Tuesday, April 17, 2018

What's your one Icelandic book?

Last year, Condé Nast Traveler reported that the language learning platform Babbel had asked several ambassadors to the United States to name the one book each would recommend for first-time visitors to read before traveling to their home countries. Twenty-two diplomats responded and, looking over the titles they suggested, my initial reaction was to think: never ask a diplomat for a book recommendation.

That said, the best answer was clearly offered by Iceland’s ambassador to the United States, Geir H. Haarde, who recommended Halldór Laxness’s classic, Independent People. After all, Laxness is Iceland’s only Nobel laureate – so far – and most literary critics consider Independent People his finest work, even though it received mixed reviews from Icelanders when it first appeared. I would personally argue that World Light and even The Fish Can Sing are superior works, but I readily concede that’s a matter of taste.

Recommending Independent People strikes me as a safe choice – one could fairly say it was a perfectly diplomatic recommendation. I can hardly imagine anyone (except me) arguing against it – but I will. Don't get me wrong – I love Independent People and almost everything ever written by Halldór Laxness – but I consider it advanced reading, something for the second- or third-year student of Icelandic literature, not the proper text for a class called “Introduction to Visiting Iceland.”

For Americans on their way to Iceland for the first time, I am inclined to recommend Bill Holm's The Windows of Brimnes, an affectionate portrait by a man who deeply loved both lands. For visitors of Icelandic ancestry, Sally Magnusson's Dreaming of Iceland reveals the country through the eyes of those of us who learned about it from the stories of our parents and grandparents and great-grandparents. If you’re more into short stories, W.D. Valgardson’s “The Man From Snæfellsnes” (in two parts) from What Can’t Be Changed Shouldn’t Be Mourned offers an excellent primer for the diaspora Icelander returning “home.”

Specialists might wish to read something that intersects with their interests. Both naturalists and language majors would be moved to read Charles Fergus’s Summer at Little Lava while anthropologists and sociologists might want to consider Karen Oslund's Iceland Imagined. Historians and criminologists might opt for Dominic Cooper's Men at Axlir or Hannah Kent's Burial Rites, which give an accurate flavour of life in past centuries. For psychologists and humourists alike, Einar Már Guðmundsson's Angels of the Universe might inspire them to wonder about everyone they meet on the streets of Reykjavík. 

Now, I understand the desire to read native Icelandic fiction. Several great books immediately leap to mind: Þorbergur Þórðarson's The Stones Speak, Guðbergur Bergsson's The Swan, Gunnar Gunnarsson's The Good Shepherd, Svava Jakobsdóttir's The Lodger and Other Stories, or (for a bit heavier read) Guðmundur Kamban's The Virgin of Skálholt

And before anybody posts something silly in their social media feed about Icelanders and their habits, they should read any one of Alda Sigmundsdóttir’s “little books” – especially The Little Book of the Hidden People. But any of her books, which are all treasures, can save you from the most common clichés about Iceland.

If one must read Laxness, then The Fish Can Sing might be a better first choice, unless one is a theologian, in which case Under the Glacier might be a better pick ... except for liberation theologians, who should go with The Atom Station. Poets might prefer World Light, however, while political scientists should consider the merits of Iceland's Bell.

Once someone has visited Iceland and come face-to-face with the character and peculiar humour of the Icelandic people, then – and perhaps only then – will they really be ready to read Independent People. A friend of mine who is widely read once told me that it was the most depressing book he had ever encountered, which caught me by surprise, since I find it overflowing with that dry humour that is so characteristic of Icelanders. He had read it as a tragedy, whereas I see it as a droll commentary on the Icelandic character, more comedic than tragic. I realized then that a person needs to know Icelanders firsthand before they are capable of fully appreciating Independent People. It’s not a novel for beginners.

Perhaps editors are no better at recommending books than ambassadors. If it hasn’t occurred to you already, I find it difficult to name the one book everyone should read before visiting Iceland. Iceland’s history is too long, its geography too amazing, its people’s opinions too broad, and its culture too deep for any one book to capture the essence of the land and its people. 

If you had to choose, though, what’s your one book that speaks of Iceland?

This post appears as the editorial in the April 15, 2018, issue of Lögberg-Heimskringla.


Stephen Cowdery said...

Fascinating post.

Independent People might be best English translation of any of Halldór’s works but, as you noted, might not be the book to start with. I generally steer people toward The Fish Can Sing, although someone who enjoys reading historical novels might like Iceland’s Bell. One novel of his that I really enjoy is Salka Valka, but it is hard to find and the English translation (from the Danish?) is pretty clunky.mUnder the Glacier would need a really special reader to have me recommend it..

Some of Bill Holm's other books also touch on Iceland; Eccentric Islands has a great section about Iceland. I found Windows of Brimnes to be a bit melancholy.
I had dinner with Bill once—I wish I had a transcript of that night!

There are a couple of collections of Icelandic short stories that I like, Seven Icelandic Short Stories is good as far as it goes, Icelandic Short Stories is better, they are common on the used market, some libraries might still have them.

The Sjón novels are well-written, but pretty esoteric, Jón Gnarr’s memoir trilogy shows another side of Iceland that probably would be a bad introduction (but pretty interesting!) Hallgrímur Helgason has a couple of good-but-edgy books available in translation, too.

So, in answer to your question: Alda’s books are real gems (disclosure notice: I was a Beta reader for a couple of them) they are as good as any travel essay books I've ever read. I've already recommended her “Tourist” book to several people so that would be my first choice, with The Fish Can Sing as a runner-up.

BTW, I am administrator for the Laxness in Translation website, if you haven’t discovered it please check it out: https://laxnessintranslation.blogspot.com/

Pages and pages of Laxness commentary, reviews, links and related subjects!

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Unknown said...


Unknown said...

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