An Introduction to an Icelandic Nobel Prize Winner
Icelanders have always had a tendency towards books, towards reading and storytelling. The nation's writing tradition dates back to people like Ari the Wise (1067-1148 AD) and Snorri Sturluson (1179-1241). This article is about the life and work of the only Icelander to have received a Nobel Prize in literature, namely Halldor Laxness (1902-1998).
Have you read any of his novels?
A Man of the 20th Century
Halldr Kiljan Laxness was born in the capital of Iceland, Reykjavk, on 23rd April 1902, and died on February 8th 1998, thus living through almost the entire 20th century. In his lifetime, Icelandic society underwent enormous changes. In the beginning of the century, Iceland was still a society of farmers. Most people lived in the countryside, and towns and villages near the sea were few and small. The Icelanders had gotten used to being poor. By the end of the century this had totally turned around. Almost everyone lived (and still does) in towns and villages near the sea, and fishery had made Iceland one of the richest countries in the world. Laxness not only got to witness this transformation of Icelandic society, he was a part of it.
"Laxness is a writer of the first degree, a writer I dreamt of coming close to." – Boris Pasternak
A Giant of Literature
Halldr Laxness is the giant of Icelandic 20th century literature, no doubt about it. Not just because of the quantity and variety of his work (he wrote a total of about sixty books: novels, short stories, plays, essays, memoirs, travel journals, and poetry), but also (and more importantly) because of its quality and the influence it had. He had an opinion on just about everything, which he put forward in newspaper articles and which also has a strong presence in his literary work.
When he was only 17, Laxness published his first novel: Barn nttrunnar (Child of Nature). The same year (1919), he started his extensive travels abroad. He wanted to see the world and write about it. He was determined to become a big writer, willing to do whatever it took. During the 20s, he turned to Catholicism and stayed in a monastery in Luxemburg, published his novel "The Great Weaver from Kashmir" (1927) and tried his luck in Hollywood for two years (1927-1929) to name just a few highlights from his life during this decade. After the Hollywood-period (which was rather unsuccessful), Laxness returned to Iceland to write literature that would appeal to the whole world, even though written in one of the world's rarest languages. This he achieved. Now, in the 21st century, part of his work has been translated into over forty languages.
Millions of copies of his books have been sold around the world, and are still selling. One of the secrets of his success is that in his work there is a lot of respect for the common people, those who just do their work without fuzz and don't seek fame and fortune (unlike him though!).
In the 1930s Laxness was a strong supporter of the Soviet communism, traveling to the Soviet Union in 1932 and was invited back again during the winter of 1937-38 (he would later reevaluate his views on communism and socialism). Because of his political (and other) views, which had a presence in his novels, he was a rather controversial figure in Iceland in those years. After he received the Nobel Prize in literature in 1955 (http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/... the controversy around him waned, and Icelanders were of course quite proud of him. He certainly played a role in the nation's struggle for independence, since Icelandic literature was an important part of it. He continued to write well into the 1980s, still managing to surprise his readers.
Let the Serious Writing Begin
The 1927 novel by Laxness:
The 1930s saw Laxness write some of his most famous novels. Salka Valka (1931-32) tells the tale of common folks in a small coastal fishing village, where the merchant Bogesen (a Danish name) rules. The main character is a young girl named Salka Valka. In addition to being a story about the growth and development of Salka and her interaction with the people in her life, there is a political aspect present in the book as well. A character named Arnaldur comes to the village to lecture about the wonders of socialism.
Independent People (Sjalfstaett folk, 1934-35) is a particular favorite of mine, and probably Laxness' most famous work. Set in the beginning of the 20th century, it tells the story of a man who dreams of becoming his own master (like the Icelandic nation, which wants to become independent from the Danish). The man does achieve his goal when he buys a little cottage in a remote valley. But independence has a price.
In World light (Heimsljos, 1937-1940) Laxness tells the story of Olafur Karason, a poet who is drawn into a political struggle (not unlike what happened in his own life), and as a consequence has not much time for his poetic ambitions.
1943-1946 saw the publication of the historical Iceland's Bell (Islandsklukkan), set around the turn of the 18th century. This was Laxness' main contribution to Iceland's struggle for independence from the Danish, a goal achieved with the foundation of the Republic of Iceland in 1944. This novel was Laxness' first to be universally well received in Iceland.
Laxness was not yet done ruffling feathers though. The Atom Station (Atomstodin), published in 1948, caused a heated debate since it tackled a sensitive matter: the presence of the American military base in Keflavik. Laxness was, like many Icelanders, totally against it, and he could use his writing skills to show his contempt with this masterpiece of a satire.
Later works include The Fish Can Sing (Brekkukotsannall, 1957) and Paradise Reclaimed, (Paradisarheimt, 1960). The latter tells the story of a poor 19th century farmer who abandons his family and life in Iceland and goes to the promised land: America, where he joins Mormons in Utah. The promised land turns out to be an illusion and a bitter disappointment, much like Laxness’ former “love affair” with the Soviet Union.