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 haphazard collection of patched-together houses, many hundreds of miles from the real civilization of Copenhagen, that royal city whose inhabitants seldom cast an over-the-shoulder glance at their gray windswept colony in the North Atlantic.
In perhaps his most tender and beautiful novel, The Fish Can Sing, Laxness presents us with a grandmother who “had learned to recognize the letters of the alphabet from an old man who scratched them for her on the ice when she had to watch over sheep during the winter” and a starveling hero who sleeps cocooned in copies of the London Times, “which in my young days was called the greatest newspaper in the world and sometimes reached Iceland as wrappings for goods from England.” Laxness’s books are a persistent tribute to those whose education was a tenacious victory over indigence and insularity: a tribute, ultimately, to a miniscule nation whose glittering literary heritage stands as a global wonder. Laxness himself was born into relative comfort—his father was foreman of a road-making crew—but there was no earthly reason to suppose he might eventually go on to the sort of linguistic prowess he achieved: a command not only of Icelandic and Old Norse, but also of Danish and English and French, with a good reading knowledge of German and Latin besides. His mastery over various languages and literatures was a task that asked of him more than brilliance, although he had plenty of that: it required the driving heart of a titan.
Unmistakably, he was a man apart, something he established in various ways. There was his precocity (he published his first novel at seventeen). And his dapper dress, his lifelong fondness for three-piece suits, homburgs, bowties, handkerchiefs (all of which had to be imported, of course). And a painstakingly finicky—an altogether bizarre—style of speech that for decades made him the most impersonated and parodied man in Iceland.
His peculiarities of speech carried over into English. I met him on a few occasions, beginning in 1986, when he was eighty-four. Unfortunately, he was already revealing signs of the senility that would leave him unable, in the murky final years of his life, to recognize anyone. But if Alzheimer’s had started to fog his thinking, he remained a captivating storyteller even in English (which would have been his third or fourth language). I’ve never met anyone anywhere whose conversational mannerisms made you so aware of his mouth—of the sheer mechanics of speech. Laxness fussed and fussed over his words: pursing his lips, baring and concealing his teeth, rolling his jaw, and all the while producing queer little hems and haws, indescribable fluting noises, and the percussive flurries of a voluntary stutter. There was something almost sissified about this studied performance—a kind of mandarin frailty in this endless fretting over minute qualifications and gradations. And there was in it something firm and forceful. He was staking an implicit claim or boast: no one in his presence took more seriously than he did the business of releasing a sentence into the air.
Laxness drew strength from his country’s literary traditions, particularly its improbable “Golden Age” (roughly 1230-1280 AD), when anonymous scribes, toiling over calfskin, recorded those Sagas that have earned Iceland a permanent place in world literature. The Sagas lent credibility to what was, on the face of it, a pretty shaky enterprise: Laxness’s decision, in the first quarter of this century, to build an international career based in Modern Icelandic. For writers of his generation, prevailing wisdom maintained that any notable literary career should be conducted in Danish, a Continental tongue that linked its writers to a vigorous and sophisticated world. Icelandic, by contrast, was a “small” language, spoken back then by fewer than 200,000 people, most of them rural and poverty-stricken.
Write in Danish? Laxness would have none of it. Peering disdainfully at his colonial masters (who, he delighted in exclaiming, had no literature until the eighteenth century!), he swore allegiance to a medieval nation and image: to Iceland as Ultima Thule, island at the rim of the known world. Laxness’s ambition was to become a major, truly modern Nordic writer—a legitimate heir to Ibsen and Hamsun and Strindberg—rooted in a Viking culture.
In the process, he transformed his country’s cultural conception of itself. If his effect on modern Iceland is something only his countrymen can adequately assess, the critic Kristjan Karlsson sounds convincing when he writes: “It would be difficult to guess what our literary situation now would be like without Laxness but there is much indication that we would be facing an irreparable disruption between the old and the new.” And: “He has created a new novelistic literature with deep roots in the Icelandic tradition at a time when there was great danger that our literature might become dissociated from the past.” And: “He has deprived us, a small nation much sinned against by God and men, of the vice of self-pity.”
But Laxness’s influence extends beyond his country’s borders—and beyond the expansive terrain he created in his own books. Those who spend time with his novels henceforth will read his forebears differently. To see Laxness making fresh and resourceful use of the old Saga themes and conventions (the titanic feuds and brooding grudges; the offhand credulity toward the supernatural; the abrupt narrative veerings and dismissals; the terseness and understatement; the occasional bloodthirstiness and grotesquerie) is to see new nuances in the great classics—Njal’s Saga, Hrafnkel’s Saga, Egil’s Saga—of Icelandic literature.
In the last decades of his life, Laxness grew increasingly troubled, perplexed, and—it seems—annoyed that he was little known in America. His books, his travels, his occasional pronouncements continued to make news and to stir controversy in Scandinavia, in France, in Germany. But in America, after a big initial success—his novel Independent People was a Main Selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club in 1946—he dropped largely out of sight.
