Halldór Laxness

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Halldór Laxness
Halldór Kiljan Laxness 1955.jpg
BornHalldór Guðjónsson
(1902-04-23)23 April 1902
Reykjavík, Iceland
Died8 February 1998(1998-02-08) (aged 95)
Reykjavík, Iceland
Notable awardsNobel Prize in Literature
Ingibjörg Einarsdóttir
(m. 1930⁠–⁠1940)
Auður Sveinsdóttir
(m. 1945⁠–⁠1998)

Halldór Kiljan Laxness (Icelandic: [ˈhaltour ˈcʰɪljan ˈlaksnɛs] (About this soundlisten); born Halldór Guðjónsson; 23 April 1902 – 8 February 1998) was an Icelandic writer and winner of the 1955 Nobel Prize in Literature.[2] He wrote novels, poetry, newspaper articles, essays, plays, travelogues and short stories. Writers who influenced Laxness included August Strindberg, Sigmund Freud, Knut Hamsun, Sinclair Lewis, Upton Sinclair, Bertolt Brecht and Ernest Hemingway.[3]

Early years[edit]

Halldór Guðjónsson was born in Reykjavík in 1902. When he was three his family moved to the Laxnes farm in Mosfellssveit parish. He started to read books and write stories at an early age and attended the technical school in Reykjavík from 1915 to 1916. His earliest published writing appeared in 1916 in the children's newspapers Æskan and Sólskin, the latter being a part of the North American Icelandic newspaper Lögberg, as well as in Morgunblaðið.[4][5] By the time his first novel, Barn náttúrunnar (Child of Nature), was published (1919) he had already begun his travels on the European continent.[6]


In 1922, Halldór joined the Abbaye Saint-Maurice et Saint-Maur in Clervaux, Luxembourg, where the monks followed the rules of Saint Benedict of Nursia. In 1923 he was baptized and confirmed in the Catholic Church, adopting the surname Laxness after the homestead on which he was raised and adding the name Kiljan (the Icelandic name of Irish martyr Saint Killian). While staying at the abbey Laxness practiced self-study, read books, and studied French, Latin, theology and philosophy. He became a member of a group that prayed for reversion of the Nordic countries to Catholicism. Laxness wrote of his experiences in the essay Kaþólsk viðhorf (1925), and the novels Undir Helgahnúk (1924) and Vefarinn mikli frá Kasmír (1927), the latter book hailed by noted Icelandic critic Kristján Albertsson:

"Finally, finally, a grand novel which towers like a cliff above the flatland of contemporary Icelandic poetry and fiction! Iceland has gained a new literary giant - it is our duty to celebrate the fact with joy!"[7]

Laxness's religious period did not last long. He lived in the United States from 1927 to 1929, giving lectures on Iceland and attempting to write screenplays for Hollywood films.[8] During this time he had also became attracted to socialism:

"…(Laxness) did not become a socialist in America from studying manuals of socialism but from watching the starving unemployed in the parks."[9][10]

"… Laxness joined the socialist bandwagon… with a book Alþýðubókin (The Book of the People, 1929) of brilliant burlesque and satirical essays… "[11]

"Beside the fundamental idea of socialism, the strong sense of Icelandic individuality is also the sustaining element in Alþýðubókin. The two elements are entwined together in characteristic fashion and in their very union give the work its individual character."[12]

In 1929 Laxness published an article critical of the United States in Heimskringla, a Canadian newspaper. This resulted in charges being filed against him, his detention and the forfeiture of his passport. With the aid of Upton Sinclair and the ACLU, the charges were dropped and Laxness returned to Iceland.[13]


By the 1930s Laxness "had become the apostle of the younger generation" of Icelandic writers.[14]

"… Salka Valka (1931–32) began the great series of sociological novels, often coloured with socialist ideas, continuing almost without a break for nearly twenty years. This was probably the most brilliant period of his career, and it is the one which produced those of his works that have become most famous. But Laxness never attached himself permanently to a particular dogma."[15]

In addition to the two parts of Salka Valka, Laxness published Fótatak manna (Steps of Men) in 1933, a collection of short stories, as well as other essays, notably Dagleið á fjöllum (A Day's Journey in the Mountains) in 1937.[16]

Laxness's next novel was Sjálfstætt fólk (Independent People (1934 and 1935), which has been described as "… one of the best books of the twentieth century."[17]

