Halldor Laxness 1902-1998, Nobel Prize Winner 1955

Halldór Laxness, born Halldór Guðjonsson, is the only Icelandic writer to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature (1955). Carol Blyth, one of a few proud Icelander-Canadians in our Club, introduced another of this country’s best writers.

Portrait of Halldor Laxness by Einar Hakonarson 1984 via Wikimedia Commons

Portrait of Halldor Laxness by Einar Hakonarson 1984 via Wikimedia Commons

Halldor Laxness was confirmed in the Catholic Church in eary 1923. Following his confirmation, he adopted the name Laxness, in honor of the homestead where he had been raised, and added the name Kiljan, an Icelandic spelling of the Irish martyr, Saint Killian.

His religious period did not last long: During a visit to America, he became attracted to Socialism, partly under the influnce of Upton Sinclair, whom he befriended in California.

He lived in the U.S. and attempted to write Screenplays for Hollywood films, between 1927 and 1929.

With Salka Valka, he became the apostle of the younger generation and was attacking the Christian spiritualism of Kvaran, an influential writer who had also been considered for the Nobel Prize. He wrote sociological novels… the brilliant part of his career. Laxness never attached himself permanently to a particular dogma.

Laxness translated Ernest Hemingway´s A farewell to Arms, with controversial neologisms. In 1946, Independent People was released as a Book of the Month Club selection in the U.S., selling over 450,000 copies.

In 1955 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature ´for his vivid epic power which has renewed the great narrative art of Iceland.‘ He is the most prolific and skillful essayist in Icelandic Literature, both old and new.

In the presentation address for the Nobel Prize, E. Wesen stated:

“He is an excellent painter of Icelandic scenery and settings. Yet this is not what he has conceived of as his chief mission. Compassion is the source of the highest poetry. And a social passion underlies everything Halldor Laxness has written. His safeguard then is the astringent humour which enables him to see even people he dislikes in a redeeming light, and which also permits him to gaze far down into the labyrinths of he human soul.”

In his acceptance speech he spoke of “the moral principles she (his grandmother) instilled in me. Never to harm a living creature; throughout my life, to place the poor, the humble and the meek of this world above all others; never forget those who were slighted or who had suffered injustice, because it was they who, above all others, deserved our love and respect.”

In the 1960’s, Laxness was very active in Icelandic theatre, writing and producing plays. Laxness was awarded the Sonning Prize in 1969.

As he grew older, he began to suffer from Alzheimer’s disease, eventually moving into a Nursing Home where he died at the age of 95. His home, Gljufrasteinn, is now a museum operated by the Icelandic Government.

Laxness had four children: Maria, Einar, Sigridur, Gudny. His grandson is a hip-hop artist, known in Iceland as Dóri DNA.

A biography of Laxness by Halldór Guðmundsson, won the Icelandic literary prize for best work of non-fiction. A copy of his works is available: 22 Novels, 13 Stories, 8 Plays,  2 Volumes of Poetry, 4 Travelogues and Essays,  6 Memoirs.

Independent People is the tragedy of a man who is proud enough to sacrifice everything. He is stoical beyond belief, often frustrating the reader to tears with his stubborn refusal to deviate from his principles — callous to the point of cruelty and yet not unloving. Superficially this is a book about sheep farming and drinking coffee but in reality it is a journey into the labyrinth of the human soul…. with a good dose of sheep as well. It is an epic tragedy, often referred to as “ The book of one‘s life”, filled with melancholic despair and great suffering (physical and emotional).

The father in the book, the main character Bjartur of Summerhouses, works his way out of servitude by saving money for two decades. When he earns enough money, he buys a piece of land that is believed by the townspeople to be cursed by some mad, evil woman. Bjartur ignores this, builds a little house and starts raising sheep. He marries and builds a family.  Bjartur’s dream is that of being an independent farmer, owing nothing to anyone. There is talk about God, existence, who we are and what is our purpose.

At the end he loses almost everything including his three sons, but he has Asta Solilja (a name referring to a flower), his cross-eyed daughter. Bjartur learns his lesson and realizes the fllaws of his ways but we do not mock him. We do not tell him that it was all his fault — his and his goddamn pursuit of independence.

A poem appears in the novel:

When the fiddle’s song is still

And the bird in shelter shivers

When the snow hides every hill,

blinds the eyes to dales and rivers

Often in the halls of dreams

Or afar, by distant woodland

I behold the one who seems

First of all men in our Iceland

Like a note upon the string

Once he dealt with me in gladness

Ever shall my wishes bring

Peace to calm his distant sadness

Still the string whispers his song

That may break, a love-gift only

But my wish shall make him strong

Never shall he travel lonely.

The lyricism of his writing makes it easier for us to read about 500 pages of hardship. The lyricism is like the novel’s oft-repeated motif of  “the flower among the rocks”.



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