When Ófeigur Sigurðsson’s third novel ‘Öræfi’—an experimental novel set in Iceland’s desolate Öræfi region—first went off to the printers, the author himself didn’t spend much time pondering the book’s fate. “I really didn’t think anyone would ever publish it in the first place,” he admits. “It was only meant as a private joke for myself; too eccentric and weird and just too boring for anyone other than me to enjoy.”
A sudden success
The book tells the story of a young Austrian toponymist who narrates the perils and wonders he encounters during an ill-fated solo-research expedition onto Vatnajökull glacier. Much to Ófeigur’s amazement, the novel became the surprise hit of the Icelandic book season. Eagerly championed by critics, it went on to win the 2015 Icelandic Literature Prize and become a bestseller.
“My pessimism probably says more about my own state of mind than the book itself,” Ófeigur concedes. “I never let anyone read for me until the very last minute, so I just sit and stew in negativity until that’s all I can see and hear.”
Subtext or humour?
This fall, Ófeigur’s readership is set to increase exponentially, as the book is being published by US publisher Deep Vellum in a new English translation by Lytton Smith, who most recently took on the translation of Guðbergur Bergsson’s ‘Tómas Jónsson: Bestseller’—the original Icelandic experimental novel.
“Lytton had hundreds of questions about my text,” Ófeigur says. “There was a lot ambiguity for him to work through, even just whether something was a specific reference or only some weird, insular Icelandic humour. We talked a lot about subtexts—the things I was pulling into the prose. I read his translation shortly before it was published and saw right away that he had managed to capture the book’s mood and atmosphere, as well as elusive things like rhythm and humour.”
From sheep to death metal
While recounting his trip to Iceland and his woes in Vatnajökull, Öræfi’s narrator, Bernhardt Fingerberg, makes plenty of side-expeditions. His narrative consumes folklore, history and seemingly random factoids like an omnivorous glutton, following whatever threads it comes across—be it the genealogical history of Icelandic sheep-stock or the works of H.P. Lovecraft and their influence on the music of Florida death metal pioneers Morbid Angel. These amalgamated subjects are likely a result of the scavenging nature of Ófeigur’s process. While preparing for the book, he refrained from questioning the material he gathered, allowing his unconscious to roam freely and make its own connections.
“Before I actually started writing ‘Öræfi,’ I was taking notes and gathering material for five years,” he reminisces. “I never knew exactly why I was gathering all these sources, I just knew it was something different. I filed it under the title ‘Wild Sheep,’ as that was all I knew: that I wanted to write a novel about sheep. Eventually, random things started going into that file too, but even so it was held together by a certain feeling, a certain mood. When I finally began writing, I already had all this material to work with, so the novel came into being fairly directly.”
A process prior to writing
“The actual writing took about two years,” he continues. “That’s a relatively short time for me, but the book had been stewing in my unconscious for a long while. That’s a vital part of the process. If you start writing a book too early, it’ll change drastically while you’re writing it, but if you sit with it for a long time before you start writing, it comes out fairly easily. Either way, you have to put in the work; the stuff that goes on before writing. I never start anything with an empty page. When I start writing, there are piles of papers and notebooks all around me, along with some feeling or sensation that might have been bubbling in my unconscious for years. Even if there is technically an empty page in front of me, there’s always something else in the room.”
Pursuit of pure ego
He admits that the ongoing success of the book mystifies him somewhat, as Ófeigur himself will be the first to admit that it might not be the most accessible work. Despite the novel’s abundance of bleak humour, it is a book that takes a long while to teach you how to read it, with many readers perishing along its slopes.
“The fact that it has found such a large readership has probably caused me to develop an ongoing case of egomania,” Ófeigur jokes. “It got me thinking that maybe it’s good when authors stop chasing contemporary Zeitgeists and only think about pleasing themselves—descending further and further into their own narcissism. I’m definitely less fearful now of following my own bliss, pushing the writing further and further, waiting for someone to tell me to stop.” He laughs. “You know, getting as close as I dare to total unreadability!”