Icelandic literature Part 2

Iceland - it's not very big
Iceland – it’s not very big

I have now read twenty Icelandic novels in a row, which may seem and, indeed, probably is mildly obsessive. However, I shall now be calling a break and returning to to other nationalities. I still have quite a few unread Icelandic novels in my collection so if ever I feel the urge to read another Icelandic novel I will not lack for choice. I must say that Iceland does seem to have quite a few good novelists for such a small country. Its current population is around 320,000. That is just over half the population of Wyoming, the US state with the smallest population and around the same size as the population of Northumberland which is part of what, English readers may recall, Lord Howell, Conservative Energy Minister, called the desolate north-east of England. In terms of area, Iceland is just a bit smaller than Kentucky, the 37th largest state, and only a little bit smaller than the whole of England.

A novel of the economic crisis in Iceland
A novel of the economic crisis in Iceland

What have I learned from this? Like many Northern Europeans, Icelanders can be very gloomy. Icelanders are still very much obsessed with their past. Of course, this is true of many other nationalities – the number of books about the US Civil War from US writers and the Spanish Civil War from Spanish writers and the two world wars from everyone are just a few examples of this. Iceland, however, has a fairly unusual situation, at least for a Western European country. It has gone from being almost entirely an agricultural and fishing economy to a modern economy in a relatively short space of time and this is key to the Icelandic novel and features heavily in it. You may well argue that a similar situation occurred in other European countries, such as Spain, but Spain did have some industry and, of course, was held back by its Civil War. Many Icelandic novels, and not just those set in the past, refer to the hard life suffered by farming and fishing families and also refer to the oppression that these people suffered from the occupying Danish, and the Icelandic officials and religious authorities as well as the later British and US occupations. In other words, like many countries, Iceland is its past as much as its present. I have not read any Icelandic novels dealing with the economic recession, though there are some. Alda Sigmundsdóttir’s Unraveled has been translated into English, while Guðmundur Óskarsson’s Bankster has been translated into German (but not English). I will be curious to see if there are more. Incidentally Michael Ridpath’s 66° North, the second in his Fire & Ice series, also features the Icelandic economic crisis.

The sagas have not been forgotten - this is from Egil's Saga
The sagas have not been forgotten – this is from Egil’sSaga

Other themes of icelandic literature are, of course, the sagas. Many of the books I read mention them, if only in passing, though one or two give them more prominence. Another key issue is emigration. Clearly, many Icelanders have felt the need to go abroad to pursue education, career or their romantic life, even if abroad is only Denmark though, at least in the novels I read, Iceland remains in their thoughts. The landscape is always a key feature. Its bleakness appears in many of the novels but also the beauty of the sea, even if that beauty is often harsh. Finally, we cannot forget the weather. It can be cold and wet, often both, sometimes just one. Even in summer, it can be cold, wet and miserable and in winter it is certainly cold, if not wet. The weather is featured in many novels, as the people deal with the weather, struggle with it or simply just survive it. But don’t let that put you off. It is a beautiful country. But if you can’t go, there are a lot of interesting novels to read about it. Oh yes, and last and maybe least – butterflies. Several of the novels had butterflies making a very brief appearance. They were usually indicative of the fact that, even if the weather was miserable and likely to get more miserable, if there were butterflies around, there was still some hope, some life, some colour.

Ólafur Jóhann Sigurðsson: Bréf séra Böðvars (Pastor Bodvar’s Letter)

pastor

The latest addition to my website is Ólafur Jóhann Sigurðsson‘s Bréf séra Böðvars (Pastor Bodvar’s Letter). This is a short tale about a retired pastor, Bodvar V Gunnlaugsson, living with his wife, Gudrid, in Reykjavik. It recounts the fairly mundane events of one day. The book starts and ends with his trying to write a letter to their daughter, Svava, who lives with her American husband on Long Island. He is struggling to find anything to say, as nothing much happens in their lives though, by the end, he has come up with some ideas. In the meantime, he performs his usual ordinary tasks, – shopping, rereading an article he had written – before the couple go out for a short walk together. During the whole of the walk, they bicker. He does not like her hat; she does not like his. He wants to feed the ducks but she is reluctant to give him any bread to do so. They meet the man who painted their previous house quite few years ago and she wants to talk to him but he cannot stand the man. This continues till they return home, still bickering. He then retires to his study to finish the letter to their daughter. It is something of a simple tale but interesting to read about a couple drifting into old age, bickering and arguing but also being forgetful and, at least in his case, feeling less and less able to do much The book has been translated into English but is long out of print and, amazingly, it is available second hand on Amazon Canada for C$31,830.39 (plus shipping)!

