The latest addition to my website is Halldór Laxness‘s Paradísarheimt (Paradise Reclaimed). This is one of his later novels, written five years after he won the Nobel Prize and written in somewhat of a different style, not least because a significant amount is set in the United States, specifically in Salt Lake City. It tells the story of Steinar Steianahlíðar, a conscientious and responsible farmer and family man, who meets the King of Denmark, when at a celebration for the one thousandth anniversary of the settlement of Iceland, and travels to Copenhagen at the King’s request. While at the anniversary ceremony, he also meets a Mormon bishop, an Icelander who has emigrated to Utah, who is being harassed by the locals, who believe that Mormonism is a heresy. He will later rescue him from an irate group of Icelanders and then meet him Copenhagen, where the bishop pays for him to go to Utah, which he does. He essentially abandons his family, who fall on hard times, and becomes a Mormon, though not a fanatic, before finally returning to Iceland, the (somewhat dubious) paradise reclaimed of the title. While not a bad book, I did not find it up to the standard of his earlier work, not least because of the part set in Utah, where both Laxness and Steinar seemed at something of a loss and out of their depth.
The latest addition to my website is Guðbergur Bergsson‘s Svanurinn (The Swan), the only one of Bergsson’s novels to be translated into English, though several have been translated into other languages. This one is a strange story about a nine-year old girl who has been caught shoplifting and sent to work on a remote farm as her punishment. The girl (none of the characters in the book is named) adapts fairly well to her life but is soon exposed both to the beauties of nature but also to more disturbing aspects of rural life, including the slaughter of animals, sexual abuse, intimations of death and strange dreams. In short, the countryside is a strange place in Bergsson’s view with its good, its bad and its ugly. The farm where she is staying is overlooked by a high mountain and, she is told, there is a large lake at the top of the mountain, in which a monster lives, who sometimes appears as a swan and foretells the fate of those that see it. She will climb the mountain to look for the lake and the swan. It is an unusual novel but somewhat different from other Icelandic novels, even if the theme of the loss of the past and changes in Icelandic life is found here as in many Icelandic novels.
The latest addition to my website is Steinunn Sigurðardóttir‘s Góði Elskhuginn [The Good Lover]. This is another excellent novel by Sigurðardóttir about the problems of love. Karl Ástuson has spent much of his adult life outside Iceland, after the death of his beloved mother and the break-up of his relationship with Una. During that time, he had a succession of casual affairs, often only one-night stands. The only one that made any impression on him was with Doreen Ash, a psychiatrist. The sex was routine but they started talking afterwards and she told him about her practice (of which she was tired) and also that too many men were spoiled by an adoring mother (Karl himself had been). Nevertheless, she characterised him as a good lover. He decides, on a whim, to return to Iceland after seventeen years, to try and find Una. He finds her without difficulty but is reluctant to go in, not least because she is married. He goes to a bar where he meets a woman, who turns out to be Una’s next door neighbour and it is she that brings them together. Una is very keen to leave her husband and the pair set off for the South of France, where he has a house, immediately. They then move to Long Island, where he also has a house, and where they seem to be living an idyllic existence. Then he meets Doreen Ash again. She is about to publish a book – part novel, part psychiatric analysis – called The Good Lover – and it seems to be about him. This is a very good book about love and its complications but, sadly, it is not available in English.
The latest addition to my website is Steinunn Sigurðardóttir‘s Tímaþjófurinn (The Thief of Time), the third Sigurðardóttir on the Iceland page of my website. This one is a sad love story. Alda Ivarsen is a thirty-seven year old teacher of English and German. She has had a succession of love affairs, which she usually controls. Her latest one is with her Latin teacher colleague, a married man with three children. She has now got tired of him and is ending the affair but he cannot let go. He comes to her house, somewhat drunk, and pleads with her. She sends him on his way. He refuses to take a taxi, despite the bitterly cold weather, but insists on walking. The next day, his body is found on the sea shore. She feels somewhat guilty but not too much.
