Who was Halldór Laxness?
The universal appeal of the very Icelandic author, Halldór Laxness (1902-1998) is what makes him so unique to other Icelandic writers of the 20th century.
Laxness took his subject matter from Icelandic society, and produced work rooted in the Icelandic epic tradition. Indeed, a major theme in his work is the conflict of nationality; belonging to one‘s own country as well as the whole world simultaneously.
Halldór Laxness was extremely prolific during his long career. He wrote 13 novels, five plays, a dramatization of one of his novels, collections of short stories, essays, poems and memoirs. His books have been translated into 43 languages and published in more than 500 editions.
In the 1920s, his career was set off with the surrealist modernist Bildungsroman The Great Weaver from Kashmir (1927) and progressive poetry. In the 1930s, his writing was more focused on social realism; it was during this time that he wrote Independent People (1934-35) about the farmer Bjartur of Summerhouses and his relationship to the meaning of ‘independence’ in an agrarian society. In the 1940s, Laxness wrote historical novels such as Iceland’s Bell, published 1943-46, a campaign for Iceland’s independence. Other well-known works are World Light (1937-40), The Atom Station (1948), The Fish Can Sing (1957), Paradise Reclaimed (1960), and Under the Glacier (1968).
Laxness lived most of his life in the valley of Mosfellsdalur, only 20 minutes away from Reykjavik, on the way to Þingvellir National Park. After his death, the Icelandic state bought the property to open the Laxness museum. The house, known as Gljúfrasteinn, has changed very little since the writer lived there and includes Laxness’ writing desk and library.
Something Laxness noted in interviews was that the grandfather clock that greeted guests in the parlor always made the statement, “e-ter-ni-ty,” with the sound of its ticking.
Independent People became Laxness’ most celebrated book, considered by many the great Icelandic novel. The protagonist, Bjartur Jónsson, is a poor farmer under strict ethics; the same man toiling under hard economic conditions all over the world. In a later interview, Laxness said Bjartur had “his parallel and surprisingly exact equivalent in every man who, with a similar financial position and a corresponding way of thinking, fights for his own and his family’s life...” Laxness has this ability to make his readers aware of the universality of particular experiences, one of his pronounced gifts as an author.
Laxness traveled around East Iceland before writing Independent People and the writing is believed to be inspired by the now gone Veturhús farm. It is a novel offering a view pertaining to the current discourse on socialism, capitalism, and World War I, as well as holding the elements of an epic in which a hero performs heroic deeds. Our main hero characterizes an aspect of Icelandic cultural identity by upholding his ideals of independence and being a poet farmer, close to the land and highly aware of the literature of his land, his heroic deed.
In 1955, Laxness was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature "for his vivid epic power which has renewed the great narrative art of Iceland,” in the words of the Nobel Foundation. In between the publication of Independent people and the Nobel Prize award, Iceland gained independence from Denmark (in 1944). The event gave the novel further renown as a symbol of Icelandic independence and very important work in Iceland’s literary history.