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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 from extreme poverty, famine, and plague. A farmer and accused cord-thief named Jon Hreggvidsso 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 from extreme poverty, famine, and plague. A farmer and accused cord-thief named Jon Hreggvidsson makes an improper 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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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 from extreme poverty, famine, and plague. A farmer and accused cord-thief named Jon Hreggvidsso 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 from extreme poverty, famine, and plague. A farmer and accused cord-thief named Jon Hreggvidsson makes an improper 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.

30 review for Iceland's Bell

  1. 5 out of 5

    Dolors

    It all starts with a church bell and a fishing line. The first is legally removed by the Danish king and the second is borrowed by Jón Hreggvidsson, illiterate rogue and farmer. Or are they? Truth is both objects are robbed, just like the dignity of Icelanders when the church bell presiding the Alpingi, or national assembly where courts and government took place in Medieval Iceland, is usurped to finance the war between Denmark and Sweden. Is this then an exalted apology to the national spirit of Ic It all starts with a church bell and a fishing line. The first is legally removed by the Danish king and the second is borrowed by Jón Hreggvidsson, illiterate rogue and farmer. Or are they? Truth is both objects are robbed, just like the dignity of Icelanders when the church bell presiding the Alpingi, or national assembly where courts and government took place in Medieval Iceland, is usurped to finance the war between Denmark and Sweden. Is this then an exalted apology to the national spirit of Icelanders after centuries of colonial exploitation under the Danish ruling? Far from it. Following the epic tradition of the sagas, Laxness constructs a tale using three narrative voices, the ostensible criminal Jón Hreggividsson, the fair lady Snaefridur, the magistrate’s daughter, and the scholar Arnos Arnaus (based on the historical figure Árni Magnússon), and goes back to the eighteenth century to retell the stories that shaped the identity of Icelandic people. Drunkards, wretched aristocrats and boorish crooks populate Laxness’ world and provide countless absurd situations that put Laxness’ characters in bizarre predicaments that are presented in a humorous, almost cartoonish light. Contrarily to the detached style of his prose, the themes treated in the book are anything but superficial: questions about the existing institutions, the fairness of law, trials and legal procedures, so subject to politics and superstitious tradition, the role of the state in the development of a country, the importance of folklore in the making of a national ethos or the concept of freedom are brought up in a surreptitious manner, evoking the eighteenth century French satirists and philosophers. There is neither a whiff of glorification of the past nor of Icelanders of yore in Laxness’ terse prose, but he takes good care of his protagonists, in spite of showing the vices and weaknesses that make them look contemptible most of the time. Nevertheless, he doesn’t judge or punish them but rather depicts their actions through the prism of gallows humor, making light of serious matters without shying away from the absurd tragedies that befall on them. My only reservation about the book, which is the reason why I couldn’t rate it any higher, is the lack of psychological nuance of the characters. They remain opaque, unreachable and distant from the reader, and unlike the other books I have read by the Icelandic laureate, there is no magical revelation or climatic ending that makes up for the bleak realism in which he drowns the reader’s hopes. Even though the story starts out like a fable, I turned the last pages with the sad realization that this time around only dry wit would serve to fight against the inclemencies of life and love, and that high ideals are not always the appropriate weapons to win the pointless battles fuelled by pettiness and the self-deluded ambitions of the few who rule the destinies of many.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Jann

    I was recently in Iceland for a couple of days. A tour guide happened to be very literary and he strongly recommended the books by Nobel Prize winner, Halldor Laxness. He even pulled the van into a tourist stop with a tiny book shop way out in Iceland's amazingly beautiful wilderness, so that I could get a book to begin reading immediately. I am so glad he did. This was truly a brilliant novel, and a fascinating glimpse into Iceland's history---a history that I personally was completely uneducat I was recently in Iceland for a couple of days. A tour guide happened to be very literary and he strongly recommended the books by Nobel Prize winner, Halldor Laxness. He even pulled the van into a tourist stop with a tiny book shop way out in Iceland's amazingly beautiful wilderness, so that I could get a book to begin reading immediately. I am so glad he did. This was truly a brilliant novel, and a fascinating glimpse into Iceland's history---a history that I personally was completely uneducated in. The characters were so real to me---Snaefridur, or "Iceland's sun", a beautiful, strong young noble woman who was both constrained by her society and had the gumption to make her own way against proscriptions, has been added to my list of most interesting female characters in books. I heartily recommend this book. I might go so far as to give it a four and a half stars. The prose was good enough that I read many passages aloud to my husband just for the enjoyment of the writing. The writer definitely knows how to write, and though much of the story is about people enduring often appalling situations and conditions, there is so much humor in the writing that I frequently laughed out loud.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Jim

