Get Your Read On: Where To Start In The Icelandic Book Store

Get Your Read On: Where To Start In The Icelandic Book Store

Published December 12, 2016

For the unacquainted, it can be hard to know where to start with Icelandic literature. Should you begin with a weighty medieval saga—and if so, which one? Should it be a Laxness tome? Maybe a slim volume of concise, lyrical fiction by Sjón, or the philosophical prose of Oddný Eir?

To offer a route into the rich world of Icelandic literature, we asked a variety of Grapevine contributors, and a couple of expert guests, for a selection of their favourites, old and new. So whether you’re in need of a gift idea, or just something to pass the time this Christmas, there’s something here for you.

LaSolutionEsquimauAWAndri Snær Magnason – LoveStar

Despite some fantastical passages in the Sagas, Icelanders traditionally liked their beer to be lager and their literature to be realist. Following his acclaimed children’s sci-fi book ‘The Story of the Blue Planet’, Andri submitted an Icelandic rarity—a science fiction book for adults. A takedown of the boom years before they even happened, ‘LoveStar’ was prescient in many ways. It presented a very Icelandic Orwellian future, in which the country is driven to chaos (and manages to wreck the world) via boundless optimism, and free market economics. It remains a good read, though by now it’s more science than fiction. Space burials and all. VSG

Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir – Butterflies in November

After being dumped twice, accidentally killing a goose, and being stuck with the responsibility of taking care of a deaf-mute son, a young woman’s luck takes a turn for the better when a winning lottery ticket makes her and the boy the richest people in the country. The two embark on an adventure across Iceland, passing through lava fields, cucumber farms, flocks of sheep, both her exes, and a series of interesting characters. This quirky tragicomedy is unexpected, yet charmingly relatable. It’ll definitely set the mood for the ultimate Icelandic road trip. SL

Bergsveinn Birgisson – Reply to a Letter from Helga

After long silence, an elderly sheep farmer writes a letter to the woman from a neighboring farm, whom he loved, then lost in the waves of migration to Reykjavík that reshaped Icelandic society in the middle of the 20th century. Filled with bawdy rural humor, earthy sensuality, play with traditional Icelandic literary language, and an aching nostalgia, the novel movingly mourns a lost love that stands for a whole lost way of life. MA

bloodhoofGerður Kristný – Bloodhoof

‘Bloodhoof’ retells the Old Norse story of the giantess (and namesake of the author) Gerður, from her own previously unheard point of view. Originally found in the medieval Poetic Edda and described mostly from the perspective of her captor, Gerður is abducted from her homeworld and forced to marry the god Freyr. Gerður’s contemporary reinterpretation is as beautifully minimal as it is easy to follow, making it especially excellent for anyone who thinks they “don’t get” poetry. So don’t be scared. Gerður will show you how it’s done. GDF

Halldór Laxness – Independent People

This relatively unknown work of Icelandic literature is a classic that earned its author the 1955 Nobel Prize for literature. How can a Nobel Prize-winning book be unknown? We mean it’s relatively unknown to English-language readers, and especially in America. Apparently, the conservative government of Iceland pressured J. Edgar Hoover to have the book banned in the United States due to Laxness’s socialist leanings, leaving Laxness basically unknown in the US until his works were republished in 1996. The novel follows Bjartur, a fiercely independent farmer whose staunch individualism and stubbornness harms both himself and his family. HÞJ

Halldór Laxness – Under The Glacier

The title ‘Kristnihald undir Jökli’, translated directly from the Icelandic, would be ‘Christianity Under the Glacier’. It’s the story a young emissary sent to Snæfellsnes to investigate a pastor named Jón, who has apparently quit preaching, boarded up the church and started doing odd jobs around town. There’s talk that people are being resurrected by dragging bodies onto the glacier and leaving them overnight. Laxness makes the Snæfellsjökull glacier not just the opening to the centre of the earth, as Jules Verne did, but more profoundly, the centre of the universe—lampooning American new-age travellers looking for spiritual enlightenment, the strange role of the church within society and, with great prescience, the unreliability of bus travel in Iceland. It’s funny, smart and still relevant today. YOU

stormlandHallgrímur Helgason – Stormland

If ‘101 Reykjavík’ was the ultimate fictionalisation of the ‘Cool Reykjavík’ of the 90s, then ‘Stormland’ equally captured the boom years—or rather, those who got left behind in those strange days. It’s a story of two brothers, one of whom profits from the greed permeating everything while the other tries to stand outside it all, but is forced to take a stand in the end. Both books were turned into films—the former became an international hit and launched the career of Baltasar Kormákur, and the latter was largely overlooked. But the movie, made just after the economic collapse, forms an interesting counterpoint to the novel, being inspired by the very events the novel foresaw. VSG

Jón Kalman Stefánsson – Fish Have No Feet

The book is set in the town of Keflavík, which you will breeze past on your way to and from the airport but probably never visit. A fishing town that later became largely dependent on the US army base outside of town, Keflavík is a perfect allegory for Iceland’s self-conscious nature: a proud, independent nation that is somewhat unwilling to admit to its huge reliance on imported goods and people. The prose fluidly transitions between past and present, lovingly addressing the private terrors, tragedies and loves of a family that has always lived by the sea, and shifting our focus between perspectives in such a way as to show us the desperation and impossibility of true human communication. BH