When Salka Valka was published in English in 1936 a reviewer on the Evening Standard stated: "No beauty is allowed to exist as ornamentation in its own right in these pages; but the work is replete from cover to cover with the beauty of its perfection."[18]

In 1937 Laxness wrote the poem Maístjarnan (The May Star), which was set to music by Jón Ásgeirsson and has become a socialist anthem.[19]

This was followed by the four-part novel Heimsljós (World Light, 1937, 1938, 1939 and 1940), which is loosely based on the life of Magnús Hjaltason Magnusson, a minor Icelandic poet of the late 19th century.[20] It has been "… consistently regarded by many critics as his most important work."[21]

Laxness also traveled to the Soviet Union in 1938 and wrote approvingly of the Soviet system and culture.[22] He was present at the "Trial of the Twenty-one" and wrote about it in detail in his book Gerska æfintýrið (The Russian Adventure).[23]

In the late 1930s Laxness developed a unique spelling system that was closer to pronunciation than standard Icelandic. This characteristic of his writing is lost in translation.[24]


In 1941 Laxness translated Ernest Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms into Icelandic, which caused controversy because of his use of neologisms.[25] He continued to court controversy over the next few years through the publication of new editions of several Icelandic sagas using modern Icelandic rather than the normalized Old Norse orthography, which had become customary. Laxness and his publishing partners were taken to court following the publication of his edition of Hrafnkels saga in 1942. They were found guilty of violating a recent copyright law, but eventually they were acquitted of the charge when the copyright law was deemed a violation to the freedom of the press.[26][27]

Laxness's "epic"[28] three-part work of historical fiction, Íslandsklukkan (Iceland's Bell), was published between 1943 and 1946. It has been described as a novel of broad "… geographical and political scope… expressly concerned with national identity and the role literature plays in forming it… a tale of colonial exploitation and the obdurate will of a suffering people."[29] "Halldór Kiljan Laxness’s three-volume Íslandsklukkan … is probably the most significant (Icelandic) novel of the 1940s."[30]

In 1946 the English translation of Independent People was published as a Book of the Month Club selection in the United States, selling over 450,000 copies.[31]

In 1948 Halldór and his second wife, Auður Sveinsdóttir, moved into Gljúfrasteinn, a new house built in the countryside near Mosfellsbær, where they began a new family. Auður, in addition to her domestic duties, also assumed the roles of personal secretary and business manager.

In response to the establishment of a permanent U.S. military base in Keflavík, he wrote the satire Atómstöðin (The Atom Station), which may have contributed to a blacklisting of his novels in the United States.[32]

"The demoralization of the occupation period is described ... nowhere as dramatically as in Halldór Kiljan Laxness' Atómstöðin (1948)... [where he portrays] postwar society in Reykjavík, completely torn from its moorings by the avalanche of foreign gold."[33]

Due to its examination of modern Reykjavík, Atómstöðin caused many critics and readers to consider it as the exemplary "Reykjavík Novel."[34]


Halldór Laxness by Einar Hákonarson, 1984

In 1952 Laxness was awarded the Lenin Peace Prize and in 1953 he was awarded the Soviet-sponsored World Peace Council literary Prize.[35]

A Swedish film adaptation of his novel Salka Valka, directed by Arne Mattsson and filmed by Sven Nykvist, was released in 1954.[36]

In 1955 Laxness was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, "… for his vivid epic power, which has renewed the great narrative art of Iceland".[37]

"His chief literary works belong to the genre… [of] narrative prose fiction. In the history of our literature Laxness is mentioned beside Snorri Sturluson, the author of "Njals saga", and his place in world literature is among writers such as Cervantes, Zola, Tolstoy, and Hamsun… He is the most prolific and skillful essayist in Icelandic literature both old and new…"[15]

In the presentation address for the Nobel prize Elias Wessén stated:

"He is an excellent painter of Icelandic scenery and settings. Yet this is not what he has conceived of as his chief mission. 'Compassion is the source of the highest poetry. Compassion with Asta Sollilja on earth,' he says in one of his best books… And a social passion underlies everything Halldór Laxness has written. His personal championship of contemporary social and political questions is always very strong, sometimes so strong that it threatens to hamper the artistic side of his work. His safeguard then is the astringent humour which enables him to see even people he dislikes in a redeeming light, and which also permits him to gaze far down into the labyrinths of the human soul."[38]

In his acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize Laxness spoke of:

