So I’m suffering the head cold of a decade, but I should be back tomorrow with normal posts, book reviews, etc., etc. In the meantime, I thought I’d leave you with a post about Stjarnan, my favorite Icelandic soccer club.
To be honest, although I love me some football (especially Barcelona, especially the Champions League), I don’t know shit about Úrvalsdeild, Iceland’s top soccer division. But last year, Deadspin posted a couple videos of Stjarnan’s goal celebrations, which, as you’ll see, are nothing short of Edda Epic.
Despite playing on a middle school field in front of 50 people, this is actually from the Úrvalsdeild, Iceland’s premier division. The players of Stjarnan have made it their mission to celebrate every goal with a pre-planned routine.
There’s the now-famous “Going Fishing.”
But don’t forget “And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead.” [aka “Rambo”]
The traditional Icelandic Waltw. [aka “Dancing and Marching”]
And of course, a uniquely North Sea version of Walking It Out.
And as a special bonus, here’s the most recent one that I’ve come across—“The Human Toilet,” which further illustrates just what the NFL is missing amid all its “no planned celebration” rules.
So after highlighting a number of great Icelandic performers, it may seem a bit odd to end the week with a Eurovision song, but, well, it actually seems sort of fitting at the same time.
If you’re not familiar with Eurovision, you must read this. (And then get ready for next year’s competition.)
Sjonni’s Friends was Iceland’s 2011 entry, which somehow managed to make it all the way to the semi-finals. It’s not that this is a bad song, it’s just, well, very Eurovision-y. But what’s most notable about this song is the story behind it.
This song was written by Sigurjon ‘Sjonni’ Brink, who died before the Icelandic national final for the Eurovision Contest. Rather than pack up and give up, his friends decided to perform Sjonni’s song anyway, eventually becoming Iceland’s official Eurovision representative. Which, in the end, is a very nice tribute for their friend.
And this being Eurovision and all, I have to include a bit of odd, so here’s the official band description from the Eurovision website:
This is a group of six individuals who have one thing in common. Palmi is the old and wise one, Hreimur is the innocent and sincere one, Matthias provides the comic relief, Benedikt is the good-looking, cheerful one, Vignir is the silent, mysterious type and Gunnar is the bad boy. Together they are Sjonni‘s Friends.
We’re bringing Lytton Smith’s translation of Children in Reindeer Woods next April, which is a ways off, I know, but it still seems like the perfect time to introduce this strange, haunting novel.
This novel takes place at a “temporary home for children” called Children in Reindeer Woods, where eleven-year-old Billie lives. The book opens with an intense clash of styles, as a very pastoral description is uprooted by the sudden arrival of a group of paratroopers who kill everyone—except for Billie. Rafael, one of the soldiers, then turns on his compatriots, kills them, and decides to get out of the war and become a farmer with Billie.
What war is this? It’s very unclear. Initially it might seem like WWII (which doesn’t make a great deal of sense), but people use cell phones, a nun passes through on her way to buy a computer, etc. This sort of murkiness adds to the fable-like quality of the novel.
Kristin Ómarsdóttir is the author of several books of poetry, short stories, novels, and plays. She received Gríman, the Icelandic playwright award, in 2005 fo the play Tell Me Everything.
Here’s an excerpt from Children in Reindeer Woods, her first book to be published in English translation.
vii. Rafael shouldered the weapon and took the crockery into the kitchen. Then he aimed the gun at the girl. “You can play for an hour before you go to bed. You’ll play here.”
With the toe of his army boot, he gestured to an empty spot on the living room floor. Billie got up from the table, pulled down the hem of her dress, and curtsied.
“Are you tall for your age?” he asked.
Tall like my father was, she was about to say, but stopped her motormouth dead.
“You said you were . . . eleven years old.” Billie nodded her head. “Then you’re tall for your age. Do you still play or not?”
“How does the daughter of the house spend her time?”
“I’m not the daughter of the house.”
“How does a bright young thing spend her time?”
“With Barbie dolls,” replied Billie, bowing because she felt she was replying to a king and kings like being replied to with bows at the end of sentences. “I am not a precocious child. I am late-developing, almost retarded, though I am not dyslexic. I
believe in God, the Father, the creator of heaven and the earth.”
