Reviews — From the November 2016 issue

Flesh and Blood

The Saga of Halldór Laxness

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Wayward Heroes, by Halldór Laxness. Archipelago. 500 pages. $20.

Nobel novelist, declared the headline of a 1971 New York Times profile, wants more readers. “I have tried to publish commercially in the United States,” Halldór Laxness complained, “but there seems to be no interest.” Iceland’s sole Nobel laureate was sixty-eight years old, his big Stateside hit already a quarter-century behind him. That book was Independent People, a tragicomedy about a stunningly stubborn shepherd named Bjartur and his long-suffering family (and sheep). It was conceived partly as a rejoinder to another Scandinavian novel, Growth of the Soil by Norway’s Knut Hamsun, which Laxness felt was disingenuous in the way it romanticized individualism while ignoring the extreme hardships of rural subsistence farming. Independent People is a paean to humanism and socialism in the guise of five hundred pages of a man shoveling shit, nearly freezing to death, struggling to protect his flock from lungworm, and butting heads with the foster daughter whose independence of spirit is a rare match for his own.

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“Untitled, Iceland,” from the series North, by Mark Hartman © The artist

Laxness’s style is wry, with frills of whimsy, but his stories are of hardscrabble lives marked by sorrow, beauty, and loss. Bjartur, though a brute, is a devotee of rímur, a traditional and difficult Icelandic verse form. His foster daughter, Ásta Sóllilja, observes of Bjartur that “his poetry was technically so complex that it could never attain any noteworthy content; and thus it was with his life itself.” “Some day Father will build a big house for the flower of his life, but it won’t be this year,” Bjartur tells Ásta Sóllilja. “Nor was it,” adds Laxness in a sentence set off in its own paragraph; Bjartur builds a new shed for his ewes instead.

The poet and critic Brad Leithauser has noted that Independent People is “as much mock as genuine epic” — a hallmark of Laxness’s work. Those who read Bjartur as a paragon of libertarian virtue are looking in the right direction through the wrong end of the binoculars. Beneath the drollery and the pathos is a stern moral critique of an ideology that inclines people to regard one another as rivals rather than as neighbors. Bjartur’s desire for independence is understandable, even laudable: he labored for eighteen years to free himself from debt bondage and attain his scrap of land. But his self-reliance is so severe that it prevents him from engaging in the basic reciprocities that allow societies and families to function; his freedom ends up costing him everything he has.

The first volume of Independent People came out in 1934; the second appeared the next year. The book was a massive success at home, as well as throughout Europe and in the U.S.S.R. It is regularly ranked among the great books of the twentieth century, but it wasn’t until 1946 that Alfred A. Knopf brought Independent People to the U.S. in a single volume and made it a selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club. It sold an astonishing 450,000 copies — and attracted the interest of J. Edgar Hoover, who believed Laxness was funneling his profits to Communist groups. Hoover was personally invested in the FBI’s investigation of Laxness and saw him effectively blacklisted by American publishers, who do not, as a general rule, respond to a smash hit by refusing to work with its author ever again.1 Iceland’s conservative foreign minister conspired with the U.S. Embassy in Reykjavík to charge Laxness with tax evasion relating to royalties for Independent People, a harassment scheme that dragged on for a decade and nearly cost him his house.

1 Independent People was not reissued in the United States until 1997, after half a century out of print. Even today, fewer than a dozen of Laxness’s sixty-odd books are available in English. 

Hoover need not have troubled himself. Laxness had indeed been a true-believing Communist — he’d published hundreds of polemical essays, including some outright propaganda, and had visited the Soviet Union as a guest of the state — but in the ten years between Independent People’s original publication and its U.S. debut, he’d undergone a substantial (if admittedly halting) ideological shift. Anyway, he wasn’t about to spend his hard-earned royalties bankrolling the Comintern. An erstwhile farm boy from a cultural and economic backwater, with a family of his own to support, Laxness needed the money. Moreover, in 1944, he had been deeply moved by Iceland’s long-awaited independence, seven hundred years in the making.2 Though far too slow to renounce Soviet repression or his own work as a propagandist, Laxness had by the late 1940s come to realize that neither the United States nor the Soviet Union had his homeland’s best interests at heart.

2 Iceland was ruled by Norway from the middle of the thirteenth century until the Protestant Reformation, at which time it became a Danish colony. It won limited home rule in 1874 and state sovereignty in 1918, though it remained in a “union” with Denmark until June 1944, when it declared itself a republic. Given that this occurred while Nazis ruled in Copenhagen and the Allies were using what is now Keflavík Airport as a military base, the young republic’s survival was anything but certain, especially once it became clear that the hot war would be replaced by a cold one.

Each superpower was obsessed with drawing Iceland into its sphere of influence. Iceland’s decision, in March of 1949, to join NATO (and have the United States administer its obligations thereto) had been highly controversial, with many — including Laxness — arguing that giving up neutrality was a bigger risk than gaining protection. He was a divisive figure, to say the least, but Independent People had confirmed his reputation as a major novelist, and single-handedly established Iceland as a player on the world stage of arts and letters. Divisive or not, everyone knew that if the prize was going to go to an Icelander, nobody deserved it more than he did.

Laxness was first in serious contention for the prize in 1948, and then every year thereafter until he won. Along the way he lost to, among others, T. S. Eliot, William Faulkner, and Ernest Hemingway, who supposedly sent Laxness, his Icelandic translator, a telegram that said, “Don’t worry, you’ll get it next time.” He did, in 1955. The revolutionary firebrand became a patriotic success story, a cultural hero. That year the Icelandic government finally stopped bugging him about his taxes.

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is the author of three books of fiction, the most recent of which is Flings (HarperCollins). His article “Lucid Dreaming” appeared in the November 2015 issue of Harper’s Magazine.

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