The Islander: A Biography of Halldór Laxness 
by Halldór Guðmundsson, translated by Philip Roughton.
MacLehose, 486 pp., £25, September 2023, 978 1 5294 3373 9
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If geography​ isn’t destiny, it comes close. Consider Iceland, at the apex of the North Atlantic. From there, one leg of a pair of dividers drops south to the Scandinavian ports and Scotland, and then to the rest of what one thinks of as Europe. The other leg gives prime access, through a little-used window in the Hudson Bay, to Canada and the United States. That’s it, that’s the menu: south-east or south-west. Europe is the nearer of the two.

A second factor is the tiny population in conditions that are presumed to be hostile to advanced or civilised life. Iceland welcomed its first permanent settler just over a thousand years ago. Over time, it was the property of Norway, then Denmark; it voted for independence from the Danish crown in 1944. It now has a population of a third of a million. Iceland has its own flag-carrying airline, a prosperous knowledge economy based on biotech and finance, an outstanding education system and a scandalously high life expectancy. The Icelandic genome has been substantially transcribed. The country benefits from the perverse or late-stage tourist industry that specialises in taking visitors to bleak and unpopulated places.

As Halldór Guðmundsson tells us in his excellent biography of Halldór Laxness (born Halldór Guðjónsson – he changed his surname to Laxness after the farm where he grew up), things were once rather different. In one of his brisk, dumbfounding asides, where little crystals of information seem to break from the supersaturated solution of his prose, Guðmundsson tells us that ‘Iceland experienced as many changes in the 20th century as other Western societies did in three hundred years.’ That century tallies rather closely with Laxness’s lifetime, 1902-98.

If anything, Guðmundsson is understating it. At the time Laxness was born, the population of Reykjavík was around seven thousand. It had two policemen. Its culture, such as it was, had been contracted out to expats living in Saskatchewan or Denmark. Novels were called – admiringly or deprecatingly? – ‘Danish novels’. They didn’t start appearing much before 1850. Publishing, as it was elsewhere in the 18th century and before, was in the hands of printers and booksellers. ‘The first true novel of Reykjavík’, according to Guðmundsson, was in 1908 (Einar H. Kvaran’s Higher Power); the first ever exhibition of art by an Icelandic painter was in 1900. There was no national theatre or opera or philharmonic or university. There was barely even agriculture. Iceland’s outward-facing inhabitants fished for a living; many were so-called ‘dry-stocksmen’. (Laxness’s father was one such.) Owning neither land nor livestock, they lived from the sale of their labour in turf-walled crofts. Like Bjartur, the shepherd settler-hero of the great Laxness novel Independent People (1934-35), fish was most of what they ate, and if not fish as we know it, then lumpfish or stockfish or torsk or ‘refuse fish’ or coalfish. Tobacco was chewed or sniffed. Coffee was an unlikely staple. The prosperous ones bought or owned shares in a boat.

No Icelandic writer – it seems ridiculous even to say so – could live by his pen. At best, he could switch to Danish; early on, Laxness tried this. All his life, he was much more involved with translations of his work than most writers. He was an obsessive, a struggler, a megalomaniac. ‘It is unlucky for a writer to be born in a tiny isolated country, condemned to a language that no one understands,’ he wrote. ‘But one day I hope that the stones in Iceland will speak to the whole world through me.’ And: ‘I absolutely cannot stand constricted circumstances – nothing but the huge world can fuel my writer’s talent.’ He’s like the youngest son in a fairy tale who successfully converts the world to the language of birds. Or fish.