Billie bowed. Rafael smiled without effort, and just as effortlessly the smile vanished from his face. His ordinary facial expression was in keeping with his physical strength and his deliberate movements.
“Where are the Barbie dolls?” he asked inquisitively. She pointed to the red plastic box on the bookshelf. He rummaged around in the box. “You know what? It was a pleasure to dine with you.”
That’s how a fully-grown man talks to a fully-grown woman, not to a girl, little or big. She stretched her back. Perhaps she’d gotten big. “The pleasure was all mine,” she replied, and curtsied.
“Play,” he commanded, setting the red box on the floor. Billie sat down. She had heard offhand comments that eleven-year-old girls were too big for Barbie. Perhaps she was retarded. Her father and mother had said, they were always saying, the two of them together and each of them separately:
Billie dear, don’t constrain your inner child.
Be a child as long as you want, even if you become the object of ridicule.
What does object of ridicule mean, Mom and Dad, what does object of ridicule mean?
When you get laughed at.
Why will I get laughed at, why will I get laughed at, Mom and Dad?
We don’t know you will get laughed at, but if, if, you get laughed at, you have our word that you can be the way you want to be, so long as it doesn’t hurt others. Other people’s laughter is not a death sentence. You can’t let others change your habits.
If she asked them whether she was retarded, they laughed like baboons. And so she took note of this, she would learn the truth for herself later. When she got bigger she would go to an institution, perhaps, and get the confirmation she currently lacked. The phone rang. Rafael, who was standing at the front door holding the cat, breathing in the evening breeze and the warm country air, turned in a half-circle and stared at the telephone. It was like he hadn’t seen a phone before. Like it made a difference to stare at it. You have to answer it. Then he looked at Billie. Back at the phone. He let the cat fall from his arms and went towards the machine, which stood on a pillar in the hall. It might be Soffia. She usually rang about that time, after dinner. The phone’s ringer fell silent. The army boots continued past the girl, and the man sat down in the rocking chair.
“Does the phone ring much?” he asked, massaging his forehead.
“It sometimes rings in the morning. Sometimes in the evening. Not often.”
“Someone or other.”
“Do you know any names?
She shrugged her shoulders; she couldn’t possibly say, my Mom. Perhaps the man would be sorry to hear her mom wasn’t dead. She dressed the Barbie dolls in new clothes, she combed their hair. The phone rang again. She acted as though the machine didn’t exist. The phone went dead. Rafael’s eyes closed.
The cat slunk slowly across the f loor, nuzzled at the rocking chair and the army boots, then jumped up onto the soldier’s lap. With his eyes still closed, he made room for the animal and put a hand on its fur. The other hand grasped the weapon, which rested on his chest like a bow and violin on a sleeping fiddle player’s chest. While he slept, because he snored, the playing girl took charge, and the dolls began to speak, competing to speak as though they had eaten lots of eggs, talking in soft voices:
viii. Ragga: I’ve gotten into even more trouble because I’m pregnant and going to have a child. I’ll leave it on the doorstep of some rich folk. I wouldn’t let anyone suffer my poverty and hardship.
Sara: I’ll take the child, dear Ragga; I cannot have children because in truth I have metalbelly.
Ragga: What is metalbelly, Sara babe?
Sara: Ugh, let’s not talk about it at this elegant party. Thank you for coming, my darling angel.
Ragga: Are you going to see Gugga? Teddy cut off her hair and sold it.
Sara: Let’s go and steal something from Teddy. Quick.
Ragga: Good idea! I likewise am dead tired of this party. It’s much more entertaining to go and play outside.
Sara: I had to host this party, my darling cinnamon bun, so no one would think that I’m retarded. Sara whispers to Ragga: I am, you see, retarded.
Ragga: Me too. Don’t tell anyone. Come and steal something from Teddy, Guggalugga’s husband.
They arrive at bald Guggalugga’s home.
Ragga: Guggalugga, you’re quite the sight! You’re bald.
A bald Barbie doll is added to the group.
Gugga: Don’t say that, Ragga, please, be nice to me.
