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Iceland's Bell (1943)

by Halldór Laxness

Other authors: See the other authors section.

Series: Islands klocka (bok 1-3)

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingMentions
6211432,622 (4.03)58
Sometimes grim, sometimes uproarious, and always captivating, Iceland’s Bell by Nobel Laureate Halldór Laxness is at once an updating of the traditional Icelandic saga and a caustic social satire. At the close of the 17th century, Iceland is an oppressed Danish colony, suffering under extreme poverty, famine, and plague. A farmer and accused cord-thief named Jon Hreggvidsson makes a bawdy joke about the Danish king and soon after finds himself a fugitive charged with the murder of the king’s hangman. In the years that follow, the hapless but resilient rogue Hreggvidsson becomes a pawn entangled in political and personal conflicts playing out on a far grander scale. Chief among these is the star-crossed love affair between Snaefridur, known as “Iceland’s Sun,” a beautiful, headstrong young noblewoman, and Arnas Arnaeus, the king’s antiquarian, an aristocrat whose worldly manner conceals a fierce devotion to his downtrodden countrymen. As their personal struggle plays itself out on an international stage, Iceland’s Bell creates a Dickensian canvas of heroism and venality, violence and tragedy, charged with narrative enchantment on every page.… (more)
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    Kolbkarlsson: Also on the theme of colonial iceland, with oddball characters and a twisted sense of humour. It is a bleak as Iceland's bell, but a little more romantic and sentimental. The story is about one of iceland's great unknowns, Outsider artist and Vagabond Sölvi Helgasson.… (more)
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» See also 58 mentions

English (11)  French (2)  German (1)  All languages (14)
Showing 1-5 of 11 (next | show all)
Glorious stuff: it's funny, it's moving, it's political, it's anthropological, it's a slap in the face to any straightforward nationalism, even of the post-colonial variety, while administering more slaps to the face of imperialism than I could possible count. ( )
  stillatim | Oct 23, 2020 |
This novel is set in 17th and 18th century Iceland and follows several interlocking stories. One is of Jon Hreggvidsson, a man accused of murdering the King's hangman. Through his saga we see the inaneness of the "courts" at the Althingi. His story reminded me in some ways of Don Quixote - there was a dark humor to his situation. His paths cross with Snaefridur, the most beautiful woman in Iceland, and Arnas Arnaeus, a wealthy collector of Icelandic manuscripts. Snaefridur and Arnas fall in love but Snaefridur is married to a drunkard who loses her dowry land and sometimes gets drunk and sells her to other men. Arnas, though he's infatuated with Snaefridur, seems to love his books more than anything and his quest to find original manuscripts monopolizes his life.

Among these storylines, Laxness weaves in a rich history of Iceland at the time, which was ruled by Denmark. The politics of this remote government and the hardships of living in Iceland are an essential part of the book.

Overall, I really liked this. It's certainly written impressively and thoroughly. I will admit that it was sometimes hard for me to follow the plot, though, and definitely took a lot of concentration. I would recommend this, but save it for a time when you can really focus and are ready for a bit of a challenge. ( )
1 vote japaul22 | Jun 27, 2018 |
I was captivated by this vivid picture of Iceland of the later medieval period, its common folks, fighting for mere survival, the local aristocrats often not doing much better, the grip of their colonial overlords and peculiar dealings of the medieval church.
Although I normally prefer more laconic sentences, I enjoyed well crafted Halldor's language, perhaps because it better suited the impossibly flowery, obscure and mannered way of talking used by the aristocracy and clergy of the day. I also prefer the faster pace of the story line but accepted the slower pace, perhaps because it emulated, in its speed, the movement of glaciers covering the Iceland's highlands.
My rating for the book is lower than my review would indicate, but that's because I never use high rating unless about 30% or more of the book conveys some knowledge that is useful or interesting to me even if the remainder is high-quality entertainment, which is, obviously, also important in any book. ( )
  parp | Aug 29, 2016 |
I found this book to be ponderous and hard to follow. I read it because the author was a Nobel prize winner and I wanted to read about Iceland. I was determined to finish it! Despite the struggle, it actually is an amazing story with fascinating characters living in a time and place of incredible privation. It was definitely a learning experience for me. The language is complicated but it is beautifully written. It is well worth the effort. ( )
  rosiezbanks | Dec 27, 2014 |
I was turned on to Halldór Laxness by references to his work in David Mitchell’s recent novel The Bone Clocks, and am glad for it. I’ll say at the outset that Adam Haslett could not have put in any better than he did in the introduction to this edition: “Am I really going to settle into a long novel about Iceland of all places? And did we mention the story takes place in the seventeenth century and revolves around forty years of intractable civil and criminal litigation? Headed for the exits yet? If so, I have some simple advice: stop. You’ve stumbled upon a beautiful and hilarious novel by a superb writer.”

