Halldór Laxness Laxness, Halldór (Kiljan) - Essay

Halldór Kiljan Guðjónsson


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Halldór (Kiljan) Laxness 1902–

(Born Halldór Kiljan Guðjonsson) Icelandic novelist, essayist, dramatist, short story writer, travel writer, translator, autobiographer, historian, and poet.

Laxness won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1955 for his success at invigorating the staid literature of Iceland and for his adept portrayal of the problems that modernization had brought to that isolated and ancient culture. Unfortunately, his innovations, symbolism, and lyricism cannot be fully appreciated in translation. Thus, though Laxness's work is monumental in Icelandic literature, he is not well known outside Scandinavia.

Laxness travelled extensively through post-World War I Europe and was influenced by literary trends there. Vefarinn mikli frá Kasmír (The Great Weaver from Kashmir) is a notable work from this period of his career. It shows Laxness to have been under the sway of expressionism and deeply interested in religious questions. Written while Laxness was living in a monastery in Luxembourg, Vefarinn mikli frá Kasmír is a novel of ideas, full of general philosophical speculation and explorations of Catholic theology.

In 1929, Laxness published a collection of radical essays entitled Alþýðubókin (The Book of the People). Clearly socialist in many of its stances, this book marks the beginning of a long period in which Laxness's political beliefs were quite obviously integrated into his fiction. Salka Valka epitomizes the type of fiction produced by Laxness during this stage of his career. Set in an economically depressed fishing village in Iceland and written in an epic style, the novel contains a good deal of social criticism. Its world view is bleak, as is its view of human nature.

Laxness published the novel Brekkukotsannáll (The Fish Can Sing) in 1957, a work that is said to mark a third period in Laxness's writing. This novel and those that follow it contain less social and political criticism than the earlier works. They are more lyrical and introspective. Beginning with Brekkukotsannáll, Laxness seems to find solace in the human capacity for dignity and goodness.

(See also Contemporary Authors, Vol. 103.)

Phillips D. Carleton

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[In Salka Valka] Halldor Laxness has portrayed a world without hope, without gentleness, without even the concept of progress….

In [a] fishing village on the coast of Iceland, the common people live in such misery that the birth of a child is a misfortune, and death a wretched commonplace…. The civil and state officials are either corrupt or indifferent to the poverty of their charges…. (p. 12)

One group of the populace—the seamen—start to benefit themselves at the cost of the shore workers; the town is divided by snarling hate. Then communism comes to town and there begin the long privations of a strike and port blockade. Even now the author allows no amelioration of the grim scene…. The long strike ends by giving new masters to the village; the new coöperative is quietly absorbed; the dreams, feeble as they were, fade and the village sinks back into a lethargy more confirmed than ever. Mr. Laxness does not believe for a minute that these villagers have learned the most elementary lessons of union or coöperation.

Salka Valka, the daughter of a woman marooned in this town, is the one through whom we see these happenings; she is a member of the seamen's union; she first fights and then falls in love with the communistic leader. He deserts her and his cause; she stands in the end momentarily at peace in a false glow of martyrdom.

The vision that Halldor Laxness holds of the...

(The entire section is 415 words.)

StefáN Einarsson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Halldór Kiljan Laxness is [the] most original [of all the Icelandic writers who began to write after World War I]. Like nobody else he represents the young urban population of Reykjavík, cut loose from the secure moorings of the thousand year old farm-culture, searching vigorously for a new mode of living among the possibilities of the post-war world…. A monument to his Catholic days Vefarinn Mikli frá Kasmir … looms as a milestone of a new age in Icelandic novelistics; it is expressionistic and autobiographic, a true picture of the turmoil of the author's mind. After 1930 Laxness has described Icelandic land and people from his communistic point of view…. Laxness novels are conceived on the grand scale; the poor village girl and the independent cottage farmer emerging as heroes of monumental stature, individuals and symbols of their class at the same time. The poet, though no hero, but rather the lowly subject and scapegoat of a cruel world, is no less grandly conceived as a symbol of the suffering spirit that will survive and spread light even under the most terrible circumstances. In his novels Laxness has created a new style, whose storms and stresses contrast vividly to the classic saga-like style of his predecessors and has left its mark on contemporary novelists after 1930. A fierce social criticism runs through all his novels; this has alienated readers both at home and abroad. But more discriminating readers have admired the brilliance of his style, his vigorous symbolism, and the art with which he fuses his characters and his scenery into one vast and drab panorama of intensified reality. (pp. 257-58)

