Fish Washing Indoors, Reykjavik, 1911, Magnús Ólafsson, Cornell University Library Collections
“Aren't we to talk about love at all at this time?” he asked.
Silja’s declaration of love to her favorite book:
“I must go out and dry fish,” she said.
It should be an impossible task for a person involved in Icelandic literature as a writer, critic and editor to decide on a favorite book - to choose one of thousands. But I am not in doubt. My favourite book, since I first read it at the age of 23, has been Salka Valka by Halldór Laxness. It was first published in two volumes in 1931 and 1932 and has been reprinted many times.
Salka Valka- A Political Love Story, as Halldór called the second half of the novel, tells the story of the headstrong pauper Salka Valka from the age of ten to twenty-five and is an excellent book for adolescents, girls especially. Why then did I not read it earlier? The answer is personal. My father was a male chauvinistic working class man, and he adored Laxness’ books, especially Independent People. But what he saw in the novels was what he wanted to see, and his endless quotes from Laxness were not tempting for a girl growing up. So although I loved my father dearly, I hated his idol and did not read his novels until I had to; at university. Then I read practically all of them during one winter, mostly aloud to my husband (we had no television but we did have a baby so we could not go out much.) I was deeply moved by the story this first time through, and the final unforgettable sentences of Salka Valka still make me cry. Yet there is no other end possible. If life is to go on for both of them, Arnaldur and Salka must part.
Salka Valka is a milestone in Laxness’ career but people do not agree as to whether it is his last juvenile novel or his first mature one. The very interesting thing about the novel is that it started out as a manuscript for a motion picture, written in Los Angeles, and it so happens that this manuscript was printed for the first time this year (2004), both in English and Icelandic, in the literary magazine Tímarit Mals og menningar. Halldór Laxness went to L.A. in 1927, determined to become a scriptwriter in Hollywood.
“The film life here is magnificently interesting and I have good hopes to get into that as soon as I have written something in English… ”
he writes to his fiancée in Iceland. He wanted Greta Garbo to play the main character in the film which was to be called Salka Valka, a Woman in Pants or The Icelandic Whip! Unfortunately, it all came to nothing.
But the novel lives and charms new readers constantly because Salka is such a fantastically real person. It is almost weird how much a young man of twenty-something in the late 1920s knows of the inner life of girls! If ever a novel convinced me that to be really outstanding, a writer has to be both man and woman, it is this wonderful book.
Vintage Postcard, circa 1921
David’s essay on Salka Valka:
Salka Valka by Halldór Laxness: she needs to be alone
Born in Reykjavík in April 1902, Halldór Guðjónsson (he changed his name to Halldór Kiljan Laxness in 1923) lived through almost the entire twentieth century. Raised in an isolated and traditional society, he travelled widely and embraced cosmopolitan modernity, though retained an essentially Icelandic identity. In early life Laxness adhered to staunch revivalist Catholicism, then embraced socialism for thirty years. He subsequently espoused ecological and pacifist causes and addressed philosophical questions reflecting an interest in humanism and Taoism. But the principal achievement of Laxness was the authentic portrayal of sympathetic but struggling characters that symbolised the determined aspirations of the Icelandic nation and marked its long path towards eventual independence from colonialist Denmark.
Laxness travelled to America in the 1927 summer intending to become a Hollywood screenwriter. Writing to his then wife Inga at the end of that year, he described work on a film script provisionally titled Salka Valka (or, A Woman in Pants): the eponymous protagonist is described as ‘tall and strongly built’ with an expression encompassing ‘rustic virginity, dare-devilry, primitive charm’, and ‘dressed like a fisherman: wide pants, the boot-legs reaching up over her knees, a pipe in her mouth’. The script reflects contemporaneous Freudian concepts of human sexuality and is redolent with surrealist images, such as the final scene in a lover’s cottage where Salka lingeringly unfolds and kisses the leather straps of an Icelandic whip (often made from skin of bull penis) and Laxness imagined the cross-dressing Swedish actress Greta Garbo in the title role. Not surprisingly, negotiations with MGM floundered so the script was transformed into a two-part novel: the first manuscript was written whilst visiting isolated Icelandic fishing villages, the second was completed in cosmopolitan Weimar-era Leipzig. These were published a year apart with the support from the national Cultural Fund: the first (O Thou Pure Vine) was well received, but the second (The Bird on the Beach) was chastised by conservatives for its perceived lampoon of boorish ‘upper class’ motivations and criticised by progressives for its caricature of labour movement infighting – the Communist Party leader suggesting Laxness approached socialism as an idealist, with only a bourgeois understanding of the workers’ struggle.
