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Halldór Kiljan Laxness (Icelandic: [ˈhaltour ˈcʰɪljan ˈlaxsnɛs] ( listen); born Halldór Guðjónsson; 23 April 1902 – 8 February 1998) was an Icelandic writer. He won the 1955 Nobel Prize in Literature "for his vivid epic power, which has renewed the great narrative art of Iceland". He is the first and, as of 2017, only Icelandic Nobel laureate. He wrote poetry, newspaper articles, plays, travelogues, short stories, and novels. Major influences included August Strindberg, Sigmund Freud, Knut Hamsun, Sinclair Lewis, Upton Sinclair, Bertolt Brecht and Ernest Hemingway.
Laxness was born in 1902 in Reykjavík. His parents moved to the Laxnes farm in nearby Mosfellssveit parish when he was three. He started to read books and write stories at an early age. In 1915 and 1916 he attended the technical school in Reykjavík and by 1916 he had an article published in the newspaper Morgunblaðið. By the time his first novel was published (Barn náttúrunnar 1919), Laxness had already begun his travels on the European continent.
In 1922, Laxness joined the Abbaye Saint-Maurice-et-Saint-Maur in Clervaux, Luxembourg. The monks followed the rules of Saint Benedict of Nursia. Laxness was baptized and confirmed in the Catholic Church early in 1923. Following his confirmation, he adopted the surname Laxness after the homestead on which he was raised and added the name Kiljan (the Icelandic name of Irish martyr Saint Killian).
While staying at the abbey Laxness practiced self-study, read books, and studied French, Latin, theology and philosophy. Soon after his baptism, he became a member of a group which prayed for reversion of the Nordic countries back to Catholicism. Laxness wrote of his experiences in the books Undir Helgahnúk (1924) and, more importantly, in Vefarinn mikli frá Kasmír (The Great Weaver from Kashmir). That novel, published in 1927, was hailed by noted Icelandic critic Kristján Albertsson: "Finally, finally, a grand novel which towers like a cliff above the flatland of contemporary Icelandic poetry and fiction! Iceland has gained a new literary giant - it is our duty to celebrate the fact with joy!"Laxness's religious period did not last long; during a visit to America he became attracted to socialism.
Between 1927 and 1929 Laxness lived in the United States, giving lectures on Iceland and attempting to write screenplays for Hollywood films. He was "enamored" of Charlie Chaplin's film City Lights. Laxness said that he "did not become a socialist in America from studying manuals of socialism but from watching the starving unemployed in the parks." "… Laxness joined the socialist bandwagon… with a book Alþýðubókin (The Book of the People, 1929) of brilliant burlesque and satirical essays… " "Beside the fundamental idea of socialism, the strong sense of Icelandic individuality is also the sustaining element in Alþýðubókin. The two elements are entwined together in characteristic fashion and in their very union give the work its individual character."
In 1929 an article by Laxness criticizing Americans was published in Heimskringla, a Canadian newspaper. Charges were filed against him causing his detention and forfeiture of his passport. With the aid of Upton Sinclair and the ACLU, the charges were dropped and Laxness returned to Iceland later that year.
By the 1930s Laxness "had become the apostle of the younger generation" and was "viciously" attacking the Christian spiritualism of Einar Hjörleifsson Kvaran, an influential writer who had been considered for the Nobel Prize.
In addition to the two parts of Salka Valka, Laxness published Fótatak manna (Steps of Men) in 1933, a collection of short stories, as well as other essays, notably Dagleið á fjöllum (A Day's Journey in the Mountains) in 1937.
Laxness's next novel was Sjálfstætt fólk (Independent People, 1934, 1935) which has been described as "… one of the best books of the twentieth century."
When Salka Valka was published in English in 1936 a reviewer from the Evening Standard stated: "No beauty is allowed to exist as ornamentation in its own right in these pages; but the work is replete from cover to cover with the beauty of its perfection."
This was followed by the four-part novel Heimsljós (World Light, 1937, 1938, 1939, 1940), which was "… consistently regarded by many critics as his most important work." It was loosely based on the life of Magnús Hjaltason Magnusson, a minor Icelandic poet of the late 19th century.
Laxness also traveled to the Soviet Union and wrote approvingly of the Soviet system and culture.
In the late 1930s Laxness began to write with a unique spelling system that was closer to pronunciation, a characteristic lost in translation.
In 1941 Laxness translated Ernest Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms into Icelandic, which caused controversy because of his use of neologisms.
