The novels of Halldór Gudjónsson (1902–1998) opened a window into Icelandic society and history, and won him the Nobel Prize for literature in 1955. Gudjónsson set his stories in his native land, where his characters' battle for survival in a harsh climate were built around lyrical passages that paid homage to the bleak but majestic landscape. He used the pen name Halldór Laxness for much of his career, a name that was taken from his own family's ties to the land.
Just a two dozen or so of Gudjónsson's fifty–plus books have been published in English translation, and he is relatively unknown outside of Scandinavian literary circles. There is, however, a small but devoted following in Britain and North America who have championed his work. Iceland's venerable sagas, already old when they were written down for posterity in the ninth through tenth centuries, played a vital part in shaping his literary voice. Haraldur Bessason, commenting on Gudjónsson's career in European Writers, reflected that "during his long and extraordinary career as a writer he has, more than anyone else, elevated the literature of modern Iceland to a level comparable in quality with the great works that first informed his creative talent."
Burned Youthful Literary Efforts
Gudjónsson was born in 1902, in Reykjavík, Iceland's capital, at a time when its population was barely 6,000 residents. His father was a foreman for a road construction unit, but purchased a farm when Gudjónsson was three, and moved the family there. The future novelist was an admittedly indifferent student, and disliked the outdoor chores that living on a farm required as well. He was close to his grandmother, who lived with the family, and learned from her many of the Icelandic folk tales that later influenced his fiction. In his teens, he wrote prolifically, but just before he was sent to a Reykjavík technical school in 1915, he burned everything in a bonfire.
Gudjónsson's first novel was published when he was just 17. Barn náttúrunnar (A Child of Nature) appeared under the pseudonym Halldór Laxness, with the new surname taken from the name of his father's farm and translated as "salmon peninsula." The novel deals with the homecoming of an Icelander who has spent the last three decades in Canada, and his adjustment from a career as a Winnipeg real–estate agent to working farmer. At the time of the novel's publication, in 1919, large numbers of Icelanders had immigrated to Canada over the past few generations, and the theme resonanted with many Icelanders. A Child of Nature earned terrible reviews, however, and it would be another five years before its author tried writing a novel again.
Converted to Roman Catholicism
Instead of writing, Gudjónsson sailed for Denmark, where he worked as a Copenhagen journalist and fell in with a slightly older generation of Icelandic writers who were living there at the time and enjoying minor fame. He went back to Iceland several times over the next few years, but traveled extensively. In Denmark, he was surprised by news that he was about to become a father, though he never married the woman. Instead he joined a Benedictine monastery in Luxembourg and converted to Roman Catholicism. While there he wrote Undir Helgahnúk (Under the Holy Mountain), his second novel, which appeared in 1924. The novel's two young men become friends while living in Copenhagen, but embark upon radically different career paths until old age reunites them.
Gudjónsson went to England and Sicily, where he wrote part of Vefarinn mikli frá Kasmír (The Great Weaver from Kashmir), a 1927 novel and considered the first true harbinger of his literary genius. He was already a somewhat controversial figure in Iceland and Scandinavia for his radical ideas, but the second novel made him famous. An essay by Helga Kress in the Dictionary of Literary Biography called it "an extravagant mix of the Icelandic and the foreign, the old and the new, often conveyed in carnivalistic scenes, grotesque metaphors, and paradoxical expressions." Its hero, Steinn Elli i, dislikes his family's bourgeois values, and is determined to support himself as a poet and become a thoroughly modern twentieth–century man. His philosophical conceits, however, are constantly challenged and deflated by the woman in his life, and Elli i winds up secluding himself in a monastery forever.
Targeted By U.S. Immigration Officials
The novel was a great critical success, and Gudjónsson spent the next two years traveling in North America, part of it on a lecture tour. He came to know the writer Upton Sinclair, and even stayed in Los Angeles for a time hoping to land screenwriting work with one of the Hollywood studios. The American experience, however, also opened his eyes to the iniquities of capitalism, and he was shocked to find that people regularly slept in Los Angeles's parks. On the occasion of Sinclair's 50th birthday, he wrote an essay critical of American capitalism that was published in an Icelandic newspaper, Al˚ydubladid. Immigration authorities in California caught wind of it, and brought treason charges against him that were eventually dropped.
In the early 1930s, Gudjónsson wrote a trilogy of stories that were collected and published first in Danish translation and later in English in a single volume. Salka Valka: A Novel of Iceland was issued by Houghton in 1936 and has been deemed one of the author's classics. Its title character is an illegitimate child who endures a bleak, abusive childhood in a poor fishing village on a remote spit of land, Óseyri. One kindly boy, Arnaldur Björnsson, teaches her to read, and later he and Salka fall in love when he returns as a young man determined to organize the local fishermen into a union. Gudjónsson's socialist views found voice in Björnsson's impassioned speeches to the near–destitute fishermen and fish–processing factory workers of Óseyri. A raft of characters come and go, but in the end little changes over the course of Salka's life. Toward the conclusion, Gudjónsson writes of one of the seagulls winter over in Óseyri. Bessason, commenting on the book in European Writers, called the bird "a powerful unifying symbol. Like man, it is a living creature. On the other hand, it is an integral part of nature and is governed by the same inexplicable laws that determine the rotating seasons, the softness and tranquility of spring, and the devastating onslaughts of winter. The polarization that Laxness leaves us with sharpens our awareness at the same time that it implies that social change must always be seen in relation to its obstacles."
