He lived through a broad swath of the Twentieth Century, won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1955, yet is mostly unknown outside his little country. I have read most of his novels now, and will probably finish Iceland’s Bell by Thursday. There are many of his contemporaries with inflated reputations: There are few who are more deserving of all the praise the world can bestow upon them.
Reading his work, one is often startled by the insight of Halldór Laxness, as in the following quote:
This was the first time that he has ever looked into the labyrinth of the human soul. He was very far from understanding what he saw. But what was of more value, he felt and suffered with her. In years that were yet to come, he relived this memory in song, in the most beautiful song this world has known. For the understanding of the soul’s defencelessness, of the conflict between the two poles, is not the source of the greatest song. The source of the greatest song is sympathy.
He has written many novels, stories, poems, plays, and essays; but only the following are available in English translation:
- The Great Weaver from Kashmir (1927)
- Salka Valka (1931-32)—long out of print
- Independent People (1934-35)—probably his most famous work.
- World Light (1937-39)
- Iceland’s Bell (1943-46)
- The Atom Station (1948)
- The Fish Can Sing (1957)
- Paradise Reclaimed (1960)
- Under the Glacier (1968)
The only ones I have not read are the first two and the last one. I would rate Independent People, World Light, and Iceland’s Bell as his best works—though all are worth reading.
I have always been amazed by relatively small countries that have produced great writers—people like Augusto Roa Bastos of Paraguay, Czeslaw Milosz of Lithuania, Ivo Andric of Bosnia, V. S. Naipaul of Trinidad, Gyula Krúdy of Hungary, and Franz Kafka of Czechoslovakia. But smaller than the smallest of the above is Iceland, with only 300,000 or so people.
Sometimes big things can indeed come in small packages.