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The Islander: a biography of Halldór Laxness

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Halldòr Laxness won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1955. During his life, which spanned nearly the entire century, he not only wrote sixty books, but also became an active participant in Europe's idealistic debates and struggles. In the 1930s, Laxness became attracted to Soviet communism. He travelled widely in the Soviet Bloc and, despite witnessing some atrocities, re Halldòr Laxness won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1955. During his life, which spanned nearly the entire century, he not only wrote sixty books, but also became an active participant in Europe's idealistic debates and struggles. In the 1930s, Laxness became attracted to Soviet communism. He travelled widely in the Soviet Bloc and, despite witnessing some atrocities, remained a defender of communism until the 1960s. But his political leanings never dominated his work. Laxness continually sought to divulge the world of beauty that lurks beneath the everyday, ensuring his artistry remained a sanctuary of humanism and reflection. In this biography, Guðmundsson has been granted access to unique material by Laxness' family. As a result, the interrelationships between Laxness' personal life, his politics and his career are meticulously examined. What emerges is a grand description of a fascinating personality in which the manifold conflicts of the 20th century are mirrored. 'Laxness is a writer of the first degree, a writer I dreamed of coming close to' - Boris Pasternak, 1960 'When in a bad mood I have picked one of your books. And there the pure and deep sound has welcomed me, strong and charming from the first page' - Karen Blixen in an open letter to Laxness in 1952


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Halldòr Laxness won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1955. During his life, which spanned nearly the entire century, he not only wrote sixty books, but also became an active participant in Europe's idealistic debates and struggles. In the 1930s, Laxness became attracted to Soviet communism. He travelled widely in the Soviet Bloc and, despite witnessing some atrocities, re Halldòr Laxness won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1955. During his life, which spanned nearly the entire century, he not only wrote sixty books, but also became an active participant in Europe's idealistic debates and struggles. In the 1930s, Laxness became attracted to Soviet communism. He travelled widely in the Soviet Bloc and, despite witnessing some atrocities, remained a defender of communism until the 1960s. But his political leanings never dominated his work. Laxness continually sought to divulge the world of beauty that lurks beneath the everyday, ensuring his artistry remained a sanctuary of humanism and reflection. In this biography, Guðmundsson has been granted access to unique material by Laxness' family. As a result, the interrelationships between Laxness' personal life, his politics and his career are meticulously examined. What emerges is a grand description of a fascinating personality in which the manifold conflicts of the 20th century are mirrored. 'Laxness is a writer of the first degree, a writer I dreamed of coming close to' - Boris Pasternak, 1960 'When in a bad mood I have picked one of your books. And there the pure and deep sound has welcomed me, strong and charming from the first page' - Karen Blixen in an open letter to Laxness in 1952

48 review for The Islander: a biography of Halldór Laxness

  1. 4 out of 5

    Jim

    Let me begin by acknowledging one of my prejudices: I am in love with most things Icelandic. That includes the medieval sagas, the works of Nobel Prize winning novelist (1955) Halldor Laxness, and now also Icelandic detective novels. I have read most of Laxness's work that has been translated into English, which is but a small portion of his total output. His plays, poems, and essays have not made it to the English-speaking world. But, while there is life, there is also hope. Most authors' biogra Let me begin by acknowledging one of my prejudices: I am in love with most things Icelandic. That includes the medieval sagas, the works of Nobel Prize winning novelist (1955) Halldor Laxness, and now also Icelandic detective novels. I have read most of Laxness's work that has been translated into English, which is but a small portion of his total output. His plays, poems, and essays have not made it to the English-speaking world. But, while there is life, there is also hope. Most authors' biographies depict people who are much snarkier than Laxness. I guess there is something about always being asked the same stupid questions by ignoramuses who don't read that turns many writers inward and encourages them to hand questioners the same old party line. Laxness, on the other hand, had a strain of emotional nakedness about him that comes out particularly in his letters and essays, which are liberally quoted in this excellent biography by Halldor Gudmundsson. In fact, The Islander: A Biography of Halldór Laxness is probably the best literary biography I have read for many years. There were two major dead ends in Halldor Laxness's life. First, he was enthralled by Catholicism and spent some time at the Monastery of Clervaux in Luxembourg. That was replaced by another god, one that stayed with him until relatively late in his life, namely Communism. Although Laxness never actually joined the Communist party, he was regarded by many as being a fellow traveller. This caused his considerable pain during much of his life, especially when he was attacked by the Rightist press in Iceland, the United States, and elsewhere. Curiously, in his declining years, Laxness returned to Catholicism. In the end, in 1981, he told a Swedish interviewer, "I am a storyteller. God protect me from saving the world." What kind of storyteller was Halldor Laxness? It is possible that some people who are reading this review have never heard of the Icelandic writer, whose years spanned all but a few years of the turbulent Twentieth Century. He is that rarest of contemporary writers, a crafter of epics. His Independent People (1934-1935), Iceland's Bell (1943-1946), and World Light (1937-1940) are among the greatest works of fiction written within the last hundred years. That tiny little island in the North Atlantic, situated somewhere between Norway and Greenland, has a thousand-year-old literary tradition that makes the inhabitants naturally turn to the epic mode. Even if you do not have the burning interest in Iceland that I have, I urge everyone who loves literature to give Laxness a chance. So what if his books are long? Just give up reading some trashy genre novels for a few weeks, and you will not be disappointed.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Snævar Hreinsson

