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Reading Laxness' Salka Valka

The Icelandic Roots Book Club for May 4, 2023, will discuss Salka Valka by Halldór Laxness, featuring the translator, Philip Roughton.

By Heather Goodman Lytwyn

The Author

Halldór Laxness wrote his first novel of 600 pages when he was only 16. His life spanned the 20th century, during which he published 60 books. His vision was global; he wanted the world to know how admirable Icelanders were. They were survivors. The poorest of the poor were heroic for never giving up. They valued reading above all things. They may have been half-starved, but they had their books, poetry, sagas, and heroes. He wanted to bring Iceland to the attention of the world, but he knew that unless his books were translated into English and other languages, they would not be read outside of his own country.

Halldór Laxness has been both revered and criticized. He is the only writer in Iceland who won the Nobel Prize for Literature (1955). There are those who believe unequivocally that Laxness is the most gifted writer in all of Iceland. At the same time, he was also criticized by those in his homeland and abroad. His books were sometimes banned from elementary schools in Iceland because he invented his own spellings of Icelandic words. (This was considered irreverent because children might adopt his spelling, undermining Iceland’s preservation of its language and culture.) In the United States during the 1950s, his books were labeled as a dangerous promotion of communism. When he published Independent People, some of the “fictional” characters were modeled after real people in Iceland, which did not win the author popularity contests. Some say true art provokes….

The Translator

Philip Roughton
Philip Roughton

Philip Roughton is an award-winning translator of Icelandic literature. Born in the United States, he earned a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from the University of Colorado in Boulder, where he was later an instructor of modern and world literature. Currently residing in Iceland, he has taught medieval literature at the University of Iceland. He is recognized as a very skilled translator of works by many of Iceland’s best-known writers.

It seems to me that in the last ten years, an explosion of Icelandic literature translations has been hitting the shelves. Visiting Iceland seems to be on everyone’s bucket list, and perhaps tourism has become a catalyst, intriguing the world about everything Icelandic. One of the writers contributing to this is Philip Roughton, giving us access to works formerly out of our reach. In August 2022, the Icelandic Roots Book Club featured his artful translation of Kristín Marja Baldursdóttir’s beautiful novel, Karitas Untitled. He was twice awarded the American-Scandinavian Foundation Prize for his rendering of Laxness’s work in 2001 for Iceland’s Bell and again in 2015 for Wayward Heroes. He knows far, far more than I about this author by translating his novels and Laxness’s biography, The Islander, written in Icelandic by Halldór Guðmundsson. Not surprisingly, Roughton’s translation of Salka Valka has been getting very positive recognition. For example, in a publication of the Icelandic Review (July 17, 2022), Scibona wrote that Roughton succeeded in “…tossing off Laxness’s inventive and always spot-on descriptions as though they were commonplace…. [and] capturing Laxness’s singular dour-droll tone with uncanny grace.”

The Book

In Salka Valka, there are pages (perhaps a few too many pages) of arguments about what is best for the country – socialism or capitalism. In the early part of the book, the workers seem to accept their lot in life because they see no choice. But later, they begin to see the injustice of doing all the work and getting none of the benefits. Lively discussions occur in which both sides have some romantic views about these rival economic systems. One fairy tale was that communism had eradicated poverty in Russia. One myth perpetuated by the capitalist side is that the store owner is not exploiting the poor but caring for them. What both sides share is a desire for their lives to improve. This is what motivated Icelanders to fight for their independence from Denmark and some to emigrate en masse during the late 19th and early 20th century. The struggle in the village is a microcosm of the country as a whole.

Salka Valka started out as a manuscript for a motion picture that Laxness wrote in Los Angeles in 1927. He envisioned the lead being played by Greta Garbo - the big-screen actress who was known to prefer dressing up as a man. Perhaps he thought Garbo could convey the fierce independence of the protagonist who defied the social norms. He wanted to call the film Salka Valka: A Woman in Pants or The Icelandic Whip! He would not comply when the studio wanted to film the movie in Kentucky instead of Iceland, so they did not proceed with the project. Instead, he published the story in two parts, the first in 1931 and the second in 1932. Later it was published as one novel and eventually made into a feature film in Sweden and Iceland in 1954.

Most of the main characters in Salka Valka want more. The Salvation Army believes that they deserve more and that God will look after them in this life or, if not, in the next. Arnaldur always believes he deserves more, beginning with convincing himself that his mother, who deserted him, does love him and that she is coming back. Jóhann Bogesen believes he deserves to cheat the workers because he believes they would be much worse off without him. He thinks he is entitled to more than anyone else because of his occasional show of empathy and support.

For most of her life, Salka does not believe she deserves more. She just wants her daily sustenance (salted fish). She initially sees herself as “less than”; the fatherless child whose mother continually gets taken in by the wrong men. She is bullied by the children in Óseyri, but the mudslinging is easily accomplished because she does not believe she deserves anything but shame and humiliation. She does not believe she is beautiful, nor does she dream of love. She is not enough even for her mother. She is just that worthless girl who was taken advantage of. But being an outsider also builds her sense of rebellion, and she will not be forced to conform to societal conventions. For many years she did not think she could depend on anyone else and that she must rely on cleaning fish to survive. And yet she struggles on and wins the hearts of the readers.

I look forward to hearing what our featured guest and the members of Icelandic Roots have to say about this novel on Thursday, May 4th. I do not believe you can read it without experiencing a wide range of emotions. I guarantee that Philip Roughton has captured the story so powerfully that you will care about Salka, just as Laxness cared about the suffering and bravery of the working people in a fishing village in the early part of the 20th century.

Here are some videos online for more background:

(1 hour in length)

-Book review Aug 29, 2022 - not an interview but a book review video ( 25 minutes)


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