to his sheep, Bjartur puts their welfare above all else, even people. This “independent” life is too much for Rósa–she dies in childbirth, alone in the cold hut in midwinter while Bjartur is off in the mountains searching for a missing sheep. He returns to find that the dog has kept alive Rósa’s infant daughter, whom he names Ásta Sóllilja (literally, Beloved Sun Lily) and rears as his own child. Bjartur soon acquires a second wife, Finna, accompanied by her elderly mother, Hallbera. Over the years Finna gives birth to three sons who live beyond infancy. Verging on starvation, the household ekes out an existence, despite Bjartur’s tyranny as a harsh taskmaster who requires everyone to be as independent as he is. He even slaughters the milk cow so that the small store of hay available will go to his precious sheep–an act that so traumatizes Finna that she languishes and dies.
Gradually, Bjartur’s actions turn all his children against him, and he loses them one by one. Ásta Sóllilja is the one he loves most, and yet he sends her away when she becomes pregnant by her tubercular tutor. To avenge his mother’s death, the oldest son kills his father’s sheep and then vanishes in a blizzard. The youngest son is sent to America to be brought up by his maternal uncles and there becomes a singer. When the middle son tells his father that he, too, wants to go to America to make something of himself in the world rather than take over the property as his father wishes, Bjartur snorts, “Ég vil ekki heyra neitt um neinn helvítis heim, þykist kúvera að tala um einhvern heim? Hvaó er heimur? þetta er heimurinn, heimurinn hann er hér, Sumarhús, jöróin mín, það er heimurinn” (what the devil do you think you know about any damned world? What is a world? This is a world, the world is here, Summerhouses, my land, my farm is the world)–words that recall a similar remark about the universality of the fishing village in Salka Valka. When the story draws to a close, Bjartur is bankrupted by a collapse in livestock prices and unable to repay a bank loan that he had intended to use for building a new house. His property is sold at auction, and as a result, the bailiff gets back his Winterhouses for a low price. Bjartur, how ever, clings fiercely to his ideal of independence. Instead of joining the laborers in the coastal village as his son has done, he chooses to work a new piece of land, this time a deserted plot farther inland on the heath. Before setting off, he goes to the village and finds his beloved Ásta Sóllilja, who, destitute and dying of consumption, is living alone with her two small children. He takes them with him, along with a horse, a dog, and old Hallbera, now in her nineties and complaining that “allir fá að deyja, nema ég” (everyone manages to die except me). As they make their way north like pilgrims, the scene takes on an almost mythic significance: “þau voru einsog lángferóafólk sem tekur sig upp úr lélegum næturstað á heiði. það var heiði lífsins” (They were like people on a long journey leaving a poor night-lodging on the heath. It was the heath of life). Ásta Sóllilja col lapses on the way, and when Bjartur picks her up and carries her dying in his arms, she whispers, “Nú er ég aftur hjá þér” (Now I am with you again).
Sjálfstætt fólk was highly controversial at first because of its caustic portrayal of Icelandic farmers. Laxness commented that this reaction took him aback as much as that of the Icelandic Canadians who had objected to the way they were portrayed in his story “Nÿja Ísland.” But the novel became the most popular of his works, both at home and abroad. When the English translation appeared in the United States in 1946, it was chosen as the July Book-of-the-Month Club selection. Sjálfstætt fólk has attained the stature of a national epic: in an opinion poll in 2000, Icelanders named it the best Icelandic book of the twentieth century.
In an afterword to the second edition of Sjálfstætt falk Laxness attributes the enduring appeal of the work–manifested by its best seller rank in countries as different as Czechoslovakia and the United States–to the small farmer’s being a classic, universal type recognized the world over. He observes that this type of man is found not only in rural areas but also in big cities, where Bjartur’s counterpart is any man who is fighting for survival–his own and his family’s–with similar means, principles, and outlook. He goes on to say that, after beginning the novel in Los Angeles in 1929 and putting it aside for lack of knowledge about the subject, he was able to begin the novel once again after he witnessed the plight of Russian farmers in the fall of 1932. He had notebooks full of material that he had collected on trips to the most remote farms of Iceland, so there was nothing left to do but to find peace and quiet and sit at a desk ten or fifteen hours a day for several years. He says that when he completed the novel in the summer of 1935 and let go of Bjartur in the final chapter, “fanst mér um stund einsog ég ætti ekki haldreipi leingur í veröldinni” (I felt for a while as if I no longer had a lifeline to the world).