    There are several Icelands in history. Best known is the Iceland of the Vikings, roughly from the time of settlement in the 9th century to the transfer of the country to the Norwegian King Haakon in the 13th century. Then we skip the better part of a millennium to come to the hip modern Iceland, land of the runtur and of bankruptcy. In between those two extremes was the Iceland of poverty and servitude. The Danes took over Iceland from the Norwegians and installed their merchants, gifting them w There are several Icelands in history. Best known is the Iceland of the Vikings, roughly from the time of settlement in the 9th century to the transfer of the country to the Norwegian King Haakon in the 13th century. Then we skip the better part of a millennium to come to the hip modern Iceland, land of the runtur and of bankruptcy. In between those two extremes was the Iceland of poverty and servitude. The Danes took over Iceland from the Norwegians and installed their merchants, gifting them with monopolies that made the merchants wealthy, but impoverished the natives. Halldór Laxness, the country's only winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature (in 1955), wrote Iceland's Bell to remind his countrymen of the utter waste and fecklessness of the Danish rule. (This theme is similar to the same author's World Light, which is set in a later period.) Iceland's Bell is set early in the 18th century and is presented in three acts, each with a different hero. We begin with Jon Hreggvidsson of Skagi, who is arrested for stealing a length of cord. (Apparently, the Danes, not needing fish themselves, deliberately made it harder for the Icelanders to feed themselves with the piscine riches of their island.) Things go from bad to worse for Jon, who is then arrested for murdering the hangman who whipped him for his crime. But he is let loose on the night before his hanging by ... Snaefridur Bjornsdottir, daughter of the magistrate who sentences Hreggvidsson, is a young beauty whose hand in marriage is sought by Icelanders of the best families. Unfortunately, the fair maiden weds a drunk, though really she loves the Icelander Arnas Arnaeus, a thinly disguised portrait of Arni Magnusson, famous for collecting texts of the old Icelandic sagas and advising the Danish king how to control his subjects. Arnaeus is a patriot of sorts, but an unfaithful suitor to Saefridur. His belief is that the texts which he has collected, and which are almost burned in a massive fire in Copenhagen, are the source of his people's pride and fame. It is Arnaeus who says, "A fat servant is not much of a man. A beaten servant is a great man, because in his breast freedom has its home." On another occasion, he says, "I regret nothing that has happened, neither in words nor thoughts. It may be that thye most victorious race is the one that is exterminated." And under Danish rule, Iceland did come close on several occasions to being utterly annihilated, from plague and smallpox; from the volcanic eruption at Lakagigur in the 1780s that led to an even more vicious plague; and starvation. Laxness is not only a great Icelandic and Scandinavian author: He is perhaps one of the very best novelists of the Twentieth Century -- period! His love for Iceland and its sad plight shows itself frequently throughout the book:Over verdant lowlands cut by the deep streamwaters of the south hangs a peculiar gloom. Every eye is stifled by clouds that block the sight of the sun, every voice is muffled like the chirps of fleeing birds, every quasi-movement sluggish. Children must not laugh, no attention must be drawn to the fact that a man exists, one must not provoke the powers with frivolity -- do nothing but prowl along, furtively, lowly. Maybe the Godhead had not yet struck its final blow, an unexpiated sin might still fester somewhere, perhaps there still lurked worms that needed to be crushed.I have now read all but three novels by Laxness that have been translated into English. I intend to read them all, and to hope against hope that the novelist's other work finds a translator.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Christopher Donaghue

    This was a dense read, a rocky ride through the heavenly terrain and hellish situation of that oft-misunderstood island called Iceland. It is divided into three books, with the first being by far the best and describing vividly the sorry fate of the Icelandic people, the cruelty of their justice system, the practice of magic and belief in fairy tales, the middle being rather dull and uncertain with long-winded and Latin-filled (not that that was often a difficulty; even the butchered German was This was a dense read, a rocky ride through the heavenly terrain and hellish situation of that oft-misunderstood island called Iceland. It is divided into three books, with the first being by far the best and describing vividly the sorry fate of the Icelandic people, the cruelty of their justice system, the practice of magic and belief in fairy tales, the middle being rather dull and uncertain with long-winded and Latin-filled (not that that was often a difficulty; even the butchered German was pretty understandable, though footnotes provide translations) dialogues that seem to go in circles over its 20 chapters, and the last being a worthy conclusion. The abuses committed against the people of Iceland via the Danish monopoly in league with famine and plague make up a part of history that few know anything about. I've read many of the Icelandic sagas (to which are made such frequent allusions that I may have quit had I not already read most mentioned and so understood what was going on) set during the only part of their history that is close to well known. The latest event of Icelandic history of which I had some familiarity was the raids on Iceland by the Muslims who abducted and enslaved hundreds of people along the coast, a travesty that predated the deprivations documented, apparently quite honestly, in this novel by a number of decades and is not referenced herein. That left everything in this novel as new terrain, for the most part. The Danish king's attempts to sell Iceland call to mind some very recent history and is one aspect of Iceland's history about which I should like to learn more. The fire in Copenhagen is only briefly portrayed in some of the final pages. I felt it deserved far more detailed treatment. On the whole though, this has been a book I am sure I will remember well for many years to come, and I'll be happy to do so.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Jenny (Reading Envy)

