Iceland: literary landscape

For so small a country, Iceland is an impressive player on the global literary stage. According to Iceland Pulse, there were 757 books published on the island in 2011, among them 55 new works of fiction by Icelandic authors. Not bad for a nation with a population of less than 320,000.

Many of these authors don’t make it into English, however there has been a recent drive to translate some of the island’s most celebrated and successful writers, with crime authors such as Arnaldur Indriðason doing well overseas. Gyrðir Elíasson caught my eye because he has scooped several of the big national literary prizes. I liked the sound of his work and wanted to take a closer look.

Often centring around people taking a break from normal life to read, write, think, paint or simply be, Elíasson’s very short stories trace the unseen connections that link us to the world around us and reveal how tiny shifts in perspective can change the course of a life. There is the bird painter from Boston who encounters a gull and decides to give up his career, the music college vice principal who ducks out of a meeting to run away to the States, and the holidaymaker who discovers the disintegration of his marriage courtesy of an automated phone service message in a language he does not understand.

Many of the stories are about people struggling with frustrations that they cannot fully articulate. There are writers who go away to write only to spend their days procrastinating and young chess players locked in tournaments they know they cannot win. Perhaps most memorable of all is ‘The Piano’, a story in which a boy is driven to a nighttime orgy of vandalism when his ambitious yet emotionally distant parents force him to learn an instrument he hates.

Other books stalk through the pages of this collection. Whether the pieces focus on two translators living side by side as they render their own versions of different books by John Steinbeck, as in ‘The House of Two Stories’, or on the obsessive bibliophile walled in from normal life by his dependency on books in ‘Book after Book’, reading and writing often form a large part of the action of these tales. Literature also informs Elíasson’s descriptions, with several of his depictions of landscape drawing on associations from the world of books: ‘Saksun […] would have been the perfect setting if Keats, Shelley and Byron had ever needed a retirement home,’ he writes in ‘Watershed’.

Though many of the stories feature characters grappling with the everyday problems of relationships, careers and meeting the expectations of others, they are by no means realist in style. Elíasson delights in delving into the uncanny, with many of the pieces set in eerie guesthouses and lonely holiday homes that owe more than a little to the Gothic tradition. Some, like ‘The Car Wreck’ and ‘The Silver Nose’, describe ghastly, otherworldly encounters, while others, such as ‘The Dream Glasses’, contain moments of profound beauty, all of which draw on the seductive pull of the mysterious and unexplained.

When it works, this creates extraordinarily powerful and wistful pieces. However, there are several stories that dissolve into nothingness, leaving a flat aftertaste. In addition, the large number of tales in the collection means that reading them back-to-back shows up a few tricks being played several times, necessarily blunting their effect second or third time round.

As a whole, though, this was a beautiful, eerie and evocative collection. The stories, like pieces of driftwood on a remote beach, seem to be fragments of other times and places, worn smooth by the action of Elíasson’s imagination. An intriguing and memorable work.

Stone Tree (Steintre) by Gyrðir Elíasson, translated from the Icelandic by Victoria Cribb (Comma Press, 2008)

2 responses

  1. Coincidentally, I’m hoping to get a review copy of another Icelandic collection from Comma Press soon (and I’m hoping to get to this one as well when I clear my backlog!). I loved the two Sjón books I read recently, and part of that was Victoria Cribb’s excellent translations.

    In short, Icelandic lit is definitely up there on my list of books to investigate 🙂

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