Deaths, Births and the Weather - a short talk about Literature in Iceland

by Maríanna Clara Lúthersdóttir, literary adviser at the Icelandic Literature Center, lecturer in Comparative Literature at the University of Iceland and actress at the Reykjavik City Theatre.

On being asked to talk about Icelandic literature I must of course begin with the Sagas – that is where everything begins for us, our literature, our history and our identity. Little is known about the authors of the sagas, the one thing we know for certain is that they were Icelanders living in the 13th and 14th centuries. The only known author of the Saga age is Snorri Sturluson – the Icelandic lawyer and poet who wrote Prose Edda, Heimskringla and perhaps The Saga of Egill. The road from Snorri Sturluson – who died in 1242 to Mr Sigurðsson who is happily very much alive may seem long but really the connection is there – and Wastelands (Öræfi) is a story that literally packs everything that has happened in the last 800 years – in literature – (and in the shaping of the Icelandic identity) into what is admittedly a very large trunk. And that trunk is taken on an incredible journey through the Wasteland of Iceland – to be lost and then returned by the glacier – intact – for us to devour.

I would argue that the past takes up a lot of space in Icelandic novels – even the contemporary ones – even the ones set today. The fact that we have not said our good byes to the past is evident in the popularity of Einar Kárason's four book saga about the family of Snorri Sturluson. It is based on Sturlunga – a collection of sagas or episodes by various authors about the most powerful people in Iceland in the 12th and 13th century, so famous (or infamous) that a time in Iceland's history bears their name – Sturlungaöld or the age of Sturlungar. The book also happens to be our main source of the history of the time and was written by people who actually experienced the internal power struggle that ended in Iceland's loss of sovereignty and submission to Norway in 1262–64. The Age of Sturlungar was probably the most violent time in Iceland's history – a civil war. Sturlunga is known for it´s incredible detail in many aspects – in fact the descriptions of wounds in some parts of the book (Íslendinga saga) are so detailed that they may be based on eyewitness accounts used in compensation claims at Alþingi (the General assembly). In Kárason´s four books the narrative jumps between different people, men and women, young and old, rulers and servants – thereby giving many layers to the story, in many ways new meaning. The books were very well received by critics and readers alike. The second book, Fury (Ofsi), received the Icelandic Literary Prize and was also nominated for the Nordic Council's Literature Prize. The last and latest of Kárasons books on these events, Age of Terror (Skálmöld), was published in 2014 – but it also happens to be the first – in chronological order – a sort of a prequel to the others – telling how the violence began. Fast paced, entertaining yet tragic – it explains how pride, aggression, power and oppression make war. Of course wars make great heroes and great heroes make great stories – like the Sagas - brutal, hard-boiled and sarcastic and Kárason writes in the same vain, giving the reader just enough time and space to read between the lines and wonder what these powerful men could have accomplished for themselves and for Iceland, had their strength been used for something other than the endless quest for power and pride.

There are of course those who argue that this was a glorious and exciting time in Iceland´s history. And like most great fiction the Sagas are open to interpretation – a text can be a critical description of the brutal patriarchy of the Middle Ages to one reader and a glorification of violence to the next. It is always open to discussion – even in a young adult novel like last years The Local Joke, by Bryndís Björgvinsdóttir, where a frustrated teacher surprises a student by attacking the celebrated black humor of the Sagas – calling it hurtful and nasty and even saying bad jokes were partly to blame for all the violence. Like other nations our relationship with our past is both complicated and self-contradictory. Only a short while ago Icelanders believed wholeheartedly in the sagas – they believed that they were literally true, a written testimony of the past. And since every Icelander can trace his or her family history almost back to the Settlement, the heroes of the sagas were seen as family – and spoken about knowingly and affectionately. This created a strange and interesting bond with the past – a bond that is disappearing nowadays – but is still present in Wastelands (Öræfi) – where a man obsessed with the past tries to navigate his way (literally) through modern times, with written, but unreliable accounts of the past to guide him. He has journeyed to Iceland, to the wasteland, formerly the most isolated spot in the country – where time stood still and where years ago his mother met a horrible death. He does not travel lightly, has packed an immense trunk – filled it with the essential equipment for travels in the dangerous highland – books. He has come to make sense of the past – his own personal past but also Iceland´s past, it´s written history and it's nature, which cannot really be written about – however much we try.