Ólafur Jóhann Ólafsson (Olaf Olafsson): Höll minninganna (Walking into the Night)

night

The latest addition to my website is Ólafur Jóhann Ólafsson (Olaf Olafsson)‘s Höll minninganna (Walking into the Night). The main interest in this novel is that much of it is set in San Simeon, aka Hearst Castle. Christian Benediktsson, as he is known, though he has anglicised his first name Kristjan, is newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst‘s factotum and dogsbody, a position he has held for sixteen years. The novel starts in 1937, just as Hearst’s fortunes take a downturn and he is obliged to sell off many of his assets and hand over control to an administrator. Kristjan remembers the good old days of parties with Hollywood celebrities and the continual stream of arrivals of art works from Europe. But Kristjan has a past, in the shape of a wife and four children whom he has abandoned many years ago in Iceland. He thinks about them and writes letters to his wife, Elisabet, which he never sends. We gradually learn what persuaded him to leave Iceland and settle in the United States and how he came to work for Hearst. We also learn how he feels remorseful and how his past catches up with him. While the main attraction is the interaction with Hearst and Hearst’s mistress, the actress Marion Davies, Kristjan’s story, that of a phlegmatic Iceland who tends to keep his feelings to himself but who makes a mistake he comes to regret, helps make this a thoroughly enjoyable novel.

Kristín Ómarsdóttir: Hér (Children in Reindeer Woods)

reindeer

The latest addition to my website is Kristín Ómarsdóttir‘s Hér (Children in Reindeer Woods). (The Icelandic title means simply Here.) It is set in an unnamed country which appears to have been invaded by foreigners. Most of the action takes place in a temporary children’s home called Children in Reindeer Woods, located in a remote area of the country. At the beginning of the novel, a group of soldiers arrives at the home and proceeds to shoot the three adults, three of the four children and the dog. One of the children – Billie, a twelve year old girl – manages to hide under a bush and watches the soldiers. They go into the house and there is more shooting. Only one emerges. He – Rafael – proceeds to drag out the bodies of his companions and buries them and the others. When Billie emerges from the bush, he is friendly towards her. He says that he has always wanted to live on a farm and he starts to take care of Billie, bathing her, feeding her and making sure that she is properly dressed. Rafael carries on running the farm as best he can, while Billie, seemingly little perturbed by the killings, carries on with her life under Rafael’s caring supervision. But there is a war out there and a few visitors turn up – Peter, an incompetent parachutist, sent to bring supplies to Rafael’s troop, two tax inspectors, a nun and Isaac the shepherd who comes regularly to the home. Can Rafael and Billie adapt to the rural life or will the war get in the way? Ómarsdóttir tells something of a strange tale about war and its effect on participants and civilians caught up in it.

Ólafur Jóhann Ólafsson (Olaf Olafsson): Slóð Fiðrildanna (The Journey Home)

journey

The latest addition to my website is Ólafur Jóhann Ólafsson (Olaf Olafsson)‘s Slóð Fiðrildanna (The Journey Home). This is a fairly gentle tale of Disa, an Icelandic woman, who has settled in Somerset, in England and runs a hotel with her gay companion. She is the cook as well as the organiser. At the beginning of the book, she is going back to Iceland after a long gap. Though we get a hint of the reason when the doctor tells her only eighteen months, at most, we do not learn the real reason till the end of the book. On her journey back, she reminisces about her early life. She was the oldest of four siblings, daughter of a doctor in rural Iceland, and resented that she had to spend much of her time bringing up her younger siblings. Indeed, one of her main issues is her poor relationship with her mother. The problems of her life – the loss of her German Jewish lover, being raped, the suicide of a family member – are counterbalanced by her essentially happy life with her gay companion, Anthony, and her joy in her cooking and the good reviews that the hotel gets.

Sjón: Argóarflísin (The Whispering Muse)

muse

The latest addition to my website is Sjón‘s Argóarflísin (The Whispering Muse). This is another first-class novel by Sjón. It tells the story of a man called Valdimar Haraldsson, a racist, who has made his name by producing a journal devoted to proving the superiority of the Nordic people because of their consumption of fish and who spent World War II in Germany, reading the news in Icelandic. Because of his connections with the son of a shipping line magnate, he is offered, in 1949, a chance to go on the maiden voyage of a cargo ship, going to Norway to collect raw paper and thence to Turkey and Soviet Georgia. The ship has the usual assortment of strange characters but none more so than the second mate Caeneus, one of the legendary Argonauts. Over the course of the book, he tells the tale of one of the adventures of the Argonauts, when they visited the Island of Lemnos, where there were no men, either driven away (Caeneus’ story) or killed (the traditional myth). Sjon even manages to incorporate an Icelandic legend into this tale. An injury at the paper works and Haraldsson’s concerns about the fish-less meals add grist to the mill, leaving us with a first-class, thoroughly enjoyable novel