An English translation of the combined parts of Salka Valka was published in 1936. The English language version has been out of print for many years, but Guðny Halldórsdóttir kindly lent me her copy, which was published in 1973 following revision by her father. A previous review commended its saga-like objectivity and clarity, and the masterful portrayal of down-trodden characters whose local quotidian travails seem emblematic of wider persistent human suffering: another account praised its Christian symbolism and careful balance of honourable parishioners and devious villains on both sides of the class struggle. The themes reflect the author’s perennial concerns with the nature of love, position of women, role of the intellectual, and the lot of common people: many chapters are full of visceral emotions and disturbing sexual acts perpetrated against young women. In a notebook Laxness described his wish to provide ‘tragic perspectives on the incomprehensibility of human feelings’, perhaps drawing on his desolation, anguish and guilt at the end of an affair with an Icelandic woman whilst living in America. But neither review has considered how the progressive emancipation of Salvör Valgerður (‘Salka Valka’)—as she first becomes a prominent local activist, then distances herself from the competing attentions of aggressively preying or dependently needy men—may reflect a growing awareness of her own sexuality.
The novel starts with the mid-winter night-time arrival by boat of eleven-year old Salvör and her unmarried mother Sigurlína at the run-down fishing village of Óseyri. The daughter disembarks first and reassures her mother, ‘in a low deep voice’ which suggests that of a man. They are grudgingly offered a room for the night at the Salvation Army hostel, but the next day their destitute status is acknowledged but not addressed by the local storekeeper, rector or doctor. They return to the hostel and fall prey to the impulsive but persuasive drunkard Steinþor Steinsson, who leads them towards ‘Marbud’, the home of his elderly aunt Steinunn and almost-blind uncle Eyjolfur, where they are offered lodgings. That evening Salvör tells her mother that whilst she was outside Steinþor had ‘grabbed hold of me here and here, and here’, and ‘whispered some stuff in my ear’ but Sigurlína responds inadequately, by asking for mutual understanding between ‘two women’, a response which has a fatal consequence. During the night Salvör is woken by the sound of tussling in the bed, as Steinþor forces himself on Sigurlína: he is repulsed, but only after he whispers a proposition which makes her recoil ‘Almighty Jesus, no! You know you can’t ask me to do a thing like that’. Later, whilst lying awake, Salvör realises she had often lain alone at night whilst her mother was absent, and for the first time appreciates she will have to rely on herself for her future safety: the narrator commenting ‘perhaps one really had nobody but oneself’.
The first part ends at dawn on Easter Day, when Sigurlína is found drowned, ‘a little grey oblong piece of flotsam which had been washed up on the sand’. This suicide is the result of a long process which includes remorse for the relationship with a married man which led to pregnancy with Salvör, regret for a subsequent series of damaging sexual liaisons with exploitative men, persistent grief following the death of her two-year old son Sigurlinni from scrofula (tuberculous cervical lymphadenitis: it is later revealed that Steinunn lost many children at Marbud to the same illness), a demoralizing awareness that Steinþor had once again attempted to force Salka into a sexual relationship, and acute anguish following a second desertion by Steinþor, just a few days before their hastily-arranged ‘Hallelujah Wedding’ scheduled for Holy Saturday. Her fragile personality could not withstand such prolonged adversity, without unconditional support from her daughter for whom ‘her mother’s weeping no longer went so deep to the heart as it had done’. During her testimony on entry into the Salvation Army two years before, Sigurlína had told the Congregation of her intention to commit suicide whilst pregnant with Salvör, but attempts at spiritual consolation by vigilant fellow Congregationalists following this nuptial desertion had made no impact: and the position of the often-derided Sigurlína within the wider community had always been marginal. Salvör, just fourteen years old, guarantees the costs of the funeral and walks back to Marbud, alone.
