In the Fifties, in his fifties, the Icelandic writer Halldór Laxness entered a stretch of broad and seemingly easeful creativity. This was an Indian summer whose angling northern sunlight invested the most earthbound objects in his books—stone walls, turf huts, paving stones, spindly trees—with a clement and redemptive glow. A number of plausible explanations might account for why this writer, whose turbulent earlier novels had been painted in blood reds and icy grays, chose now to portray his characters in golds and ambers. Perhaps the change in palette mirrored the literal gold of his Nobel Prize, awarded in 1955, when he was fifty-three. Or perhaps it reflected the gratifications of a happy second marriage and a growing brood of daughters. The mellowing effects of simple aging may have had something to do with it. Or maybe the change is best understood as another phase in a protracted artistic evolution: Laxness was a peripatetic soul, both physically and artistically, whose literary career was marked by sharp veerings and departures.
Two of these books from the Fifties, Paradise Reclaimed and The Fish Can Sing, have recently been reprinted in English. They are siblings in tone as well as date of origin. (The Fish Can Sing was published in Icelandic in 1957, and while Paradise Reclaimed did not arrive until 1960, it is the work of Laxness in the Fifties, post-Nobel.) It may well be that Laxness’s most productive period was already behind him. The Thirties were for him a sort of decennium mirabile, during which he completed three epic novels, Salka Valka, Independent People, and World Light. Independent People and World Light seem to me unmistakable masterpieces—two of the great books of the last century.
All such appraisals of Laxness’s career must be qualified and hedging, of course, for those of us who admire him but cannot read him in the original. A number of major books remain untranslated into English, and some translations are patently unsatisfactory. I have Icelandic friends who swear that Laxness’s pastiche/spoof/ homage to the medieval Sagas, Gerpla, is his most brilliant creation—a conclusion no reader is likely to reach who knows the book only through its wan rendering into English as The Happy Warriors. (To be fair to its translator, it may well be that Gerpla, a tour-de-force reworking of the medieval Norse idiom, is essentially untranslatable.) Others insist that, for sheer beauty of language, Laxness’s volumes of memoirs, which appeared in the Sixties and Seventies and have not found their way into English, are incomparable. To non-Icelandic speakers, such rumored glories may have something of the tantalizing air of the legendary lost volumes of the library of Alexandria. Still, there’s a sizable compensation in seeing Paradise Reclaimed and The Fish Can Sing reemerge as handsome new paperbacks. As consolatory presences, they abound in all the right virtues: grace, humor, neatness of construction, intelligence, tenderness.
Paradise Reclaimed is rooted among the bleak realities common to Laxness’s …