When Halldór Laxness arrived in Stockholm in December 1955 to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature, he was not surprisingly inundated with congratulatory telegrams. Later he described how, while getting changed for a ceremonial dinner in the city, he listened to his assistant reading the telegrams aloud. “All sorts of pillars of culture and education, in the form of institutions and societies, had got in on the act, eminent VIPs and complete nobodies sent their regards, not forgetting the horde of friends, friends of friends and casual acquaintances that a wanderer inevitably picks up over the years on his travels through many countries,” Laxness commented.

He wanted to be sure that he wouldn’t neglect to thank anyone who deserved an immediate response. In the middle of the reading, he stopped his assistant and asked him to repeat the last telegram. “It was a hearty “lycka til” [that is “congratulations”] from the Sundsvall Society of Pipe-Layers – the men who dig the sewers,” explained Laxness and continued: “It was gratifying to find that the arbiters of bourgeois life counted themselves among my friends: distinguished colleagues and literary masters, national and international cultural institutions, not to mention the royal family and the banks. But what could thrill the heart like knowing oneself responsible for the fact that men who stand bent double over pipes deep in the ground, trying to get the water to flow through, should suddenly straighten their backs and climb out of their drain in the midst of the winter in Sundsvall in order to shout hurrah for literature? We came to the conclusion that if I could do any man honour with an interim expression of humble gratitude that evening, it should be none other than these men. So only one telegram was sent: To the Sundsvall Society of Pipe-layers.”

This little story about Halldór Laxness gives a good indication of his attitude to life. He never forgot where his roots lay – among the common people – and always exalted them in his writing. In his Nobel acceptance speech he asked himself: “What can fame and success give to an author?” And answered: “A measure of material well-being brought about by money? Certainly. But if an Icelandic poet should forget his origin as a man of the people, if he should ever lose his sense of belonging with the humble of the earth, whom my old grandmother taught me to revere, and his duty toward them, then what is the good of fame and prosperity to him?”

Halldór Laxness’s career spanned an incredibly long period from 1919-1987. Throughout this time – almost 70 years – he remained prominent both in Icelandic national life and on the European cultural stage. He produced 62 works in 68 years, that’s nearly a book a year.

Laxness’s works have always attracted attention and from the first the Icelandic nation was split into two camps according to whether they were for or against him. No one could be indifferent to his books. And whether people agreed with him or not, his writings were invariably taken seriously – they were always important. It is rare to find a writer who has involved himself so wholeheartedly in his nation’s destiny, interpreting it through his works at the same time as trying to have an influence on its progress.

Laxness has been described as the last national poet in the West. The Icelandic people followed his every move for decades; he was like a father figure to them, at a time when literature was desperately important for the nation’s self-image. The Icelanders have always tended to regard themselves as a literary people; the Sagas, written in the Middle Ages, were seen as symbolising the nation’s Golden Age and Halldór Laxness was regarded as a worthy successor to the nameless medieval masters.

He was long considered a controversial figure due to his political views, but after he received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1955, the whole nation can be said to have united behind him.

Laxness stands head and shoulders above the other Icelandic writers of the 20th century. He was prolific during his long career, writing 13 major novels, five plays and a dramatisation of one of his novels, not to mention his collections of short stories, essays and memoirs. His books have been translated into 43 languages and published in more than 500 editions. His career was unique, the diversity of his works almost without parallel, and with every book he can be said to have approached his readers from a new and unexpected direction.

Laxness early decided his purpose in life. He wanted to be among the top-ranking writers in the world – “he was to sing for the whole world”, as is said of the son of Bjartur of Summerhouses in Independent People. He wrote constantly in his youth, his first novel seeing the light of day in 1919. He then travelled abroad and spent some time in Copenhagen where he had a short story published in Danish on the front page of the weekend edition of Berlingske Tidende, the most influential newspaper in the country. A few days before the story appeared, on October 10th, 1919, he wrote in a letter to his mother:

I feel so clearly that this journey [to Copenhagen] is a great step towards what I am seeking, that is to say, towards a knowledge of people and the world, so that I can become a real writer, something which occupies all my thoughts.