The litigation he refers to is against Jón Hreggviðsson, one of the novel’s protagonists, who is accused of having murdered the Danish King’s hangman out on the moors one night after having been flogged by him. Hreggviðsson is a simple farmer at the head of a family of halfwits and lepers, but who is in possession of an ancient and very valuable book, sought after by Arnas Arnæus. In addition to being an avid book collector, Arnæus is an intermediary in between Denmark and Iceland, a local authority if you will, and also a suitor to Snæfríður Íslandssól, a beautiful, elfin woman who sizzles on every page with her wit and cool passion. She really made the novel for me, and as she has two other suitors, one a priest, and the other an incorrigible alcoholic, she’s in plenty of great scenes.

The novel takes place at a time when Iceland was under Denmark’s thumb, and “Iceland’s Bell” is its only national treasure remaining, hanging in a courthouse, and soon to be cut down. Stripped of heroes and its sovereignty, rapidly losing its copies of ancient eddas, Iceland seems to be in danger of losing its identity entirely.

This is a book filled with Denmark’s domination and cruel treatment of Iceland, and yet it leaves protest and condemnation as an unstated undercurrent. It’s a book with images of ruin that are memorable, and yet they are not presented with excessive pathos. Iceland’s honor may appear to be slipping away, but upon reflection it is evident in the characters that Laxness creates, flawed as they all are. They react to difficulty with stoicism and sarcasm, and there is real humor and life in this book. I only knocked my review score down to 4 stars because I thought the legal wranglings of Hreggviðsson’s case went through a few too many twists and turns and became less interesting. Definitely worth reading, and I’ll be looking for Independent People, the novel that earned him the Nobel Prize next.

Just this quote:
“There is only one moment in a man’s life that stays with him and will always stay with him throughout the march of time. Everything he does afterward, for good or for ill, he does in the reflected light of that moment, as he fights his lifelong battles – and there is nothing he can do to resist it. For certain, it is always one pair of eyes that reigns over such a moment, the eyes for which all poets are born, and yet their poet is never born, for upon the day that their true name is spoken the world will perish. What happened, what was said? At such a moment nothing happens, nothing is said. But suddenly they are down in a meadow by the river, and the estuary is flooded. Golden clouds shine behind her. The night breeze breathes through her fair hair. Traces of the day remain in the pale blush upon her rose-petal cheeks.” ( )
3 vote gbill | Nov 30, 2014 |
Showing 1-5 of 11 (next | show all)
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» Add other authors (15 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Halldór Laxnessprimary authorall editionscalculated
Benediktsson, JakobTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Hallberg, PeterTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Haslett, AdamIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
ISBĂŞESCU, Mihaisecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
MORARIU, Modestsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Otten, Marcelsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Roughton, PhilipTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Es gab eine Zeit, heißt es in alten Büchern, da das isländische Volk nur ein gemeinsames Eigentum besaß, das einen gewissen Geldwert hatte. Das war eine Glocke.
There was a time, it says in books, that the Icelandic people had only one national treasure: a bell.
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Ursprünglich erschienen in drei Teilen: Die Glocke Islands - Die lichte Maid - Feuer in Kopenhagen
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Sometimes grim, sometimes uproarious, and always captivating, Iceland’s Bell by Nobel Laureate Halldór Laxness is at once an updating of the traditional Icelandic saga and a caustic social satire. At the close of the 17th century, Iceland is an oppressed Danish colony, suffering under extreme poverty, famine, and plague. A farmer and accused cord-thief named Jon Hreggvidsson makes a bawdy joke about the Danish king and soon after finds himself a fugitive charged with the murder of the king’s hangman. In the years that follow, the hapless but resilient rogue Hreggvidsson becomes a pawn entangled in political and personal conflicts playing out on a far grander scale. Chief among these is the star-crossed love affair between Snaefridur, known as “Iceland’s Sun,” a beautiful, headstrong young noblewoman, and Arnas Arnaeus, the king’s antiquarian, an aristocrat whose worldly manner conceals a fierce devotion to his downtrodden countrymen. As their personal struggle plays itself out on an international stage, Iceland’s Bell creates a Dickensian canvas of heroism and venality, violence and tragedy, charged with narrative enchantment on every page.

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