End of an Epic

A story at once heartening and haunting and voluminous—it unfolded for nearly a century—recently reached its close. It was the tale of the life of the great Icelandic writer Halldor Laxness. He died on February 8, in a nursing home outside Reykjavik. He was ninety-five.

It was, additionally, a story implausible as any fairy tale. Its origins lay some twenty miles from Reykjavik, in the valley of Mosfellsdalur, where Laxness grew up. His name at birth was Halldor Gudjonsson. The pen name under which he journeyed out into the world (his books have been translated into more than thirty languages) was a self-creating, self-embellishing stroke, like many aspects of this singular, dandified man. He lived restlessly. His passage through life led him to a conversion to Catholicism and a sojourn as a Benedictine acolyte in a monastery in Luxembourg; to California and Hollywood in the Twenties, and a friendship with Upton Sinclair; to Russia in the Thirties, where to his subsequent shame he embraced Stalinism; to Stockholm as the Nobel Laureate for Literature in 1955; to Utah in 1957, where he researched a novel about the Mormons; to India in 1958, as a guest of Prime Minister Nehru.

A few years ago, I picked up a tribute to Laxness in a used bookstore in Reykjavik. The volume consisted chiefly of photographs. Here’s Laxness under a palm tree in Uruguay. Laxness in tuxedo, surrounded by five young women in sailor’s caps who might be taken for contestants in a beauty pageant but who turn out to be auxiliaries of the Nobel festivities. Laxness eye to eye with a camel in front of Cheops’ tomb. Laxness conferring with Pope John Paul II. He was a curious-looking man, with ample nose and ears, slightly off-center eyes, and a bristly little pushbroom of a moustache. It’s hardly surprising that in photographs chronicling his accomplishments he has an exultant air. But he emerges also as self-assured—confident that his worldly triumphs come fully merited.

To anyone familiar at all with Iceland, Laxness’s story appears more implausible still. Mosfellsdalur is a rural valley, where deep snows accumulate. I once visited a new acquaintance out there on a February day, stepping into a living room whose picture window radiated a cloudy, indeterminate glow. It was snow, piled against the glass, all the way up—the drifts must have been eight feet deep. (“It’s nothing,” my host remarked, with characteristic Icelandic disdain for mere weather. “I’ll be able to see out of it again in a couple of weeks.”) And of course the valley would have been far more remote in the early decades of this century, when Laxness was a boy. These days, it is linked to Reykjavik by a paved road; back then, the trip would have been a sizable pony-trek. Reykjavik these days is a mini-metropolis, with an opera company and tapas bars and indoor tennis courts; back then, your pony would have deposited you in a …

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