The spring following the publication of Sjálfstætt fólk Laxness took a monthlong trip around the isolated settlements of the West Fjords to collect material for his next novel. In Skáldatími he explains what led to this work: “Mér fanst að úr þvi ég hefði skrifað hetjuljóð bæði soðníngarinnar og sauðskepnunnar þá yrði ég líka að skrifa hetjuljóð skáldsins, ekki einhvers sérstaks stór skálds með heimílisfáng og síma í bókmentasögunni,.. heldur kess skálds sem var og er og veraur á Íslandi og i öllum heiminum” (I thought that since I had written the epos of both the fish and the sheep, then I likewise had to write the epos of the poet, not some special great poet with an address and a telephone in literary history,.. but rather the poet who was and is and will be in Iceland and in all the world).
The “epos of the poet” appeared in four volumes: Ljós heimsins (1937, The Light of the world), Höll sumar landsins (1938, The Palace of the Summerland), Hús skáldsins (1938, The House of the Poet), and Fegurð himinsins (1940, The Beauty of the Skies). In 1955, with the second edition, Heimsjós became the title of the whole tetralogy (translated as world Light, 1969), and the first volume was renamed Kraftbirtíngarhjómur guðdómsins (The Revelation of the Deity).
The novel describes the miserable life of the folk poet Ólafur Kárason from his early childhood until his death in his early thirties. Ólafur was inspired by Magnús Hjaltason, an obscure folk poet from the West Fjords who lived between 1873 and 1916 and whose unpublished autobiography and diaries are preserved in the National Library of Iceland. In depicting this “world poet” from the west Fjords, Laxness adhered closely to these sources and even incorporated into the novel many passages verbatim. But he also transformed these materials and created in Ólafur Kárason an anti hero who has been variously compared to Jesus, Char lie Chaplin, and Fyodor Dostoevsky’s idiot.
Ólafur, a parish pauper in the custody of strang ers on an isolated farm, is a lonely, introspective child who feels that he does not belong–that his life has no connection to the lives of others. He seeks consolation in the beauty of nature and in poetry, which comes to him as a strong sound and visions of the deity. This sound, as a manifestation of divine beauty, becomes a recurring motif. The entire story is filtered through his consciousness and narrated in a lyrical style. Thus, to a certain extent Ólafur is the author of his own story.
After years of cruel and unjust treatment, Ólafur is transferred to a nearby coastal village where he is allowed to live in an abandoned warehouse, his “sum merland palace.” The village is controlled by a caricature of a manager, Pétur Pálsson, nicknamed “Príhross” (Threehorses). For a time Ólafur enjoys the manager’s patronage but then is dismissed because his poetry lacks the right ideology. Ólafur’s love affair with an equally poor young woman ends when she becomes pregnant and leaves him for a fisherman who can offer her security. He then renews a relationship with the epileptic woman Jarprúður, who is many years his senior, and they begin living together in a shack beyond the village outskirts. In this “house of the poet,” Ólafur has long discussions with a friend and fellow poet about the connection between justice and poetry. On these occasions the little house “bx6i vikkaai út og hxkkadi uns 1 as var eins stórt og allur heimurinn” (became both wider and higher until it was as large as the whole world). In her own misery, Jarprúður turns into a jealous, domineering woman, and Ólafur falls in love with a young woman who is a labor agitator in the village. She urges him to leave Jarprúður and to come down off this “andstyggilegur kross” (disgusting cross). But he does not have the heart to abandon Jarþrúður and takes her with him when he moves on, leaving everything behind: “Alt. Alla sína drauma. Allan sinn skáldskap. Alla sina von. Alt sitt 1íf. Alt” (Everything. All his dreams. All his poetry. All his hopes. All his life. Every thing).
In the last part of the novel he has become a schoolteacher and is living with Jarprúður in a remote village at the foot of a glacier. Accused of sexual misconduct with one of his pupils, a fourteen-year-old girl, he is sentenced to a one-year jail term. Upon his release from prison, he meets a young woman who strikes him as the incarnation of the beauty he has yearned for all his life. After an enchanted midsummer night of love making, they go their separate ways, and she returns to her own village on the other side of the glacier. But they correspond with each other, and he writes love poems to her and then later an elegy when he learns of her death. These are among Laxness’s most beautiful poems and were included in the second edition of Kvæðakver. Finally, in the deep, new-fallen snow of Easter morning, ólafur walks off toward the glacier, and the novel concludes with the famous line “Og fegurdin run raja ein” (And beauty alone shall reign).
Laxness’s three novels of social realism from the Depression years stemmed from the contemporary realities of poverty and class division. In the next decade Icelandic society was transformed by sweeping change, and his work took a new turn. With the occupation of Iceland by first British and then U.S. forces beginning in May 1940 and the establishment of a foreign military base, employment surged and economic conditions improved. In 1944 Iceland ended its union with Denmark and reestablished itself as a republic after almost seven centuries of foreign rule. These events generated intense debates among Icelanders about their national identity and their autonomy as a nation among other nations. In his renowned 1942 essay “Höfundurinn og verk hans” (The Writer and His Works), published in Vettvángur dagsins, Laxness says that the value of Iceland’s literary heritage lies in its expression of the Zeitgeist of each era, with both national and universal significance. Citing examples from Iceland’s literary canon, he argues that all good literature is both national and international–for the simple reason that people, especially nowadays, are no longer national but rather as international as the birds. A good book written in China is written for Iceland.
