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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Atom Station

Halldór Laxness

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To purchase The Atom Station

Title: The Atom Station
Author: Halldór Laxness
Genre: Novel
Written: 1948 (Eng. 1961)
Length: 180 pages
Original in: Icelandic
Availability: The Atom Station - US
The Atom Station - UK
The Atom Station - Canada
Station atomique - France
Atomstation - Deutschland
La base atomica - Italia
  • Icelandic title: Atómstöðin
  • Translated by Magnus Magnusson

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Our Assessment:

B+ : over-bustling but utterly charming

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Daily Telegraph . 10/2/1961 Peter Green
The Guardian . 20/6/2003 Michel Faber
The Guardian . 12/3/2004 Isobel Montgomery
Sunday Times . 12/2/1961 Penelope Mortimer
Sydney Morning Herald . 26/7/2003 Andrew Laing
The Times . 28/2/2004 Chris Power
TLS . 17/2/1961 Irving Wardle

  From the Reviews:
  • "I can only describe The Atom Station as being something like Pamela rewritten by Kafka and Lewis Carroll in collaboration. After reading it twice, carefully, I'm still not quite sure what happens at certain crucial points. (...) There is much impenetrable philosophising and an "atom-poet" with a Cadillac. I wish I could work out where he fitted in." - Peter Green, Daily Telegraph

  • "It's smaller-scale, and veers oddly between rhapsodic sentiment and caustic cynicism, the verbose and the clipped, the over-obvious and the puzzling. (...) Darkly satirical though The Atom Station is, Laxness's rich sense of humour, empathy and belief in a redemptive life-force shine through." - Michel Faber, The Guardian

  • "Ugla's modest ambition is to learn the harmonium, but the city offers exotic temptations. She steers her course through Yanks, capitalism, communists and chancers in episodes that alternate airy fantasy with blunt-speaking comedy." - Isobel Montgomery, The Guardian

  • "The Atom Station is, in fact, a good deal more than entertaining. (...) The Atom Station is a brilliant piece of social and political satire, written with poetry, wit and -- the most essential element of all satire -- wisdom." - Penelope Mortimer, Sunday Times

  • "Around this political story, Laxness weaves a quirky, and at times puzzling, tale about modernity and its effects on national identity, religion, art, gender and love. (...) Laxness is worth discovering for his political relevance, but even more so for his characters and exquisite turn of phrase. His writing is uniquely constructed, playful and troubling." - Andrew Laing, Sydney Morning Herald

  • "(W)ith an uncommon lightness of touch Laxness uses his ingénue to explore the complexities of art and love." - Chris Power, The Times

  • "Only a book of uncommon vitality could simultaneously overcome the language, time, and cultural barriers. The Atom Station is such a book: its impact is sometimes muffled, and its humour occasionally of the thick-booted Nordic variety, but on the whole it survives as a work of great freshness and originality." - Irving Wardle, Times Literary Supplement

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:

       The Atom Station is narrated by Ugla, twenty-one years old when she goes into service in the household of Búi Árland in Reykjavík. Ugla is a northerner, having grown up in the rural backlands of Iceland ("the depths of the country") and with just a year at a domestic college -- also in the north -- under her belt. Búi Árland is a: "business magnate and Doctor of Philosophy" -- and Member of Parliament; his brother in law, who lives down the street is the Prime Minister.
       If unsophisticated ("'Are you quite uneducated?' she asked. 'Yes,' I replied") Ugla is not naïve; she is also headstrong and quite determined. She gives her main reason for coming south that she wants to learn to play the church harmonium -- a talent she can then bring back up north --, which she then does put her mind to; the teacher she turns to, simply called the organist, proves to be a wise and helpful man (and quite the philosopher), and his home a meeting place for diverse characters and opinions that contrast with the household she works in. Búi Árland is also a generous and wise -- unlike his wife, who worries about the Communists and then spends much of her time abroad --; the kids are an unruly bunch -- except the youngest, a small girl under the thumb of the ultra-religious house-keeper.
       Ugla remains true to herself, and doesn't try to ingratiate herself. An early exchange with the lady of the house nicely captures her character:

