5 Icelandic Authors that Aren‘t Laxness

A man reading in a book shop corner.

It’s often said that the Icelandic nation is a nation of books. We read, write and publish a tremendous amount and have a rich history of literature going all the way back to the Icelandic Sagas of the 13th and 14th centuries. For those wanting to dig into the Icelandic literary tradition, the author you’ll be most likely to encounter in your search for books is probably Halldór Laxness. Having won the Nobel Prize, he is undoubtedly the most famous Icelandic author. He’s also well worth reading, but in case you already have, or if you just fancy something else, there are numerous other outstanding Icelandic authors you can choose from. Here are our top five recommendations.

Sigríður Hagalín Björnsdóttir (b. 1974)

Sigríður is a well-known news anchor who had her first book published in 2016. Her debut novel, Blackout Island, was a smash hit among the Icelandic people. With a continuum of unusual plots, excellent writing and compelling character relationships, she‘s kept dazzling the nation. Her first and third novels have been translated into English. Both are outstanding representatives of modern Icelandic literature, but the third, The Fires, is perhaps the most remarkable Icelandic novel of the 21. century. It revolves around a series of volcanic eruptions on the Reykjanes Peninsula and was published in the fall of 2020, only a few months before the first in a series of still ongoing eruptions on the peninsula

Gunnar Gunnarsson (b. 1889, d. 1975)

A trailblazer in the context of Icelandic literature, Gunnar was the first Icelander to become a professional writer. Although he lived in Denmark for the first 30 years of his writing career and wrote his books in Danish, all of them are set in Iceland. His books were immensely popular, not only in Iceland and Denmark but across Europe, and in 1955, he was nominated for the Nobel Prize in literature. Over the course of his career, Gunnar published nearly 50 novels, short stories, poetry books and plays. Many of them, for example Advent, The Black Cliffs and Guest the One-Eyed, are considered among Icelandic classics and are still widely read. 

Jón Kalman Stefánsson (b. 1963)

It can be said without a doubt that Jón Kalman is one of the big names in modern Icelandic literature. Writing in a non-traditional form, his poetic and enchanting novels gained international attention following the Trilogy About the Boy and have been translated into numerous languages. He has been nominated for well-known prizes, such as the Man Booker and the Nordic Council, and has twice been considered a likely recipient of the Nobel. In 2005, he won the Icelandic Prize for literature for his novel Summer Light and Then Comes the Night, which was adapted into a movie in 2021. 

Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir (b. 1958)

An art historian turned writer in 1998, Auður has published eight novels, five plays and a poetry book, several of which have gotten her Icelandic and international nominations and prizes. The Greenhouse, Miss Iceland, and Hotel Silence were particularly well received. Auður‘s books, which have been translated into more than 25 languages, are often centred around communication, miscommunication and intriguing questions about humanity. Her writing is unostentatious and beautiful, a true testament to simplicity and quietude.

Steinunn Sigurðardóttir (b. 1950)

Steinunn grabbed the attention of the Icelandic nation at age 19 when her first poetry book, Sífellur, was published. She has since written more than 20 novels, novellas and poetry books and has become one of Iceland‘s most beloved writers. She‘s not afraid to give space to flawed and unlikeable characters, whom she commonly uses to explore the various aspects of love, be it unrequited, difficult, dramatic, obsessive, complicated, or something in between. Amongst her most critically acclaimed books are The Thief of Time, Place of the Heart and Yoyo

Author Visits Promote Literary Engagement Among Students

A new program launched by the Icelandic Literature Center will send prominent authors to visit upper secondary schools to meet students and discuss their books with them. Per a press release issued by the Center, these author visits are intended to encourage students to read as well as increase their understanding of what a writer actually does.

Menntaskólinn við Hamrahlíð, Menntaskólinn við Sund, Tækniskólinn, and Kvennaskólinn í Reykjavík are the four upper secondary schools that will be taking part in the initiative this spring. Each school chose one author to visit their campus, namely: Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir, Kristín Helga Gunnarsdóttir, Guðrún Eva Mínervudóttir, and Sigríður Hagalín. Each author will hold a reading during their visit and then take part in a discussion with students. In preparation, students will read at least one pre-selected book by their guest so as to be able to ask questions and offer their own reflections on the text.

The initiative is a collaboration between the Icelandic Literature Center and both the Icelandic Writer’s Union and the Society of Icelandic Principals and is supported by a grant from the Ministry of Education, Science, and Culture.

If all goes well, four new schools will be chosen to take part in the author visit program for the coming fall semester and potentially even more schools in semesters after that.

