From Iceland — Writing Is Einar Már Guðmundsson's Politics

Writing Is Einar Már Guðmundsson’s Politics

Published December 6, 2019

Writing Is Einar Már Guðmundsson’s Politics
Sam O'Donnell
Photo by
Art Bicnick

Author Einar Már Guðmundsson has been publishing books for nearly forty years. He wrote the critically acclaimed novel ‘Angels of the Universe,’ as well as the screenplay for that movie. His work has been translated into over 20 languages. He has always seen his writing as a form of social engagement, because, as he says, “sometimes the society needs your voice, and sometimes it’s best to be quiet.” Here, he gives us insight into what made him the writer he is today.

The spark that started it all

Since I was a boy, I was a storyteller and a talking poet, so I think it was very good for the people around me that I started doing it alone. I found rather early in life the need to express myself. These were tough times in the late 60s and early 70s. As Bob Dylan says, “there was music in the cafés at night, and revolution in the air,” so I could say that this revolution in the air inspired me a lot.

In my teenage years, I read a lot. In the beginning, it was very much with a social engagement. I was engaged in left wing politics. The organisation I belonged to had an anarcho-socialistic character. Many of the progressive artists were among this movement. But later I began to look for other things besides social engagement. I was always looking for new answers, so poetry and writing became all mixed together. Telling stories, finding some meaning with all the things around us.

The storytelling gene

At the beginning of the 20th century, my father was born in Reykjavík to a very poor family. He had ten siblings, and because of this poverty, the family dissolved and went to farms mainly in the south of the country. Very few of them got a formal education, but they had a lot of wisdom inside. So my father became a taxi driver. My mother was from a more middle-class family, having grown up here in Reykjavík. She had this love for stories and poetry. I remember some of the stories I heard; I used them later in my novels.

“I lost myself in this world of poetry, and it’s still, in a way, my foundation.”

For example, one of my uncles went to fight in the Spanish Civil War, and when he came back, he was also a taxi driver. And he was always telling stories. The taxi drivers had this dispatch central where people would call for a taxi, and sometimes because my uncle was telling such good stories, they didn’t want to take the orders, they wanted him to finish the story. He was brilliant.

Poets, teachers, and authors

One of my teachers was the poet Sigfús Daðason. When I was seriously beginning to read poetry, I found his books at the library, and they spoke directly to me. Later he would be my teacher at the university, and we became very good friends, and he also was very fond of my writing from the beginning.

Of course, other modern Icelandic poets who belong to this generation (born between 1910-1930) influenced me. I lost myself in this world of poetry, and it’s still, in a way, my foundation.

I also found inspiration in American authors such as William Carlos Williams and Richard Brautigan. Brautigan was somebody who spoke directly to me. I could also mention Kurt Vonnegut. And then I began to read some authors translated into Icelandic, like Sinclair Lewis, John Steinbeck, and William Faulkner.

And then in Iceland, we had Halldór Laxness. He was all around. Later, I began to study all his books. He was like a whole academy to me and my writing. I could learn almost anything from him. There are others. Þórbergur Þórðarson is a bit older than Laxness. He wrote what you call autofiction. He was somebody, like Laxness, that spoke very much to the time in which I grew up.

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