The second part of the novel charts the rise to prominence of Salvör within Óseyri. She establishes a local branch of the seamen’s union to defend workers against managerial exploitation; educates herself through reading political, evolutionist and philosophical texts; and assumes maternal responsibilities for four children once their mother dies. She is praised for being ‘a match for any man alive’. She is tall, erect and high-shouldered, her thick hair cut short with a side-parting; has courageous clear eyes, strong jaw and full lips, firm hands and a deep voice; and wears Alpine hiking-boots, woollen trousers and a roll-neck Jersey sweater which does not conceal the full curve of her firm breasts. She is commended by her childhood crush Arnaldur (by then a Communist agitator) for being a ‘tovarisch’ (Bolshevik comrade worker) icon, but current observers might recognise her portrait as iconographic of something else. She withstands the pleading entreaties and forcible sexual attentions of now-wealthy but still unscrupulous Steinþor, and leaves Marbud after she discovers it was Steinþor who had provided anonymous funds which enabled her to remain there after the death of Steinunn and Eyjolfur. Once aware of the feckless serial infidelity of the impractically idealistic Arnaldur (and despite some lingering affection for him), she reluctantly but determinedly ends their relationship by encouraging him to pursue his dreams in America. At the end of the novel, when the twenty-two year-old Salvör is finally free of unwanted male attention, the narrator compares her solitary precarious existence to the eggs of winter birds resting on narrow ledges on a high cliff-face: but contemporary readers might contend that having rid herself of both barbarous Steinþor and immature Arnaldur, Salvör may not want but certainly needs to be alone. Though with a typical twist, Laxness suggests she may be pregnant: for as Salvör walks past her most long-standing friend, he comments enigmatically, ‘cold weather to be born in’.
The novel therefore carefully illustrates the potentially damaging consequences of parentlessness, childhood abuse, unexpected bereavement and marital desertion; the corrosive effects of social and economic inequality; and the undermining of the aspirations of women by patriarchal institutions. Sigurlína succumbs after accumulated experiences of deprivation and loss, mediated through demoralisation and despair. It is argued that ‘resilience’ represents a process which allows the resumption of development following trauma or other adversity, and contends that ‘bonding’ and ‘meaning’ are important dynamic features which support this process. Those with only fragile affiliation or for whom life has lost its meaning (as depicted by Sigurlína) are less buffered against undermining challenges: but the active community engagement of Salvör provides a supportive network facilitating her eventual passage towards probable independence and emancipation.
Originally published in the Medical Humanities blog, used by permission.
Hafnarfjörður Bay, 1900, Frederick W. W. Howell, Cornell University Library Collections
Dariens’s appreciation of Salka:
Salka Valka is the tale of a precocious little girl named Salvör Valgerdur. Salka’s mother, Sigurlina, has fled the north to seek a better life in the south of Iceland, but they stop off in the tiny town of Oseyri and never leave. Sigurlina is as weak as her daughter is strong. Sigurlina desires to be a good woman, but fate and love seem to conspire otherwise.
Unlike her mother, Salka learns: she learns how to read books, how to read people, and she learns from her mistakes. We meet Salka as a rough, uneducated, illegitimate girl, who speaks her mind with complete honesty even when it means being rude. She isn’t afraid of anyone, and her imposing looks and strength inspire admiration and yearning in those around her. Salka’s hard work and determination bring her out of poverty and earn her independence, and throughout her hard life she finds the resources to help others along the way, through friendship and material means. Her only weakness turns out to be her lifelong love for a weak man.
Laxness brings his familiar irony and humor, pathos and tenderness to this work. When Salka fears that her mother is dead, the old man they live with comforts her in the only way he can, with his honesty:
...it’s no use crying in this place; there's nobody to console one but oneself. I’ve lived in Oseyri now for over sixty years. Perhaps you young people will be able to become human beings, even if we older ones haven’t succeeded. But it’s late already. And there's nothing so good as sleep, both for those who are blind and for those who still have their sight. So we'll look after one another a little, so far as we can, if we should wake again to-morrow. There’s so little people can do for each other in this place. Good night.
