The Great Weaver from Rekjavic
(The treasured “independence” of a small Scandinavian nation became both matrix and subject for one of the twentieth century’s greatest novelists.)
Thanks in large part to the championing of his work undertaken by American poet and novelist Brad Leithauser, the eminent Icelandic writer Halldor Laxness (1902-98) is enjoying a considerable – if as yet incomplete – renaissance.
Laxness, who won the 1955 Nobel Prize for Literature, is in many ways a throwback: a novelist with the soul of an epic poet, whose broad canvases accommodate much of his homeland’s embattled history and rich (oral and written) literary culture. His major books might be called Tolstoyan were they less rigorously down to earth; less precisely focused, not on watershed historic events or glorious adventures, but on the quotidian struggles of stoical – and, sometimes, annoyingly stubborn – ordinary people.
Four of Laxness’s novels – the ambitious masterpieces Independent People and World Light, and two quirky and charming later novels, The Fish Can Sing and Paradise Reclaimed, are currently in print in this country. Of the more than sixty volumes published during his long working lifetime, six other works of fiction – notably the early Salka Valka, the unconventional pastiche saga The Happy Warriors, and a mordant political satire, The Atom Station – have appeared in English translations (most of them unavailable for many years).
And that’s all we have: less than twenty per cent of the total oeuvre of a writer of enormous range and high accomplishment, long since acknowledged as one of the twentieth century’s most gifted and protean creative artists.
The cradle, as it were, in which this talent was nurtured comprises a tiny Scandinavian country’s experience of subjugation by larger and more militant neighbor nations (for many centuries, Norway; thereafter Denmark – from which Iceland achieved full independence only as recently as 1944), and also a devotion to the spoken and written word that manifests itself in an unusually high degree of literacy. In every Icelandic household. a common saying declares, you’ll find at least one of Halldor Laxness’s books. But, beyond Laxness, there looms the single most important source of what must be called a national commitment to literature: the literary form Iceland gave to the world, that of the medieval sagas.
Written down mostly in the tenth through twelfth centuries (though preserved and transmitted orally long before that), these stark, fatalistic narratives of exploration, feuding, murder, and revenge simultaneously echo the themes and preoccupations of classical Greek epic and tragedy, and anticipate the modern realistic novel.
Their emphases on struggles for property and respectability waged by laymen who boldly oppose the stronger forces of nobility and royalty (as in the celebrated Egil’s Saga, which details a poor landowner’s one-man rebellion against a greedy Norwegian king) finds echoes in several of Laxness’s persistent (not to say mule-headed) everymen. The later writer’s fascination with travel may well have been stimulated by The Vinland Sagas (stories of westward Viking voyages), and it’s more than likely that Laxness’s deep empathy with iconoclasts and troublemakers was influenced by the colorful figure of the outlaw antihero of Grettir’s Saga (a tale incidentally replete with folklore and supernaturalism). Furthermore, the antecedents of the strong women characters who are such vital presences in even Laxness’s very early fiction can probably be found in the great, mad figure of Gudrun, the much-married monster of appetite who proudly bestrides the operatic Laxdaela Saga.
What we know of Laxness’s early years (for details of which I am indebted primarily to the Swedish critic Peter Hallberg’s expert Halldor Laxness, published in 1971 in Twayne’s World Authors Series) testifies to his sedulous absorption of such literary influences. He was born Halldor Guthdjonsson in the capitol city of Reykjavik in 1902, and raised on a farm purchased shortly thereafter by his father, who was also employed as a road construction foreman. The comforts of rural life obviously benefited the young Laxness’s precocious bent for reading and writing (though the demands of farm labor, as scattered autobiographical writings confess, appear to have appealed rather less to him) – and became the subject of an idyllic first novel, Barn natterunnar (“Child of Nature”), published in its author’s seventeenth year.
Adopting the persona of a young aesthete (and also a pen name derived from the name of his family’s farm: “Laxnes”), the fledgling author traveled extensively throughout Europe and North America, reading everything, recording his observations of foreign mores and lifestyles – and finding himself drawn to the majesty and serenity of formal religion. In 1922, he spent several months as a guest in a Benedictine monastery in Luxembourg, acquiring a penchant for contemplation (and reading knowledge of several foreign languages), but eventually deciding not to enter the priesthood.
