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Halldór Laxness: Íslandsklukkan (Iceland’s Bell)

This, for me, may well be the best of Laxness’ novels available in English. Like other of his novels, it is picaresque and features a stubborn, determined Icelander. It is also humorous and political. The hero is Jón Hreggviðsson (though his name is changed both by the Danes and Germans). The novel is set in the late seventeenth/early eighteenth century. Iceland is under complete Danish control, which means that the Icelanders can only trade with the Danes and are subject to often arcane Danish law and justice though, of course, this story is told from the Icelandic and not the Danish perspective. In the area where Jón Hreggviðsson lives, petty criminals are often sentenced to the workhouse and have to do work for their Danish masters. Jón Hreggviðsson has been caught stealing cord to tie his fish catch and is now working for the Danish king’s hangman. His first task is to remove an old Icelandic bell from its tower. The Danes need the metal for repairs in Copenhagen, following a devastating war with Sweden. While working, Jón Hreggviðsson, as he always does, sings a song. In one, he makes a remark about the king’s three mistresses. The hangman hears this and Jón Hreggviðsson is sentenced to be flogged for insulting the king. The hangman duly flogs him though Jón Hreggviðsson does not seem too bothered by it. Afterwards, they all (Jón Hreggviðsson, hangman and witnesses) get drunk and return home across a bog. They rescue a man who is trapped there. Jón Hreggviðsson falls asleep (from his drunkenness) and when he awakes, grabs what he thinks is his cap and sets off home. He realizes that he has left other items at the bog and returns there with a friend, where they find the dead body of the hangman. Jón Hreggviðsson has no recollection of having killed the hangman, though he is wearing his cap (which he had picked up) and he is arrested for the murder.

There are a few plot strands throughout the rest of the book but the main one is how Jón Hreggvisson passes through the often arbitrary justice system. He is sentenced to death and, pending appeal, is lodged in an underground dungeon. He is finally condemned to die but, shortly before execution is carried out, he is freed by Snæfríður, daughter of magistrate Eydalín, then seventeen years old. Snæfríður is in love with Arnas Arnæus, married to a woman whom we later meet and whom Jón Hreggviðsson considers a troll but he is interested in only one thing – collecting as many books and manuscripts relating to Iceland as he can, which he assiduously does. He finds a great treasure carelessly stored with Jón Hreggviðsson’s mother. Jón Hreggviðsson’s escape takes him further than other of Laxness’ heroes. He gets to the Netherlands, by getting on board an illegal Dutch trader, goes to Copenhagen, where he again meets Arnas Arnæus (and his”troll” wife) as well as Arnæus’ assistant and also Arnæus’ nemesis, a man who continually steals things from him. He tries to get help from the king and does get some help with the aid of Snæfríður. He gets conscripted into the army and is sent off to Germany.

In the meantime, Snæfríður, still in love with Arnas Arnæus, has married a local squire. He is a perennial drunk and ends up drinking away much of their wealth. The justice system, all too often for political reasons, keeps reversing itself, with both Arnas Arnæus and Snæfríður’s father condemned for their decisions. Meanwhile, Jón Hreggviðsson who, everyone agrees, including the man himself, should have long since been executed, gets passed around the justice system. Iceland itself suffers many indignities, including one where the King of Denmark plans to sell it for five bags of gold to a group of Hamburg merchants, who will exploit it for profit, with Arnas Arnæus as governor. The whole story ends with the burning of Copenhagen, presumably based on the actual historical event and justice more or less done, and Iceland saved from the Hamburg merchants. It is a great story and superbly told.

I don’t normally comment on the translation and, while I do not speak Icelandic, the English is clearly poor. The translator uses a host of standard American solecisms such as different than and could care less and clearly shows his lack of knowledge of English various places, mixing up words like divert and diverge and gamut and gauntlet. Doesn’t Vintage have any editors?

Publishing history

First published 1943 by Helgafell
First published in English 2003 by Vintage
Translated by Philip Roughton