From Iceland — Hallgrímur Helgason: “No One Is Afraid Of Laxness Anymore”

Hallgrímur Helgason: “No One Is Afraid Of Laxness Anymore”

Published April 16, 2019

Hallgrímur Helgason: “No One Is Afraid Of Laxness Anymore”
Photo by
Art Bicnick
Rúnar Sigurður Sigurjónsson

Hallgrímur Helgason is Iceland’s best known Icelandic authors—well, after Halldór Laxness. His books have been translated to dozen of other languages and his novel ‘101 Reykjavík’ became a hit movie directed by Baltasar Kormákur, who also directed ‘Everest’ and many other films.

Hallgrímur will be one of the guests of the Reykjavík International Literature Festival that will be held in Reykjavík 24th-27th of April. Grapevine journalist Valur Gunnarsson sat down with Hallgrímur and asked him the worst question of them all: How afraid of Halldór Laxness are we?

Your novel 101 Reykjavik is in many ways the definitive text of the Icelandic 90s, when the country was in some regard opening up to the outside world. In what way do you think things have changed and how are they the same? What might Hlynur be doing today?

I think he would still be in trouble with his life, living alone and with his mother as his only friend, fighting his demons and depression but he would be on medication by now. His humour would be the only thing that brings him joy. I should maybe write that sequel, a fun book about depression… Of course, Reykjavík and Iceland are totally different from what they were back in 1996. The difference is like having a wi-fi connection as opposed to not having one.

In the same manner, 2005’s Stormland  captures something about the insanity of the boom years in Iceland. The film version, which came out six years later, had the economic collapse as a backdrop. You yourself were quite vocal during the protests. Do you think this is a subject you may return to, or have you said all you have to say about it?

I think we will always write about the crash, in one way or another. Iceland is not the same after it. But it’s true, I have not written a contemporary novel since 2008, and sometimes I feel a strong urge to do so. So much has happened since then. But I will now stick with the historical stuff for some years, as I am about to write another book about the characters in my latest, Sixty Kilos of Sunshine. But that doesn’t mean I won’t be writing about the boom and crash of Iceland, since we have a historical tradition of those things happening every three years in the beginning of the 20th century, in the herring era, which is my subject in Sixty Kilos. We have for a long time been a rollercoaster nation.

The novel Author of Iceland, based on the life and works of Halldór Laxness, caused something of a scandal for daring to engage with the old man’s works in a playful manner. Are we too reverential of our sole Nobel prize winner? Is it time for Icelandic writing to step out of his shadow and into the sunshine?

I think we have. Nobody is afraid of Laxness anymore, at least not in the sense as we were before, when I was growing up. And I think it’s a lot healthier situation for him to be in as well. But we need to do more for his legacy, we need to make new translations of his best books and keep pushing them to foreign publishers. In many countries he’s totally forgotten, or only available in bad translations as is the case in France for example. He truly was one of a kind, the best thing ever to come out of Iceland, apart from… No, apart from nothing. The best thing ever. Period!

Your latest novel, Sixty Kilos of Sunshine, is a great Icelandic novel in the classic mould, dealing with a boy among fishermen in the early 1900s. It won you the Icelandic literature prize for the second time. You describe it as the period when Icelanders were moving from the darkness and into the light. It sounds thematically similar to your contemporary Jón Kalman, or even to Laxness himself. What is it about these times that are so compelling to Icelandic writers? Was the boom and bust the same thing in reverse, perhaps?

It’s so close in time. My grandmother was born in 1900 and died in 1998. She went from a turf hut to a Toyota Landcruiser, from the bronze age to the information age, in a lifetime. Imagine the changes she witnessed. I was always fascinated by her fate, and often thought about it while writing Sixty Kilos.

I think we will never get over the fact that, as a nation, we lived for centuries in windowless and leaking turf huts and were among the poorest countries in the world. We hardly had anything to burn, so we could only manage one fire per farm, and this had to be in the kitchen rather than the living room. Then there were no roads here, no real towns. We did not even own a single horse carriage! And to try to capture and describe our journey out of those dark times and into the light of modernity really is a worthy subject that I am sure will continue to be written about.

English language literature these days puts much emphasis on voice. Do you think there is an Icelandic style of writing, going via Laxness (him again) back to the Sagas, which describes characters more by what they do than what they think? Do you feel you have perhaps broken out of that style, since the voice of the character often seems as important as their actions?

In the Sagas you never get into the heads of the characters, you never know what they think or how they feel. The Viking tradition was to stay cool and keep on struggling, even though your life was in grave danger. That one cool and snappy sentence, spoken at your last moment alive, was more important than any cry for rescue or a report on how you really felt. For they knew it would last forever and immortalise their name. Those guys really knew the power of literature, and they believed in literature as we Icelanders have done ever since. Forget God and Jesus, Njáls Saga is still our Bible. I think we can say in all fairness that the Sagas were the first novels in history, hard rigid tales that did not allow any inner voice. Then came Shakespeare with his “invention of the human,” suddenly the characters spoke from their hearts, laying out all their hopes and fears, doubts and hesitations, and this major invention did of course bring the characters closer to the audience or reader, they made him their buddy.

My first novel was in the vein of the Sagas, I described everything from the outside, never entering the characters heads. Then I slowly learned from Shakespeare and Nabokov and others how the inner monologue is maybe more exciting than what happens in the visual world. I was hooked on the first person narrative for a long time, but in my latest, I use a more traditional way, with an all knowing third-person storytelling voice—this allows you the freedom of entering every character’s head. You can have numerous first-person narratives in a panel discussion, so to speak, or many novels on stage at once, like Harold Bloom defined the art of Shakespeare.

Apart from writing novels, you have written poetry, painted, drawn cartoons, written articles and even done stand-up. Does the form have a great impact on how you approach your subject matter or is it a secondary concern to the content?

No, form is always important. All my ideas come to me with a small post-it: This one is for a novel, this one for a painting, this is a poem…

Hallgrímur Helgason by Rúnar Sigurður Sigurjónsson

You have been published in various languages and even written one novel in English, The Hitman’s Guide to Housecleaning, that you then translated to Icelandic yourself. How did that affect your process? Is there a big difference dealing with English language publishing vs. that in Iceland?

Oh, yes, the editing tradition in the English-speaking world is so much greater than we have. Until the late nineties, there was hardly any editing in Iceland. The writer was king! A bit too much of a king, I must say, for we all need good and healthy editing. My other novels have also been edited when they are published in the States, and the fact checking process and all that proof-reading stuff is just so very professional, on a whole different level than elsewhere. Even in a book that has been translated 14 times they can still find some errors over there in the big US of A.

Writing a novel in English was fun to begin with, it was like getting a brand new bike, and you felt like a new man, but after two years of working in a language that you do not master 100%, I was so happy to go back to Icelandic. I think that energy shows in the next novel I wrote, Woman at 1000 Degrees.

What are you looking forward to during the Reykjavík Literature Festival?

I’m excited to see Samanta Schweblin, a fresh voice from far away. The Norwegian Roy Jacobsen is always a real charmer, and I am curious about the American Lily King. Then I’m also excited to meet Alain Gnaedig from the French publishing house Gallimard. They just bought my latest book.

You can read our literature special online here.

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