    This is my third year with a group here in GoodReads called The World's Literature. In 2012 we read Japan, last year we read Turkey (which started me on all kinds of paths), and this year (2014), Iceland will be our theme. It is fitting that we started with a novel by Laxness, the only Icelandic citizen to be awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. This is the story of Iceland during the 17th and 18th centuries, when it was poverty-stricken and controlled by Denmark. The bias against Icelanders c This is my third year with a group here in GoodReads called The World's Literature. In 2012 we read Japan, last year we read Turkey (which started me on all kinds of paths), and this year (2014), Iceland will be our theme. It is fitting that we started with a novel by Laxness, the only Icelandic citizen to be awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. This is the story of Iceland during the 17th and 18th centuries, when it was poverty-stricken and controlled by Denmark. The bias against Icelanders causes all sorts of problems for the central characters, who are imprisoned, beaten, have property stolen from them, and are generally treated like trash. (Even I am not certain I'd want to smell an Icelander of this era if it's even half as bad as the Danes claim!) The great irony of this, of course, is that Iceland is also the home of the great Scandinavian sagas, arguably the roots of the Danish traditions (at least, this is what the fictional characters are claiming in the centuries of this book.) One of the characters, Arnas Arnaeus, spends most of the novel trying to hunt down pages of these old hand-written tales from people who have resorted to using them in mending or for food because of their abject conditions. Laxness modeled the book after the old sagas, and this adds an element of magic to the novel. Even the criminals feel heroic, particularly Jón Hreggviðsson, whose story is central to the novel. Sagas are treated as fact, as history, and are quoted verbatim on a frequent basis, usually in song (one in particular I think is made up for the novel.) As Snæfríður Íslandssól quotes to Glyndenløve, a Danish royal: Though a man loses his wealth and his kin, and in the end dies himself, he loses nothing if he has made a name for himself." Why only three stars? The novel is largely about court proceedings and the law, which has to be the absolutely least interesting element of any society (to me.) Also, almost all the important male characters are named Jon, adding a great deal of confusion to following the story lines. I've heard that Laxness writes differently in every novel, so I'm looking forward to another experience. For the foodies: beyond generic foods like shark, soup, and steak being mentioned, one meal starts with bowls of raisin porridge. I found a few recipes online, and was most intrigued with this list of Icelandic Yule dishes. I'm sure I'll experiment with some before the year is out!

  6. 5 out of 5

    Calzean

    1700s in Iceland was not a happy place. Famine, epidemics and the ruling Danes doing everything to get rid of the place. Even the wealthiest of Icelandic folk live very modestly. Written in three parts. The first focusing on Jon Hreggvidsson a poor farmer imprisoned for stealing a piece of rope. He is accused of murdering the King's hangman. The second part focus's on the beautiful noblewoman Snaefridur and the last on Arnaeus a collector of books. Hreggvidsson's story looks at the injustice that 1700s in Iceland was not a happy place. Famine, epidemics and the ruling Danes doing everything to get rid of the place. Even the wealthiest of Icelandic folk live very modestly. Written in three parts. The first focusing on Jon Hreggvidsson a poor farmer imprisoned for stealing a piece of rope. He is accused of murdering the King's hangman. The second part focus's on the beautiful noblewoman Snaefridur and the last on Arnaeus a collector of books. Hreggvidsson's story looks at the injustice that exists, the harshness of life and the stoicism of the Icelandic people. The second and third parts focus on the relationship between Snaefridur and Arnaeus. I found it to be a little ponderous to read. As with most of Laxness's works there is a lot of reference to the Iceland Sagas, a resigned respect to his countrymen and a sarcastic look at the Danes who treated Iceland in much the same way as England treated Ireland.

