Today, November 16, is the ‘Day of Icelandic Language’ (Dagur íslenskrar tungu) and seems a good occasion to make a few reading recommendations, albeit of Icelandic in translation. It’s lovely to be able to read books in their original language, but one good thing about reading Icelandic books in translation is that those available in English (and other languages) have been translated precisely because they are either classics, very good, very popular, or all of the above. This was certainly the case with the few books I’d read before coming to Iceland, the first of which was Independent People by Halldór Laxness.
INDEPENDENT PEOPLE by HALLDÓR LAXNESS (1934-5)
You may already know that the prolific Halldór Laxness won the Nobel Prize for Literature (1955) and he is one of, if not the most revered of Icelandic authors. Independent People follows the life of a sheep farmer, Bjartur, determined to make it on his own no matter the cost to his family’s health or sanity, and I think it is such a good book in so many ways that it has to be the first on my list. The storyline is fascinating, the characters both lovable and infuriating, the writing beautiful. It is laugh-out-loud funny and tear-jerkingly tragic. In particular, I hadn’t read such a good portrayal of the inner thoughts of children since I read Dickens. It is probably on most lists of ‘must reads’ but rightfully so. The copy I read is the Vintage edition of J.A.Thompson’s translation.
GUNNLÖTH’S TALE by SVAVA JAKOBSDÓTTIR (1987)
Svava is one of my favourite Icelandic authors for her short stories, as well as for this novel. Her writing is surreal and compelling. Gunnlöth’s Tale mixes Norse mythology with a modern tale of a woman trying to get to the bottom of a strange incident that sees her daughter accused of stealing a Danish national treasure. A crime the daughter denies, but in a way that makes the mother, and the reader at times, question her sanity. I read this one in Icelandic, but it has just been released in English (translated by Oliver Watts) by Norvik Press in the UK.
ANGELS OF THE UNIVERSE by EINAR MÁR GUDMUNDSSON (1993)
This is a dark novel, describing a man’s hopeless descent into madness. It’s beautifully written, full of humour, and gives a sense of the Icelandic mind-set of the 1950s and ‘60s in particular. A film (by the same title, directed by Fridrik Thor Fridriksson) was made and is also excellent, though, as usual, I’d recommend starting with the book – it’s not a long read and is well worth the extra story elements. The talented and prolific translator Bernard Scudder translated this one (St. Martin’s Press, NY).
JAR CITY by ARNALDUR INDRIDASON (also known as TAINTED BLOOD, 2000)
While this crime novel explores violence, murder, illness and death, it is not a heavy read because it gets you so caught up in the who/what/how/why that you identify more with the detective than any of the victims. It won the Scandinavian crime writers’ Glass Key Award in 2002 and was the basis of a film by Baltasar Kormákur, who acted in the aforementioned film Angels of the Universe. (Translated by Bernard Scudder, Picador).
EGILS SAGA by someone back in the c.1200s
Even if you’ve never considered reading an 800-year-old story, a few of the Icelandic sagas might surprise you (as they did me). While of obvious historic interest, many sagas are also entertaining page turners, though I have to admit I often skip the “son of x, who was daughter of y, who was cousin of z” passages. In Egils saga you have a colourful main character, plenty of fight scenes – both physical and verbal, as Egill is both a poet and a fierce, ugly warrior – and a plot full of twists and turns. I realise I’m using the term ‘novel’ rather loosely, but the writer of this saga is not completely unlike modern novelists in terms of their story-telling techniques, so I didn’t want to leave it out just because of its age. Besides, as you may have noticed from this list, it’s a pretty safe bet to read one of Bernard Scudder’s translations of Icelandic literature (my copy was a Bernard Scudder translation published by Penguin Classics).