Like the inhabitants of other small and remote countries, the Icelander has the choice to go or stay. Laxness did both. He was a cosmopolitan and a homebody. He yo-yoed. He stayed in Iceland and he left. The Gullfoss, a passenger ship that trafficked between Iceland, Europe and America, seems to pop up every few pages in this biography; it must have felt like a second home to him. As a young man he was gone for years at a time, to Europe in the late 1910s, to the US a decade later. He starved and bludged his way around Icelandic diasporas on two continents: the Icelandic wife of a millionaire in Brighton, the community of so-called ‘Western Icelanders’ in Winnipeg, a pair of Icelandic nurses in Los Angeles, concentrations of Icelanders in Denmark and Sweden, smatterings of Icelanders in Sicily and Berlin. Later, when he could afford it, he would leave with considerable regularity, twice a year, spring and autumn, like a double-time seabird, writing most of his books abroad, and preferring to experience publication at a distance. Family too (he married twice and had four children) he preferred from a distance. Not in a theoretical or principled way, with each spouse the guardian of the other’s solitude, but as a practical arrangement. In his absences, his wives did his accounts and ran his house. He found he could write better alone, and nothing – for almost the whole of his exceedingly long life – was as important to him as writing. He would leave to write a book, come home with it written, leave next when it was due to appear. It was a life of few incidents and no overall programme or aesthetic, but vicissitudes and huge endeavour: a writer’s life. A successful writer’s life – one of the few. There was a Jaguar in his drive. A heated house. Children he barely knew. He succeeded in bending the world to his will.

Genius, perhaps even talent, tends not to survive in accounts of it. Genius from peripheral and exotic backgrounds is even more difficult. There is no way for us outsiders to watch its progress, no familiar pyramid or ladder that means anything to us. It is like a design sketch or architectural drawing submitted without any indication of scale. For a long time, at home and abroad, Laxness was an Icelander among Icelanders with their cosy first names and – to most of us – near indistinguishable patronymics. An identity parade. The friend, the patron, the employer, the rival, the enemy. It’s only in the latter half of his biography that he seems to enter the known world, meets Jorge Amado, meets Brecht, exchanges letters and postcards with Hemingway and Pasternak. Even in Guðmundsson’s biography, in translation and to English readers, he maintains a kind of invisibility. Success or failure? Original or derivative? Contented or driven? Vital or past-it? It’s hard to be sure. The separateness of the language and the discreteness of the personnel leave the issues obscure. All this makes for an uncommonly interesting (and relativising) read.

Anyone from a small country can do anything, or they think they can (until they can’t), which is half the battle. There’s no reason not to. The objectives are so far distant that in a way they are not serious. The world is familiar – or it is so far beyond the horizon that it barely exists. Laxness as an infant had polio. ‘The surgeon general Guðmundur Björnson saved his life when he was three.’ Of course he did. Laxness got into the Technical College in Reykjavík because his father knew Iceland’s chief engineer, Jón Thorláksson, who later became prime minister. Is that coincidence or just probability? A year later, aged seventeen, he gave up on education. And why wouldn’t he? For a time, he went by his middle name, Kiljan. Kiljan Laxness: doubly confected, he could have been one of the good guys from anywhere. Then he came close to joining the Catholic Church; a little later he flirted with communism. Most likely, he was never seriously in danger of becoming either Catholic or communist, but it would have been a mistake to challenge him. He certainly walked the talk: he carried momentum, all the momentum of a small country. Before America set him straight, he considered ‘it was better to have the support of a small nation than everything inherent in the idiocy of a huge nation.’ (America got wind of this attitude, got very sniffy and never quite forgave him.) He was a pendulum, and there was no inertia or experience anywhere capable of damping the oscillation.

Laxness went to Hollywood at the age of 25, intending to write ten films and make ‘millions of dollars’. As good a plan as any, except that he was just learning English, his films were silent, and it was 1927. Even signing his name ‘Hall d’Or’ didn’t help. In 1955 he won the Nobel Prize and became, Guðmundsson writes, ‘the first Icelandic celebrity’ – a Großschriftsteller like Thomas Mann, someone who ‘was becoming a kind of cultural president of the nation’, and whose travels ‘had started to take on the air of state visits’. For a couple of years, it seemed to be his life’s work to avoid accepting an invitation to Bulgaria.

