Halldór Kiljan Laxness: the Writer who Found Enlightenment in Religion

Lindsay Parnell

Icelandic writer Halldór Kiljan Laxness was the first and only citizen of Iceland to receive a Nobel Prize for Literature. His dark and politically charged essays chronicling the ills of religious Institutions and Western capitalism have resulted in both his notoriety and his blacklisting from the United States. More importantly perhaps, their relevance still lingers today argues Lindsay Parnell.

Iceland’s most famous writer was born Halldór Guðjónsson, but wrote under the pseudonym Halldór Kiljan Laxness following his Catholic baptism. Winner of the 1955 Nobel Prize for Literature, Halldór Kiljan Laxness’ literary legacy has become as notorious as it is inspiring. Born in Reykjavik in 1902, Laxness would become a brilliant author of short fiction, poetry, journalism and stage plays. As a man of great intellect, it was in literature that he found a platform to nurture his creativity. Very much influenced by Sinclair Lewis and Ernest Hemingway, as well as the psychoanalytical research of Sigmund Freud, the works of Laxness encompass an exploration and subsequent interrogating dialogue with the humanities.
Laxness’ first publication came at age fourteen in the form of a journalistic piece featured in his local newspaper. Although he lacked a formal academic education, his first full-length novel Barn náttúrunnar – along with its English translation Child of Nature – was published when he was just seventeen years old. It was around this time that the author began to travel widely. His arrival in Luxembourg marked the beginning of a deeply religious and personal journey, and in fact the 1920s constituted a time of great spiritual enlightenment for the writer. It was in Luxembourg that he joined an order of monks and was baptized in the Catholic Church. Laxness’ time spent at Abbaya St. Maurice et St. Maur was filled with a devout study of French, philosophy, Latin and theology. The author rigorously read literature and religious doctrine, which then largely informed the critically structured aspect of his own work.
A visit to America in the late 1920s transformed Laxness’ political consciousness and affiliation. After befriending fellow writer Upton Sinclair, he remained there while translating Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms into his native Icelandic, and exploring a newly found fascination for socialism. It was his intense attraction to the ideologies of the Socialist party that would inspire Laxness’ work Alþydubókin, a collection of darkly sardonic political essays published in 1929. However, a decade later, Laxness found himself blacklisted in the United States because of his writings – among many other communist and socialist sympathizers. This black list famously contained a who’s who among the Hollywood stars, writers, artists and musicians. Laxness’ blacklisting is essentially attributed to the social convictions he articulated in the critically acclaimed novel Atómstöðin, (The Atom Station).
Atómstöðin was published in 1948. Set in the backdrop of Iceland’s dwindling independence from the British and American military occupation during World War II, Atómstöðin tells the story of a young Icelandic country girl who moves to the capital in order to work for a government official. In this groundbreaking novel, the character’s brutal introduction to the corrupted political and military worlds parallels her own journey of self-discovery.

Laxness’ literary career is largely defined by his controversial political convictions. His work is a satirical deconstruction of the conservative Christian institutions and of the greed-fuelled capitalism of the West. Although written half-a-century ago, these texts still hold a painstaking political relevance today.

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