  7. 4 out of 5

    B. Asma

    Tells a fascinating/spellbinding story of Iceland's difficult years in the 17-18th centuries, when the country and its trade are beholden to support Denmark, which displaced the island's Catholicism with Lutheranism. It's more the story of how characters rich or poor (dispensing authority or being the object of it) respond to curtailments to acquire their livelihood and to retain their proper honor in society. As if the Danish trade monopoly were not enough hardship, the Icelandic justice instit Tells a fascinating/spellbinding story of Iceland's difficult years in the 17-18th centuries, when the country and its trade are beholden to support Denmark, which displaced the island's Catholicism with Lutheranism. It's more the story of how characters rich or poor (dispensing authority or being the object of it) respond to curtailments to acquire their livelihood and to retain their proper honor in society. As if the Danish trade monopoly were not enough hardship, the Icelandic justice institution produces injustice, without attention to rights commonly granted in constitutions. Such hardships, even taking fishing cord is prohibited, are complicated further upon the malnourished, lice-ridden population by smallpox, famine, volcanic eruptions, piracy, witchcraft persecution, disease from malnutrition, and illiteracy. In Iceland's history, this era is not the Golden Age of independent, saga-writing Icelanders during the Old Commonwealth, 930-1262 CE. Nevertheless, that once, prolifically literary period takes importance in Laxness's novel. The historical/real-life character of Arni Magnusson goes everywhere to collect scattered pages of vellum manuscripts and lost Icelandic books, finding them by visiting other characters, as the items could be in a barn or even a mattress stuffing. There's an on/off again love affair between the scholarly manuscript collector (he's also the Danish assessor of Iceland's judicial adjudgments and of its land titles) and the aristocratic, presumably unhistorical female protagonist Snaefidur Iceland's Sun, who has the middle section of the book, part 2, all to herself. A third plot brings in both Arni and Snaefidur onto opposing sides for or against the historical, shadily accused farmer Jón Hreggvidsson, who seems to accept the label of bad guy and whose case being retried time and again over thirty years catapults him between Iceland's Althing and Denmark's king. Subplots surrounding each of these three characters bring in appearances by other characters for a rounded scenario of life.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Lobstergirl

    This was full of gallows humor, which I appreciated. Otherwise the poverty, the hardscrabbleness (the description of an old women's bed near the beginning of the book is absolutely revolting), the infanticide, the disease, the floggings, the executions, would have been a bit hard to take. At the novel's center are several criminal and civil cases which take years to resolve, making this a sort of 17th century Icelandic Bleak House. But I never really warmed to the characters' lack of psychological This was full of gallows humor, which I appreciated. Otherwise the poverty, the hardscrabbleness (the description of an old women's bed near the beginning of the book is absolutely revolting), the infanticide, the disease, the floggings, the executions, would have been a bit hard to take. At the novel's center are several criminal and civil cases which take years to resolve, making this a sort of 17th century Icelandic Bleak House. But I never really warmed to the characters' lack of psychological depth (this is intentional, Adam Haslett informs us in the introduction, as Laxness is creating his own version of an Icelandic saga). It made everything feel very remote. I'm also not keen on trolls or elves, of which there was just a bit.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Kallie

    I've never read a better historical novel, free of anachronisms and sentimentality, witty yet never 'light history,' as are too many historical novels written these days. Laxness writes such vivid, complex characters and depiction of life in the 17th century, when Iceland was under the heel of the Danes -- scorned in every way yet unbowed. The narrative sags in places, but is well worth one's patience. Joh Hreggvissson, Snaefridur, Arnas Arnaeus, are all unforgettable. I will be reading more Lax I've never read a better historical novel, free of anachronisms and sentimentality, witty yet never 'light history,' as are too many historical novels written these days. Laxness writes such vivid, complex characters and depiction of life in the 17th century, when Iceland was under the heel of the Danes -- scorned in every way yet unbowed. The narrative sags in places, but is well worth one's patience. Joh Hreggvissson, Snaefridur, Arnas Arnaeus, are all unforgettable. I will be reading more Laxness, for sure.

  10. 4 out of 5

    McKenzie

    I think I've officially become an Icelandophile, or at least obsessed with the works of Halldór Laxness. Iceland's Bell is written in the tradition of the sagas, presenting strong, stubborn, and independent characters whose paths intertwine over the course of many years as the result of seemingly innocuous occurrences. Set in the 17th and 18th centuries while Iceland suffered egregiously under the rule of Denmark, Iceland's Bell follows the actions of three main characters: Jón Hreggviðsson, a c I think I've officially become an Icelandophile, or at least obsessed with the works of Halldór Laxness. Iceland's Bell is written in the tradition of the sagas, presenting strong, stubborn, and independent characters whose paths intertwine over the course of many years as the result of seemingly innocuous occurrences. Set in the 17th and 18th centuries while Iceland suffered egregiously under the rule of Denmark, Iceland's Bell follows the actions of three main characters: Jón Hreggviðsson, a cord-thief and supposed murderer with a miraculous ability to evade authorities and keep his head, whose journey is reminiscent of The Odyssey; Snæfríður, the most beautiful woman in Iceland and daughter of the magistrate; and Arnas Arnæus, a man committed to preserving the great literature of Iceland and finding a way to save its people from their current destitution. Hreggviðsson often ends up tossed about in the power struggle between the lovers Snæfríður and Arnas Arnæus, as their interactions and especially legal and criminal cases stretch out over the expanse of some thirty years. Laxness writes this historical novel with such passion, honesty, and dark humor that the result feels like a complex love declaration, for a country whose people were everywhere despised as "that collection of lice-ridden beggars on that shithole up north", but who persevered and preserved their literary traditions out of pride and something deeper, as exemplified by Snæfríður's speech: "Why won't the king of Denmark leave us our names? We have done nothing against him. We deserve no less respect than he does. My forefathers were kings of land and sea. They sailed their ships over storm-wracked seas and came to Iceland at a time when no other race on earth knew how to sail... Do as you please, take my foremothers' silver, take all of it. Sell us like livestock. Send us to the heaths of Jylland where the heather grows. Or, if it suits you, keep beating us with your whips back at home in our own country. Hopefully we have done enough to deserve it... Excuse me for speaking up, excuse us for being a race of historians who forget nothing. But do not misunderstand me: I regret nothing that has happened, neither in words nor in thoughts. It may be that the most victorious race is the one that is exterminated: I will not plead with words for mercy for the Icelanders. We Icelanders are truly not too good to die. And life has meant nothing to us for a long time. But there is one thing that we can never lose while one man of this race, rich or poor, remains standing; and even in death this thing is never lost to us; that which is described in the old poem, and which we call fame." Iceland's Bell was only translated into English in 2003, and it deserves to be more widely read. I will admit that at times I struggled with this novel, at times I thought I would never finish it, but now that I have finished it I feel exactly how I felt when I finished Laxness' more widely known Independent People: I cannot wait to read this masterpiece of literature again.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Biblibio