No wonder half the photographs one sees of him show a man laughing uproariously. He had the kind of face, like Rilke’s, that took decades to compose, that looked more plausible in age than youth. Baldness and an RAF moustache settled it. One would address him as ‘squire’. Martial but retired. Ghillied tweed and brogues. Dental work. An Icelandic friend described him in youth:

a nearly average-sized man of height, very thin and exceptionally erect; his hair was blond but not thick, his forehead high, his eyebrows pale, his nose quite large and his lower lip somewhat jutting. His eyes were especially beautiful, light blue and sparkling and radiating an attentive thoughtfulness, goodwill and humour. His hands were particularly beautiful and long and his fingers slender, and would have suited a pianist no less than a writer. He was trim, joyful of expression, not pretty, but exceptional in many ways, with an engaging personality.

And a Swedish newspaper, in middle age (Nobel time):

Laxness is a charmer. Nothing can make him angry. But as an interviewee he is afflicted by the unpleasant fault of never speaking about himself. He is a special blend of manliness and pretence, of audacity and diplomacy. There is something of the Anglo-Saxon in him.

In the 1970s and 1980s – and his seventies and eighties – his books queued up to be filmed.

Laxness was certainly diligent and he must have been an unusually good linguist and reader. He claimed to have read all the sagas by the age of eleven. Then it was time to internationalise himself. He learned enough Danish, Latin, English, Russian, German, French and Italian to read or get by in, and in most cases rather more. By turns, he put himself through Brandes and Tolstoy; Dostoevsky and Strindberg; Tagore; Bourget and Proust; Freud, Jung and Adler; Joyce and Hemingway. ‘If there was one 20th-century novelist Halldór respected all his life,’ Guðmundsson writes, ‘it was Hemingway.’ In an early grant application (Laxness was not quite 23), he claimed to have written six long novels by the age of twenty and destroyed five of them. He wrote poems when young and plays when old, essays and memoirs of various stripes all along. By turns, polemical, mild, droll, wise, ironic. (None of these, I think, have appeared in English, which, true to form, is interested only in echt novel novels. Danish novels.) He summarises himself – early, but it remained true: ‘I have pursued writing since my childhood and have had only one goal my whole life: to become an Icelandic writer.’

The reader is made aware of opinionatedness, self-confidence, indomitability, mercuriality, application, aggression. Qualities not attractive in themselves, and often put to the service of poorer ends. Guðmundsson frequently mentions Laxness’s charm. He asked a lot of his mother, his wives and his friends. (The one paid job he had in his life was as a receptionist for an Icelandic radio station and he didn’t keep it for long.) Something about him would have agreed that rules were for other people.

Rules​ are for other people’s novels, too. Laxness, not so much. He wrote book after book after book. All sorts. More than twenty novels, a couple of dozen volumes of essays and memoirs, a dozen books of stories, poems and plays. Despite recent republications and the efforts of Philip Roughton (the Iceland-based translator who has also translated this biography) to bring out new books and retranslations in English, most of Laxness remains inaccessible. Probably he’s too inconsistent and circumstantial and spur-of-the-moment for anything like a ‘Laxness Reader’ to be a viable proposition. In a sense, he’s still a writer who doesn’t yet fully exist, a kind of Borgesian phantom. The Islander is off on its own, a biography with a finesse and a detailed appreciation that, while we are grateful for it, we can’t really follow.

Laxness’s short books – The Atom Station and Fish Can Sing, for example – don’t show him at his best, and the long ones can get away from him. (Many were published in separate parts, and Laxness didn’t look back at what he had written already.) He tests the ability of epic to contain. He has a propensity to muddy the waters, to throw in a love story, a satirical element, another generation, the supernatural, a secondary intention, a layer of derision. A wonderful set-up – provincial girl comes in service to posh political family, boy raised by grandparents in the old style – is too readily lost sight of and becomes diluted and estranged. A great scene is followed by something bizarre and disconcerting. The books are ghost trains. Entertainments, sometimes failed entertainments. There is something a little monstrous about them: a tail, a claw, a head. Some teeth.

