The Rediscovery of Halldór Laxness

Determined to break into the movies, he went to Hollywood, where he wrote a screenplay called “Salka Valka,” or “A Woman in Pants,” with Greta Garbo in mind for the title role. The movie had good prospects of being produced by M-G-M, until Laxness fell out with the studio over its idea to set the film not in Iceland but in Kentucky.

The crash of the American economy in 1929 convinced Laxness of the truth of socialism. He gave up on Hollywood and returned to Iceland. Something seemed to have matured in him. Having travelled and studied the languages of the great powers, he began writing with expansiveness and confidence, in the language of his tiny nation, the epic, multivolume, tragicomic novels of struggling Icelanders that would make his name.

Chief among the works of this period was “Independent People,” set amid shocking poverty that engenders in the characters a steeliness verging on cruelty. When by some miracle the lonely old cow at Summerhouses gives birth to a calf, Bjartur’s family falls in love with it and seems to know hope for the first time, until the morning Bjartur matter-of-factly slaughters it and wakes up the children with an order to clean its tripe off the paving as he heads to town to sell its carcass.

Laxness’s severe depictions of rural life did not flatter Iceland’s modernizing self-image. When the novel first came out, one of the most prominent politicians in the country accused Laxness of “raising old and lost banners of oppression” and “working against his own people.” For his unorthodox spelling and use of neologisms, others accused Laxness of being a “language abuser.” This was no trifling matter in a country whose case for independence from Denmark rested in part on its mostly unaltered use of the ancient language of the Vikings.

By 1954, he had married twice, fathered four children, built his family a house on his father’s old land at Laxnes, and become famous abroad. The next year, when he won the Nobel, he was still just fifty-three. A remarkably various body of work was still to come. Both his ideological commitments and the genres in which he worked continued to evolve. By the nineteen-sixties, he had renounced Stalinism and identified more closely with Taoism. He turned to playwriting, then to memoirs. To any writer prone to blocks, he makes a daunting example. Throughout his life, he wrote with the tirelessness of a swimming shark.

If many readers come to Laxness for the scenery of an exotic land, they often stay for the characters, more specifically for the quality of his attention to them—close enough to sympathize with their inmost longings yet somehow far away enough to chuckle. Everybody does foolish things, and everybody has a soul. One of his most often quoted lines comes after a despairing girl in “Independent People” gives way to sobs, and her little brother, in comforting her, sees for the first time into the labyrinth of another soul: “The source of the greatest song is sympathy.”

But when a reader who knows Laxness only from “Independent People” encounters his contemporaneous political writing, in which mere human beings seem to count for nothing compared with the success of the socialist project, the cognitive dissonance is enough to crash the operating system of the brain.

Countless Western intellectuals shared his ardor for the Soviet Union, but few of them had witnessed the purges firsthand, as he did. Laxness attended the infamous Moscow show trials of 1938, where all but three of the twenty-one defendants, including Nikolai Bukharin, were found guilty and sentenced to death.

Within a day of the verdicts, Laxness was invited to dinner at the apartment of his friend Vera Hertzsch, a devout Communist. Around midnight, a knock came at her door. While Laxness watched, Hertzsch’s baby daughter was taken from her with a promise that she would be sent to an orphanage. Hertzsch herself was taken to the Gulag. The daughter vanished from public records and is presumed to have died shortly afterward. Hertzsch died in a Kazakh labor camp in 1943.

Yet, in the face of what he’d seen, Laxness still went home to Iceland and finished writing “The Russian Adventure,” a travelogue of Stalinist propaganda that included his wonder-struck account of the trials. So in awe is he of the political struggle the trials represent that, he wrote, “issues such as the legal or moral ‘guilt’ of the conspirators or the punishment that awaited each of them personally becomes a minor issue, of no interest for further debate.” Is this a man ironically sneering at a murderous spectacle or applauding one? Or did he stand by the sentiments he had written in a letter some years before: “What are the masses but clay in the hands of superior minds? They are nothing but raw material, at the most the tools to initiate events of world importance.”

