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Bard, Misunderstood
The political fictions of Halldór Laxness
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So much depends upon the price of herring, or bait, or sheep, or hay, or a loan with which to buy these things. Icelandic novelist Halldór Laxness understood this well: “Show how the large-scale farmer exploits the small farmer,” he urged himself in preparation for writing the novel Independent People, his expansive, two-volume epic of subsistence agriculture published in 1934 and 1935. His other two realist novels from that decade, World Light and Salka Valka (the latter of which is out in a new translation next month), take up similar concerns, depicting labor organization efforts in Icelandic villages where volatile European markets have left many farmers and fishermen destitute. Together, these sweeping novels comprise Laxness’s greatest achievement, though he continued publishing at a steady clip for another half-century.

Among the grim topographies of these books there are a few constant fixtures—a union to be joined, an outsider preaching Bolshevism, a better world on the verge of possibility. Not without reason, Laxness was hounded by fears of being dismissed as a mere polemicist. J. Edgar Hoover essentially blacklisted his works in the United States, suspecting Laxness of funneling royalties to Icelandic communists. Annie Dillard, praising a reissued translation of Independent People in 1997, found Laxness’s intention to lay bare the intricacies of agricultural exploitation at odds with the work’s seemingly accidental greatness: “It sounds like the worst book a writer ever contemplated.”

Perhaps these fears are why, in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech in 1955, Laxness felt it was time for a bit of reputation-management. With the air of a man giving voice to long-buried grievances, Laxness declared that he had been “accused of three C’s—Catholicism, communism and capitalism.” He was, he claimed, neither a Catholic nor a communist. On the final charge against him, Laxness was more coy: “As for capitalism, I guess I will have to present my books for the answer, for that is a matter of opinion.” This was a tidy attempt at spin, a lie aimed at improving his standing among the Western literary establishment: for many years, Laxness had been an ardent believer in Soviet-style communism. After the Nobel, he shifted his focus to the cause of pacifism, and like many of his contemporaries, he eventually denounced Stalin and distanced himself from the Soviet Union, especially after the 1956 Soviet invasion of Hungary and the persecution of Boris Pasternak.

His revisionism succeeded. Laxness tempered his politics in later books, presenting himself instead as a sort of modern-day Nordic bard, a successor to the thirteenth-century sagas that represent Iceland’s foremost literary inheritance. This is how critics have tended to read his work since it began reappearing in English in the late 1990s, treating his leftism as a youthful error and recasting even his earlier books in the hazy, sentimental glow of warmed-over liberal humanism. Laxness’s most politically committed novels have been retooled as chronicles of heroic self-reliance, of a hardened and fiercely independent people carving a spiritually fulfilling existence from the frozen northern soil. One critic called them “some of the world’s most substantial thank-you notes.” How did the work of one of the most prominent leftist writers of the twentieth century come to be so misunderstood?

Lax Catholic

It is tempting to imagine Iceland at the start of the twentieth century as a place out of time, ultima thule—an “unfulfilled dream,” as the poet Hannes Hafstein put it. There is some truth to this image. The country was marked by centuries of stagnation and foreign subjugation. The industrial revolution did not begin in earnest there until the arrival of trawler fishing around 1907; when Laxness was born in 1902, Reykjavík was home to around seven thousand people.

Halldór Laxness tempered his politics in later books, presenting himself instead as a sort of modern-day Nordic bard.

At seventeen, restless and filled with swaggering ambition, Laxness sailed for Denmark, leaving behind a country he had begun to lament as a cultural backwater. It is noteworthy, then, that upon arriving in Copenhagen, he set about writing stories not in Danish—a more feasible, well-trod literary path—but in Icelandic. He wanted to write for the world, but his gaze was fastened homeward. In his earliest writings, a precocious handful of overwrought novels and essays churned out before his late twenties, Laxness toes a line between idealization and resentment. He depicts Iceland as a place of fantastical beauty mingled with unrelenting hardship, where glacier-swollen rivers run clear and fast down to fallow miles of wind-blasted heath.

