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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Salka Valka

Halldór Laxness

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Title: Salka Valka
Author: Halldór Laxness
Genre: Novel
Written: 1931-2 (Eng. 2022)
Length: 626 pages
Original in: Icelandic
Availability: Salka Valka - US
Salka Valka - UK
Salka Valka - Canada
Salka Valka - France
Salka Valka - Deutschland
Salka Valka - Italia
from: Bookshop.org (US)
directly from: Archipelago Books (US)
  • Icelandic title: Salka Valka
  • Translated by Philip Roughton
  • Previously published in a translation (from Gunnar Gunnarsson's Danish translation ...) by F.H.Lyon (1936)
  • Salka Valka was made into a film in 1954, directed by Arne Mattsson, with Gunnel Broström in the title role

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Our Assessment:

A- : grand village-tale, with a very well-presented protagonist

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Listener* . 26/2/1936 Edwin Muir
The New Republic* . 24/6/1936 Richard Vaughan
The NY Times Book Rev.* . 10/5/1936 Stanley Young
The New Yorker . 11-18/7/2022 Salvatore Scibona
Saturday Review* . 23/5/1936 Phillips D. Carleton
Sunday Times* . 16/2/1936 Ralph Straus
Time* . 18/5/1936 .
The Times* . 7/2/1936 .
Wall St. Journal . 4/3/2022 Brad Leithauser
The Washington Post . 6/6/2022 Jane Smiley

[* review of a different translation]

  From the Reviews:
  • "Salka Valka gives the impression of being a very fine novel, and possibly a work of genius, but its effect is always being spoiled by the translation, especially of the dialogue. (...) The main virtue of the book is an astonishing imaginative energy, which makes even the most eccentric characters in it live. (...) The author's conception of life is so overwhelmingly pessimistic that it produces a sort of exhilaration, and never allows the reader to sink into a resigned and comfortable dejection. Most of the figures have a touch of caricature, but it is the touch of a born writer." - Edwin Muir, The Listener

  • "The e book is vigorously and clearly written: apart from its value as a novel -- which is definitely high -- it gives a first-class exposition of a system of credit and securities and, by introducing the Icelandic political and financial background, shows the tie existing between the isolated fishermen with their negligible credit at the local store and the collapse of the big banks in the capital city. A sharp, satirical note runs right through the book." - Richard Vaughan, The New Republic

  • "He manages, through widely differing moods of humor and pathos, to give the characteristic features of his environment with gentle forbearance and to allow his people to take a boat ride without whisking them away to thoughts of all the other little bobbing boats corking along immeasurable seas at the same time. (...) He writes with his emphasis upon the fundamental and universal aspects of human conduct. (...) He simply presents, with all the open-minded illumination which one would expect from the writing of this globe-trotting, highly civilized author a fresh character study of a vigorous woman. The result is an original work that links up with nothing I have read in the field of Scandinavian literature." - Stanley Young, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Roughton has made his version from the Icelandic. Even in moments of high drama, he moves along with calm assurance, tossing off Laxness’s inventive and always spot-on descriptions as though they were commonplace (.....) He captures Laxness’s singular dour-droll tone with uncanny grace. (...) The revolutionary arguments that galvanize her village are as violent as the snow that inundates the ramshackle houses; Salka takes these ideas seriously, but, despite what may feel like Laxness’s own wish that she get with the program, she never quite acts as any ideology demands." - Salvatore Scibona, The New Yorker

  • "Halldor Laxness has portrayed a world without hope, without gentleness, without even the concept of progress. (...) The vision that Halldor Laxness holds of the world -- or at least of the Icelandic world -- is wholly dark: the forces of nature are harsh and terrifying; the people themselves are sunk in a misery from which there is no redemption; the brief flame of the spirit is quenched soon by hard economic circumstance. (...) (T)his book bears witness to a fairly unrelenting stare on the gross realities of existence." - Phillips D. Carleton, Saturday Review

  • "His book is certainly a virile and impressive piece of work, though gloomy and depressing. (...) The panorama is in places highly dramatic, and the very unfamiliarity of the life it depicts gives the book an interest of its own. It will not, I think, be to everybody's taste, with its harsh and unlovely scenes, but it is a work of undoubted merit, and as such, will find its admirers." - Ralph Straus, Sunday Times