This is a reoccurring theme in many novels of the past few years. In Steinunn Sigurðardóttir´s Women of Quality (Gæðakonur) a middle-aged geologist hikes the mountains looking for signs of the next volcanic outburst but every step she takes is also a step through Iceland's literary history, every mountain has a story. This strong link with the past is in fact very understandable when you consider Iceland's contribution to world literature – we have the Sagas – and then some six or seven hundred years later – we had Halldór Kiljan Laxness. We base our literary identity on these two poles and we are still in a way writing around them. Of course something was written in the period between them, but nothing that made a mark outside Iceland. And the only constant was really the annual chronological register – the Annáll. A written account of the deaths and births, the earthquakes, the volcanic outbursts and of course the weather. An undying source of fascination for the Icelanders.

But the lost years in between continue to interest us and in modern times we are increasingly trying to rediscover them, amongst other things through creative nonfiction, both historical novels and fictional biographies. The author Kristín Steinsdóttir has been prominent in this field. She has been particularly interested in the stories that are not documented in official papers – the stories of women, of the sick and the poor. In 2012 Forlagið published The Lost Girl (Bjarna- Dísa) – based on the folk tale of Dísa, a terrible ghost who haunted people in the eastern part of Iceland in the 18th century. Steinsdóttir tells a different story – about a poor but passionate woman who led a difficult life and who met a terrible death in the harsh winter. A story of an irrepressible force of life, silenced by fear and superstition. In 2014 came Land of Hope (Vonarlandið) – set in the last decades of the 19th century it tells the story of a group of women coming to Reykjavík in hope of work and independence. It is a fascinating time, the town of Reykjavík slowly emerging, as the Danish king visits, bringing with him a new constitution. But really it is the small everyday things that Steinsdóttir excels at describing. The happiness a fresh cup of coffee brings, the extravaganza of a duvet made of real eiderdown, the constantly cold and wet feet of everyone in the time before wellingtons.  The young women try their hand at various jobs, carrying fish and coal and water but mainly they end up becoming washerwomen – carrying large sacks of clothing all the way up to the hot springs - the laugar – where they spend their day washing before carrying everything (often wet and twice as heavy) back home. The washerwomen were a fixture in Reykjavík's cityscape, trotting back and forth to the springs. This path to the springs or “laugar” later became Laugavegur – now Reykjavík's main street. But little or nothing was ever written about their experiences until Steinsdóttir´s book came to be. Although the material at hand is not very uplifting – Steinsdóttir's writing is – and first and foremost this is a story of survival and comradeship amongst women. Much of Steinsdóttir's work can also be seen in a feminist light – rewriting history from a new point of view – a view missing in most history books, chronicles and records.

This missing view is also present in the historical novel Moon Stone (Mánasteinn) by Sjón, a winner of the Icelandic Literary Prize in 2013. Set only a few decades after Land of Hope it tells the story of the young boy Moon Stone or Máni Steinn living in Reykjavík in the extraordinary year of 1918. It was one of the coldest winters documented in Icelandic history, and the Icelandic volcano Katla erupted in one of her biggest outbursts since settlement began, with the ashes covering almost half the country. A week after the eruption began the Spanish plague reached the shores of Iceland and a few weeks later two thirds of the population of Reykjavík had been struck down with the powerful influenza.

So what with the cold, the eruption and the plague – the winter of 1918 was not one of Iceland's best – still, it was the same winter Iceland finally became a free and independent state – under the royal crown of Denmark – making it an important year in Iceland's history. The young boy Máni is affected in various and sometimes unexpected ways by all of these incidents – but he himself is quite as remarkable as the remarkable times he is living in. A homosexual and a film fanatic at a time when both homosexuality and film were considered suspect and the former actually a crime, he lives his life on the edge of society. We see Reykjavík and the terrible winter of 1918 through his eyes, magnified by his isolation, the cold, the sickness and last but not least by the medium of film, so new, so influential, so beguiling that at times this amazing novel reads like a German expressionistic silent film.

Though neither Land of Hope nor Moon Stone are based on actual people – they are impeccably researched in period and rich in atmosphere and help us fill in the blanks of our past – they are more than our beloved annual chronological register, the “Annáll”.

