When Halldór Guðjónsson converted to Catholicism in 1923, he changed his surname to Laxness, after the farm in Iceland where he’d been raised. At first glance, it’s a curious gesture to make at the moment of conversion, which so often seems intended as an entirely new beginning, an enlightened break with a dark past. But the Icelandic writer’s conversion occurred at a particularly complex moment in European cultural history: in the midst of a widespread Catholic revival that saw conflicts between reactionary neotraditionalists and those philosophers, theologians, and writers who sought new approaches to questions of tradition, faith, and desire.
Of particular interest to many Catholic thinkers of the period were two things—the incorporation of folk traditions into Christian practice, and the long history of the veneration of women, from the Virgin Mary through the medieval mystics to Joan of Arc—both of which seemed to offer a way of overcoming the rigid boundaries between natural and supernatural, tradition and innovation, faith and reason. By adopting the name of his family home as a sign of his new faith, Laxness may have intended his act of conversion to serve as an indication of a more fluid religiosity, one open to difference and richer than any set of rules for personal morality.
Critics and biographers have often argued that Laxness’s religious period was a relatively brief one, ending with his trip to the United States in the late 1920s, at which point he became an increasingly fervent social critic. This can be seen in much of his mature writing, including his critique of American imperialism, The Atom Station (1948), which resulted in his political persecution both at home and in the US, and Independent People (1934–35), which many regard as his finest novel and for which he received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1955. As biographer Halldór Guðmundsson argues, Laxness himself seems to have repudiated his religious conversion, writing in a long essay from 1929 called The Book of the People that “MAN is the joyous tiding of the new culture.”
By going from Catholic convert to secular humanist, Laxness followed a path that isn’t altogether unfamiliar—and yet to understand not simply the two stages, but how a person travels between them, remains difficult. The first novel to chronicle this process was Laxness’s Salka Valka (1931), now available in a new translation by Philip Roughton, and whatever the pronouncements of its author, it bears the mark of his near-decade as a Catholic, as he and his fellow adherents rediscovered ways of inhabiting the world that had long been buried under spiritual stagnation. In terms of literary vision, then, it makes little sense to refer to Laxness as undergoing a deconversion. Rather, as Salka Valka makes clear, this transition opened a different perspective on religiosity, in which sensibility and cast of mind count as much as moral assent and conscious belief.
Salka Valka begins with an abrupt shift in perspective. Two first-class passengers on a steamer ship discuss the little villages that dot the coast of Iceland, wondering aloud about the bleak conditions of the people trapped in such places. Our attention is suddenly called to a succession of details that our introductory interlocutors would likely not notice, even while they speculate on the very same things. Gruff men approach in a tender that carries mail and supplies and will return with any passengers disembarking here. As the men are about to shove off and head back to port, two final passengers are announced: A young woman and a little girl are making their way to the deck. The men say they aren’t expecting anyone by that description, but they wait dutifully nonetheless as the woman, haggard from seasickness, and her vigorous young daughter appear and descend carefully into the pitching rowboat.
And so our protagonist is introduced: a little girl, unwelcomed, hardly noticed, already making trouble for those around her simply trying to get through the day. And yet, with this narrative framing, there is a bracing vitality to Salvör Valgerður (or, as she is known, Salka Valka) from the moment she appears, a clarity of presence that neither bends to the will of those around her nor allows her to remove herself entirely from their ranks. This is not simply a matter of prioritizing literary focus—Laxness has the Tolstoyan ability to evoke a full person in a line or two—but rather of the singular characterization with which Salka develops. At times she appears as a still point in the midst of vibrant turbulence, and yet within that singularity there is a deeper kind of fluidity that cannot be stayed by any of the hard-and-fast positions that are taken up by her neighbors, companions, friends, or enemies.
Salka Valka takes place entirely in the Icelandic fishing village of Óseyri. The denizens of Óseyri, fishermen and their families, as well as those itinerant workers who make their way up and down the coast, are largely under the yoke of two forces, the first and most dominant of which is the general store owner, Johánn Bogesen, a monopolistic presence through whom all commerce in the town is conducted and in whose pocket every penny ends up. The other institution shaping the village is the Salvation Army, which operates a kind of soup kitchen where meals are given to workers in exchange for their sitting through sermons.
