The integrity and vitality of Icelandic culture, as subtly celebrated by the Nobel-winning author (1902–98) of Independent People (1946) and, most recently, World Light (2002).
Laxness’s previously untranslated three-part novel (1943–46) is set in the late 17th to early 18th century, when Iceland was effectively a Danish colony—and its initiating action is in fact the prosecution of saturnine farmer Jon Hreggvidsson (a cynical misanthrope akin to Independent People’s prickly protagonist Bjartur) for having insulted Denmark’s king. Hreggvidsson is also (falsely) accused of murder, a slander that motivates his escape from prison and subsequent efforts to clear his name through litigation. He’s encouraged and defended by magistrate’s daughter Snaefridur Eydalin (one of Laxness’s great women), a proud, stalwart beauty who herself escapes an unhappy marriage (albeit through widowhood) and grows into a fierce embodiment of her country’s independence. This transformation occurs through her increasingly intimate relationship with Arnas Arnaeus, an antiquarian professor and failed political idealist (modeled on a real historical figure) obsessed with creating an authoritative collection of indigenous manuscripts and documents. This is the most resolutely Icelandic of Laxness’s work—and it’s probably safe to assume that its emphasis on Denmark’s threats to his homeland’s sovereignty conceals a warning about the perils of a mid-20th-century world dominated by acquisitive global powers. But if Laxness’s characters preach and pontificate, their very human (and often extremely amusing) foibles imbue them with extraordinary energy. Furthermore, the intricacy with which these flinty souls are set into contrast and conflict, and the tenacity with which they cling to endangered and compromised ways of life give this a fabulistic texture quite reminiscent of the classic sagas that influenced all of their author’s best books.
In many ways, Iceland’s Bell isn’t a modern novel. And that is its great strength.