Laxness’s rejection of his homespun, provincial childhood manifested in a lifelong proclivity for the grandiose, an inclination toward the abstract and totalizing over the concrete and subtle. He converted to Catholicism in 1923, after staying as a guest at a Benedictine monastery in Luxembourg. Two tediously Catholic novels followed, as well as a book-length apology for the faith. But Laxness was ill-suited to monastic life. In 1927, riding the first highs of recognition from his novel The Great Weaver from Kashmir, he abandoned Europe and Catholicism for a new continent and creed.

“I shall always feel indebted to the country that made me a socialist,” Laxness said later in life, referring to the three years he spent in Hollywood. Personal disappointment may have paved the way for his political awakening. Explaining his move to California, he wrote, “I am convinced that I can earn millions of dollars by making movies in a considerably short amount of time.” In Hollywood he made neither money nor movies, but he befriended Upton Sinclair, who introduced him to leftist ideas and circles. In The Book of the People, a collection of essays written during those years that remains largely untranslated into English, Laxness laid out, with near-religious intensity, the political beliefs and intentions that would guide his career. The perceived lack of culture that Laxness had disdained in Iceland was, he realized, the product of exploitation and deprivation: “Culture is first and foremost built on the defeat of poverty and powerlessness,” he wrote, which are a direct result of how “the proletarian’s children are sucked to the marrow so as to benefit the bloodhounds of capitalism.” Socialism was necessary, he concluded, not just to improve material conditions in Iceland but to create a literary culture worthy of his work.

Laxness had found his subject. He returned home determined to write novels exposing the chicanery by which the forces of capital exploited Icelandic workers. He joined the Union of Revolutionary Writers in Iceland and the Icelandic chapter of International Workers’ Relief, an affiliate of the Comintern. In the 1930s, in the first flush of his radicalization, he wrote three novels, an essay collection, a book of poetry, short stories, a play, and two travelogues about the Soviet Union. His intention with these travelogues was explicit: in a letter to a Soviet official arranging his first trip, he said, “I would like to go to Russia to write a book of propaganda in my native language.” In the resulting books—Going East (1933) and, following a second trip to the Soviet Union, The Russian Adventure (1938)—Laxness parroted Stalin’s rhetoric on even the most controversial issues, brushing over the famine in Ukraine and describing the victims of purges as vermin. Decades later, distancing himself from these two books (for which Susan Sontag later called him “obtusely philo-Soviet”), Laxness claimed his full-throated loyalty to Stalin was a product of “gullibility.” But his propaganda was not the result of a naive faith in the Soviet Union’s perfection—it was the work of a savvy political operator.

Unfulfilled Dream

Laxness’s novels from the 1930s present a different problem, being neither works of straightforward socialist realism nor the tales of virtuous self-reliance some believe them to be. Salka Valka, originally published in two volumes in 1931 and 1932, represents his first attempt to integrate his sense of socialism’s liberatory promise into a cohesive artistic vision. Set in the remote fishing village Óseyri in the 1910s, the novel traces the growth of the eponymous protagonist into a fiery labor organizer. It opens in the darkness of winter, with the arrival in Óseyri of eleven-year-old Salka and her mother, Sigurlína. Seeking stable housing and employment, the pair had hoped to travel from northern Iceland down to Reykjavík. But Sigurlína, having neither the health nor the money to complete the trip, decides to stay back.

In their search for food and a bed, they soon discover that charity is anathema to Óseyri. The place is governed by an intractable spirit of deference to a wealthy merchant, Jóhann Bogeson, who employs the villagers in his fishing business and keeps them from starvation by selling food on credit. Salka befriends a privileged older boy, Arnaldur; like many wealthy Icelanders, he soon leaves to be educated in Denmark, hoping to escape his constricted life for one of high culture and opportunity. Getting a job washing fish, she realizes that, in the words of an elderly villager named Eyjólfur, “no one becomes rich by working.”