    What interesting about "Iceland's Bell" is that it deserves more. It's a complicated book to rate and review, if only because it was a complicated book to read. That said, readers with some free time on their hands and the need to tackle some of the Nobel masters should definitely look at "Iceland's Bell" as an option. There are three stories in "Iceland's Bell" and its downfall starts there. On the one hand, all three have their interesting aspects and all three have fairly strong central charac What interesting about "Iceland's Bell" is that it deserves more. It's a complicated book to rate and review, if only because it was a complicated book to read. That said, readers with some free time on their hands and the need to tackle some of the Nobel masters should definitely look at "Iceland's Bell" as an option. There are three stories in "Iceland's Bell" and its downfall starts there. On the one hand, all three have their interesting aspects and all three have fairly strong central characters, but it's hard to enjoy the first plotline once you taste of the second and the third. In the end, I found myself wanting to read only about the love-story thread (interestingly enough), rather than the summary accredited main character, Jon Hreggvidsson. The problem is that the story often feels very distant. This is easily rectified with the excellent endnotes, but characters have the tendency to feel far-off as well. Namely, Jon Hreggvidsson. I found myself bored by his many antics and wanting to read more from the two other stories, rather than working my way through a bizarre journey across Europe. Yet even with my difficulties, I enjoyed the book. I thought certain parts were brilliant, there's a deep humanity to "Iceland's Bell", and it's got a very nice overall story. It's not a book for the impatient but for those who do take the time, there are rewards.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Sovotchka

    While I admittedly learned quite a lot about Iceland and its people, I wouldn't want to read this book again, and I wouldn't recommend it either. There is a difference between writing in great detail about hard or sad lives, and actually making the reader feel as devastated as the people in the book. If the main characters meet other people, there is little or no impact on them at all and the conversations seem totally random. I did have to look up a lot of things that were mentioned (and I lear While I admittedly learned quite a lot about Iceland and its people, I wouldn't want to read this book again, and I wouldn't recommend it either. There is a difference between writing in great detail about hard or sad lives, and actually making the reader feel as devastated as the people in the book. If the main characters meet other people, there is little or no impact on them at all and the conversations seem totally random. I did have to look up a lot of things that were mentioned (and I learned more through looking up those things than through the book itself), but I still didn't make any important connections that would have helped me understand the characters, their emotions, or their motives. What did not help at all was the writing style of the book. From assigning random names to characters without explanation which confuses the reader (like calling Jon a farmer before that is established), to a lact of direct speech (which I generally hate), this book is just not for me. And I probably won't read another Laxness in the next few years to come. I don't regret reading it, but I would not want to do so again. Mostly because (apart from some knowledge about Iceland), I didn't get anything from this book. Which makes two stars. And no recommendation.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Jeremy

    I found Iceland's Bell to be a remarkable novel, comparable in power, scope and beauty to a classic like One Hundred Years of Solitude, Dead Souls or War and Peace. It is the story of life in a brutally oppressed arctic colony, so it is certainly filled with suffering and misery. But the quality of the time and place emerges clearly from its pages, enriched by distinctive and engaging individuals. The individual stories interact with the larger history beautifully, never losing sight of the huma I found Iceland's Bell to be a remarkable novel, comparable in power, scope and beauty to a classic like One Hundred Years of Solitude, Dead Souls or War and Peace. It is the story of life in a brutally oppressed arctic colony, so it is certainly filled with suffering and misery. But the quality of the time and place emerges clearly from its pages, enriched by distinctive and engaging individuals. The individual stories interact with the larger history beautifully, never losing sight of the human dimension of the robustly drawn, well-developed characters. One reservation: I read the book fresh off a trip to Iceland, and so with at least a passing awareness of important places and people in Icelandic history. This added a quality of richness to the story for me, and I imagine I would have found the book a bit opaque at various point without this. The edition I read had a notes section that explained many of the historical references. With my tourists view of Icelandic history, I found I rarely needed it, which is great as I personally hate having to do this kind of reference work in a work of fiction. But it's worth the work: finishing it I felt I had encountered a great classic that has been unjustly overlooked.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Trilby

    Laxness has given us a crazy, wonderful, hysterical, silly account of an historical lawsuit in Iceland. Follow the misadventure of poor Jon Hreggvidsson as he gets kicked all over Europe by nasty upper crust rotters and smug Danes. My favorite Laxness novel...

