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Authors: Halldor Laxness

The Fish Can Sing

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Halldór Laxness

Halldór Laxness was born near Reykjavík, Iceland, in 1902. His first novel was published when he was seventeen. The undisputed master of contemporary Icelandic fiction, and one of the outstanding novelists of the century, he has written more than sixty books, including novels, short stories, essays, poems, plays, and memoirs. In 1955 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. He died in 1998.


Iceland’s Bell

Independent People

Paradise Reclaimed

Under the Glacier

World Light


Translation copyright
1966 by Methuen & Co. Ltd.
Copyright © 2000 by Magnus Magnusson
Introduction copyright © 2008 by Jane Smiley

All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Vintage Books, a division of Random House, Inc., New York, and in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto. Originally published in Icelandic as
by Helgafell, Iceland, 1957. Copyright © by Öll réttindi áskilin, 1957. This translation first published in Great Britain by Methuen & Co. Ltd, in London, in 1966, and revised by The Harvill Press, an imprint of The Random House Group Ltd., London, in 2000.

Vintage is a registered trademark and Vintage International and colophon are trademarks of Random House, Inc.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents, either are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

The Cataloging-in-Publication Data is on file at the Library of Congress.

eISBN: 978-0-307-38934-3

Map by Emily Hare



The only extra consonant in Icelandic used in this translation is
), the so called “crossed d” or “eth”, which is pronounced like the voiced

The pronunciation of the vowels is conditioned by the same accents:

á as in

é as in
, in

í as in

ó as in

ö as in French

ú as in

y as in

æ as in

au as in French

ei, ey as in

Introduction to the Vintage Edition
By Jane Smiley

When Halldór Kiljan Laxness stood up, in 1955, to accept the Nobel Prize in Literature, he opened by referring to his double obscurity: “I was travelling in the south of Sweden a few weeks ago, when I heard the rumour that the choice of the Swedish Academy might possibly fall on me. Alone in my hotel room that night, I naturally began to ask myself what it would mean to a poor wanderer, a writer from one of the most remote islands in the world, to be suddenly singled out by an institution famous for its promotion of culture, and brought here to the platform by its command.”

Twenty-first-century American readers may take this modesty at face value, but in fact, in this speech as in all of his works, Halldór Laxness was playing a layered game, and in the novel he was writing at the time,
The Fish Can Sing
, we can see just how adept Laxness was at folding irony upon irony, double meaning upon double meaning. Halldór Laxness was no simple reincarnation of the obscure authors of the Icelandic Sagas—he was a sophisticated, well-traveled, highly literate modernist author who was as adept as anyone at employing language and literary form to depict and comment upon the complex world around him. He was also hardly obscure—in Iceland, he was by far the most famous writer of his century, and Iceland had an almost universal literary culture. His work was also firmly in the tradition of such celebrated Scandinavian authors (and winners of the Nobel Prize) as Sigrid Undset and Knut Hamsun (whose 1920 novel,
Growth of the Soil
had partly inspired Laxness’s own
Independent People
, 1935). The Nobel exposed him to a wider audience, but
Salka Valka
had been translated into English in 1936,
Independent People
had been translated in 1948, and
Laxness had been awarded the Stalin Peace Prize (later renamed the Lenin Peace Prize) in 1949. Indeed, Laxness did not receive the Nobel as a “poor wanderer,” but as an author who had been ambitious and controversial for, at that point, about twenty-five years.

But, as
The Fish Can Sing
demonstrates, Laxness was preoccupied with the interplay of fame and obscurity, worldliness and humility, “out there” and “back home” while he was writing the novel, and it is a remarkable novel for a man at the height of his career to have been writing.

BOOK: The Fish Can Sing
4.01Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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