It is not uncommon for a novel to try to convince its readers that they should care. It is far less common for a novel to suggest that they shouldn’t. The beginning of Halldór Laxness’s Salka Valka, originally published in two parts in 1931 and 1932, is an exercise in lowered expectations. On a snowy day a steamship glides toward an unremarkable Icelandic village nestled between two mountains. A pair of smartly dressed travelers are sitting in the first-class smokers’ lounge. “When sailing on such a cold and bleak winter’s night along these shores, you get the impression that nothing in the world could be more insignificant and meaningless than such a small village under such high mountains,” one of them presumably tells the other. Presumably, because their conversation went “something like this,” we are told. The travelers continue:
How do people live in such a place? And how do they die? What do they say to each other when they wake in the morning? How do they look at each other on Sundays? And what does the priest feel when he steps into the pulpit at Christmas and Easter? I don’t mean what does he say, but what, in all honesty, does he think? Does he see how pointless it all is?
In this atmosphere of pointlessness, two passengers—a woman and her young daughter—disembark from a nearby boat. Unlike the first-class men, this pair is woefully underdressed for the elements. The lace on one of the woman’s boots is broken, “leaving half the shaft hanging loosely against her leg.” Laxness has a way of training the reader’s eye on what, for his characters, are existential concerns, such as appropriate footwear. He describes the daughter’s shoes with a piling-on of evocative details:
No sooner, however, did those meaningless mornings open their pitiless eyes over the cashless existence here in the village than Salka was sent out into the slush to deliver the milk, in worn cowskin shoes stuffed with hay at the toes.
Laxness’s insistence on his opening scene’s bleak triviality achieves the opposite effect: it piques us. “Never has a more insignificant woman stepped ashore in a more insignificant village,” he writes, as if daring himself to render them significant.
The woman’s name is Sigurlína. She is on her way to Reykjavík to seek a better life for herself and her daughter, Salvör Valgerður, also known as Salka Valka, and hopes to pass the winter in the village of Óseyri. They end up staying. Like a Norse David Copperfield, Salka’s bildungsroman serves as a portrait of both herself (primarily in the first part, titled Thou, Pure Grapevine) and her society (in the second, titled The Bird on the Shore). Óseyri has been taken over by the religious fervor of men belonging to the Salvation Army. Sigurlína converts, but not her earthbound daughter, who has no use for “Bible-thumpers” and thinks, “There’s no other God but fish.”
Salka is a churlish, obstreperous child, with “no other table manners than those that nature had given her.” She proves deft at cleaning fish in the local washhouse. Aged eleven, she becomes a day laborer and later the secretary of the fishing union, both a political creature and a confidant for her fellow villagers. It is through her encounters with them that Laxness imparts his growing socialist awareness. Salka befriends the dying wife of a destitute bookbinder, who tells her, “Seeing one’s children die is nothing, compared to seeing them live.” When she wonders why she never sees her coworkers at the washhouse get paid for their labor, an old man astutely informs her, “No one becomes rich by working.”
The village’s merchants are responsible for running the place into the ground. Laxness indicts them for financial speculations similar to the ones that caused Iceland to teeter on the brink of bankruptcy in 2008. The merchants are aided in their schemes by politicians. One character in the novel laments:
The Vikings, in their time, did their marauding openly, but now it is considered the greatest courtesy to usurp public opinion with the help of daily newspapers and beguile poor people into taking sides against their children.
Such barbs can quickly tip toward admonishment, but not under Laxness’s light touch. His politics in the novel are never didactic, nor are they even particularly cogent. They are complicated by the figure of Arnaldur, a dark-haired boy two years older than Salka who teaches her how to read and write, and who comes to monopolize her every thought. Arnaldur is a voracious reader. He runs in educated circles and, as Salka notes, he “was said to be moody and reticent, but she found nothing as attractive as reticent, moody young men who bore secret sorrows.”
Arnaldur becomes a storekeeper, then leaves the village, only to return in the novel’s second part to foment a workers’ revolution there. At first he appears to be a stand-in for the author—the Russophile intellectual—until you realize how unserious his actions are. He is stymied by fear and minor hypocrisies. As Halldór Guðmundsson writes in The Islander (2004), a thoroughly researched biography of Laxness:
Arnaldur is not capable of practising what he preaches, and so the description of the common people’s struggle thus becomes distant and somewhat ironic, the sense of fatalism stronger than the hope that people can change the world.
