Icelandic literature

Not translated
Not translated

A while ago, I said I might, one day, read only books from one specific country for a few weeks. I have ruminated over this idea for a while and have now decided the time has come. The choice of country was not difficult. When I was browsing in Eymundson’s wonderful bookshop in Reykjavik, I was reminded of the number of Icelandic books in English I should be reading or should have read. On returning home, I found that I owned some forty Icelandic books (excluding the sagas) that I had not read. Most though by no means all had been translated into English. While I do not plan to read all forty I do plan to read a fair number over the next few weeks so, if you are not interested in the Icelandic novel, you may want to keep away from this blog for a while. As with most other countries, Iceland has produced quite a few novels which seem interesting but which have not been translated, though there are a few that have been translated into other Scandinavian languages. I would be interested to read Jakobína Sigurðardóttir, Pétur Gunnarsson, Jóhamar, Didda, Mikael Torfason, Runar Helgi Vignisson and others but they will probably not appear in translation and, anyway there seem to be quite enough to be keep me going for a few weeks. And I’ll start with a 1927 novel about love requited and unrequited.

Kristmann Guðmundsson: Brudekjolen (The Bridal Gown)


The latest addition to my website is Kristmann Guðmundsson‘s Brudekjolen (The Bridal Gown), the first in my March-April Icelandic novel reading fest. I am starting with an early one. This was written in 1927, four years before Salka Valka (Salka Valka), the previous earliest Icelandic novel on my site. This one is a story of love requited, love unrequited, loved denied and love gone wrong in rural Iceland but an Iceland that is, albeit slowly, starting to modernise. Björn was meant to marry Hallgerdur but she strung him along so he married Sigurn. Björn’ sister, Matthildur, wanted to marry Valgeir, Hallgerdur’s brother, but he married someone else. Hallgerdur married her head hand but really still loved Björn. When Sigurn dies in childbirth, Björn vows to keep his pledge to Sigurn and not remarry but he is still strong and handsome. Meanwhile, his and Sigurn’s daughter, Kolfinna, cannot decide between Finnur, sensitive son of Hallgerdur and Skule, tougher son of Barde, the local poet and drunk. Oh, and Kristjan, Björn’s head man, loves Matthildur. Some of these relationships work, most go wrong somewhere but we do get an interesting picture of rural Iceland early in the last century

Halldór Laxness

Laxness' house
Laxness’ house

We have just returned from a long weekend in Iceland, where we went to see the Northern Lights (yes, we did – twice). It was perfect timing, as the snow was still around enough to make the scenery bleak but beautiful and not too much to prevent us from driving, though it snowed heavily the day we left, making driving back to the airport something of an adventure. During the day we managed to see a few sights, including Halldór Laxnesshouse. Laxness was the only Icelandic author to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, so he is still very much revered in Iceland. The house, as you can see from the photo on the left is a medium-sized farmhouse, overlooking the farm where he grew up – Laxness farm, from where he took his pseudonym. Inside, it reminded us somewhat of Henry Moore’s house in Perry Green, with its 1950s style and its collection of artefacts from around the world. However, one big difference was the paintings on the walls. If you look at the photos on the website, you will see a few (descriptions only in Icelandic). Laxness was very interested in contemporary Icelandic and Danish art and knew many of the painters. He had paintings by Svavar Guðnason, Nína Tryggvadóttir, Johannes Sveinsson Kjarval, Asger Jorn and others.

View from Laxness' bedroom
View from Laxness’ bedroom

The photo to the right shows the view from Laxness’ bedroom window (Laxness farm is concealed by the fir tree to the left). The view all around the house was magnificent. The house is about three miles outside Mosfellsbær, which is about seven miles from Reykjavik but, apart from Laxness farm in the distant and the road outside, which goes from Reykjavik to Þingvellir, there is little sign of civilisation. Laxness did travel a lot, particularly when he became famous, so he did not spend all his time there but he loved to come back and looking at that view, you can see why. However, he did have a swimming pool and, as you can from the wesbite, he drove a Jaguar. (It is no longer there or, rather, was not when we were there, not least because the driveway was an ice rink and we had difficulty getting to the front door. Health and Safety in the UK would have had a fit.) I have read five of his novels, all well worth reading, and there are others available in English and other European languages. However, he wrote over sixty works and many have not been translated. If you have not read him, his books are easy to obtainin English.

Svava Jakobsdóttir: Leigjandinn (The Lodger)


The latest addition to my website is Svava Jakobsdóttir‘s Leigjandinn (The Lodger). This is a short but superb satire on the US bases in Iceland, which Jakobsdóttir and the left-wing political party to which she belonged and for which she was a member of parliament was bitterly opposed. It tells the tale of a couple, living alone. One day a man turns up, walking in, uninvited. He starts checking the house and then rearranging the furniture, to suit his taste, before settling down on the sofa (which he has moved). When the woman’s husband returns from work, he more or less accepts the situation, urging his wife to cooperate, even though they no longer have their sitting room to themselves. He seems to be staying there indefinitely, barely moving from the sofa, except to eat. They are building a new house and when it is finally finished, the lodger moves with them. Gradually, the husband and the lodger seem to merge into one person.

Indriði G. Þorsteinsson: Norðan við stríð (North of War)


The latest addition to my website is Indriði G. Þorsteinsson/Indridii G Thorsteinsson‘s Norðan við stríð (North of War). This novel is based on a little-known episode of World War II, when British troops occupied Iceland in May 1940, to forestall a German invasion. The Icelandic government reluctantly accepted the invasion though maintained their neutrality. The novel however, tells of the effect of the British and their occupation on the small town of Akureyri (not named in the book). The women prefer the British men to their own men. The economy is dramatically changed as many of the men will work on the airfield the British are constructing and the Icelanders will be exposed to some new technology. While offering some criticism, Þorsteinsson treats it to a considerable degree as a light-hearted episode in Iceland’ s history and uses the opportunity to mock both the British and his own countrymen. This is the only one of his novels translated into English.