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

Jón Kalman Stefánsson Nominated for the “New Nobel”

Icelandic novelist Jón Kalman Stefánsson is among the nominees for the so-called “New Nobel,” RÚVreports. Officially dubbed the New Academy Prize in Literature, the prize was conceived and founded in the wake of a sexual abuse scandal that rocked the Swedish Academy and led to the 2018 Novel Prize in Literature being cancelled all together. The New Academy has nominated 46 authors for its inaugural prize, 12 of whom are Swedish and 20 of whom are from English-speaking nations: the US (12 nominees), the UK (5 nominees), Canada (2 nominees), and Nigeria (1 nominee).

The New Academy Prize is similar to the Nobel Prize in many ways. Per the New York Times, it was conceived of by Swedish journalist Alexandra Pascalidou, who enlisted the help of 100 prominent cultural figures in Sweden—including authors, actors, and musicians—to found the prize, which will be announced on October 14, 2018. The winner “will receive one million kronor, or around $112,000. There will also be a banquet in the winner’s honor, just as there would be for a Nobel laureate.”

There are several things that distinguish the New Academy Prize from the Nobel, however. For one, the 46 nominees are perhaps more accessible to the average reader than the typical Nobel nominees: Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling is among the nominees, as is perennial Japanese favorite Haruki Murakami, illusive Italian best-seller Elena Ferrante, and American poet, singer, and author Patti Smith. Additionally, the winner will be selected, in part, based on an open vote. Members of the reading public all over the world can vote on their favorite authors. Per the prize website, “[y]our votes will single out three authors for the final judging by the expert jury. A fourth author will enter the final entirely based on the nominations from the librarians.”

Jón Kalman Stefánsson is the Booker and Nordic Council Prize-nominated author of more than ten novels and poetry collections. His novel Sumarljós og svo kemur nóttin (Summer Light and Then Comes the Night) received the 2005 Icelandic Literary Prize. A number of his works are available in English, including the trilogy Heaven and HellThe Sorrow of Angels, and The Heart of Man, as well as Fish Have No Feet, all of which were translated by Philip Roughton.

Author voting for the New Academy Prize will remain open until August 14. Vote here.

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 […]

This content is only visible under subscription. Subscribe here or log in.

Continue reading

A Heavenly Slice of History: Heaven and Hell by Jón Kalman Stefánsson

In Heaven and Hell (2007), Jón Kalman Stefánsson takes his readers back to a time in the lives of the residents of a fishing village in the West Fjords in the early 20th century with his poetic and effortless descriptions.

You’re provided with a bird’s eye perspective of the village and delicately, like a snowflake, you glide down from the heavens, pass from one person to the next and catch a glimpse of their reality—such a harsh reality that one garment separates life from death, heaven from hell.

The book is dedicated to two sisters who have passed away and, although they aren’t mentioned by name in the story, it seems that the story is theirs.

In the prologue, two anonymous voices reach out to the readers from beyond the grave to narrate the story of people who are long gone but shouldn’t be forgotten.

And so we descend into the story of heaven and hell to the moment in time where the boy, the story’s main character who remains nameless throughout, and his good friend Bárdur are treading through snow, headed away from the village to a cluster of fishermen’s huts to work.

They’re young and bright. Both have discovered the joy of reading and would probably have made excellent students. However, life is unfair and for boys who are poor, fishing is the only way to make a living, even if they’re sensitive, get seasick and aren’t cut out to be fishermen.

At the fishermen’s huts you learn about the reality of the life there in such a vivid manner that it feels as if you’re sitting right there. You can feel the cold, hear the waves crash against the rocks on the beach, smell the salt in the air and the body odor of the dirty men huddled together to stay warm.

It’s dark and you’re tired, but still you have to get up and prepare for an entire day of toiling on the boat. Fish is life and without it you die. You feel anxiety rise inside you. Will it be safe to row today? Will the sea stay calm? Will the wind remain still?

Fishing is a dangerous way to make a living. The rough and merciless seas regularly claim the lives of innocent boys and hardy men alike. The weather is unpredictable and the waves can easily flip a feeble rowboat and drown the men onboard, most of whom don’t even know how to swim.

There are so many ways to die. Life is like a delicate straw blowing in the wind. If you don’t stay focused, if you forget to bring your watertight jacket onboard because your mind was elsewhere, thinking about words from a book that is the only thing that makes life bearable, you might just freeze to death.

Then you’re suddenly taken back to the village and get to know the residents a little better. Suddenly the boy stops being the center of attention and you feel a little betrayed because you want to know what happens to him.

Instead, you drift from one person to the next, learn about their friends and families. They reveal their deepest fears and longings to you unintentionally because, in the village, people don’t discuss their emotions with anyone.

But you are invisible, like a ghost, while observing the life of the village. It all feels so real that it is almost as though you are trespassing.

And because you’re invisible, you can’t influence the life there and you can’t control the narrative. It’s just a short space in time that you get to watch and then the story just ends—without a real ending.

Stefánsson’s Heaven and Hell is a heavenly slice of history. It’s an enriching read about a harsh reality that leaves you with thoughts of friendship, hostility, poverty, prosperity, life, death, heaven and hell, and it helps you understand Iceland a little bit better.

Heaven and Hell was originally published as Himnaríki og helvíti by Bjartur in 2007. It is currently being translated into English. The publishing rights to the English translation are held by MacLehose Press and it will be published in the fall of 2010.

Eygló Svala Arnarsdóttir