Since the beginning of the term, she has had her eyes on the new history teacher (also married) and, gradually, they start an affair. Initially, things go well, and Alda’s outlook is joyful and lyrical. Indeed, Sigurðardóttir uses not only poetical language to describe Alda’s euphoria but also actual verse. Then, in the school holidays, he goes off to Mexico for a conference on the Middle Ages, his speciality. She misses him very much. When he returns, he seems less interested. Gradually, while there is no formal breaking-off, the affair dwindles. Alda is devastated and her attitude changes from the previous euphoria to misery and bitterness. She cannot get him out of her mind and thinks of him always, even when she is travelling, which she does frequently, or when she faces personal tragedy. Even a new relationship does not help. This could be very trite and mawkish but Sigurðardóttir is such an excellent writer that we really do get into Alda and see how she feels and reacts to this change in her life. We follow her as she seems to visibly age and she is completely unable to come to terms with the end of the affair. This book has been translated into English but the English translation was published in Iceland thus is not easy to obtain in the UK or US.
The latest addition to my website is Ragna Sigurðardóttir‘s Hið fullkomna landslag (The Perfect Landscape), the second Sigurðardóttir on the Iceland page of my website. I have always had a penchant for books about art forgery and this is one of the topics of this book. Hanna, an Icelandic art expert who has been working in the Netherlands, returns to Iceland to head the Annexe, a contemporary art gallery. Kristin, the head of the whole complex, shows a new painting the gallery has acquired as a gift, a landscape by the (fictitious) artist Gudrun Johannsdottir. However, when she and Steinn examine the painting, it seems to be a forgery, as does another recent valuable acquisition. Kristin wants to keep quiet about it, while Steinn and Kristin cannot be 100% sure that the two paintings are forgeries. Meanwhile, there is a spate of vandalism of public art works in Reykjavik and Hanna tries to relate to the street kids responsible. She also organises an exhibition, which brings about a clash between a younger and an older artist. It is an interesting tale and raises interesting questions about ethics in the art world, whether art should be elitist or be for and by the people, as well as showing that artists can be difficult. However, it is essentially a plot-driven novel and not great literature.
The latest addition to my website is Fríða Á. Sigurðardóttir‘s Medan nóttin lídur (Night Watch). There seem to be several Icelandic writers with the patronymic Sigurðardóttir and Fríða will be the first of three that I shall be reviewing over the next few days. This is a really excellent novel, which tells of the three night vigil of Nina, who is watching her mother die. While she is watching, she thinks of her own life and her relationships with her family and lovers but, more particularly, she thinks of her forebears, primarily the female ones. They generally had a hard life on a remote farm in Iceland (as did Sigurðardóttir herself) and struggled to survive and make something of themselves, while she has become a modern woman, that is one who does not show her feelings too much and who has a relatively easy life, in her case running her own advertising and design agency. Her thoughts jump between the more remote past of her forebears, her own past and her current life, as she endeavours to come to terms with the past of her family (to the disgust of her sister, Martha) and to find out who she is. Sigurðardóttir writes superbly and tells her stories very well, even though Nina’s mother and sister feel old tales…should be left to rest in peace; nobody’s business. This book is out of print in English translation and only seems to be available from the usual online sites for figures well in excess of $300 in the US and £300 in the UK. Why? Would someone pay that money for it? I just do not understand the online book business.
The latest addition to my website is Hallgrímur Helgason‘s 101 Reykjavík (101 Reykjavik). If your idea of an Icelandic novel is one about the hardships of farming and fishing communities or a tale of a quirky but lovable misfit in contemporary Iceland, this one will be a bit of a change. It tells the story of Hlynur Björn Hafsteinsson, a not very lovable, thirty-three year old unemployed Icelandic man, who lives with his mother. He spends his day watching porn, TV channel surfing, drinking with his friends and, if he is lucky, having casual sex. At the start of the novel, just before Christmas 1995, a few things start to happen. In particular, his mother comes out as a lesbian, and her lesbian lover moves in, and he will consider himself responsible, directly or indirectly, for the pregnancy of three different women. After a variety of escapades, involving the police, the father of a girl he may have impregnated and a trip to Amsterdam with his two gay friends, things will not look much better a year later. It is a wickedly funny but very cynical book, with Helgason casting a very mocking and very grim look at his own country and with Hluynur possibly being the new Icelandic Everyman, instead of the gritty farmer or fisherman of old. One thing is sure – this is not the path that Laxness would have wanted his country’s literature to follow.
