Published December 5, 2016
Oddný Eir is a collector. That’s why autumn, she says, is her favourite season. “Autumn is the collecting moment. You collect everything—the berries, the sheep and the children for school. There is the anxiety that winter is coming, but that makes it more exciting.”
Amongst the berries and sheep and children for school, Oddný is also a collector of stories. She has kept a diary, writing in it almost daily, since she was eleven years old. It was her way of absorbing the her ever-changing surroundings.
In 2011 Oddný published ‘Jarðnæði’, her third novel. The book was nominated for the Icelandic Literature Prize the same year. In 2012 it won the Icelandic Women’s Literature Prize and in 2014 the EU Prize for Literature. Earlier this year the English translation was released, entitled ‘Land of Love and Ruins’. The story takes the form of a diary, and weaves between daydream and day-to-day. Some of the details tumble into philosophical inquiries, others are a single descriptive or playful line.
“I’ve been thinking a lot about writing in symbols,” Oddný says of this book. “It was written almost schizophrenically. You have to read it like a schizophrenic. If you read it simply as narrative, you will lose a lot.”
“Surely beauty must be in motion. Or be motion.”
Oddný’s father lived in the north of Iceland. She spent summers there with her brother and dreamed of one day raising a child in the idyllic Icelandic countryside. In the countryside they were strangers. Oddný was young, from the city and didn’t understand the way things worked. “We didn’t know anything,” she says, “and the farmers told us, ‘You don’t know anything.’ I was so small and eager to learn, I was just picking up everything, trying to figure out how it worked.”
Then she moved to Hungary. Then to Paris. “I was alone again, a stranger, always just listening and seeing how things functioned.” When they moved from France back to Iceland, Oddný was different from her Icelandic peers. “I couldn’t pronounce the Icelandic ‘err,’” she says. “I had the French ‘err,’ and I had a patch over my eye to help me see clearly. So I was this tiny thing with one eye and a funny accent. But I wasn’t a loner.”
With the help of her mother, Oddný found a sense of playfulness in everything. “The girls would play games with me, but I didn’t understand some of the basic rules” (and she admits: “I still don’t”). She made a field of the sidelines, she made observation her a game of her own. “I think that’s a bit like the writer in me,” she explains. “You’re in the middle of something but sometimes you are just ‘off,’ looking and thinking…”
“Few fear the old fox roving through the lava, russet and independent.”
Oddný waited many years before she ever considered publishing a book. “I always had this feeling that I had to understand things, and live things, and feel things better,” she says. When writing in her diary usurped other interests in her life, she knew it was time.
“Suddenly I felt that writing in my diary was much more important than studying, that each day I was just waiting to get into bed with my diary. It was more important than lovemaking. And when being in your diary is more important than studying, than being in love… yeah, it’s something.”
Her first few books were like “five books in one,” she recounts. “I liked that effort, I liked to have them so solid. They mentioned everything in my life I wanted to write about, as if to be my first and last book.” But then came ‘The Blue Blood’. In 2014, Oddný published this 40 page ebook, which chronicled a woman’s search for a blue-eyed man to impregnate her. “It was very direct from what I lived,” she says. “I put it together, and sent it away.”
“Isn’t it a kind of extravagance to try and save the country before you have solid ground beneath your feet?.”
With ‘Land Of Love And Ruins’, Oddný bounds further into the realm of fiction, but keeps her gaze fixed on what’s familiar. Like Rilke’s ‘Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge’, Oddný’s “diary” leads its reader through the first-person landscape of a life and a mind. The narrator uses her daily writings to tease out questions of intimacy and solitude; of building, breaking and rebuilding relationships; of a person as part of the whole; of what even is the whole.
“I used the book to write about the intimacy of family members, like my relationship with my brother,” she says. “It took a while for us to reinvent this intimacy. We had lost it, then we found it again and had to create it with a lot of work. I think it’s worthwhile to write about that; how to make intimate relationships… it’s not easy. It will never be easy, actually, to be close to someone.”
“Closeness has to be like running water; it mustn’t stagnate and turn sour.”
There is a compulsion amongst most writers to write about what is painful, what is broken, what is wrong. “We need to talk about ugly things,” Oddný says. “It’s much more difficult to write about things which are beautiful. I have tried to write about my last love relationships, tried to capture what was beautiful, but it comes out as cliché: ‘I feel very good, it’s very nice’. But I do want to write about what is beautiful.”
To write gracefully about “what is nice, what is beautiful,” requires a lot of effort. “I believe in evolution,” Oddný says. “And I believe in smaller evolutions. The destructive forces are so active; they are always there to break down love, to break down families, to break down societies. To put it into shit and violence. These forces are so strong that you cannot just be passive. If you want to fight against it you have to be, somehow, active.”
A year and a half ago Oddný’s son was born. She moved to the south coast and commenced creating her “happy little family on the farm.” She had sheep. She had a goat. She had the dream.
When we meet to talk it is in a café on the sleet-covered streets of Vesturbær. Her house is just down the block, her books are still in boxes from her move back to Reykjavík. “Fuck the sheep,” she tells me, with the playful resilience of a mother. “Fuck the dream.”
“The family form is probably one of the forms that needs to be blown apart at regular intervals, to allow it to realign itself in the grass and grow from the soil anew.”
Her teal eyes and twirling mind look into the rain on the other side of the window. Even on her down days, in cozy mornings at a café in Vesturbær, Oddný is collecting. Maybe it’s a thought that will end up in one of the three books she is currently working on. Maybe it’s a diary note, or something more fleeting.
Even though she’s back in Reykjavík, Oddný is still that little girl in the countryside. An “active stranger,” as she described it. Taking it all in: collecting, recollecting, preparing for the winter.
“You mustn’t bury yourself alive, forget to rise up or bind yourself to the dust in melancholy surrender.”
Quotes from ‘Land of Love and Ruins.’