"… the moral principles she [his grandmother] instilled in me: never to harm a living creature; throughout my life, to place the poor, the humble, the meek of this world above all others; never to forget those who were slighted or neglected or who had suffered injustice, because it was they who, above all others, deserved our love and respect…"[39]

Laxness grew increasingly disenchanted with the Soviet bloc after the suppression of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956.[40]

In 1957 Halldór and his wife went on a world tour, stopping in New York City, Washington, DC, Chicago, Madison, Salt Lake City, San Francisco, Peking (Beijing), Bombay (Mumbai), Cairo and Rome.[41]

Major works in this decade were Gerpla, (The Happy Warriors/Wayward Heroes, 1952), Brekkukotsannáll, (The Fish Can Sing, 1957), and Paradísarheimt, (Paradise Reclaimed, 1960).

Later years[edit]

In the 1960s Laxness was very active in Icelandic theater. He wrote and produced plays, the most successful of which was The Pigeon Banquet (Dúfnaveislan, 1966.)[42]

In 1968 Laxness published the "visionary novel"[43] Kristnihald undir Jökli (Under the Glacier / Christianity at the Glacier). In the 1970s he published what he called "essay novels": Innansveitarkronika (A Parish Chronicle, 1970) and Guðsgjafaþula (A Narration of God's Gifts, 1972). Neither has been translated into English.[44]

Laxness was awarded the Sonning Prize in 1969.

In 1970 Laxness published an influential ecological essay, Hernaðurinn gegn landinu (The War Against the Land).[45]

He continued to write essays and memoirs throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s. As he grew older he began to suffer from Alzheimer's disease and eventually moved into a nursing home, where he died at the age of 95.

Family and legacy[edit]

Laxness married to Ingibjörg Einarsdóttir (3 May 1908 - 22 January 1994) in 1930 (divorced in 1940), and married Auður Sveinsdóttir (30 June 1918 - 29 October 2012) in 1945.[46]

He had four children: Sigríður Mária Elísabet Halldórsdóttir (Maria, 10 April 1923 - 19 March 2016), Einar Laxness (9 August 1931 - 23 May 2016), Sigríður Halldórsdóttir (Sigga, b. 26 May 1951) and Guðný Halldórsdóttir (Duna, b. 23 January 1954). Guðný Halldórsdóttir is a filmmaker whose first work was the 1989 adaptation of Kristnihald undir jōkli (Under the Glacier).[47][48] In 1999 her adaptation of her father's story Úngfrúin góða og Húsið (The Honour of the House) was submitted for consideration for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film.[49] Guðný's son, Halldór Laxness Halldórsson, is a writer, actor and poet.[50]

Gljúfrasteinn (Laxness's house, grounds and personal effects) is now a museum operated by the Icelandic government.[51]

In the 21st century interest in Laxness in English-speaking countries has increased following the reissue of several of his novels and the first English-language publications of Iceland's Bell (2003) and The Great Weaver from Kashmir (2008).[52] In 2016 a new English-language translation of the novel Gerpla was published as Wayward Heroes.[53] A new translation of Salka Valka will be released in 2022. [54]

Halldór Guðmundsson's book The Islander: A Biography of Halldór Laxness won the Icelandic literary prize for best work of non-fiction in 2004.

Numerous dramatic adaptations of Laxness's work have been staged in Iceland. In 2005, the Icelandic National Theatre premiered a play by Ólafur Haukur Símonarson, titled Halldór í Hollywood (Halldór in Hollywood) about the author's time spent in the United States in the 1920s.

A biennial Halldór Laxness International Literary Prize is awarded at the Reykjavík International Literary Festival.[55][56]


