This site started as a series of reading challenges between “Rose” and “Professor Batty” on their respective blogs. Over the years it has gotten a little out of hand, which was one of the reasons this site was created. You can read the original posts by clicking on the name-links above.
Here are the lists:
Stephen's list of "Top Ten" Laxness novels in translation...
#10. The Great Weaver From Kashmir (Vefarinn mikli frá Kasmír) (1927)
This was his first work to gain wide recognition; it is the story of a self-centered young man on his quest to become the “most perfect human.” Full of long philosophical passages, quite brilliant at times but, like its protagonist, it is lacking levity.
#9. Paradise Reclaimed (Paradísarheimt) (1960)
The “Mormon novel”, parts of it taking place in Utah (it is somewhat dry at times!) In it Laxness explores religious and social themes, particularly those of familial estrangement. Based on a true story. Laxness did research for this over a span of 30 years.
#8. Atom Station (Atómstöðin) (1948)
Pointed political satire aimed at the Icelandic government's acquiescence to the establishment of the United States military base in Iceland in the late 40s, with a memorable heroine in Ugla—a country girl who sees through the duplicity of the politicians. Her character may have been loosely based on Sigríður Tómasdóttir, who reputedly saved the waterfall Gullfoss from exploitation in the early 1900s. It has probably not been distributed in the U.S. until recently because of sub-plots concerning Communism and Anarchism. Laxness was effectively blacklisted in the U.S. because of this book.
#7. World Light (Heimsljós) (1937-40)
A very strange novel, first published in four parts with almost the entire first part taking place with the hero in a sick-bed! Ólafur's struggle with religion, sexuality and morality may be a bit much for a modern reader, especially after several hundred pages of his confused thoughts and morally suspect deeds. The book examines the saint/scoundrel paradox of the Icelandic Skáld (poet/writer) with insight and contains a wealth of peculiar Icelandic phrases and observations, ending with a transcendent finale. Very highly thought of by Icelandic readers.
#6. Under The Glacier (Kristnihald undir Jökli) (1968)
The “Modern” Laxness novel, complete with new-age charlatans, hippies, a most pragmatic Pastor, the woman/goddess/fish Úa, and the hapless seminarian “Embí” who is trying to make sense of it all. A novel of ideas, very funny, very droll, its very subtle Icelandic humor may take repeated readings to appreciate. Susan Sontag’s last review (written on her death-bed) was of this book. It was Halldór’s last non-memoir novel, written when he was in his sixties. It was (and still is) much discussed in Iceland; a film of it was released in 1989.
#5. The Happy Warriors/Wayward Heroes (Gerpla) (1952)
Presented in a strict saga style, set in the era of transition between Christianity and Paganism, concerning two would-be “Heroes” who are out of date with the times. Masterfully written, full of cultural and historical references; it might not be the best choice for the casual reader, however. The more recent translation (by Philip Roughton, Archipelago Press, 2016) is superior.
#4. Iceland's Bell (Íslandsklukkan) (1943-45)
Icelandic history in the guise of a sprawling romance-saga; the English version has numerous footnotes which help to explain the mixture of Icelandic, Latin and Danish references; it is not for the attention-deficient but worth the effort, if only for Snæfríður’s impassioned speech before the Danish authorities which speaks for subjugated peoples everywhere.
Icelandic male psychology and much more. While reading it I found myself thinking that Bjartur, the hero, was almost exactly the same as my grandfather (and I also found more of myself in Bjartur that I'd care to admit...) Widely available, I grew up with this book in our house; it was a Book-Of-The-Month-Club selection in the late 1940s.
#2. The Fish Can Sing, (Brekkukotsannáll) (1957)
Probably the most delightful of Laxness' novels. The orphaned Álfgrímur is, for the most part, a happy and simple child living in a world of colorful Pickwickian-style eccentrics in the turn of the century Reykjavík. His coming of age, particularly in his relationship to the mysterious Garðar Hólm, may be a metaphor for Iceland, then reluctantly emerging into the modern world. In light of the recent Icelandic presence on the world's music scene, Álfgrímur’s graveyard dialog with Garðar is eerily prophetic. This is another work where nearly every paragraph holds some brilliant observation or subtle characterization.
#1 Salka Valka (1931-32)
This story started out as a screenplay and it has a definite cinematic quality—it has been filmed twice. Vivid social realism, with a gripping love story. The strongest plot and most fully realized heroine of any of Halldór's novels.
For a good first novel, I would suggest Fish; if you like sprawling sagas, try Bell. Salka Valka is absolutely tremendous—I found it overwhelming at times—a real find of a book, scandalous that it remains almost unknown in this country, although that should change in March of 2022 with its release in a new translation by Philip Roughton (Archipelago Press.) Laxness also published two earlier juvenile novels and some later memoir/novels which, to the best of my knowledge, are not available in English.
1. The Fish Can Sing (1957)
Álfgrímur's coming of age. Iceland’s greatest singer. A house called Brekkukot in Reykjavík at the beginning of the 20th century. My favorite book ever.
2. Independent People (1934)
Sheep, and the frustratingly stubborn Bjartur of Summerhouses.
3. Iceland's Bell (1943-46)
The Loveliest Woman in Iceland and an irascible criminal.
4. World Light (1937-40)
The Poet, Ólafur Kárason of Ljósavík.
5. Under the Glacier (1968)
The Emisary of the Bishop (Embi) investigates strange things at Snaefells.
6. Salka Valka (1931-32)
A poor fisher girl who is big, strong, and very generous.
7. Paradise Reclaimed (1960)
Steinar gives his white pony Krapi, the finest horse in Iceland, to the King of Denmark, and goes to live with the Mormons.
8. Great Weaver From Kashmir (1927)
Steinn’s quest for perfection, and his desire to avoid the sins of the flesh. Humanity and Divinity. The nature of redemption.
9. Happy Warriors (1952)
Sworn brothers Þormódur Bessason and Þorgeir Hávarsson have the souls of saga warriors. But they are misfits in their world, and don’t even realize it.
10. Atom Station (1948)
A girl from the north country encounters city ways, and learns about human values. Another Strong Woman steals our hearts.