Both an early book of short stories and an openly autobiographical novel, Undir Helgahnuk (1923; English translation, Under the Glacier) followed this religious experience. But this juvenilia pales in comparison with Laxness’s first major novel Vefarrin mikli fra Kasmir (“The Great Weaver from Kashmir”), which was published in 1929. It’s a pointedly discursive novel of ideas, whose “divided” protagonist Stein Ellidi pursues an artistic vocation as a means of escaping his bourgeois family’s ingrained materialism. The (ironically observed) process of renunciation through which Stein abandons love and marriage, among other earthly entanglements, is a study in obsession which, Laxness later revealed, was heavily influenced by the psychologically based fiction of Dostoevsky and Strindberg. It’s undoubtedly also a vestige of its author’s (wavering, though obviously sincere) religious preoccupation. It was a great popular and critical success, which made his reputation, and confirmed the appropriateness of the path Laxness now knew he had chosen.
During these years of incipient artistic maturity, Laxness’s travels brought him to North America, where he would send nearly two years (late 1927 through 1929) living in the United States. An abortive career as a Hollywood screenwriter, and a friendship with the muckraking American novelist (and sometime political office-seeker) Upton Sinclair precipitated a fundamental change in Laxness’s thinking. He saw the Great Depression in embryonic form, in lengthening breadlines filled with unemployed workers, and the fervent sympathy with the lives of the disadvantaged, expressed in his early works as a kind of idealized solidarity with poor farmers and fishermen, now became crystallized.
Returning to Iceland in 1930, Laxness declared himself a socialist, and settled down to his life’s work: recording and celebrating, not the rarefied condition of the artist as distinct from society, but the grit and monotony of everyday life; the heroism of simple perseverance and devotion to duty. The struggle for survival would become his abiding theme. And never again would he idealize or romanticize the natures or fates of those caught up in it.
The first important fruit of this resolution was the novel published in two parts as Puvinvidur hreini (“O Thou Pure Vine”) in 1931 and Fuglinn I fjörunni (“The Bird on the Beach”) the following year, and known in English translation as Salka Valka.
Its eponymous heroine – perhaps the most vibrant of all Laxness’s women characters – is first seen arriving by mail boat with her unmarried mother Sigurlina in the rough-and-tumble fishing village of Oseyri. The novel initially focuses on the contrast between timid, stolid Sigurlina (easy prey for every man she meets) and self-sufficient Salka, who foils an attempted rape by the brutish fisherman Steintor Steinsson (an incarnation of pure malevolent superego), and joins the man she chooses, socialist intellectual Arnaldur Björnsson, in a fisherman’s strike against Oseyri’s merchant patriarch Johann Boresen.
Though it’s more fully plotted, Salka Valka has many points of resemblance with Norwegian novelist Knut Hamsun’s wry tales of village life (though Laxness rejected the comparison, perhaps unwilling to be linked to Hamsun’s notoriously fatalistic sensibility). The novel has pace, and color, and considerable narrative momentum. And the figures of the well-meaning, though effete Arnaldur and the amiable, condescending Bogesen bespeak a subtlety even more pronounced in the rich characterization of Salka. She’s an avatar of courage and determination (while Arnaldur declaims and theorizes, she assumes the care of four motherless children) who’s also impatient, humorless, and narrow-minded. She’s a very considerable creation – and forerunner of even more fully human and imperfect characters yet to appear.
One such is Bjartur, the unforgettable protagonist of Laxness’s most famous novel Sjalfstaeet folk (1934-35; English translation, Independent People). He’s a farm hand who buys a plot of land (which he hopefully names “Summerhouses”) from his wealthy employer and embarks on a life of stoical combat with unending misfortune. His first wife dies while giving birth to another man’s child: the daughter (Asta Sollilja) whom Bjartur raises as his own. His second wife also dies; crops fail and livestock perish (in a symphony of mischance reputedly caused by a fabled Irish sorcerer who had cursed the land Bjartur works); Summerhouses is sold at auction to the avaricious bailiff who is Bjartur’s worst enemy (and Asta’s biological father); Asta is seduced and impregnated by a visiting tutor, and becomes alienated from the only parent she knows.
Laxness subtly plaits together a lengthy narrative that nevertheless gathers a hurtling momentum, a vivid picture of a nearly primitive culture saturated with folk beliefs and the felt presences of unearthly forces (a scene in which Bjartur subdues and rides a maddened reindeer feels very like an excerpt from ne of the sagas), and several powerful characterizations. The haunted imagination of Bjartur’s sensitive youngest son Nonni, either an artist or a victim in the making, is beautifully drawn – as is Asta’s vacillating love and hatred for Bjartur, with whom she achieves a fragmentary, doomed reconciliation.
