A documentary by
Last year I received a screener of this documentary—a concise and literate look at the life of Halldór Laxness. Such notables as Jane Smiley, Brad Leithauser, Günter Grass, Morten Thing and Chay Lemoine expound upon the political intrigues which swirled around Iceland’s only Nobel laureate.
Laxness came into his own as writer right after the end of World War I, a war which had effectively killed the romantic novel. As a spirit of “irrational exuberance” had emerged on both sides of the Atlantic, but Laxness, struggling with personal problems, entered a monastery, an episode which served as the basis for his novel The Great Weaver from Kashmir. He then spent time in Canada and the U.S. where, witnessing the failure of capitalism and, developing an acquaintance with Upton Sinclair, he embraced Socialist ideals which greatly influenced his novels.
The documentary shows Laxness traveling throughout Europe in the 30s, he was denounced by the Nazis and deceived by the Soviets. Leftist writers in Denmark promoted and translated his work, aiding his ascendance with readers in Scandinavia. In Iceland, his views on class struggle and his push for modernization of the Icelandic language and literature actually caused him to be brought to trial for its ‘incorrect’ use. The occupation of Iceland by the British, followed by the establishment of an American Naval base, was perceived as a threat to Icelandic identity and pushed Laxness toward writing his satirical novel The Atom Station. That novel prompted Icelandic politicians to notify the U.S. ambassador, suggesting that he was a tax evader, and brought attention from the U.S. State Department and the F.B.I.. This caused Laxness to be effectively blacklisted; some aspects of these actions remain state secrets.
The film is a little rough round the edges, some stock footage is not in proper sequence, but the interviewees are excellent, especially Günter Grass, who deftly explains the political situation of European writers in the inter-war era. It also has clips from Halldór’s humiliating televised renunciation of Stalinism in 1957.
I don’t know where one might be able to see this, although I’ve read that it is for sale in Iceland. I haven’t been able to find any references to it in English. It is an excellent overview of the man and his effect on Icelandic culture. Thanks again to Chay Lemoine, who sent me this fascinating video.