Works by Laxness


  • 1919: Barn náttúrunnar (Child of Nature)
  • 1924: Undir Helgahnúk (Under the Holy Mountain)
  • 1927: Vefarinn mikli frá Kasmír (The Great Weaver from Kashmir)
  • 1931: Þú vínviður hreini (O Thou Pure Vine) – Part I of Salka Valka
  • 1932: Fuglinn í fjörunni (The Bird on the Beach) – Part II of Salka Valka
  • 1933: Úngfrúin góða og Húsið (The Honour of the House), as part of Fótatak manna: sjö þættir
  • 1934: Sjálfstætt fólk — Part I, Landnámsmaður Íslands (Icelandic Pioneers), Independent People
  • 1935: Sjálfstætt fólk – Part II, Erfiðir tímar (Hard Times), Independent People
  • 1937: Ljós heimsins (The Light of the World) – Part I of Heimsljós (World Light)
  • 1938: Höll sumarlandsins (The Palace of the Summerland) – Part II of Heimsljós (World Light)
  • 1939: Hús skáldsins (The Poet's House) – Part III of Heimsljós (World Light)
  • 1940: Fegurð himinsins (The Beauty of the Skies) – Part IV of Heimsljós (World Light)
  • 1943: Íslandsklukkan (Iceland's Bell) – Part I of Íslandsklukkan (Iceland's Bell)
  • 1944: Hið ljósa man (The Bright Maiden) – Part II of Íslandsklukkan (Iceland's Bell)
  • 1946: Eldur í Kaupinhafn (Fire in Copenhagen) – Part III of Íslandsklukkan (Iceland's Bell)
  • 1948: Atómstöðin (The Atom Station)
  • 1952: Gerpla (The Happy Warriors (1958) / Wayward Heroes (2016))
  • 1957: Brekkukotsannáll (The Fish Can Sing)
  • 1960: Paradísarheimt (Paradise Reclaimed)
  • 1968: Kristnihald undir Jökli (Under the Glacier / Christianity at the Glacier)
  • 1970: Innansveitarkronika (A Parish Chronicle)
  • 1972: Guðsgjafaþula (A Narration of God's Gifts)


  • 1923: Nokkrar sögur
  • 1933: Fótatak manna
  • 1935: Þórður gamli halti
  • 1942: Sjö töframenn
  • 1954: Þættir (collection)
  • 1964: Sjöstafakverið
  • 1981: Við Heygarðshornið
  • 1987: Sagan af brauðinu dýra
  • 1992: Jón í Brauðhúsum
  • 1996: Fugl á garðstaurnum og fleiri smásögur
  • 1999: Úngfrúin góða og Húsið
  • 2000: Smásögur
  • 2001: Kórvilla á Vestfjörðum og fleiri sögur


  • 1934: Straumrof
  • 1950: Snæfríður Íslandssól (from the novel Íslandsklukkan)
  • 1954: Silfurtúnglið
  • 1961: Strompleikurinn
  • 1962: Prjónastofan Sólin
  • 1966: Dúfnaveislan
  • 1970: Úa (from the novel Kristnihald undir Jökli)
  • 1972: Norðanstúlkan (from the novel Atómstöðin)


  • 1925: Únglíngurinn í skóginum
  • 1930: Kvæðakver

Travelogues and essays[edit]

  • 1925: Kaþólsk viðhorf (Catholic View)
  • 1929: Alþýðubókin (The Book of the People)
  • 1933: Í Austurvegi (In the Baltic)
  • 1938: Gerska æfintýrið (The Russian Adventure)


  • 1952: Heiman eg fór (subtitle: sjálfsmynd æskumanns)
  • 1975: Í túninu heima, part I
  • 1976: Úngur eg var, part II
  • 1978: Sjömeistarasagan, part III
  • 1980: Grikklandsárið, part IV
  • 1987: Dagar hjá múnkum



  • 1941: Laxdaela Saga, edited with preface
  • 1942: Hrafnkatla, edited with preface
  • 1945: Brennunjal's Saga, edited with afterword
  • 1945: Alexander's Saga, edited with preface
  • 1946: Grettis Saga, edited with preface
  • 1952: Kvaedi og ritgerdir by Johann Jonsson, edited with preface