  • "Author Laxness has a weakness for rhetoric, a hand skilled at character dissection." - Time

  • "This Icelandic novel is a powerful and eloquent study of contemporary conditions of life in a small fishing village (.....) The pattern of life which he describes has few bright features, but is at the same time not wanting in drama and excitement. (...) The novel has the distinctively sharp and virile quality of Icelandic" - heroic poetry. The Times

  • "Laxness is the most Brueghelesque of novelists. His villagers, like Brueghel’s peasants, are viewed unsparingly. A cool, northern luminosity lays bare their infirmities and deformities: their pocked faces, missing limbs, toothless mouths, blinded eyes. Theirs is often a cheerful and obliging grotesquery (.....) (W)hat an odd, hard, disillusioned, splendid creation Salka is! A fresh translation is merely one reason to contemplate her anew. She also makes a beguiling figure for an age trafficking, as ours does, in gender fluidity. (...) To the reader, who perhaps knows her best, she is a roaming and hungering spirit, desperate for some resolution or recognition she cannot identify." - Brad Leithauser, Wall Street Journal

  • "For modern readers, especially those who are aware of what a prosperous and enlightened tourist destination Iceland has become, Salka Valka is a wonderful exposure to Iceland’s troubled past and to the Icelandic sensibility that comes from making the best of things even when there isn’t much to be made. Laxness’s characters are rough and honest, and Salka Valka is one of the most empathetic portraits of a girl and a woman that I’ve read by a male author. This new translation is readable and compelling." - Jane Smiley, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Salka Valka opens with Sigurlína Jónsdóttir arriving with her young daughter Salvör Valgerður -- known as Salka Valka -- in the small Icelandic coastal fishing village of Óseyri in Axlarfjörður. Originally published in two volumes (in 1931 and 1932), the first two of its four parts (volume one) center on the time when Salka Valka is still a child, from age eleven to fourteen; the third part then jumps ahead several years, as the second half of the book (volume two) focuses on a mature Salka Valka, a very independent (if still young) adult.
       The mother and daughter didn't have sufficient funds to sail on to Reykjavík, and wound up stuck in this backwater, a town in which one man, Johánn Bogesen, controls almost the entire economy as owner of the large general store. Any wages any of the locals are due is credited to their store accounts, and their purchases then subtracted from these: "Here, no one ever saw money". Still, the newcomers find a place, if not exactly a warm welcome, in Óseyri, taken in and taken care of:

