Thursday, February 8 marks the twentieth anniversary of Icelandic author and national activist Halldór Kiljan Laxness’ death, RÚV reports. Halldór was a prolific writer of political essays, articles, poetry, short stories, travel narratives, and novels, chief among them Independent People, which has often been dubbed ‘the national novel of Iceland.’ Halldór was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1955 and remains the only Icelander to have been so honored.
Halldór Laxness was born in 1902 and died just shy of a century later, in 1998. Raised in Mosfellssdalur, the countryside not far from Reykjavík, he had a fierce love for his homeland, taking his writing name, ‘Laxness,’ from the name of the farm he grew up on. Over the course of his life, Halldór saw his beloved nation transform through two world wars, innumerable global conflicts, and the growing influence of militarized nations in Iceland, not least, the US, who had troops stationed in the country from 1941 all the way until 2006.
Halldór left Iceland at the age of 17 to study in Copenhagen and Switzerland, where he, a devoted Catholic, considered becoming a monk. Instead, at the age of 25, he would write his first novel, The Great Weaver of Kashmir, a Siddartha-esque bildungsroman about its protagonist’s own complicated spiritual journey.
Halldór’s works often delve into Iceland’s history to examine its present, such as Iceland’s Bell, or are scathingly satirical about the issues of their day, such as The Atom Station. Satire and philosophy tinged with off-kilter humor are always at work in his novels, one of the sharpest examples of which is Under the Glacier, which was made into a film directed by his daughter, Guðný Halldórsdóttir, in 1989.
The Nobel Prize committee lauded Halldór for “his vivid epic power which has renewed the great narrative art of Iceland,” and their estimation of his work was without a doubt shared by his fellow Icelanders. In the obituary he wrote about Halldór two days after his death, fellow author and journalist Matthías Johannessen wrote “The clocks have stopped ticking, but the author lives on in his work.” He went to say that if the day came when Icelanders forgot Halldór’s literary genius, they would have forgotten what it means to be Icelandic. “And with that, their sparse population won’t be rich in anything, such that it will be pitiable, laughable. Then will they not only have forgotten their grandmother, but rather Edda [Snorri Sturlason’s Prose Edda] as well…Hopefully, the clock will chime in that future that Halldór Kiljan Laxness wished for his nation.”
More information about Halldór Laxness’ life and work can be found on the website for Gljúfrasteinn, his home in South Iceland with wife Auður Sveinsdóttir, which was turned into a museum after his death.