  1. ^ "Halldór Laxness love letters published". Iceland Review. 28 October 2011. Archived from the original on 1 March 2014. Retrieved 24 February 2014.
  2. ^ "Nobel Prize Winners by Country". 23 October 2019.
  3. ^ Halldór Guðmundsson, The Islander: a Biography of Halldór Laxness. McLehose Press/Quercus, London, translated by Philip Roughton, 2008, pp. 49, 117, 149, 238, 294
  4. ^ Kress, Helga; Tartt, Alison (2004). Stevens, Patrick J. (ed.). "Halldór Laxness (23 April 1902-8 February 1998)". Dictionary of Literary Biography.
  5. ^ Háskólabókasafn, Landsbókasafn Íslands-. "Tímarit.is". timarit.is (in Icelandic). Retrieved 10 October 2021.
  6. ^ Guðmundsson, pp. 33-34
  7. ^ Albertsson, Krístian, Vaka 1.3, 1927
  8. ^ Einarsson, Stefán, A History of Icelandic Literature, New York: Johns Hopkins for the American Scandinavian Foundation, 1957, p. 317 OCLC 264046441
  9. ^ Halldór Laxness on Nobelprize.org Edit this at Wikidata
  10. ^ Laxness, Halldór,Alþýðubókin, Þriðja útgáfa (3rd edition), (Reykjavík, 1949), p.9
  11. ^ Einarsson, p. 292 OCLC 264046441
  12. ^ Hallberg, Peter Halldór Laxness, Twayne Publishers, New York, 1971, p.60
  13. ^ Guðmundsson, pp. 150-151
  14. ^ Einarsson, pp. 263–4
  15. ^ a b Sveinn Hoskuldsson, "Scandinavica", 1972 supplement, pp. 1–2
  16. ^ Hallberg, p. 211
  17. ^ Smiley, Jane, Independent People, Vintage International, 1997, cover
  18. ^ Guðmundsson, p.229
  19. ^ "Maístjarnan".
  20. ^ Hallberg, p.125
  21. ^ Magnusson, Magnus, World Light, University of Wisconsin Press, 1969, p. viii
  22. ^ Guðmundsson, p.182
  23. ^ Guðmundsson, p.265
  24. ^ Kress, p.73
  25. ^ Guðmundsson, p.279
  26. ^ Helgason, Jón Karl (1 January 1999). The Rewriting of Njáls Saga: Translation, Ideology, and Icelandic Sagas. Multilingual Matters. pp. 121–136. ISBN 978-1-85359-457-1.
  27. ^ Crocker, Christopher (2019). "Guardian of Memory: Halldór Laxness, Saga Editor". Scandinavian-Canadian Studies. 26: 110–131.
  28. ^ Leithauser, Brad, The New York Times, 15 February 2004
  29. ^ Haslett, Adam, introduction to Iceland's Bell, Vintage International, 2003, p.viii.
  30. ^ Neijmann, Daisy, A History of Icelandic Literature, University of Nebraska Press, 2006, p. 404
  31. ^ Lemoine, Chay (9 February 2007) [1].
  32. ^ Lemoine, Chay (18 November 2010). The View from Here, No. 8. icenews.is
  33. ^ Einarsson, p. 330
  34. ^ Neijmann, p. 411
  35. ^ Guðmundsson, p. 340
  36. ^ Guðmundsson, p. 351
  37. ^ "Nobel Prize in Literature 1955". Nobel Foundation.
  38. ^ "The Nobel Prize in Literature 1955". NobelPrize.org. Retrieved 21 October 2018.
  39. ^ acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize, 1955
  40. ^ Guðmundsson, p. 375
  41. ^ Guðmundsson, pp. 380–384
  42. ^ Magnússon, Sigurður (ed.),Modern Nordic Plays, Iceland, p. 23, Twayne: New York, 1973
  43. ^ Sontag, Susan, At the Same Time, p.100, Farrar, Strauss and Giroux: New York, 2007
  44. ^ Guðmunsson, Halldór, Scandinavica, Vol. 42, No. 1, pg 43
  45. ^ Henning, Reinhard, Phd. paper Umwelt-engagierte Literatur aus Island und Norwegen, University of Bonn, 2014
  46. ^ Guðmundsson, pp. 70, 138, 176, 335, 348, 380
  47. ^ Under the Glacier (1989) . imdb.com
  48. ^ Brandsma, Elliott. "Exploring the Legacy of Halldór Laxness: Contemporary English-language Perspectives on Iceland's Greatest Twentieth-Century Writer" (PDF). Skemman.is. University of Iceland. Retrieved 15 September 2021.
  49. ^ The Honour of the House (1999). imdb.com
  50. ^ "Polarama Productions Takes Film Rights to 'Cuckold' from Iceland's Dori DNA". 19 February 2020.
  51. ^ About Gljúfrasteinn – EN – Gljúfrasteinn. Gljufrasteinn.is. Retrieved on 29 July 2012
  52. ^ Holm, Bill, The man who brought Iceland in from the cold – Los Angeles Times. Latimes.com (23 November 2008). Retrieved on 29 July 2012
  53. ^ "Wayward Heroes by Halldór Laxness".
  54. ^ "Salka Valka".
  55. ^ "Alþjóðleg verðlaun kennd við Halldór Laxness". 8 February 2019.
  56. ^ "Reykjavík International Literary Festival".

External links[edit]