Halldór Laxness's 1931 novel is a sometimes harrowing coming-of-age story of a young woman in a remote Icelandic fishing village.
When sailing on such a cold and bleak winter’s night along these shores, you get the impression that nothing in the world could be more insignificant and meaningless than such a small village under such high mountains. How do people live in such a place? And how do they die?
A smartly-dressed passenger on a ship heading to Reykjavik wonders this aloud as eleven-year-old Salka and her mother Sigurlína disembark at the small fishing village of Óseyri. Salka is the first to step off the boat and into their new life, comforting her seasick mother along the way in her trademark voice, which is unnaturally deep and low for a young girl. Salka Valka is the first of Halldór Laxness’s social realist novels. It was published in 1931 following a series of critical essays on everything from the terrible state of Icelandic sanitation to the problem with American films (with the sole exception of Charlie Chaplin). Despite his unflattering view of Hollywood, the coming-of-age story of a precocious young girl was originally written as a screenplay for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer with the working title ‘A Woman in Pants,' Laxness even imagined Greta Garbo playing the central role. When this foundered, Salka Valka became a novel in two parts: Thou, Pure Grapevine and The Bird on the Shore, sometimes with the subtitle “A Political Love Story.”
From the time Salka and Sigurlína step off the boat, they are immersed in the village’s closed, judgmental atmosphere, which is juxtaposed with an Icelandic landscape that is endlessly vast and open. The sea at the village edges is “bitter cold and churning,” and “sheer crags loomed up from the snow-covered mountainsides in perfect indifference to all that lives and dies.” While everyone acknowledges their utter destitution—the Salvation Army, the doctor, the priest, and the local shopkeeper—no one seems particularly inclined to do anything about it. “Strangers bring corruption more so than edification,” warns the priest. Mother and daughter wind up at the mercy of the egotistical alcoholic Steinþor Steinsson (“I own the sea, I own the seashore and the village and the sky over the village with all its storms that come and go,” he declares), who brings them home with him. When Salka tells her mother that Steinþor “groped me here and here and here,” Sigurlína is dismissive and barely registers her daughter’s tears and outrage. Steinþor pushes himself on Sigurlína one night while she is sharing a bed with Salka; after a brief confrontation, she leads him away from the child and does what he wants. Salka lies alone and awake, acutely aware of the chasm forming between childhood and the rest of her life: “From then on, she had no mother. Maybe no one had a mother. Maybe no one actually had anyone but themselves.” The book’s first part culminates in an assault scene so vile and described with such cruel cynicism—Salka’s “first personal experience of love”—that it took considerable effort for me to pick the book up again at all.
Despite significant hardships, the young Salka is precocious and hardworking, securing a job and a credit account for herself before starting school. Though she cannot read when she arrives in Óseyri, she is quick to learn and soon teaches herself political and philosophical ideas—flipping through the “major foreign works of socialism” and Marxist social science. Salka is already a tomboy, with her tall frame and deep voice, and her disgust at her mother’s relationship contributes to her view of womanhood overall. “I’m sick of being a girl!” she declares to the soft-spoken Arnaldur, a teenage boy who agrees to teach her to read and write. “I will never, ever become a woman—like my Mama!” Arnaldur thinks for a while and, in one of the novel’s scant tender moments, replies with a simple offer: “I can get you a good pair of trousers.”
The book sometimes goes to great lengths to show us the traits that make Salka (to borrow a contemporary phrase) “not like other girls”—her diligence and determination are precisely what make her a “match for any man alive” but also contribute to her “eccentricity” as a woman. When she gets older, she wears sturdy mountaineering boots and a thick woolen sweater (which doesn’t conceal her “curvy bosom,” the narrator would like us to know). Her eyes are “clear and bold” and her hands are “large and accustomed to work.” One gets the sense that Laxness’s view of a feminist socialist heroine may simply, at this point in his career, have been ‘a woman in pants’—or, in other words, a woman taking on the role of a man.
