From Iceland — Hallgrímur Helgason: Torn Between Keith Haring and the Sagas

Hallgrímur Helgason: Torn Between Keith Haring and the Sagas

Published February 4, 2022

Hallgrímur Helgason: Torn Between Keith Haring and the Sagas
Valur Grettisson
Photo by
Art Bicnick

Hallgrímur Helgason is in some ways a rebel when it comes to Icelandic fiction, and his weapons are pleasantly disarming; humour and entertainment. It took publishing four books for him to feel accepted into what we often refer to as the “culture-elite” (please send us an email if you find them; we know they’re out there somewhere) and he embraced low-brow culture in the nineties, only to witness it taking completely over. Nonetheless, Hallgrímur wrote his name in the history of literature in Iceland when he became the first author to be awarded the Icelandic Book Prize in the fiction category for the third time, for his book Sextíu kíló af kjaftshöggum (roughly translated to ‘Sixty Kilos Of Knockouts’). Not only that, but he also won the prize for the first book in the same series, that he nicknames the Sixty-kilo books, in 2018.
Well, it felt pretty evident that The Reykjavík Grapevine had to document this historic moment and give Hallgrímur a call.

Everything can happen, I guess

The first question is painfully mandatory, but we have to start somewhere: How does Hallgrímur feel about winning the Icelandic Book Prize for the third time?

“It was, kind of, just incredible,” Hallgímur answers. “I figured I had some chance, but still, when I heard that I won, it just felt unbelievable.”
He points out that it’s only three years since he last won the award for the first book in the series, Sextíu kíló af sólskini (Sixty Kilos Of Sunshine).
“I remember that this happened in the UK when Hillary Mantel got the Booker Prize twice for her series about Thomas Cromwell [The Wolf Hall series]. When she wrote the third book, she jokingly announced that it would be a failure if it didn’t also win. And actually, this is what happened, it wasn’t even nominated,” Hallgrímur says. “So, everything can happen I guess.”

Striving to become a visual artist

When Hallgrímur was a young man, his mind wasn’t set on literature, but visual arts – a field that he has also done very well in addition to writing. He was finding a foothold in the USA and had even had his work exhibited in galleries. His future seemed bright in the world of visual arts.

“But then I got sent the republished Icelandic Sagas, just before getting the flu; I spent a week in bed with them and fell completely in love. Suddenly I found myself totally torn between Keith Haring and the Sagas! I mean, it was quite a rift, or rather a whole “canyon” that opened up there. It was not like simply being torn between painting and writing, because on one side of this canyon were the New York eighties, with their exciting art scene, street art, and rap and hip hop in its infancy, and on the other side stood this old archaic literature and the whole of the Icelandic language, with all its rules of rhyme and alliteration.”

“I was so smitten by the reading of the Sagas that my letters back home were all written in that old Norse style. My mother took one of them to her friend, an old Saga professor at the University, who “approved” of it. You can say that I have spent my whole life trying to bridge this “canyon” within myself.”

Bigger than God

The literary landscape that Hallgrímur found himself in as a young author was dominated by the crushing heritage of the biggest writers in Iceland in the 20th century, from Þórbergur Þórðarson, to Gunnar Gunnarsson, to Halldór Laxness – our only Nobel Prize winner in literature. They set a heavy tone for literature in Iceland, which could be seen as a hefty burden for coming generations.

“It could be a little encumbering, people were either writing “in Laxness’s shadow” or despising him like Guðbergur Bergsson did. For me, both stands were wrong,” Hallgrímur admits. “Like some overtly stupid troll child I went straight for the holiest shrine: My first published text was a lampoon version of 19th Century Jónas Hallgrímsson’s ‘Ferðalok’, considered to be the most beautiful poem written in Icelandic. And this also got approved! This time around approval came from the most serious poet in Iceland, Sigfús Daðason, which meant a lot to me of course. So I was off to a good start, but what followed were 15 years of wandering outside the literary establishment until I felt accepted. But all this time I was totally drunk with the language, the Sagas, Hallgrímsson, Laxness… Icelandic was like a siren, I was drawn to it.”

Hallgrímur was at first heavily influenced by American literature, and wrote what he refers to as anti-literature.

“I mean, I wrote a pseudo-celebrity biography titled “Things Are Going Great”, making fun of all things cultural in Iceland, from classical music to conceptual art. And influenced by Jay McInerney and Bret Easton Ellis I wrote “101 Reykjavik” about a guy who hated all things ending with -ture, like culture, literature and nature. I even used his voice on the radio before writing the book, making him my own kind of Ali G or Borat.”

To explain even better how holy Icelandic literature was, Hallgrímur says that when he wrote a novel about the Nobel Prize winner, Halldór Laxness, in a book called Höfundur Íslands (The Author of Iceland] it became quite controversial –although it also became Hallgrímur’s first book to win the Icelandic Book Prize. A few years later Hallgrímur wrote a very humorous sci-fi novel called Herra Alheimur (Mr Universe) about God and his creations, where the almighty one isn’t always reflected in a good way. No criticism was aroused.

“In short; Laxness was more holy than God,” Hallgrímur adds and chuckles.

