Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir: There's No Such Thing As An Innocent Text

Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir: There’s No Such Thing As An Innocent Text

Published June 7, 2019

Hannah Jane Cohen
Photo by
Rut Sigurðardóttir and Art Bicnick

“When I decided to become a writer,” says Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir, “I started relatively late, like many women writers. I asked myself this very simple question: ‘Do I have something to say?’”

Despite her early reservations, Auður did have something to say, and she has since written words that have resonated with readers worldwide. Though she began her literary career in her late thirties, Auður has undisputedly made her mark on Icelandic literature, writing bestseller after bestseller, and finding fame from Iceland to France to China; she even snatched the Nordic Council Literary Prize last year for ‘Hotel Silence.’ “I made the decision to give a voice to those that didn’t have a voice in my novels,” she explains, nibbling on a homemade croissant in her dining room. “You know, there’s no such thing as an innocent text.”

Auður often speaks like this, just like the voice her novels—dissecting her own words, and then organising the overarching concepts into simple statements. Oftentimes, she’ll ask herself questions and then answer them. The late-blooming artist has the uncanny ability to format and unravel the small moments of human existence into pithy words and statements that make you stop and think about your own life. Auður is a novelist, yes, but she’s more than that: she’s a scientist.

Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir

Discovering worldly literature

Auður’s youth, though, told a different story. Growing up in Reykjavík, Auður was interested in reading, but didn’t necessarily identify as a voracious reader. In the 1970s, the breadth of her intake was limited by the availability of Icelandic-translated literature. In high school, they focused on the Sagas and Halldór Laxness, rather than the greats of the international community.

In fact, she didn’t start reading foreign writers until she went to study abroad at age 21. “I went to study in Italy, and Italian was really the first foreign language I knew at the level where I could read difficult literature,” she explains. “It was like a whole new world opening to me. Being born on a remote island, and speaking a marginal language that few people know, learning a foreign language was the door to worldly literature.”

“Two languages die each month. With each language we are losing a culture and a way of thinking. There’s a different way of seeing the world located in every language.”

She began to read Pavese and Elsa Morante, among others, and when she moved to Paris years later, entered the world of Marguerite Duras and Hervé Guibert. It was during this time that Auður’s lifetime fascination with the limits of language was born. “I was getting to know writers that were so completely different than anything that had been translated to Icelandic,” she says.

Guibert’s books, in particular, taught her to be uncompromising with her words. “He was just so unlike anything I had read before,” she explains. “It was so poetic. It was so raw. It was so daring. I was a stranger in Paris speaking with Russian-accented French; and somewhere, as a writer, I was born, many years before I started to write.”

Duras’ works, on the other hand, allowed her to experience viscerally what she had missed in Icelandic translations. “She’s impossible to translate because it’s all breathing; it’s all between the lines, between the words. When you see it in any other language, it’s just not, well, you know,” she pauses, trying to find the right words to describe not being able to find the right words. If there’s anything that articulates this conundrum, Auður’s thoughts have found it.

It’s interesting that Auður counts Duras and Guibert as the spark that lit up her passion for literature. Duras, most famous for ‘The Lover’ and the script for ‘Hiroshima, Mon Amour,’ is known for her peculiar take on prose. She wrote autobiographically, albeit in the third person; unpretentious and bold, she often explored the feminine experience in her works. “A man and a woman, say what you like, they’re different,” she once famously wrote.

Auður’s works also show that same autobiographical quality, albeit less obviously than Duras’. While Duras wrote books that were explicitly about her own life, Auður’s works take a less direct inspiration from her reality—but if you look deeper, her own experiences are clearly there. Moreover, Auður was distinctly inspired by Duras’ ability to distill truths down into their most direct and purest form.

Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir

Born poets and geniuses

Auður´ newest novel, ‘Ungfrú Ísland (‘Miss Iceland’), which will be released later this year in English, shows this style most clearly. The story is set in 1963, and charts the travails of a female writer who can’t find her place in a male-dominated literary society, where women are not allowed—where they, unfortunately, belong in the home.

“In ‘Miss Iceland,’ a character says this,” she says, exhaling, preparing to quote a difficult passage from her novel. “Male writers are born poets and they become geniuses by the age of 13, but women writers are born with a body and they become pregnant.” She lets the thought sink in, a hint of sadness flashing across her face. “If you look at autobiographies of people like Nabokov or Sartre, you can see that they are born poets and just have to explain why they became geniuses. But women writers often start writing around the age of puberty and the body is central to their stories and it’s a problematic body. It can get pregnant.”