A contemporary reading of Salka’s discomfort with girlhood makes Laxness seem ahead of his time around issues of sex and gender. Yet, when contextualized with Salka’s work ethic and socialist ideas, the trousers appear to be more of a uniform for an equal society, rather than a nod to queer life in the early twentieth century. While the book is touted as a “feminist coming-of-age tale,” some turns of phrase make for uneasy reading: “These two females looked more like rubbish picked up off the beach;” “It must be quite uncomfortable for two unknown, wretched females who are completely on their own to come to a village where they have never been before….”. Using “females” as a noun could be a mark of the time or the particular translation, a part of the author’s detached and experimental modernist style, or even a way of exposing the villagers’ endemic misogyny. Yet, while it is impossible to hold a historical work accountable to contemporary standards of language, we can certainly question its feminist credentials.
In other ways, Laxness is a true poet with language. As the harsh winter fades, he describes how “terns hovered over the night-shaded fjord and the dewy grass grew in its midsummer dream.” The sights, sounds, and smells are more pungent and authentic in Philip Roughton’s translation than those we sometimes find in life:
“There never seemed to be good weather in this village, because the Creator was always experimenting with His sky. . . . it might be said that the Creator’s favorite weather for the village was rain, which stirred up all sorts of stenches: sea and seaweed, fish, fish heads and fish guts, train oil, tar, manure, and refuse.”
But while the sky is full of life, the villagers—particularly the working class—are gray or colorless, rivaling even John Steinbeck’s depictions of the Depression-era Dust Bowl. The inhabitants of Óseyri are “a sort of abortion which Our Lord had made out of cooked fish and perhaps a handful of rotten potatoes and a drop of oatmeal gruel.” Only the wealthy have color in their cheeks and their clothes. They cheerfully recount vibrant excursions to the continent while the voices of the workers are tinged with a “salty, gray frigidity.” The poor are alternately described as drunk, tedious, foolish, or cruel, eliciting a mixture of pity and disdain from the better off. It is worth pointing out that Laxness wrote Salka Valka after visiting the United States, where he “did not become a socialist in America from studying manuals of socialism, but from watching the starving unemployed in the parks.”
Part II deals in great detail with the work required to bring a nation like Iceland towards socialism and better living conditions. The country’s fragile economy was reeling from the Great Depression and, being so remote, it struggled to match the pace of modernization in Europe. Salka and Arnaldur have grown older and fallen in love, but his idealism and hopeless impracticality is worlds away from Salka’s pragmatism. He travels abroad while she is busy organizing the Óseyri fishermen into labor unions and getting her trousers muddy. Yet it is Arnaldur who acts as a mouthpiece for Laxness’s own ideas about more worldly themes: “But what was it that happened in 1874, when our finances were separated from those of Denmark?” he asks. “All that really happened was this: the exploitation of the people was brought into our own country. The robbers simply changed their nationality.” Laxness left Iceland at 17 and traveled widely—not just to the US, but across Europe and into the Soviet Union (producing an awkwardly uncritical essay about the Soviet state). The heroine of his most famous book, Independent People, is banished to the US, but returns upon concluding that the rural deprivation in Iceland is preferable. Laxness is consistently clear that poverty itself is the enemy, and that individualism (à la Steinþor) is not the solution. In fact, the Red Scare may go a long way to explain why the Nobel winner’s books were so difficult to obtain in English for so long. As a child, Salka listens as she is told:
“If you work non-stop all your life, day in and day out, you may be able to pay for your own funeral when you die. But believe me, good child: no one becomes rich by working. The few rich people that I saw in my life never worked a day, while the greatest poverty always plagued those who toiled hardest.”
Laxness died in 1998; his life spanned nearly the whole twentieth century. In a letter from San Francisco from that first U.S. trip, Laxness said the only two options in the face of such deprivation were to be “a reformer or a humbug;” Salka is a clear reformer and the model of leadership that Laxness envisions for the future. From the start, he was adamant that a novel should ask people to examine their lives and see how they might help turn the wheel of emancipatory politics. The happy ending to Salka and Arnaldur’s romance is forsaken for the needs of the people—they both must continue their work to advance Icelandic socialism. In the writing, there is a clear struggle to maintain the balance between storytelling and political discourse—while this makes for an uneven read, Laxness still achieves a certain richness with his sublime and painterly landscapes and earnest portraits of “insignificant” people living through a significant historical moment. Though Salka Valka is rife with idealism, the author’s homage to resilience and resistance is sometimes overshadowed by his depiction of a relentlessly bleak, impoverished world. For something once subtitled “A Political Love Story,” there is little love to be seen.
© 2022 by Hannah Weber. All rights reserved.