Halldór Laxness, Iceland’s only Nobel Laureate (1955, literature), lived much of his later years in a modest house near Mosfellsbær, northeast of Reykjavik, out the road called Thingvallavegur, which, if you kept on, led eventually to Thingvellir National Park, home to the famed Law Rock where the Vikings established the world’s first Democratic Republic in 930 AD. If you had to choose a quiet place central to Iceland’s past, present, and future, this was it. I had read Laxness’s famed novel Independent People, and the short biography printed inside that book proclaimed him “the undisputed master of contemporary Icelandic fiction.” With a moniker like that, it made a lot of sense to offer him a day of our time by making a visit to his house, opened to the public in 2004.
Studying our map, Scott and I determined we might walk from the Hotel Laxness in Mosfellsbær, where we were staying, along a footpath that would keep us off the main road all the way to the Laxness house. On our way out, the friendly concierge asked what we had planned for our day, and we told him.
“Honestly guys,” he said, “it’s not worth it. It’s a house with a bunch of books.”
“We’ll have a look anyway,” I said. “Might as well.”
“And we’re going to walk it,” Scott said.
“Walk it? Do you know how far it is from here? About ten kilometers,” the fellow said.
“Eight,” I said. “One way.”
He paused then and gave us a pained look. “You must really like this writer.”
“Don’t you?” I asked.
He looked at us blankly. “Not at all,” he said.
Outside, the day was a mix of sun and cloud, a blue sky bluer than the eyes of Bjork, which are really more brown with green overtones, but who can really say from her photographs, all the black and white, the fantastical costumes, the nipple piercings!, but the sky was blue anyway, and fluffy with clouds, fast-moving in dramatic pushes, like a pulsing beacon on a hill. We were in Iceland, of course, having arrived only a few days before, and who gets to Iceland very often, so when you are in Iceland, and it has been raining (which is often, and which it had), and you are only eight kilometers from the Laxness house, then you go there. You go there despite the fact that the concierge at a hotel named after the great man just told you it wasn’t worth it, just told you, in so many words, that he can think of nothing so excruciating as to read him, except maybe walking eight kilometers to his house. It matters very little that it is worth it or not worth it. You can only determine value after you have done a thing, not before, and always another’s judgment is circumspect, especially if that judgment is passed by a local about his own place. They never get that right. And even if a thing is not worth doing, doing it is usually better than sitting at home, or sitting in a hotel and not doing it, for what is the worth of killing yourself with TV, killing yourself with boredom? I’ve never heard anyone say that sitting indoors and killing themselves with TV is worth it. So of course we would go, and we would walk. We would walk to work the soreness out of our legs and feel that cool, northern air on our faces, and see some bright new country. Worth has nothing to do with it.
The soreness got into our legs when we walked from downtown Reykjavik to Mosfellsbær the day before, first through the center of the city, then out across the neighborhoods, passing the glorious Phallological Museum (see Dispatch #1), and down into the green ditch along the rushing freeway, then out onto a back road where the fantastic green countryside rolled out before us, Icelandic horses nuzzling our fingers along the fence line, quiet farm houses overlooking verdant pasturage, and two little mountains to our east—Hafrafell and Reykjafell—easy sentinels that kept us on the way. All told, it turned out to be a twenty-six kilometer day. It completely wrecked us, as it was our first real walk of the trip, and we were packed too heavy, especially me.
I’ve backpacked a lot, and I know better, but for some reason, I could not stop putting stuff in my pack. I carried all the essentials required for a walking tour of Iceland: sleeping bag, tent, stove, cook gear, my clothes, first aid kit, and whatnot, and I carried my iPhone, a GPS, a MacBook Air (the eleven-inch) inside a Pelican case, a ceramic water purifier in a country with the cleanest water on earth, and four copies of my own books, gifts, I thought, for wonderful people we met along the way, but which I would haul around for five weeks only to unload them a few days before departing for home. I would not have normally carried so much tech—just a pen and notebook was my habit—but I had imagined myself holed up in a seaside hostel for a few weeks, a long view of the blue waters out a window with a mountain headland towering along a peninsula, and there, tapping out beautiful prose; but that never happened. Walking the roads, I could justify the phone and GPS—but the laptop? It was a luxury I appreciated when we got into a room, but on foot, it became an impossible burden.
