Halldór Kiljan Guðjónsson, who later took up the name Halldór Kiljan Laxness, was of farming stock, born on April 23, 1902, in Reykjavík. In 1905 the family moved to a small farm near the city Laxnes in Mosfellssveit (now Mosfellsbær), where the boy grew up. He was constantly writing as a child, and at the age of seventeen, he made his debut as a novelist with a neoromantic love story, Barn náttúrunnar (1919; child of nature). In the same year, he devoted himself to writing and made his first journey abroad. During the following decade, Laxness traveled widely in Europe and America, steeping himself in contemporary literature and culture in his search for ideological basis and personal style. In 1922-1923, he stayed at the Benedictine monastery of Saint Maurice de Clervaux in Luxembourg, where he was converted to Roman Catholicism, and in 1923-1924, he studied at a Jesuit-run school in England with the intention of taking holy orders.
He made his breakthrough as a writer with the revolutionary novel Vefarinn mikli frá Kasmír (1927; the great weaver of Kashmir), a semiautobiographical work that portrays a young man and his spiritual turmoil. This novel, which bears the imprint of expressionism and Symbolism, marks the beginning of modernism in Icelandic literature.
In 1927-1929, Laxness stayed in the United States, learning about the cinema and writing in Hollywood. In the United States, he abandoned the Roman...
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Halldór Laxness was born Halldór Kiljan Guðjónsson in Reykjavík on April 23, 1902, the son of Guðjón Helgi Helgason and Sigríður Halldórsdóttir. (Icelandic custom excludes the use of fixed last names. Children are christened with first names but carry their father’s name with “son” or “daughter” suffixed to it as a last name.) When Laxness was three years old, the family moved to the district of Mosfellsveit, where his parents began farming a stead called Laxnes. As an adult, Laxness exchanged his patronymic, Halldór, for the name of his home farm.
Much of Laxness’s youth was spent in the country. Although the boy was kept busy at farm and house chores, he describes himself as “lazy” and ever eager to wiggle out of tasks in order to sit at his desk and write. If paper was unavailable, he scribbled on his handkerchiefs. In 1919, shortly after his father’s death, Halldór dropped out of high school and—as countless young, ambitious Icelanders had done before him over the centuries—boarded a ship for Europe. Laxness spent most of this first trip abroad in Copenhagen. In 1921, he set off again for the Continent, this time for Germany and Austria, where he saw the war-scarred cities. Letters home tell of his outrage at coming upon beggars maimed by the war, pleading for alms in the shadows of elaborate war memorials. In Berlin, he found that for only a few coins he could sit down with ambassadors, millionaires, and other socialites to eat cakes in Germany’s finest coffeehouses.
These extreme social contrasts were the counterpart to what he had seen in cosmic terms in Iceland a few years earlier. There, on the quiet island, far from the ravages of war, Spanish influenza had broken out at the same time as the volcano Katla was in violent eruption. These symbols of the precarious position of humans and the wide variance of social conditions made their impression upon the artist, who was initially thrown into a period of intense pessimism. In 1922, Laxness sought to transcend his despair through Christian theology. In the same year, he entered the Benedictine monastery of Saint Maurice de Clervaux and was baptized into the Catholic Church in 1923, taking, at the time, the name Halldór Kiljan Laxness. (For years, Icelanders referred to Laxness as “Halldór Kiljan”; Laxness later dropped his baptismal name, Kiljan.) For a time, Laxness intended to devote his life entirely to the Church and hoped to be ordained. It appears, however, that he spent most of his time at the monastery writing his early novel Undir helgahnúk (under the holy mountain).
During the next several years, Laxness traveled through Europe, writing most of The Great Weaver from Kashmir in Sicily in 1925. During the 1920’s, Laxness’s sympathy for socialism increased, and his desire to learn as much as possible about various cultures took him to the United States in 1927. Not the least of the impulses that brought him was his fascination with the new art of the cinema. At this point in his life, after spending much of the 1920’s abroad, Laxness appears to have become a confirmed expatriate, but this role did not settle well...
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