UPDATE: The Islander is going to be republished by Maclehose Press in trade paperback in the United Kingdom in September 2023 and in the United States on March 12, 2024.
A biography of Halldór Laxness
by Halldór Guðmundsson
Translated by Philip Roughton
Maclehose Press, London, 2008
This book artfully ties together the loose threads I’ve been accumulating since I began reading this great Icelandic writer. The earliest date of importance in this well-written biography is 1832 when his very influential grandmother was born, the last is 1998 when Halldór died in a nursing home in Reykjavík. The time in between those years contains an almost unbelievable story: a boy who was always writing, a young man who left Iceland as a restless searcher, the mature writer who returned to became a champion of its language and people and, finally, of an internationally renown author whose work is ranked among the greatest fiction writing of all time.
Guðmundsson spares nothing in covering all dimensions of this complex individual: Laxness’ support of the Soviet Union in the 1930s and 1940s, his often strained relationships with women (he could be a real jerk at times), his freeloading from friends, his long-lasting grudges with critics, his relentless self-promotion, and his often brutally frank assessments of modern culture. Laxness was an extremely controversial figure, both in Iceland and abroad, even to the point of being investigated by the CIA and the FBI. His novels usually had the sub-theme of challenging Icelanders to think in a new way about their society and its role in the world.
Laxness was an extremely disciplined writer who continually challenged himself, refining his work and exploring new techniques even when he was well into his sixties. In addition to his early and middle years, this book also covers the last part of his career (which has not been translated and had always been something of a mystery to me.) This latter output consisted primarily of essays and “memoir novels.”
When I first read Laxness, I often felt that I was lacking in context for many of the themes expressed in his novels. This book does a very good job of filling in those gaps. In a sense, I’ve come full circle on Laxness. I know I’ll return to him, perhaps re-reading his work in order, with this biography at hand.
Iceland is a strange and wonderful place; although Laxness’ Iceland may be suffering a bit from the onslaught of globalism, the ideas which he planted will continue to sprout whenever his books are read.
By Peter Hallberg
Translated by Rory McTurk
Twayne Publishers: New York, 1971
My infatuation with Halldór Laxness continues unabated.
My most recent acquisition, this biography of Halldór Laxness was written by a Norse scholar from the University of Gothenburg, Sweden. In contrast to Halldór Guðmundsson’s expansive 2008 biography The Islander, Hallberg’s approach starts from the “inside”—through an examination of Laxness’ novels and other significant writings, giving less coverage of his personal life but offering much more insight into his work. Hallberg’s close reading of The Great Weaver from Kashmir, for example, paints a vivid portrait of the artist as a young man as seen through the novel. Pertinent quotes and excerpts from Laxness’ essays and correspondence of the time show a deep understanding of how Laxness developed as a writer and a thinker. All of his novels through Paradise Regained are covered here in similar detail, demonstrating how Laxness’ used contrasting positions within a scene to illuminate a social or philosophical issue. Liberal quotes from his essays are also included—an important part of Laxness’ literary output which has not yet been translated into English.
This is a great companion to the Guðmundsson book, even though Hallberg’s coverage ends just before the publication of Under the Glacier.
Anti-American Wins Nobel Prize
A documentary by
I received a DVD screener of this concise and literate documentary which looks at the life of Halldór Laxness. Such notables as Jane Smiley, Brad Leithauser, Günter Grass, Morten Thing and Chay Lemoine expound upon the political intrigues which swirled around Iceland’s only Nobel laureate.
Laxness came into his own as writer soon after the end of World War I, a war which had effectively killed the romantic novel. While a spirit of “irrational exuberance” had emerged on both sides of the Atlantic Laxness, struggling with personal problems, had entered a monastery; an episode which served as the basis for his novel The Great Weaver from Kashmir. He then spent time in Canada and the U.S. where, witnessing the failure of capitalism and, developing an acquaintance with Upton Sinclair, he embraced Socialist ideals which greatly influenced his novels.
The documentary shows Laxness traveling through Europe in the 1930s, when his writing was denounced by Nazis and he was deceived by the Soviets. Leftist writers in Denmark promoted and translated his work, aiding his ascendance with readers in Scandinavia. In Iceland, his views on class struggle and his push for modernization of the Icelandic language and literature actually caused him to be brought to trial for its ‘incorrect’ use. The occupation of Iceland by the British, followed by the establishment of an American Naval base, was perceived as a threat to Icelandic identity and pushed Laxness toward writing his satirical novel The Atom Station. That novel prompted Icelandic politicians to notify the U.S. ambassador, suggesting that he was a tax evader, and brought attention from the U.S. State Department and the F.B.I.. This caused Laxness to be effectively blacklisted; some aspects of these actions remain, to this day, state secrets.
The film is a little rough round the edges: some stock footage is not in proper sequence, but the interviewees are excellent, especially Günter Grass, who deftly explains the political situation of European writers in the inter-war era. It also has clips from Halldór’s humiliating televised renunciation of Stalinism in 1957.
I don’t know where one might be able to see this, although I’ve read that it is for sale in Iceland. I haven’t been able to find any references to it in English. It is an excellent overview of the man and his effect on Icelandic culture.
Thanks again to Chay Lemoine, who sent me this fascinating video.
Halldór returning from Stockholm after receiving the Nobel Prize in literature, December 1955. — Morgunblaðið/Ólafur K. Magnússon
Controversy Over Laxness Biography
Hannes Hólmsteinn Gissurarson, a professor, announced publicly in the summer of 2003 that he was writing a biography of Laxness, but subsequently Auður Laxness tried to deny him access to the poet's collection of letters at the manuscript department of the Þjóðarbókhlaðinn and succeeded. The reason was that she did not consider Hannes capable of writing an unbiased biography of Laxness. After the first volume of Halldór’s biography was published, Helga Kress, professor, and others harshly criticized Hannes for freely quoting the poet's text without any sources. Hannes has later admitted in interviews that he should have had more sources than he did.
In the fall of 2004, Auður filed a lawsuit against Hannes for copyright infringement. Hannes was acquitted in Reykjavík District Court in 2006, but the case was appealed to the Supreme Court, where Hannes was sentenced in 2008 for copyright infringement in the first volume of Halldór Laxness's biography. He was ordered to pay ISK 1.5 million in financial compensation and ISK 1.6 million in legal costs.
Auður Laxness and her family gave their blessing to the biography written by Halldór Guðmundsson, giving him access to a collection of letters and documents that were in the family’s possession.