Ragga: It’s best to speak the truth my angel, my raisin bun, I hope you’re not ill, dear Gugga. Where is that guy? Where’s that jerk of a guy?
The new Barbie doll, a boy-doll, who has been added to the crowd: I’m good. I’m good. As the saying goes: everything’s hay in hard times. I’m good. God bless us, God bless us all. I’ve sinned and now I repent. All the worst things humankind has
done had gathered inside me. I repented. God bless us, my child. Everything’s hay—
Sara and Ragga beat Teddy to pieces.
Gugga: Girls, be nice to Teddy. It’s not like you think, my hair will grow back.
Ragga: It won’t grow back, you donkey, you’re a doll.
They stop beating Teddy, who cries like an old crone.
Gugga: Girls, listen, please. Teddy’s momma ordered him to steal my hair because she said she would disinherit him if he didn’t and she gave him a lot of money for the hair. We were starving. Our stomachs howled. We would have died of hunger.
Didn’t you notice that we were beginning to lose weight?
Ragga: Is it better to be rich and bald?
Ragga punches Teddy.
Gugga: You’re one to speak, Ragga, pregnant and about to sell some rich people your child.
Ragga: I’m not going to sell it. I’m giving it away. That’s quite different. My offspring won’t be bought and sold like your hair.
Sara: I shall give Gugga my hair. I’m giving Guggalugga my hair.
“Wait a moment, I need to fetch the scissors,” said Billie, standing up.
At a press conference earlier this week, AmazonCrossing and Fabulous Iceland announced that Amazon would be publishing ten Icelandic titles in the near future, starting with The Greenhouse (which we featured here).
Here’s the official announcement:
“The Icelandic series from AmazonCrossing will ensure that the guest country will still be present on the international book market once the Book Fair has come and gone,” said Halldór Guðmundsson, director of Fabulous Iceland, at a press conference given to announce that AmazonCrossing, a new imprint of Amazon Publishing dedicated to foreign works in translation, had resolved to publish ten Icelandic titles in the near future.
The series will kick off with The Greenhouse by Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir and Hallgrímur Helgason’s The Hitman’s Guide to Iceland. Both authors appeared at the conference. Also slated for publication are works by Viktor Arnar Ingólfsson, Árni Þórarinsson, Vilborg Davíðsdóttir and Steinunn Sigurðardóttir, with more to be announced in early 2012.
Translated books comprise less than three percent of titles published in the United States and United Kingdom. “This figure is too small, by a long shot,” Jon Fine of AmazonCrossing said, adding that the imprint’s aim was to improve the ratio of foreign translation on the English-speaking market. “There are wonderful stories in Iceland and around the world that are not accessible to English speakers. We want to translate these extraordinary international literary works and authors and introduce them to new audiences worldwide.”
One last legitimate Icelandic song . . . Here’s the Last.fm write-up of Worm Is Green:
Worm Is Green started as the bedroom electronica project of Arni Asgeirsson, who soon enlisted longtime friends from his hometown of Akranes, Iceland (population 5,500) to flesh out his melodic soundscapes. Solidifying into a group, Worm Is Green began recording the songs that would become Automagic, released overseas in 2004 on Iceland’s Thule Musik (home of múm and The Funerals) and now available in the U.S. on Arena Rock.
Critically praised throughout Europe, Automagic is a wondrous album that pairs Asgeirsson’s intricate sound constructions with a potent rhythm section and the haunting, otherworldly vocals of Gudridur Ringsted. Her ethereal singing peppers a record that flits between ambient dream pop and slightly menacing electro-organic music with beats.
Ringsted shines brightest on a risky cover of Joy Division’s beloved “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” a dramatically different take on a classic that was recorded as a request from Thule Musik’s owner. “He wanted to hear a chillout version with female vocals,” Asgeirsson notes. “The result was very surprising, and everybody liked it, so we decided to put it alongside the other tracks we’d previously recorded for Automagic.”
