From Iceland — Breaking Into The Mainstream

Breaking Into The Mainstream

Published June 7, 2010

Literary Iceland

Photo by
Hordur Sveinsson

Literary Iceland

Outside of the Sagas and Nobel Prize winner Halldór Laxness there is little known about Icelandic literature in the English-language literary world. For example, few of you non-natives will be aware of Gunnar Gunnarson (1889-1975), an Icelander whose oeuvre spans over 40 works of fiction, poetry and non-fiction, who wrote predominately in Danish and was thrice nominated for a Nobel Prize.

Although Iceland’s two major publishers, Forlagið and Bjartur, boast a joint-list of close to 80 contemporary authors, only a smidgeon have made the breakthrough in the UK or US mainstream. And yet there are many superb works among the two publishers catalogues. Notable gems include Bragi Ólafsson’s The Pets, Hallgrímur Helgason’s 101 Reykjavík, Sjón’s The Blue Fox, Vigdís Grímsdóttir’s Z – A Love Story, and Einar Kárason’s Devil’s Island trilogy. All of these authors are brilliant writers in their own right, and all are—or have been—published in English, yet they still aren’t known nearly as widely as they should be.

Surfing the crimewave

I met with Sjón, winner of the 2005 Nordic Literature Prize for his novel The Blue Fox, to debate this very issue. “The first major breakthrough came when Mál og Menning [now part of Forlagið] managed to sell the rights to Arnaldur Indriðason’s crime novels,” he said.

Riding on the wave of Scandinavian crime fiction alongside Henning Mankell and Stieg Larsson, Arnaldur’s international sales figures now exceed 5 million. Great crime fiction this may be, but what about literary fiction? Where are the Ian McEwans, Paul Austers, and Margaret Atwoods of modern Icelandic literature? “It has come to the stage where writing a decent Icelandic crime novel can almost guarantee you a publishing deal in Germany,” says Sjón. “All this exposure is great, but perhaps it has made the case more difficult for the literary novel.”

A sorely missed translator

In 2004, McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern (a high-profile US literary journal) dedicated its 15th issue to contemporary Icelandic literature, featuring an excerpt of Einar Már Gudmundsson’s excellent novel, Angels Of The Universe, translated by Bernard Scudder.

Bernard Scudder, an Englishman, but long-time resident of Reykjavík, translated countless works of Icelandic literature from full-length novels to poetry collections. Sjón notes that Scudder was one of the few translators who was quite comfortable in both fiction and poetry. American writer Jeff Sypeck said in 2007, shortly after Bernard’s death: “Bernard Scudder was one of the rare souls who helped share Icelandic literature with the English-speaking world, and yet his passing was hardly noticed—there was no mention in the Icelandic Review and not a single obituary in any English newspaper.” Months later, in a posthumous blog, the Guardian finally did him a little justice, saying: “[Bernard’s translations] sang in a rhythm mixing the original Icelandic language with a lyrical English style.”

Scudder translated many of Iceland’s award-winning writers into English, but possibly his greatest work was his five-volume compilation of Icelandic skaldic poetry, which was eventually published by Penguin. Scudder translated Guðbergur Bergsson, Einar Már Gudmundsson, Thor Vilhjálmsson and Þórarinn Eldjárn. More recently he had translated the works of best-selling crime authors Arnaldur Indriðason and Yrsa Sigurðardóttir. He is and will be sorely missed.

Something new may be happening

“I don’t necessarily think it’s the translators that are the problem,” Sjón postulates. “Mostly it’s a problem of the rich offering in the English language, the grave difficulty in breaking into an established literary clique. Did you realise that translations only represent around 3% of the work on offer in the English language? Traditionally those Icelandic authors that have made it onto the wider English language circles have had to take the long route: through Denmark, Norway and Sweden, then into Germany, perhaps Holland, Italy or France. English only comes at the very end. What we are really waiting for is for one of us to make the great literary breakthrough into the UK or US.”

In 2007, Ólafur Jóhann Ólafsson’s short story collection Valentines was released to critical acclaim. One of the stories in his collection won him a 2008 O’Henry Prize. Bragi Ólafsson’s novel The Pets was highly praised in the American press, and his newest novel, The Ambassador, is anticipated from Open Letter Books any day now.

“I feel something new is happening,” says Sjón. “My latest novel The Twilight Of Marvels is being released in the UK by Telegram Press, who also released The Blue Fox. Rights to Jón Kalman Stefánsson’s novel Heaven And Hell recently sold to Quecus Press. Gyrðir Eliasson’s short story collection Stone Tree was released by the emerging UK publisher Comma Press. We just have to keep working hard and getting our stuff out there.”

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