Land of fire, ice and stories
For a country with a population roughly equivalent to that of Coventry,
Iceland has a truly amazing literary culture. Ninety percent of adults
Icelanders read at least one book a year just for fun and half
those read eight or more. Last year, nearly 1,700 new titles were released
in the country, half of which were works of fiction.
As you read this, people across Iceland are poring over a telephone book-sized catalog called Bókatíðindi“Book Tidings”, distributed to every household and containing details of every book published in the
country this year. The arrival of Bókatíðindi is indeed the fall of the flag on the Icelandic Christmas, its pages a source of gift ideas. Seven out of 10 Icelanders will gift a book this Christmas, and many are bought in November and December, the period known as Jólabókaflóð, the Christmas Book Deluge.
It’s not just about reading either. Listen out for the Icelandic breeze this winter and you’ll probably hear the light scrape of pen on paper and the snapping of fingers on the keyboard. It’s a nation of writers like no other
– one in 10 Icelanders can expect to publish a book in their lifetime.
“Að ganga með bók í maganumas the local saying goes: everyone gives
birth to a book.
The reasons for Iceland’s remarkable literary culture are diverse. Certainly, these long dark winters helped to establish a singular storytelling tradition, especially in the Icelandic sagas. These epic tales have had a lasting influence on literature far beyond Iceland’s wave-battered shores. JRR Tolkien drew heavily from them for his Lord of the Rings series, WH Auden was inspired to tour the country, and Seamus Heaney cited the transcendental qualities of the sagas, calling them “a testament to the capacity of the mind human not only to endure what fate may send, there is only to renew oneself through experience”.
Basically, these stories were all written, with literacy being a key aspect of Icelandic nationality. The country has a literacy rate of nearly 100% and, according to Sigurður Nordahl, an Icelandic scholar writing in the 1960s, the roots of this bookish national character lie in its unique geology and demographics.
With so little land suitable for growing crops, let alone a short
growing season at such high latitudes, in medieval times and beyond cattle
were a mainstay of Icelandic agriculture. Animal husbandry in numbers far exceeding the food requirements of a small population meant that there were plenty of hides available to make vellum, and from vellum books were made.
If that sounds a bit far-fetched, there are more compelling reasons for
the modern explosion of Icelandic literature. In the early 1930s, Iceland
introduced stifling and burdensome import regulations, imposing
exorbitant prices and even the outright banning of certain items (beer was
banned until 1989). Consumer goods have become prohibitively expensive
expensive, so when it came to gift giving, locals turned to their bookstores and the Jólabókaflóð was born.
Economic necessity was not the only driving force. The Icelandic tradition of storytelling has inspired concrete government support for authors and
publishers through grants and funding, helping to preserve literature as a cornerstone of Icelandic society. Book sales even held up during the disastrous economic crash of 2008 and have been on the rise ever since.
Indeed, in 2011, just three years after the crash, Reykjavík was designated
Unesco City of Literature. Honor is placed alongside Iceland’s greatest
the 1955 Nobel Prize for Literature from the famous writer HalldÓr Laxness as
enduring source of Icelandic pride.
The lack of translation meant that, laxity aside, Icelandic literature still remained largely in the Icelandic language, “a small language that matters both enormously and not at all”, as the poet and novelist put it. Thora Hjörleifsdottir. When translator Bernard Scudder, who produced high-quality English versions of everything from medieval poetry to Arnaldur Indriðason’s detective novels, died in 2007, there was even genuine concern for the continued presence of Icelandic literature. on the world stage.
Fortunately, English-language publishers have continued to bring the best Icelandic authors to the world. The prolific Indriðason alone has sold over 12 million books worldwide, while Sjón, the pseudonym of Sigurjón Birgir Sigurðsson, continues to produce delightfully quirky and ambitious literary fiction.
A former collaborator of Björk when she ran The Sugarcubes, Sjón has written 14 novels, 13 volumes of poetry, three plays, five booklets and four screenplays, including the current Netflix hit. The man from the north, not to mention being nominated for an Academy Award. His fiction in particular is experimental without being pretentious, darkly comic, deeply original and firmly rooted in Iceland. Her 2013 novel moon stonefor example, takes into account the eruption of the Katla volcano in 1918, the Spanish flu pandemic and Iceland’s sovereignty referendum of the same year.
Any of Sjón’s novels will suit your own Jólabókaflóð this Christmas, but to get a sense of the Icelandic winter and its unique atmosphere, Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir’s new novel should definitely be on your list.
Like many Icelandic authors, Ólafsdóttir is a prolific polymath, writing poetry, plays and song lyrics, as well as being one of the country’s leading art historians. The excellent British press Pushkin Press published three of his novels in English and the fourth, animal lifepublished in Iceland in 2020 under the title Dýralifis his best yet.
Described by Sjón as “the best cartographer of the heart”, Ólafsdóttir specializes in strangers, people who are both part of society and separated from it. In Miss Iceland there was Hekla, dreaming of becoming a writer but trapped by the mores of conservative Iceland in the 1960s, when in Hotel Silencethe melancholy Jónas decides to leave the country completely in search of meaning in life.
In Animal Life, Dómhildur is a lone midwife from Reykjavík who has delivered nearly 2,000 babies and volunteers to work Christmas shifts every year because she is single. She lives alone in an apartment bequeathed to her by her great-aunt, a house she hasn’t changed at all since she moved in. An air of tragedy hovers over Dómhildur, as if she is content to live like her great-aunt, reluctant to leave any trace in the world beyond the babies she brings there.
“I get the baby when it’s born, lift it off the ground and introduce it to the world,” she says at the start of the book. “I am the mother of light. I am the most beautiful word in our language – ljósmóðir.”
This word for midwife indeed translates to “mother of light”, preparing us for a wonderfully immersive exploration of the world’s light and dark, metaphorical and physical, in a beautiful meditation on mortality, life and the fragility of the Earth.
If there is to be any redemption for Dómhildur, you sense it will be found in the book manuscripts written by her great-aunt that she discovers in the apartment. Ostensibly stories of Icelandic midwives, the books turn out to be strangely deep philosophical treatises.
Dómhildur reads transcripts of interviews with long-deceased elderly midwives in the rural north of the country, stories of hours spent trudging through darkness and blizzards, “groping their way with their fingertips, without no way of knowing what lurked in the darkness, or where its perimeters lay, all manner of sounds – not just the howling of the wind – inhabited it, sounds they wanted to talk about as little as possible or preferably not at all; darkness harbors stories, darkness harbors imagination and black is black is black”.
Darkness weighs heavily on animal lifeespecially in the foreboding of an impending storm of epic proportions predicted on Christmas Day, but above all it is a love letter to the planet, its people and the hopeful longevity of
both an appreciation of the fragility of life and a sense that darkness is
temporary, that the light always returns.
“They say that humans never recover from being born,” writes his great
aunt, “that the most difficult experience in life is to enter the
world and that the hardest part is getting used to the light.
If, as the manuscript suggests, “darkness harbors stories,
darkness shelters the imagination,” so thank goodness for the Icelandic
winters that inspire fiction as good as this. animal life is a beautiful and
deep book worthy of any Jólabókaflóð.
animal life by Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir, translated by Brian FitzGibbon, is
published by Pushkin Press on December 1, price £9.99
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