Meanwhile, Sigurlína’s mental and physical health decline rapidly. She converts to Christianity and joins the local chapter of the Salvation Army, where nightly services offer a distraction from the village’s unrelenting bleakness. The bulk of the first volume is concerned with the false consolations of religion—there is a sense of Laxness casting off his devout younger self. The same hunger for solace and understanding that led Sigurlína to Christianity also drives her to seek out a worldly savior, an insensate fisherman named Steinþór to whom she becomes abjectly attached. After Steinþór brutally abandons her, the volume concludes with her suicide: the villagers find her washed up on shore, gray and bloated with seawater, her mouth filled with sand.

A persistent feature of Laxness’s style is the blurring of the boundaries between thought and reality. The language of the various worldviews that dominate the village seep subtly into the initially detached narration, inflecting the story with a claustrophobic sense of how ideology shapes perception. In the first volume, even the weather appears as a manifestation of fatalism or Christianity, depending on the reigning opinions at that moment: on the first hopeless night when Salka and Sigurlína arrive in Óseyri and look for shelter, “snow blew straight into their faces, as it always does with such people”; after Sigurlína’s conversion, the narrator remarks that “the Creator’s favorite weather for this village was rain.”

In the second volume, the language of labor politics takes over. A decade has passed since Sigurlína’s death. Salka, defying the village’s otherwise rigid gender norms, has joined the ranks of the fishermen and helped organize them into a union. In response, the merchant Bogeson lowers the wages of the non-unionized shore workers. In the midst of the ensuing conflict, Arnaldur returns, newly radicalized after befriending socialists in Copenhagen and intent on turning Óseyri into a socialist collective.

He and Salka become lovers and allies, though the origins and motivations of their political commitments are markedly different: Arnaldur came by his views through an intellectual conversion, and his political vision is resolutely internationalist, aligned in every sense with Comintern orthodoxies; Salka, who initially opposes Arnaldur’s ideas, wants only to change the village, not the world, and her commitment to socialism is pure praxis, growing out of her own experiences of exploitation and the power struggles of Óseyri. Their differences are representative of a tension within Laxness himself, who, though enthralled by Soviet communism, struggled with the question of bringing his utopian vision to Iceland. In the end, their love is doomed, as are their political efforts—Arnaldur abandons Salka and Óseyri to set sail for America. The village is too small for his grand ambitions, the villagers too anesthetized by the myths of the mercantile spirit to fully embrace revolution.

By turns caustic and lyrical, funny and forlorn, Salka Valka is far from a triumphant portrait of the labor movement. A prominent Icelandic communist criticized its depiction of leftist infighting. Soviet publishers weren’t interested in a proposed translation, considering it “half counter-revolutionary,” according to Laxness. He may have believed that a realistic depiction of labor politics would carry more rhetorical force: in Going East, he is careful to manage expectations about the Soviet Union, which he warns is not “a Paradise.” Nonetheless it represented progress toward “a better and wiser form of society.” This, however, is a narrow interpretation of his intentions—Laxness the novelist is not Laxness the propagandist, and political persuasiveness is not an adequate explanation for the novel’s undeniable success both as a literary achievement and an expression of his most deeply held beliefs.

Perhaps the novel is best considered as a meditation on failure: on not living up to one’s ideals or sustaining a movement, as well as the more existential failures behind these strategic ones—the failure of characters to reach beyond the bounds of their selves, to overcome the fundamental loneliness at the core of Laxness’s melancholy vision. This loneliness is the dark undercurrent of Salka Valka, an invisible, inexorable hindrance to meaningful connection and collective action. Salka’s most formative memory is of waking in the middle of the night to discover that her mother has slipped out for a tryst with Steinþór. She realizes then that Sigurlína is entirely separate, unknowable: “To grow up is to come to the realization that you have no mother, but lie there alone, unsleeping, in the dark of night.” Later, when Arnaldur decides to leave Óseyri for good, he despairs that neither love nor the revolution can truly be fulfilled, because “when all is said and done, man is alone, all alone; he feels it when the moment of death approaches.” This harrowing, ever-present sense animates Laxness’s work.

