The Nobel Prize in Literature 1955
Halldór Laxness's speech at the Nobel
Banquet at the City Hall in Stockholm, December 10, 1955
I was travelling in the south of Sweden a
few weeks ago, when I heard the rumour that the choice of the
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
It is not so strange perhaps that my thoughts turned then - as they still do, not least at this solemn moment - to all my friends and relations, to those who had been the companions of my youth and are dead now and buried in oblivion. Even in their lifetime, they were known to few, and today they are remembered by fewer still. All the same they have formed and influenced me and, to this day, their effect on me is greater than that of any of the world's great masters or pioneers could possibly have been. I am thinking of all those wonderful men and women, the people among whom I grew up. My father and mother, but above all, my grandmother, who taught me hundreds of lines of old Icelandic poetry before I ever learned the alphabet.
In my hotel room that night, I thought - as I still do - of the moral principles she instilled in me: never to harm a living creature; throughout my life, to place the poor, the humble, the meek of this world above all others; never to forget those who were slighted or neglected or who had suffered injustice, because it was they who, above all others, deserved our love and respect, in Iceland or anywhere in the world. I spent my entire childhood in an environment in which the mighty of the earth had no place outside story books and dreams. Love of, and respect for, the humble routine of everyday life and its creatures was the only moral commandment which carried conviction when I was a child.
I recall my friends whose names the world never knew but who, in my youth, and long into my adult life, guided my literary work. Though no writers themselves, they nevertheless possessed infallible literary judgment and were able, better than most of the masters, to open my eyes to what was essential in literature. Many of those gifted men are no longer with us, but they are so vivid in my mind and in my thoughts that, many a time, I would have been hard put to distinguish between which was the expression of my own self and which the voice of my friends within me.
I am thinking, too, of that community of one hundred and fifty thousand men and women who form the book-loving nation that we Icelanders are. From the very first, my countrymen have followed my literary career, now criticizing, now praising my work, but hardly ever letting a single word be buried in indifference. Like a sensitive instrument that records every sound, they have reacted with pleasure or displeasure to every word I have written. It is a great good fortune for an author to be born into a nation so steeped in centuries of poetry and literary tradition.
My thoughts fly to the old Icelandic storytellers who created our classics, whose personalities were so bound up with the masses that their names, unlike their lives' work, have not been preserved for posterity. They live in their immortal creations and are as much a part of Iceland as her landscape. For century upon dark century those nameless men and women sat in their mud huts writing books without so much as asking themselves what their wages would be, what prize or recognition would be theirs. There was no fire in their miserable dwellings at which to warm their stiff fingers as they sat up late at night over their stories. Yet they succeeded in creating not only a literary language which is among the most beautiful and subtlest there is, but a separate literary genre. While their hearts remained warm, they held on to their pens.
As I was sitting in my hotel room in Skåne, I asked myself: what can fame and success give to an author? A measure of material well-being brought about by money? Certainly. But if an Icelandic poet should forget his origin as a man of the people, if he should ever lose his sense of belonging with the humble of the earth, whom my old grandmother taught me to revere, and his duty toward them, then what is the good of fame and prosperity to him?
Your Majesties, ladies and gentlemen - It is a great event in my life that the Swedish Academy should have chosen to link my name with the nameless masters of sagas. The reasons the Academy has given for singling me out in so spectacular a manner will serve as an encouragement to me for the rest of my days, but they will also bring joy to those whose support has been responsible for all that my work may have of value. The distinction you have conferred on me fills me with pride and joy. I thank the Swedish Academy for all this with gratitude and respect. Though it was I who today received the Prize from Your Majesty's hands, nevertheless I feel that it has also been bestowed on my many mentors, the fathers of Iceland's literary tradition.
Prior to the speech, H. Bergstrand, former
Rector of the Caroline Institute, addressed Mr. Laxness: «We
know that Alfred Nobel regarded life with the eyes of a poet, and
that his gaze was fixed on a far-off dreamland. Accordingly,
literature should have an idealistic tendency. This is something
else than the admission of the lad who later called himself
Halldór Kiljan Laxness when he listened to the sayings of
the pipe-player. He said that the player's talk hid no deeper
meaning than an ordinary landscape or a finely painted picture,
and they therefore had the same self-evident charm. ‹From
the day I learned to read›, he continued, ‹I have
been irritated by stories with a moral, a hidden pointer, in the
guise of adventure. I immediately stopped reading or listening as
soon as I thought I understood that the purpose of the story was
to force on me some kind of wisdom which someone else considered
noteworthy, a virtue that someone else found admirable, instead
of telling me a story. For a story is still the best thing that
one can tell›.
I am convinced that the Swedish Academy was of the same opinion when it awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature to a modern incarnation of an Icelandic teller of sagas. And no one can deny that his tales move the mind, a prerequisite that Horace demanded for the works of a poet, in the words: <et quocunque volent animum auditoris agunto>».
From Nobel Lectures, Literature 1901-1967, Editor Horst Frenz, Elsevier Publishing Company, Amsterdam, 1969
Copyright © The Nobel Foundation 1955