On 26 June 1930, the oldest parliament in the world, the Icelandic Alþingi, celebrated its thousand-year anniversary with all the pomp and circumstance that the country was able to muster. The festivities culminated in a performance of the ‘Iceland Cantata’ – whose verses the nation’s most celebrated poets had competed to write – in the presence of King and Queen. Those gathered may not have noticed a twenty-eight-year-old man in the audience rolling his eyes and grumbling in frustration. Halldór Laxness, recently returned from North America, and before that an extended stay in a Catholic monastery in Luxembourg, was so dismayed by the libretto’s bloviating rhetoric that he was prompted to respond with his own poem, ‘The alþingi Cantata. To be sung after 1930’. Where in this encomium, he asked, are the farmers? Where are the dairies, the shipwrights, the fisherman? Against the mythical glories of an ancient nation, Laxness invoked the ‘penniless people, which for a thousand years has chewed its bread, weeping the pauper’s tears of hunger, bleeding, torn and tormented by the black art of the exploiter’.
This counter-cantata would comprise the final entry in Poems (1930), Laxness’ first publication after coming back to Iceland. Laxness had changed – returning to his homeland with a new set of principles, a new poetic vision and renewed faith in himself as a prophet. It was a pattern that would repeat itself in his quest to drag Iceland and its literature into the age of modernity.
It is common to say of great writers that they spent their juvenile years in search of a voice. But Laxness possessed his at a young age, like a rough diamond. His debut, Child of Nature (1919), published when he was only seventeen, tells the story of a real estate agent, Randver, who returns to Iceland after three decades in Canada to fall in love and start a farm. The tragic romance eventually finds Randver in a drunken stupor, unable to recall the language of his homeland and so forced to babble in English. Though critics labelled the novel ‘childish’, it was animated by themes that occupied Laxness well into adulthood: the false comforts of nostalgia, the bathos of homecoming, the hard silence of nature.
What Laxness needed to find was not so much a voice as a form. His problem was that he had an overabundance of voice or voices, but no overarching narrative or structure in which to place them. In his search, he was led to reinvent himself again and again, the first time when he chose a nom de plume for the publication of Child of Nature. Born as Halldór Guðjónsson and raised on the Laxnes farm in Mosfellsbær, he chose to shed his patronymic in favour of one that would root him to the land. This act of moulting a past identity would become a ritual – a means of purifying his contact with the essence of the nation. ‘Henceforth my past is reduced to ashes and my future is the song of the northern hemisphere’, he writes in Poems.
As his biographers have observed, Laxness’s life can be told in terms of these moultings – as a sequence of identifications with higher order abstractions and different systems of belief. He made of his own existence a kind of epic, an odyssey through the chaotic world of twentieth century ideas. Throughout, Iceland remained his Ithaca, the homeland to which he promised to return in body and in spirit, always with the aim of liberating it from the hordes of unworthy poet-suitors. As the critic Brad Leithauser has written, ‘Laxness’s ambition was to become a major, truly modern Nordic writer – a legitimate heir to Ibsen and Hamsun and Strindberg – rooted in a Viking culture’. The dialectic of modern and medieval, the fisherman and the Viking, is one constant that underlies Laxness’s many metamorphoses. His third novel, The Great Weaver from Kashmir (1927), is indicative. Often described as the first truly modernist Icelandic novel, the quasi-Surrealist Great Weaver is structured in close accordance with Dante’s Divine Comedy. Like Joyce, its author wanted to forge the epic within the infinitesimal.
To accomplish this, Laxness had to maintain two contradictory ideas: that Iceland was central, and that it was remote. He needed to assert both the centrality of the peripheral and the peripherality of the central. Iceland boasted one of the oldest continuous literary cultures in Europe. As Laxness put it in his Nobel lecture upon being awarded the prize in 1955: ‘It is a great good fortune for an author to be born into a nation so steeped in centuries of poetry and literary tradition’. The Sagas endowed Iceland with a claim to be at the heart of European culture. Yet the island has always been geographically and politically marginal – a waystation for ships, a Danish colony, a base for American NATO troops (which Laxness would vehemently oppose). In Laxness’s view, however, it was from such outlying regions that one could gain an objective view of the world. They are places ‘where wisdom accumulates’, as Susan Sontag writes in her introduction to the English translation of Under the Glacier (1968). The glacier community of that novel lives, seemingly, outside the bounds of history and Christian values, in a pagan dream-world marginal even within Iceland. And yet: ‘No one in these parts doubts that the glacier is the centre of the universe’.