Stefán Einarsson, "Five Icelandic Novelists," in Books Abroad (copyright 1942 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 16, No. 3, Summer 1942, pp. 254-59.∗

Robert Gorham Davis

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The man Bjartur [protagonist of "Independent People" ("Sjálfstaett fólk")] is a magnificent and complex symbol of peasant independence, and this whole great novel might be considered a profoundly imaginative projection of Hardy's poem, "In Time of 'The Breaking of Nations'," Bjartur is the modern Icelandic counterpart of the figure Hardy saw harrowing clods, hidden in "thin smoke without flame from heaps of couch-grass," working without change though dynasties rise and fall….

Bjartur is a magnificent symbol because he is at once and so completely Icelander, peasant, man….

And in the Western world the culture of Icelandic peasants is uniquely high and pure. These are the descendants of Vikings who established in Iceland an independent, democratic republic, a government of laws under the Althing, long before the English Magna Carta. And they still speak the uncorrupted language of the great eddas and sagas of the North which only highly literate Iceland preserved for the rest of the world. Bjartur could recite the exploits of the poet-heroes of the sagas, and of Grettis and Burnt Njal. He constantly made poems for his own delight, poems in the measures of the eighteenth century with all the metrical ingenuity of the ancient scalds…. Contemptuous of clergymen and state schools, he taught his beloved Asta Sollilja the Orvar-Odds Saga and the difficult kennings of the Jomsviking poems. This was the culture, the literature of freedom, that "preserved the nation's life…."

The author is a sociologist writing in the naturalist tradition. He knows exactly how Bjartur's way of life is conditioned by developments in scientific sheep breeding, farmers cooperatives, world markets, international loans. He knows that peasant individualism is not eternal, that it is disappearing fast in Russia, and may in many other parts of the world within this century. But as many of our American social novelists do not have, Laxness has also a poet's imagination and a poet's gift for phrase and symbol. When he moves into the minds of his characters, life takes on the shape and color and meaning it has for them…. (p. 25)

Robert Gorham Davis, "History of an 'Independent Man'," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1946 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), July 28, 1946, pp. 1, 25.

Hamilton Basso

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

["Independent People"], laid in Iceland, tells about a man who struggles for eighteen years to get hold of enough money to buy a sheep farm and then has to struggle just as hard to keep hold of it. Since such epical efforts cannot be confined within the dimensions of the ordinary novel and since Mr. Laxness's theme is that of man against the universe, he lets himself go for four hundred and seventy pages of just about solid type. His book consequently moves at the pace of one of the livelier glaciers. I can't say that it is altogether enjoyable, particularly those long passages of somewhat murky philosophy that are as essential to an epic as the theme of man against the universe, but it's not altogether unreadable, either. Mr. Laxness's hero, it might be added, is as disagreeable a character as ever an epic was built around—hard, bigoted, and mean—and there are times when, despite his motto. "This land will not betray its flocks," he clearly hates the hell out of everything. The book has a certain impressiveness, but I can't get rid of the notion that much of what looks like impressiveness is simply bulk. There must be a few writers in the cold countries who are not epic…. (pp. 88-9)

Hamilton Basso, "Shakespeare, Another Epic, and Nehru," in The New Yorker (© 1946 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), Vol. XXII, No. 27, August 17, 1946, pp. 88-9.∗

Bruce Lancaster

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

There is a strange quality that seems inseparable from Scandinavian writings—somber, pitched in a minor key, harsh, and, at first glance, cold and colorless as the light of an Arctic false dawn…. Yet this seeming drabness is deceptive. The lowering tones of false dawn slowly vanish to reveal a rich, warm life that is none the less real for all its neutral tints.

Now out of Iceland comes a strange story, vibrant and alive under its sinister overtones…. [Independent People] tells of the struggle of an Iceland crofter to achieve self-sufficiency, of his obsession for independence, a craving so deep that in his pursuit of it he becomes a slave to his ideal….

Every step of [Bjartur's] long fight, every success, every failure, flows through these pages with bitter relentlessness, a dour inevitability. It is the age-old story of the peasant against the world, and through the author's skill, it achieves a rare timelessness and universality….