The 1920s were an important formative period in Laxness’s life. He was constantly seeking, spending some time in a monastery and resolutely grappling with the Zeitgeist in his novel The Great Weaver from Kashmir.

The Great Weaver from Kashmir centres around Steinn Elliði, who is 19 at the beginning of the story, and describes several years in his life. It seems at first sight to be a conventional Bildungsroman but on closer reading it explodes this framework. Steinn Elliði vacillates between views of life, and could be said to ricochet between three main belief systems: Catholicism, Communism and Friedrich Nietzsche’s theories of the Übermennsch. The Catholic lives for God, the Communist lives for human beings and the follower of the Superman ideal lives for himself.

Steinn Elliði in The Great Weaver, has a lot in common with Halldór Laxness himself. Laxness converted briefly to Catholicism and spent a period in a monastery but The Great Weaver could be said to mark his departure from the Catholic church. It was not God who won the battle for Laxness’s soul but his fellow men, for now he turned to socialism.

In the 1930s he wrote three major novels: Salka Valka, Independent People and World Light. Despite their differences, the books all deal with the ordinary Icelandic people’s struggle for existence, with their harsh external conditions and their private conflicts. In the world of these stories everyone is fallible and everyone is deserving of pity. Right and wrong are not opposite extremes, something rare in the social realism of the 1930s, a time of bitter class antagonism. The author and reader’s sympathy for all the characters in the books is sincere and unalloyed – however low they fall. Even ugliness has its own beauty there.

So Halldór Laxness did not fall into the trap of writing in the spirit of simplistic social realism in which the good are wholly good and the bad are irredeemable. One could say that in these novels Laxness was testing out the theories that he preached in his articles on social issues, and that he came to the conclusion that they did not work in the real world, regardless of whether this was a conscious process or not.

In the 1940s Laxness turned to writing historical novels, including Iceland’s Bell, his contribution to Iceland’s fight for independence, which was published over the years 1943–1946. In the 1950s his works reveal deep misgivings about his earlier beliefs – a disillusionment with ideologies. He wrote absurdist plays in the 1960s and, 40 years after The Great Weaver from Kashmir, at nearly 70 years old, he began to flirt anew with the modernist novel, along with  a younger generation of Icelandic writers, in Undert the Glacier. This book tells of an emissary of the bishop of Iceland who is sent to investigate the observance of pastoral duties by a minister who lives in the shadow of the Snæfellsjökull glacier. The minister has given up preaching the Christian faith, saying: “Whoever does not live in poetry cannot survive here on earth.” (191-2)

Halldór Laxness did not hold to one single belief or ideal. He began his career as a Catholic, then turned to socialism, but later lost interest in all doctrines – except perhaps Taoism. He never attempted to disown earlier views which he subsequently repudiated, regarding them instead as an instructive part of his psychological development.

Laxness’s most famous change of heart occurred with his debunking of the Soviet Union and Stalin in the 1963 book A Poet’s Time. “It is instructive to see how Stalin grew with every year into an ever-more text-book example of the way in which power saps the moral force out of men, until a man who has achieved a complete dictatorship over his surroundings has in the process become wholly immoral,” he wrote (p. 295). The publication of this book caused a stir, but with hindsight it is possible to see how his attitudes had been changing throughout the 1950s. In The Happy Warriors (1952) Laxness wrote a new “Icelandic Saga”, set in the Viking Age. He satirised the ancient hero-concept of the Sagas, but the message of the story was no less applicable to the contemporary situation, as a belief in power and violence has long been the favourite expedient of those heads of state whose greatest fear is of their own subjects. Those who wished to could read there a criticism of Hitler and Stalin – of the cult of the leader.

Paradise Reclaimed was published in 1960. The central character, the farmer Steinar, has a vision of paradise on earth. He goes in search of it but returns home at the end of the book: his vision of Christ’s thousand-year reign has proved a delusion. In the end it is as if nothing has happened, Steinar is back where he was when he started. Laxness himself said in an article about the conception of Paradise Reclaimed:

A wise man once said, he who departs will never return; this is because when he does return he is a different man from the man he was when he set out… Between the homefield from which he departed and the homefield to which he returns, lie not only the kingdoms, oceans and deserts of the world but also the Promised Land itself.