What displeased Laxness most in the summer of 1930 was the state of Iceland’s class-consciousness. In all the nation’s literature, as he saw it, none had grappled with the material realities of life there: the poverty, the abjection, the oppression. His years in the United States and Canada had provoked a transformation as dramatic as any he would experience in his life. What began as an opportunity to be tokenized in exchange for a warm American welcome – giving lectures on Iceland around the country, writing screenplays for Hollywood on Scandinavian subjects – had evolved into a political awakening. One could credit Upton Sinclair (Laxness did, anyway), who introduced him to the communist circles of Hollywood and New York’s literary scene. When Laxness found himself detained and stripped of his passport for a comment made in a newspaper article about Americans being kept in a state of idiocy, it was Sinclair who organised efforts to secure his return to Iceland. Leaving behind his fervent Catholicism, Laxness now embarked on a decades-long embrace of Marxism. In the words of the critic Nicholas Shakespeare, he fixed his ‘childish faith on the Soviet Union’, where he travelled twice; for Sontag he became ‘obtusely philo-Soviet’. Awarded the Stalin Peace Prize in 1952, he would begin a slow retreat from the USSR after 1956. But Laxness’s political commitments were never as straightforward as such accounts would have it. In his own time, it was the left who needled him the most. His first socialist novel, for example, Salka Valka (1931-32), was not what many had expected – far too ironic for the serious matter of proletarian revolution.
Originally published as two distinct novels – O Thou Pure Vine (1931) and The Bird on the Shore (1932) – and only later unified, in 1951, into a single book, Salka Valka landed on readers’ bookshelves in much the same manner as any hefty, social realist novel: with a dull thud. To those not on the left, the book seemed anything but ironic, perceived, rather, to be as doctrinaire as anything Zhdanov himself could have conjured. The genre of social realism, unlike its naturalist precursor, never enjoyed a period of uncontested supremacy in European literature, in part because of its reputation for inflexibility. Almost as soon as it took shape, writers from various quarters criticised it on account of its intellectual rigidity and stilted grasp of human emotion. As Alain Robbe-Grillet emblematically put it in the 1950s, the ‘total artistic indigence’ of social realist works is to be expected: ‘the very notion of a work created for the expression of a social, political, economic, or moral content constitutes a lie’.
Yet Salka Valka eludes the indictments of both Robbe-Grillet and its socialist critics. Upon close inspection, clichés are uttered only to be upended by the novel’s dialogical qualities. Laxness forged a synthesis of art and politics by such reversals. With its acerbic wit and idiosyncratic yet deep-seated socialist sympathies, it is neither the book which early left critics lambasted, nor that which was scoffed at by readers of more liberal stripe. To contemporary readers who, thanks to translator Phillip Roughton, can now read a new English translation of Salka Valka, Laxness’s achievement will be plain.
The novel’s two parts are less a continuous narrative than two sides of the same coin. The first volume, which takes place between 1910 and 1914, recounts in epic terms the tribulations of a mother-daughter pair stranded in a remote and backwards fishing town. Sigurlina Jónsdóttir and her daughter, Salvör Valgerður, whom she affectionately calls Salka Valka, land in the village Óseyri destitute and homeless. The Salvation Army and the local fishing business, helmed by the monopolist Jóhann Bogesen, are the twin pillars of the town, and Sigurlina is forced to navigate their influence to find room – literally, a shelter – for herself and her daughter. This volume is in many ways not about Salka, but Sigurlina. Or: it is about Salka witnessing the abject collapse of her mother’s spirit. Sigurlina is wooed by a man named Steinþór Steinsson, a local fisherman, a brute – the living image of the rugged land itself. But in truth, he desires Salka. After an attempted rape, Steinþór’s subsequent flight from town, his penitent return, his ultimate abandonment of Sigurlina at the altar and the death of Sigurlina’s son as an infant, Salka watches her mother wither away in body and soul. One Easter Sunday, she drowns herself.
At the start of the second volume, a decade has passed. In her struggle to find herself, and to avoid ending up like her mother, Salka actively resists the patriarchal world (she is mocked for wearing trousers) and develops an affinity with the oppressed. Thanks in large part to her childhood friend, Arnaldur, who studied in Reykjavik and returned a staunch socialist, Salka takes up the cause of the local fishworkers, helping them to organise a strike against Bogesen. But Salka and Arnaldur, bound into a love affair by their utopian impulses, are wrenched apart by the unforgiving reality of Óseyri’s shores. The strike is broken, Arnaldur leaves, and Salka is left alone with ‘the birds of winter’.
