Einar Már Gudmundson is driving me back to 101 Reykjavík from his suburban home in his soccer mom-style SUV. He turns off the Icelandic news and puts on a full-band, late 70s Dylan album.
“Bob Dylan is an outsider, too. Or maybe he is just an insider everywhere. He is from…” and then it starts again, “HMMMMMMMM,” louder and louder for about two minutes. “Hmmmmmm,” as we drive past Breiðholt. And I finally interrupt and say “A small town outside Duluth, Minnesota.” And he says “Hibbing, Minnesota. You see, small town. Everybody is always traveling to find the center of things, and so often it is the place people are leaving.”
“It is true of the suburbs, too. Look, we are in my suburb now. This is where I grew up, not far from Bubbi (the singer/ songwriter known as Iceland’s Bob Dylan). And Fridrik Þór (the director of Angels of the Universe and two other films Einar Már wrote) was just a building over. And then out on the next suburb, the suburb of the next generation, that’s where Björk is from.”
It is a polite rebuttal to the notion, hinted at by Einar Már’s friend Hallgrímur Helgason and latched onto by the Sirkus hipster crowd, that all life in Iceland takes place in 101 Reykjavik. The art that inspires and connects with Einar Már is the work of writers in especially unhip places, in urban sprawl where, he says, “the children have to create their own culture.”
Rambling Danes in libraries
It is only a fifteen minute ride to the National Library from his house, but in that time Einar Már never stops talking. He tells me that he spent five years at the Danish National Library in Copenhagen which was so comfortable and full of outsiders “like a bus station” which he visited when he went back to Denmark no longer as lonely and no longer as broke as he once had been, where he found the same rambling Dane working on his dissertation on Joyce, where he found the same American who claimed a new best friend every month and a new course of study every year, it is nice to know there are people like that at every national library… and at every bus station. (The mention of bus stations is especially eerie given the conclusion of Angels of the Universe based on Einar Már’s brother and his last few months at the Hlemmur bus terminal before committing suicide.)
I interviewed Einar Már for two hours in his studio: a remodeled garage covered floor-to-ceiling with heavily creased paperbacks in English, Danish, German and Icelandic, broken only by a wall of picture windows which face the house and on which his family knocks and waves frequently, a large black and white photo that seems to show Einar Már with long hair, rebelling, but that may well be his deceased brother Páll. He granted the interview despite the fact that he is in the middle of writing a novel and is otherwise making few public appearances.
Small town writers
From the minute I arrive, Einar Már starts grabbing books and tossing them into my hand. As he talks, he keeps as much of his thought process as transparent as possible– humming when he is searching for an extremely specific point, standing when he is explaining a broader idea that may be of mutual interest, crawling on the floor to see book spines, overturning masses of seemingly organized stacks of books to show me photos of small towns in Minnesota and small town writers.
The table in front of me has a tower of books to explain his point, with Ljóð, Einar Már’s hefty collection of works since 1980 on bottom. He digs through another stack and gives me some translations of his poetry in a small American literary magazine, Visions. The poetry is strong, but the publication is not well-known. I ask him why such a small press, to which he shrugs. He hadn’t even submitted. Hallgrímur Helgason had helped him get it published.
“The saga writers had to wait.”
While his work is translated into 20 languages, Mál og Menning is the only press publishing any of his work in English.This seems a significant slight. He shrugs it off: “Good literature will always get through. The Saga writers had to wait 500 years.” Then he indicates his frustration with English-language presses: “In America they are impatient. They have a one-book rule. They don’t work with authors. It’s the capitalization of the publishing industry.” He grimaces at capitalization – he means this as a strong insult.
With that, Einar Már returns to his book stacks and starts discussing obscure writers with me: Richard Brautigan, Sinclair Lewis, Aksel Andemose, William Heinesen – all these writers demonstrate his point that great writing can come out of the smallest places. But, I want to say, these writers are only known by other writers, they are barely in print.
As Einar Már discusses Faroese writing in detail, flipping through Heinesen’s Lost Musicians, I see any talk of sales or fame would be entirely off-topic. Einar Már would simply like his books to be read quietly and appreciated. It isn’t the attitude that gets books flying off the shelves at Barnes and Noble, but it’s an attitude has allowed for great writing.
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