Salka Valka’s story is the story of loneliness, despair, politics, power, compassion, lust, poverty, fish, and the Salvation Army. Most of all it is the story of a love strong enough to make the ultimate sacrifice; a noble, strong generosity of heroic proportions.
The Herring Packers, Gunnlagur Blöndal, 1935
Stephen’s thoughts on Salka Valka:
This is a novel about fish. And love. And, surprisingly, gender and feminism. Salka is an unlikely heroine, homely, coarse and ignorant; but not stupid. She is in possession of a vitality which cannot be defeated. Salka’s struggle to find her place in a hostile world—a fickle mother, faithless lovers and lack of any real friends—is the common thread woven throughout the work. The book has a complicated mix of sub-themes: illegitimacy, incest, class, domestic abuse, infant mortality, hypocrisy, poverty, Socialism, Capitalism, and Christianity. As a novel of Social Realism, it can be ranked with the finest of Dickens, or even Zola’s Germinal. Sprinkled throughout is Icelandic folk wisdom, dark humor, fatalism and a strong sense of the absurd.
It is a tremendous book and certainly worthy of a new translation but considering that Laxness’ great Iceland’s Bell wasn’t translated into English at all until 2003, English readers may have to wait a while for the proper return of Salka Valka, or else trouble themselves to learn Icelandic! A couple of side notes: Salka Valka is the first Laxness novel to be translated directly into Chinese (which may be a portent for a whole new Laxness audience!) Salka Valka, perhaps due to its scarcity in English, has always been one of the most searched for titles at Laxness in Translation.
Still from 1954 film version of Salka Valka
Eric expresses his love for Salka:
Originally subtitled A Woman in Pants and A Political Love Story, Salka Valka is a stunning book about an extremely strong-willed girl-cum-young-woman named, of course, Salka Valka. So far it’s probably my third favorite Laxness, after Independent People and World Light.
I’m sorry. I’ve been thinking over this book for weeks, since I finished, and I still cannot think of how to execute this review. This novel simply will not be contained in a few paragraphs; it will not be caged by trite responses and simplified feelings. It is a living, breathing creature, wild at times and tamed at others. But… here are a few attempts at half-descriptions of this masterly, spellbinding tome.
Salka is tough like no other. She begins saying at a young age that she doesn’t feel like a girl, and she soon begins wearing pants—a shocking thing in the early part of the 20th Century—and all the more shocking in a tiny fishing village in Iceland. Due to her mother’s newborn baby, she soon starts working for her own wages, helping with the fishermen and eventually owning a share in a boat.
Despite having a near-inflexible will, Salka also has a big heart and a definite soft spot, although she shows it to few. I find it astounding how easily and fully Laxness manages to get into the heads of young people in general, and here it’s even the more astounding how convincingly he creates and expresses this powerful woman. I’ve read reviews from a couple Icelandic women who half-jokingly wondered if Laxness might not be a woman in disguise… else, how could he know all the thoughts that go on in the heads of the fairer sex?
The scope and impact of this novel is so great that I really don’t even know where to begin. It’s an absolute epic. Laxness finished it in his late 20s, and I truly wonder how he could have lived so thoroughly and observantly to be able to write such varied and deep characters. He seems to know all about everyone, of all kinds of different people.
If there’s one flaw of this book, it’s that the 2nd half deals possibly a little too heavily (and in detail) about socialist ideals and fairly temporally-specific aspects of it. However, as always, Laxness fully illustrates both sides of the argument(s) and doesn’t clearly paint either party as heroes or villains. Indeed, he displays all the warts, pros and cons of the debate and shows what happens when foresight is forgotten.
Salka Valka is concrete proof that Laxness was 100% worthy of the Nobel and every other prize he won. In my opinion, he might be the greatest of the Nobel laureates. In any case, he speaks volumes to me and to a host of others, so let’s just leave it at that. Find this book at all costs. A good library should have a copy.
NB.: While the English translation was translated from the Danish translation of the Icelandic original, this 1963 edition was revised by Laxness, so it’s safe to say that it’s probably fairly faithful. It certainly reads like the best of his other works, in terms of tone, poetry, lyricism, and everything else. So, fear not that the English version must be diluted or lost in translation!