What we have, then, is a novel that begins as an epic only to morph into a social-realist Bildungsroman. But that is not to say that O Thou Pure Vine and The Bird on the Shore are two incongruous wholes. On the contrary, the uniqueness of the project is precisely the way in which its formal transformation is concurrent with the gradual coming-to-consciousness of its world and characters.
If O Thou Pure Vine is an epic, its cosmology is a Christian one adapted to Icelandic climes. The narrator, presuming to know as much about God’s intentions as Salka’s, routinely invokes the divine origins of the weather (‘There never seemed to be good weather in this village, because the Creator was always experimenting with His sky’). The characters themselves, meanwhile, appear as if composed out of the landscape itself, so consubstantial are they with the world they inhabit. ‘I am the waves that break on this beach, I am the wind that plays about these peaks’, says Steinþór. Even though Salka is presented as Steinþór’s moral counterpart, the novel’s monist ontology sees her drawn from the same materials: ‘in her strong, primal facial features dwelt all the merits of the salinity that is and always will be in seawater as long as it breaks against the shore’.
The hinge that binds the two halves together is Sigurlina’s death – or more precisely, the discovery of her drowned body. For Salka, this is the final straw in several senses. Her mother lived her Óseyri years prostrate, in near complete submission to the abuses of Steinþór and the pieties of the Army. As she grows older, Salka questions the rectitude of this way of life, challenging Sigurlina about her desire to have another child with Steinþór. Her mother can only respond that God ‘created me with a woman’s nature, and I cannot oppose it’. With Sigurlina’s death, Salka resolves never to acquiesce to her so-called ‘woman’s nature’ and thus never to trust in God. She would rather put her faith in what she can see, touch, taste. ‘I suppose there’s no other God but fish’, she says near the beginning of volume two, a materialist turn matched by that of the wider narrative, which evolves as the plight of the fishworkers intensifies.
The sighting of Sigurlina’s corpse is also what closes off the epic worldview. This is depicted in miniature by way of jarring juxtaposition. Sigurlina is found clutching ‘a pair of boy’s shoes’, the narrator tells us. They belonged to her dead son, and ‘she had taken them with her into eternity’ in case she found him there, shoeless. What confronts the reader is the incommensurability of the two facts: the shoes are both here, in this world, and they are in ‘eternity’. The epic voice that can speak of empyrean ascension is undercut by the realist one that will not. Reality has gained a new function; it is no longer in collusion with divine will.
Like Laxness himself, Salka Valka switches from one thought-world to another as a means of gaining perspective. The old system of values is revealed as comprising so many pieties, as when the church Dean informs Salka that her mother’s favourite hymn is a fanciful invention of the Army and nowhere to be found in scripture (no system of belief, in fact, comes under as much scrutiny across Laxness’s novels as Christianity). But a man who moves from identification to identification also earns a sort of meta-identificatory perspective. Even from within the Marxist world view to which he then adhered – in later life, he would discard this in his move towards Taosim – Laxness uses his fiction to locate points of weakness. In this way, Laxness is hardly serious when he allows Arnaldur to tell Salka, who wants to help the motherless children of a recently-deceased friend, that lending a hand to individuals is ‘nothing but bourgeois sentimentality and hypocrisy’, and that – quoting Sinclair – ‘it’s like throwing a few drops of water into Hell’. After all, Arnaldur only says this after uttering perhaps the crassest sentence in the novel, in response to Salka’s resolve to help the children: ‘I would have let them kick the bucket’.
Even when Laxness believed in revolution, he was unwilling to forget that to be a ‘man of the people’, as he enjoined his audience at the Swedish Academy to be, is still to be a man – that is, an individual. Salka belongs to the ‘humble of the earth’ but she is also, like Laxness, unwilling to dissolve herself into them. For in her sovereign ego lies the capacities to doubt, to point, to laugh. And if nothing else, Laxness’s prose sings right through with laughter. ‘He has an irony rarely found in Nordic letters’, commended Le Monde upon his death in 1998. Perhaps this accounts for his incongruous reception in the Anglophone world, where such subtleties are often lost in translation. But parody is key to his temperament, allowing him both to adhere and not adhere at one and the same time – to be both Arnaldur and Salka. We might, then, ultimately view his changeable affiliations less as a quest for truth than as a bid to find the next kick. ‘I must be getting old,’ he said in the midst of his socialist years. ‘It isn’t as much fun shocking the bourgeoisie anymore.’
Read on: Sille Sigurgeirsdóttir and Robert Wade, ‘Lessons From Iceland’, NLR 65.