From Fjölnir to Medúsa to Nýhil to Meðgönguljóð...
Some accounts claim that modern Icelandic literature began in 1835, when four young students started their own literary journal in Copenhagen. Their influences and impulses came from Europe; an amalgam of reigning Enlightenment ideals of progress and a desire to disseminate bright new ideas and romantic aesthetics that they had picked up in their exile. The name of their journal, Fjölnir, came from the writings of the medieval historian Snorri Sturluson. Fjölnir was a mythical king of the Swedes, who sadly drowned in a large vessel of mead, which he fell into while dead drunk.
From then on, we can tell the same story over and over again: young and aspiring poets form a group, and publish journals or even books on their own until they are gradually accepted into the mainstream—that is, if they avoid falling into large vessels of mead or other beverages.
Fifty years later, four Icelandic students again form a literary journal, this time aiming to import naturalism and new political trends from Denmark. Again, the name was borrowed from Snorri. This time, it was Verðandi, one of three witches that spin the threads of destiny in Old Norse-Icelandic mythology.
Another fifty years later, The Association of Revolutionary Writers appeared on the scene; abandoning the custom of choosing medieval names for their journal, they named it, rather appropriately, The Red Pens. Modernism and the post-war avant-garde also had their journal, the influential Birtíngur (‘Candide’) published in the 1950s and 60s.
Many, if not most of the literary groups which have been formed since the first edition of Fjölnir rolled off the printing press in Copenhagen have, in one way or another, identified with the founding fathers, the Fjölnismenn (“The Men of Fjölnir”). This was also the case in 1976 when Listaskáldin vondu (“The vile poets”) appeared on the scene. The name is a parody of a nickname given to most revered of the Fjölnismen, Jónas Hallgrímsson, “Listaskáldið góða” (“The fine poet”). The scene they first appeared on, very literally, was at the University Cinema, where 1,300 paying guests were crammed in, some of them sitting in folded chairs or in the aisles. Never before, or since, have so many people attended a poetry reading in Iceland. The reading was the culmination of the group’s success, but they went on to host other readings around the country. The group and other writers around it has been dubbed “the funny generation,” as their writing showed a humour and irony that was sometimes absent from both contemporary modernists and more overtly political writers.
Members of “the funny generation” are still active in Icelandic literature, and since the late ‘70s, grassroots groups have regularly emerged on the scene: young poets, novelists and artists that have later found their way into mainstream Icelandic literature and beyond. The fairly recent suburb of Breiðholt, Icelanders’ first attempt at creating a concrete jungle, gave birth to the most influential of these: the surrealist group Medúsa, founded by six adolescents in 1979. In the following years, the group studied and practiced surrealism in various forms inspired by its ideological founders, and in close cooperation with similar groups that were still active in other parts of Europe. Medúsa organised happenings, held poetry readings at punk rock concerts, published volumes of poetry, and in the true spirit of the avant-garde, wrote manifestos describing the group and its goals. According to the group, itself, Medúsa was made from “7 kilos flour, 23 grams surrealism, 13 grams dada, a teaspoon of punk, a kilometre of Yasmin tea and 666 litres magic.”
The most prominent figure of Medúsa was Sjón, who published his first volume of poetry at the age of 16 and has since become an internationally acclaimed novelist. He received the Nordic Council Literary Prize in 2005, and has already been translated into 25 languages.
Members of Medúsa later joined other groups combining literature, visual arts and music, most notably Smekkleysa (“Bad Taste Ltd.”), founded in 1986 by the members of Medúsa and their friends, many of whom went on to found The Sugarcubes. Among them were writers like Friðrik Erlingsson and Bragi Ólafsson (the Sugarcubes’ bass player), who, like so many Icelandic authors, started out as a poet but has since become one of Icelandic literature’s finest and most unconventional novelists.
The spectre of Nýhil
The 1980s and 90s saw other groups of poets and artists; some were short-lived and loosely affiliated, others have had a lasting impact. Besti vinur ljóðsins (“The poem’s best friend”) hosted a series of poetry readings from 1986-91, bringing together poets and writers from Medúsa, Listaskáldin vondu and various younger poets.
The most influential group of young poets and intellectuals in recent years has been Nýhil, founded in 2004. The name of the group is a pun on nihil(ism), “ný” meaning new in Icelandic. The wordplay, the mixture of Icelandic and foreign languages and the connotations of the neologism capture Nýhil’s spirit. The group was very active until 2010, publishing poetry and nonfiction, hosting international poetry festivals and readings. Nýhil’s aesthetics were avant-garde and experimental, its politics left wing and radical. The group’s international character and individual members’ networking with foreign artists are among its strongest characteristics.
And once again, literary history repeats itself: from the grassroots and experimental environment of Nýhil writers have slowly but surely emerged into the mainstream, broadening it at the same time. Eiríkur Örn Norðdahl, Steinar Bragi and Kristín Eiríksdóttir now form the vanguard of Icelandic literature, even making noise abroad.
Nýhil was boisterous and loud. In comparison, the latest groups of poets to emerge may seem rather tame. The lo-fi output of Meðgönguljóð (“Partus Poetry”) is a recent example, as are the more elaborate books of Tunglbækur (“Moonbooks”) a small publishing house operated by artists and writers which only publishes books on a full moon. But, if things may seem peaceful at the moment we can find hope and comfort in the words of Sjón: “There is this tendency in European art that once things seem to have reached some sort of an equilibrium, some bullies come along and hurl themselves on the seesaw; sending the old into the air from where it may never return.”
Jón Yngvi Jóhannsson is an adjunct lecturer at the University of Iceland where he teaches modern Icelandic literature, Scandinavian literature and literary theory. He has written on Icelandic literary history and Danish-Icelandic literary history. His latest book is a biography on Gunnar Gunnarsson, a major Danish-Icelandic author.