His politics impeded his career and led to errors in his reputation that persist today. Ernest Hemingway won the Nobel Prize the year before Laxness did. The Times wrote of the two favorites, “The fact that Mr. Laxness had received the Stalin Prize for Literature might have swung the vote for Mr. Hemingway.” The claim that Laxness had won the Stalin Prize gained currency. The Times repeated it in his obituary, in 1998. Susan Sontag included it in her introduction to the Vintage edition of his late novel “Under the Glacier.”

Laxness won no such prize. He didn’t win the Stalin Peace Prize, either, as others have erroneously claimed. No available Russian source, including Pravda, which seemed to report his every move at that time, links him with any of these laurels. Guðmundsson insists that the awards are a fiction and points to a medal that Laxness accepted in Vienna from a Communist-affiliated peace council as a possible source of the rumor.

Nowhere in Laxness’s novels is the conflict between the shining ideal of socialism and the dignity of individual people on plainer display than in “Salka Valka,” written after the movie of the same name fell through. Roiling with “unruly vitality,” young Salka arrives with her mother one night in a coastal village. Salka has a “deep, almost masculine voice.” Tall and strong, she’s determined to buy herself a pair of trousers soon “and stop being a girl.” When the schoolmaster asks her who the minister is who rules over them all in Iceland, she replies, “No one’s going to rule over me!”

To readers whose attachment to Offred, in “The Handmaid’s Tale,” has led you to get “NOLITE TE BASTARDES CARBORUNDORUM” tattooed on your arms, “Salka Valka” is for you. It never even occurs to Salka that the bastards might grind her down.

Everyone fails this girl, especially her mother, Sigurlína, who neglects to protect her from the predations of a vainglorious drunk, Steinþór Steinsson, whom Sigurlína is desperate to marry. After Sigurlína has become pregnant by him, Steinþór tries to assault Salka and is discovered. He escapes the village, only to return a few years later. Sigurlína wants him back and plans a big wedding, but Steinþór is there only to get at Salka, now fourteen. After Salka fights him off another time, he leaves her mother for good. In despair, Sigurlína drowns herself, and Salka is alone.

The only other English version of “Salka Valka,” which came out in 1936, had to be prepared in a ricochet off the Danish translation. Laxness didn’t like it. “Fifty per cent of my style has disappeared,” he complained. Nevertheless, “Salka Valka” was a hit in the U.K., where the Evening Standard wrote that it was “replete from cover to cover with the beauty of perfection”; however, no edition of it has been available in the U.S. since the Great Depression.

Roughton has made his version from the Icelandic. Even in moments of high drama, he moves along with calm assurance, tossing off Laxness’s inventive and always spot-on descriptions as though they were commonplace, as when, on a cliff, the puffins “squatted with the dignity of church officials in front of their burrows.” He captures Laxness’s singular dour-droll tone with uncanny grace. After her mother has died, Salka walks alone under the mountains and sticks a peppermint in her mouth to comfort herself in “this gray, unfantastic, meaningless Easter weather.”

“Salka Valka” was published in Iceland in two volumes, in 1931 and 1932. When the second part came out, it bore the subtitle “A Political Romance.” A young local intellectual, Arnaldur, has gone away to school in the south and come home to incite a Communist revolution in the tiny village. Salka, her self-sufficiency notwithstanding, goes weak for this man who promises to lead a dictatorship of the proletariat. Here the reader braces for agitprop.

Evidently, so did the Nazis, who, after Laxness signed a contract to publish “Salka Valka” in German, found it “sinister” and banned it. The Soviets, too, at first refused to publish it, on the ground that Arnaldur was a coward to the cause. After the war, the novel’s would-be publishers in Communist East Germany asked Laxness to change the ending for the sake of ideological conformity. He refused, saying that the editors in Moscow had told him, “ ‘Our people have never seen Communists such as Arnald.’ I replied: ‘Of course they have, but you hang them.’ ” (The novel eventually came out in German, Russian, and at least twenty other languages.)

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