Halldór Laxness Essay - Halldór Laxness Long Fiction Analysis

Halldór Kiljan Guðjónsson

Halldór Laxness Long Fiction Analysis

Laxness’s trilogy Iceland’s Bell is set around the late seventeenth century, when the Danes ruled Iceland as a colony, although the novel does not specify dates precisely. All three of the main characters—a farmer, a manuscript collector, and a strong-willed woman—pay homage to Iceland’s classical literature. One sings rímur for courage to face a proposed execution; another argues that Germany must not be allowed to buy Iceland, an argument based mainly on the worth of Iceland’s literature; and the third quotes from the great medieval classic, the Edda, in a legal appeal. It is the woman who argues by the Edda, and she concludes, “Forgive the fact that we are a saga people and can forget nothing.”

Laxness began his next novel in Rome in 1948. While The Happy Warriors at first appears to be the antithesis of The Atom Station, since it is set in medieval Iceland and based on Fóstbrðra saga (thirteenth century), its theme is war and peace as well. In it, Laxness mocks two rather hyperactive young men who think that they are living as heroes should. Laxness’s sympathy lies with those who know craven violence for what it is and who prize aspects of ordinary living. Under the shadow of the U.S. peacekeeping force at Keflavík, Laxness’s searing condemnation of violence and war takes on a particularly contemporary meaning, since much of it derives from actual fact. At points, the satire is quite bald. When the hero, Thorgeir, exchanges his weekly ration of butter for iron because he has found it unmanly to eat butter, saying “iron is more to our taste,” readers hear an echo of the Nazi Hermann Göring’s slogan proclaiming that guns must come before butter. Laxness leaves little doubt in this novel about how he regards the Nazi interpretation of the ancient, heroic past.

In Paradise Reclaimed, in The Fish Can Sing, and in various plays, Laxness sharpened his social wit to embrace Iceland’s heritage in fuller measure. His protagonist in Paradise Reclaimed leaves Iceland in pursuit of Paradise as proffered by the Mormon Church and its missionaries. After following the faith in Utah for eight years, Stein returns to Iceland to repair the stone fence that has fallen apart from lack of care during his absence. The conclusion is more meditation than conviction. Neither the Mormon nor the Icelandic life vision is satirized or given final dominance. In The Fish Can Sing, Laxness strengthens this quiescent, nearly avuncular viewpoint, taking particular note of the influence Daoism had in his own life. Through his character, Álfgrímur, Laxness presents a portrait drawn in certain respects from his own life. In this novel, he endows old people and country people, in particular, with the powerful virtues of passivity, humility, and tranquillity, qualities prized by Laozi (also known as Lao-tzu). The biographical strains heard in The Fish Can Sing strengthen in four of Laxness’s later books, autobiographical meditations on the artist’s life in which Laxness speaks directly of his childhood experiences and major influences on his life.

Independent People

First drafted while Halldór Laxness was in Hollywood, Independent People is his greatest novel and his most secure claim to international fame. His protagonist, Bjartur of Summerhouses, is one of his toughest and least sympathetic protagonists. This very crudity suits Bajartur’s image of what he preeminently is: the archetypal Icelandic farmer, the eternal survivor. Yet for all the naturalistic elements in this story of extreme poverty, Laxness, although strongly influenced by communism at the time that he wrote the book, is never doctrinaire in his treatment of either situation or character.

After eighteen years as a hired man, Guðbjartur Jónsson saves up enough money to buy some land. What he can afford is a scrap of border country, long ago abandoned at the end of Iceland’s interior wilderness. In the past, the small croft has been called Winterhouses, but Bjartur is anxious to affirm his new identity as an independent landholder and optimistically names it Summerhouses. In further celebration of his new life, he is married and begins life as an independent farmer.

Rosa, Bjartur’s young wife, is quite fearful of her taciturn and harsh husband, and she hides her pregnancy from him. During the first winter of their marriage, Bjartur sets off during a storm in search of a sheep that Rosa knows is not lost but that she has, rather, butchered and eaten. After a harrowing few days in the wilds, Bjartur returns home to find Rosa dead in a pool of blood. The tiny child lying by her is, however, alive, warmed by the body of the pet dog. This tragic turn, on the heels of his promising beginning, does not unnerve Bjartur. Although he refuses to recognize the evil ancient spirit said to inhabit a nearby knoll, he accepts events such as Rosa’s death as inevitable. The minister ensures Bjartur marries again, and in a few years, three boys are growing up in the household with Rosa’s child, a girl named Ásta.

Bjartur makes his poverty a regimen of discipline that he is sure will build character. He extols the virtues of independence over all else. He is blind to his wife’s numerous miscarriages, his thin children, and his rude hut while he dispenses with kingly grace a good deal of coffee to friends and neighbors. Bjartur scorns such food as the ducks and trout his neighbors come for as unnatural, as he does milk. Only on mutton and gruel, he believes, is strong character nourished.

Bjartur’s only romantic weakness is for his daughter, Ásta, whom he cherishes, although he knows she is not really his daughter: Rosa had come to him pregnant by the landlord’s son. The girl awakens Bjartur’s gentler feelings. During the winter before Ásta is to be confirmed, Bjartur goes to town alone for a season to earn money to sustain his family. By this time, his second wife has died, and Bjartur leaves Ásta to care for the household; he also sends an alcoholic consumptive to Summerhouses to tutor the children in his absence. The children virtually worship the teacher as an emissary from the outer world. The tutor’s own nature is hardly equal to the children’s adulation. Before he leaves, he takes the innocent Ásta to his bed. When Bjartur discovers that Ásta is pregnant, he disowns her, ordering her out of his house in a fury. Ásta wanders out in a spring storm and walks miles into town in search of the tutor, who she believes will marry her.

By this time, Bjartur has also lost two of his three sons. The...

(The entire section is 2736 words.)