Rough journey

But the road to becoming a professional author was not easy for Hallgrímur. It wasn’t until after the year 2000 that he became an accepted figure, got nominated to prizes and finally got into the Icelandic writers’ subsidy system. He felt like his books didn’t fit into the general vibe when it came to Icelandic fiction. It’s hard to realise why today, but his writing, which is playful, often careless in a humorous way, was therefore provocative towards the traditional atmosphere of literature at the time.
But, like so often when it comes to Iceland, Hallgrímur’s recognition ultimately came from abroad. In 1999 he was nominated for the Nordic Council Prize for his widely known book, “101 Reykjavík”, a hilariously playful fusion of Hamlet and a side plot from a minor French movie, Hallgrímur saw once. The book, a true “nineties slacker novel”, captures the unique atmosphere of Reykjavík’s famous district, 101. And, well, it felt like a call to arms for a new generation. Finally, a voice that young people could relate to, and perhaps what’s more important, a voice that broke something important within the holiness of Icelandic literature. Instead of shouting “Holy Christ!” when he got bored, the main character uttered “Halldór Kiljan!” as in Halldór Kiljan Laxness.

The art of captivating a soul

Hallgrímur has said in other interviews that he is striving to capture the nation’s soul. But today he chuckles when I say that in some ways, the writer is like a scientist, trying to find the essence of the human being, and ask what his findings in that field are. It’s pompous, but the question stands.

“I guess we can say that I’ve gone from hating the Icelandic nation (so provincial and narrow-minded, with no ear for hip-hop, and no eye for real art) to accepting it and loving it. The more I get to know the Icelandic nation, the more I realise how charming and fun it is, and how deeply steeped in literature it is, after all. Icelanders are good writers in general and people always surprise me in how humorous they are. Icelanders are very witty and play a lot with their language. You can often see this on social media. In these last two prize-winning books I have been trying to understand where we came from, and why we are like we are. I am still blown away by the fact that we managed to survive those 1000 years in the turf hut, and still preserve some form of intellectual life.”

The fourteenth generation of worrying

When asked if he himself is perhaps a pioneer when it comes to humour in literature, that again transmits into the national soul, Hallgrímur doesn’t want to take the credit.

“Perhaps I have had some effects, but most of our best writers have always been very funny and have a good sense of humour in their writings, from Ófeigur Sigurðsson and Bragi Ólafsson, to Steinunn Sigurðardóttir and Auður Haralds, to Einar Kárason and Guðbergur Bergsson, Halldór Laxness and Jónas Hallgrímsson, not forgetting the Sagas of course. But it’s true that the atmosphere was very pompous for a time. This has almost completely disappeared. But it’s not entirely a good thing.”

When asked what he means Hallgrímur says: “Well, when I was younger, I advocated the low brow culture heavily, only to see it take over completely with time. Today, young people are complaining that it’s hard to read my texts and the generations after me have almost stopped reading and their only references are from popular culture, TV shows and movies. In their mind, Star Wars is the equivalent of the Icelandic Sagas. I once saw a half Star Wars movie in a small theatre in Rome, and just had to walk out. I mean it was always six minutes between sentences. It fills you with sadness when you realise that those generations haven’t read Laxness or any other fiction for the last 20 years.”

I challenge him on this view: some distinguished scholars in Icelandic say that there is nothing in danger, times are just changing, and the language with it. Besides, how often have the novel or the poem been deemed close to death throughout history?

“That’s right, I guess I’m the fourteenth generation that is talking about this, that the language is dying, that the novel is on a ventilator in the critical care ward. In my new novel, I even joke with the coming of the telephone, that it will destroy the reading of books. Actually, this was the case with every new invention that reached our shores in the last century, people worried about its effects on reading. But now I’m at the age that I rarely watch TV anymore, I rather look for fulfilment in books, perhaps this will also be the evolution with coming generations. Hopefully.”

Modern settings knocking on the door

Well, on that depressing note, what’s next? Hallgrímur obviously needs to finish his Sixty Kilo books, but then what?

“Well, truth to be told, the present is calling to me. It’s such a wild time and there is a contemporary novel knocking at the door, a story that might take place in Reykjavík. So many things have happened since the last time I wrote a contemporary novel. Every day is completely different now, with all its MeToo battles and shouts on social media. But first I have to finish the story of ‘Segulfjörður’ [The world of the Sixty Kilo books].”

He adds that he sometimes feels like he’s losing touch with the modern world. “It’s a complicated reality that people are facing today, and then add TikTok and Snapchat to it, two things I know nothing about. I’m just a bit worried that when I´ll finally be ready to write that Reykjavik novel, I’ll be completely out of touch!” he says.

The risk might be real, but at the same time, Hallgrímur has proven many times to be a writer that doesn’t always follow the traditional path. And there is nothing traditional about modern times today. But what is he working on right now, at the very moment?

“Since I finished recording the audiobook of Sixty Kilos of Knockouts, I have been busy painting. I’m working on a series of self-portraits if you can say so, for they are not traditional portraits of the artist’s face, but rather his manifold character. I break up myself and paint all the elements I can find in my soul, using improvisation and working totally subconsciously, unprepared that is. I’m very excited about this idea. Most of the works are titled “Sixfold Self-portraits”, sometimes even “Sevenfold”. They show six or seven different figures, all parts of myself, my soul as a rock band: One might be a flashy guy fishing for attention, another the introvert reading guy, yet another a girl in a fancy dress, or a grinning gossipmonger, a clownish kite or a frustrated painter gnawing at his teeth. I put all those paintings on Instagram, on my visual artist account hallgrimur.artist, and lately some of them have gone viral in the USA, much to my surprise, like the one with “the Ghost of Laxness”. So maybe it means that I have finally managed to bridge the canyon that opened up for me in New York City back in the eighties!”

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