New evidence suggests that there was no sinister plan by establishment figures to ruin Iceland’s only Nobel Laureate in Literature during the Cold War...
In 2003–2005 I published an unauthorised three-volume biography of Halldor Kiljan Laxness, the only Icelandic Nobel Laureate in Literature. The reason I chose Laxness as a subject was because he was without doubt Iceland’s most influential left-wing intellectual in the twentieth century, and also because he was a fascinating and complex character by himself. Laxness’ heirs did not take kindly to my endeavour and brought a suit against me for breach of copyright. They lost in district court but won their case in the Supreme Court, and I had to compensate them financially as copyright holders for having used in the first volume autobiographical material from Laxness’ works without permission. (I had actually sought their permission, and two daughters of Laxness had spent two days perusing the manuscript of the first volume at the publisher’s office, leaving without either permitting or prohibiting the use of the material.) I shrugged my shoulders, paid up and smiled. The irony was that Laxness himself had often used material from others without permission. For example, his novel World Light incorporated large chunks of text, virtually unchanged, from the diaries of a minor Icelandic poet on whose life the work was loosely based. One of Laxness’ short stories, on Genghis Khan, is mostly an unacknowledged translation of parts of a book by Ralph Fox on the same subject (the copyright could not be enforced because Fox, a volunteer in the Spanish Civil War, was killed in 1936). Many other examples can be given, for example in the historical novel Iceland’s Bell, my favourite work by Laxness.
In the third volume of my biography, I also describe the intrigues surrounding the Nobel Prize in Literature which Laxness received in 1955. The rich Icelandic cultural tradition is widely admired in the other Nordic countries, and it had long been the intention of at least some members of the Swedish Academy to honour it by awarding the Prize to a contemporary Icelandic writer who could be seen as a representative of this tradition. In 1955, the selection committee of the Academy had suggested that the Prize should be divided between the two most distinguished novelists in Iceland, Laxness and Gunnar Gunnarsson. The problem with Gunnarsson was however that he had originally written most of his works in Danish, before he returned to his homeland in 1939, and also that he had made enemies in left-wing circles by speaking out against the strong communist influence on Icelandic cultural life. Some Icelandic intellectuals, having learned of the proposal by the selection committee (which was supposed to be confidential), secretly contacted members of the Academy advising against including Gunnarsson. Eventually, a majority in the Academy somewhat reluctantly chose Laxness as the single recipient of the coveted Prize. Laxness had been active in the communist-dominated Socialist Unity Party since its foundation in 1938, and his winning the Nobel Prize was a major triumph for the Icelandic Left.
Nevertheless, I think Laxness deserved the Nobel Prize. He is definitely a superb writer, although he is much better known in the Nordic countries and in Germany and France than he is in Great Britain and the United States. A common explanation for his lack of success in the English-speaking world has been that he had been blacklisted during the Cold War as a result of his communism. A Laxness admirer teaching English at Southern Illinois University in Edwardsville, Chay Lemoine, writes: ‘Recently declassified FBI documents show that J. Edgar Hoover and the State Department of the United States government authorized an investigation of Halldór Laxness which resulted in publishers refusing to publish the works of the Icelandic writer. These investigations and later inquires were also aimed at ruining the reputation of the writer in the eyes of the reading public both in Iceland and in the United States. The United States State Department ruined the literary career in English of Halldór Laxness during the late forties and early fifties and prevented him from having continued success in the United States.’
This is highly misleading, if not false. The documents to which Lemoine refers are about something entirely different. In 1946, Alfred A. Knopf published what many consider to be Laxness’ greatest novel, Independent People, in the United States, using an excellent translation which Allen & Unwin had brought out in Great Britain a year earlier. It sold well, primarily because it became a Book-of-the-Month selection. This was of course well known in Iceland. When the sheriff of the district in which Laxness lived went through his tax return for 1947 he noticed that the writer declared very low income from royalties abroad. He asked for further information from Laxness who said that he had sold the copyright to Independent People for 100,000 dollars and that he had paid his literary agents, legal representatives and others 70 per cent of this amount for their services and that of the remaining 30,000 dollars a little more than 19,000 dollars had been deducted in U.S. tax. What then remained, a little more than 10,000 dollars, was according to Laxness kept in a bank account in the U.S. to be used for promoting his works in the future. The writer did not produce any receipts from his literary agents or from others. But on the basis of the information provided by him, the District Tax Commission evaluated his unreported U.S. income taxable in Iceland under the rules then in force to be 15,000 dollars. Laxness appealed this decision to the Central Tax Commission which delivered however a much higher evaluation of his U.S. income taxable in Iceland, 50,000 dollars. Needless to say, both evaluations meant that Laxness had to pay a considerable amount in additional income tax.