His long neglect in this country seems partly a matter of simple bad luck; partly a result of confusion and carelessness among agents and translators; partly a product of Laxness’s own ambivalence toward the United States, whose NATO base on Icelandic soil struck him as a neocolonialist affront; and partly a question of differences in national temperament and literary traditions. Those books which his own books sprang from and commented upon and at times rebelled against—the Sagas, Norse folktales, Sigrid Undset, Knut Hamsun—lay some distance from American interests. And his dark sense of humor, rooted in an Icelandic tradition of deadpan endurance, was (as old American book reviews make clear) often misunderstood or overlooked.
Or perhaps it’s a case of evolving American tastes only gradually coming around to his work. A year ago, Vintage paperbacks republished Independent People, which had long dropped out of print. (An earlier essay of mine on Laxness was adopted as its introduction.* ) And somehow this big, slow-stepping novel about Icelandic sheep farmers has already marched through eight printings. Perhaps a new generation of American readers, reared on Latin American fiction, is connecting with a novel closer in spirit to the “magic realism” of García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude than to any American novel I can think of. Fans of Márquez will feel at home, certainly, with someone like Laxness’s Reverend Snorri, about whom it was “reliably reported that he once threw an ogress on Holtavord Heath; he felled her with a special crutch-throw known as the ogress-throw.”
For thirteen years—from 1985, when I first picked up one of his books, until Haldor Laxness died a few weeks ago—there was never a question in my mind about which living writer meant the most to me. Salka Valka and World Light, two of his mammoth novels from the Thirties, are wonderfully spacious creations, especially admirable for the insight and compassion they bring to their female characters (a quality for which Laxness has been justly celebrated). Paradise Reclaimed, his novel about the Mormons, in which an Icelandic farmer wanders from Copenhagen to Utah on a spiritual journey, sustains over three hundred pages the airiness—the loosened gravity—of true fairy-tale enchantment. But perhaps better still is The Fish Can Sing, a gorgeous prose-pastoral about a young orphan’s growing up in turn-of-the-century Reykjavik. Until I came upon this novel, I’d always thought Willa Cather’s The Lost Lady had the most inviting first sentence of any novel I knew: “Thirty or forty years ago, in one of those grey towns along the Burlington Railroad, which are so much greyer to-day than they were then, there was a house well known from Omaha to Denver for its hospitality and for a certain charm of atmosphere.” But the opening of The Fish Can Sing seems to me its equal: “A wise man once said that next to losing its mother, there is nothing more healthy for a child than to lose its father.” The tone is witty, lyrical, benign. From the outset, The Fish Can Sing is a book weighted with mortality—and lightened by a sense of poetic gaiety. It’s the sort of book which does full justice to the heavy casket in the parlor, yet does not fail to notice how jubilantly the sun plays on the ceramic dog standing beside it.
But better than all the rest—a book to beggar praise—is Independent People. This is a novel that lives up to its subtitle: An Epic. The landscape it evokes is gargantuan—storms that overpower the heavens, raging glacier-swollen rivers, wind-ripped heaths that stretch for lifeless miles—upon which Laxness places characters so outsize they are not lost or diminished within it. On one level, the domestic struggle at the book’s core is a minor battle of wills between a stubborn, ignorant man and his dreamy-headed ignorant daughter; on another, it’s a clash of Olympians.
In Independent People Laxness assembled his implacable, raw landscape with an extraordinary eye for nicety of construction. The book brims with fine stylistic touches—understated ironies, delicately interwoven motifs, pretty symmetries. With each reading and rereading (I’m up to seven), I’ve been struck by some new felicity. One of these, subtly spun across many hundreds of pages, involves variations on the question Is it you? It seems every character in the book, at one point or another, wonders, “Is it you?”—meaning, Are you my soul mate, are you the one for me? And the answer to the question is invariably “No”—until, in the book’s final few pages, a deliverance is achieved even in the midst of bloody, uncompromising tragedy.
Is it you? is likewise a question the inveterate reader constantly finds himself or herself asking, in that ongoing search for a book that will satisfy the hungers within. It’s the question we bring to the shelves of the library, impatiently taking down one volume after another, and it’s the one we ask as we poke into the box in the used bookstore: Are you my soul mate, are you the book for me?
The obituaries tell us that Halldor Laxness, the great Icelandic writer, died on February 8, 1998, in a nursing home outside Reykjavik. But the story hardly ends there. With a writer of such ferocity and mercy, such pluck and compassion, I have no doubt that in places far from Reykjavik—in Tokyo or Nairobi or Quito or Canberra—readers in decades to come will pick up a Laxness novel, in one of those thirty-plus languages in which he has appeared, and will ask, Is it you? And the book will answer, in a voice as idiosyncratic and as strong as ever, Yes, it’s me.
March 26, 1998