Icelanders are, like most small communities, fond of gossip – but they are also very interested in etymology. This may be the reason biographies and autobiographies have always been incredibly popular in Iceland – and it was long considered normal for almost anyone over fifty to be writing – or thinking about writing their bio. The biography's popularity has in fact been on the decline in the last decade or so – but another form of literature has perhaps taken its place – the fictional biography or autofiction - a subcategory of creative nonfiction.

In a way it´s very existence calls into question the concepts of truth and memory and how vague they can be and by association how straight and reliable the conventional biography can hope to be. By definition a story is always told from someone´s point of view. Like the historical novels the fictional biography takes a step away from the Annálar and into poetry. It has the added bonus of wetting Icelanders appetite for gossip and trying to figure out who is who and who did what. Iceland´s most famous author of biographical fiction is probably Þórbergur Þórðarson, who´s works were by large, accounts of himself and his life, loved and read by Icelanders of all ages. But recently women have been especially prolific when it comes to the creative nonfiction. In the last few years many of Iceland's foremost female authors have published a fictional autobiography of sorts, to name a few - Auður Jónsdóttir with Secretary to the Spirits, Vigdís Grímsdóttir with The woman with the Yellow bag, Þórunn Erlu-Valdimarsdóttir with her soon to be trilogy – the amazing books on her grandmother, mother and herself and Oddný Eir Ævarsdóttir who has been especially prolific – her novels Splitting the Hump (from 2004), Home to My Heart (2009) and Plan of Ruins (from 2011) are all biographical. Plan of Ruins especially was very warmly received, nominated for the Icelandic Literary Prize in 2011, winning the Women´s Literature award and recently the European Union Prize for Literature. It tells of a woman writer travelling the country and parts of the world trying to find roots – a home, an idyllic place to live, to write, be alone, to be at peace, to socialize, raise a family, in short to find the balance between the self and the world. Needless to say this place is not easy to find but the search for it is tragic, heartfelt and funny.

About two weeks ago Ævarsdóttir published Blátt blóð or Blue Blood – a poetic novella that in a sometimes brutally honest way tells the story of her longing for a child. Like most of her writing it is deeply personal and therefore delicate but here the subject itself is also extremely private. Infertility or difficulties in conceiving are a reality for a growing number of people in today's society. But for some reason it is seldom talked about – it´s taboo. The book does not uncover any unknown truths, nor does it hold all the answers – instead it is just deeply humane and full of poetry. Like in her other works her goal is not to relate to us how unique and amazing her life has been – quite the opposite - as she herself said in an interview:

„I don't consider myself to have won any victories, and I don't think of my life, or the lives of those around me, as exceptionally interesting. I believe that all lives are interesting, and that getting through the day without major catastrophe is a triumph all in itself. I believe that all lives can yield interesting stories. It isn't necessarily so important to remember school grades or calendar dates correctly, but much rather to try, in some way, to mediate the truth of each life. I think that my challenge in life has primarily to do with fiction and truth.”

In all of Ævarsdóttir's novels she speaks candidly about her family, her work, her friends and lovers and spares no one – least of all her self. The material is rooted in reality - but in these texts – as in much of the creative nonfiction prose in general, the poetry of language transcends the facts and the reality behind them and finds a new life. The text becomes much more than the sum of it´s facts.

And maybe this is what the Sagas were really all about. They told of battles, of births and deaths but there is art and fiction in every line. They were not as Icelanders first thought as reliable as the Annálar – but perhaps they were “based on a true story”. Perhaps this fascination with creative nonfiction really goes back eight hundred years!

But some things have changed - The sagas are known for their short, strict and less than flamboyant style. Less is more: „the big swords are now in fashion“ says a man as he falls dead in battle. The less said the better, nature is hard – so the people are hard, this is no country for old men. But maybe Icelanders are finally getting softer, learning to talk about things. After a thousand years of “bearing our grief in silence” and not “bringing our sorrows to marketplace” as the old Icelandic sayings go we are now all in therapy and need to talk about it. Icelanders have opened up and perhaps it is a sign of the times that psychiatrists feature so heavily in many of the most prominent novels of last year. At least three of them are posed as a confession of sorts to a doctor – Wastelands being one of them – although in all fairness the doctor there is not a psychiatrist – but a veterinarian. Wastelands - where one man´s journey ends – where the glacier swallows the people and the books – and spits out the books intact – perhaps that is the perfect metaphor for literature in Iceland.

Maríanna Clara Lúthersdóttir