And here’s their cover of the Joy Division classic:
Here’s one last guest post from the wonderful Amanda De Marco. I want to publicly thank her for all of her contributions this week. I would send her a bottle of Brennivin as a token of my appreciation, but that shit is DEATH. For more of Amanda’s writings, be sure to check out Readux: Reading in Berlin. She’s also a frequent contributor to Publishing Perspectives. For now, here’s her article about the interesting bookstore and publisher, Útúrdur.
When I ask artists Dísa Björnsdóttir and Ingvar Högni Ragnarsson about running Útúrdúr,1 a Reykjavik bookstore and publisher, Dísa tells me they “started by answering a need for a more diverse book community.” It’s a theme they’ll repeat again and again: filling a hole, giving society what it’s asking for. For an American it’s a somewhat dizzying prospect; whatever it is that my society wants or needs or asks for, I can’t say I’ve ever had the feeling it was books. Nor have I ever interviewed anyone who said anything similar.
It’s a need that can exist in Iceland for two reasons. First, Iceland has a real, living literary culture with significant historical roots that results in people reading a lot today. Second, the 2008 financial collapse and subsequent governmental revolution made room for discussion in public forums, and made it necessary. Icelanders have a lot to talk about, and they’ll probably be doing it for a long time.
Útúrdúr is located a bit off the main drag in downtown Reykjavik, and when I walk in for our interview a customer is enthusiastically talking to Dísa and Ingvar Högni in English about the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations. The conversation doesn’t sound anywhere near over, so I listen in and browse the books on the front table and displayed face-out on the racks.
They’re art books, chapbooks, hardcovers, many of them hand-made, some photocopied, in English, in Icelandic, in German, some published by Útúdúr, some by others, all of them in some way or another fascinating. I recognize a few books I’ve seen in the sexier bookshops in Berlin, plus a few copies of McSweeney’s, and an odd Believer. Other than that it’s all new to me.
(photo by Ingvar Högni Ragnarsson)
There are a few pieces of art here and there from an exhibition with Kling & Bang Gallery next door: an enormous felt hand hanging on the wall, a wine-rack stocked with nearly empty Coca-Cola bottles, a wood-framed plexiglass doghouse-thing filled with an inch or so of postcards and newspaper clippings and outfitted with pink neon lighting.
We take a seat at the desk next to the plexiglass doghouse and I receive a cup of the strong Icelandic coffee everyone serves when I interview them. At 28 and 30 Dísa and Ingvar Högni have both recently completed their bachelor’s (Iceland’s system operates along long-studying Scandinavian lines). Ingvar Högni, who also works as a photographer, attributes getting the chance to run an organization like Útúrdúr to the small society they live in: “What’s so interesting about Iceland is we can have these opportunities and get involved just by having that energy and enthusiasm.” Still he and Dísa seem like the kind of intelligent, bright-eyed people who would be doing exciting things anywhere.
Útúrdúr was actually founded as a bookstore in by six artists in 2007, but during their tenure, Dísa and Ingvar Högni are shifting its focus. As Dísa says, “What Iceland is asking for is books relevant to society.” Which is not to say that Útúrdúr didn’t provide that before, but its earlier publications, while often political, were expensive art books with long lead times. Its newer publications will be published more quickly to connect better with current events, and they’ll be more affordable.
Meeting the needs of a community means being in touch with the people who constitute it. “We don’t think of Útúrdúr as just a store or a publishing house,” says Ingvar Högni. “We think of it as a place where you can come and meet people, read, and listen to recordings.”
Later that week I return, this time at night, for a 100,000 Poets for Change event Útúdúr is hosting. I admit I was nervous before showing up — in a city of 120,000 people, how many capable performers can there be, and how many people will want to watch them? At eight there’s a crowd of 20 or so that grows during the next hour until the shop is packed. The audience is convivial but attentive, listening through hours of readings and musical performances. The performers have real talent, and overall the event is really impressive. When I leave at 11, it shows no sign of slowing down.
If it’s community-focused, Útúrdúr is anything but inward-looking. Ingvar Högni and Dísa are enthusiastic about partnerships with bookstores and publishers overseas, and they were positively excited about their upcoming trip to the New York Art Book Fair (now past). For ambitious young people trying to develop an innovative organization on a small island just below the Arctic Circle, the opportunity to meet with their peers face to face and to “make that connection and develop that trust” is invaluable, according to Dísa.
