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 Catholic faith and became an ardent socialist. He acquainted himself with the American author Upton Sinclair and was influenced by his sociological novels. During the next twenty-five years, Laxness wrote a series of realistic novels marked by a radical socialistic view, in which he describes the social conditions in Iceland, past and present, and the people’s struggle for survival and a better life. Among these novels are Þu vínviður hreini (1931) and Fuglinn í fjörunni (1932; published together as Salka Valka: A Novel of Iceland, 1936), Independent People, Heimsljós (1937-1940; World Light, 1969), and Íslandsklukkan.
Laxness returned to Iceland in 1930, where he lived for the rest of his life, although he enjoyed numerous extended stays in other countries. In the 1950’s, he gradually lost faith in socialism and declared his skepticism toward all totalitarian ideologies. Many of his late novels, for example Brekkukotsannáll (1957; The Fish Can Sing, 1966), Paradísarheimt (1960; Paradise Reclaimed, 1962), and Kristnihald undir Jökli (1968; Christianity at Glacier, 1972), are marked by a philosophical relativism, partly based on Icelandic popular wisdom, partly on Daoism. In the 1960’s, Laxness gave up novel writing for a while and devoted most of his time to the theater. In this period, he developed his own dramatical style, a mixture of realism, absurdism, farce, and satire. In the 1970’s and 1980’s, Laxness turned to essays and memoirs.
Laxness married twice and had four children. In 1945 he established a home in Mosfellssveit (now Mosfellsbær), close to his parents’ farm, Laxnes. In this parish of his youth, he died on February 8, 1998.
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...
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