  15. 5 out of 5

    Candice

    Halldor Laxness is Iceland's Nobel-Prize winning author. I struggled reading this and at times became lost in all the characters. In addition, Icelandic people and place names can be very long and difficult to pronounce. But it was an interesting story, based on historical happenings. The book has already been summarized by other reviewers so I will just say a few things about what I liked. I thought some of the descriptions of the places and the situations were beautifully written. And the Icel Halldor Laxness is Iceland's Nobel-Prize winning author. I struggled reading this and at times became lost in all the characters. In addition, Icelandic people and place names can be very long and difficult to pronounce. But it was an interesting story, based on historical happenings. The book has already been summarized by other reviewers so I will just say a few things about what I liked. I thought some of the descriptions of the places and the situations were beautifully written. And the Icelandic humor seems to resonate with me. I did find more than a few passages that had just the right touch of lightness. In describing a women the protagonist hasn't seen in 20 years: "...during that time her chin had sunk even further away from her mouth. Besides this so much fat had piled up on the woman that she looked similar to a clay statue that has fallen from a shelf and compressed itself into a lump before being put in the kiln." It was work to read, but I'm glad I did. What made the reading easier was the introduction by Adam Haslett and the notes at the end of the book. And incidentally, on our recent trip to Iceland, our tour guide pointed out the house in which Halldor Laxness once lived.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Tara

    I don't know how to describe this book. it is sort of a historical novel, but it is also part 17th century romance/thriller, though these are really inadequate descriptors. the story may not seem that thrilling or romantic, unless the reader can get down with the harsh reality of iceland under the danish boot. the harsh conditions described by Laxness are that which constitute the culture and its history that he is also describing. this makes the characters and the story interesting. the narrati I don't know how to describe this book. it is sort of a historical novel, but it is also part 17th century romance/thriller, though these are really inadequate descriptors. the story may not seem that thrilling or romantic, unless the reader can get down with the harsh reality of iceland under the danish boot. the harsh conditions described by Laxness are that which constitute the culture and its history that he is also describing. this makes the characters and the story interesting. the narrative seems to translate well into english, but I have no idea. i find the narrative compelling enough to want to keep reading and to want to read more of Laxness

  17. 4 out of 5

    Nicki Markus

    Another wonderful novel by Halldór Laxness, who is fast becoming one of my favourite modern authors. Iceland's Bell feels in some ways like an Old Norse saga, yet it is written in a clearly modern style with superb use of wry, witty humour and hints of parody. In many ways it is a dark tale, but thanks to Laxness' skilful prose, it never feels gloomy. All the characters are beautifully rounded. Each has faults, yet they all the more likable because of them. There is a wonderful sense of both per Another wonderful novel by Halldór Laxness, who is fast becoming one of my favourite modern authors. Iceland's Bell feels in some ways like an Old Norse saga, yet it is written in a clearly modern style with superb use of wry, witty humour and hints of parody. In many ways it is a dark tale, but thanks to Laxness' skilful prose, it never feels gloomy. All the characters are beautifully rounded. Each has faults, yet they all the more likable because of them. There is a wonderful sense of both period and place, and the story and its players held my interest from start to finish. I have one more Laxness novel in already in my tbr pile, and I will certainly seek out more after that.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Judy

    Extremely well-written, but I found it very depressing. It was an "I want to slash my wrists" kind of book. I couldn't stand the way the people are treated by the occupying Danes, and how their love of their culture has been eroded. Laxness is such a good writer. You would have to be a good writer in order to take somebody on such an emotional roller-coaster.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Cat

    This book was totally absorbing. It sounds boring, but isn't. Give it a shot- you won't regret it!

  20. 4 out of 5

    Jennifer Richards

    Difficult to get through, but very rewarding if you stick with it. Easy to see why Laxness is one of the literary masters of his time.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Katherine

