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Halldór Laxness

Halldór Laxness (1902–98) is the undisputed master of modern Icelandic fiction. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1955 “for his vivid epic power which has renewed the great narrative art of Iceland.” His body of work includes novels, essays, poems, plays, stories, and memoirs: more than sixty books in all. His works available in English include Independent People, The Fish Can Sing, World Light, Under the Glacier, Iceland’s Bell, and Paradise Reclaimed.

From Salka Valka

American estimations of Halldór Laxness, winner of the 1955 Nobel Prize for Literature, typically come down to impressions of Independent People. Fifteen years ago, I traversed Iceland on foot with little knowledge of the country but what I had gleaned from that book and a few other Laxness novels. A week into my hike, I came across a sheep farm and asked the farmer if I could camp in a pasture. He invited me inside for coffee and, seeing as how Laxness’s masterpiece Independent People is set on a sheep farm, I casually dropped that it was one of my favorite novels. The farmer replied, “The one that came before it is even better.” I wrote down the title, Salka Valka, and repeated it in my head for the next month as an incantation, a hocus pocus to make the valley floor solid or the next day’s water near. Unfortunately, I could never actually read the farmer’s favorite until now. This month Archipelago Books publishes this masterwork of social realism. Salka Valka initiates a debate on whether independence is not solely a virtue, but a failure of community—a theme central to Laxness’s subsequent work. The depth of feeling in the scene excerpted here, I think, brilliantly proves the sheep farmer’s point: Salka Valka is a major novel.

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The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2022

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