Halldór Laxness

This is an Icelandic name. Icelanders refer to him by the given name Halldór. Guðjónsson is a patronymic last name but Laxness is not.
Halldór Laxness
Born (1902-04-23)23 April 1902
Reykjavík, Iceland
Died 8 February 1998(1998-02-08) (aged 95)
Reykjavík, Iceland
Nationality Icelandic
Notable awards Nobel Prize in Literature
Spouses Ingibjörg Einarsdóttir (m. 1930–40)[1]
Auður Sveinsdóttir (m. 1945–98)

Halldór Kiljan Laxness (Icelandic: [ˈhatlour ˈcʰɪljan ˈlaxsnɛs]; born Halldór Guðjónsson; 23 April 1902 – 8 February 1998) was a twentieth-century Icelandic writer. Laxness wrote poetry, newspaper articles, plays, travelogues, short stories, and novels. Major influences included August Strindberg, Sigmund Freud, Sinclair Lewis, Upton Sinclair, Bertolt Brecht and Ernest Hemingway.[2] In 1955 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature; he is the only Icelandic Nobel laureate.

Early years

Halldór was born in 1902 in Reykjavík, where he lived until 1905 when his family moved to a farm near the town of Mosfellsbær. At a young age he started to read books and write stories. In the winter of 1915-1916 he attended the technical school in Reykjavík.[3] In 1916 he had an article published in the newspaper Morgunblaðið.[3] His first book, the novel Barn náttúrunnar: ástarsaga (Child of Nature: A Romance), was published in 1919 when Halldór was seventeen years old; he had already begun his travels on the European continent.[4]


In 1922, Laxness joined the Abbaye Saint-Maurice-et-Saint-Maur in Clervaux, Luxembourg. The monks followed the rules of Saint Benedict of Nursia. Laxness was baptized and confirmed in the Catholic Church early in 1923. Following his confirmation, he adopted the surname Laxness after the homestead on which he was raised and added the name Kiljan (the Icelandic name of Irish martyr Saint Killian).

Inside the walls of the abbey, he practiced self-study, read books, and studied French, Latin, theology and philosophy. While there, he composed the story Undir Helgahnjúk, published in 1924. Soon after his baptism, he became a member of a group which prayed for reversion of the Nordic countries back to Catholicism. Laxness wrote of his experiences in the book Vefarinn mikli frá Kasmír (The Great Weaver from Kashmir): "The essential feature of Vefarinn mikli is the witches' brew of ideas presented in a stylistic furioso of style."[5] The novel, published in 1927, was 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!"[6]

"Laxness's religious period did not last long; during a visit to America he became attracted to socialism."[7] Due, in part, to the influence of Upton Sinclair "... Laxness joined the socialist bandwagon... with a book Alþýðubókin (The Book of the People, 1929) of brilliant burlesque and satirical essays... one of a long series in which he discussed his many travel impressions (Russia, Western Europe, South America), unburdened himself of socialistic satire and propaganda, and wrote of the literature and the arts, essays of prime importance to an understanding of his own art..."[8]

Between 1927 and 1929 Laxness lived in the United States, giving lectures on Iceland and attempting to write screenplays for Hollywood films.[9] He was "enamored" of Charlie Chaplin's film City Lights.[10]


By the 1930s he "had become the apostle of the younger generation" and was attacking "viciously" the Christian spiritualism of Einar Hjörleifsson Kvaran, an influential writer who had been considered for the Nobel Prize.[11]

"... with 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."[12]

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.[13]

Laxness's next novel was Sjálfstætt fólk (Independent People, 1934, 1935) which has been described as "… one of the best books of the twentieth century."[14]

Salka Valka was published in English in 1936; a reviewer from 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."[15]

This was followed by the four-part novel Heimsljós (World Light, 1937, 1938, 1939, 1940), "… consistently regarded by many critics as his most important work."[16] It was based in large part on the life history of Magnús Hjaltason Magnusson, a minor Icelandic poet of the late 19th century.[17]

Laxness also traveled to the Soviet Union and wrote approvingly of the Soviet system and culture.[18]


Laxness translated Ernest Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms into Icelandic in 1941, which featured controversial neologisms.[19]

Laxness' sprawling three-part work of historical fiction Íslandsklukkan (Iceland's Bell) was published, 1943–46

In 1946 Independent People was released as a Book of the Month Club selection in the United States, selling over 450,000 copies.[20]

By 1948 he had a house built in the rural countryside outside of Mosfellsbær. He then began a new family with his second wife, Auður Sveinsdóttir, who also assumed the roles of personal secretary and business manager.