The essay shows Laxness’s growing interest in an Icelandic literary heritage that he wants to bring closer to his own time in a kind of synthesis of the old and the new. With perhaps this aim, in the early 1940s he published his own editions of several Icelandic sagas with modern orthography, replacing the normalized (but archaic) spelling system. As he explains in the preface to his edition of Laxdæla saga, which appeared in 1941, his intention is to show readers that the language of the Icelandic sagas is essentially the same as the language the readers use themselves. This edition was censored by the authorities, and the Icelandic Parliament immedi ately passed a law that banned publication of the Old Icelandic texts with anything other than the normalized spelling. When Laxness forged ahead with an edition of Hrafnkatla in 1942, also with modern spelling, the Ministry of Justice brought charges against him. After pro tracted legal proceedings, Laxness was acquitted, and the orthography law was ruled a violation of a constitutional provision guaranteeing freedom of the press.
Although Laxness advocated standard modern spelling for the sagas, the spelling that he used in his fiction was far from standard. In the late 1930s he invented his own idiosyncratic spelling, which adhered more closely to pronunciation than the mandated sys tem, and he used it in all his work thereafter, including republished versions of earlier works. This arcane orthography, which gives his works a distinctive and even strange look on the printed page, is a characteristic of his style that is lost in translation.
While he was publishing his editions of the sagas, Laxness was also at work on a lengthy article titled “Minnisgreinar um fornsögur” (Notes on the Sagas), published in Sjálfsagðir hlutir (1946, Things Taken for Granted). In it he rejects the accepted view of the Ice landic sagas as historical accounts and argues that they are fictionalized accounts that succeed in bending history to the narrative truth of the works. He praises their objective, concise style, in which not a single word is superfluous, and concludes, directly contradicting his statements from the 1920s, that an Icelandic author can not get along without the old books. Laxness’s interest in Old Icelandic literature thus grew not merely from patriotic feeling but also out of his search for new narrative techniques.
In 1942 Laxness published Sjö t framenn: Pættir (Seven Magicians), a collection of short stories written mainly in the 1930s except for “Temúdsjin snÿr heim” (Temúdsjín Returns Home), which dates from 1941 and was Laxness’s last short story for more than twenty years. Set in the Far East, the story is about Genghis Khan discovering Taoism and shows the first emergence of the mysticism of Lao-tzu and the Tao Te Ching (circa 206 b.c.-a.d. 220) that characterizes all of Laxness’s later works. In a 1942 essay, “Bókin um veginn” (The Book about the Way), published in Sjálfsagðir hlutir, Laxness discusses the abiding influence of the Tao Te Ching in his life and work. He also remarks on the stillness of Taoism that is exemplified in the simplicity of the sentences in the book, which he deems, in their musicality and directness, the most perfect in all of world literature. Laxness’s deep interest in such diverse works as the Tao Te Ching and the Icelandic sagas is significant, for both are marked by detachment and objectivity in style, with the laconic speech of the sagas corresponding to the subtle aphorisms of Tao. From these complementary sources Laxness synthesized a highly creative style that typifies his subsequent fiction.
His next major work was the trilogy consisting of Íslandsklukkan (1943, Iceland’s Bell), Hið jósa man (1944; The Fair Maiden, 1944), and Eldur í Kaupinhafn (1946, Fire in Copenhagen), republished in one volume as Íslandsklukkan in 1952 (translated as Iceland’s Bell, 2003). Íslandsklukkan is an historical novel, set in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, based on historical and legal records and written in the antiquated language of the period. It focuses upon three main characters: the poor farmer Jón Hreggviósson, who is sentenced to death for killing the king’s henchman; Arnas Arnæus, a figure modeled on the Icelandic scholar and manuscript collector Árni Magnússon; and Snæfrióur Eydalín, daughter of the local magistrate and the sister-in-law of the bishop of Skálholt. þingvellir, where the story begins and ends, is the focal point of events, and other important settings include the bishopric at Skál holt and Copenhagen, places that are also important in Icelandic history.
Íslandsklukkan provides an accurate picture of the political and social conditions in Iceland during one of the most degrading periods in the history of the nation. It opens with a scene at þingvellir, where the king’s henchman has arrived to oversee the destruction of an ancient bell that has hung from the gable of the old courthouse as long as anyone can remember. Over the protests of an old man whose family has lived in the vicinity for generations, Jón Hreggviósson is com manded to smash the venerable bell, which is then shipped to Denmark in pieces. þingvellir is also the set ting in which the henchman flogs Jón Hreggviósson as punishment for composing sly verses that lampooned His Majesty while destroying the bell. Jón accompanies him home, and the following morning the henchman is found dead in the bogs.
