First-time visitors to Iceland are well advised to read in translation, before they go there, one or two of the Old Icelandic sagas, if only to get a fuller idea of the country they are visiting than maps or photographs can provide. By 1955, when he won the Nobel Prize for Literature, Halldr Laxness would probably have agreed. In his formal acceptance of the prize, he stated: "It is a great good fortune for an author to be born into a nation so steeped in centuries of poetry and literary tradition."
He had not always been so proud of his literary inheritance, however; indeed, his relationship with the sagas was like that of many children with their parents; first one of out-and-out rebellion, and only later developing, through reconciliation, into one of fruitful partnership. "I have nothing to learn from them," he wrote in 1923 of "those old Icelandic fogeys", the authors of the sagas; it was their emphasis on externals, on "the drawing of contours" that he mainly complained of. Not until 1945 did he express the view that "an Icelandic writer cannot survive without constantly having the ancient books in his thoughts".
Laxness's first major novel, The Great Weaver from Kashmir (1927), which is largely autobiographical, reflects his short-lived but fervent devotion to Catholicism, while The Book of the People (1929), a collection of radical essays, shows his subsequent commitment to socialism. These two books, with the ideas that inspired them, form an essential preface to his later writing, and in particular to the epic novels of the Thirties for which he is best known: Salka Valka (1931-32), the story of a young girl growing up in an Icelandic fishing village in which socialist ideas are also slowly gaining ground; Independent People (1934-35), in which the main character, an Icelandic small farmer, gradually develops into a tragic hero; and World Light (1937-40), the story of a penniless folk-poet who for all his oddities and comic failings nevertheless symbolises a profound poetic integrity.
In all these works the element of religious fervour, inherited from his involvement with Catholicism, combines with Laxness's stern social criticism, giving it vitality and universal significance, and reveals itself in the vivid descriptions of Icelandic nature.
His subsequent novels include The Bell of Iceland (1943-46), about the struggle of Icelandic culture for survival in the 17th and 18th centuries; The Atom Station (1948), about the impingement of foreign influences on Icelandic culture just after the Second World War; The Happy Warriors (1952), in which a viking-age setting is used to criticise modern warfare and naive modern responses to the sagas; The Fish Can Sing (1957), a nostalgic evocation of life in Reykjavik at the turn of the century; Paradise Reclaimed (1960), about an Icelander's eventual discovery of paradise at home in Iceland after a long involvement with Mormonism abroad; and Christianity at Glacier (1968), in which Christianity is viewed in relation to other ways and kinds of life, animal as well as human. Many of Laxness's novels are informed by the spirit of Taoism, with which he was already acquainted when The Great Weaver was published.
While it as a novelist that he will mainly be remembered, his work also includes a book of poems, eight plays, four books of memoirs and numerous essays and speeches, all of which, together with the novels, form a fascinating commentary on the century his life so nearly spanned. He has been praised by one of his non-Icelandic readers for "placing Iceland in the midst of the world" in his writing, and it is true that, while his point of view is always distinctively Icelandic, it never fails to incorporate an international, universal dimension.
Two of the characters in his novels - characters into which Laxness clearly put much of himself - express the wish to inhabit the mountains and marshes of Iceland after death; and visitors to Iceland may be encouraged to add the novels of Laxness that have been translated into English, some of them by Magnus Magnusson, to their preparatory reading, for just as the spirit of the sagas lives on forever in that magnificent landscape, so will that of Halldr Laxness.