 

Icelandic Authors Featured in Gothenburg Book Fair

Gothenburg Book Fair

Four Icelandic authors will represent their country’s literature at the Göteborg (Gothenburg) Book Fair in Sweden this week. Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir, Kristín Ómarsdóttir, Ragnar Jónsson, and Sigrún Eldjárn will appear in a diverse program at the fair, which runs from September 26-29.

On Saturday, Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir, recipient of the Nordic Literature Prize, talks with the writers Dörte Hansen from Germany and Elin Olofsson from Sweden about when tradition meets modernity and when the progressive meets the conservative in regard to their latest books. Kristín Ómarsdóttir, who is nominated for the Nordic Literature Prize for her book of poetry Spiders in Shop Windows (Kóngulær í sýningargluggum), will read her poetry in the fair’s programme Rum för poesi. Auður Ava and Kristín will also participate in an event hosted by Swedish translator John Swedenmark discussing the imagination and the limitless lyricism of language, where the authors will read from their works.

Ragnar Jónsson will represent Iceland in the fair’s crime fiction programme Crimetime, where he will discuss his work with Lotta Olsson. Ragnar is very popular with Swedish readers, and his book Dimma is on the list of Book of the Year in Sweden and was on the Akademibokhandeln’s bestseller list for three weeks last April. His work Drungi has also been published in Swedish.

Programme for Icelandic Families

Icelander Sigrún Eldjárn will appear in the children’s programme Barnsalongen on Sunday.  She is nominated for the Nordic Children’s and Young Adult Literature Prize. Sigrún will discuss her books about Sigurfljóð, which she both writes and illustrates. She will also appear at an event for Icelanders living in Gothenburg on Sunday.

Icelandic Books in the Booth

The fair will also feature a booth selling Icelandic literature in Swedish translation and other languages. The complete programme of the 2019 Göteborg Book Fair can be found on their website.

Found in Translation

Books by Yrsa Sigurðardóttir on a shelf.

Are you familiar with Erlendur the detective, Bjartur the sheep farmer, or the lawyer turned amateur sleuth Þóra? If so, you must have read a translation of an Icelandic novel. (If not, you should.) Icelandic literature is spreading around the globe at a rapid pace, while book sales and rates of readership are down in […]

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The Greenhouse

Part road novel, part bildungsroman, Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir’s The Greenhouse is a meditative story of love, death, fatherhood, and creating meaning in life even when it seems to be entirely dictated by chance. Published in English translation in 2011, it is the first of ten Icelandic novels that online retailer Amazon committed to publishing in the next year via its literature-in-translation press AmazonCrossing.

The Greenhouse opens on Lobbi, a young man to whom things seem to just happen—things which he is rarely equipped to handle. The last year has been particularly unsettling in this respect: first, his mother, with whom he was very close, died in a terrible car accident. Exactly a year later—after being unexpectedly conceived in “one quarter of a night, not even”—his first daughter was born. Feeling superfluous in the life of his child and misunderstood by his aging father, Lobbi is only really comfortable when he is gardening. And so, he decides to leave Iceland for an isolated monastery in a foreign country, hoping to restore a once-legendary garden to its former splendor and add to it a rare species of rose that he cultivated in his mother’s greenhouse.

Once Lobbi begins his journey, little goes to plan. He falls ill almost immediately after he departs and later gets lost and has to detour through a labyrinthian forest. He’s barely settled into his gardening routine at the monastery before the mother of his child arrives with his daughter, asking him to “bear [his] part of the responsibility” and look after the girl while she works on her graduate thesis. But instead of collapsing in this new role, Lobbi rises to the demands of fatherhood, and finds himself embracing such simple tasks as roasting potatoes and picking out hair ribbons.

Auður Ava is not only a fiction author, but also a practicing art historian. So it seems only natural that her prose is particularly visual in its descriptions, such as when Lobbi first arrives at his new village and sees the monastery on the edge of a cliff, “…severed in two by a horizontal stripe of yellow mist that makes it look like it’s hovering over its earthly foundations.” There is a tangible richness to each setting in the novel. Lobbi imagines the lava field where his mother died, visualizing a landscape of “russet heather, a blood red sky, violet red foliage on some small trees nearby, golden moss.” The cozy warmth of her greenhouse, a sofa among the tomato plants, contrasts with the forest Lobbi drives through “which seems endless and spans the entire spectrum of green.”

This evocative prose, fluidly translated by Brian FitzGibbon, provides a nice counterpoint to the simple but perceptive landscape of Lobbi’s continuous internal monologue. In the end, his own transformation mirrors that of his beloved roses, echoing his mother’s gardening philosophy: “it just needs a little bit of care and, most of all, time.”

The Greenhouse by Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir, translated into English by Brian FitzGibbon is available on Amazon.

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Larissa Kyzer