To some extent Jón Hreggviósson resembles Bjartur of Sjálfstætt fólk–crusty, intrepid, clever at versi fying, and enthralled by the saga heroes. The paths of Jón and Arnas cross when Arnas comes to Jón’s poor cottage and discovers, in Jón’s mother’s bedstead, some sheets from a precious vellum manuscript of ancient poetry that he has been seeking for many years. Arnas realizes that his calling lies in sacrificing himself to res cue the old books from oblivion, which in his view embody the soul of Iceland, so he forsakes Snæfrióur, the woman he loves, and marries a rich, elderly, crip pled Danish widow. After Jón has been sentenced to death and is awaiting execution at þingvellir, his mother walks to Skálholt and appeals to Snæfrióur for help. Snæfrióur manages to free Jón and sends him to Arnas in Copenhagen for protection, along with both a message telling Arnas that she understands his sacrifice and a ring as a token of her affection. Through Arnas’s assistance, Jón is acquitted, and the corruption of Snæ- fríóur’s father, the magistrate, is exposed. For a time, Snæfríóur and Arnas foresee a common future in their vision of the Promised Land, a motif that appears frequently in Laxness’s works, but nothing comes of their dreams, and the novel ends apocalyptically with the great Copenhagen fire, which consumes Arnas’s manu scripts. The only manuscript that escapes destruction is the one that once belonged to the poor old woman, Jón Hreggviósson’s mother.
In accord with Laxness’s principle of artistic representation, formulated in an interview about the first two volumes of the trilogy in the newpaper Þjóðvijinn on 23 December 1944, the characters’ thoughts and feel ings are reflected in their speech and physical reactions, and the action does not take place “í sálarfylgsnum” (in the soul’s hideaways). Although the narration itself is objective, Laxness makes use of literary allusions, parables, and aphorisms. The language is often highly lyrical, with descriptions of nature reflecting characters’ mental and emotional states, especially those kindled by Snæfríóur, whose beauty and worthiness have earned her the epithet Íslandssól (Iceland’s Sun). Of the three protagonists, Snæfríóur is the only one whose name bears no relation to that of the historical counterpart, in this case, Pórdís Jónsdóttir. Rather, she is named for the Snæfríóur of Sturluson’s Heimskringla who so bewitched Harald Fairhair that he neglected his kingdom. The novel also alludes to her as “hió ljósa man” (the fair maiden) of the Eddic poem “Hávamál” and describes her as a “huldukona” out of folktales or a Valkyrie from heroic poetry. Like many other women in Laxness’s works, Snæfríóur has a remoteness that suggests she does not quite belong to society. In the end Snæfríóur Íslandssól, dressed in black and riding a black horse, disappears into the landscape as a sublime symbol of Iceland.
Íslandsklukkan was a gift from the author to his nation at a turning point in its history. His stage adaptation of the novel, published in 1950 as Snæfrwur Íslandssól, was one of three Icelandic plays that had their debut at the new National Theater (Pjóóleikhúsió) in Reykjavík when it opened in October of that year.
While Laxness was at work on Íslandsklukkan, he met Auóur Sveinsdóttir, and they were married at Christmas in 1945. They moved into a new home near Gljúfrasteinn (which means Canyon Rock) in Mosfellssveit, close to his childhood home, a move that fulfilled Laxness’s long-standing dream of building a house on this spot. He named the house for the nearby rock, and it was his home for the remainder of his life. Two daughters, Sigríóur Halldórsdóttir and Guónÿ Halldórsdóttir, were born in 1951 and 1954, respec tively.
When World War II ended, Iceland entered into an agreement with the United States permitting American forces to maintain the military base at Keflavik and to install radar stations around the country. Many Ice landers feared that this foreign presence would threaten the newfound independence of the nation, and the agreement precipitated heated protests over this “sale.” One of the most influential opponents of the agreement was Halldór Laxness, who blasted it as treason in a series of articles that appeared in the fall of 1946 and were reprinted in 1950 in Reisubókarkorn (A Travelogue).
The controversy inspired his 1948 novel Atómstöðin (translated as The Atom Station, 1961), the title of which refers to an occupied Iceland that harbors atomic weapons. A social and political satire with dark humor, this work is the first of Laxness’s novels written in the first person. It is no coincidence that Ugla, the narrator and protagonist, is a young woman from the country who has come to Reykjavík to learn to play the organ. Thus, she represents the opposite of the urban corrup tion that she witnesses as a maid in a well-to-do bour geois household, where the man of the house, an influential member of Parliament and the conservative party, hosts secret political meetings for planning the “sale” of the country. In contrast, the organist’s house, where Ugla takes her lessons, is open to all of society’s outsiders–artists, prostitutes, and assorted freaks with no political clout. The organist is the first of Laxness’s characters to represent a mystic type that can be linked with Taoism. An altruist who sells his house to help a friend, he speaks in paradoxes, understands all and for gives all, and is broad-minded and unflappable. The novel ends with Ugla standing alone in the middle of town holding a bouquet of flowers from the organist’s house. The flowers are important as a symbol of eternal life. (The novel was originally titled “Blómin ófeigu” [The Flowers Everlasting].)