Unlike other female coming-of-age novels, in which the heroine is happily shackled off in marriage by the end, Salka remains obstinately—triumphantly—herself. But first, true to form, she must shed her mother. In the novel’s most memorable scene, Salka awakens one night to discover that Steinþór Steinsson, a “pockmarked sailor” and violent drunkard with whom she and her mother are staying temporarily, has crawled into the bed that the two of them share. Her mother whispers to no avail for Steinþór to stop, until the girl flings herself at him, hurling insults. She thinks that she has rescued her mother, but when all is quiet again she finds that Sigurlína has slipped out of bed to resume her other life: “a life of which Salka Valka could have had no inkling.” Laxness ends the scene by powerfully shifting in register from the universal to the specific and back again: “To grow up is to come to the realization that you have no mother, but lie there alone, unsleeping, in the dark of night. From then on, she had no mother. Maybe no one had a mother.”
Laxness’s tone of detached irony in the novel is what saves it—indeed saves all his major works—from an overheated ideology. Fealty to the Soviet Union came to dominate his political thinking, beginning in 1932. That year he took a trip there, followed by another in 1937. He concluded, remarkably obtusely, that “the USSR has become a paradise,” and he praised Stalin for laying the foundation for a “wiser and more productive social system.”
Yet Laxness the author outshone Laxness the pundit. His novels place greater faith in human experience than in any political system. The peak of his creative output—beginning with Salka Valka and followed by Independent People (1934–1935), his best-known novel internationally, and World Light (1937–1940)—came, paradoxically, in the years of his most fervent Soviet leanings. In subsequent decades, his novels turned more abstract. It was as though he no longer quite believed in the purpose of fiction—the result, perhaps, of a crisis of faith. While he continued to publish until his death in 1998, at the age of ninety-five, he turned in his last years mostly to memoirs and short stories.
But his novels from the 1930s—Salka Valka in particular—brim with life, humor, devastation. Laxness detonates some sentences like little bombs: “Salka Valka had a loathing for the sick and dying, as is so often the case with unnaturally healthy people.” Others he lets expand and accumulate to reveal an almost Dickensian delight in people and their idiosyncrasies. A stodgy minister in Independent People tells his congregation, “Time passes,” then carries on: “Today it is Sunday. Tomorrow it is Monday. Then comes Tuesday. It was one o’clock only a short while ago. Now it’s past two. Soon it will be three. Then it will be four.”
Laxness, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1955, remains Iceland’s most celebrated author, an inexhaustibly prolific chronicler of impoverished village life. This was no coincidence for a writer who took his name from a plot of land. Born Halldór Guðjónsson in 1902, he and his family moved to a farm called Laxnes when he was three. His life straddled nearly all of the twentieth century—a century in which Iceland underwent as many changes as “other Western societies did in three hundred years,” as Guðmundsson puts it. (In 1900 Reykjavík had six thousand residents and two policemen—more a hamlet than a world capital. Iceland did not gain independence from Denmark until 1944.)
Laxness’s father was a wage laborer, part of a class of “vacant men,” as they were called then, because they were landless. At the age of seven, Halldór began to write in earnest and never stopped. In his Nobel acceptance speech, he credited his grandmother with teaching him hundreds of lines of Icelandic sagas before he knew the alphabet. He wasn’t wholly enthralled, however. “I have nothing to learn from them! Those old Icelandic fogeys,” he once complained.
As a teenager, he fell in with a group of burgeoning writers who were awed by his “trunkful of original compositions,” Guðmundsson writes. Laxness was “the greatest workhorse I’ve ever seen,” one friend attested. He dressed the part, too, favoring broad ties and silk collars. At thirteen, he wrote and abandoned a six-hundred-page novel. At seventeen, he took out an advertisement in the local paper, selling tickets to a reading of his second novel. This was a source of embarrassment for him later in life but, as Guðmundsson notes, “the facts remain: a boy of seventeen advertised a reading in Reykjavík on a Saturday evening and charged an admission fee.”
A surprise gift of dollars from an uncle in Canada enabled Laxness to board a steamship to Copenhagen before his twentieth birthday. From there he headed to Germany and spent the next decade traveling extensively throughout Europe and the United States. During this time Laxness converted to Catholicism and even came close to joining a Benedictine monastery in Luxembourg. Yet farm life soon replaced religion as the dominant theme of his work. I find his descriptions of the natural world incomparably moving. Consider this one, in Independent People, of a cow released outdoors after a long winter:
On the paving she gave a great low at the sun, then, after cautiously picking her way forward for a step or two, she halted once more to drink in the fragrance of fine weather. She tried to low again, but it seemed as if she could say nothing more for amazement; was she dreaming?