In response to the establishment of a permanent US military base in Keflavík, he wrote the satire Atómstöðin (The Atom Station), an action which contributed to his being blacklisted in the United States.[21]

"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."[22]


Halldór Laxness by Einar Hákonarson, 1984

In 1953 Laxness was awarded the Soviet-sponsored World Peace Council Literary Prize.[23]

An adaptation of his novel Salka Valka was filmed by Sven Nykvist in 1954.[24]

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

"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..."[12]

In the presentation address for the Nobel prize E. Wesen 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.”[25]

In his acceptance speech for the Nobel prize he 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...”[26]

Laxness grew increasingly disenchanted with the Soviets after their military action in Hungary in 1956.[27]

In 1957 Halldór and his wife went on a world tour stopping in: New York City, Washington, D.C., Chicago, Madison, Salt Lake City, San Francisco, Peking, Bombay, Cairo and Rome.[28]

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

Later years

In the 1960s Laxness was very active in the Icelandic theatre, writing and producing plays, The Pigeon Banquet (Dúfnaveislan, 1966) was the most successful.[29]

He published the "visionary novel"[30] Kristnihald undir Jökli (Under the Glacier / Christianity at the Glacier) in 1968.

Laxness was awarded the Sonning Prize in 1969.

In 1970 Laxness published his influential ecological essay Hernaðurinn gegn landinu (The War Against the Land).[31]

He continued to write essays and memoirs throughout the 1970s and 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

Laxness had four children: Sigríður Mária Elísabet Halldórsdóttir (Maria, b. 1923), Einar Laxness (b. 1931, d. 2016), Sigríður Halldórsdóttir (Sigga, b. 1951) and Guðný Halldórsdóttir (Duna, b. 1954). He was married twice: Ingibjörg Einarsdóttir (Inga, 1930-1940), and Auður Sveinsdóttir (1945-1998).[32]

Gljúfrasteinn, his house and its grounds, is now a museum operated by the Icelandic government.[33]

Guðný Halldórsdóttir became a filmmaker whose first work was the 1989 adaptation of Kristnihald undir jōkli (Under the Glacier).[34] In 1999 she directed an adaptation of the Laxness story Úngfrúin góða og Húsið (The Honour of the House), which was submitted for Academy Award consideration for best foreign film.[35]

In the 21st century interest in Laxness increased in English-speaking countries following the re-publishing of several of his novels and the publication of Iceland's Bell (2003) and The Great Weaver from Kashmir (2008) in new translations by Philip Roughton.[36]

A biography of Laxness by Halldór Guðmundsson, The Islander: a Biography of Halldór Laxness, won the Icelandic literary prize for best work of non-fiction in 2004.

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.


Works by Laxness





Travelogues and essays





  1. "Halldór Laxness love letters published". Iceland Review. 28 October 2011. Retrieved 24 February 2014.
  2. Halldór Guðmundsson, The Islander: a Biography of Halldór Laxness. McLehose Press/Quercus, London, translated by Philip Roughton, 2008, pp. 49, 117, 149, 238, 294
  3. 1 2 Kress, Helga; Tartt, Alison (2004). Stevens, Patrick J., ed. "Halldór Laxness (23 April 1902-8 February 1998)". Dictionary of Literary Biography.
  4. Guðmundsson, pp. 33-34
  5. Hallberg, Peter, Halldór Laxness. Twayne Publishers, New York, 1971, pp.35, 38
  6. Albertsson, Krístian, Vaka 1.3, 1927
  7. Halldór Laxness biography. nobelprize.org
  8. Einarsson, Stefán A History of Icelandic Literature, New York: Johns Hopkins for the American Scandinavian Foundation, 1957, p. 292 OCLC 264046441
  9. Einarsson, p. 317
  10. Guðmundsson, p. 173
  11. Einarsson, pp. 263–4
  12. 1 2 Sveinn Hoskuldsson, "Scandinavica", 1972 supplement, pp. 1–2
  13. Hallberg, p. 211
  14. Jane Smiley, Independent People, Vintage International, 1997, cover
  15. Guðmundsson, p.229
  16. Magnus Magnusson, World Light, University of Wisconsin Press, Madison, 1969, p. viii
  17. Hallberg, p.125
  18. Guðmundsson, p.182
  19. Guðmundsson, p.279
  20. Chay Lemoine (9 February 2007) HALLDÓR LAXNESS AND THE CIA.
  21. Chay Lemoine (18 November 2010). The View from Here, No. 8. icenews.is
  22. Einarsson, p. 330
  23. Guðmundsson, p. 340
  24. Guðmundsson, p. 351
  25. Presentation address for the Nobel prize by E. Wesen, 1955
  26. acceptance speech for the Nobel prize, 1955
  27. Guðmundsson, p. 375
  28. Guðmundsson, pp. 380–384
  29. Modern Nordic Plays, Iceland, p. 23, Sigurður Magnússon (ed.), Twayne: New York, 1973
  30. Susan Sontag, p.xv, introduction to Under the Glacier, Vintage International: New York, 2005
  31. Reinhard Henning, Phd. paper Umwelt-engagierte Literatur aus Island und Norwegen, University of Bonn, 2014
  32. Guðmundsson, pp. 70, 138, 176, 335, 348, 380
  33. About Gljúfrasteinn – EN – Gljúfrasteinn. Gljufrasteinn.is. Retrieved on 29 July 2012
  34. Under the Glacier (1989) . imdb.com
  35. The Honour of the House (1999). imdb.com
  36. The man who brought Iceland in from the cold – Los Angeles Times. Latimes.com (23 November 2008). Retrieved on 29 July 2012
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