Þórarinn Eldjárn: Brotahöfuð (The Blue Tower)

tower

The latest addition to my website is Þórarinn Eldjárn‘s Brotahöfuð (The Blue Tower). This is a fairly conventional historical novel about a sixteenth century historical figure called Guðmundur Andrésson, who comes from a fairly poor background but is intelligent and eager to educate himself. Because of his intelligence and scholarship, a local reverend helps him get into a school, where he does very well academically but where he is teased and bullied by the sons of the rich, not least because he does better than them in class and has a sharp tongue and pen, and is quick to mock them. He makes quite a few enemies and it is these that he blames for his later downfall and imprisonment in the Blue Tower in Copenhagen. However, it is clear that his own faults are partially to blame for his downfall, which include, as well as his sharp tongue, a propensity to drink and women. This is during the period of the Great Edict, a proclamation that aimed to clamp down on all immoral behaviour, i.e. incest, adultery and extramarital sex. He could have been a great scholar but ends up being imprisoned for damning and mocking the Great Edict. This is not a great book but is an enjoyable read and an interesting insight to Iceland of the period.

Sjón: Skugga-Baldur (The Blue Fox)

fox

The latest addition to my website is Sjón‘s Skugga-Baldur (The Blue Fox). This is a short tale but a very effective one, telling two seemingly separate stories but which are, of course, linked. The first involves the Reverend Baldur Skuggason hunting a vixen, a blue fox, tracking and following her through snow dirfs, blizzards and even an avalanche. Her coat is worth a lot and he has the monopoly on fox skins, a valuable commodity, in the area. The second story involves a young woman with Down’s Syndrome. Generally, babies born with Down’s Syndrome in Iceland at that time were quietly killed at birth by the midwife but she has survived and has had a terrible life before she is rescued by a pharmacist, Fridrik B. Fridjonsson, who takes her in as his maid/farmhand and lives with her on the farm of his late parents, the only person to treat her as human being. Even when she dies, early on in the novel, he treats her well. This is both a political novel, being critical of the control the religious authorities have and their behaviour, as well as telling a wonderful story, particularly with the epic story of the hunt.

Svava Jakobsdóttir: Gunnladar saga (Gunnlöth’s Tale)

saga

The latest addition to my website is Svava Jakobsdóttir‘s Gunnladar saga (Gunnlöth’s Tale). This is another excellent and original novel from Jakobsdóttir. It tells the story of a mother going to Copenhagen from Iceland, as her daughter, Dis, has been arrested, apparently for smashing a glass case in the Danish Art Museum and trying to steal a valuable gold urn, associated with the Bog People. While she and her husband, as well as the police and her Danish lawyer suspect a number of motives – drugs, mental instability, terrorism and even poltergeists are all suggested – Dis tells a strange story of how she was pulled into an Icelandic saga, featuring Gunnlöth, the daughter of a giant, who is seduced by Odin in order to gain access to the mead she is guarding, which gives whoever drinks it the gift of poetry. Dis gradually tells the tale to her mother over the course of the book and the mother, from at first thinking her daughter has lost her mind gradually starts to understand what really happened in the museum, while we get a feminist reinterpretation of the saga. Just as things start to become somewhat clearer, environmental issues, in the form of the Chernobyl disaster, suddenly start to play a key role. It is an excellent and original tale, which may have not had the attention it deserves, as the book has, at least in part, been marketed as a fantasy, which may have encouraged some but put off others. While there is a strong fantasy element in the retelling of the saga, this should not detract from what is a fine and serious novel.

Guðbergur Bergsson: Missir [Loss]

missir

The latest addition to my website Guðbergur Bergsson‘s Missir [Loss]. This is a thoroughly gloomy novel about ageing (Bergsson was seventy-eight when it was published in Iceland), loss of a spouse and waiting for the kettle to boil. The unnamed hero (the book is told in both the first and third person) is an elderly widower, who lives alone, with virtually no contact with anyone, except the occasional neighbour. He spies on the neighbours and watches as the elderly ones die or go into an old people’s home and are replaced by younger people. He reminisces about his late wife, who had serious mental and physical health problems. She smoked heavily and ate a lot of sweets, so she was both obese and coughed a lot, with her snoring keeping him awake at night. He claims to have loved her but is highly critical of her. If their marriage was happy, he barely mentions it. And now he is waiting to die and waiting for the kettle to boil, something he waits for throughout the novel. This is not really an enjoyable novel but certainly shows the miseries of old age, something he describes as this brutality, this violence, in all its horror. It has been translated into French and Spanish but not English.