Salka Valka by Halldór Laxness: she needs to be alone
Reviewed by David S. Baldwin, Professor of Psychiatry
Clinical and Experimental Sciences Academic Unit
Faculty of Medicine, University of Southampton, United Kingdom
Born in Reykjavík in April 1902, Halldór Guðjónsson (he changed his name to Halldór Kiljan Laxness in 1923) lived through almost the entire twentieth century. Raised in an isolated and traditional society, he travelled widely and embraced cosmopolitan modernity, though retained an essentially Icelandic identity. In early life Laxness adhered to staunch revivalist Catholicism, then embraced socialism for thirty years. He subsequently espoused ecological and pacifist causes and addressed philosophical questions reflecting an interest in humanism and Taoism. But the principal achievement of Laxness was the authentic portrayal of sympathetic but struggling characters that symbolised the determined aspirations of the Icelandic nation and marked its long path towards eventual independence from colonialist Denmark (1).
Laxness travelled to America in the 1927 summer intending to become a Hollywood screenwriter. Writing to his then wife Inga at the end of that year, he described work on a film script provisionally titled Salka Valka (or, A Woman in Pants): the eponymous protagonist is described as ‘tall and strongly built’ with an expression encompassing ‘rustic virginity, dare-devilry, primitive charm’, and ‘dressed like a fisherman: wide pants, the boot-legs reaching up over her knees, a pipe in her mouth’. The script reflects contemporaneous Freudian concepts of human sexuality and is redolent with surrealist images, such as the final scene in a lover’s cottage where Salka lingeringly unfolds and kisses the leather straps of an Icelandic whip (often made from skin of bull penis) and Laxness imagined the cross-dressing Swedish actress Greta Garbo in the title role (1). Not surprisingly, negotiations with MGM floundered so the script was transformed into a two-part novel: the first manuscript was written whilst visiting isolated Icelandic fishing villages, the second was completed in cosmopolitan Weimar-era Leipzig. These were published a year apart with the support from the national Cultural Fund: the first (O Thou Pure Vine) was well received, but the second (The Bird on the Beach) was chastised by conservatives for its perceived lampoon of boorish ‘upper class’ motivations and criticised by progressives for its caricature of labour movement infighting – the Communist Party leader suggesting Laxness approached socialism as an idealist, with only a bourgeois understanding of the workers’ struggle (1).
An English translation of the combined parts of Salka Valka was published in 1936. The English language version has been out of print for many years, but Guðny Halldórsdóttir kindly lent me her copy, which was published in 1973 following revision by her father (2). A previous review commended its saga-like objectivity and clarity, and the masterful portrayal of down-trodden characters whose local quotidian travails seem emblematic of wider persistent human suffering (3): another account praised its Christian symbolism and careful balance of honourable parishioners and devious villains on both sides of the class struggle (4). The themes reflect the author’s perennial concerns with the nature of love, position of women, role of the intellectual, and the lot of common people: many chapters are full of visceral emotions and disturbing sexual acts perpetrated against young women. In a notebook Laxness described his wish to provide ‘tragic perspectives on the incomprehensibility of human feelings’, perhaps drawing on his desolation, anguish and guilt at the end of an affair with an Icelandic woman whilst living in America. But neither review has considered how the progressive emancipation of Salvör Valgerður (‘Salka Valka’) – as she first becomes a prominent local activist, then distances herself from the competing attentions of aggressively preying or dependently needy men – may reflect a growing awareness of her own sexuality.
The novel starts with the mid-winter night-time arrival by boat of eleven-year old Salvör and her unmarried mother Sigurlína at the run-down fishing village of Óseyri. The daughter disembarks first and reassures her mother, ‘in a low deep voice’ which suggests that of a man. They are grudgingly offered a room for the night at the Salvation Army hostel, but the next day their destitute status is acknowledged but not addressed by the local storekeeper, rector or doctor. They return to the hostel and fall prey to the impulsive but persuasive drunkard Steinþor Steinsson, who leads them towards ‘Marbud’, the home of his elderly aunt Steinunn and almost-blind uncle Eyjolfur, where they are offered lodgings. That evening Salvör tells her mother that whilst she was outside Steinþor had ‘grabbed hold of me here and here, and here’, and ‘whispered some stuff in my ear’ but Sigurlína responds inadequately, by asking for mutual understanding between ‘two women’, a response which has a fatal consequence. During the night Salvör is woken by the sound of tussling in the bed, as Steinþor forces himself on Sigurlína: he is repulsed, but only after he whispers a proposition which makes her recoil ‘Almighty Jesus, no! You know you can’t ask me to do a thing like that’. Later, whilst lying awake, Salvör realises she had often lain alone at night whilst her mother was absent, and for the first time appreciates she will have to rely on herself for her future safety: the narrator commenting ‘perhaps one really had nobody but oneself’.