In his next novel, Gerþla (Heroica), published in 1952 (translated as The Happy Warriors, 1958), Laxness takes his material from the saga age of the tenth and eleventh centuries. Both the style and the plot are based upon the Old Icelandic sagas, in particular the anonymous Fóstbræðra saga (Saga of the Sworn Brothers) and Ólafs saga helga (Saga of Saint Olaf) by Sturluson. In a 1972 interview published in Skeggræður gegnum tMina (Discussions through Time), Laxness said that his aim was to create an archaized work of art for modern read ers, a work that deals with people who, down through the ages, have always sought some universal truth as their sovereign. In the same interview, Laxness revealed that he had planned to write Gerpla in modern Icelandic but then realized that it would be laughable to use modern language to write about the sphere of classic literature.
As the title indicates, the novel is about garþar (heroes). Like a scribe, the narrator constantly cites his sources, both written and oral, in telling the story of the sworn brothers Þormóóur Bessason and Þorgeir Hávarsson. With grotesque imagery, the narrator recounts what the two believe to be their heroic exploits; but in the eyes of everyone else, the two are misfits and troublemakers. The novel portrays them as a comic, quixotic pair–one a foppish poet and womanizer, the other a brawny fighter and misogynist who is afraid of women. Ger-la parodies the idealized view of heroes as depicted in the Icelandic sagas, drawing parallels between the atrocities of King Olaf and those of Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin. As a tragicomedy, Gerþla deals with illusions and those ideals that breed them. Pormóóur sacrifices everything for the chance to recite his lay “Heroica” before the king, then admits that he can no longer recall it.
Gerpla was poorly received by some Icelanders, who took it to be a gibe at the Icelandic sagas. However, certain elements of the sagas can be viewed as parodic, and with Gerþa, Laxness simply elaborated on this aspect of his models. But Laxness was reluctant to acknowledge the humor in Gerþla. When readers found it amusing, he professed surprise and disdain, insisting that it was his most sorrowful book.
In 1955 Halldór Laxness was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature for, in the words of the Swedish Academy, his “vivid epic power, which has renewed the great narrative art of Iceland.” In his acceptance speech of 10 December, Laxness emphasized his debt to the literary heritage of his native country, in particular to the old Icelandic storytellers who created the classics and were as much a part of Iceland as its landscape.
In the opinion of Laxness’s biographer, Peter Hallberg, the Nobel Prize–and the accompanying public recognition that suddenly transformed Laxness into a cultural ambassador for Iceland on the world stage–had a debilitating effect on his writing, a view echoed by many others, especially leftists. His new fame aside, Laxness’s career did take a sharp turn at this time, more likely a result of his disillusionment with socialism and a growing skepticism toward all ideologies and dogmas. In his 1962 essay “Persónulegar minnisgreinar um skáldsögur og leikrit” (Personal Memoranda on Novels and Plays), published in Upphaf mannúðarstfnu (1965, The Origins of Humanism), he objects to what he calls the “alheimsresept” (universal recipe) in literature. The role of literature is not to preach morality, he says, for the author is no more upright than the reader, but rather to show facts. The basis of fiction and its chief advantage, he believes, are that fiction is by nature a chronicle, and the author pretends to transform past events into a written narrative, turning human facts into a book. The problem, he says, is having to function as both chronicler and fabulist–that is, to record events and invent them at the same time.
Brekkukotsannáll (1957, The Annals of Brekkukot; translated as The Fish Can Sing, 1966) is Laxness’s first novel after he received the Nobel Prize. Like Atómstöðin, it is told in the first person and resembles its predecessor in other respects. The narrator, or “annalist,” is a young man named Álfgrímur who recounts his years growing up in Reykjavík around 1900. The narration blends together two perspectives–that of the child as he experiences events and that of the adult reflecting on them much later. An orphan, Álfgrímur lives with an elderly couple, whom he calls his grandmother and grandfather, in the cottage Brekkukot, where his mother gave birth to him before boarding a ship to America. Much like the organist’s house in Atómstöðin, Brekkukot is a free boardinghouse for all, with no strings attached, and in the spirit of Tao, tolerance and harmony prevail. For Alfgrímur, Brekkukot is the para dise of his youth, and he remains there until the end of the novel, when he goes abroad to study.
