The View from Here, No. 8

The eighth in a regular series of columns by Chay Lemoine: Halldor Gudmundsson Interview, in which Chay talks with Halldor Gudmundsson about his Halldor Laxness biography, THE ISLANDER, and also his latest release, WRITERS’ LIVES.

Halldor Gudmundsson is known outside of Iceland primarily for his definitive portrayal of the Icelandic author, Halldor Laxness. Gudmundsson’s THE ISLANDER, a biography of Halldor Laxness, has been published in several European languages and recently in English by Maclehose Press, London. His penetrating insight into Icelandic literature has once again proved to be brilliant with the publication of WRITERS’ LIVES, a parallel biography of Icelandic writers Gunnar Gunnarsson and Thorbergur Thorason. Halldor’s books examine the literary and cultural landscape of Iceland as well as exploring the lives of Iceland’s literary heroes.

I had the pleasure of meeting Halldor a few years ago when my Laxness research first began to bear fruit. As an American Laxness researcher, I was full of Internet misconceptions and biased misinformation. I took what little new material I had and “ran with it”. Halldor is the careful researcher, while I filled in blanks with conjecture. I’ve annoyed the Freedom of Information people from two administrations and had a friendly row with the State Department under the Obama administration. I said what I “thought” was true about the U.S. government after the war years while Halldor carefully validates facts. If I annoyed Halldor with my articles and comments, speaking before I had the facts, he is going to let me know the “Icelandic way” and wait until we get drunk together and then he’s going to let me have it. I make more unsubstantiated speculations toward the end of the interview.

This summer I read THE ISLANDER again. The book is magnificent. I would highly recommend it to students of Icelandic culture, Icelandic literature, world literature, and those who want to read a compelling biography. The following interview was the first time I had spoken with Halldor in several years, besides the occasional email.

Good morning Halldor. I understand that you are part of a team that is bringing Icelandic literature to the world in 2011, with the focus on Iceland in the Frankfurt Book Fair in Germany.

Good morning Chay. Yes the Frankfurt Book Fair is the most important international bookfair in the world, and the guest of honour gains access to the German speaking market, which is, unlike the U.S. market, very open towards translations. As Icelandic literature has been translated more and more in the last ten years, this is opening a window and providing entry for many modern writers such as Gunnarson and Thordarson, but also young and promising writers. So this has been very rewarding work for me. I hope our team, which is working on the guest of honour appearance, can do something useful for Icelandic literature in the world.

Congratulations on your new book about the lives of Icelandic writers Gunnar Gunnarsson and Thorbergur Thordarson. Why not write a biography on either writer?  Why choose two very diverse writers for a parallel biography?

Thanks Chay, after I finished the Laxness biography I thought of tackling another Icelandic author and then another but as a writer I needed a challenge. So I felt tempted to write a double biography following in the footsteps of the classical writer Plutarch, who wrote about ancient heroes two at a time comparing and contrasting them. It was especially tempting with Gunnar and Thorbergur. They were born one year apart, and died one year apart. They were both farmers’ sons from rather isolated areas in Eastern Iceland and instead of taking over the farm they followed their dream of writing. One of them became a very special, original writer in Icelandic; the other went to Denmark, as it seemed impossible to become a professional writer in Iceland.   I thought it would make an interesting comparison. I am fascinated by the 20th century, the age of extremes, and it added value to this comparison that one of them became a follower of Stalin (Thorbergur), and the other was for a while close to Nazi Germany (Gunnar). They also in this respect mirrored the 20th century.

Once again, I see that you are exploring the cultural and historical landscape as well as the lives of the writers. English readers may be unfamiliar with both writers, although THE GOOD SHEPARD, a short Christmas pastoral, is easily found in English. Thorbergur is virtually unknown. I read IN SEARCH OF MY BELOVED years ago though, do you think that this is a good representative of his work?

Yes, Thorbergur is very little translated, but I think this may change soon. He is being translated into German, and the first part of his autobiographical work THE STONES SPEAK  has now been translated into English. At the moment the translator is looking for a publisher. Gunnar was widely translated in the thirties, and then almost forgotten. As in my Laxness book I am also wrestling with the question, why write, what urge lies behind this graphomania that is found in so many writers? I wasn’t thinking about foreign readers when I wrote Skaldalif, Writers’ lives.

Of the two I would find Thorbergur the most interesting as he has a distinct Icelandic voice. Could this be a problem for most English translators?