The first part ends at dawn on Easter Day, when Sigurlína is found drowned, ‘a little grey oblong piece of flotsam which had been washed up on the sand’. This suicide is the result of a long process which includes remorse for the relationship with a married man which led to pregnancy with Salvör, regret for a subsequent series of damaging sexual liaisons with exploitative men, persistent grief following the death of her two-year old son Sigurlinni from scrofula (tuberculous cervical lymphadenitis: it is later revealed that Steinunn lost many children at Marbud to the same illness), a demoralizing awareness that Steinþor had once again attempted to force Salka into a sexual relationship, and acute anguish following a second desertion by Steinþor, just a few days before their hastily-arranged ‘Hallelujah Wedding’ scheduled for Holy Saturday. Her fragile personality could not withstand such prolonged adversity, without unconditional support from her daughter for whom ‘her mother’s weeping no longer went so deep to the heart as it had done’. During her testimony on entry into the Salvation Army two years before, Sigurlína had told the Congregation of her intention to commit suicide whilst pregnant with Salvör, but attempts at spiritual consolation by vigilant fellow Congregationalists following this nuptial desertion had made no impact: and the position of the often-derided Sigurlína within the wider community had always been marginal. Salvör, just fourteen years old, guarantees the costs of the funeral and walks back to Marbud, alone.
The second part of the novel charts the rise to prominence of Salvör within Óseyri. She establishes a local branch of the seamen’s union to defend workers against managerial exploitation; educates herself through reading political, evolutionist and philosophical texts; and assumes maternal responsibilities for four children once their mother dies. She is praised for being ‘a match for any man alive’. She is tall, erect and high-shouldered, her thick hair cut short with a side-parting; has courageous clear eyes, strong jaw and full lips, firm hands and a deep voice; and wears Alpine hiking-boots, woollen trousers and a roll-neck Jersey sweater which does not conceal the full curve of her firm breasts. She is commended by her childhood crush Arnaldur (by then a Communist agitator) for being a ‘tovarisch’ (Bolshevik comrade worker) icon, but current observers might recognise her portrait as iconographic of something else. She withstands the pleading entreaties and forcible sexual attentions of now-wealthy but still unscrupulous Steinþor, and leaves Marbud after she discovers it was Steinþor who had provided anonymous funds which enabled her to remain there after the death of Steinunn and Eyjolfur. Once aware of the feckless serial infidelity of the impractically idealistic Arnaldur (and despite some lingering affection for him), she reluctantly but determinedly ends their relationship by encouraging him to pursue his dreams in America. At the end of the novel, when the twenty-two year-old Salvör is finally free of unwanted male attention, the narrator compares her solitary precarious existence to the eggs of winter birds resting on narrow ledges on a high cliff-face: but contemporary readers might contend that having rid herself of both barbarous Steinþor and immature Arnaldur, Salvör may not want but certainly needs to be alone. Though with a typical twist, Laxness suggests she may be pregnant: for as Salvör walks past her most long-standing friend, he comments enigmatically, ‘cold weather to be born in’.
The novel therefore carefully illustrates the potentially damaging consequences of parentlessness, childhood abuse, unexpected bereavement and marital desertion; the corrosive effects of social and economic inequality; and the undermining of the aspirations of women by patriarchal institutions. Sigurlína succumbs after accumulated experiences of deprivation and loss, mediated through demoralisation and despair. It is argued that ‘resilience’ represents a process which allows the resumption of development following trauma or other adversity, and contends that ‘bonding’ and ‘meaning’ are important dynamic features which support this process (5). Those with only fragile affiliation or for whom life has lost its meaning (as depicted by Sigurlína) are less buffered against undermining challenges: but the active community engagement of Salvör provides a supportive network facilitating her eventual passage towards probable independence and emancipation.
- Guðmundsson H. The Islander. A Biography of Halldór Laxness, trans. by Philip Roughton. MacLehose Press 2008.
- Laxness H. Salka Valka, trans. by F.H. Lyon. London: Allen & Unwin, 1973. Originally published in two parts as Þú Vínidur Hreini (1931) and Fuglinn Í Fjörunni (1932).
- Magnússon S. The World of Halldór Laxness. World Literature Today 1992; 66: 457-63.
- Hallmundsson H. Halldór Laxness and the Sagas of Modern Iceland. The Georgia Review 1995; 49: 39-45.
- Cyrulnik B. The Whispering of Ghosts. Trauma and Resilience, trans. by Susan Fairfield. New York: Other Press 2005.