The harsh, unyielding landscape was Laxness’s canvas; the precipitations, his palette: “The Creator’s favorite weather for this village was rain, which stirred up all sorts of stenches: sea and seaweed, fish, fish heads and fish guts, train oil, tar, manure, and refuse.” This line appears in Salka Valka, though it could have been plucked from any of his novels. One chapter in Independent People begins with a two-word sentence: “Continual rain.”
Although Salka Valka was first translated into English in 1936, it has been considered a lesser work and largely neglected. Philip Roughton’s vibrant new translation should change that perception. The novel is a singular work of social realism. It began, unexpectedly, as a Hollywood script. In 1927 Laxness traded the fjords of Iceland for Los Angeles—an odd choice for the brooding Communist, though perhaps less so considering that he regarded motion pictures as the “most democratic form of entertainment that has ever been invented.” He admired Upton Sinclair’s works for their social engagement and befriended him in California. Sinclair in turn tried to get Knopf to publish Laxness’s first major novel, The Great Weaver from Kashmir (1927), about a young poet who sets sail from Iceland to mainland Europe and dabbles in various ideological movements in his quest to become the “most perfect man on earth.” The Great Weaver is formally daring—it balances states of moral inquiry to arrive at a philosophy that could sustain the horrors of war—yet it reads like the feverish journaling of a grad student. (“I am betrothed to the beauty on the visage of things.”)
Salka Valka, though conventional in form, is a far more accomplished work. Laxness conceived of his heroine in his original screenplay as
tall and strongly built. The chief ingredients of her facial expression: rustic virginity, dare-devilry, primitive charm. She is dressed like a fisherman: wide pants, the boot-legs reaching up over her knees, a pipe in her mouth.
He wrote the part with Greta Garbo, a fellow Scandinavian—and famously androgynous—expat in mind. But a proposed movie deal with MGM fell through, and the embittered Laxness returned home two years after arriving in Los Angeles, just as the stock market crashed. “There was no longer any need for a young man to speak about Iceland at afternoon parties,” Laxness told Guðmundsson in an interview many years later, exhibiting a healthy dose of self-awareness. In what now reads as a self-referential quip about his time abroad, Laxness writes in Salka Valka: “People tend to look far for what is close by. Perhaps reality is in Óseyri in Axlarfjörður after all.”
There is something touching about an author of more than sixty works—novels, plays, memoirs, poetry, translations—who never got over the impracticality of literature. “Books are nothing but vanity,” Laxness once wrote. “Culture is first and foremost built on the defeat of poverty and powerlessness.” His frustration could, of course, be the mere posturing of a lauded man, but one gets the sense that Laxness felt it acutely. Beginning early in his career, he became an obsessive notetaker and imbued his work with deep and immersive reportage. Sinclair’s muckraking again comes to mind: Laxness lodged in remote villages all over his “book-loving nation,” as he once called it, and cribbed generously from what he found there.
In 1926, shortly before he set off for Hollywood, Laxness trekked through Iceland and came upon an isolated farm in the austere and glaciered Eastfjords. There, Guðmundsson writes, he met a proud farmer who showed greater care for his sheep than for his emaciated family. Laxness profiled the man briefly in a newspaper article but was left with an indelible impression. He was trying at the time to find his way into writing about a single farm without falling into pastoral sentimentality. Eight years later, after his ill-fated sojourn in the US, which further radicalized him politically, the farmer appeared in fictionalized form as Bjartur of Summerhouses—the headstrong, infuriating, at times deeply sympathetic protagonist of Independent People.
That novel, translated in 1946 by J.A. Thompson, was recently reissued with a new introduction by John Freeman. Slyly taking on the mythological language of Icelandic folklore, it begins with a legend about an ancient sorcerer who, to avenge the early Norse settlers, casts a spell on the land. The legend helps to place Bjartur in a long tradition of Icelandic heroes, his foibles only accentuated and made more human by the mythical (or faux-mythical) stature bestowed upon him by his author. After eighteen years of servitude, Bjartur has finally managed to buy his own farm. But he is soon felled by one setback after another: “parish rates, debt, worms, illness, and death,” in Laxness’s summary of the plight of such men. Like the farmer on whom he was based, Bjartur idolizes his sheep and lets his children starve. Yet he is also a doting father—in his way. “It’s nothing but damned eccentricity to want to be dry,” he tells his shivering family as they eat their dinner in the rain.
