Published October 17, 2017
Long winter nights are made for reading. Here are two Icelandic works, both translated into English, to stock up on.
Ólafur Jóhann Ólafsson – Walking into the Night
William Randolph Hearst’s lavish estate, San Simeon, is scrupulously managed by his private butler Christian, who caters to the aging media mogul’s every demand with immeasurable patience. But this quiet butler is in fact a haunted man, consumed by memories of the family he left behind in Iceland, when his name was still Kristján Benediktsson. Through a series of unsent letters, he tries to make amends with the ghosts of his past, explaining to his wife why he chose to walk into the night one evening while the family slept. Kristján, who is based on Hearst’s actual Icelandic butler, is a conflicted character, seeking penance but unable to ask for forgiveness due to the constraints of pride and shame. The past uncoils itself into the present in Ólafur’s flowing style. He escorts us from the oppressive regime of the Hearst household to the isolated townscapes of Iceland, and finally to the glamorous roaring twenties of pre-Depression era New York.
Steinunn Sigurðar – Place of the Heart
Single mother Harpa sets out to relocate her teenage daughter Edda to the other side of the country, with hopes of removing her from the Reykjavík drug scene and it’s unsavoury characters. On this 48-hour journey, Harpa’s flustered yet lyrical narrative voice guides us through the Icelandic landscape. All the while, she desperately tries to connect with her daughter, fluctuating between a mother’s tenderness and a parent’s righteous anger, according to mood swings that almost match those of her vitriolic daughter. ‘Place of the Heart’ has a traditional road novel premise, but is set apart by Steinunn’s jaunty and poetic writing style. Translator Philip Roughton, recently nominated for the Man Booker International Prize, makes sure that the voice is entirely Steinunn’s, refusing to simplify her language and instead offering an elaborate glossary to expand the reading experience.
Read more about Icelandic literature here.