Jón Kalman Stefánsson – Heaven and Hell

The Westfjords in the early 20th century: a time and place where the harsh realities of life provided little more for people to concern themselves with than work, food and sleep, leaving almost no space for love and art and other such trifles that got in the way of fishing. ‘Heaven and Hell’ will initially seem to be solely concerned with the beauty and fluidity of its prose (delivered through an all-seeing first person plural that seems to speak on behalf of the nation) and its depiction of strong characters, male and female, within the heroic/romantic tradition. It is only later that the attentive reader will start to notice the underlying moral themes of how we choose to co-exist in the brief period that life provides. BH

bluebloodOddný Eir – The Blue Blood

An autobiographical short story available on Kindle, ‘The Blue Blood’ charts the author’s journey as she attempts to become pregnant, via various means. Óddny’s search takes her from the corridors of a sperm bank, to a market in South America, to a cave under Eyjafjallajökull; along the way she muses on subjects like masculinity, Nazism, bohemianism, mythology and history. ‘The Blue Blood’ is full of vivid moments, and captures the turbulent joy, seriousness, sadness and absurdity of personhood. JR

Laxdæla Saga

If you’re looking for a good introduction to Old Norse literature, Laxdæla Saga is the one. A sort of Icelandic Romeo and Juliet, it tells the story of one woman caught between two foster-brothers. She marries the one she doesn’t love and the story unravels with the appropriate amount of tragedy for everyone involved. It won’t leave you with only that unsettled feeling of a sad ending—it’ll also give you a good sense of what defines Iceland’s original literary genre. GDF

Sjón – The Blue Fox

‘The Blue Fox’ is a short piece of magical-realist fiction, based on some mysterious goings-on in rural 19th century Iceland. An intriguing tangle of relationships is shaken loose throughout its pages, contrasted all the time with the metaphysical relationship between a hunter and his prey—the elusive blue fox. The third Icelandic winner of the Nordic Literature Prize, this is a short but gripping gem. JR

Sjón – Moonstone

Another historically-based title, Sjón’s latest work in English translation is ‘Moonstone – The Boy Who Never Was’. Set in 1918, it explores a dramatic moment in Iceland’s history, when the country was approaching independence from Denmark, concurrent with the medium of cinema arriving in Reykjavík, an eruption of Katla, and a deadly epidemic of the Spanish flu. It’s a masterfully researched fictionalisation of those times, and a miniature epic in its own right. JR

Sölvi Björn Sigurðsson – The Last Days of My Mother

With a diagnosis of terminal cancer delivered to his mother, Hermann, a 37-year-old failure who’s pining for his ex-lover, sets out to make her happy in her final days. Under the guise of seeking a mysterious wonder drug, he and his mother—a larger-than-life character prone to tongue-lashings and sherry binges—set out for adventure in Amsterdam. This darkly comic tale, which some have referred to as ‘Fear and Loathing in the Lowlands’, is an ode to the overindulgence of sex and alcohol, as well as motherly love. Still, at its core, it’s an emotional story that speaks to the love and admiration of a parent, despite the hell that follows them. BH

yo-yoSteinunn Sigurðardóttir – Yo-Yo

‘Yo-Yo’ doesn’t actually take place in Iceland—it’s set in Berlin, and has no Icelandic characters. Including recognisable local characters and histories within works of fiction has been somewhat common in the Icelandic literary scene of recent years, but when asked about the decision to set this work abroad, Steinunn has said that it was a means of tackling delicate subject matter without it being dogged by small-town rumours. The book deals with an unlikely friendship between a cancer specialist and one of his patients, a quick-witted homeless alcoholic. The men experience an immediate and unexpected camaraderie. They’re drawn to one another, to the dismay of others, and soon discover that despite their outward differences they share an early experience that shaped both of their lives. BH

Svava Jakobsdóttir – Gunnlöth’s Tale

‘Gunnlöth’s Tale’ is probably the best-known work of one of Iceland’s foremost 20th century authors and feminist politicians, Svava Jakobsdóttir. This mysterious novel entangles readers in the story of a teenage girl who gets arrested for allegedly committing the strange and inexplicable crime of stealing an ancient beaker from a museum, claiming to have been summoned into the mythological world of the Norse gods by the giantess Gunnlöth. The narrative shifts and merges throughout the novel, blurring the line between reality and myth, and offering a different perspective on familiar tales. SL

i_remember_youYrsa Sigurðardóttir – I Remember You

‘I Remember You’ blends elements of the modern ghost story with the usual Yrsa thriller. A doctor in Ísafjörður, still grieving after the disappearance of his son, attends to the suicide of an elderly patient only to be thrown into an investigation of another disappearance that echoes his son’s case. Meanwhile, a young married couple, financially reefed by the economic crash, set out with their widowed friend to fix up an old house in a desolate coastal village in the Westfjords, hoping to turn it into a successful tourist attraction. In the complete isolation of the abandoned village, tension mounts among the trio as secrets are revealed and they are confronted with an eerie sense that they are not alone. BH

Þórbergur Þórðarsson – In Search of My Beloved

Everyone loves Laxness, but the Stones to Laxness’s Beatles was Þórbergur Þórðarson—any Icelander above a certain age will have several volumes by both in their living room. While Laxness perfected mainstream historical fiction for the 20th century, Þórbergur created a form of auto-fiction that seems more apt for the 21st. A communist, esperantist and sometime mystic, Þórbergur remains criminally neglected by foreign publishers. His masterpiece, ‘Ofvitinn’, remains unavailable in English, but this abbreviated version of ‘Íslenskur aðall’ serves as a good primer for his oeuvre, going deep into his own psyche as well as the Iceland of the 1930. VSG

BH: Björn Halldórs, GDF: Grayson Del Faro, HÞJ: Helga Þórey Jónsdóttir, JR: John Rogers, MA: Mark Asch, SL: Susanna Lam, VSG: Valur Gunnarsson, YOU: York Underwood


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