But Laxness’s triumph is Bjartur, an indomitable force of nature who might himself be a saga character (Laxness notes Bjartur’s admiration for the storied outlaw “hero” Grettir the Strong). Yet as much as his stubborn endurance impresses, a contrary truth is repeatedly hammered home: Bjartur’s cherished, jealously guarded “independence” isn’t real. He’s a victim of supernatural and human inimical forces – and both his strength and his tragedy derive from his refusal to acknowledge this self-evident truth.
Independent People is perhaps in part a retort to Hamsun’s earlier (1918) The Growth of the Soil, a much more benign portrayal of peasants’ hard lives. It’s the most harshly realistic of Laxness’s novels, and probably represents the most artful interweaving of narrative, characterization, setting, and theme that he ever achieved.
It was followed by another masterpiece, the four-volume epic collectively entitled Ljos heimsins (1937-40; English translation, World Light). This is the story of Olafur Karason, a poor farm boy abandoned by his mother who grows up a ward of his parish, endures numerous (mostly amatory) misadventures (described, early on, as “one long ordeal, as in the folk tales where people fought with giants, dragons, and devils”), and becomes a noted folk poet.
Laxness’s acknowledged source for the character of Olafur is the historical poet Magnus Hjaltason Magnusson (1873-1916). if Bjartur of Summerhouses may be seen as a tragic hero (as I believe he may), then Olafur is a comic one: a reflective and inoffensive vessel of good will whose impulse toward the ideal (symbolized by the “light” glimpsed through a bedroom window) is repeatedly compromised by his dealings with entrepreneurs and worldly wise men, and especially with alluring women.
Following a Dickensian childhood spent with an abusive widow and her hardhearted children, Olafur becomes involved with a sympathetic married woman (herself a poet), the older and wiser Jarprudur, then her effervescent younger counterpart Jorunn (who bears him a daughter), a passionate young pupil at a school where he later teaches (which dalliance lands him in jail), and a cruelly brief idyll with beautiful Bera, the love of his life, who will be snatched away from Olafur by whatever gods seemingly control his absurd destiny.
Throughout this long book, Laxness pits Olafur against both these formidable women and such contrary men of the world as socialist visionary Orn Alafur and tireless businessman Petur Plihross (a great comic character), a wheedling pragmatist whose ceaseless activities (oddly) include founding a Society for Psychical Research. The result is an unusually replete picture of live lived both in the world (albeit reluctantly) and on an ideal plane summarily embodied by the novel’s memorable conclusion – which occurs during Easter Week, and pictures Olafur walking toward the “world light” emanating from a towering glacier. It’s his assumption into the higher reality toward which he has, despite numerous slips and sins, been ever reaching.
Laxness’s reputation, now high and secure, was further enhanced by the appearance of the novel trilogy Islandslukkan (1943-46, “Iceland’s Bell”), which, unaccountably, has never been translated into English. Peter Hallberg describes this work, which is set in the early eighteenth century, as an elegy for Icelandic culture cast in the form of a complex historical tale.
Its central conflict features the characters of Snaefridur Eydalin, a lawyer’s daughter with a knowledgeable reverence for her country’s traditions and folkways, and Arnas Arnaeus, a professor of history and collector of manuscripts whose desire to possess a collection of ancient artifacts destroys his relationship with Snaefridur and propels him into a ruinous marriage with a rich widow. The counterpoint to these characters is escaped prisoner Jon Hreggvidsson (accused of murdering the Danish king’s executioner), a wily survivor whose own love for his country’s lusty hero tales is shown to be a far more vital force than Arnaeus’s narrow pedantry. It sounds potentially schematic, but Iceland’s Bell was another major critical and commercial success. One wonders why it has so long escaped the attention of its author’s translators.
In 1948 Laxness shifted gears, with the publication of Atomstödin (English translation, The Atom Station). Inspired by Icelanders’ reactions to the United States government’s 1945 request for permission to establish permanent military bases on Icelandic soil (a request that was partially granted a year later), it’s a compact story of accommodation and collusion, centered in the figure of Member of Parliament Bui Arland.
Laxness likens Bui’s elastic politics (and morals) to the social and sexual misbehavior of his hilariously dysfunctional family – and contrasts them with the idealism of the novel’s other protagonist: music student Ugla Falsdottir, who also works as a chambermaid in the Arland home. And the fallout, as it were, from the Icelandic Parliament’s conspiratorial negotiations is further linked – with savage irony – to preparations for the ceremonial burial of beloved national poet Jonas Halgrimsson. Thus are several of Laxness’s trademark themes conjoined, in a resonant satirical novel that contains much more than comedy.