One chapter in the novel captures Laxness’s best and worst tendencies: Bjartur accompanies his stepdaughter, who had been born to his late wife out of wedlock, to the nearest town to buy clothes for her confirmation. The landscape is wonderfully conveyed from her perspective. The hills soon give way to a strange sight, “as if the world came to a sudden stop before her eyes and the depth of the skies took its place.” It’s the ocean, which the girl had never seen. They spend the night together in a boisterous lodging house. Bjartur, in a scene parallel to the one in Salka Valka, climbs into her bed and reaches his hand down the girl’s underwear. Only this time the girl responds to his touch with “ravenous appetite.” And just like that, Laxness lost me.
Say what you will about a different time, about the subjectivity of female desire. No young girl would respond in such a way to the man who raised her. Yet the girl—Asta Sollilja—is otherwise an exceptionally drawn character, a lover of poetry whom we are encouraged to think of as representing all of Iceland. Later in the novel, after she runs away from home because she is pregnant, one of her younger brothers sees her again:
Gvendur realized immediately that she was of superior stock, even though she stood there bowed in apprehension over the wet washing, clad in rags, clad perhaps in the shame of a whole nation, of a nation innocent for a thousand years, with a decayed tooth and an illegitimate child,—and marvelled at her in the same way as he and his brothers had always marvelled at her in the old days, when she had been their big sister at home.
In a flash of extravagance toward the end of the novel, Bjartur takes out a loan so that he can set up a new home for himself and his dwindling family, but he finds that the place is uninhabitable. What’s more, the financial instability of the Great War has left him saddled with a mountain of debt. This reference to the war so late in the novel comes as something of a shock. Up until then, Independent People existed largely outside of time, with Bjartur (and to some extent Asta Sollilja) serving as a latter-day Job. The language itself feels biblical. It is here, more than in Salka Valka, that Laxness’s virtuosity as a stylist presents itself in its full force—an instance of perfect symbiosis between theme and form:
The mornings were never commonplace, each morning was a new morning, but as day advanced, the birds would sing less and the Blue Mountains would gradually lose the beauty of their colours. The days were like grown-up people, the mornings always young.
Salka Valka, Independent People, and the four-part novel that followed it, World Light, about an invalid poet shuttled off to live in a remote village, are all populated by men who toil in “natural” work—farming, fishing—and by their counterparts: bankers and manufacturers with their artificial Reykjavík ways. It is not difficult to figure out where Laxness’s loyalties lie in these novels. Yet they are also incredibly funny. When a rich landowner turns to Bjartur’s miserable wife and smugly asks her, “How do you like the life on the moors, Rosa?,” Laxness lands her reaction just so: “‘Oh, it’s very free, of course,’ she replied, and sniffed.” After an exchange between Bjartur and a young housemaid, the narrator remarks, “When one is unmarried, one must tell people to shut up in roundabout fashion.”
Although Laxness’s creativity did not diminish with time—if anything, he returned in later years to the experimentalism of his youth—one senses that his disillusionment with communism, precipitated by the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956, rattled him more than he might have let on. A year later, he published a somewhat rambling first-person novel called The Fish Can Sing, which mixes autobiography with musings on fame and celebrity, and never quite comes alive. By then, Laxness had largely traded his eccentric villagers for uprooted cosmopolites such as himself.
He returned to some of his old themes with the novel Under the Glacier (1968). Susan Sontag, in her introduction to the English translation, identified the thread that runs through all these formative works: “humiliation—the humiliation of the hero.” She went on:
He endures frustration, sleep deprivation, food deprivation. (No, the church is not open now. No, you can’t eat now. No, I don’t know where the pastor is.) It is an encounter with a mysterious authority that will not reveal itself.
Bjartur undergoes similar humiliations. So do Salka Valka and her mother. But Under the Glacier is so abstracted that it more often reads as a philosophical treatise, what might be generously called a novel of ideas. Its narrator is dispatched by a bishop to a village at the foot of a glacier because of strange sightings there. Phantoms abound. It is a dream novel, a supernatural novel from an author who reportedly had no faith in the supernatural. As Laxness’s biographer rightly notes, “Sympathy, which, according to Independent People, is the origin of poetry, is discussed here, but not shown.”
It is an often-dazzling work that manages to read at once like a spare, high-modernist play and a brilliantly dense science-fiction thriller. It cemented Laxness’s reputation as a constantly evolving writer and made a case for his epic scope. Yet one searches in vain for what lies on the other side of the epic—for the minute, pulsating descriptions of life on a small farm, for the obsessive observer of people who wrote in Salka Valka: “The village is a village—it seems to be everything, yet is nothing more than life itself.”