To say that Halldór Laxness is one of the most important Icelandic writers of modern times might be an understatement: he was one of the first internationally known writers of Iceland, giving much exposure to his fellow Icelandic contemporaries Kristman Guðmundsson and Gunnar Gunnarsson.
Although Laxness’s style changed with each novel he published his content usually revolved around portraying the hardships of fishermen and farmers, while at times creating mythological novels with a modern consciousness. However, through out all of his novels there is always a level of ironic humor, keeping his novels lighter than they might have appeared.
On April 23, 1902 Halldór Laxness was born in Reykjavík, the capital of Iceland, as Halldór Kiljan Gudjónsson. However, at the age of three the family moved to a farm in Laxness where Halldór’s father also worked as a road construction foreman, and of course where he would eventually adopt his pseudonym from. His father was a huge influence on him, as he taught Halldór to play the violin, a profession which Halldór originally saw himself going into.
However, in 1919 at the age of seventeen Halldór wrote his first novel, which was titled Barn Náttúrunnar, while he was being educated at the Icelandic Latin School. After graduating from there he attended a gymnasium in Reykjavík for a short period of time, although he never graduated.
Taking advantage of his parents’ money, Halldór began to travel the world after dropping out of school. During this time of travel Halldór would begin a spiritual quest, which would eventually convert him from Christianity to Catholicism. It was with his newfound Catholic ideals that Laxness published his first major novel, Vefarinn mikli frá Kasmí, which revolved around a young man torn between his religious faith and the pleasures of the world.
However, this important novel was almost never published. Drawing from André Breton, St Thomas à Kempis, and Marcel Proust, the semi-autobiographical work was criticized for breaking from traditional Icelandic fiction. Also, a deal of irony exists with this work, as at the end of the novel the protagonist turns to God, whereas Laxness abandoned his Catholic ideals after the novel was published.
After returning to Iceland in 1931, Halldór Laxness penned his first novel dealing directly with the Icelandic people, Salka Valka. Heavily influenced by Upton Sinclair, the novel portrays the harsh working conditions of fishermen in an Icelandic fishing village. Salka Valka would be very representative of the future novels Laxness would write, as it displayed the socialistic views he had adopted after abolishing his Catholicism.
After the success of Salka Valka Laxness went on to pen the most important work of his life in 1934. Independent People was that work which gave a vivid portrayal of the typical, small Icelandic farmer. With a somewhat mythological feel, the main protagonist, Bjartur, has his valley plagued by an Irish sorcerer. This novel was very much loved by the Icelandic Communists.
Halldór next published two larger works between 1937 and 1946. The first of these works was the four volumes of World Light. World Light was about a sympathetic folk poet who went by the name of Ólafur Kárason. The fictional Ólafur Kárason was loosely based on the real life of Magnús Hjaltason. With these novels Laxness openly criticized Icelandic society from a socialist viewpoint, which attracted a great deal of controversy to Laxness.
The other larger work was the trilogy of Iceland's Bell, published between 1943 and 1946. Iceland’s Bell had an extremely nationalist theme, and was written in a style that was heavily reminiscent of medieval Icelandic sagas. With this group of novels Halldor Laxness became more famous than he had ever been, and was adopted as the unofficial spokesman for Iceland.
In 1955 Halldór Laxness was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature for "his vivid epic power which has renewed the great narrative art of Iceland". Afterwards Laxness wrote less important works that were more lyrical and introspective. Throughout this time Laxness continued his pursuit for new spirituality. After giving up Socialism in 1955 he began to explore various eastern religions, especially Taoism. Laxness wrote about his new eastern ideology in Paradise Reclaimed, and Christianity at Glacier.
Halldór Laxness died on February 1, 1998 in a nursing home after suffering from Alzheimer’s for many years. However, he lives on through his published arsenal, which includes over 60 works and his memoirs.