The rediscovery of Halldór Laxness
Determined to break into film, he went to Hollywood, where he wrote a screenplay called “Salka Valka” or “A Woman in Trousers”, with Greta Garbo in the lead for the title role. The film had a good chance of being produced by MGM, until Laxness fell out with the studio over his idea of shooting the film not in Iceland but in Kentucky.
The crash of the American economy in 1929 convinced Laxness of the truth of socialism. He left Hollywood and returned to Iceland. Something seemed to have ripened within him. After traveling and studying the languages of the great powers, he began to write with expansion and confidence, in the language of his small nation, the epic, multivolume and tragicomic novels of struggling Icelanders that would make his name.
The main work of this period was “Independent People”, set in the midst of a shocking poverty that engenders in the characters a relentlessness bordering on cruelty. When, by some miracle, the lonely old cow of 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 when Bjartur shoots it and wakes the children with a ordered to clean his guts off the pavement as he heads into town to sell his carcass.
Laxness’ harsh depictions of rural life did not flatter Iceland’s modernized self-image. When the novel first came out, one of the nation’s most prominent politicians 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 have accused Laxness of being a “language abuser”. That was no small feat in a country whose case for independence from Denmark was based in part on its virtually unchanged use of the ancient Viking language.
In 1954 he married twice, fathered four children, built a home for his family on his father’s former land in Laxnes, and rose to fame overseas. The following year, when he won the Nobel Prize, he was still only fifty-three years old. A remarkably varied work was yet to come. Both his ideological commitments and the genres in which he works have continued to evolve. By the 1960s he had renounced Stalinism and identified more closely with Taoism. He turned to dramatic writing, then to memoirs. For any blockage-prone writer, he is a discouraging example. All his life, he wrote with the tireless swimming shark.
While many readers come to Laxness for the scenery of an exotic country, they often stay for the characters, more precisely for the quality of attention it gives them – close enough to sympathize with their deepest desires but close enough away for laughs. Everyone does stupid things and everyone has a soul. One of his most often quoted lines comes after a desperate girl from “Independent People” breaks down sobbing, and her baby brother, while comforting her, sees for the first time in the maze of a other soul: “The source of the greatest song is sympathy.
But when a reader who knows Laxness only from “Independent People” encounters his contemporary political writing, in which mere human beings seem to count for nothing in the face of the success of the socialist project, the cognitive dissonance is enough to crash the system of brain exploitation.
Countless Western intellectuals shared his ardor for the Soviet Union, but few had witnessed the purges first-hand like him. Laxity witnessed the infamous Moscow show trials of 1938, where all but three defendants, including Nikolai Bukharin, were found guilty and sentenced to death.
Less than a day after the verdicts, Laxness was invited to dinner at the apartment of his friend Vera Hertzsch, a staunch communist. Around midnight, there was a knock on his door. As Laxness watched, Hertzsch’s infant daughter was taken from her with the promise that she would be sent to an orphanage. Hertzsch herself was taken to the Gulag. The girl disappeared from public records and was presumed dead shortly thereafter. Hertzsch died in a Kazakh labor camp in 1943.
Yet, in the face of what he had seen, Laxness returned home to Iceland anyway and finished writing “The Russian Adventure,” a Stalinist propaganda travelogue that included his marvelous account of the trials. He was so impressed by the political struggle represented by the trials that, he wrote, “questions such as the legal or moral ‘culpability’ of the conspirators or the punishment awaiting each of them personally become a minor matter, irrelevant to the following. debate.” Is he a man who sneers ironically at a murderous spectacle or who applauds it? Or did he stick to the sentiments he had written in a letter a few years earlier: “What are the masses but the masses? clay in the hands of superior minds? They are only raw material, at most tools for initiating events of world importance.
His politics hampered his career and led to errors in his reputation that persist today. Ernest Hemingway won the Nobel Prize the year before Laxness. The Time wrote of the two favorites: “The fact that Mr. Laxness received the Stalin Prize for Literature could have swung the vote in favor of Mr. Hemingway. The claim that Laxness had won the Stalin Prize gained popularity. The Time repeated it in her obituary, in 1998. Susan Sontag included it in her introduction to the Vintage edition of her last novel “Under the Glacier”.
Laxity did not win such a prize. He also did not win the Stalin Peace Prize, as others have falsely claimed. No Russian sources available, including Pravda, who seemed to relate his every move to that moment, ties him to one of those laurels. Guðmundsson insists that the awards are fiction and points to a medal Laxness accepted in Vienna from a communist-affiliated peace council as a possible source of the rumour.
Nowhere in Laxness’s novels is the conflict between the shining ideal of socialism and the dignity of individuals more visible than in “Salka Valka”, written after the failure of the film of the same name. Boiling with “unruly vitality”, the young Salka arrives with her mother one night in a coastal village. Salka has a “deep, almost masculine voice”. Tall and strong, she is determined to buy herself some pants soon “and stop being a girl”. When the schoolmaster asks her who is the minister who governs them all in Iceland, she replies: “No one is going to govern me!”
To readers whose dedication to Offred, in “The Handmaid’s Tale”, led you to obtain “NOLITE TE BASTARDES CARBORUNDORUM” tattooed on your arms, “Salka Valka” is for you. It doesn’t even occur to Salka that the bastards might grind her down.
Everyone lets this girl down, especially her mother, Sigurlína, who neglects to protect her from the predations of a vain drunkard, Steinþór Steinsson, whom Sigurlína is desperate to marry. After Sigurlína becomes pregnant with him, Steinþór attempts to assault Salka and is discovered. He escapes from the village, only to return a few years later. Sigurlína wants him back and plans a big wedding, but Steinþór is only there to reach the now fourteen-year-old Salka. After Salka fights him another time, he leaves his mother for good. Desperate, Sigurlína drowns and Salka is alone.
The only other English version of “Salka Valka”, which came out in 1936, had to be prepared in a ricochet from the Danish translation. Lax didn’t like that. “Fifty percent of my style is gone,” he complains. Nevertheless, “Salka Valka” was a hit in the UK, where the evening standard wrote that it was “filled throughout with the beauty of perfection”; however, no edition of it has been available in the United States since the Great Depression.
Roughton did his version of Icelandic. Even in moments of great drama, he moves with calm assurance, tossing Laxness’s inventive and ever-accurate descriptions as if they were banal, such as when on a cliff the puffins “crouched down with the dignity of officials of the church in front of their burrows”. It captures the singular, funny tone of Laxness with an uncanny grace. After the death of her mother, Salka walks alone under the mountains and puts a peppermint in her mouth to comfort herself in “this gray, not fantastic and meaningless Easter time”.
“Salka Valka” was published in Iceland in two volumes, in 1931 and 1932. When the second part came out, it had the subtitle “A Political Romance”. A young local intellectual, Arnaldur, went to school in the south and returned home to incite a communist revolution in the small village. Salka, despite his self-sufficiency, weakens for this man who promises to lead a dictatorship of the proletariat. Here the reader prepares for agitprop.
Of course, 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 initially refused to publish it, on the grounds that Arnaldur was a coward for the cause. After the war, potential publishers of the novel in communist East Germany asked Laxness to change the ending out of concern for ideological conformity. He refused, claiming that the Moscow editors had told him: “’Our people have never seen communists like Arnald.’ I said, “Of course they did, but you hang them.” (The novel eventually came out in German, Russian and at least twenty other languages.)