Álfgrímur dreams of becoming a singer. Follow ing in the footsteps of his idol, the mysterious Garóar Hólm, Alfgrímur launches his career in the cemetery, where he sings at the funerals of vagrants and other unidentified persons. Garóar Hólm lives abroad and is a famous “world singer” in the eyes of Icelanders, but gradually Alfgrímur discovers that Garóar Hólm is a charlatan and a fraud, a singer who cannot sing, a motif that also runs through the short story “Lily” and the play Silfurtúnglið: Sjónleikur i fjórum páttum (The Silver Moon) from 1954, in which Lóa bungles her lullaby when she sings onstage in front of an audience rather than for her child.
Extended discussions of literature and art recur throughout Brekkukotsannáll. Just as the poet in Heimsfrós fails in his attempts to capture beauty, the singer Alf grímur tries to achieve the one pure note, but it is always out of reach. He learns to play the organ and also takes singing lessons until the onset of puberty, for in the world of Laxness’s novels, song in its purest form belongs to the domain of children and women, beings who are closest to nature. Thus, Álfgrímur is no more successful in mastering the pure note than Garóar Hólm, and the story hints that Álfgrímur has become a writer instead and can perhaps be seen as the author’s alter ego. In fact, many details of the novel directly parallel aspects of Laxness’s life as depicted in his memoirs. The grand mother figure is similar to Laxness’s own grandmother, with the same opinions and the same manner of speaking. The old clock whose ticking so preoccupies Álfgrímur and that symbolizes eternity in the novel is the same one that belonged to his great-aunt and provided the subject of his first published article.
Beginning in October 1957 Laxness spent several months traveling in the United States and several Asian countries, lecturing at various public cultural institutions. He also visited Taoist monks in China and Mormons of Icelandic descent in Utah. In Skáldatími he recounts a 1927 visit to Salt Lake City, where he was reminded of a travelogue he had read in his boyhood by an Icelander named Eiríkur frá Brúnum, who converted to Mormon ism and immigrated to Utah in the late 1800s. The story of the immigrant’s travels, published in two volumes as Lítil ferðasaga (A Little Travelogue) in 1878 and 1882, is the impetus behind Laxness’s next novel, Paradísarheimt (1960; translated as Paradise Reclaimed, 1962). In “The Origins of Paradise Reclaimed,” an essay accompanying the special U.S. edition of the novel, Laxness says that he was at work on the book for thirty years because the cen tral idea refused to come into focus. The truth is, he says, that “to write successfully about the Promised Land, you must have sought and found it in your own life…. You must have made the pilgrimage yourself.... You go groping along through a jungle of ideas, which it would take volumes to describe, sometimes you get into blind alleys, at other times you are stuck in bottomless quick sand and saved by a miracle–until finally you find your self in a small place.. that somehow looks like the old home. Was it the same garden from which you started? It seems so, but it is not.” The person who goes away, Laxness says, returns as a different kind of person.
In Paradísarheimt the poor farmer Steinn Steinsson leaves his farm and family to seek Paradise, which he finds among the Mormons in Utah. Many years later he sends for his family, but his wife dies during the journey, and his children no longer know him. He returns to Ice land as a missionary but becomes disillusioned, for everything there has changed and no one listens to him. He roams the countryside until he suddenly finds him self standing before the ruins of his old farmstead, and he begins to restack the stones of the dilapidated rock wall.
Paradísarheimt, the story of the man searching for a promised land that he ultimately finds in his own back yard, where he began his quest, is perhaps an allegory of the author’s own experience, an expression of his resig nation and disappointment with a political ideology. But the novel can also be seen as a rendition of the Tao teaching that one should be content with one’s home and delight in one’s customs. Paradðarheimt was the last novel that Laxness wrote in the third person as well as his last for another eight years. In addition to the literary mem oir Skáldatími, he published three plays during this hiatus from novel writing: Stromþleikurinn: Gamanleikur í premþáttum (1961, The Chimney Play: A Comedy in Three Acts); P jónastofan Sólin: Gamanleikur í, premur báttum (1962, The Sun Knitting Shop); and Dúfnaveislan: Skemtunarleikur í premur, báttum (1966; translated as The Pigeon Banquet, 1973), which is based on a short story of the same name in the collection Sjötafakverið (1964; translated as A Quire of Seven, 1974). Laxness’s plays are interesting experi ments, mixing farce, satire, and allegory with influences from the theater of the absurd as well as the Epic Theater of Bertolt Brecht, but they have never enjoyed the popu larity of his novels. The plays adapted from the novels, however, are staged regularly in Iceland.
