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by Bamber Gascoigne

Halldór Kiljan Laxness (1902-1998) - originally Halldór Guđjónsson - pseudonym Halldór frá Laxnesi


Icelandic writer, who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1955. Laxness published his first book at the age of 17. He is best-known for his fiction depicting the hardships of the working fishermen and farmers, and historical novels combining the tradition of sagas and mythology with national and social issues. Along with Gunnar Gunnarsson (1889-1975) and Kristman Guđmundsson (1902-1983) Laxness was among the first internationally known Icelandic authors. His breakthrough work was Salka Valka (1931-1932).

"I spent my entire childhood in an environment in which the mighty of the earth had no place outside story books and dreams. Love of, and respect for, the humble routine of everyday life and its creatures was the only moral commandment which carried conviction when I was a child." (from Laxness's Nobel acceptance speech)

Halldór Kiljan Laxness was born Halldór Gudjónsson in Reykjavík. When he was three, his parents Guđjón Helgason and Sigríđur Halldórsdóttir moved to Laxnes, a farm in nearby Mosfellssveit parish, where the young Halldór spent his boyhood. His pen name Laxness took from the farm. Besides taking care of the farm, his father worked as a road construction foreman. An accomplished amateur violinist, he also taught his son to play the instrument.

Becoming a writer was not Laxness's only choice – he also planned a career as musician. Barn náttúrunnar (1919), the author's first book, came out when he was 17. Laxness was educated at the Icelandic Latin School and he attended the gymnasium in Reykjavík briefly, without graduating. His family had enough money to allow him to travel freely. After World War I Laxness spent much time in Europe and the United States, where he tried to find place in Hollywood film industry.

In 1923, Laxness turned to Catholicism and got the name Kiljan after Irish St Kilian. He spent some time at Saint-Maurice de Clervaux, a monastery in Luxemburg, studied in London at a Jesuit-run school, and continued his spiritual search at Lourdes and Rome. Laxness wrote several books with Catholic themes before arriving at a state of disillusionment. His controversial first major novel, Vefarinn mikli frá Kasmír (1927), was partly written under the influence of St Thomas ŕ Kempis and the surrealist poet André Breton. Laxness also read Proust while writing the book. A number of publishers rejected the work before it appeared. Laxness's veiled autobiography broke with the epic realism traditional in Icelandic fiction. In the end of the novel, the young protagonist turns to God, but in his own life Laxness become less and less interested in metaphysical questions, and finally he abandoned the Catholic faith.

Returning to Iceland, Laxness spent several years traveling through the country. During a stay in the United States, he lectured among others about fishing at a IWW (Industrial Workers of the World) club, but was not enthusiastic by their anarchist activities and believed that they opposed as much Marx and Lenin as Rockefeller and Morgan. In San Francisco he read James Joyce's Ulysses – later he wondered why Joyce is not counted among the most important surrealist writers. German authors, such as Thomas Mann, did not inspire him – according to Laxness, Mann was too professor-like and Goethe overrated. Perhaps the most important novelist for him was Upton Sinclair, whom he considered primus inter pares and who influenced Salka Valka. Sinclair did not mention Laxness in his memoir, but Laxness's letters are included in My Lifetime in Letters, Upton Sinclair (1960).

In June 1929 the Los Angeles Record published news about an "Icelandic author who faces possible deportation" – immigration officers taken away Laxness's passport. After the intervention of Sinclair and Helen Crane, the niece of Stephen Crane, it was given back. In 1930 Laxness married Ingibjřrg Einarsdóttir and settled in Reykjavík. His financial situation became stable when he started to receive the state writer's grant. Permanent residence Laxness found from the parish of his youth.

Salka Valka was the first of Laxness's novels to be translated into a foreign language. Originally it was written as a screenplay for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer under the title "Woman in Pants". The story depicted a young woman, Salka, and a small fishing community. Evil enters into the community in the form of merchants and fishing entrepreneurs and is pitted against labor movement. Salka Valka reflected Laxness's Socialistic views which marked his fiction in the 1930s and 1940s. Gunnar Gunnarsson translated the book in 1934 into Danish, and reciprocally, Laxness translated later some of his friend's novels into Icelandic. The English edition was published by Allen & Unwin in 1936. The Evening Standard, which chose it as its Book of the Mont, wrote that Greta Garbo would be the perfect Salka in its film adaptation.