You are correct Thorbergur has a very distinct voice and many Icelanders think that it might be impossible to translate. But in my opinion, this is not correct. Every translation generates a new work; no translation can entirely do the original justice. But that doesn’t mean that it cannot transfer meaning, atmosphere and thoughts from one language to the other. I think readers of Thorbergur in translation can get much from reading him, even though they will never understand all the allusions of the original. I think this translation problem has been exaggerated.

It sounds like you’re saying that everything is lost in translation, is that correct?

I wouldn’t put it quite like that. As a publisher, I once edited the Icelandic translation of another “untranslatable” work; ULYSSES by James Joyce. I went with the translator to Dublin, we met some relatives of Joyce, saw the sites of the book, and I think the translation is very well done and gives a lot to the Icelandic reader. One just has to accept that it is another work, the connotations are different, and there is another audience. Once you have accepted this, translations are a wonderful add-on to literature. And for writers who write in a language like Icelandic, which only 300 thousand people can understand, they are an absolute necessity.

THE ISLANDER, your biography of Halldor Laxness, is your masterpiece. It won the Icelandic Literary Prize award in 2004 and was voted biography of the year by the Icelandic Booksellers. It’s great reading even for those with only a passing interest in Halldor. I just reread the English translation and it’s even better the second time around.  How many languages has it been translated into?

The book has now been published in Danish, Swedish, Norwegian, German and English; there might be some more translations coming, but it is too early to say.

When I got my hands on the English translation I was very, very excited about the opportunity to gain access to information that English speakers did not have about Halldor but I was also apprehensive. I was afraid that I would believe your portrayal and I would come away not liking him. I was also afraid that I would realise the real Halldor was misogynist, racist and/or homophobic. However, he was none of those things as a matter of fact, he was in fact far ahead of his time in respect to equal rights for everyone.  I suppose that’s foolish since I’m supposed to be an unbiased researcher. I sincerely like Halldor. You wrote about his warts and all and I came away respecting the man even more. I definitely believed your portrayal. Was it difficult to write such an objective rendering when you are so close to the subject?

In a way, yes. Halldor is a national icon here in Iceland and I feared that I wouldn’t be able to write a critical work. It is essential for a biographer to stay objective and write from a certain distance so that you can be critical, even ironic towards the subject, when necessary. In Iceland there was a heated debate about a highly interesting novel based on Laxness by Icelandic author Hallgrimur Helgason, and an even more heated debate about a biography of Laxness written by a right wing ideologue. This strengthened my resolve and I hope I managed to write a critical biography without belittling Halldor in any way. He has the strength, as a writer and as a person, that only a critical biography can do justice. However, I think that the translations of my book are partly also due to the fact, that as a writer he almost encompasses the whole 20th century, shows the struggles of his times in an exceptional way.

The book is in translation too because it’s a exceptional book. It is not only a literary history of a great writer but the historical development of a small country. The strengths of Halldor were also the strengths of Icelanders themselves. He matured as the country matured. A friend asked me questions about Iceland and I told her to read your biography.

An even better choice would be to read Halldor himself. I heard that Roy Hattersley, who was heading the negotiation with the UK government and Iceland during the  “Cod Wars”, once came to his colleagues and put INDEPENDENT PEOPLE by Laxness on the table and said “ I just read this: we will never win”.

I’ve always said that even if Iceland lost an argument you would never know it.

You may have a point there! But seriously, Halldor’s life as you said also stands for the development of Iceland in the 20th century. Culturally speaking, he was born almost in the 18th century, in a very isolated and poor country with almost no bourgeois culture, no cities or anything. Now Laxness us no longer with us, Iceland is one of the richest countries in the world, for better or worse. During his whole life he felt an inner struggle between these opposites of being an Icelander and citizen of the world. He left his country at a young age, travelled widely, but always came back. He wanted to become world famous by writing about the poor girl in the Icelandic fishing village, and the farmer on the heath.

That is probably true of most Icelanders today and a sensibility that most Americans cannot understand. You sometimes have to leave your country in order to get access to universal truths. Often Americans tend to have tunnel vision and see the world from a limited and narrow minded perspective. I’m happy to say that Halldor’s books are very popular in the U.S.. But writing articles about Laxness and giving him attributes that he doesn’t have, ignoring his strengths, is common. Susan Sontag for instance called UNDER THE GLACIER one of the funniest books every written. Did we read the same book? Do you think American literary critics “get Laxness” or are they judging Halldor based on American sensibilities in order to further their own literary agendas?

Well, most readers see a novel through their own culture when they read a translation, as we mentioned before. I think one shouldn’t worry too much about this. Once a writer has published a book, he has sent his child away from home and cannot control what happens to it. Every good novel leaves room for different interpretations. It is, for example, interesting to see the incredible variations in interpretations of Laxness’ books in East and West Germany during the cold war, each using him for his own purposes. A good writer will survive this. I am glad to see how many of his novels have now been published in the U.S..