Independent People is just as mongrelly as the others, but for some reason it works. One symphony, the rest cattywampus. Here too, there is a supernatural element, the suggestion of an ancient curse; and one weirdly cartoonish scene, where Bjartur throws himself on the back of a passing reindeer and gallops off down the icy Glacier River in midwinter. Odd that such a thing doesn’t derail the book, but it doesn’t. It’s a tall tale, with the elasticity of epic, a witty, impersonal ‘folk’ presentation, and the grinding rural poverty of an obsessed shepherd. The decades pass, fortunes fluctuate (Iceland did well out of the First World War, staying neutral and supplying proteins to the combatants), bust follows boom, and we are back where we started. Sheep are a mistake, Bjartur’s neo-feudal neighbour says; foxes are where the action is. It makes Knut Hamsun’s Growth of the Soil look like a meliorist fabliau, the banal acquisition of knick-knacks, a kind of Norwegian Family Robinson, animated chiefly by its inveterate suspicion of women. Independent People by contrast is remarkably unconsoled and unconsoling, a book full of deaths and calamities and unhappy persistence, a book with real rain in it, and real cold and real turf smoke.

It also happens to be one of the best translations I have ever read. Little is known about the translator, J.A. Thompson, who was born in 1910, studied Nordic languages and English at Leeds, worked briefly as a schoolteacher in Akureyri in 1931-32, and translated nothing else. Laxness worked with him on the translation in Dewsbury in 1936, and later poked fun at Thompson’s preferred mode of convalescence: ‘The first thing he did after finishing the work was buy himself an apron, a brush and a bucket, and go and wash the steps of a certain fifth-class hotel in London; he thought such work a holiday after having translated Halldór Laxness for Sir Stanley [Unwin], and never wanted to see another book after that.’ All I can say is, he deserved his black and white tiles. He has both autonomy and tact. His translation is full of character, marvellously pointed but in touch with timelessness, relished but without striving for effect. We are in the world of Briggflatts, of Patrick Kavanagh’s ‘The Great Hunger’ or Robert Flaherty’s Man of Aran. Let me quote two descriptions from the novel, one of an interior, the other of a meal taken outdoors. In the first, Bjartur’s son has been tapping on the roof and squeaking, to get his grandmother to wake up.

Mumbling away to herself, the old woman gathered her strength, and after one or two fruitless efforts to rise, managed finally to scramble out of bed with all the gasps and groans which always accompanied that task. She put on her sackcloth skirt and her short coat. Then the search for the matches began. It always ended with the matches being found. In the uncertain light of the wall lamp he saw her bending bareheaded over the range, saw her mahogany rune-carved skin and her protruding cheek bones, her sunken mouth and scraggy neck, her thin wisps of grey hair – and was afraid of her, and felt that morning would not come until she had tied her woollen shawl round her head. Presently she tied her woollen shawl round her head.

Dinner in the meadow was like all true joy, sweetest in anticipation. The salt torsk and the rye bread, the thin porridge and the sour blood pudding, the interminable rain that streamed down into these dishes while they were busy eating – a more rigid menu could not have been found anywhere. The fish gave off a vigorous odour in the rain, and the smell hung in the nostrils for hours afterwards, in the clothes, on the hands. Never did the children long so much for food as when they stood up from their meal under the hayrick.

The suspenseful yet familiar slowing (and resolving) of the first passage, and the scotching of experience in the second are both masterly. The work not of one, but two great masters.

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Vol. 46 No. 9 · 9 May 2024

Michael Hofmann, writing about Hallðór Laxness, makes the tongue-in-cheek remark that Iceland’s culture in the 20th century was ‘contracted out to expats living in Saskatchewan or Denmark’ (LRB, 4 April). I can only assume he means Saskatchewan’s neighbouring province Manitoba, home to more than thirty thousand people of Icelandic descent. Many of them reside in the communities of New Iceland, running from Hecla Island in the north through Arborg and Riverton down to Gimli. I am reliably informed that Gimli is home to the largest Icelandic community outside the motherland. It hosts the annual summer festival of Islendingadagurinn and is where you’ll find H.P. Tergesen & Sons, which still reliably stocks literature in the Icelandic language and may even have been visited by Laxness himself when, as Hofmann informs us, he made his way to the Icelandic community less than 100 km away in Winnipeg.

Barret Reiter
London E14

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