The village was one of the most prosperous in this quarter of the country; no one starved here, and Salka Valka was fed quite generously at Mararbúð.
       From when she is first introduced, Salka Valka is presented as a spirited, headstrong child -- "her whole body roiled with unruly vitality". The proud and often surly illegitimate child does not fit in, or try to, very hard. She asserts herself in the few ways open to her -- including taking on jobs as soon as she can. She's dissatisfied with being a girl -- at one point vowing: "I'm going to get some trousers, soon, too, and stop being a girl", and while she does eventually take to wearing pants her feminine side matures with time too. Illiterate when she arrives, she is first tutored by young Arnaldur Björnsson -- already then perceived by her as: "a face shining out of the darkness of the night, radiant with belief in another world" -- and then does start going to school and does reasonably well there.
       The Salvation Army is a significant presence in Óseyri when mother and daughter arrive -- a rival to the religious establishment, which frowns upon much of its doings -- and the weak Sigurlína, clearly long at sea, falls under its spell, finding there at least some support. (It's never made entirely clear why mother and daughter left their own hometown, but at one point Salka admits: "I think that we were driven away", though she doesn't know for what reason.) Looking for a hold, Sigurlína succumbs to men, too, however -- notably big-talking Steinþór Steinsson, who abandons her twice, once after assaulting her daughter -- and leaving Sigurlína pregnant; then, after returning (and finding his infant son already dead), just before they are to marry; along the way, Sigurlína is also engaged to another man for a time being, too, but Steinþór also got in the way of that working out.
       Sigurlína loves her daughter, but is ill-equipped to do right by her; Laxness nicely captures the mother's helpless distance from the child in a scene where she gazes at her sleeping daughter:
Who knows, perhaps the woman recognized the music of her fairest dreams in her daughter's sleeping breaths as she leaned over her and listened: memories of the promises of another world, made a long time ago. These promises dwell in one's soul like mirages until one's dying day. God makes us promises at times, and keeps them in entirely different ways than he promised. This sleeping face was one such promise -- a godsend quite different from what she had been promised, the fulfillment of a different dream than she had dreamed. Nevertheless, this child was the core of her life and the justification for her existence. And one day in the past, she had decided not to cast herself into the sea. She leaned over the core of her life in grateful joy. Did she have the right to demand anything more ? No -- and yet. More, more says the heart. It is so hard to be human.
       In another near-perfect passage showing the relationship between the two, Laxness is at his aching best:
In the evenings, she sat down on the rickety box in the corner of the kitchen and carded her unresisting wool, without thought or feeling, just as the Lord carded the unresisting wool of her life. And Salka Valka shot her glances, trying to think of a way to tell her that they were mother and daughter and should support each other through life, but two souls can be so distant from each other, despite having once dwelt in the same body. Then the girl looked back down at her book, because she had decided to earn the highest mark of all the children on her final exam. When it comes down to it, it is as if every person has his own particular goal, and all love is fabrication.
       Sigurlína succumbs to Steinþór -- but Steinþór also lusts after Salka Valka, and it is this that will ultimately break Sigurlína. Earlier, Steinþór had already assaulted the young girl, clearly with the intention of raping her -- with young Salka Valka falling unconscious at the time and thus never certain as to just what happened, the event coldly summed up by Laxness as: "Salka Valka's first personal experience of love", with the violation a crushing act that continues to haunt Salka Valka. Steinþór had fled afterwards, but he returns to Óseyri, and successfully courts Sigurlína once again -- but she realizes that he also still desires her daughter.
       Even later, when he is then ocean's away, Salka Valka can't banish Steinþór entirely from her life -- and she does accept the money that he sends from abroad, allowing her then to also buy the property of Mararbúð and freeing her from at least the most basic worries about survival. Eventually, Steinþór returns yet again to Óseyri, and Salka Valka continues to struggle to free herself from his insistent efforts to get his claws into her. (She does abandon what she can then only think of as ill-gotten Mararbúð, but Steinþór and his then much more significant presence in the village are harder to avoid and work around.)
       The first half of Salka Valka -- the first two of its four books -- paint a picture of this village life, centered around but not limited to the lives of Salka Valka and her mother. It might not appear to be any sort of microcosm -- indeed, Óseyri can seem to be a world entirely unto its own -- and yet one comes to realize that much experienced here is, indeed, universal. As Laxness notes: "Perhaps reality is in Óseyri in Axlarfjörður after all".
       The basics in the village remain stable, from Johánn Bogesen's economic throttlehold to the Salvation Army; as Laxness suggests: "On the surface this village was arranged like an eternity, where everything stands still". But time does move on, and the world is changing. If much of the outside world remains distant, the ripple effects of change do reach even Óseyri -- and it is notably those who ventured elsewhere that bring the greatest change, specifically Arnaldur Björnsson, who had been sent away to study, and then also Steinþór.
