Shelf of Halldor Laxness books next to a vase, with red Vintage Classics spines showing and Salka Valka standing upright to display cover.

Born near Reykjavik in Iceland on 23 April 1902, Halldór Laxness began writing at a young age: his first novel was published when he was just seventeen. A prolific author, he went on to write over 60 more books before his death in 1998.

Laxness was one of the outstanding novelists of the 20th Century, described as ‘a visionary’ by the Daily Telegraph and ‘a genius’ by the New York Review of Books. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1955 ‘for his vivid epic power which has renewed the great narrative art of Iceland’.

Salka Valka (1931; translation by Philip Roughton, February 2022)

Late one snowy midwinter night, the gutsy young Salka and her penniless mother arrive by boat into an Icelandic fishing village. The two must forge a new life in this remote place, ‘with the trading company on the one hand and the Salvation Army on the other’, where everyone is at the mercy of a single wealthy merchant, and where everything revolves around fish.

After her mother’s tragic death, Salka grows into a fiercely independent-minded adult – cutting off her hair, educating herself and becoming an advocate for the town’s working class.

A coming-of-age story and a lament for Iceland’s poor, Salka Valka is a funny, tender, feminist epic, now available in English for the first time in decades with Philip Roughton’s new translation.

Under the Glacier (1968; translation by Magnus Magnusson, 1972)

In the shadow of Snæfellsjökull, a small town has reportedly lost its faith. Rumour has it that the church is boarded up. The errant pastor lives with a woman who is not his wife. A corpse is lodged in the glacier.

When the bishop of Iceland hears of these troublingly unorthodox religious practices, he sends an emissary to investigate. What the young man discovers is a community that regards itself as the centre of the world: earthly yet otherworldly, banal yet astonishing.

Under the Glacier is ‘Science fiction. Tale, fable, allegory. Philosophical novel. Dream novel. Visionary novel. Literature of fantasy. Wisdom lit. Spoof. Sexual turn-on,’ – as Susan Sontag writes in her introduction.

Independent People (1946; translation by J. A. Thompson, 1946)

‘I defy anyone to finish Halldór Laxness’s Independent People without wetting the pages with tears,’ Jonathan Franzen, author of The Corrections and Crossroads, once challenged in an interview with the Guardian.

Bjartus is a sheep farmer determined to eke a living from a blighted patch of land. Nothing, not merciless weather, nor his family, will come between Bjartus and his goal of financial independence. Only Asta Solillja, the child he brings up as his daughter, can pierce his stubborn heart. But as Asta grows up, keen to make her own way in the world, Bjartus’s obstinacy threatens to estrange them forever.

Independent People is a magnificent portrait of the eerie Icelandic landscape and one man’s dogged struggle for independence.

The Atom Station (1948; translation by Magnus Magnusson, 1961)

When the Americans make an offer to buy Icelandic land to build a NATO airbase after the Second World War, a storm of protest is provoked throughout the country.

Narrated by a country girl from the north, The Atom Station follows her experiences after she takes up employment as a maid in the house of her Member of Parliament. Her observations and experiences expose the bourgeois society of the south as rootless and shallow, in stark contrast to the age-old culture of the solid and less fanciful north.

The Atom Station is the work of someone who has seen every cherished dream sold down the river, but who loves humanity too much to despair. [Laxness’s] heroine refuses to be bullied or bought, a feminist before her time, full of curiosity and spirit’, writes Michel Faber, author of The Crimson Petal and the White.

Fish Can Sing (1957; translation by Magnus Magnusson, 2000)

Full of the strangeness, humour and beauty of Iceland, Fish Can Sing is ‘Laxness at his best’, according to The Sandpit author, Nicholas Shakespeare.

Abandoned as a baby, Alfgrimur is content to spend his days as a fisherman with the elderly couple he calls grandmother and grandfather. Living in the turf cottage outside Reykjavik, he shares the mid-loft with a motley bunch of eccentrics and philosophers who find refuge in the simple respect for their fellow men that is the household ethos.

But the narrow horizons of Alfgrimur’s idyllic childhood are challenged when he starts school and meets Iceland’s most famous singer, the mysterious Garoar Holm. Garoar encourages him to aim for the ‘one true note’ – but how can he attain it without leaving behind the world that he loves?

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