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Halldór Laxness: Heimsljós (World Light)

This novel is somewhat different from some of its predecessors. It is a picaresque novel, even though the hero, Olafur Karason, never travels very far and stays in Iceland. In addition, though Laxness was never adverse to exaggeration in his characters for satirical for comic effect, he seems to do so more in this novel. Olafur Karason is based, very loosely, on the minor Icelandic poet, Magnús Hjaltason. While no William McGonagall, he is certainly not a great poet. However, Laxness makes Kárason something of an anti-hero, a victim of society and a victim of the boorish Icelandic peasant and fisherman community and it is this that makes this book interesting.

Kárason is a pauper and, as such, is brought up by foster parents. The boys in the family bully him, the parents treat him as a slave and the girls are in turn sympathetic but also mock him. Despite his sickly condition, he is given many heavy tasks, which only make his condition worse. He is sustained by poetry or, rather literature. One of the girls reads him excerpts from the Felsenborg Stories, a somewhat racy Icelandic novel, which enchants him. He starts writing poetry – about the family in particular. However, his foster parents consider his attempts pornographic though the girls are flattered. However, when he is too sick to work, he is sent away and ends up in a coastal village, controlled by the manager, Peter Palsson, known as Peter Threehorse. He tries to make a living writing poetry but his poetry is not considered ideologically satisfactory. However, he is given a palace, an abandoned warehouse, he calls Summerland which later burns down for mysterious reasons.

Kárason dreams of being a great poet and lives and breathes poetry but reality has a way of derailing his plans. He has two relationships with women which are less than successful, one leaving him for a richer man and the other, much older than him, becoming bossy. He falls in love with a woman who tries to persuade him to leave the bossy woman but he remains faithful. An affair with a fourteen year old when he is a schoolteacher results in a prison sentence and, when he is released, he meets and falls in love with Bera but they separate and when she dies, he is left alone with his poetry. The novel ends with the line And beauty shall reign alone.

Publishing history

First published 1937 by Heimskringla
First published in English 1969 by University of Wisconsin Press
Translated by Magnus Magnusson