More major work was ahead. In 1952, Laxness’s most directly historical novel, Gerpla (English translation, The Happy Warriors), appeared. Based on the classic Fostbraedra saga, among other sources, it’s a densely detailed and largely affectionate parody of the world of the sagas. Though much of its content treats conventional heroic material with broad comedy (a celebrated “skald,”or singer, is actually a notorious liar; an overeager knight blithely beheads an innocent bystander), there is real power in Laxness’s portrayals of his protagonists: ill-starred Borgeir Havarsson, who grows up a very Don Quixote, enthralled by tales of conquest and slaughter; and his foster brother Bormodur, who will leave a comfortable and loving home, and sacrifice himself to the obligation he feels to pursue a bloody revenge.
The Happy Warriors undoubtedly contains an implicit criticism of allegiance to the goals of earthly power and glory – both in its central actions and in a long sequence set in Greenland, where home-centered, peace-loving Eskimos are very pointedly contrasted to eternally restless “warriors.” It is therefore probably not surprising that this novel was followed by the awarding of the Nobel Prize to Laxness in 1955.
After receiving it, the already world-famous novelist became a different kind of international celebrity; a cultural ambassador without portfolio, if you will. He embarked on a world tour in 1957-58, lecturing in many countries (including America), preaching a pacifism compounded of his lifelong skepticism of governments and ideologies, the remnants of his (long since formally renounced) Catholicism, and a burgeoning interest in Asian wisdom; specifically, the path of nonviolence counseled by the Taoism of Chinese philosopher Lao-Tse.
In the years following the Nobel Prize, Laxness, continuously productive throughout his old age, kept on producing volumes of essays and autobiographical pieces at regular intervals. he turned with renewed energy to writing plays, and the decade of the 1960s saw the publication and production of several of his most celebrated dramatic works (only one of which, the 1966 “Dufnaveistan,” has appeared in English translation – as “The Pigeon Banquet”).
And he continued to write fiction. Of the later books, the most purely enjoyable is perhaps Brekkukotsannall (1957; English translation, The Fish Can Sing), a brilliantly detailed picture of its protagonist Alfgrimur Hansson’s youth in a small fishing village, and a vivid contrast between Alfgrimur’s identity with his benevolent surroundings and the tortured progress of an ambitious concert singer who cannot adapt to either the world of his origins or the “higher” one he’s desperate to enter and conquer. It’s a celebration of life that leaves a bracingly bitter aftertaste.
Paradisarheimt (1960; English translation, Paradise Reclaimed) deals with the uncommon subject of Mormonism, in the lively (and often very funny) tale of landowner Steinar Steinsson’s impulsive travels, abandonment of his family to live and work in a Mormon community in Utah, and eventual return to his homeland, where he cheerfully accepts the burden of rebuilding his life. Filled with comic and melodramatic echoes (including experiences of seduction, persecution, and betrayal) of Laxness’s earlier fiction, its an ebullient hymn to the survival instinct –and another tribute to the life-giving unworldliness that Laxness continued to find in religion’s observances and its retreat from the imperatives of getting and spending.
Both these late novels are currently available in lively English versions. Alas, the same cannot be said for their successors, of which only Kristnihald undir jokli (1968) and Sagam af brauddinu dyra (1987) have been translated into English (as Christianity at Glacier and The Bread of Life, respectively). Laxness published an astonishing ten books between 1968 and 1987, and it’s tempting to wonder whether these have not attracted translators because of their presumably more heavily religious emphases, or because their author (who lived until 1998, his ninety-sixth year) had outlived his formidable talent.
We in the English-speaking world may never know. Still, it seems perfectly reasonable to expect, if not demand, that much more of Laxness’s magnificent body of work be made available to us. My personal perpetual literary wish list includes new editions of Salka Valka and The Happy Warriors (though informed opinion advises that the latter’s existing English version is stilted and lifeless). Some enterprising publisher might wish to track down the English translation of The Great Weaver of Kashmir (which was made during Laxness’s residence in America, but never published here), or commission translations of Iceland’s Bell, or Laxness’s essays, or his plays.
In this opinion (based, to be sure, on no more than a half dozen titles), he’s a writer of almost unparalleled range and vitality. No American or British equivalent comes to mind (though I detect a little of Twain and Dreiser, and even Faulkner in him – not to mention a healthy dollop of Dickens). His countrymen understandably compare him with the great Russian novelists. But Laxness, by virtue of his heritage and his individual talent, is something very near to a unique figure: a compassionate, and enormously skillful chronicler of the ordinary and the everyday, whose clear-eyed gaze takes in the nimbus of “world light” (and shadow as well) that embraces, transforms, and exalts the commonplace.