    Excellent book! I picked it up this summer on my visit back to Iceland. I have always been curious to learn more about Halldor Laxness given his unique stature among Icelandic writers.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Carolyn

    This is a fine biography of one of the greatest writers of the 20th century. Halldor Laxness was a writer of prodigious energy and vitality, creating some of the most engaging and original characters in literature. His mastery in creating an authentic setting, both cultural, historical and emotional, is unmatched. Like the characters he created, HKL was dynamic. He embraces different beliefs, ideologies and even dogmas at various times of his life, then distances himself from those tenets he once This is a fine biography of one of the greatest writers of the 20th century. Halldor Laxness was a writer of prodigious energy and vitality, creating some of the most engaging and original characters in literature. His mastery in creating an authentic setting, both cultural, historical and emotional, is unmatched. Like the characters he created, HKL was dynamic. He embraces different beliefs, ideologies and even dogmas at various times of his life, then distances himself from those tenets he once held dear, and his views on politics and literature undergo constant transformation. But he was no dilettante: his responses were honestly believed according to what he saw, felt and reflected on at the time. That said, he was a mass of contradictions and self-absorbed to the point of solipsism at times. He was also more than capable of self-delusion and not a little hypocrasy. The biographer has access to a rich vein of treasures in the form of original documents, letters and interviews with a vast number of people, the most valuable being quotes from HKL himself. He was a constant observer and lifelong critic of Icelandic culture and politics, and observes in 1946: "We cannot gain the respect of the world with weapons, gold or numbers of inhabitants, or with the recognition of our independence, only with the culture of our nation." In 1950, on the opening of the National Theatre and the establishment of the Symphony Orchestra of Iceland, HKL told the Artists' Congress: "Everything that helps to increase the nation's cultural wealth is inexpensive, whether it costs a great deal or not." This biography would have definitely received five stars had the writer given us more background to each of the great novels. What he did offer us was excellent, but so tantalisingly brief. Perhaps another criticism was the over-detailed accounts of dealings with publishers. That being said, I am so grateful that this book has been written, for it expands our knowledge and appreciation of one of the world's greatest writers, and the historical and cultural forces that helped shape him.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Helen

    Quite excited to get my hands on this. It's a chronological biography, abridged in translation; don't expect a lot of literary criticism of the works, although there is some. Lots of interesting background detail - guessing Halldor wasn't always the easiest person to know - and feel inspired now to dig out the novels I have but haven't yet read. One or two odd proofreading lapses, or even translation oddities (e.g. having told us that there are no trains in Iceland, describing an Icelandic locat Quite excited to get my hands on this. It's a chronological biography, abridged in translation; don't expect a lot of literary criticism of the works, although there is some. Lots of interesting background detail - guessing Halldor wasn't always the easiest person to know - and feel inspired now to dig out the novels I have but haven't yet read. One or two odd proofreading lapses, or even translation oddities (e.g. having told us that there are no trains in Iceland, describing an Icelandic location as a 16-hour train journey from somewhere else in Iceland - which in British terms is a really long way, but perhaps not what is meant?) Also, a few more pictures would have been nice (e.g. of places such as his house). Enjoyable and informative, and occasionally funny, too.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Pétur

  6. 4 out of 5

    Michael Petersen

  7. 4 out of 5

    Karin karinto

  8. 5 out of 5

    Woland Smithers

  9. 4 out of 5

    David Agnew

  10. 5 out of 5

    Coenraad

  11. 4 out of 5

    Andrew

  12. 4 out of 5

    Magnús Hafsteinsson

  13. 4 out of 5

    Guðrún Jóhannsdóttir

  14. 4 out of 5

    Halldór Harðarson

  15. 4 out of 5

    Rufo Quintavalle

  16. 5 out of 5

    Kristjana

  17. 5 out of 5

    Michael

  18. 5 out of 5

    Hjörtur Jónasson

  19. 5 out of 5

    Christina Bjenning

  20. 5 out of 5

    Topi Timonen

  21. 5 out of 5

    Abi

  22. 5 out of 5

    Tom Ratzloff

  23. 4 out of 5

    John

  24. 5 out of 5

    Daníel Starrason

  25. 5 out of 5

    Owen Youngman

  26. 5 out of 5

    Lidija

  27. 4 out of 5

    Hlöðver Sigurðsson

  28. 4 out of 5

    Hólmkell Hreinsson

  29. 4 out of 5

    Julia

  30. 4 out of 5

    Dagný

  31. 5 out of 5

    Liliaceae

  32. 5 out of 5

    Ragnhildur

  33. 4 out of 5

    Osmo

  34. 4 out of 5

    Aaron Benarroch

  35. 5 out of 5

    Quercus Books

  36. 5 out of 5

    Joshua

  37. 4 out of 5

    Þórir

  38. 4 out of 5

    Lorna

  39. 5 out of 5

    Valgerdur Benediktsdottir

  40. 5 out of 5

    CJ

  41. 5 out of 5

    Andrea

  42. 5 out of 5

    Katalin Eisenberg

  43. 4 out of 5

    Mary

  44. 5 out of 5

    Goran

  45. 5 out of 5

    Carmen

  46. 4 out of 5

    Kris

  47. 4 out of 5

    Kate

  48. 5 out of 5

    Misha Mathew

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