Bitter and somber as the story is, there is a rare beauty in its telling, a beauty as surprising as the authentic strain of poetry that lies in the shoving, battering Icelander, the master of "Summerhouses."

Bruce Lancaster, "'Independent People'," in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright © 1946, by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass.; reprinted with permission), Vol. 178, No. 3, September, 1946, p. 150.

William Barrett

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Halldor Laxness] never acquired the audience in the United States that his unusual and fine talent deserved. The life in Iceland that he portrayed may have been too stark and remote for American tastes. Now that in Paradise Reclaimed [Paradísarheimt] … his story moves from Iceland to Utah, he ought to be able to capture a few more readers.

Mist-shrouded Iceland and the desert flats of Utah seem to be spots as unrelated as any two you could pick on this globe; Mr. Laxness ties them together by the common dream of a real earthly paradise that circulated among Icelanders and Mormons in the nineteenth century. His hero, a small farmer named Steinar Steinsson, is persuaded by a Mormon missionary in Iceland to make the long pilgrimage to the land of the Latter-Day Saints…. At the end we see him revisiting Iceland, gazing at the ruins of his farm and wondering whether paradise might not be found in Iceland as much, or as little, as in Utah—the eternal query of the returning immigrant. (pp. 172, 174)

The qualities of the sagas pervade [Laxness's] writing, and particularly a kind of humor—oblique, stylized, and childlike—that can be found in no other contemporary writer. Steinar himself, the unpredictable dreamer, is a very beguiling figure, a humble man who nevertheless carries the unquenchable spark of the old Vikings. (p. 174)

William Barrett, "Forgotten Novelist," in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright © 1962, by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass.; reprinted with permission), Vol. 210, No. 6, December, 1962, pp. 172, 174.

Edwin Morgan

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Though much in [The Fish Can Sing] is ironic and ambiguous, in form it is a straightforward account of an orphan boy growing up in an old fisherman's cottage near Reykjavik, early this century. But of course the theme is Iceland itself, its emergence into the international modern world, an extreme and often philistine yet not unimpressive provincialism being teased out of itself year by year. A native son returns—Gardar Holm, apparently a singer who has won world-wide acclaim but who never proves this claim in public in Reykjavik. The town wants to believe it, for Iceland's sake: 'We want to prove to the rest of the world that "the fish can sing just like a bird".' But it is the young hero of the book who has to sing at Holm's funeral, and at the end he leaves Iceland, another Stephen Dedalus. (p. 486)

Edwin Morgan, "Predestination," in New Statesman (© 1966 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. 73, No. 1855, September 30, 1966, pp. 485-86.∗

Phoebe-Lou Adams

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

When an author has won a Nobel Prize, it is not unsafe to assume that his work is imbued with high seriousness and earnest purpose, for the Nobel committee has never shown much affection for comedians. The Icelander Halldor Laxness comes, therefore, as a delightful lapse from tradition. His novel The Fish Can Sing … simmers with an ironic, disrespectful mirth which gives unexpected dimensions to the themes of lost innocence and the nature of art. These themes are sober enough, but as Mr. Laxness develops them through the experiences of young Alfgrim in Reykjavik at the start of the century, they lead to … memorable absurdities….

Iceland was a Danish colony in those days, and Mr. Laxness has a great deal of fun with provincial imitations of Copenhagen manners…. The basis of Mr. Laxness' style is … Icelandic bluntness, which is not bluntness at all but a literary technique that goes right back to the sagas. It involves an artful, calculated, and even devious arrangement of what appear to be mere surface details, which by their juxtaposition produce meanings and emotional responses that are never mentioned in the understated text…. How things looked, what was done, and what was said are almost the entire substance of The Fish Can Sing. Toward the end, when discussion of the position and reward of the artist becomes too complicated for Alfgrim's wide-eyed bumpkin pitch, Mr. Laxness emerges briefly and warily from behind the mask, but until that point, reflection, explanation, and analysis are rigorously avoided. Nor are they missed.

