Reader of the month
American author Jonathan Franzen enthused about Icelandic literature in a 2007 interview, claiming that Halldór Laxness' Independent People had helped him through a difficult spell in his writing career. Franzen's newest book, Freedom, was published to a torrent of acclaim in late August 2010. It put him on the cover of TIME magazine in same month and is already in its second printing three weeks later.
In 2007, Morgunblaðið reporter Birna Anna Björnsdóttir interviewed Franzen, who then was hard at work at Freedom. An excerpt from the interview – which also finds Franzen conversing knowledgeably on The Sugarcubes – follows.
It's a book about the 20th century
“Iceland, Iceland,” Jonathan Franzen says as we sit down at the dining room table of his New York apartment. “You know, to me, Iceland is Independent People and The Sugarcubes. Their first record got me through the late eighties in the same way Independent People got me through the late nineties. I had given up on pop music, felt like there was nothing going on, and then I read an article somewhere that mentioned The Sugarcubes..."
He stands up, walks to the record cabinet, and pulls out a bright green record; the LP version of Life's Too Good.
Franzen: “It's so great. Bjork is immensely talented, but I still like this better than anything she did afterwards. It's punky. And the other singer, whatever his name is...”
Franzen: "Yes, Einar. His sense of humor is great. And every song, just a total pop killer. Ten great songs. This, plus Independent People, from a small country. You've done your job for the 20th century. And I'm sure there's much more where this came from.”
BAB: So you've read Independent People?
Franzen: “Yes, it was right around the time I was throwing away everything I had on The Corrections and trying to become a different kind of writer. There were two books: One was Independent People and the other one was Kenzaburo Oe's novel, A Personal Matter. You get in a rut and think there's nothing more that's going to excite you, and then you find the thing that really, really excites you. For me at that point, when I was stuck with The Corrections, it was those books in particular.”
BAB: What was it about Independent People that has this effect on you?
Franzen: "The richness of the writing. It's a book about the 20th century. And it doesn't betray that until about two thirds of the way through. Then you realize: wow, this is a book about the 20th century. This is an amazing book about the 20th century – but from such a worm's-eye view. The fact that you can do something that's really about the plight of the individual in modernity – it's about a ton of other things of course – but that you can write something that's so vitally a part of what's happening right now, and do it by telling, closely, the story of a sheep farmer, it was a revelation. You don't have to bring in heads of state and vast international conspiracies. They can all be way off-stage and you can still – in fact all the more – get at what's essential."