       The second half of Salka Valka, jumping ahead several years, introduces a village that has already undergone some changes. Notably, the Salvation Army has quit town -- and a fishermen's union has been formed, with Salka Valka as its president. Much of the remaining story then revolves around the labor struggles and economic changes in their wake that come to Óseyri -- played out in the shadows of the larger Icelandic economic crisis, involving also whether or not the government should bail out the troubled National Bank.
       Salka Valka has found some footing:
Yes, she was actually a trifle peculiar, as all lonely people must be. Fortunately, she wasn't dependent on anyone, so she could do whatever she pleased and be peculiar on her own account.
       Change is in the air, however -- with many locals leery of it, and of any outside influences that threaten to change what has been long so familiar. One person amusingly sums up the worries to Salka Valka:
What do you think would happen if all the foreign trends from down south were allowed to spread in a little fishing village such as this, and people took them as some sort of divine revelation and whirled from one to the next, whatever they are called: Krishnamurti, bobbed hair, influenza, Bolshevism, just to name the ones that first spring to mind from the southern newspapers -- yes, what would happen ? What becomes of a person, what becomes of a village, if he or it loses its self-determination ?
       Arnaldur Björnsson is active in trying to shift economic and political power, notably with a newly-formed workers' union that then confronts -- and breaks -- the old system Johánn Bogesen had built up. A long and drawn out battle ensues -- and, as Salka Valka sums up for Steinþór, when he returns to the village after eight years away: "We've just had a battle here between socialism and capitalism, and both sides lost".
       Salka Valka is moved and won over by Arnaldur Björnsson's idealism and dreams, and the two finally become a couple while the village is in the throes of this continuing economic and political tug-of-war -- but Salka Valka recognizes the personal cost of being so in love:
     Before you came, Arnaldur, I was asleep, like everything else in this village, in fact. Then you came and woke me. But ever since I woke to you, I have been only a part of you and nothing myself.
       Creepy Steinþór also continues to make his play for Salka Valka -- and, more successfully, for economic power in the village. All this -- and also Johánn Bogesen's diminishing role (no worries about him, however: he has a safe have thanks to his Danish wife) -- make for a solid story of social and labor unrest. If everything here seems to be on a very small scale, it nevertheless reflects similar changes roiling the world at large -- and national politics do also ultimately have strong ripple effects here as well.
       Laxness always returns to the figure of Salka Valka, however, the central figure here, even if her situation shifts back and forth between significant and peripheral in the local goings-on. Salka Valka is a love story, too, but Laxness only briefly indulges completely in picture-book romance; reality proves harsher, and people weaker -- except for Salka Valka. Here is an author, after all, who, even at the happiest of times, can suggest: "Love and death have so much in common".
       This is, ultimately, Salka Valka's book and story. As she tries to explain to the love of her life:
     "No, Arnaldur, I'm not against you, you understand -- not you. I'm simply against what I don't understand. Is it my fault that I'm ignorant, maybe, and have always lived in the same village ? You've been in big cities, Arnaldur; you know the ways of the world. But I'm just --"
     Here she paused, and after a few moments, added suddenly, as if it were mere padding:
     " -- what I am."
       Laxness' novel is a rich portrait of this simple -- and not so simple -- girl and woman, a remarkably stable pole -- and, in many ways, a model -- for and in a changing world. She is determined, and tries to do the right thing, acting bullishly. She is concerned about her community, even if and as she largely remains an outsider to it. Salka Valka walls off enough of her life for her own humble satisfaction, but otherwise gives in whatever way she can to her community. As Arnaldur admiringly also says:
I don't know any girl who looks as much like a Bolshie as you. In Russia you would probably be a commissar.
       Which pegs her right -- but Laxness also emphasizes her very human side, not least in her concern for the welfare of children. And, while her education may be limited, she nevertheless navigates local conditions adroitly, not least with her union-work. But ultimately, of course, the other forces at play -- not least Arnaldur's opportunities -- are too strong for her to do anything against (and even here she does what little she can not for her own benefit, but for another's).
       Laxness' small-town tale depicts a world where life is difficult, but the novel never sinks into deep gloom; there's a variety of resilient spirit here -- with Salka Valka's particularly pronounced and strong (and really only her mother a truly resigned figure). It's hardly an upbeat tale, but there's a surprising buoyancy to it, with even most of the sadness coming across as an accepted part of life. Of course, there is then that absolutely crushing ending .....
       Salka Valka is a big and very fine novel, and wonderful character-portrait of a remarkable figure.

- M.A.Orthofer, 11 March 2022

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Salka Valka: Reviews (* review of a different translation): Salka Valka - the movie: Halldór Laxness: Other books by Halldór Laxness under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Icelandic author Halldór Laxness (actually: Halldór Guðjónsson) lived 1902 to 1998. He won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1955.

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© 2022 the complete review

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