Phoebe-Lou Adams, "Potpourri," in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright © 1967, by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass.; reprinted with permission), Vol. 219, No. 4, April, 1967, p. 150.∗

Barry Jacobs

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Perhaps no Western country has been so deeply absorbed in its own past as Iceland, where the sagas are still popular literature. A number of nineteenth- and twentieth-century writers, particularly the Scandinavian Naturalists, have been attracted by the narrative power and the complete objectivity of these family sagas. But whereas a few writers—Selma Lagerlöf, Knut Hamsun, and Sigrid Undset among them—have successfully extracted certain stylistic features from the sagas and incorporated them into modern novels, most attempts to imitate the sagas have only resulted in slightly comic pastiches. Nobel Prize-winner Halldor Laxness is the one writer who has been able to resurrect the saga and make it into a viable...

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Robert D. Spector

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Bitter and hopeful, realistic and bizarre, World Light [Heimsljós] … captures the contradictions and ambiguities that have characterized not only the literary achievement but even the Icelandic reputation of Halldór Laxness…. To his Icelandic countrymen Laxness is a source of pride for his masterful writing and yet a constant irritant because of his relentlessly honest portrayal of the meanest, along with the noblest, qualities of his Icelandic characters.

World Light was hardly designed to meet the demands of chauvinistic critics. Its village and peasant characters range from narrowminded superstitiousness to parochial foolishness in their conduct. (pp. 420-21)


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Peter Hallberg

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

As an Icelander and a member of a very small Scandinavian nation with an ancient and unique literary culture, Halldór Laxness has rather special qualifications as a writer. Throughout the period of his literary achievement, which has now continued for almost half a century, the Icelandic heritage has constantly been a living force in his work, contrasting or combining in various ways with his modernism and preoccupation with the problems of his time. The tension between the native and the foreign, the national and the cosmopolitan, has formed one of the fruitful contrasts which run through all his writing. (p. 5)

Three stages in his development may be fairly clearly distinguished. The first is...

(The entire section is 6709 words.)

George S. Tate

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Certain difficulties confront the Mormon reader of Paradise Reclaimed who is] unaware of the background of the novel and its position in Laxness' literary output, and it is in an effort to overcome these that I would like, by way of apologia for the novel, to make four points. The first is that Laxness' humor is an enigmatic and puzzling feature of virtually all his fiction. His creative energy thrives on tension between humor and satire on the one hand and melancholy pathos on the other. (p. 30)

An ironist with a keen eye for incongruities, Laxness lets nothing, however sacred—not the sagas, not Christianity, not socialism, certainly not himself—escape this "twofold vision" of sympathy...

(The entire section is 613 words.)

Sigurdur A. MagnúSson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


With his narrative skill and vivid style [Halldór Laxness] has done more than any modern novelist to renew Icelandic prose. Indeed, he dominated the literary scene in Iceland from the mid-1920s to the mid-1960s. In his heyday he was an odd mixture of a universal creative genius and a partisan essayist propagating radical socialism and revolution. However, he made a point of separating his art and his social and political preaching, with the result that his novels are largely free from those tendencies which often mar the works of socially conscious writers. He has a surprisingly large range of styles and subjects, so that no two of his novels resemble one another in...

(The entire section is 497 words.)

Publishers Weekly

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The Atom Station] deals with Iceland's entry into the atomic age and its introduction to the accompanying anxiety and despair, as Parliament debates whether or not to sell the country to other nations for use as an "atom station." Ugla, a strapping, honest-minded girl from the north, comes to Reykjavik to study organ, working as a maid in a Parliament member's home. Symbolizing the heathenish, uncorrupted Iceland of the Sagas, Ugla is appalled by and pitying of the spiritual poverty and boredom of her employers and their kids…. Sometimes the symbolism is full of clichés, but Laxness nevertheless offers insight into a culture that is both isolated from and inexorably tied to the world as a whole. A serious...

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Phoebe-Lou Adams

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The Atom Station] has never before been issued in the United States, possibly because it was considered pro-Communist, possibly because Mr. Laxness's sardonic, deadpan style of comedy has never attracted much interest in this country. Such neglect is regrettable, for his plague-on-all-your-houses view of government is wickedly attractive, his absurd political and artistic characters are internationally recognizable, and his dim view of atomic enterprise is no longer either exotic or unreasonable.

Phoebe-Lou Adams, "Short Reviews: 'The Atom Station'," in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright © 1982, by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass., reprinted with...

(The entire section is 97 words.)