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April’s Interesting Icelander: Halldor Laxness, Iceland’s Literary Icon

By Doreen (Borgfjord) McFarlane


For its small size and population, Iceland is a giant when it comes to literary accomplishments as well as interest in things literary. To begin, it is the home of the ancient Sagas of the Vikings. Also, it may be the only country in the world that celebrates Christmas with an annual “Bookflood” in which every citizen receives at least one book and (ideally) at least one special evening of peace when

Author's photos from 2017 visit to Gljúfrasteinn/Laxness Museum

she or he can relax with a cup of hot chocolate, sit back, and simply read! In addition, since 2014 Iceland has been the home of the internationally known “Iceland Writer’s Retreat” created by its founding directors, Erica Jacobs Green and Iceland’s own First Lady, Eliza Reid.


So, it should come as no surprise that Iceland is also the home of a winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. His name is Halldór Laxness (I242781).[1] He was born April 23rd, 1902 and lived for ninety-eight years, passing on February 8th, 1998. Laxness wrote over sixty books including novels, short stories, plays, poems, essays, memoirs and even travelogues. He also translated works into Icelandic, such as those of Voltaire, Hemmingway, and even the Icelander Gunnar Gunnarsson who wrote mostly in Danish. It has been said of Laxness that he was influenced by Strindberg, Freud, Brecht and Hemmingway, but it was his own literary voice that still rings true and has influenced many.


His 1934 novel, Independent People, has been hailed as one of the best books of the twentieth century.  In 1946, its English translation was selected in America for the Book of the Month Club and, as a result, that year sold 450,000 copies. Brad Leithauser, who penned the introduction to the 1997 First Vintage International Edition, calling himself “a besotted fan”, said it was more than a favorite but, rather, the book of his life!


Laxness’s father was a pauper, raised on the parish, meaning that he was sent by the local authorities to live and work on a farm of better-off people, a common occurrence in Iceland at the time. In his twenties, he became what was known as a day laborer. As a young man, he met a woman employed as a farmhand. They married and moved to Reykjavík where she gave birth to Halldór, whom they called Dori. The family moved when he was three years old to a farm called Laxnes in Mosfellssveit. There he was raised mostly by his grandmother who sang to him the ancient songs and poems and told him the sagas. He began writing at an early age.


Halldór attended a technical school in Reykjavík in 1915 and 1916. He attended and graduated from Reykjavík Lyceum in the Spring of 1918. But his primary interest was always literature; reading and writing. As a young man, his writings were published in the Canadian Icelandic newspaper, Sólskin (Sunshine) and in the Winnipeg Icelandic newspaper, Heimskringla. By age 13, he had written a six hundred-page novel and by seventeen, another. His first novel, Child of Nature, was published in 1919.


Laxness became a world traveller. He began in Denmark, writing newspaper articles and also where he had business cards printed with the words “Halldór from Laxnes, Poet.” From there, he went to Sweden, and then to New York, from which he was rejected for lack of papers. He headed to Luxembourg where he converted to Catholicism, and entered a Benedictine monastery, coming close to taking holy orders. During this period, he wrote Under the Holy Mountain, and The Great Weaver from Kashmir. He was baptized in 1923 and then confirmed. During this decade, Laxness engaged in much self-study including French, Latin, theology and philosophy.


When this “religious period” came to an end, he moved on and tried his hand at writing screenplays for Hollywood. He wrote Salka Valka originally as a screenplay to star Greta Garbo. It was around this time that he became interested in socialism. He returned to Iceland in 1930. Following Independent People, he wrote the four-part book World Light between 1937 and 1940. In 1941, he translated Hemmingway’s A Farewell to Arms into Icelandic. Iceland’s Bell followed in 1943-46. Gerpla, also known as The Happy Warriors, was published in 1952. In 1955, he won the “World Peace Council Literature Prize, a soviet sponsored honor.  In the late 50s, he became disenchanted with socialism.

 

Laxness was married to Ingibjörg Einarsdóttir (I185567) from 1940–1950. His second and final spouse was Auður (1918–2012). Together, they had one child, a daughter, Guðný Halldórsdóttir.  


Halldór Kiljan Laxness (1955); public domain (Wikipedia)

When he won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1955, he was only fifty-three years old. By the 1960s, he was no longer a Stalinist. Much of his work was still to come. His own ideologies and genres of writing evolved while he continued to be a prolific writer. For the reader, it is at times difficult to understand how such a wide variety of ideas have come out of the same brain. Still, if Laxness is remembered for one thing in particular it would be his simple but also deeply complex characters from the farms of Iceland. In these characters, people such as Bjartur of Summerhouses in his novel Independent People and others like him, that we see Laxness share with the ancient saga writers an understanding of humanity that is the very part of the Icelandic soul.


Notes

[1] also known as Halldór Kiljan Guðjónsson (See IR database: I242781)

 

Bibliography

Scibona, Salvatore, “The Rediscovery of Halldor Laxness”, The New Yorker, July 4, 2022. Retrieved from: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2022/07/11/the-rediscovery-of-halldor-laxness .


"Halldór Laxness." Wikipedia. 09 March 2024. Retrieved from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Halld%C3%B3r_Laxness


“Halldor Laxness: Facts.” NobelPrize.org. Nobel Prize Outreach AB 2024. 23 Mar 2024. Retrieved from: https://www.nob

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