The writer within the novel is clearly talented, a distinct parallel to the geniuses of Icelandic literature like Laxness. “For my hero, everyone is more interested in her body rather than what she wants to say. She’s supposed to be a very original writer with a different voice, and so they can’t put her in a box,” Auður explains. “That’s why she isn’t being published—because she isn’t writing like male writers.”

The book’s message, Auður emphasises, is one of freedom. “It’s a book about liberty, the need for liberty and the search for beauty,” she says. It then dives into what beauty is, specifically, within Iceland. “You know, the meaning of beauty in a society that organises beauty contests,” she says with a small smile.

The others of society

Unlike Auður herself, the heroine in her novel is well aware of literature outside Iceland. She has a sailor friend, who is a homosexual—an outsider, like her—who brings her works like “The Second Sex” by Simone de Beauvior and novels by Sylvia Plath. For authenticity, Auður made sure such books were available in English or Danish during the year the novel was set.

“Male writers are born poets and they become geniuses by the age of 13, but women writers are born with a body and they become pregnant.”

“In 1963, Sylvia Plath committed suicide, Kennedy was shot, and it’s also the year of the Surtsey eruption near Vestmannaeyjar,” she says. “I looked at this very isolated society in the light of what’s going on abroad.”

She made the eruption of Surtsey a fundamental moment to illustrate the plight of women at that time. “When you get the news of the eruption, it’s the women doing the washing up who are watching the cauliflower in the sky, and they phone a friend who is washing up in another house, and that’s how the news spreads,” she explains. “Some say it’s like a dystopia. It’s so black and white. It’s a male-dominated society, every aspect of it. Just men smoking their cigars and making all the decisions in politics, no women and all, and very few women in the world of literature either.”

Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir

Taking a chance on the unknown

The protagonist’s plight as an ignored author isn’t unlike what Auður faced at the beginning of her career. At first, Icelandic publishers were wary of her. “In a way, it was a male dominated society in Icelandic literature until the 21st century,” she explains. “I had to fight for my novels. With my second novel, ‘Butterflies in November,’ no one wanted to publish it. The male publishers all played football together, and had synchronised their taste in literature—so if one said ‘no’ to a writer, they all did.”

After many rejections, Auður finally found a publisher. “I found a woman publisher—Hildur Hermóðsdóttir from Salka Publishing,” she grins, clearly having great affection for the first person who took a chance on her. “She was my saviour.”

Auður then sent one chapter of the novel to a small publishing house in France. “I was quite happy with my 200 readers in Iceland,” she explains, but she still decided to try out the international market. “It was too expensive to translate it all, but my publisher lent me the money. At the same time, ‘The Greenhouse’ was nominated for the Nordic Council Prize and it was translated into Danish and got very good critical reviews. In France, it then became a bestseller and won the prize for the best foreign novel of the year, selling 300,000 copies.” She pauses. “But Icelanders didn’t know anything about me.” Eventually though, with time, Icelanders came around, and Auður became an integral part of the canon of Icelandic literature.

Auður is a female writer who often writes male protagonists, much to her audience’s confusion. “I remember when I was published in France, my name ends with -ur, which is usually a sign of a male name,” she laughs. “They were probably expecting someone else.”

Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir

The pitfalls of language

Along with a focus on the others of society, Duras and Guibert instigated a fascination with translation within Auður that would prove fundamental to her career. “I’ve always been interested in what’s practical and impractical about minority languages,” says Auður. “There’s a different way of seeing the world in each language.”

When talking about the unforgiving grammar of the Icelandic language, things get complicated. “Take a demonstrative pronoun like ‘enginn,’ which means ‘nothing,’” she says. “You have 24 different ways of saying what’s nothing, depending on the nature of the void. Enginn, ekkert, engar, and so on. My translators often say I use so many different ways of speaking of the same thing,” she laughs.

She then begins to talk about her favourite Saga character, Melkorka of the “Laxdæla Saga.” Melkorka was stolen by the viking Höskuldr, and in protest, she stopped speaking. At one point, when she thought no one was listening, Melkorka spoke to her own son in her native Celtic language, which later causes her own detriment. Auður was so inspired by Melkorka’s rebellion that she named her eldest daughter after the character. “I thought that not speaking was so courageous,” Auður explains.

Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir

Melkorka, the silent

Melkorka was also, no doubt, a fundamental inspiration for one of Auður’s most beloved works—the tragicomedy ‘Butterflies In November,’ which has consistently found a place on Grapevine’s must-read lists. The main character is a translator, but is forced to take on the sole responsibility for a deaf-mute son of a friend, who speaks only in sign language. “There’s a silent person and one that speaks many languages,” she explains. “But the translator has difficulty expressing herself verbally. It’s a very physical novel.”

“I think that’s actually my method, to speak about the small things of everyday life and make them stand for something bigger—for something true.”

Auður’s most widely translated novel, ‘The Greenhouse,’ tells a similar story. It’s about an Icelandic man, who, after a series of pitfalls, journeys to a monastery. There, he encounters a monk who speaks 34 languages. The novel is full of evocative prose that concentrates on the banal exchanges of life, and in that quotidian matter, taps into the larger aspects of being human.

Auður attributes these contrasts to the fundamental tenet of her novels. “A novel is always built by oppositions,” she explains. “If you want to write a novel about life, you speak about death. If you want to write about women, as I did in ‘Hotel Silence,’ you make the main character a man. In ‘Butterflies In November,’ I wanted to confront this character who speaks too many languages with someone who didn’t speak, to somehow show that there was this world beyond languages.”

Something bigger, something true

At this point, Auður needs a break from discussing her novels. Taking a bite of her croissant, she smiles. “There’s a particular smell of croissants in the oven. It reminds me of my mother and my grandmother. I feel safe,” she says. “I feel like I have cleaned up the house the day before Christmas, even if it’s a mess.” Once again, Auður has managed to dissect her thoughts beautifully, perfectly articulating the beauty of childhood through the simple act of eating a croissant.

It’s this focus on small actions that has become characteristic of Auður’s prose. “I think that’s actually my method,” she states simply. “To speak about the small things of everyday life and make them stand for something bigger—for something true. I’ve always admired writers that can teach intellectual topics and make them simple at the same time. The more specific, the more global. It’s like the ecosystem—what is local becomes global.”

The risk in this ethos, Auður explains, is in how a reader might respond. “Someone might just find it naive, or even see the Icelandic humanistic way of seeing the world naive,” she says. This is particularly true of ‘Hotel Silence,’ the plot of which revolves around a suicidal Icelandic man flying to an unnamed country that is in the process of recovering from a civil war. “The idea of ‘Hotel Silence’, or sending this Icelandic peace into the world—it’s not to obviously save the world, just to do some repairing,” says Auður.

The handyman, she explains, represents the archetype of Icelandic masculinity—the typical male Icelander that can fix or repair everything but himself. “He’s lost, and no one can do everything to fix or repair a broken world, but everyone can do something. It’s also my thought that if you know what’s going on and you don’t do anything about it, you are the responsible one,” she says. “It’s something I never preach, though, it’s something that the reader finds or does not find.”

Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir

A translation of a translation

The idea of translating her own novels, or dealing with the translations of them, has become somewhat of a running joke for the author. “‘The Greenhouse’ has been sold and translated into 27 languages. ‘Hotel Silence’ a bit less, but almost as many,” says Auður. “Korean, Chinese, Turkish, Hebrew, Arabic, and more. In that case, it is translated from English or French, which means I don’t even know what kind of book they are reading.” She laughs. “That’s probably the reason why they like them so much—they are completely different.”

Self-deprecation aside, Auður tries not to trouble herself with imagining how her novels have evolved across languages. “Sometimes it’s better not to know,” she says. “I tell myself ‘what you don’t know doesn’t exist,’ so I won’t be able to read these translations of translations—but it’s sweet.”

The death of words

Auður just released ‘Miss Iceland’ in 2018, but she already has many new projects on her mind. “I always have three books in my head,” she grins. “There’s a part of my brain where a novel matures.”

The importance of language—and particularly those of minority languages—is perhaps what’s closest to Auður’s heart, possibly even more so than her novels, and so once again, before she finishes, she manages to distill down her thoughts into a few meaningful sentences. “You know, there are around 3,500 languages in the world, but 40% will die within 10 years,” she says, with sadness crossing her face. “Two languages die each month. With each language we are losing a culture and a way of thinking. There’s a different way of seeing the world located in every language.”

Check out a previous interview with Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir here. You can buy her book Miss Iceland now in Grapevine shop here.

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