Published August 6, 2004


Halldór Laxness writes this description of a grandmother in his book The Fish Can Sing. It is a description which can be adapted to describe Laxness’ own writing. It is writing so natural, so unforced and so unaffected that the reader becomes unaware of the writer, he instead becomes embodied in the story. It is a rare gift and one of the reasons why Laxness stands head and shoulders above all other writers of contemporary fiction in this country, why his work has been translated into over thirty languages and why he received, amongst many other awards, the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1955.

He wrote his first novel Children of Nature at the age of 17 and went on to write more than sixty books including novels, short stories, essays, poems, plays and memoirs. Several have been translated into English and they demand to be read by anyone who enjoys fine writing and who is interested in trying to understand the Icelandic psyche.
Laxness´ childhood was one where ‘the mighty of the earth had no place outside of story books and dreams’ and his books manifest this through his unflinching love of – and respect for – the humble routine of daily life. Laxness’ characters demonstrate time and again traits of the Icelandic character: self-sufficiency, stubbornness, independence, aloofness, humour in adversity and pitches them against plots and circumstances that sweep through the full gamut of human experience.

He also shows similar emotions towards the country and its climate with a detail and lyricism that is rare. There is no better way to appreciate a winter’s morning here than through Laxness’ words, “Slowly, slowly winter day opens his arctic eye.” And when it comes to rain he understands and describes it in a way approaching the visceral.

“…Rain that seemed to fill the entire world with its leaden beat, rain suggestive in its dreariness of everlasting waterfalls between the planets, rain that thatched the heavens with drabness and brooded oppressively over the whole countryside like a disease, strong in the power of its flat, unvarying monotony, its smothering heaviness, its cold, unrelenting cruelty.”

And when summer comes. “The apprehensions of winter disappeared all in one day. The cloudless brightness of that day lay infinite over the soul as over the vault of heaven; it was one of life’s happy days and they remembered it for as long as they lived.”

We who cannot read Icelandic are limited to only a few of his works, most of which are available in the town’s bookshops. If you can only pick one, pick Independent People.

Laxness praised his fellow countrymen for the way in which they followed his literary career “now critcising, now praising but hardly ever letting an individual word be buried by indifference…it is great good fortune to be born into a nation so steeped in centuries of poetry and literary tradition.”

We who are visitors to this country are fortunate to be able to share some of these pleasures through these fine translations.

Independent People
The Fish Can Sing
Iceland´s Bell
The Atom Station
World Light
Paradise Reclaimed

Support The Reykjavík Grapevine!
Buy subscriptions, t-shirts and more from our shop right here!

Show Me More!