    *3.5 stars. "The mire seemed to be endless and the travelers floundered for a good part of the night in this forecourt of Hell" (14). " 'I beg my venerable excellencies to pay no attention to this she-creature…'" (18). "…who here napped, freshly flogged, upon his bed" (19). " 'I'm like every other nameless man, healthy today, dead tomorrow'" (32). "He'd had little to do with women, mostly because of his lack of sheep, so he'd tried to remedy both shortages by resorting to sorcery, which was frequentl *3.5 stars. "The mire seemed to be endless and the travelers floundered for a good part of the night in this forecourt of Hell" (14). " 'I beg my venerable excellencies to pay no attention to this she-creature…'" (18). "…who here napped, freshly flogged, upon his bed" (19). " 'I'm like every other nameless man, healthy today, dead tomorrow'" (32). "He'd had little to do with women, mostly because of his lack of sheep, so he'd tried to remedy both shortages by resorting to sorcery, which was frequently in fashion in the Westfjords, though with disproportionate results" (35). " 'Stop whining and try to show me one of your magic signs.' " 'No,' whined the man" (36). "The other hanged men descended from their snares and started dancing clumsily around them and reciting intolerable, poorly worded poetry built on dubious assertions" (94). "…pack of slaves that lived on that funnel of Hell" (100-101). *Hmm. I never thought of Iceland that way. “A thousand little turf-roofed farms cowered down upon the earth--not, however, out of irreconciliation with the sky” (173). "He now began his monological delivery of the petition's massive quantity of text in a tone rich in edificatory word-windings and entangled sentence constructions, so that his audience was for a very long time prohibited from determining where the text was headed" (256). "But as his endless prattle stretched one even longer, unwavering in its overwhelming sheen, the men's expressions became as dull as those of strung-up ling heads" (256). “Certainly there was nothing more preposterous than for the magistrate’s couple to take any stock of the drunken gurglings of Magnus Sigurdsson, whether written or spoken…” (261). “...the man who was as much a curse to his motherland as the endless death-dealing winters and the fire-spewing mountains” (261). “...then, bidding farewell for the time being, wished her two girls the same, though sorrow might rage or the world’s false fortunes smile, and prayed their forgiveness for this tearstained, hastily written missive, their faithful and simple mother” (261). “ ‘You know that I stand defenseless before your ice-cold innuendo’” (269). “ ‘My king is just,’ said the old, oft-flogged tramp” (277). "Iceland's weather was a mill that left nothing unpulverized but for the country's basalt peaks" (334). " '…I promise to henceforth comport myself according to the example of Your Learnedness except at those times when my unmanageable unwisdom gets in the way'" (347). "On one table lay two thick books, a Bible with clasps of copper and a medical textbook on diseases of horses, as thick or even thicker" (358). "…or approximately, might he be permitted to say, the length of one medium-sized horse's penis…" (367).

  22. 5 out of 5

    Matt

    This is the first of the works of Laxness that I've read. It won't be the last. What I found most remarkable about this historical epic is how relatively exterior are Laxness' portraits of his characters. Unlike the works of his contemporary 20th century novelists (e.g., Thomas Mann), Laxness provides very little interior information on the characters, what one is thinking, what another is feeling, etc. Instead, Laxness delivers detailed reportage on developments, on mis en scene, and, in this wa This is the first of the works of Laxness that I've read. It won't be the last. What I found most remarkable about this historical epic is how relatively exterior are Laxness' portraits of his characters. Unlike the works of his contemporary 20th century novelists (e.g., Thomas Mann), Laxness provides very little interior information on the characters, what one is thinking, what another is feeling, etc. Instead, Laxness delivers detailed reportage on developments, on mis en scene, and, in this way, the novel broadly resembles the style of the foundation sagas that are the bedrock for his tale. For a 20th century writer, this choice of style is a risky one. However, in Laxness' hands, the novels main characters emerge as three-dimensional beings gradually but fully. For the reader, the effect is much like watching tangible vital forms emerge as a fog is slowly burned away by the morning sun--a feeling I've not experienced so palpably with a written work until Iceland's Bell. I suppose it helped that, like other reviewers, I read this work while traveling in Iceland for the first time. Walking the Þingvellir, with Laxness' work in might made both the landscape and the book even more vivid to me.

  23. 4 out of 5

    John McQuaid

    I loved this book. It didn't sound promising going in, given that the plot is built around several decades-long legal disputes in Iceland, circa 1700. So you learn a lot about the origins of the modern Icelandic legal system. But as the characters maneuver this maze of legal, economic, political and personal complications, it turns out to be this magnificent epic, by turns humorous, mordant, heartbreaking. I'm still thinking about it a couple of weeks after finishing it. My only complaint is tha I loved this book. It didn't sound promising going in, given that the plot is built around several decades-long legal disputes in Iceland, circa 1700. So you learn a lot about the origins of the modern Icelandic legal system. But as the characters maneuver this maze of legal, economic, political and personal complications, it turns out to be this magnificent epic, by turns humorous, mordant, heartbreaking. I'm still thinking about it a couple of weeks after finishing it. My only complaint is that this translation is at times kind of awkward. Some of that is in the original. Some Icelandic names are rendered in Danish, for instance, when the characters are in Copenhagen. There's a bunch of Latin sprinkled throughout. You have to page to the endnotes repeatedly to get all the cultural and historical references. But this was worth it. You find that the three main characters are based on real people, and wonder.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Paul Roman

    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 als 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.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Nori