Laxness's other major early works include World Light (1937-40), about a sympathetic folk poet Ólafur Kárason. The book was based on the life of the minor poet Magnús Hjaltason and showed the influence of Knut Hamsun. The trilogy Iceland's Bell, published when the author was in his 40s, made him a prominent spokesman for the Icelandic nation.

"... Bjartur had been brought up on the old measures of the eighteenth-century ballads and had always despised the writing of hymns and new-fangled lyrics as much as he despised any other form of empty-headed fantasy. "My father," said he, "was a great man for poetry and was gifted with the tongue; and I owe it to him that I learned the rules of metre when I was still a youngster and have kept them since in spite of all the newfangled theories of the great poets..." (from Independent People, 1934-35)

In 1945, Laxness married Auđur Sveinsdóttir, the daughter of Svenn Guđmunddson, a blacksmith, and Halldóra Kristín Jónsdóttir. She was 21 and 16 years younger than Laxness. They had first met in 1936 and three years later they started to go together. At that time Laxness was writing World Light and divorcing his first wife. Before deciding to marry Laxness Auđur and planned to immigrate to the U.S. They moved to a new house in Mosfellssveit, the house was called Gljúfrastein. The marriage did not break up, although there was other women in Laxness's life. In addition to working as Laxness's secretary, Auđur wrote articles to magazines, and took care of their household and raised their children.

Before and after World War II Laxness devoted himself to political and economic issues, and wrote about everyday life of Icelanders. Laxness's popular work, Sjálfstćtt fólk (1934-35, Independent People), drew a vivid portrait of a Icelandic small farmer. The story is set in the early 20th century in a remote valley, cursed by an Irish sorcerer Kolumkilli and his later partner, the witch Gunnvor. The protagonist, a stubborn sheep-farmer, Bjartur of Summerhouses, loses two wives in his life-long struggle for financial independence. Bjartur's a son leaves him, and his dearest child Asta is disowned. Like Job in the Bible, he is plagued by superior forces – now exemplified by prosperous farmers and their commercial interest – and finds what he truly values after losing all of his wealth. Independent People was first praised by Icelandic Communists. This did not stop German publishers from translating it into Germany in 1937. Eventually the book was forbidden.

Equipped with curiosity and belief in the benefits of collectivization, Laxness made his first journey to the Soviet Union in 1932. Already then he noted the poverty and failures of the economic system. Laxness missed such everyday items as razor blades, good soap, and scissors, but he was impressed by the high level of cultural amusements. In 1938 he followed in Moscow the Stalinist show trial, in which the Marxist political theorist Nikolai Bukharin was charged with treason and then shot. Laxness gradually abandoned socialism. When he met Bertolt Brecht in East Berlin in 1955, they both condemned in their discussion Stalinism and rigid Marxist cultural policy. In the pacifist The Happy Warriors, published three years after Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, Laxness warned of the worship of totalitarian ideologies.

In the course of his philosophical search, Laxness became interested in Oriental religion, especially Taoism of Lao-tze, which is seen in Paradise Reclaimed (1960), a story about spiritual discovery, and Christianity at Glacier (1968), which mixes folk mythology with pagan beliefs and Christian ideas. Noteworthy, the story has nothing to do with topical issues, such as the Vietnam war, which Laxness decried. "Remember, any lie you are told, even deliberately, is often a more significant fact than a truth told in all sincerity," says one of its characters.

From novel to novel Laxness changed his style but maintained always his ironic humor. His production consists over 60 works: novels, plays, essays, short stories, memoirs and travel books. Laxness's several awards include also Stalin Peace Prize, the Danish Nexö Award, and Sonning Award. In 1995 Laxness moved to a nursing home outside Reykjavik; he had suffered from Alzheimer's disease for some years. Laxness died on February 1, 1998.

