A Grapevine service announcement Pay attention: Eruption Pollution Likely To Hit Whole Country
Culture
Books
This Was The Real Iceland

This Was The Real Iceland

Words by

Published October 15, 2010

It is a little difficult to decide which of two ways to describe Sigurður Gylfi Magnússon’s new book ‘Wasteland With Words’. Fifteen of the book’s eighteen chapters are about Iceland from roughly 1800 to 1940, with particular stress on the years from 1870 to 1920. Trained in social history, Sigurður Gylfi focuses on now-classic themes such as childhood, death, literacy, housing, work, settlement patterns and emigration. He uses a lot of examples from the Strandir region, which he has studied in depth.
In this way the book is about the years when Iceland was transformed from a very poor farm-based peasant society into a semi-modern, semi-independent European country with a fishing-based economy.
On the other hand, the book is subtitled ‘A Social History of Iceland’. One chapter (chapter ten) deals with the history of Iceland from 800 to 1800, and two chapters (the final ones) cover 1940 to the present. Including these chapters makes the book into an alternative to the “standard” English- language histories of Iceland, on sale at every bookstore here, that usually trace the island’s history from settlement almost up to the present.
Looked at in this way, ‘Wasteland With Words’ could be seen as a challenge to what we could call the Saga-age view of Icelandic history: the idea (common among tourists and newcomers to Iceland) that understanding the age of settlement is key to understanding the country. ‘Wasteland With Words’ reads like a long, and in my view successful argument that if any period is the key to understanding Iceland today, it’s the Nineteenth century.
As in Sigurður Gylfi’s other writing— most of it available in Icelandic only—he tells the story of Iceland from the bottom up, through examples culled from diaries, newspapers, and the histories of particular families. He avoids discussing the ceremonial and official. He has read an amazing number of Icelandic autobiographies. His writing is fluid, lithe and informal.
The book opened my eyes to the Nineteenth- century roots of some current Icelandic customs. The popularity of summer work for teenagers goes right back to the ubiquity of child labour a hundred years ago. I understand the ambivalent attitude towards dogs in Iceland better now: dogs on farms were the key vector in the spread of hydatid disease (echinococcosis), a revolting and sometimes fatal parasitic infection that afflicted as much as a quarter to a half of Icelanders in the late Nineteenth century. And one reason for the tradition of out-of-wedlock births in Iceland is that until surprisingly recently—well after America freed its slaves—powerless, disenfranchised servants made up 35–40% of the Icelandic population and were not allowed to marry.
More depressingly, the shackles on consumer freedom in Iceland and the near- Soviet feeling to the retail experience here can be traced to the days when trade with Iceland was in the hands of a few Danish merchants. The poor condition of the older housing stock in places like Ísafjörður and downtown Reykjavík is a problem with very old roots. Our relatively low rate of high school graduation today and the delayed development of the Icelandic educational system in the Nineteenth century are two chapters of the same story. Iceland was not the only part of Europe that was impoverished in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but the situation here was unusually bad and unusually slow to improve. Sigurður Gylfi’s book shows how far we have come.
‘Wasteland With Words’ is a very fine introduction to Icelandic history, but I want prospective readers to know in advance that it’s mostly about daily life in the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth centuries. My biggest criticism is that the design and print quality is not what one would expect of a forty-dollar book that’s being distributed by the University of Chicago Press. The margins are too big and the print is too small. The photos would be easier to appreciate if they extended to the page edges. Both the ink and the paper are a bit grayish. I doubt that Sigurður Gylfi is making a lot of money off this book. I wonder if it would have gained more readers published simultaneously online, with open access, and on paper, in a cheaper paperback format. 



Culture
Books
<?php the_title(); ?>

Butterflies In November

by

If it’s possible to claim a ‘trend’ based on what is as yet a rather small sample size, an interesting one seems to be developing in the domain of Icelandic literature in English translation. Until recently, these translations basically occupied either side of the ‘high’ literature/genre fiction spectrum—basically, Halldór Laxness and Sjón on one end and Arnaldur Indriðason and Yrsa Sigurdardóttir on the other. But the last five years have seen the area in the middle fill in a bit more, introducing English translations of absurdist quasi-sci-fi novels (Andri Snær Magnason’s ‘LoveStar’), novels dealing with Iceland’s transition from rural to

Culture
Books
<?php the_title(); ?>

Silent No More

by

Gerður Krístný is an immensely prolific writer, having produced some 18 books—including poetry and short story collections, novels for adults and children, a biography and a travel narrative—since her first publication in 1994. However, she is as of yet relatively unknown to English-reading audiences. For although several international collections have anthologised her poems and short stories, it was not until Gerður won the Icelandic Literature Prize in 2010 that one of her works, the winning poetry book ‘Bloodhoof,’ was translated into English in its entirety. “I feel as though I have been writing ‘Bloodhoof’ since I was a child,” Gerður has

Culture
Books
<?php the_title(); ?>

A False Version Of The Truth

by

When we meet Einar, a seasoned Reykjavík crime reporter, at the opening of Árni Þórarinsson’s ‘Season of the Witch,’ he—much like the country around him—is in the midst of great change, and he’s not terribly happy about it. It’s the early 2000s, Iceland’s pre-crash boom years, and given the choice of “the whiskey or the work,” Einar begrudgingly accepts banishment to the paper’s new Akureyri headquarters in North Iceland, where industrial growth has begun to drastically alter the texture of village life. But while Einar can’t escape the more banal aspects of provincial journalism—such as ask-a-local “Question of the Day”

Culture
Books
<?php the_title(); ?>

Monster or Martyr

by

Based on the real story of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, who in 1830 became the last person to be executed for a crime in Iceland, ‘Burial Rites,’ the debut novel by Australian author Hannah Kent, is the culmination of ten years’ of writing, research, and obsession-what the 26-year-old winner of the Writing Australia Unpublished Manuscript Award describes as her “dark love letter to Iceland.” Lyrically written, meticulously researched and swiftly plotted, `Burial Rites’ takes an infamous figure in Icelandic history and transforms her from “the spider, the witch caught in the webbing of her own fateful weaving,” into a believably complex character

Culture
Books
<?php the_title(); ?>

The Friendliest Little Crime Fest In Reykjavík

by

Going into its first year, Iceland Noir, the first ever Icelandic literary festival dedicated exclusively to crime fiction, has already set a high bar: months prior to the event it attracted over one hundred and twenty registered participants, many of whom will be travelling to Iceland from abroad to attend. Arnaldur Indriðason will be the Guest of Honour, and among the panel participants are a number of much loved and lauded authors such as Ann Cleeves, whose Vera Stanhope novels have been adapted into a popular BBC TV show; John Curran, a leading expert on the life and writing of

Culture
Books
<?php the_title(); ?>

The Perfect Landscape

by

Art is a contested space in ‘The Perfect Landscape.’ Public sculptures are graffitied over, a bucket of red paint is sloshed on a museum wall, windows are smashed at an installation, and art experts x-ray and scrape at their gallery’s new marquee acquisition, discovering a hidden painting just beneath the surface. ‘The Perfect Landscape,’ originally published in 2009, is the fourth novel by former Morgunblaðið art critic Ragna Sigurðardóttir and the first to be translated into English (by Sarah Bowen and released by Amazon Crossing last autumn as part of its foray into the Icelandic translation market). Ragna seems to

Show Me More!