1 Útúrdur means “detour.”
Since all roads in Iceland lead to Sigur Ros, it’s only appropriate that we include at least one of their songs in the Iceland Music feature. So here’s “Hoppipolla” from Takk.
And since I love you, here’s an added bonus—Kronos Quartet covering “Flugufrelsarinn”:
Rather than try and explain traditional Icelandic food like putrefied shark and puffin, I thought I’d just let this guy’s video speak for itself. Thanks whoever you are for sharing this on YouTube and for going all in on the Icelandic eating experience. You deserve a bottle of Brennevin.
First up today is the song “Happiness” by Jónsi & Alex from the Riceboy Sleeps album. Drifting, pretty post-rock, I like this album a lot more than the solo album Jonsi put out last year.
And as you may know, or have already guessed, this is Jón Þór “Jónsi” Birgisson of Sigur Ros . . . It all comes back to Sigur Ros, always.
There’s something about most Icelandic bands that’s just pleasing. By contrast, in my mind I associate Sweden & Finland with Death Metal (and ABBA) and Iceland with Operatic Indie Folk. An belief which will probably most definitely be clear by the end of Icelandic Week.
Up now is Seabear, which was started by Sindri Már Sigfússon (who also records as Sin Fang Bous) but expanded into a full seven-piece band when Seabear was asked to open for The Books (another all-time favorite band of mine).
In the category of “Iceland Is So Small Everyone Knows Everyone,” Seabear member Kjartan Bragi Bjarnason is also in a band called Kimono that has released three albums on Bragi Olafsson’s label, Smekkleysa (which translates as “Bad Taste”).
There are a number of songs that I’d like to include from Seabear’s We Built a Fire, including Lion Face Boy, Fire Dies Down, Cold Summer, and We Fell Off the Roof, but decided to go with “I’ll Build You a Fire.” Enjoy!
Audur Ava Olfasdottir’s The Greenhouse, translated by Brian FitzGibbon, is one of only three Icelandic translations coming out in 2011, so it deserves a special bit of attention. This also happens to be the first Icelandic title to be published by AmazonCrossing, the relatively new imprint that’s dedicated to doing all books in translation.
First up, here’s a bit about Audur herself:
Auður A. Ólafsdóttir was born in Reykjavík in 1958. She is a lecturer in history of art at the University of Iceland. She has worked as an art historian, and taught history of art, e.g. at the Icelandic Drama School, and has been director of the University of Iceland Art Collection. She has curated art exhibitions, and written about art and art history in various media. [. . .]
Auður has been universally praised for her uniquely hypnotic style and artistic approach. She grips the reader by presenting believable characters who have to cope with unexpected and often comic situations, and she constantly takes the reader by surprise. [Bio from Fabulous Iceland.]
The Greenhouse (referred to elsewhere as The Cutting) is Auður’s third novel, and came out in Iceland in 2007, and really is about a greenhouse (in part):
For Lobbi, the tragic passing of his mother proves to be a profound catalyst. Their shared love of tending rare roses in her greenhouse inspires him to leave his studies behind and travel to a remote village monastery to restore its once fabulous gardens. While transforming the garden under the watchful eye of a cinephile monk, he is surprised by a visit from Anna, a friend of a friend with whom he shared a fateful moment in his mother’s greenhouse, and the daughter they together conceived that night. In caring for both the garden and the little girl, Lobbi slowly begins to assume the varied and complex roles of a man: fatherhood with a deep relationship with his child, cooking, nurturing, and remaining also a son, brother, lover, and…a gardener. A story about the heartfelt search for beauty in life, The Greenhouse is a touching reminder of our ability to turn the small things in everyday life into the extraordinary.
On the Amazon page for this book there’s also an interview with Auður:
Q: What inspired you to get inside the head of a twenty-something man?
AAO: The novel tells the story of a very young father who is “practically brought up in a greenhouse” and has three main interests in life: sex, death, and cultivating roses. The story focuses on his many complex roles as a son, a twin brother, a lover, and a father. I was particularly interested in fatherhood, which is in many ways an abstract experience—especially when you have a child with a stranger, like Lobbi does—compared to the woman’s experience of giving birth. I like to play with traditional gender roles by talking about male sensitivity. [. . .]