In his final novels–Kristnihald undir Jökli (1968; translated as Christianity at Glacier, 1972), Innansveitarkronika (1970, A Local Chronicle), and Guðsgjafaþula (1972, A Litany of God’s Gifts)–Laxness continues to write in the first person but with a different approach. These works experiment with the limits of narrative objectivity. In Atómstöðin the narrator participates in the action as it unfolds and is the only authority for what is conveyed in the story. Brekkukotsannáll is similar, even though the nar rator is an annalist telling about the past. In these last novels, anonymous narrators stand outside of the story that they are investigating, repeatedly citing historical or fictional sources as their authorities.
In Kristnihald undir Jökli the bishop of Iceland sends a young theologian to a remote district in the western region to investigate and report on a pastor’s activities. He has the right qualifications for the job because he knows shorthand and can operate a tape recorder. Although unnamed in the novel, he refers to himself as “the undersigned” or “Umbi” (short for “umboasmaaur biskups”–the bishop’s emissary). Before Umbi departs, the bishop gives him a methodology to follow in prepar- ing his reports. He is to learn from the tape and write as much as possible in the third person, describe what he sees and hears, but by no means verify anything or ven ture an opinion: “Töluð orð eru staareynd útaf fyrir sig sönn og login” (Spoken words are facts in themselves, whether true or false).
Since this objective narrator is not entrusted to relate conversations, they are presented with no introduc tion, as if they are transcribed from the tape. Neverthe less, Umbi cannot avoid taking part in life at Glacier. Eventually, he merges with his story: he throws the report away when he meets the mysterious woman Úa, the pastor’s wife, who ran off to America on her wedding day but has now returned decades later as if nothing had ever happened. Úa is the culmination of the eternal femi nine, which is so pervasive in Laxness’s works. Umbi describes her as the receptive, quiescent Mystic Female and Great Mother of the Tao. She is both the origin and the end, as ineffable as the Promised Land, beauty, and the pure musical note. When Úa offers Umbi a lift in her dilapidated Imperial, the road leads to a dead end, and Umbi asks where they are going. Her answer is enig matic: “Hvert helduróu elskan min nema á heimsenda” (Where do you think, my love, except to the end of the world). But in the dense fog, Umbi loses sight of her as she disappears into nature, and her laughter echoes in the screech of the seabirds.
Innansveitarkronika is a mixture of a documentary novel and a legend about the restoration of the church at Mosfell in Laxness’s parish in the Mosfell district. The church was closed down in the late nineteenth century, and the old church bell that had vanished reappears in a miraculous way at the dedication of the new church almost one hundred years later. At the same time, the book is a chronicle of the Mosfell district, with its farmers and “hidden women,” an area described in Tao terms as the place of origin that people never want to leave.
In GuðsgjApula the anonymous narrator is an eighteen year-old Icelandic writer who has just arrived in Copen hagen, penniless and in trouble until he meets Íslands bersi (Iceland’s Bear), an Icelandic herring merchant who hires the young man to write his life story. The novel is about the writing of this biography-purportedly based on the best available sources, although most of them are fictitious-and the narrator constantly points out that his own story is not important. In an afterword Laxness characterizes Guðsgjafapula as an essay novel, the same epithet that he gives his four little books of memories, as he calls them-I túninu heima, 1975; Ungur eg var, 1976; Sjömeistarasagan, 1978; and Grikklandsárið, 1980-which are about his life up until the age of twenty. The similarity between these memoirs of his early years and his final novel, which likewise focuses on how a young writer gets his start, points out the connection. Laxness has come full circle and ends his career as a writer where he began it.
The 1990s were difficult years for Halldór Lax ness. Suffering from progressive dementia, caused prima rily by Alzheimer’s disease, he was unable to continue writing. He also had to give up much else in his daily routine, such as the long walks around the neighboring heath and the fat cigar that had become his hallmark. Near the end of his life he was admitted to Reykjalundur, a rehabilitation center near his home; he died there on 8 February 1998 at the age of ninety-five. His funeral was held with great ceremony at the Catholic Dómskirkja Krists konungs (Cathedral of Christ the King) in Reyk javik. He was buried in the old graveyard of the restored parish church at Mosfell, on a south-facing knoll that-as he describes it in Innansveitarkronika-”sánkar aó sér meira sólskini en aórir hólar” (gathers more sunshine than other knolls).
The span of Halldór Laxness’s life was nearly commensurate with that of the twentieth century, as he was born soon after its beginning and died in its waning years. Thus, he was a mirror of the age, both reflecting the century and exercising a major influence on it, within the realm of Nordic culture and in the wider world. Simultaneously a successful Icelandic and international author, he was and continues to be an unequaled exem plar to those Icelandic writers who followed him. “Petta er hægt. Ekkert karf aó hindra þig: ekki tungumálió, ekki fólksfx6in og söguefnin kau liggja í loftinu” (This is pos sible. Nothing has to hinder you: not the language, not the smallness of the nation; and [as for] the subject mat ter, it floats in the air). This characterization of Laxness’s approach to writing by one of the most renowned novel ists of the younger generation, Einar Már Guómunds son, in an essay written in memory of Laxness for Lesbók Morgunblaðsins (21 April 2001), captures the uninhibited optimism that Laxness brought to the spirit of Icelandic literature.
