Northern Lights and Literature

Approximately 10% of the population of Iceland will publish a book in their lifetime, according to BBC News, so it’s no surprise that they are responsible for an abundance of great literature. In fact, their literary culture has been thriving for a thousand years: the classic Icelandic sagas of the 12th and 13th centuries are considered some of the greatest examples of this epic art form, and are still enjoyed today. Contemporary Iceland boasts many distinctive realities that have surprising connections to its literature. Like what, you ask?

Consider this: the country has one of the lowest crime rates in the world, and violent crime is basically nonexistent. So what does this have to do with books?  Well, paradoxically, crime fiction is HUGE in Iceland. A new literary prize has even been established there to encourage two things: to get more Icelanders writing crime novels, and to do so in their first language, Icelandic.

One of the best known of these authors is Arnaldur Indridason, known internationally for his crime thrillers. His popular novel, Jar City, published in Iceland in 2000, features Detective Erlendur, who gets deeply involved in cases including an elderly man beaten to death with a glass ashtray and a wealthy runaway bride. These turn out to have surprising links to the history of his country, and help him forge through a difficult relationship with his daughter. Full of secrets, cryptic notes, and compellingly complex characters. Also a 2006 hit movie!

, by Hallgrímur Helgason, is a 2018 novel that tells the story of an elderly woman ruminating through the decades of her life as she waits for her end, armed with a laptop and a hand grenade. The woman, Herra, is a fictionalized character based on the real-life granddaughter of Iceland’s first president. This tangentially presidential novel brings us to another interesting fact about Icelanders: they elected the first female president, Vigdís Finnbogadóttir, way back in 1980. She studied French literature in college, was a divorced single mother when elected, and used “Never Let the Women Down” as her presidential motto.

Iceland may also bring to mind the singer, composer, and actress Bjork, and here too there are literary connections. Befittingly, these authors lean towards the experimental and esoteric in subjects and styles.

The 2011 genre-bending, pseudo-autobiographical novel Land of Love and Ruins, by Oddny Eir, won the EU Prize for Literature and the Icelandic Women’s Prize. Eir is known not only for her writing, but also for the lyrics she has composed for Bjork.

Sjon, author of 2013’s poetic, time-shuffling The Blue Fox, and other highly acclaimed novels, also collaborates with Bjork and writes lyrics for her.

Bjork references could probably go on and on, but we’ll end with the bassist for her first band, The Sugarcubes, Bragi Olafsson. He is the author of The Pets, a darkly comic 2008 novel about a man hiding under the bed, on display (along with the rest) right now in Center for the Reader. Ok, enough already!

Lastly, we would be remiss not to mention the novels of author Halldor Laxness, whose works are experiencing renewed enthusiasm, even though they were out of print in the U.S. for many years. He was a prolific writer of over 60 works in fiction and poetry, and the winner of the 1955 Nobel Prize for Literature. Though his own life was quite extraordinary, he wrote about the lives of ordinary Icelanders and their struggles, often blending elements both magical and prosaic. We recommend his 1934 novel, Independent People, in which he considers the fierce independence of a poor Icelandic farmer and the consequences his stubborn worldview has on his life and family, mixing humor and pathos to great effect.  

Speaking of Icelandic farmers, in late January, Icelanders celebrate a traditional holiday called Bondadagur, which translates to Farmer’s Day (or Husband’s Day), and marks the first day of Thorri (the fourth month of winter), according to the old Icelandic calendar. Men are paid special attention by their significant others on Bondadagur, and are fed traditional foods like boiled sheep’s head and wind-dried fish.

Perhaps it’s the dark days, dazzling northern lights, or the volcanoes next door that spark the creative impulse in Iceland – it’s hard to say, though one thing is certain: all of this Icelandic productivity is good for readers, giving us plenty of great fiction to get us through our own cold winters ahead.  

Find your next book on this list of Icelandic and Iceland-themed fiction here, and come check out more in Center for the Reader.

Bjork image credit : Rlef89Björk performing at Cirque en Chantier 1 editCC BY-SA 2.0

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