Top Ten: Laxness in Translation
This is the post that started the Laxness in Translation
website which has expanded over the years into a bottomless rabbit-hole of information about Iceland’s only Nobel laureate:
The celebrated Icelandic author Halldór Laxness
wrote many novels, essays, plays and stories in his long career. Those of us not empowered with a fluency in Icelandic are limited to a novella
, a few short stories
and this list. They are available although Salka Valka
and The Happy Warriors
are hard to find.
Translation is an art form in itself; I'll leave any judgment concerning the English versions of these books to experts. Icelandic is a very precise language (blessed with a vibrant set of idioms) and English has a lot of Icelandic "DNA" in its structure and vocabulary which should allow for a good conversion. Not being a native Icelander, I'm sure I've missed many cultural references in these books, conversely, reading Laxness has exposed me to many facets of Icelandic history, culture and psychology. I have read
that Laxness has done more to shape the Icelandic sense of national identity than any other author has for any other culture.
This post is part of a challenge from Rose
, who is also a big Laxness fan. With today being the 52nd anniversary of Laxness' Nobel banquet speech
it only seemed fitting to present our views at this time. (note: this post has been updated several times since it was first published.)
Therefore, I hereby humbly present my personal "top ten" list of Laxness in translation…
#10. The Great Weaver From Kashmir (Vefarinn mikli frá Kasmír)
... It was his first work to gain wide recognition- the story of a self-centered young man on his quest to become the "most perfect human." Full of long philosophical passages, although brilliant at times. A full review is here
#9. Paradise Reclaimed (Paradísarheimt)
... The "Mormon" novel, parts of it take place in Utah (kind of dry-!), in it Laxness explores religious and social themes, particularly familial estrangement. Based on a true story. Many people like this one a great deal, naturally popular with the LDS. Here
is another reader's perspective.
#8. Atom Station (Atómstöðin)
... Pointed political satire aimed at the Icelandic government's acquiescence to the establishment of the United States military base in Iceland in the late 40's, with a memorable heroine in Ugla, who is a country girl who sees through the duplicity of the politicians. Her character may have been loosely based on Sigríður Tómasdóttir, who reputedly saved the waterfall Gullfoss
from exploitation in the early 1900's. It has probably not been distributed in the U.S. until recently because of sub-plots concerning Communism and Anarchism. Laxness was effectively blacklisted in the U.S. because of this book. Full review here
#7. World Light (Heimsljós)
... A very strange novel, first published in four parts with almost the entire first part taking place with the hero in a sick-bed! Ólafur's struggle with religion, sexuality and morality may be a bit much for a modern reader, especially after several hundred pages of his confused thoughts and morally suspect deeds. The book examines the saint/scoundrel paradox of the Icelandic Skáld (poet/writer) with insight and contains a wealth of peculiar Icelandic phrases and observations- ending with a transcendent finale. Very highly thought of by Icelandic readers.
#6. Under The Glacier (Kristnihald undir Jökli)
... The "Modern" Laxness novel, complete with new-age charlatans, a most pragmatic Pastor, the woman/goddess/fish Úa, and the hapless seminarian "Embí" who is trying to make sense of it all. A novel of ideas, very funny, very droll, its subtle humor may take repeated readings to appreciate. Quite possibly the most "Flippist" novel ever written. Susan Sontag's last review
was of this book. Halldór's last original novel, written when he was in his sixties, it was much discussed in Iceland after its publication. My review is here
#5. The Happy Warriors (Gerpla)
... Presented in a strict saga style, set in the era of transition between Christianity and Paganism, concerning two would-be "Heroes" who are out of date with the times. Masterfully written, full of cultural and historical references; it might not be the best choice for the casual reader, however. A full review here
#4. Iceland's Bell (Íslandsklukkan)
... Icelandic history in the guise of a sprawling romance-saga; the English version has numerous footnotes which help to explain the mixture of Icelandic, Latin and Danish references; it is not for the attention-deficient but worth the effort, if only for Snæfríður's impassioned speech before the Danish authorities which speaks for subjugated peoples everywhere. Check out this in-depth review
, in two parts
, for more on this magnificent book.
#3. Independent People, (Sjálfstætt fólk)
... Icelandic male psychology (and much more) While reading it I found myself thinking that Bjartur, the hero, was almost exactly the same as my grandfather (and I also found more of myself in Bjartur that I'd care to admit...) Widely available, I grew up with this book in our house- it was a Book-Of-The-Month-Club selection in the late 1940's. Along with Iceland's Bell
and World Light
, one of the main reasons Laxness won the Nobel prize in literature. The late poet Bill Holm
had been known scour used bookstores for copies to give to friends! Amazon has over sixty 5 star reviews
of this book.
#2. The Fish Can Sing, (Brekkukotsannáll)
... Probably the most delightful of Laxness' novels. The orphaned Álfgrímur is, for the most part, a happy and simple child living in a world of colorful Pickwickian-style eccentrics in the turn of the century Reykjavík. His coming of age, particularly in his relationship to the mysterious Garðar Hólm, may be a metaphor for Iceland, then reluctantly emerging into the modern world. In light of the recent Icelandic presence on the world's music scene, Álfgrímur's graveyard dialog with Garðar is eerily prophetic. This is another work where nearly every paragraph holds some brilliant observation or subtle characterization. I've written about it here
before, with a full review here
#1 Salka Valka
I have also featured this title here
; this story started out as a screenplay and it has a definite cinematic quality- it has been filmed twice. As to the book itself, I have no praise that can surpass this article
by an Icelandic writer.
For a good first novel, I would suggest Fish
; if you like sprawling sagas, try Bell
. If you can find it, Salka
is absolutely tremendous- overwhelming at times- a real find of a book, it is scandalous that it remains almost unknown in this country. Laxness also published two earlier juvenile novels and some later memoir/novels which, to the best of my knowledge, are not available in English.
You can read Rose's post here.
A final word of warning: Reading Laxness causes true addiction! Beware!