    Confession: I only got maybe 50 pages into this ~400-pager -- not even the old college try, really. And reading it did make me feel like I was back in my Russian Novel lit class in college -- this is very much, as far as I could tell, in the style of the 19th-century Russians who wrote in ponderous detail about the lives of the sprightly, sassy, heavy-drinking, petty-crime-committing, living-off-the-salt-of-the-unforgiving-land peasants. If you like that sort of thing, this'll be right up your a Confession: I only got maybe 50 pages into this ~400-pager -- not even the old college try, really. And reading it did make me feel like I was back in my Russian Novel lit class in college -- this is very much, as far as I could tell, in the style of the 19th-century Russians who wrote in ponderous detail about the lives of the sprightly, sassy, heavy-drinking, petty-crime-committing, living-off-the-salt-of-the-unforgiving-land peasants. If you like that sort of thing, this'll be right up your alley; for me, though, this kind of writing is interesting to slog through for a week or so in college, but it's just not my style these days. I paused it and never really went back. Sorry, Laxness.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Linda

    This was a vexing book. I'm not sure if the problem was in translation or Mr. Laxness' prose. Many instances of shifting tenses drove me nuts. A paragraph of section would begin in the present tense and a few sentences later it had quietly morphed into past tense...which is how the book is presented. Also, I had difficulty keeping my mind in the book. I suspect this is more from my own inexperience with dense prose of this nature than it is a fault of the book. Despite my difficulties understandi This was a vexing book. I'm not sure if the problem was in translation or Mr. Laxness' prose. Many instances of shifting tenses drove me nuts. A paragraph of section would begin in the present tense and a few sentences later it had quietly morphed into past tense...which is how the book is presented. Also, I had difficulty keeping my mind in the book. I suspect this is more from my own inexperience with dense prose of this nature than it is a fault of the book. Despite my difficulties understanding what was going on, Laxness' keen wit and sarcasm popped through and kept me coming back for more. It is a book that deserves a second read. Sadly that probably won't happen. Too many books, too little time.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Daniel

    My third Laxness book - and a decent one at that - but not even close to "Independent People." This one is more of an adventure story, and the "innocents abroad" parts are a highlight. There's plenty of grim wit and gallows humor, if that's your thing. Also, it's packed with references to Icelandic literature and history: the endnotes provide a back story of their own. All the same, the pace was a bit slow and plodding. Perhaps a reader with a solid background in the historical context would hav My third Laxness book - and a decent one at that - but not even close to "Independent People." This one is more of an adventure story, and the "innocents abroad" parts are a highlight. There's plenty of grim wit and gallows humor, if that's your thing. Also, it's packed with references to Icelandic literature and history: the endnotes provide a back story of their own. All the same, the pace was a bit slow and plodding. Perhaps a reader with a solid background in the historical context would have a better time with it. For my part, I'll revisit the book later and see if it strikes a different chord.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Bailey

    "Cackling crows flocked in the fog suspended over the bare black treetops." I first must admit that I slogged through many passages, particularly ones that concerned law and history. However, the story is interesting enough and the characters, though often without redeeming value, are likable. Even the female protagonist, Snæfríður, is likable despite her seeming lack of logic in her decisions. Interestingly, most of the characters and most of the story are based on true stories and people. I may h "Cackling crows flocked in the fog suspended over the bare black treetops." I first must admit that I slogged through many passages, particularly ones that concerned law and history. However, the story is interesting enough and the characters, though often without redeeming value, are likable. Even the female protagonist, Snæfríður, is likable despite her seeming lack of logic in her decisions. Interestingly, most of the characters and most of the story are based on true stories and people. I may have given the book three stars, but I'm compelled by the jaunts of beautiful writing, the attention to historical detail, and my visit to Iceland to give it four.

  29. 5 out of 5

    Maggie

    I finally finished this book on the plane a few hours before landing in Iceland! This was a dense and challenging book to read, but fascinating and I highly recommend it if you ever find yourself traveling to Iceland. It was so cool to see places I read about in the book and had envisioned in my mind - it created a personal connection I wouldn't have without the book. There was even a quote from it at the National Museum. Now I am hooked on Iceland and would like to read more of the author's wor I finally finished this book on the plane a few hours before landing in Iceland! This was a dense and challenging book to read, but fascinating and I highly recommend it if you ever find yourself traveling to Iceland. It was so cool to see places I read about in the book and had envisioned in my mind - it created a personal connection I wouldn't have without the book. There was even a quote from it at the National Museum. Now I am hooked on Iceland and would like to read more of the author's work!

  30. 5 out of 5

    Hundeschlitten

    Not my favorite Laxness novel, but it is always good to read another book by this man. I love the characters and the matter-of-fact way Laxness tells the tale, allowing the absurdity of life to creep inside the narrative. This one attempts to follow the narrative structure of the Icelandic Sagas, and thus it lacks some of the psychological complexities of "World Light" or "Independent People", but it is nonetheless an excellent read.

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