For further reading: Den store vävaren by P. Hallberg (1954); Skaldens hus by P. Hallberg (1956); A History of Icelandic Literature, ed. by Stefán Einarsson (1957); Das Problem Dichter und Gesellschaft im Werke von Halldór Kiljan Laxness by G. Kötz (1966); Halldór Laxness by P. Hallberg (1971); Innovation und Restauration: Der Romancier Halldór Laxness seit dem Zweiten Weltkrieg by Aldo Keel (1981); Den politiske Laxness by Árni Sigurjónsson (1984); Halldór Laxness die Romane: eine Einführung by Wilhelm Friese (1995); World Authors 1900-1950, Vol. 2, ed. by Martin Seymour-Smith and Andrew C. Kimmens (1996); Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Vol. 3, ed. by Steven R. Serafin (1999); Halldor Laxness: Leben und Werk by Halldór Guđmundsson (2002); Halldór Laxness: Ćvisaga by Halldor Gudmundsson (2004); A History of Icelandic Literature, edited by Daisy Neijmann (2006); The Islander: A Biography of Halldor Laxness by Halldor Gudmundsson and Philip Roughton (2008); True North: Literary Translation in the Nordic Countries, edited by B.J. Epstein (2014) - Suom.: Laxnessilta on suomennettu alla mainittujen lisäksi mm. Hopeakuu (1954)

Selected works:

