A Beginner’s Guide To Icelandic Literature

A Beginner’s Guide To Icelandic Literature

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Photos by
Alisa Kalyanova

Published December 9, 2016

Whether you don’t understand a word of Icelandic but want to get familiar with the country’s literature, or you have some degree of Icelandic comprehension and want a good beginner’s guide, there is a wealth of choices at your disposal. It’s important to know what awaits you, so let’s start with translated Icelandic.

Icelandic literature in English

The sky’s not exactly the limit where this is concerned: most Icelandic literature that has been translated into English is by best-selling authors, a significant portion of whom write genre fiction, particularly crime stories. But there are still a number of titles you should look into, some less obvious than others.

Halldór Laxness is probably the best-known Icelandic writer of them all. Indeed, his talents have been known to the world for decades; it’s what got him a Nobel Prize for literature in 1955. Laxness has an extensive body of work that has been translated into English, but if you’re going to start anywhere, you could do worse than with ‘Independent People’. This book is pretty essential to understanding Laxness and his take on the Icelandic character. Laxness was himself very critical of Icelandic society, and few books sum up his criticisms of Icelanders like ‘Independent People’ does. Most folks start reading it thinking the protagonist, Bjartur, is some kind of admirable underdog. By the end of the book, you will very likely change your opinion. A great starting point.

Gerður Kristný. You’re going to need some fresh modernism flavoured by medieval Icelandic history to chase back that Laxness, and Gerður Kristný is a good author to turn to for that. In particular, her book ‘Bloodhoof’, which won the 2010 Icelandic literature award. Here, Gerður Kristný takes the ancient poem Skírnismál and turns it inside out: while the original is based on the story of the god Freyr falling in love with the giantess Gerður, Gerður Kristný turns it into a story of abuse, rape and revenge with modern relevancy. Not exactly light reading, but a pretty powerful take on ancient Icelandic writing, and what it has to say about modern contexts.

Guðbergur Bergsson is seen by many as Iceland’s first hipster, by others as the enfant terrible of Icelandic literature, and even Icelanders have difficulty reading him in his native language. Fortunately, you can experience part of what makes him so great through his novel ‘The Swan’. Very little of his work has been translated into English, but ‘The Swan’ was an excellent choice. In this story, Guðbergur invites us to follow a nine-year-old girl into the Icelandic countryside, where she’s to serve her probation for shoplifting. There, we experience how she acclimates to her new surroundings, while Guðbergur sheds insightful light on just how different the country is outside of the capital area.

Steinunn Sigurðardóttir. Now we start to make our way into a wholly modern Icelandic world. Steinunn is a force of nature: an esteemed novelist and poet who continues to surprise readers. ‘The Thief of Time’, with its very modern story of loss, tragedy, new love and new betrayal, could work in pretty much any context in the world. It’s a fine testament to Iceland as a nation of modern writers who can tell stories that anyone can be moved by, no matter how much or little they may understand Icelandic culture, because Iceland is primarily irrelevant to the story itself.

Hallgrímur Helgason. You can’t understand the image Reykjavík enjoys today without reading ‘101 Reykjavík’. This dry, sardonic, at times breezy novel puts Iceland’s capital on the map as a hive of slackers and artists when this book was adapted into a movie of the same name in 2000. The story meanders through several characters and storylines, but the common thread is the existential alienation of the story’s protagonist, Hlýnur Björn. A book best enjoyed sipping coffee at Kaffibarinn, with occasional pauses for people-watching as you consider the folks being depicted on the pages.

Bear in mind this is just the tip of the iceberg. Walk into any Icelandic bookstore and you’ll find loads of translated books to choose from. For more tips, you can also refer to the list of our contributors’ favourite translated titles on page 40.

Icelandic literature in Icelandic

So let’s say you have some degree of understanding in Icelandic. Maybe you’re even still in the process of learning (and even if you’re fluent, let’s face it, you never really stop learning Icelandic). If so, Icelandic for you might be a solely utilitarian language—you use it for shopping, for talking to co-workers, for getting directions, and maybe engaging in small talk. It might not have even occurred to you that you can read Icelandic for pleasure, too. How do you get into it, then?

Bear in mind that, as with most other languages, literary Icelandic is a far cry from everyday Icelandic. In many cases, anyway. You may find yourself having to consult the dictionary, and there are references and puns that you’re not likely to get. This is fine. The point here is rather to get yourself used to reading fiction in Icelandic; the references and wordplay can come later. With that in mind, here’s where you can dig in:

Absolute beginner stage: Snúður og Snælda. Yes, these are children’s books. And I mean like kindergarten-aged children. Be that as it may, you will find yourself charmed and delighted by the antics of these two kittens as they get into trouble, make hilariously clumsy attempts at problem-solving, and bestow some gentle moralising to impressionable kids. Not exactly groundbreaking stuff but it will get you familiar with reading Icelandic for pleasure (albeit maybe not on the bus).

Early stage: ‘Kósýkvöld með Láru’. Again, young children’s literature. However, this tale (“A cosy evening with Lára,” in English) by pop singer Birgitta Haukdal is more than just a curiosity. Here, you will encounter Icelandic that is more modern, more everyday, and still simple enough for first-year Icelandic students to be able to read and understand. Maybe not to be cracked open at your favorite café, but a good next-level and fairly short book to dig into.

Intermediate stage: ‘Carpe diem’. This book, by Eyrún Ýr Tryggvadóttir, is decidedly for teenaged Icelanders. Which is good for you—you’re beginning to read longer sentences using more complex concepts. Moreover, this tale of a 10th grader with a troubled home will introduce you to more modern uses of Icelandic (e.g., to say that something “sökkar feit” as a way of saying you find the experience unpleasant), while also giving you a less rosy picture of modern Icelandic family life.

Advanced stage: ‘Dóris Deyr’. This collection of short stories by literary wunderkind Kristín Eiríksdóttir is in no way for the squeamish. Kristín writes in a modern, conversational Icelandic with relatively simple sentence constructions. However, in keeping with her background as a poet, there are passages which are decidedly lyrical, poetic and dreamlike, however simply they may be written. This will introduce you to how Icelandic can convey a lot of information with very few words, and will exercise your brain significantly as you plunge into the dark, stormy and at times nightmarish world of these elegantly disturbing stories.

Master level: ‘Sjálfstætt fólk’. (kindle edition here) Now you’re feeling confident enough to read one of Iceland’s masterpieces in its original language. But be warned: Laxness’s language is not only a bit dated, it is also rife with references and wordplay. Maybe not to a Joycean degree, but you’re still going to struggle with this one, even if you’ve lived here for years. Don’t be shy about admitting you had to read a single paragraph several times because while you knew all the words, you didn’t quite get the meaning. Get used to it. This is Laxness. It’s bound to happen.

Wizard level: ‘Tómas Jónsson, metsölubók’. What’s that you say? You find postmodernism too trite and simplistic in English, and you want a book to literally snap your mind in half? You’re in luck. This early work of Guðbergur Bergsson is here for the job. While you try to navigate through the free-associative thoughts of an old man living in 1960s Iceland and his criticisms of society, you will run headfirst into many brick walls. Don’t let that deter you. Once you’ve finished the book, you can impress Icelanders at parties by disclosing you read this book in the original Icelandic. Just be sure to be ready with answers when asked to explain what you thought of it. While it’s likely to be a book you will read several times before you “get” it, tackling it from cover to cover will give you the confidence you need to open pretty much any novel written in Icelandic, opening a whole new world of literature for you to enjoy. Congratulations!


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