We had dragged into the town campsite at Mosfellsbær, set up, and cooked a hurried meal as the sky darkened with black clouds. An old man walked by our camp and smiled: “It will be a big storm tonight,” he said. And it was. I slept fitfully, and woke at dawn to a toothed-wind trying to tear our tent down. In a fit, we broke camp in the storm and retreated to a tiny shelter behind the toilet, made coffee in the misty wind, and then walked through the rain to the Hotel Laxness, nearly willing to pay anything for a room and a hot shower. O, the cruelty of rain! And that is how we found ourselves talking to this young fellow at the desk, who took umbrage with our homage, our plan to walk the road to the Laxness house.
Carrying only a little water, some light snacks, and our essential documents and such, we made our way through town and out the paved walking path with green trees planted all in a row. We came along what seemed to be a pre-school. The children were outside playing in the after-wet of the heavy rain. A little cluster of them moved off as we came along, leaving a lone boy with thick glasses and prominent front teeth blocking our path. He appeared to be stunned, like a little bird that had just hit a window, his neck bent up, his eyes like a pair of big binoculars. We must have looked to him like things from an alien planet. I could not help but pause to ask him a question.
“Does this paved path go a long way up the road?” I asked.
He blinked. And blinked again. “It goes a werry long way,” he said, sizing us up. “You should take a car.”
Born in 1902 at the farm across the road from the house where we were headed, the writer Halldór Laxness lived a long and productive life, with thirteen major novels to his credit, five plays, a number of memoirs, and numerous collections of short stories and essays—sixty-two books in sixty-eight years, according to my source—and his work has been translated into forty-three languages. He admired Hemingway, and translated two of his books into Icelandic, A Farewell to Arms (1941), and A Moveable Feast (1966), and like Hemingway, he liked to write standing up. After he won the Nobel, he became a noted socialite, hosting dignitaries and royals in his modest home. On Sundays he hosted music concerts, a tradition that has continued during summer months since his death in 1998: tickets go for about twelve dollars. Music, Laxness believed, is superior to language in expressing the range of feelings human beings experience in communion with the cosmos. (Though, I find the claim a fashionable bore, little more than feigned humility. Hemingway apparently said he had to become a great writer because he couldn’t paint. Poor fellow. He really had it rough.) Feigned or not, Laxness noted that Bach was the best of the best, and he often played Bach in his home on his Steinway Grand. I read that when asked what book he would take to a desert island, Laxness cheated the question by answering: The Well-Tempered Clavier, Bach’s collection of solo keyboard music written to instruct young musicians (not unlike Snorri Sturluson’s Prose Edda, see Dispatch #2). Laxness loved the finer things in life, and collected cool furniture (his beloved butterfly chair, for example; and a low-slung calf-skin chair, that apparently only he was allowed to sit in). The walls of his house are covered in paintings, many of them made by his friends, several of them liberal interpretations of his portrait. He sported about the countryside and into town in his favorite car, a 1968 silver Jaguar, still parked outside his home. And it is this Jaguar that greeted Scott and me as we ambled up the driveway to the front door.
Pausing in front of the house, I took in the views. A squarish, two-story home of white stucco with a relatively flat roof, a garden, and modest pool outside, that Laxness’s daughter, who lives nearby, still swims in after museum hours. The house sits up off the highway against a hill in a rugged drainage, the River Kaldakuisl, up which Laxness frequently walked with his dog. In a photograph of one such walk, you can see his trusty dog—white like the house—trotting along the river’s edge, while the man himself, wearing a woolen suit and cap, walks in the river, the frigid waters coming up over his leather shoes and soaking his pants.