At the same time as Laxness was quarrelling with the tax authorities, he was embroiled in a fierce political fight. Iceland had in 1941 made a Defence Pact with the United States. After the war, the United States wanted to maintain some military presence on the strategically important island. In the autumn of 1946, the two countries reached an agreement that the U.S. military would leave and that Iceland would take possession of an airport built by the Americans, while the U.S. military would have landing rights there in connection with the occupation of Germany. Laxness, by far the ablest writer in the pro-Soviet Socialist camp, was perhaps the bitterest public opponent of this agreement which he branded as treasonable. In 1947, he announced that he would donate the whole of his annual writer’s grant from government to the best essay about this alleged treason. Then in early 1948, he published The Atom Station, a novel about Iceland being betrayed into the hands of the Americans, to be used as a military base where nuclear weapons would be kept. The Prime Minister in the book was obviously Olafur Thors, Leader of the centre-right Independence Party, who as Prime Minister in 1946 had negotiated the agreement with the Americans on landing rights in Iceland. (As I was the first to point out, the main plot of the novel was however taken virtually unchanged from a Czech novel which Laxness knew in German translation, Anna proletarka by Ivan Olbracht.) It was in this heated atmosphere that leading Independence Party member Bjarni Benediktsson who became Justice Minister and Foreign Minister in early 1947 received notice from the sheriff in Laxness’ district that the celebrated writer had not reported his U.S. royalties. Benediktsson wondered whether this explained how much money seemed to be at the disposal of the Socialist Unity Party in its fierce resistance to the slow and cautious alignment of Iceland with the Western powers. Was it possible that Laxness was partly financing them with his income in the United States?
Confidentially, in June 1947 Benediktsson discussed the question with the American Chargé d’Affairs in Iceland, William C. Trimble, who promptly informed the State Department of it. They subsequently sent a note to J. Edgar Hoover, Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, asking him discreetly to obtain information about Laxness’ royalties in the United States. When Laxness published The Atom Station, Trimble repeated his request for an investigation. ‘Laxness’s prestige would suffer materially if we let it be known that he is an income tax evader.’ The F.B.I. finally obtained the information required from Laxness’ literary agent in the United States and from the Book-of-the-Month Club. It was passed on to the State Department which confidentially informed Foreign Minister Benediktsson about it. The numbers were roughly like what Laxness had said in his original response to the District Sheriff, although he had not reported them accurately on his tax return. After this, the Icelandic Embassy in Washington D.C. could formally request the same information, and upon receiving it, the Icelandic tax authorities reached an agreement with Laxness, following some bickering, about paying additional tax on his net income from the United States in 1947 and 1948. After all, it was their duty to implement the law, also against famous writers. Benediktsson’s suspicions about Laxness financing the Socialist Unity Party turned however out to be unfounded. What Laxness had not kept in his bank account, he had used on a new car and for trips abroad. He was what is sometimes called a ‘saloon socialist’, with expensive tastes, always impeccably dressed and staying at the best hotels. But in the process, Laxness had not only evaded taxes, but also violated the stringent currency controls in Iceland, for which he received a fine. Incidentally, even if Laxness’ tax evasion and his violation of the currency controls eventually became known in Iceland, the writer’s prestige did not suffer, as Trimble had believed. The Icelanders did not care. Probably, most of them would have done the same given the opportunity.
I told this story in some detail in the third volume of my biography of Laxness in 2005, on the basis of documents I found in Bjarni Benediktsson’s private archive. As the author of another biography of Laxness, left-wing writer Halldor Gudmundsson, had not studied this archive, his account of the affair, published in his 2004 book, was somewhat sketchier. Documents on Laxness from the State Department and the F.B.I. later obtained by Chay Lemoine do not change the story in any substantial way. While Gudmundsson and Lemoine admit that no direct proof has been found of Hoover or anyone else blacklisting Laxness, they both find it extraordinary and indeed beyond belief that after the success of Independent People no more was published by Laxness for decades in the United States, even after he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1955. Therefore they, and others, have more or less treated it as an established fact that Laxness’ literary career in America was ruined by a joint effort of Bjarni Benediktsson, J. Edgar Hoover and officials in the State Department. One of Laxness’ daughters, a filmmaker, has even produced a documentary about this. While this conspiracy theory was certainly not proven, it could not be conclusively refuted either. I may find it implausible that the Director of F.B.I. was preoccupied for decades with an obscure novelist from a faraway island, while careful to hide all traces of his interest, but Gudmundsson and Lemoine seem to believe it. After all there are people who imagine that Elvis is alive and that the C.I.A. was behind the 2001 terrorist attack on New York.