Alone, Together

If in Salka Valka Laxness depicts the triumph of loneliness, Independent People, his next (and now best-known) novel, was his most complete consideration of how people could overcome it—how, adapting a phrase from the left-anarchist group The Invisible Committee, they might “find each other.” The story follows Bjartur of Summerhouses, a subsistence sheep farmer whose sole, manic desire is to be utterly self-sufficient, indebted to nothing and no one but the land and his flock. The book has often been read as a lament for the lost world of such farmers, whom productivist European agricultural policies rendered largely obsolete. Bjartur’s untenable devotion to independence has tragic consequences: he loses his farm and drives away his family, including—most painfully—his cherished stepdaughter, Asta Sollilja.

The language of the various worldviews that dominate the village seep subtly into the initially detached narration, inflecting the story with a claustrophobic sense of how ideology shapes perception.

Independent People is frequently compared to The Growth of the Soil, Knut Hamsun’s 1917 paean to pastoral individualism against the degrading yoke of industrialized capitalism. But Laxness wrote Independent People in part out of opposition to Hamsun’s work. He saw nothing heroic in Bjartur, only desperate solitude, the bitter fruit of the national fetish for self-determination that stands in the way of socialism. In Salka Valka, individualists like Bjartur are described as “wanting to live and die on their own terms, like feral cats.” A similar refrain runs through Independent People: when farmers starve, it is said that “at least they had lived like independent men, at least they had died of hunger like free people.”

It is only in the final pages of Independent People that Laxness offers a glimpse of an alternative. Financially ruined and homeless, Bjartur and his only remaining son trek to a nearby fishing village, where Bjartur’s stepdaughter moved after he cast her out. In the village, they encounter a crowd of striking fishermen inspired by the news of the recent Russian Revolution—thieves and freeloaders, in Bjartur’s mind. Their efforts, like those of the striking villagers in Salka Valka, are surely doomed; an army of police will soon arrive. But that night, without money for food or shelter, Bjartur finds himself sharing a meal of stolen bread with the fishermen, listening as they describe how “capitalism punishes people much more for not stealing than for stealing.”

Eating a slice of stolen bread is a small concession to necessity, but it is enough to put a crack in the facade of Bjartur’s ethical code. He wonders fleetingly if those on strike “were the only just men,” for “either the authorities were the officers of justice and these men criminals, or these men were the officers of justice and the authorities criminals.” In this moment of collective transgression there is a respite from, and acknowledgement of, his loneliness. The next morning, Bjartur seeks out Asta Sollilja, finding her near-dead with consumption. In the novel’s final pages, they set out together to make a new home for whatever time remains to them. Their climactic departure exquisitely mirrors the end of Salka Valka—instead of the defeated revolutionary abandoning Óseyri and those he loves there, Laxness offers the inverse, a lonely man seeking companionship, newly alive to the possibilities of solidarity.

It is scenes like this that linger in the mind from Laxness’s best works: moments of aching intensity when the brittle solitude of his characters gently crumbles. This is the essence of Laxness’s project: an exploration not of self-reliance, as Anglophone critics would have it, but of isolation and mutual dependence. Such moments happen always at the far reaches of experience, at births and deaths and final leave-takings, when the promise of transformation and the knowledge of futility seem most entwined. They are what grant these novels their astonishing familiarity, their nearness to our own fragmented time of radical imaginings and punishing actualities. They represent the fullest expression of how Laxness saw society and the people for whom he wanted to transform it—those surviving beneath the mire of capital, alone in the world, together.