Halldór Laxness and Matthías Johannessen, Skeggræður gegnum tíðina (Reykjavík: Helgafell, 1972).
Haraldur Sigurðsson, “Skrá um verk Halldórs Laxness á íslenzku og erlendum málum,” Árbók Lands bókasafns (1971): 177–200;
Sigurósson, “Helstu rit og ritgeróir um ævi og verk Halldórs Laxness,” Skírnir (1972): 56–64;
“Halldór Laxness,” in Eight Scandinavian. Novelists: Criticism and Reviews in English, edited by John Budd(Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1981), pp. 153–167;
Sigurósson and Sigríóur Helgadóttir, “Skrá um rit Hall dórs Laxness á íslensku og erlendum málum,” Árbók Landsbókasafns (1993): 49–140;
Jökull Sævarsson, “Laxness í leikgeró,” Ritmennt, 7 (2002): 50–58;
Sævarsson, “Skrá um rit Halldórs Laxness á islensku og erlendum málum-vióauki,” Ritmennt, 7 (2002): 116–132;
Ögmundur Helgason, “Handrit Halldórs Laxness: varóveisla peina og vistun í handritadeild Lands bókasafns,” Ritmennt, 7 (2002): 9–22.
Peter Hallberg, Den store vävaren: En studie i Laxness’ ung domsdiktning (Stockholm: Rabén & Sjögren, 1954); translated from Swedish by Björn Th. Björnsson and Jón Eiríksson, Vefarinn mikli: Um æskuskáldskap Halldórs Kiljans Laxness I-II (Reykjavík: Helgafell, 1957–1960);
Hallberg, Skaldens hus: Laxness’ diktning frán Salka Valka till Gerpla (Stockholm: Rabén & Sjögren, 1956); translated from Swedish by Helgi J. Halldórsson as Hús skáldsins: Urn skáldverk Halldórs Laxness frá Sölku Völku til Gerplu I-II (Reykjavík: Mál og menning, 1970–1971);
Hallberg, Halldór Laxness, translated by Rory McTurk (New York: Twayne, 1971);
Erik Sønderholm, Halldór Laxness: En monografi (Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1981);
Ólafur Ragnarsson and Valgeróur Benediktsdóttir, eds., Lífsmyndir skálds: Œviferill Halldórs Laxness í myndumog máli (Reykjavík: Vaka-Helgafell, 1992);
Ragnarsson, Halldór Laxness: Líf í skáldskap (Reykjavík: Vaka-Helgafell, 2002);
Halldór Guómundsson, Halldór Laxness: Leben und werk (Göttingen: Steidl, 2002).
Afmæliskveðjur Neiman og handan: Til Halldórs Kiljans Laxness sextugs (Reykjavík: Helgafell, 1962);
Halldór Guómundsson, “Loksins, Loksins”: Vefarinn mikli og upphaf íslenskra nútímabókmennta (Reykjavík: Mál og menning, 1987);
Peter Hallberg, “Laxness, konstnärskapet, ideologierna: Naågot om hans senare diktning,” Nordisk tidskrift (1967): 65–102;
Hallberg, “Laxness vid skiljovägen: Några drag av hans utveckling efter Nobelpriset 1955,” Edda, 5 (1967): 297–346;
Halldórsstefna, edited by Elín Bára Magnúsdóttir and úlfar Bragason, Rit Stofnunar Siguróar Nordals, no. 2 (Reykjavík: Stofnun Siguróar Nordals, 1993);
Hallberg Hallmundsson, “Halldór Laxness and the Sagas of Modern Iceland,” Georgia Review, 49 (Spring 1995): 39–45;
Jón Hjaltason, ed., Næcermynd of Nóbelsskáldi: Halldór Laxness í augum samtímamanna (Akureyri: Bókaútgáfan Hólar, 2000);
Helga Kress, “Ilmanskógar betri landa: um Halldór Laxness Í Nýja heiminum og vesturfaraminnió Í verkum hans,” Ritmennt, 7 (2002): 9–22;
Scandinavica 1972-special Laxness issue on the occasion of his seventieth birthday, edited by Sveinn Skorri Höskuldsson (23 April 1972);
Árni Sigurjónsson, Laxness og þjóíðlÍfið, 2 volumes (Reykja vík: Vaka-Helgafell, 1986, 1987);
Sjö erindi urn Halldór Laxness, edited by Sveinn Skorri Höskuldsson (Reykjavík: Helgafell, 1973).
Halldór Laxness’s papers are located in the Handritadeild (Manuscript Department) of Landsbókasafn Íslands - Háskólabókasafn (National and University Library of Iceland).