Recently, however, Icelandic scholar Vilhjalmur Orn Vilhjalmsson (who helped me obtain some important documents when I was writing my biography of Laxness) gained access to the papers of Laxness’ publisher, Alfred A. Knopf, kept in the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas in Austin. They do not indicate any pressure on Knopf not to publish Laxness. On the contrary: there was indeed some pressure to publish him, resisted by Knopf and his wife because they did not think Laxness would sell. These documents seem to confirm what Knopf’s son said publicly in 1988 after the revelation that the F.B.I. had kept a dossier on Knopf because during the Cold War he had published authors thought to be communists or fellow travellers. ‘He was the quintessential capitalist,’ Alfred Knopf Jr. commented. ‘But he published anybody he thought was worth publishing. He paid no attention to what their politics were.’
Knopf’s decision to publish Independent People in 1946 was probably based on a very positive report by novelist May Davies Martenet (1907–1993). ‘In this book certain passages are of such beauty, so filled with an understanding of human dignity and pathos, so richly imaginative, that I want them permanently available for myself, my family, and friends.’ An editor at Knopf, Bernard Smith (1907–1999), agreed. ‘The book possess [sic] all the qualities she describes—it is intense, beautifully written, well developed, at times very moving indeed.’ They both however expressed some doubts about its reception in America.
After his success with Independent People Knopf asked his staff to take a look at another novel by Laxness which had been published in an English translation in 1936, Salka Valka. One of his editors, Roy Wilson Follett (1887–1963), read the book and wrote in his report, dated 19 June 1946: ‘The story has terrific power in many scenes and episodes, but as far as I am concerned it does not compose into anything but a mighty chaos of effects. We should probably have published it had it come our way before Independent People: after I.P., it seems crude, inchoate, and experimental.’ In August 1946 it was rejected.
In 1947 Laxness’ literary agent in the United States sent Knopf six chapters in translation of the novel World Light, and Knopf also received copies of a Danish translation of the whole work. A Knopf editor, Herbert Weinstock (1905–1971), was asked to write a report. Dated 22 September 1947, it was quite negative. Weinstock said that he was not one of the intense admirers of Independent People, and that this sample was too short for a final judgement. ‘I cannot resist adding that I think we ought not to waste time over this.’ Knopf himself decided in January 1948 to postpone a final decision until a translation of the whole work had been presented. This never happened.
In late 1948 Laxness’ literary agent in the United States approached Knopf again, with a copy of a Swedish translation of the novel Iceland’s Bell. An outside reader, Eugene Gay-Tifft, who had translated many novels by Nordic authors for Knopf was asked to write a report, dated 23 December 1948. He was ambivalent, finding the book of interest, but not of great interest. ‘If he is ever to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature, it will have to be for a work of greater inspiration.’ He was not optimistic about its reception. ‘Certainly it is not a work which the American public would instantly go for. But neither is it one the book clubs would refuse to consider.’ Knopf’s wife Blanche, Herbert Weinstock and other members of the editorial staff decided in January 1949 to reject the book. But Laxness’ literary agent did not give up. In 1951, he submitted a copy of a German translation of the same novel. Robert Pick (1898–1978), a member of Knopf’s editorial staff and a refugee from Austria, took a look at the book and wrote a negative report, dated 5 December 1951, upon which Knopf decided again to reject the book.
In early 1955, Knopf received a copy of the Swedish translation of the novel now called Wayward Heroes. It was sent to Alfhild Huebsch (1887–1982), the Swedish wife of Benjamin W. Huebsch, a New York publisher. Her report is dated 9 March 1955: ‘I recommend rejection of the book, but I do so with hesitation and reluctance, for it is a work of many merits. It will no doubt be a good, if not a best seller in the Scandinavian countries, but its appeal to the American public is likely to be limited.’ The book was duly rejected. In 1958, Knopf received another copy of the same novel, now in an English translation, published in Great Britain. It was read by a staff member, Henry Robbins (1928–1979), who wrote a very negative report, dated 3 March 1958. ‘I am sure my reaction of bewilderment, confusion, and finally boredom with this picaresque, loosely constructed, so-called saga would be only typical of the average reader’s.’ Again, the book was rejected.
The conclusion is that Laxness was not blacklisted in the United States during the Cold War. His publisher simply did not believe that his books would sell. It is a different issue that Laxness was in my opinion, with Gunnar Gunnarsson, the greatest Icelandic novelist of the twentieth century, still well worth reading, as I keep telling my foreign friends. I am sure Laxness’ heirs were wrong when they some years ago declared to the Icelandic tax authorities that the copyright to his works was almost worthless and that they therefore should not pay any estate tax on it. Indeed, inspired by writers such as Brad Leithauser and Jane Smiley, there has been a revival of interest in Laxness’ works in the English-speaking world.