Because this book is pretty rare in English, here’s a hefty helping of some of my favorite passages:
“Life in Oseyri was lived in fish and consisted of fish, and human beings were a sort of abortion which Our Lord had made out of cooked fish and perhaps a handful of rotten potatoes and a drop of oatmeal gruel.”
“It must be regarded as doubtful how far she understood how to kiss, for she only opened her mouth and shut her eyes. Death and love have so much in common.”
“Nothing on earth is so blissful as the dream of a lover's presence when he is away.”
“At last she realized that she was a young woman with a name and address in the midst of the universe and had had a letter from a young man. So wonderful a thing could hardly be imagined. ‘Have you heard of anything like it?’ she asked herself. […] Her cheeks grew warm, and the heart in her breast sang like a bird on a bough. No, she could not bear it indoors, the roof of the attic was so low, and her happiness needed the open air under the stars.”
“‘What does hanging on a cross for twenty-four hours mean to a man who has no children,’ I said, ‘especially when he knows he’s dying for a good cause — indeed, that he’s saving the whole world and then going straight into the best place in Heaven? What’s that compared to the suffering I’ve had to put up with for months and years with the house full of children, when for many whole nights I’ve shrieked with pain unceasingly and without relief, and I’ll soon be dead, and that without having anything to die for; and there’ll be no heavenly Kingdom for me, for I know the children will go on crying when I’m dead, and swearing and quarreling, and begging for milk they can’t get.”
“In Viking times it was the fashion to set out on open marauding expeditions, but we have become more polite; in our time they undermine public opinion through newspapers, and seduce poor people into taking sides against their own starving children. Nowadays they create public opinion by having abusive articles written about the men who are working to get the children of the masses milk to drink, better housing and a proper bringing-up. In old days the same kind of people made a sport of pitching those same little children from man to man and catching them on spear-heads.”
“She had a curious attitude towards human life in that she took every view seriously if only she could see it. When she changed her opinions, it was because she saw new expanses opening up before her mind’s eye.”
“God gives some people beautiful houses with electric light and central heating, and prettily furnished. God’s only Son had no place He could call His own so long as He journeyed on earth. God does not regard furniture.”
“She stood in a sunbeam wreathed in smoke from the coffee, with parted lips and disordered hair, bare neck and knees, and only that ragged piece of stuff to hide the riches of her body and soul.”
“The sun… is the only luxury the poor obtain on reasonable terms when it shines just for once in a way.”
“On one wall was a picture of the long-bearded General with his wife, on the other a picture of the short-bearded Jesus Christ, the King of Glory, unmarried.”
“I have one feeling towards you which I have never had towards any other woman, not for any living being, and I am sure that even if the earth were inhabited by beautiful gods like those described in the Edda and in Homer, I should never come to have such a feeling for any of them. When I look at you, and even when I think of you, I feel that my most fervent wish is, and always must be, to die on your bosom - that you may sit by me when I draw my last breath.”
Daisy’s appraisal of Salka Valka…
Nils-Petter on Salka and The Salvation Army (Google translated)…
Krístan’s original 1932 review (Google translated)...
Phillips’ original 1936 Saturday Review article…
Margaret’s original 1936 New Masses review…
Liselotte’s appreciation (Google translated)…
Sabine’s look at Salka Valka… (Google translated…)
Berta’s Salka Valka monologue (video in English)…
Viola’s comparison of Salka Valka with Hasta no verte Jesús mío (in Spanish)…
More from Silja on Salka Valka’s influence…
Eiríkur reports on a modern edition of SV for young people…
Full movie (Swedish)…
Full stage adaptation (Finnish)…
Salka Valka, a bistro in Reykjavík…
Article about Laxness and Greta Garbo re: Salka Valka… (Google translated…)
Reading Salka Valka aloud in Icelandic…
Þú vínviður hreini, Bókadeild, Reykjavík, 1931
Fuglinnn í fjörunni, Bókadeild, Reykjavík, 1932
Translated from the Danish by F.H. Lyon:
George Allen & Unwin, London 1936,
Houghton Mifflin, Boston and New York, 1936
George Allen & Unwin, London, 1963, Reset (with revisions by the author)
Verry, Mystic, CT, 1965
George Allen & Unwin, London, 1973
“I must go out and dry fish,” she said.