The latest addition to my website is Bergsveinn Birgisson‘s Svar við bréfi Helgu (Reply to a Letter from Helga). This novel take the form of a letter, written by Bjarni Gíslason, an Icelandic farmer, written to the love of his life in reply to a letter that she had written to him many years ago, though she and the other key players are all dead. Bjarni’s wife, Unnur, was not a passionate or romantic woman. After an operation to remove a tumour, she not not only could not have children, she could not have sex. Initially, Bjarni more or less accepts this, though Unnur and the local gossips all assume that he is having an affair with Helga, from the neighbouring farm, as Helga’s husband, Hallgrímur is known to be unfaithful to his wife. However, Bjarni is devoted to his farm, to his way of life, to the Icelandic countryside and to his agricultural cooperative and this, rather than Helga, keeps him busy. However, one day, while visiting Helga to disinfect her sheep, he does succumb and they start an affair When she becomes pregnant, she presents him with an ultimatum – leave Unnur and move with her to Reykjavik, where they will surely find work on the US bases, or the affair is over and she will say that the child is Hallgrímur’s. Bjarni is torn but he cannot leave his beloved farm and countryside, so he carries on his life, though spying on Helga and Hulda, her daughter. When she later does divorce Hallgrímur and moves to Reykjavik, she writes to him, asking him to join her. The book is his reply to her, many years later and after her death. While a well-written story about an impossible love, it is also a paean to the beauties of Iceland and its countryside, which we see through the eyes of Bjarni. Whether you have visited Iceland or not, you will not fail to appreciate it through his eyes.
The latest addition to my website is Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir‘s Rigning í nóvember (Butterflies in November), another quirky novel from this author. The unnamed narrator of this novel is a thirty-three old woman who works as a translator, proof-reader and editor (and occasionally supplies additional sexual services to her clients). Her marriage is falling apart after almost five years, not least because her husband’s colleague is expecting his baby in eight weeks. Despite this, they are struggling to separate, though it is clear that they are different people and have difficulty in communicating with one another. Eventually, he does go, taking most of the furniture and fittings from their flat and she moves to her studio workplace. Meanwhile, a medium, recommended by her friend, Auður, has told her that she will win the lottery and that a series of things will happen in threes over the near future. When she does win a ready-made mobile summer bungalow, made by deaf people, she decides to take a summer holiday, though it is late October, when the weather in Iceland is really grim. However, Auður, who is pregnant, slips and falls and sprains her ankle and goes to hospital. When it is determined that she is pregnant with twins, she is detained in hospital. She asks the narrator to look after her deaf, partially sighted four-year old (the father has long since gone) and the narrator has no option but to take the boy, Tumi, on holiday with her, though she really does not like children. Much of the novel is about their adventures, as they set out for her late grandparents’ unheated bungalow in Eastern Iceland, and her relationship with Tumi and their encounters with Estonian singers, biblical floods, a falcon and various men whom Tumi sees as his lost father and the narrator – well, she is not sure how she sees them. It is quirky and well-written though not, perhaps, as good as Afleggjarinn (The Greenhouse), though it must be the only novel to include a recipe for undrinkable coffee.
Google informs me that today is the first day of spring so it is appropriate to continue my Icelandic novel fest with a book about plant growing. The latest addition to my website is Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir‘s Afleggjarinn (The Greenhouse). This is a gentle but quirky novel about a young Icelandic man who, since the death of his mother, a great plant lover and grower, has decided to forego formal studies and focus on plant growing. Specifically, he has found a job repairing a famous old rose garden in a monastery in an unnamed foreign country, as the garden has fallen into disrepair, as the monks are more interested in intellectual pursuits. His life is somewhat complicated by the fact that he has a baby daughter by a genetics student, the result of a very quick fling in his mother’s greenhouse. His twin brother is autistic but is now in a home. He has something of an eventful journey to the monastery but soon fits in but then his daughter and her mother arrive, to his great surprise. It is a well-written novel about growing up, responsibility and finding one’s role in life, which Ólafsdóttir tells very well.