Today, Halldor is relatively popular in the United States and that is so surprising since when I first started researching Halldor, he was out of print. When I first read INDEPENDENT PEOPLE I could not believe the book was out of print. I thought I was reading into things in the book that weren’t there. It was the start of a long and productive relationship.

Yes, that was the great change. I am now convinced that your research, and also earlier my own and that of historian Valur Ingimundarson, has shown that Laxness was defacto blacklisted in the U.S. during the cold war. Maybe his name was not put on a list, like it was done in Hollywood when Edgar Hoover wrote to his publisher, Alfred Knopf, that they were investigating this supposedly Anti-American author, that was just as influential. Knopf had sold 500 thousand copies of Independent People, and then did not want to carry on with this author. No publisher in his right mind would make such a decision. That’s why I would now call it defacto blacklisting.

I took chances in announcing that Halldor was blacklisted but as an American I had a clearer perspective and much experience with the American political nightmares. Most book blacklisting was defacto as the publishers in the USA were conservative East coast entities and self policed. Hollywood was liberal and needed help from congress. My research has turned into a hobby it has lasted so long. I am under the impression that the missing Laxness file or files contain embarrassing information for both the United States and Iceland. Although I’m entirely sure the United States doesn’t want the information released, I’m not convinced that Iceland has made a good faith effort in getting the documents. I often wonder if Iceland was told that it was best let “sleeping dogs lie”.  Could it be that Iceland also has its own WWII secrets that it’s thought best to leave alone?

I am sure that Iceland has quite a lot of secrets from the Cold War! We know the foreign minister of Iceland and the American embassy worked together on diminishing Laxness’ credibility, as they put it, after he published the ATOM STATON. But I followed closely the latest attempts of the Icelandic foreign ministry in getting these documents, also on behalf of Laxness’ family, and believe they were genuine. But it did not change the American position, and of course, there was no real pressure from Iceland. Apart from the documents that we know about, I tend to believe there are more documents, for example in CIA files, that we have no exact knowledge about, but I am sure they kept track of him just like the FBI. Some of the answers you got when asking for the documents sound incredibly absurd, like the standard argument that making them public could harm the security of the U.S. as if documents about a writer from the fifties could do that! But one should not forget that the cooperation of the American and Icelandic authorities led to a tax investigation against Laxness in Iceland which lasted until 1955, the year he got the Nobel Prize! So the authorities not only destroyed the American market for him, but also brought him into all kinds of difficulties at home.

This isn’t about taxes or they wouldn’t have transferred the documents to the State Department. The National Security issue was claimed so I couldn’t take them to court since documents that jeopardise national security are not covered under the freedom of information act. But I received phone calls and emails about these documents from both the Freedom of Information office and The State Department. I have hit a nerve that is very clear. The Icelandic government has not made a public request for the documents.  Did the Icelandic foreign ministry really think that the State Department would just give documents that previously were declared National Security threats to another country without some sort of pressure?

The foreign ministry has twice written to their American counterpart asking for the documents, and got the same answer as you did. But I find it rather difficult to speculate on what these documents might say or might not say. I think that what we have found so far, in Icelandic and American files, gives us a rather clear picture. During the early years of the cold war, authorities in both countries saw him, because of his support of the Soviet Union and his criticism of the U.S. military base in Iceland, almost as a public enemy, using the tax issue to try to get to him. I am afraid that many European left wing writers got this same treatment.

Once again I am speculating without facts but I feel it may be more sinister than just taxes and an attempt to discredit Halldor. I definitely believe that Iceland had CIA operatives in Iceland during the post WWII years. I speculate that these operatives may have had directly interfered in Iceland’s political decisions regarding the military base and entry in NATO. If that’s the case then yes, it would interfere with National Security and would be very embarrassing to both Iceland and the United States.

During the cold war, Iceland and U.S. authorities worked very closely together. Quite a lot has been written about this by Icelandic historians during the last few years e.g. how Icelandic police tapped the phones of Icelandic peace activists during this period, but I am convinced that further research will bring new aspects and facts into light – and some of them might very well concern Laxness.

At this point Halldor had a guest over for coffee and we had to end the conversation.

Thank you Halldor, it was great talking to you! Chay

Chay Lemoine is an American scholar who, among other things, is a renowned Halldor Laxness expert. Chay writes a column called ‘The View from Here’ on IceNews where he talks about Laxness, life, Iceland, and whatever else is on his mind.

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