Q: Through Lobbi’s grief-stricken eyes after the death of his mother, you paint Iceland as barren and desolate place. But how would you describe the country yourself?
AAO: The natural landscape is breathtaking. It is like being lost in space or in infinity, and it gives you the feeling of total freedom. Being an Icelander also means being part of a small community of 317,000 people and being constantly confronted with the unpredictable: weather, volcanic eruptions, bankruptcy. Being an Icelandic writer means expressing myself in a marginal language that no one understands.
And here’s a brief excerpt:
Because I’m leaving the country and it’s difficult to know when I’ll be back, my seventy-seven-year-old father is preparing a memorable last supper for me and is going to cook something from one of Mom’s handwritten recipes, the kind of thing Mom might have cooked on such an occasion.
—I was thinking of having fried haddock in breadcrumbs, he says, followed by cocoa soup with whipped cream.
I pick Josef up from the care centre in the seventeen-year-old Saab while Dad tries to sort out the cocoa soup. Josef is standing eagerly on the sidewalk and clearly happy to see me. He’s in his Sunday best because I’m leaving, wearing the last shirt Mom bought him, violet with a pattern of butterflies.
While Dad is frying the onions and the fish lies waiting on a bed of breadcrumbs, I stroll out to the greenhouse to fetch the rose cuttings I’m taking with me. Dad follows me at a distance with the scissors to get some chives to put on the haddock. Josef follows silently in his footsteps but has stopped entering the greenhouse since he saw the broken glass after the February storms, when several windows were smashed. Instead he stands outside by the mounds of snow, observing us. He and Dad are wearing the same waistcoats, hazel brown with golden diamonds.
—Your mother used to put chives on her haddock, says Dad, and I take the scissors from him, bend over an evergreen bush in a corner of the greenhouse, trim the tips off the chives, and hand them to him. I’m the sole heir to Mom’s greenhouse, as Dad frequently reminds me. Though it’s hardly a vast plantation; we’re not talking about three hundred and fifty tomato plants and fifty cucumber trees that have been passed down from mother to son here, just the rosebushes that pretty much take care of themselves and about ten remaining tomato plants, maybe. Dad is going to do the watering while I’m away.
—I was never really into greens, lad, that was more your mother’s thing. One tomato a week is about all I can stomach. How many tomatoes do you think these plants will yield?
—Try to give them away then.
—I can’t be constantly knocking on neighbors’ doors with tomatoes.
—What about Bogga?
I say this knowing full well that Mom’s age-old friend probably shares Dad’s limited palate for food.
—You don’t honestly expect me to go visiting Bogga with three kilos of tomatoes every week? She’d insist on me staying for dinner.
I know what’s coming next.
—I would’ve liked to have invited the girl and the child, he continues, but I knew you’d be against it.
—Yeah, I’m against it; me and the girl, as you call her, are not a couple and never have been, even though we have a child together. It was an accident.
I’ve already explained myself perfectly clearly and Dad must surely realize that the child is the result of a moment’s carelessness, and that my relationship with its mother lasted one quarter of a night, not even, a fifth, more like it.
This is another guest post by Amanda De Marco. Quick correction to her bio: She’s actually not currently in Iceland. But she was. Recently. Now she’s in Frankfurt enjoying the awesome that is the Book Fair.
The seventh annual Reykjavik International Poetry Festival just took place last weekend. Thor Steinarsson co-runs the organization that sponsors the festival, and I had a chance to ask him (and Angela Rawlings) some questions about the organization and event. Why haven’t I named the organization yet? Well, because it’s changing its name, and its focus too. It was formerly known as ‘Nýhil,’ a poetry collective and publisher known for supporting new and innovative writers. Now? Well, Thor doesn’t give it a name yet, but he does give a peek into its new mission.
Note: The change came as a surprise to me too, which is why my questions are addressed to Nýhil.
Tell me a bit about the history of Nýhil, as well as about your structure and mission now. I’ve heard Nýhil was a bit dormant in the past few years, but that things are picking up now; what accounts for the change?