It did not feel to me the house of a man long dead, but the house of a man who just left, a man, perhaps, who had stepped out for a pint of fresh milk, and would be returning within the hour. As we were the only ones here, I felt as an invitee, and half expected to be greeted at the door by Mr. Laxness and his wife Audur, who were waiting on us for tea. Instead, we were met by a caretaker who ushered us in and offered an audio guide in English, which we accepted.
In the entrance, we were introduced to Laxness’s grandfather clock, and the staircase winding up to his study. I am fascinated with writer’s studies, and this one was unremarkable in most every way: a few pictures on the wall, a wall of books, a chair for resting, and the desk where he wrote. The curtains looked to be those of any middle-class 1950s family, stiff and drab.
Perhaps the casual observer might see in Laxness that same stiff drabbery. He was clean-shaven, except for a sometimes mustache, which looked not unlike that of a certain German mad-man of the day; a military style hair cut over a balding head; and a sturdy chin, which became more prominent as he aged. But his politics were anything but drab. Laxness was born a Catholic, then converted to Socialism during a time when Capitalists associated it with Satan, and later, as he watched Stalin fall prey to the corruption of his own power, renounced Socialism, along with all dogma. If he believed in anything in his final years, he believed in literature (and music, of course), the Tao Te Ching maybe, and his dog: “Come what may and go what may,” Laxness writes in his novel Independent People, “a man always has the memories of his dogs;” and he also seemed to love coffee: “Presently, the smell of coffee began to fill the room. This was morning’s hallowed moment. In such a fragrance the perversity of the world is forgotten and the soul is inspired with faith in the future.”
That novel, Independent People, beloved by the American writer Annie Proulx, may be Laxness’s masterpiece. It’s the story of the underdog, of a common Icelandic man, Bjartur of Summerhouses, who struggles in the harsh climate of Iceland to save enough dough to buy his own farm, and so become independent. “‘I say for my part,’” Bjartur, “‘that a man lives in vain until he is independent. People who aren’t independent aren’t people. A man who isn’t his own master is as bad as a man without a dog.’” Laxness claimed he worked his whole life to promote the “hidden people,” who are not the elves that travelers to Iceland hear so much about, but the workers, mired in the oppressions of the wealthy and powerful. As it is for the American people, “The love of freedom and independence has always been a characteristic of the Icelandic people,” writes Laxness. After all, the Icelander Leif the Lucky “discovered” America centuries before Columbus, an America “where a man can be anything he likes.”
Well, back on the road to Mosfellsbær, Scott and I walked evenly and efficiently between the low mountains, while sifting clouds still held onto their rain, and the sun came in on its summer arc: the brightness of Iceland! Scott and I are both men of the page and of the book, and as Laxness writes, “Nothing nurtures the poet’s gift so much as solitude on long mountain journeys.” We arrived at the hotel tired and spent, but jazzed by our good day, only to be shuttled into the dining room. “Take a seat,” the chef said. “We have a special menu tonight.” We ordered Guinness, and two plates arrived loaded with three massive pieces of fried chicken, a mound of mashed potatoes as tall as Devil’s Tower, a side of boiled vegetables, and bread. It was glorious.
We soon retired to the bar, where a group of local men had taken up their posts. They raised their glasses to us as we sat down. On the big screen they had settled on an American movie for the evening, The Rock (1996), with Nicholas Cage and Sean Connery as the good guys, and Ed Harris as the bad guy. We watched and drank with these Icelandic men, these local boys come in from their work to pour-off the day’s stresses. We cheered when they cheered, and laughed when they laughed, and urged our heroes on. And then, in a quiet moment in the sewers beneath Alcatraz, Nicholas Cage tells Sean Connery that he will “do his best.” To which Connery responds: “Losers are always whining about their best; winners go home and fuck the prom queen.” The Icelanders looked at the Americans. The American looked at the Icelanders, and the house came down in laughter. What better line to bring two independent nations together?