Steinar gains and then loses his faith or vision, but he has gained a new perspective on life by the end. The same could be said of Halldór Laxness. Soviet socialism had turned out not to be the promised paradise.

Although Laxness’s U-turn came as a shock to the Icelanders, the staff of the American embassy in Reykjavík had recognised several years earlier, in 1955, that this influential man was undergoing some sort of change of heart. Carl H. Peterson, Public Affairs Officer at the embassy, wrote the following confidential report to the US authorities, which has not as far as I know been quoted before in public:

[Laxness] has been at some pains recently to deny that he is a Communist, and in a recent radio address he took a less inflammatory tone than usual, even while he was declaiming in general terms for Icelandic independence.

Laxness’s ideals and beliefs changed over time and evidence of this can be seen to a certain extent in his works. Yet from the earliest period to the latest it is possible to detect the same basic themes in his books. He looked at things differently from other people, his writings were often barbed, and yet he always managed to see the comic potential of his characters and their actions. His sympathy was invariably with the underdog. In fact, one could say that in his works he always promoted “the hidden  people”, as he called them, by which he did not mean the hidden people or elves of Icelandic folklore, but the ordinary public. It seems fair to say that respect for these people is at the heart of Laxness’s work.

Wherever Laxness travelled, he always took along a notebook in which he jotted down his thoughts and things that seemed relevant to whatever he was working on at the time. In one such notebook from the 1950s, there appears a statement of intent with regard to The Fish Can Sing (lit. The Brekkukot Annals), published in 1957, which could in fact be applied to the majority of his works. At the beginning of the notebook the author makes a note of his intention in the novel:

‘The Hidden People’, the ordinary ‘unspoilt’ people – however infinitely frail from the standpoint of moral theology or other codes of ethics – the book is to be a hymn of praise to them, proof that it is precisely these people, the ordinary people, who foster all peaceful human virtues. The main character has his origin in the tranquil depths of the common people, and [the decent people] he meets in his youth have the effect of making all the glory of the world seem hollow on the day when it is offered to him – as a result of the longing he feels to return home and experience once more the tranquil depths of ordinary human existence.

The Fish Can Sing, in other words, pays homage to the ordinary people, who do their work out of simple diligence without boasting about it, a hymn of praise to the common man and the people of whom Laxness was fonder than any others. And, as if to emphasise this, it says a little further on in the notebook:

Two kinds of Icelander: the fanatic extroverts, forever banging their drum and showing off, making their mark on the world and ruling the Hype Society – and then the Hidden People … endowed with almost everything men pride themselves on, but wholly free from self-advertism, although they are the essential backbone, the element which ensured the survival of Iceland’s human population, the people who perform all the great deeds but never boast of them, whom one never hears about and who will never be discovered by the Hype Society.

In another place in the notebook he later defines “the Hype Society” as follows: “The Hype Society – the collective responsibility of microscopic local celebrities to praise each other”. The Hype Society is, in other words, what has been called elsewhere the Confederacy of Dunces.

The Hidden People – the ordinary men and women – are thus the silent group which is custodian of all the values that matter in the world. So it is not to be wondered at that Laxness felt it most pressing to thank the labourers of Sundsvall for their congratulatory telegram on the occasion of the Nobel prize-giving, men who stood bent double over their pipes deep in the ground, trying to get the water to flow through, yet suddenly straightened their backs and climbed out of their drain to shout hurrah for literature. To Laxness it was of supreme importance to thank the hidden people for their goodwill.

This respect Laxness showed for ordinary human lives explains in my opinion more than anything else why his works have enjoyed so much popularity among the Icelanders – and among other nations as well. In his books one finds a common human core – a pure note – which appeals to people in the same way wherever they are, regardless of their environment. He succeeded through his works in bringing the greater world into Icelandic literature: in this microcosm the fates of his characters can be understood by readers wherever they may live in the world.

Scandinavian House, New York, 25th October 2002