Between 1943 and 1946 Laxness' "epic" three-part work of historical fiction, Íslandsklukkan (Iceland's Bell), was published. It has been described as a novel of broad "… geographical and political scope… expressly concerned with national identity and the role literature plays in forming it… a tale of colonial exploitation and the obdurate will of a suffering people." "Halldór Kiljan Laxness’s three-volume Íslandsklukkan … is probably the most significant (Icelandic) novel of the 1940s."
In 1946 Independent People was released as a Book of the Month Club selection in the United States, selling over 450,000 copies.
By 1948 he had a house built in the rural countryside outside of Mosfellsbær. He then began a new family with his second wife, Auður Sveinsdóttir, who also assumed the roles of personal secretary and business manager.
In response to the establishment of a permanent US military base in Keflavík, he wrote the satire Atómstöðin (The Atom Station), an action which may have contributed to his being blacklisted in the United States.
With its examination of modern Reykjavík Atómstöðin caused many critics and readers to consider it as the exemplary "Reykjavík Novel."
In 1953 Laxness was awarded the Soviet-sponsored World Peace Council Literary Prize.
An adaptation of his novel Salka Valka was filmed by Sven Nykvist in 1954.
In 1955 Laxness was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, "… for his vivid epic power which has renewed the great narrative art of Iceland":
In the presentation address for the Nobel prize E. Wesen stated:
In his acceptance speech for the Nobel prize he spoke of:
Laxness grew increasingly disenchanted with the Soviets after their military action in Hungary in 1956.
In 1957 Halldór and his wife went on a world tour, stopping in: New York City, Washington, D.C., Chicago, Madison, Salt Lake City, San Francisco, Peking, Bombay, Cairo and Rome.
Major works in this decade were Gerpla, (The Happy Warriors and Wayward Heroes) 1952, Brekkukotsannáll, (The Fish Can Sing) 1957, and Paradísarheimt, (Paradise Reclaimed) 1960.
In the 1960s Laxness was very active in the Icelandic theatre, writing and producing plays, the most successful of which was The Pigeon Banquet (Dúfnaveislan, 1966.)
In 1968 Laxness published the "visionary novel" Kristnihald undir Jökli (Under the Glacier / Christianity at the Glacier). In the 1970s Laxness published what he called "essay novels": Innansveitarkronika (A Parish Chronicle, 1970) and Guðsgjafaþula (A Narration of God's Gifts 1972), neither of which have been translated into English.
Laxness was awarded the Sonning Prize in 1969.
In 1970 Laxness published an influential ecological essay Hernaðurinn gegn landinu (The War Against the Land).
He continued to write essays and memoirs throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s. As he grew older he began to suffer from Alzheimer's disease and eventually moved into a nursing home where he died at the age of 95.
Family and legacy
Laxness had four children: Sigríður Mária Elísabet Halldórsdóttir (Maria, 10 April 1923 - 19 March 2016), Einar Laxness (9 August 1931 - 23 Mai 2016), Sigríður Halldórsdóttir (Sigga, b. 26 Mai 1951) and Guðný Halldórsdóttir (Duna, b. 23 January 1954). He was married to Ingibjörg Einarsdóttir (3 May 1908 - 22 January 1994) from 1930 (divorced in 1940), and Auður Sveinsdóttir (30 June 1918 - 29 October 2012) from 1945 until his death.
Gljúfrasteinn (Laxness’ house and grounds as well as his personal effects), is now a museum operated by the Icelandic government.
Guðný Halldórsdóttir is a filmmaker whose first work was the 1989 adaptation of Kristnihald undir jōkli (Under the Glacier). In 1999 her adaptation of the Laxness story Úngfrúin góða og Húsið (The Honour of the House) was submitted for Academy Award consideration for best foreign film.
In the 21st century interest in Laxness increased in English-speaking countries following the re-publishing of several of his novels and the publication of Iceland's Bell (2003), The Great Weaver from Kashmir (2008) and Wayward Heroes (2016) in new translations by Philip Roughton.
A biography of Laxness by Halldór Guðmundsson, The Islander: a Biography of Halldór Laxness, won the Icelandic literary prize for best work of non-fiction in 2004.
Numerous dramatic adaptations of Laxness’ work have been staged in Iceland. In 2005, the Icelandic National Theatre premiered a play by Ólafur Haukur Símonarson, titled Halldór í Hollywood (Halldór in Hollywood) about the author's time spent in the United States in the 1920s.
Works by Laxness
Travelogues and essays