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Laxness and his letters of congratulation following his Nobel prize win.
Photo: Photo: Gljúfrasteinn / Laxness Museum FB. Laxness and his letters of congratulation following his Nobel prize win..

Laxness – Why You Should Still Read Him

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The first time I tried to get acquainted with the work of Halldór Laxness, the iconic Icelandic literary figure who won the Nobel Prize in 1955, I was 13 years old. The book was Innansveitarkrónika, a mandatory read for school, and I hated it from the very first page. I fail to remember the plot of the story, but I do recall being infuriated that this misspelt excuse for a book was being forced upon us (for those who don’t know, Laxness did not agree with the spelling rules of certain words). My second attempt was five years later. It was also a school read, but this time, the book was Independent People, one of Laxness‘ most well-known books. I must admit that I struggled through the first half; the story was intolerably slow, and I cared neither for the main character nor his traditional Icelandic sheep farmer life. But coming into the second half, something changed, so much so that it propelled me completely into the world of Icelandic literature and landed me in an undergraduate programme studying it. I have since happily devoured several more of Laxness’ books, and here are four reasons why you should, too.

1. His stories will reveal to you the core of Icelandic society and psyche

They are a superb exploration of the roots of the Iceland spirit and culture. Some would even say that they reshaped those very things and granted the nation an entirely new vision of itself. In his writing, Laxness left few stones of the Icelandic society unturned, and the riveting stories he published are as varied as they are many. The hardships of farming and fishing life, the presence of the US army in the country, class struggles, love, and the fight for independence are all on the Halldór Laxness reading menu, amongst a myriad of other subjects. At the core of all these stories is a deep knowledge of Icelandic history and culture that few have managed to represent as well as Laxness. 

2. His writing is a feast for the brain

A true master of words, Laxness rarely wrote one that was out of place. Although his linguistic virtuosity and unique style have been reported to get somewhat lost in translation, his attention to detail stays intact. From weather descriptions to internal monologues to the birds hanging around by the beach, every word is carefully chosen and plays a part in his vivid story world creations. 

3. His characters are one of a kind

Exceptionally well-written characters are at the heart of each of Laxness‘ books, many of which have become one with the Icelandic consciousness. Quirky, contradictory and sympathy-evoking, they are delivered to us through an extraordinary understanding of both human nature and what it means to be Icelandic. If Laxness‘ eloquent words are not enough to lure you in, his powerful character portrayal is bound to accomplish that.

4. He can make you laugh

Humour might not be the thing you think about in relation to last century‘s books, but Laxness was actually a pretty funny guy. His writing has been described as dramatic, epic, dour-droll and tender, but it‘s also heavily sprinkled with comical interactions and conversations that you can‘t help but chuckle at, even decades after they were written. Throughout heartbreak and hardship, the foolishness of life is never far off.

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