Halldór Laxness: Iceland's Nobel Laureate

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They say that iceland has the highest number of Nobel Laureates per capita in the world, which is true. That’s enough for a little country like Iceland, with a population of only 330,000. Per capita is the key word here, and the number of Nobel laureates amounts to exactly 1.

His name is Halldor Laxness (born Halldór Guðjónsson), and he won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1955. One of Iceland’s  most renowned figures, he had a broad literary talent which spread from short stories and novels, poetry newspaper articles and even theatrical plays.

Who was he? Where id this life lead him? What are some of his great and renowned work? 

These are the question we will be answering in this week’s post.

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Where did his life lead him?

The subjects of Laxness’ work were diverse, and ebbed and flowed along with the writers personal beliefs and convictions. The first phase of his life and some of his early writings are marked by his Catholic leanings. Laxness spent some time in isolated at the Abbaye St. Maurice et St. Maur in Clervaux, Luxembourg where he studied a range of subjects, focused more on his writings and became more religious.  This was where he lost his Icelandic given name, inherited form the Icelandic patronymic tradition, where you take your fathers given name as your surname, with the suffix “son” for son or “dottir” for daughter, and became Halldór Laxness. 

Laxness swayed in various ways over the decades, influencing his writing. His visit to the United States brought him in contact with Upton Sinclair, a well-known and prolific American writer with socialist leanings, which then coloured his subsequent works. Due to his socialist leanings and praise of the Soviet  system, Laxness was put on the United States Black List (which prohibited him from entering the United States) for some time, but was then removed when he criticised the Soviet Union after the quashed uprising in Hungary, a disproportionate response to the civil unrest. This made it possible for him to tour the United States again. he return to iceland in the latter part of his life, where he lived until he died, a national hero, in 1998.

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What did Laxness write about?

Laxness’ writings cover a broad range of topics,  but he is most famous for his sociological writings of the 1930s, exploring the lives of ordinary Icelanders through fictional tales which appear all too real.  It was these works that earned him the Nobel prize award. As one literary critic noted:

…with Salka Valka began the great series of sociological novels, often coloured with socialist ideas, continuing almost without a break for nearly twenty years. This was probably the most brilliant period of his career, and it is the one which produced those of his works that have become most famous. But Laxness never attached himself permanently to a particular dogma.

Sveinn Hoskuldsson, "Scandinavica", 1972 supplement, pp. 1–2

The stories during this period are powerful because they encapsulate the struggle to live and thrive in a very harsh landscape. Iceland then was very different from Iceland now, where many inhabitants still lived in turf houses, and worked a considerable amount, a pastoral existence in order to be able to survive. 

Here, we surmise three of Laxness’ important works:

Independent People (1934): tells the story of a sheep farmer, Bjartur of Summerhouses, who above all else, desperately desires to be independent. Throughout the book, he is a hostage to fortune, and circumstances thwart his plans continuously, although he remains steadfast in his conviction. He is driven at all costs towards his independence, and sometimes he has to pay a high price for that goal.

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Salka Valka (1946): Tell the story of Salvör Valgerdur, a little girl filled with fortitude who overcomes many obstacles as she journeyed with there mother from the north to the south of Iceland. The journey was cut short by a stop in the town of  Oseyri, which ends up becoming their new home. Salvör brings herself out of poverty through her unavailing sense of determination and hard work. The novel documents her struggle and her rising up from her difficult upbringing.  

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The Fish Can Sing (1957): a coming of age take taking place in what is now the centre of reykjavik, by the side of the Tjornin pond. In a small turf and stone house called Brekkukot, a young boy named  grows up in a home for the destitute and dispossessed. He goes from accepting life as it is to ask many question about his station in life. One reviewer has remarked that: 

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It is spare and lacks the complexity of his other works, yet has genuine depth. There is sweetness without sentimentality, and some of Laxness' familiar irony crops up ... just not as frequently as in his other works.

Darien Fisher-Duke, literary critic

Discover more of Laxness’ work!

Laxness certainly was a remarkably talented man. If you find yourself in Iceland and en route towards the Golden Circle you can make a stop in the house where he lived for many years, Gljufursteinn, on the road up to Thingvellir National Park.  This is a must-visit for anyone that is familiar with and ha sread his works. 

For more detail about the life of Halldor Laxness and to see some example of his work, please visit  Laxness in Translation, a very insightful blog which offers lengthy overviews many of Laxness’ works, written by different readers of his work.

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