     When I was halfway out of the door she called me back again and said, "What opinions do you hold ?"
     "Opinions ? Me ? None."
     "Alright, my girl, that's fine," she said. "And not one of those who wallow in books, I hope ?"
     "I have lain awake many a night with a book."
     "God in Heaven help you," the woman of said, and looked at me aghast. "What were you reading ?"
     "Everything ?"
     "In the country, everything is read," I said, "beginning with the Icelandic sagas; and then everything."
     "But not the Communist papers, surely ?" she said.
     "We read whatever papers we can get for nothing out in the country," I replied.
       Just how different a world Ugla comes from is made clear from an anecdote she relates, of her mother receiving 100 krónur when she turned sixty: "It then turned out that she could not recognise money. She had never seen money before".
       The metropolitan capital -- where, Madam insists: "Everything has to be à la mode" (as, after all: "modern times are chic") -- exposes her to much that is new. The novel is set shortly after the end of the Second World War, the city still teeming with American soldiers -- and the big political issue of the day is whether or not to sell the country out, as: "a request had been received from one of the Great Powers that Iceland should sell, lend, or give it her capital city, Reykjavík, otherwise named Smoky Bay, or some other bay equally suitable for attack or defence in an atomic war".
       Ugla determinedly goes her own way -- including checking out the Communists she's been warned of. She remains sensibly down to earth, as well, not seduced by the shows of carefree excess of the city, even as she sees the special treatment Búi Árland's privileged children get, for example. Common-sense prevails -- so also with her increasing interest in seeing to it that there are Day Nurseries available for all citizens (as not just the rich need their children minded).
       Ugla remains cautious regarding everything that is part of the system; what she is exposed to of politics and flourishing capitalism leaves her dubious about both. So also when the man who is the father of the child she then has suddenly shows up with a lot of money, it's clear to her that: "If there is plenty, then it has quite certainly not been well come by". Similarly, as she explains:
     I was taught never to believe a single word which is written in the papers, and nothing except what is written in the Icelandic sagas
       Ugla is, in some ways very certain of herself, and in others very insecure. On the one hand, she refuses to simply 'know her place' in some artificial hierarchical order:
     "That's just like you northerners, to start talking to people," said the cook when I returned to the kitchen.
     Rebellion stirred in me and I replied, "I am people."
       But even after her experiences in Reykjavík she realizes she has not got far -- yet: "I know nothing, can do nothing, am nothing". But she knows what she wants: "I want to become a person" -- meaning also self-reliant and independent (hopefully in a country where the state can help provide the means to achieve those goals -- such as in providing adequate daycare).
       The Atom Station isn't a facile novel of a young woman's journey of coming into her own. Laxness chronicles a rocky journey, but remaining true to her roots and herself Ugla figures things out to her satisfaction; a good bit of luck also helps. But the novel aslo offers a neat picture of the Iceland of the times, and its characters, from the decadent city-dwellers to farm-life in the outback.
       Somewhat choppy in its presentation, The Atom Station offers countless great little scenes and exchanges, and glimpses of Icelandic life -- from the at-all-hours busy-ness of the capital to the ways of family and politics. The contrast between the household Ugla works in and her own is particularly striking -- as is the stoicism of her upbringing, in an obviously loving household where it was nevertheless forbidden to laugh or cry. Laxness beautifully conveys these attitudes and consequences in his quick sketches:
I never saw weeping until I went to the domestic college: one girl cried because one of her puddings got burned, another cried over poetry, and a third because she saw a mouse. I thought at first they were play-acting but they were not, and then I felt ashamed in the way one feels ashamed for someone whose trousers have fallen down. There was never an occasion on which my father and mother told us children what they were thinking or how they were feeling. Such idle chatter would have been unseemly in our house. One could talk about life in general, and of one's own life so far as it concerned others, at least on the surface.
       As godly folk, one of the major ambitions where Ugla comes from is to rebuild the local church -- even if there is barely anyone in the vicinity to attend services there. Despite her original wish to learn the harmonium so she could play in this church, Ugla is equally suspicious of this institution as she is of the others she has encountered, and has her doubts about her infant daughter having anything to do with it -- but Laxness beautifully puts it in its place in a simple scene offering a local/Icelandic solution:
     The pastor wanted to baptize little Guðrún at the same time as the church was being consecrated; but when I told him that I had become scared of sorcery and exorcisms, and asked him if he did not feel it a grave responsibility to dedicate an innocent child to an institution which had been the arch enemy of human nature for two thousand years and self-confessed opponent of Creation, and asked if it would not be more prudent to keep the distance between gods and people as great as possible, he merely smiled and patted me on the cheek and then whispered to me in confidence: "Pay no attention to what I may recite from the manual with my lips; in our minds we shall dedicate her to the Hillside of Life."
       Ugla's is a charming voice, devoid of any self-pity, and Laxness serves a up an amusing cast of characters and incidents around her. A laissez-faire attitude dominates -- only a few of the characters are judgmental -- as few matters -- even Ugla bearing an illegitimate child -- even raise any eyebrows, much less get dwelt on at any length. Ugla isn't quite as restrained as her parents -- she does display some passion -- but gives the impression of being under control, even at her most uncertain.
       The novel isn't so much messy as choppy, with a variety of gaps and things and people that go unexplained, but the many colorful episodes, incidents, and encounters, and the strong underlying story-arc make for a thoroughly enjoyable and engaging little novel. It is, in some ways, a strange piece of work, but it is also quite delightful.

- M.A.Orthofer, 21 July 2021

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The Atom Station: Reviews: 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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© 2021-2022 the complete review

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