Inspiration is the key!
I confess. I don’t know much about Iceland. And I keep wondering if it’s me not paying enough attention or if Iceland really is too far away to make its voice heard in the rest of Europe and the world. Specifically, not much is known about Icelandic literature, right? (A part from the Sagas) – So, I did a little research and Halldór Laxness‘s name came up quite a few times. Maybe it has to do with the fact that he has been the only Nobel prize winner that Iceland has ever had.
Ironically, the “Íslendingasögur” (“Sagas of Icelanders“) are probably the most important literary foundations of Europe so it seems rather absurd not to know much about that country’s contemporary literature.
Having lived through the century of Modernism and the two World Wars, I expected much more influences from the literary landscape of the continent. However, Laxness’s earliest writings in particular are solely based on Icelandic history and despite the interest they draw, one always has the feeling that whatever happens in Iceland stays in Iceland. That the impression of Iceland being isolated from the rest of Europe is not just a feeling, but a tangible element that deeply influences any form of artistic endeavour in the land of ice and fire.
In fact, the contemporary factor seems to be missing from his first major publications, as historical novels as “Sjálfstætt fólk” (“Independent People“) and ”Íslandsklukkan” (“Iceland’s Bell“) are thoroughly affected by the aforementioned national sagas. Having lived in Luxembourg and having studied foreign languages, it’s presumable that Laxness focused on Iceland’s history as a set for his novel for a pure love of his country and as an ‘isolation‘ that is more of a state of mind rather than a physical condition.
After travelling to America, he grows fascinated by socialism and looks at reality a different way. But it’s in the wake of the 1945′s nuclear bombs in Japan, that the novel “Atómstöðin” (“The Atom Station“) sees the light of day and becomes his most appreciated work. It tells the story of a young girl who faces the unknown world of politics and urban life in Reykjavík despite the historical element being there, the echoes of the nuclear bombs and the fear of Iceland being affected by the post-war scenario of the 1940s and 1950s are too concrete to be ignored. Iceland’s past, including the sagas, were and are a very important part of Iceland’s culture, so it makes sense that Laxness can never get too distant from it. This is the novel that will earn him a Nobel prize in 1955.
Another Icelandic name worth being mentioned is that of author and poet Þórarinn Eldjárn. His major novel is “Brotahöfuð” (“The Blue Tower“) and once again we’ve got the historical element coming to play. The novel is set in the XVII century, where a prisoner who broke a Danish law is held in the Blue Tower, where he narrates events of his life.
Another author is Guðbergur Bergsson, whose novel “Svanurinn” (“The Swan“) was released in 1991, and tells the story of a young girl who is sent to live in rural Iceland after shoplifting.
As the title of the post suggests, an extensive research would probably be more exhaustive about this topic. Although these first impressions confirm how Iceland (and therefore its literature too) is a place where outer influences hardly ever penetrate the social and cultural traditions on which most, if not all of the island’s novelists tend to speak of. Some would see it as a limit, and it certainly is to some extents. However, it’s undeniable that the geographical and cultural detachment from the rest of the world brings a breath of fresh air in our multi-connected society and represents a key element to what is fascinating about Iceland.