  • Barn náttúrunnar, 1919 [Child of Nature]
  • Nokkrar sögur, 1923 [Several Stories]
  • Undir Helgahnúk, 1924 [At the Foot of the Sacred Peak]
  • Kaţólsk viđhorf, 1925 [The Catholic View]
  • Vefarinn mikli frá Kasmír, 1927
    - The Great Weaver from Kashmir (translated by Philip Roughton, 2008)
  • Alţýđubókin, 1929 [The Book of the People]
  • Kvćđakver, 1930 [The Book of Poems]
  • Salka Valka, 1931-32
    - Salka Valka: A Novel of Iceland (translated by F. H. Lyon, 1936)
    - Salka Valka: romaani (ruotsin kielestä suom. Kristiina Kivivuori, 1948; islannin kielestä suom. Jyrki Mäntylä, 1966) 
  • Fótatak manna, 1932 [Footsteps of Men]
  • Í Austurvegi, 1933 [Going East]
  • Straumrof, 1934 (play) [Short Circuit]
  • Sjálfstćtt fólk I-II, 1934-35
    - Independent People: An Epic (translated from the Icelandic by J. A. Thompson, 1946)
    - Läpi harmaan kiven: sankaritarina (ruotsin kielestä suom. Kristiina Kivivuori, 1951)
  • Ţórđur gamli halti, 1935
  • Dagleiđ á fjöllum, 1937 [A Day's Journey in the Mountain]
  • Heimsljós I-IV, 1937-40 (Ljós heimsins; Höll sumarlandsins; Hús skáldsins; Fegurd himinsins)
    - World Light: The Revelation of the Deity, The Palace of the Summerland, The House of the Poet, The Beauty of the Skies (translated from the Icelandic by Magnus Magnusson, 1969)
    - Maan valo (ruotsin kielestä suom. Kristiina Kivivuori, 1953)
  • Gerska ćfintýriđ, 1938 [The Russian Adventure]
  • Ađventa / Gunnar Gunnarsson, 1939 (translator)
  • Vopnin kvödd / Ernest Hemingway, 1941 (translator: A Farewell to Arms)
  • Vettvángur dagsins, 1942 [The Contemporary Scene] 
  • Sjö töframenn, 1942
  • Íslandsklukkan  I-III, 1943-46 (Íslandsklukkan; Hiđ ljósa man; Eldur í Kaupunhafn)
    - Iceland´s Bell (translated from the Icelandic by Philip Roughton, introduction by Adam Haslett, 2003)
    - Islannin kello: romaani (ruotsin kielestä suom. Kristiina Kivivuori, 1949)
  • Sjálfsagđir hlutir, 1946 [Self-Evident Things] 
  • Alexandreis, ţađ er Alexanders saga mikla, 1945 (ed.)
  • Grettissaga, 1946 (editor)
  • Atómstöđin, 1948
    - The Atom Station (translated byM. Magnusson, 1961)
    - Atomiasema (ruotsin kielestä suom. Irmeli Niemi, 1955)
  • Reisubókarkorn, 1950 [A Little Travel Diary]
  • Snćfríđur Íslandssól, 1950 (play, based on Íslandsklukkan)
  • Heiman eg fór, 1952 [When I left Home]
  • Gerpla, 1952
    - The Happy Warriors (translated by Katherine John, 1958)
    - Laulu sankareista (ruotsin kielestä suom. Irmeli Niemi, 1955)
  • Silfurtúngliđ, 1954 (play) [The Silver Moon]
  • Dagur í senn, 1955 [A Day at a Time]
  • Brekkukotsannáll, 1957
    - The Fish Can Sing (translated by M. Magnusson, 1966)
    - Lapsuuden maisema (suom. Helena Raulo, 1960)
  • Gjörníngabók, 1959 [The Book of Essays]
  • Úngfrúin góđa og Húsiđ, 1959 (The Honour of the House)
  • Paradísarheimt, 1960
    - Paradise Reclaimed (translated by M. Magnusson, 1962)
    - Kivinen paratiisi (islannin kielestä suom. Kai A. Saanila, 1961)
  • Strompleikurinn, 1961 (play) [The Chimney Play]
  • Prjónastofan Sólin, 1962 (play)
  • Skáldatími, 1963
    - Tunnustan maata (suom. Toini Havu, 1966)
  • Sjöstafakveriđ, 1964
  • Upphaf mannúđarstefnu, 1965 [The Origin of Humanism] 
  • Dúfnaveislan, 1966 (play)
    - The Pigeon Banquet (translated by Alan Boucher, 1973) 
  • Íslendíngaspjall, 1967 [n Essay on Icelanders] 
  • Kristnihald undir Jökli, 1968
    - Christianity at Glacier (translated by Magnus Magnusson, 1972) / Under the Glacier (translated by Magnus Magnusson, 2005)
    - Jäätikön jumalat: romaani (islannin kielestä suom. Jyrki Mäntylä, 1970)
  • Vínlandspúnktar, 1969 [Some Remarks on Vinland] 
  • Innansveitarkronika, 1970
    - Pitäjänkertomus (islannin kielestä suom. Jyrki Mäntylä, 1970)
  • Úla, 1970 (play, based on Kristnihald undir Jökli)
  • Yfirskygđir stađir, 1971 [Overshadowed Places]
  • Norđanstúlkan, 1972 (play, based on Atómstöđin)
  • Guđsgjafaţula, 1972
    - Laulu Luojan antimista (suom. Juha Peura, 1974)
  • Laxdćla saga, 1973 (editor)
  • Ţjóđhátíđarrolla, 1974 [ A Rigmaroke on the National Holiday] 
  • Í túninu heima, 1975 [In the Fields of Home]
  • Úngur eg var 1-2, 1976 [When I Was Young]
  • Seiseijú, mikil ósköp, 1977 [Well, Well, Oh Yes]
  • Sjömeistarasagan, 1978 [Saga of the Seven Masters]
  • Grikklandsáriđ, 1980 [The Greek Year]
  • Viđ heygarđshorniđ, 1981
  • N. Tryggvadóttir: Serenity and Power, 1982 (with Hranfnhildur Schram)
  • Og árin líđa, 1984 [And the Years Pass By]
  • Af menníngarástandi, 1986 [On the Cultural Situation] 
  • Sagan af brauđinu dýra, 1987
    - The Bread of Life (translated by Magnús Magnússon, 1987)
  • Dagar hjá múnkum, 1987 [Days with Monks]
  • Skáldsnilld Laxness, 1992
  • Jón í Brauđhúsum, 1992
  • Skáldsnilld Laxness: valdar tilvitnanir i´ skáldverk Halldórs Laxness, 1993 (ed. Kristján Jóhann Jónsson)
  • Fugl á garđstaurnum og fleiri smásögur, 1996
  • Perlur í skáldskap Laxness, 1998 (ed. Kristján Jóhann Jónsson, Símon Jón Jóhannsson and Valgerđur Benediktsdórrir)
  • Smásögur, 2000
  • Kórvilla á Vestfjörđum og fleiri sögur, 2001
  • Laxness um land og Ţjóđ, 2001
  • Skáldiđ og ástin: Halldór Laxness: bréf til Ingu 1927-1939, 2011 


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