Halldór Laxness

This week I don’t have cool pictures I took myself regarding this week’s subject, the author Halldór Laxness.  We tried really, really hard though, and it’s kind of a funny story.  My mom looked up where Laxness is buried on Find A Grave, a pretty good site for that sort of thing.  Find A Grave says he’s in Fossvogskirkjugarður, in Reykjavik.  Getting there was in and of itself an adventure and a pain, but we finally made it.  We had the picture from Find A Grave to go on and we were all set.  It fairly quickly became apparent that this was not where Laxness is buried.  Fossvogskirkjugarður is very woodsy and, while over a sort of bay, there’s no way that you can see mountains and a river and all that, like in the picture from the website.  Fossvogskirkjugarður is very pretty and has some really neat stuff, but it’s not what we were looking for, so we called it a night.

find a graveAfter googling and finding the Wikimedia Commons link, we find out that he’s actually buried in the cemetery at Mossfellskirkja in Mossfellsdalur – near Reykjavik, but not workable in the time we had left in the area.  So, no actual pictures from me of anything Laxness-related.  This one is from Find A Grave (so you can see what we were looking for!).  I was told, though, that a building we walked by down the main street in Reykjavik is where he was born, but my cousin wasn’t quite sure of the exact building, so no photo of that either.  On to the actual, brief history of Halldór Laxness.

Halldór_Kiljan_Laxness_1955Halldór Kiljan Laxness was born Halldór Guðjónsson on April 23, 1902 in Reykjavik, Iceland.  His family lived in Reykjavik until 1905, when they moved out of town to Mosfellsbær.  I didn’t find a whole lot on young Halldór, but it is known that he was writing from a young age.  In the winter of 1915-1916, Laxness went to the technical school in Reykjavik, and in 1916 he published his first piece, an article, in the newspaper Morgunblaðið.  A few years later, in 1919, Laxness published his first novel, Barn náttúrunnar: ástarsaga (Child of Nature: A Romance).  Around this same time, Laxness began travelling through Europe.

This was a crucial point in Laxness’s life in that this is when he went from Halldór Guðjónsson to Halldór Kiljan Laxness.  In 1922, Laxness joined the Abbaye Saint-Maurice-et-Saint-Maur in Luxembourg, and in 1923 he was baptized and confirmed in the Catholic Church as Halldór Kiljan Laxness.  Laxness was taken from the farm he grew up on, and Kiljan was for the Irish martyr, Saint Killian.  At the Abbaye Laxness practiced self-study, studying French, Latin, theology, and philosophy.  He also joined a group that was praying for the Nordic countries to convert back to Catholicism.

This religious period didn’t last long though; from 1927 to 1929, Laxness was living in America and “he became attracted to socialism” (1).  Influenced by this and Upton Sinclair, whom he also befriended, Laxness wrote 1929’s Alþýðubókin (The Book of the People).  At this same time Laxness decided to give his go at writing screenplays and moved to Hollywood for a time; he was a big fan of Chaplin’s film City Lights.  In 1929, Laxness faced deportation, probably in part due to his socialism, and “Sinclair and Stephen Crane’s daughter, Helen, intervened” (2).  In the 1940s, Laxness would translate some of Sinclair’s and Ernest Hemingway’s works into Icelandic.

Despite, or maybe because of, this, Laxness moved back to Iceland in 1930 where he “‘became the apostle of the younger generation’” (3).  Laxness was quite prolific in this period, writing the first two parts of Salka Volka, and Fótatak manna (Steps of Man), as well as short story collections and essays.  In 1934, Sjálfstætt fólk (Independent People) was published.  If you’ve heard of Laxness and his work, it’s probably this book, partly because in 1946 Independent People was chosen as a Book of the Month Club selection and sold over 450,000 in the United States.  Because of his socialism and some regard for the Soviet Union, Laxness was investigated by J. Edgar Hoover, and Hoover wanted to keep the royalties Laxness earned out of “red Icelandic hands” (4).

In 1948, Laxness had a house built outside of Mosfellsbær and began a family with his second wife, who also worked as his secretary and manager.  At this time the US was developing a permanent military base in Keflavik (about an hour from Reykjavik).  They had had a base there during the Second World War and wanted to extend it.  Laxness wrote a satirical piece, Atómstöðin (The Atom Station), about this, and it’s probable that this added to the US’s dislike of him.

In the 1950s, accolades began to flow in for Laxness.  In 1953, he was awarded the World Peace Council Literary Prize, a Soviet-sponsored prize.  In 1955, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature “‘for his vivid epic power which has renewed the great narrative art of Iceland’” (5).  He is Iceland’s first and only Nobel laureate.

Laxness_portrett_einar_hakonarson_1984In the 1960s Laxness was active writing and producing plays in Iceland.  In 1969 he won the Sonning Prize, a prize “awarded biennially for outstanding contributions to European culture” (6).  Throughout the 1970s and 1980s he continued to write essays.  As he grew older, though, he developed Alzheimer’s and moved into a nursing home, where he died at age 95.
Laxness’s home and garden, Gljúfrasteinn, is now a museum run by the Icelandic government.  One of his daughters is an Oscar-nominated director.  A biography of him “won the Icelandic literary prize for best work of non-fiction in 2004” (7).  Laxness’s legacy lives on in Iceland.

1, 3, 5 – Halldór Laxness

2, 4 – Richard Rayner, “The magical and the elemental, from Halldór Laxness,” Los Angeles Times, January 6, 2008.

6 – Sonning Prize


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