Literature has always been integral to Icelandic culture, though literary awards are a relatively new feature of the country’s heritage. In 1995, Halldór Laxness received the Nobel Prize for Literature, and remains the only Icelander to date to receive the honour.
The newest literary award on the block is named for Laxness, and was founded to support authors—via a 15,000 euro prize—who work to renew the narrative tradition. Shortly after publishing ‘Machines Like Me’ in April, British author Ian McEwan was announced as the first recipient of the Halldór Laxness International Literary Prize.
The decathlete of literature
Fast forward to September: literary enthusiasts crowded into the University of Iceland’s Lögberg building and listened as Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir referred to Ian McEwan as “the decathlete of literature. He does not focus on just one sport, but competes in all of them.”
The crowd—including President Guðni Th. Jóhannesson and former president Vigdís Finnbogadóttir—stood and cheered as she presented the inaugural award to Ian.
His translator, Árni Óskarsson, addressed the crowd. “The warm reception of McEwan’s work can be attributed to the fact that he considers the pleasure of reading of the utmost importance,” he said. “Ian sees it as his obligation not to be boring.”
The author has invaded what he calls “the dead hand of modernism,” and said that it is a major goal of his to incite a naked hunger in readers. Ian does this by weaving a sense of dread or unease into his work, and by setting his works in significant times in history.
All writers start as readers
Ian approached the podium and called the award an enormous honour. “All writers start as readers,” he said before diving into his own background.
He did not come from a literary household. Both his parents left school at the age of 14. They had no notion of children’s literature, so when Ian visited the library at the age of 8, he had no compass. Still, he had a desire to read, so he simply “chomped through books alphabetically.”
He spoke extensively on the interpenetration of social realism with a world of imagination, fantasy, and a profound sense of the supernatural that permeated not only Laxness’ work, but the work of many literary geniuses including Tolstoy and Kafka.
Profound reading experiences
Ian mentioned two profound reading experiences which coloured his experience as both a reader and a writer. At the age of 8, McEwan had the first of these reading experiences when he read a book called ‘The Gauntlet,’ about a boy named Peter who finds a rusty gauntlet that transports him to 14th century England. He was so enamoured by this story, he realised he didn’t want to read any other book, so he reread ‘The Gauntlet.’ To this day, he feels that rereading is of the utmost importance.
His second profound reading experience took place when he was in boarding school. He sat in an ornate reading room, all by himself, and read. One of the books he read was the famous British novel, ‘The Go-Between.’ One of the major plot points of this novel is a massive heat wave. On the hottest day of the year, satirical magazine Punch acknowledged the heat wave with an illustration of the clown mopping sweat from his forehead with a handkerchief. When Ian read this, he put the book down and checked the archive in the library to see if this was a real magazine. He discovered that the heat wave was real, and so was the magazine. In that moment, he saw the interpenetration of the real with the imagined, and it haunted him ever since.
Ian McEwan’s forthcoming book, ‘The Cockroach,’ makes intertextual reference to Kafka’s ‘Metamorphosis.’ In Ian’s novel, a cockroach wakes up to realize he is no longer an insect, but the prime minister of the United Kingdom. “I can’t wait to have a discussion with the current prime minister of the UK about what he thinks of it,” Katrín remarked to the laughing crowd. It released on September 27th.
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