The first half of the novel focuses on the struggles of Salka and her mother, Sigurlína, to integrate into the community. The people are largely hostile, subjecting the beleaguered outsiders to misogynistic suspicion, even after Sigurlína is baptized and performs with full-throated enthusiasm the Salvation Army’s practice of public confession. A frail and cloying woman, she takes up with several local men, most often the licentious Steinþór, who promises to marry her, only to impregnate and abandon her, though not before he rapes young Salka. Then Steinþór returns, and Sigurlína takes him back in, but another disappearance by him, as well as the death of the son they shared, proves too much for her, and Sigurlína dies by suicide.
All the while, Salka persists in her stubbornness, never succumbing to the inertia that seems to define so much of her environment. The second half of the novel sees the return of Arnaldur, a boy from the village who had helped Salka learn to read before being sent away for his own education. Arnaldur is now full of revolutionary fervor and seeks to transform the village into a workers’ collective. Salka joins him in his battle against Bogesen, the general store owner, though she maintains a sense of remove, questioning the value of the struggle or, at any rate, its cost: “Every now and then,” Laxness writes, “she found herself wondering whether socialism was nothing more to [Arnaldur] than a pretext for fighting against others, getting even with them, and triumphing over them.”
Laxness may have renounced his faith, but it persists as a sensibility in these characterizations and critiques. Like Flannery O’Connor, he is a faithful witness to the Protestant world around him, his fraught proximity allowing neither happy embrace nor confident repudiation. This perspective enables Laxness to avoid the Romantic cliché of identifying women with nature and men with culture. Salka, who seems to reflect the environment more closely than any other character, steadfastly refuses gender conformity, instead exhibiting in her very being the kind of heterogeneity the world—natural and cultural—is made up of. Even when she falls in love with Arnaldur, their relationship is never painted as the sort of hierarchical role-fulfilling that others in the village are. Yet eventually this companionship collapses, as all things do. Salka remains wild, a potent sign that behind and beneath all of our goings-on, however significant, there are deeper mysteries of vitality and grace.
For Laxness, both capitalism and the Bible-thumping meant to drown out the grinding of its gears are attempts to break away from the world, to leave behind both the grit of work and the messiness of sexual difference. Perhaps Laxness broke from Catholicism because he could no longer distinguish it from these and other forces which, with the promise of comfort or advancement, conspire to strip life of its dignity. But however clear we would like the line between the Catholic period and what followed to be, however clear Laxness tried to make it, the mark of those years is indelible, a persistence which gives the lie both to dogmatists who wish faith to be ironclad and skeptics who believe it can be left behind or escaped. Conversion, like any transgression, is only ever partial, an ongoing interrogation of the conditions of a given life. In this way, Laxness’s first post-Catholic novel might be read as another form of testimony to faith, asking what view of the world emerges when a prior self-understanding is abandoned.
Salka Valka is full of conversions: The beleaguered find Jesus; drunks dry out; the rural boy puts on city clothes and tries to impress the wealthy merchant’s daughter. Everyone, at one point or another, seems to make a fresh start. Then the other shoe drops: The blue suit winds up in the mud; the drinker leaps from the wagon; Jesus doesn’t quite save. But the landscape persists in its ritual cycle of storm and stony calm.
The people who endure in that hard place are not those who make grand gestures of defiance or else try to bend reality to their will. But neither are they those who simply accept what is thrown at them. Laxness’s heroes, such as they are, persist in their quiet strangeness, in their dynamic push and pull with the forces around them, loving and struggling and almost hating, living on through each permutation. This is not triumph but tension, a participation in a world that is incomplete, in which every revival bears the weight of the dead. Accordingly, consolation is to be found not in triumph but in resilience. Though, by the end of the novel, the defeated Bogesen is bailed out by his Danish wife, and though Steinþór, Salka’s rapist, has long since returned again and is ascendant in the politics of Óseyri, the earth—nature suffused with spirit—abides with inviolable dignity, the very landscape seeming to promise the end of these necrotic systems in its still-vibrant soil, its still-breathing air.