Halldór Laxness

(History of the World: The 20th Century)

Article abstract: Laxness, in a period when Iceland was reawakening to its history, became a spokesman for that history and renewed the distinctive art of Icelandic narrative. He received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1955, a fitting tribute to his contribution to world literature.

Early Life

Born Halldór Guðjónsson on April 23, 1902, Halldór Laxness was the son of Guðjón Helgi Helgason and Sigríður Halldórsdóttir. Laxness’ parents moved from Reykjavík into the country to become farmers when Laxness was still very young. By the time he was seven years old, Laxness had begun to write stories and poems. He began his writing career in 1918, the same year that Iceland gained its independence from Denmark.

In 1919, Laxness published his first book, Barn náttúrunnar (child of nature), and left for Europe without having received his high school diploma. In his travels over the next few years, Laxness observed the devastation of World War I; his writing from this period is deeply pessimistic. In 1923, he entered a monastery in Luxembourg and converted to Catholicism. Some of his works that directly followed this conversion—Nokkrar sogus (1923; some stories), the novel Undir helgahnuk (1924; under the holy mountain), and a defense of Catholicism entitled Kaþólsk viðhorf (1925; a Catholic point of view)—reflected his new perspective.

Life’s Work

As Laxness departed for Rome, where he planned to continue his studies and enter the priesthood, his course appeared to be set. In fact, he was about to undergo another transformation. Instead of Rome, he found himself in Sicily, where he wrote his first fully developed novel, Vefarinn mikli frá Kasmír (1927; the great weaver from Kashmir). Depicting a symbolic conflict between good and evil, the book dramatizes the spiritual struggles that culminated in Laxness’ disillusionment with Catholicism.

Laxness next traveled to the United States, where he sought work in the film industry, without success. His impressions of Hollywood and of American life are recorded in two bitterly critical articles. During this time Laxness became friends with the novelist Upton Sinclair, whose influence played a part in Laxness’ commitment to radical socialism.

Returning to Iceland in 1929, Laxness married Ingibjörg Einarsdóttir in 1930; they had one child, a son. Laxness decided to settle in Reykjavík, although he continued to travel widely.

The 1930’s were fruitful for Laxness. He won immediate praise for his two-part novel Þu vinviðour hreini (1931) and Fuglinn í fjörunni (1932), translated together as Salka Valka: A Novel of Iceland (1936), which established him as Iceland’s leading novelist. In both its tone—a distinctive mixture of detached cynicism and compassion for struggling...

(The entire section is 1201 words.)