Gudjónsson's next novel was the two–part Sjálfstætt fólk, which would not appear in English translation until 1945 as Independent People: An Epic. Critics view it as one of Gudjónsson's best, as well as a literary work that pays homage to the Icelandic national character. Its protagonist is the put–upon Bjartur, whose determination to farm his own plot of land is continually thwarted by misfortune and personal tragedy. The novel, noted Bruce Allen in a World and I essay, "paints a vivid picture of a nearly primitive culture saturated with folk beliefs and the felt presences of unearthly forces (a scene in which Bjartur subdues and rides a maddened reindeer feels very like an excerpt from one of the sagas)."
Remained of Thorny Political Opinion
In the late 1930s, Gudjónsson worked on another trilogy, Heim sljos, about a poet named Ólafur Kárason and the romances that shape his adult life. The collected novels appeared in English translation as World Light many years later. But the Iceland that Gudjónsson had so vividly chronicled for years was about to undergo a dramatic change, thanks indirectly to World War II. Icelanders had struggled with their national identity under its shifting roster of occupiers over the centuries. For many years it was occupied by Denmark, and the colonial masters and their treatment of Icelanders is usually depicted in an unflattering light in Gudjónsson's fiction. The country remained an autonomous Danish dependency until World War II began in Europe, when Nazi Germany occupied Denmark and British troops swiftly moved to occupy Iceland in response. In 1944, the independent Icelandic Republic was formed, but Gudjónsson continued to remain a critic of some decisions. His 1948 novel, Atómstödin (The Atom Station) dealt with a decision by Iceland's new government to allow United States military facilities in the country. A member of parliament who has struck a back–room deal is its central figure, and the novel is more satirical than Gudjónsson's previous works.
In his later years, Gudjónsson grew interested in Eastern philosophies and religions. His 1952 novel, Gerpla, which appeared in English translation six years later as The Happy Warriors, skewers dictatorships of any stripe, be they left–or right–wing. "Though much of its content," noted Allen in the World and I, "treats conventional heroic material with broad comedy—a celebrated skald, or singer, is actually a notorious liar; an overeager knight blithely beheads an innocent bystander—there is real power in Laxness' portrayals of his protagonists. . . . The Happy Warriors undoubtedly contains an implicit criticism of allegiance to the goals of earthly power and glory, both in its central actions and in a long sequence set in Greenland, where home–centered, peace–loving Eskimos are pointedly contrasted to eternally restless 'warriors.' "
Delayed, But Deserved Nobel Honors
Gerpla was said to have won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1955 for Gudjónsson, though some thought he should have been honored with it far earlier in his career. But he had received the Stalin Prize several years earlier from the Soviet Union, and it was believed that Cold–War political allegiances kept him from consideration for the Stockholm committee's honor for a time. Throughout the 1960s and '70s, he produced several more novels, including an unusual story of an Icelander who converts to Mormonism during a sojourn in America. The work appeared in English as Paradise Reclaimed in 1962.
A series that Gudjónsson penned during World War II, beginning with Íslandsklukkan (Iceland's Bell), was published under that title in English translation five years after Gudjónsson's death. Iceland's Bell was set long ago in the country, and begins when the Danish authorities issue an order for an ancient bell on a courthouse in ingvellir to be removed. The story segues between a man, Jón Hreggvidsson, accused of slaying the local executioner for the Danish crown, and Arnas Arnæus, a history professor determined to save medieval Icelandic literature. New York Times book reviewer Brad Leithauser called it a "darkly magnificent novel."
Gudjónsson continued to write at a steady clip well into his later years, but Alzheimer's disease eventually slowed his output. He died on February 8, 1998, near Reykjavík, and is survived by a son from his first marriage in 1930 to Ingibjorg Einarsdottir, and two daughters he had with Andur Svensdottir, whom he married in 1945. He remains one of his country's best–known writers, and it is said that every household in Iceland contains at least one of his works. His stories resonate with readers everywhere, noted James Fadiman in a 1990 essay that appeared in the Nation. Fadiman asserted that Gudjónsson's fictional "characters are eventually reduced to the basics—salted dried fish, potatoes, sheep and holding together to sustain the few bits of human decency necessary for survival. God should be more helpful but isn't. Laxness's heroes never triumph, yet failure never completely destroys them. He writes not about hope but about the striving that continues after hope has been abandoned."
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 293: Icelandic Writers, Gale, 2004.
European Writers, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1990.
Nation, May 28, 1990.
New York Times, February 15, 1998.
Times (London, England), February 10, 1998.
World and I, April 2003.