Other Literary Forms

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

First and foremost a novelist and an essayist, Halldór Laxness published around fifty books, including seventeen novels, four collections of short stories, more than twenty nonfiction works, six plays, and a collection of poetry. He also translated into Icelandic a number of literary works, novels, plays, and memoirs. In addition, he edited four Icelandic sagas in modern spelling. Laxness wrote several essays on the theater and regularly wrote drama reviews for an Icelandic newspaper from 1931 to 1932.


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Halldór Laxness was the most important Icelandic author of the twentieth century. He was a very prolific and versatile writer, constantly surprising his readers with new themes and literary genres. He always wrote in his mother tongue, Icelandic, but his works have been translated into more than forty languages. Many of his best-known novels are available in English translation. Laxness has left his mark on Icelandic theater. Apart from six original plays, eight of his novels have been successfully adapted for the stage. Moreover, nine of his novels and short stories have been filmed. As a dramatist Laxness is, however, almost unknown outside Iceland. Only one of his plays, The Pigeon Banquet, has been translated into English and produced on the stage in an English-speaking country (England). The Pigeon Banquet was also produced in Denmark in 1970, and in the 1950’s Silfurtúnglið was staged in the Soviet Union (1955), Finland (1956), and Czechoslovakia (1956).

For most of his career, Laxness was a highly controversial writer because of his radical thoughts and artistic experiments. Nevertheless, many of his novels have become best-sellers, both in Iceland and on the international book market. In 1946, the novel Sjálfstætt fólk (1934-1935; Independent People, 1946) was introduced by the Book-of-the Month Club in the United States and sold more than 500,000 copies, and in 1977, Independent People and Íslandsklukkan (1943) were packaged as one volume in the Soviet Union and sold about 300,000 copies.

Laxness was granted various honors and awards for his writing and participation in public discussion. The most prestigious was the Nobel Prize in Literature, which he received in 1955 “for his vivid epic power, which has renewed the great narrative art of Iceland.” Laxness received honorary doctorates from many universities, and in his last years, he was hailed as “the grand old man” in Icelandic and European literature.

Other literary forms

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Although in international circles Halldór Laxness (LAKS-nehs) was known primarily as a novelist, he produced a steady stream of other writing during his more than sixty-year career. Much of this work documents the unfolding of his artistic consciousness in the form of social, political, and religious manifestos. The first of these testaments appeared in Laxness’s twentieth year, when he wrote the unpublished “Rauða kverið” (the red notebook) while living in Austria and Germany. Although never published in its entirety, this “philosophical” book, as Laxness described it, involves a young man’s confrontation with the “glittering misery” of the modern (post-World War I) world and the solace he finally takes in the Catholic faith. “Rauða kverið” is the earliest version of what was to become a central juxtaposition in Laxness’s mature work: the peaceful solitude of a mountain valley in contrast to the furor of city life.

Following Laxness’s own conversion to Christianity, he wrote Kaþólsk viðhorf (1925; from a Catholic point of view), an apologia. By the late 1920’s, however, Laxness had decisively turned his attention from religious matters to social ones. The most radical expression of his new perspective appears in a series of essays Alþýðubókin (1929; the people’s book). In 1933, Í Austurvegi (going east) appeared, an eyewitness account of the author’s 1932 trip to the Soviet Union; this record was later supplemented by Gerska fintýrið (1938; the Russian adventure), written following a second journey to the Soviet Union.

Beginning in the early 1940’s, Laxness regularly published collections of essays, speeches, and articles on topics of general concern. These position papers on Icelandic agriculture and...

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(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

The honor bestowed upon Nobel Prize winners invariably redounds in some way upon the country of their birth. When a recipient of the award dominates the literary world of that society for nearly half a century, and furthermore, when that country is a small island whose residents number only 230,000, this effect is magnified. In the case of Halldór Laxness, this position of honor is still more deeply realized, because Laxness was virtually the only Icelandic writer whose work was widely known outside his country. These special conditions make it hardly an exaggeration to say that Laxness was the Voice of Iceland, as many called him.

This is a role that Laxness did not hesitate to assume, although he is not Iceland’s only gifted contemporary novelist. Icelanders inherit and continue to extend a rich and continuous literary tradition that takes literary awareness as a matter of course. The island probably has more writers per capita than any other nation, and Iceland publishes more books per capita than any other nation. Nevertheless, Laxness’s achievements stand out in a nation of authors because his subject matter is eclectic and cosmopolitan even while virtually all of his works take Iceland for their setting. This synthesis reflects a devotion, on one hand, to his grandmother’s stories (“At every opportunity I point out—and always with noble pride—that I knelt at the feet of the eighteenth century to receive my upbringing”) and, on the other, to contemporary issues such as the effects the atomic bomb has had on culture since World War II.

Laxness was once told by a New Yorker that Independent People, which describes life on an isolated croft in North Iceland in the twentieth century, equally described the economic hardships and community structure of a poor family’s life in New York City around 1950. The universal recognition with which readers greet his fishermen, folk poets, struggling crofters, and sensitive children is not unlike the response Charles Dickens inspired among his cosmopolitan readers. Both authors also share a sophisticated yet comic regard for their characters. That Laxness’s subject matter is universally accessible has, in large part, assured his international reputation. From an Icelandic standpoint, his achievement as a...

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(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Einarsson, Stefán. A History of Icelandic Literature. New York: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1957. This work includes a brief but helpful summary of Laxness’ life and the significance of some of his literary works within a historical perspective.

Einarsson, Stefán. History of Icelandic Prose Writers: 1800-1940. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1948. The life and writings of Laxness are discussed at some length in this work. The biographical information is interesting and informative, and the analysis of Laxness’ literary development is insightful and succinct.

Fadiman, James. “Past Present.” The Nation, May 28, 1990. Examines how Laxness depicts the rugged people living in the harshness of Iceland’s terrain.

Hallberg, Peter. Halldór Laxness. Translated by Rory McTurk. Boston: Twayne, 1971. An excellent biographical and critical analysis of Laxness’s writings.

Hallmundsson, Hallberg. “Halldór Laxness and the Sagas of Modern Iceland.” The Georgia Review 49 (Spring, 1995). Explains the enduring importance of Laxness’s work.

Leithauser, Brad. “On Independent People by Halldór Laxness.” The New York Review of Books, May 11, 1995. Argues that Laxness produced the finest novel of the twentieth century.

Magnusson, Magnus. “Seeing the Truth.” New Statesman 13, no. 637 (December 25, 2000-January 1, 2001): 91-92. Magnusson reflects on the reception in the United States of Laxness and his work, noting his early popularity. While concentrating on Laxness’s fiction, he sheds light on the writer’s character.

Magnússon, Sigurður A. “Halldór Kiljan Laxness, Iceland’s First Nobel Prize Winner.” American-Scandinavian Review 44 (1956). Valuable.

Magnússon, Sigurður A. “Postwar Literature in Iceland.” World Literature Today 56 (Winter, 1982). Describes the remarkable literary accomplishment in the variety of Laxness novels.

Magnússon, Sigurður A. “The World of Halldór Laxness.” World Literature Today 66 (Summer, 1992). Describes the Icelandic people as portrayed in literature and compares Laxness’s treatment.