The Great Weaver from Reykjav'k - Iceland's Treasured Independence Became Both Matrix and Subject for Novelist Halld-R Laxness

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Bruce Allen is a contributing editor to Kirkus Reviews and a freelance reviewer for the Boston Globe, Sewanee Review, and other publications. He lives in Kittery, Maine, and reads and writes about contemporary, foreign language, fantasy, and supernatural fiction.

The eminent Icelandic writer Halld-r Laxness (1902--98) is enjoying a considerable--if as yet incomplete--renaissance, thanks in large part to the championing of his work undertaken by American poet and novelist Brad Leithauser. Laxness, who won the 1955 Nobel Prize in literature, is in many ways a throwback: a novelist with the soul of an epic poet, whose broad canvases accommodate much of his homeland's embattled history and rich oral and written literary culture. His major books might be called Tolstoyan were they less rigorously down to earth. Their focus is not on watershed historic events or glorious adventures but on the quotidian struggles of stoical and, sometimes, annoyingly stubborn ordinary people.

Four of Laxness' novels are currently in print in this country: the ambitious masterpieces Independent People and World Light and two quirky and charming later novels, The Fish Can Sing and Paradise Reclaimed. Of the more than sixty volumes published during his long working lifetime, six other works of fiction--notably the early Salka Valka, the unconventional pastiche saga The Happy Warriors, and a mordant political satire, The Atom Station--have appeared in English translations, most of them unavailable for many years. And that's all we have: less than 20 percent of the total oeuvre of a writer of enormous range and high accomplishment, long since acknowledged as one of the twentieth century's most gifted and protean creative artists.

The cradle, as it were, in which this talent was nurtured comprises a tiny Scandinavian country's experience of subjugation by larger and more militant neighbor nations--for many centuries, Norway; thereafter Denmark (from which Iceland achieved full independence only as recently as 1944)--and also a devotion to the spoken and written word that manifests itself in an unusually high degree of literacy. In every Icelandic household, a common saying declares, you'll find at least one of Halld-r Laxness' books. Beyond Laxness, there looms the single most important source of what must be called a national commitment to literature: the literary form Iceland gave to the world, that of the medieval sagas. Written down mostly in the tenth through twelfth centuries, though preserved and transmitted orally long before that, these stark, fatalistic narratives of exploration, feuding, murder, and revenge simultaneously echo the themes and preoccupations of classical Greek epic and tragedy and anticipate the modern realistic novel.

Their emphases on struggles for property and respectability waged by laymen who boldly oppose the stronger forces of nobility and royalty (as in the celebrated Egil's Saga, which details a poor landowner's one-man rebellion against a greedy Norwegian king) find echoes in several of Laxness' persistent (not to say mule-headed) everymen. Laxness' fascination with travel may well have been stimulated by The Vinland Sagas (stories of westward Viking voyages), and it's more than likely that his deep empathy with iconoclasts and troublemakers was influenced by the colorful figure of the outlaw antihero of Grettir's Saga (a tale replete with folklore and supernaturalism). Furthermore, the antecedents of the strong women characters who are such vital presences in even his very early fiction can probably be found in the great, mad figure of Gudrun, the much-married monster of appetite who proudly bestrides the operatic Laxdaela Saga.


What is known of Laxness' early years testifies to his sedulous absorption of such literary influences. (For the details of his youth, I am indebted primarily to the Swedish critic Peter Hallberg's expert Halld-r Laxness, published in 1971 in Twayne's World Authors Series. …