Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Full Circle


Halldór Laxness' study, Gljúfrasteinn, Iceland.

The Islander
A biography of Halldór Laxness
by Halldór Guðmundsson, Maclehose Press, London

This book artfully ties together all the loose threads of my ten years of studying the novels and stories of the great Icelandic novelist. The earliest date of importantance in this well-written biography is 1832, when his very influential grandmother was born, and the last is 1998, when Halldór died in a nursing home in Rekjavík. In between those dates is the almost unbelievable story: of a boy who was always writing, of a young man who left Iceland as a restless searcher who returned to became a champion of its language and people, and finally, of an internationally renown author whose work is ranked among the greatest writing of all time.

Guðmundsson spares nothing in covering all dimensions of this complex individual: Laxness' support of the Soviet Union in the 30's and 40's, his often strained relationships with women, his freeloading from friends, his long lasting grudges with critics, his relentless self-promotion, and his often brutally frank assessments of modern culture.

Laxness, at least until he reached his seventies, was an extremely controversial figure, both in Iceland and abroad, even to the point of being investigated by the CIA and the FBI. His novels usually had a sub-theme which always challenged Icelanders to think in a new way about their society and its role in the world.

Laxness was an extremely disciplined writer, continually challenging himself to refine his work and explore new techniques- even when he was well into his sixties. In addition to his early life, this book also covers the last part of his career (both of which had always been something of a mystery to me) which consisted primarily of essays and memoirs.

When I first read Laxness, I often felt that I was lacking in context for many of the themes expressed in his novels. This book does a very good job of filling in those gaps. In a sense I've come full circle on Laxness. I know I'll return to him, perhaps re-reading his work in order, with this biography at hand.

Iceland is a strange and wonderful place; although Laxness' Iceland may be fading a bit from the onslaught of globalism, the ideas which Halldór planted will continue to sprout whenever his books are read.


More on Halldor Laxness at Laxness in Translation

By Professor Batty



8 Comments:

Anonymous Caroline said...

This sounds like a very good biography. I came across some blog discussions lately as to whether we should or shouldn't take into consideration biographies when reading an author. It is always risky with controversial authors. The biography might put you off their work. This doesn't seem to have happened here. On the contrary. But then again, I don't think anything could put you off Laxness' work. I like comparing what authors write in their memoirs with what biographers write about them. It's fascinating how people see themselves or want to be perceived by their readers...


Blogger Professor Batty said...

Some kind of background is helpful in the case of Laxness. While I could appreciate the writing on the first reading, I appreciated the novels more on repeated readings. I think there is a need for some awareness of Icelandic culture. This bio fills that need very well.


Anonymous Jon said...

Batty, I am currently reading The Great Weaver from Kashmir. I know the biography would be helpful in what appears to be a very personal work. It is a tougher book to get through than the others I have read, but nonetheless fascinating in its self-examination. I know it will need another read through in the future.


Blogger Professor Batty said...

Jon ~ good luck! That was the most difficult of Laxness' books for me, I think I would have liked it better if I had read it when I was a young man, when I was struggling with some of those same issues.


Blogger Rose said...

Clearly a must read! Your review is tantalizing in a good way, still leaving me with the anticipation of discovery. I'm not sure when I'll get to read this, but now I am looking forward to it even more. So much richness ...


Blogger Professor Batty said...

Rose ~ some shameless name-dropping from the bio:

Sartre

Che Guevara

Janis Joplin

Piques your interest, no?


Blogger Rose said...

Namedropping? Shameless? Ever notice how many times I mention Professor Batty in my blog?


Blogger Professor Batty said...

Rose ~ Faithful reader, fellow traveler, I'll never forget it.

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