Nýhil has been in operation since 2004, when a group of young poets decided to form a collective to publish and promote cutting-edge work of emerging writers in dialogue with international peers. In 2005, the first international poetry festival was held in an abandoned factory with poets such as Christian Bök and Anna Hallberg. Since then, Nýhil has published close to 50 titles and invited over 40 international guests to the poetry festival.
Nýhil has taken on many forms over the past seven years dependent on the interests of the primary organizers for each year-long period. Organizers who have been involved at various points in the Nýhil collective have recognized that the shifting desires and urgencies of the local community now render the project as “complete”, and a core collective of folks previously involved are now in the exciting stages of closing Nýhil as a project while verging into a new collective that carries with it as a foundation the important groundwork Nýhil laid during its existence. The new collective will have a stronger focus on events, arts education, and translation.
Stylistically Nýhil is experimental/post-avant-ish . . . right? Are there any American or European organizations you would compare yourself to to help non-Icelanders understand what you publish?
Our collective supports hybrid, experimental, post-avant, radical, innovative text (often under the broader definition of poetry). Similar sister organizations to the previous manifestations of Nýhil (particularly as a publishing collective) could include Coach House Books in Toronto; Nokturno.org in Helsinki; BookThug in Toronto; Le Clou Dans Le Fer in Paris; and the Kootenay School of Writing in Vancouver. In terms of our festival and arts education activities, sister organizations might include Krikri Polypoetry Collective in Ghent; Stichting Perdu in Amsterdam; Toronto New School of Writing; and the former Scream Literary Festival in Toronto.
I was told that in Iceland it’s typical for writers to first publish a book of poetry, then later move to novels; does this mean that Icelanders read more poetry than other people? Or take it less seriously?
Young Icelandic authors tend to write poetry at first, before they commit to literary projects with higher word counts. I don’t have an explanation; it might be of cultural reason or economical. The Icelandic grant system might have something to do with it, where you have to show some published works to be more likely to get the government grant. But I don’t think that Icelanders read more poetry than others or take it more seriously.
Is any Nýhil poetry available in English?
Some poets affiliated with Nýhil have had selected poems or books translated into other languages — notably Eiríkur Örn Norddahl. We are actively developing plans for future multilingual anthologies that will feature Icelandic poetry in translation as well as poetry from other languages translated into Icelandic.
How has the festival developed over the years?
The festival began with significant inclusivity (anyone who wanted to could perform), which offered a wonderful marathon of poetry. Over the years and dependent on the shifting interests of the organizers, the festival has taken the form of an opening night, two full evenings of performances (usually featuring between twenty to thirty local and international poets) intercut with musical performances by local musicians, a panel discussion, and a private day trip and dinner that extends the discussion amongst the performers and organizers.
This year, we shifted the structure of the panel discussion to a round-table format in order to provide a non-hierarchical space for everyone in attendance to converse on pertinent socio-poetic issues. We also shifted the focus from people actively identifying their works as “poetry” to consider textual experimentation in a variety of formats (highlighting specifically new media work; cross-, multi-, and interdisciplinary work; and non-conventional publishing translated to performance). We were pleased to witness a performance collaboration by foreign guest Anne Kawala and local poet Elías Knörr which came swiftly after they met in Iceland; it is our hope that collaborations of these kinds will be an exciting component of future festivals, when there is interest between the artists to work together.
Since we publish two of his novels, and since we featured his band yesterday, I thought today would be a perfect day to excerpt Bragi Olafsson’s The Ambassador, which is translated by Lytton Smith. (FYI: Lytton is the one responsible for providing me with the bottle of Brennivin featured in my upcoming “Black Death” post. So blame him.) Without a doubt, The Ambassador is the best novel ever written about a Lithuanian poetry conference. Most definitely.
Poet (and building superintendent) Sturla Jón Jónsson, is the Icelandic representative to this Lithuanian poetry conference. Which makes sense—he just has a new collection out that’s getting a lot of praise . . . Well, that is until he goes away and a major newspaper runs a story accusing Sturla of plagiarism. And that’s just the start of Sturla’s troubles. In Lithuania, someone steals his new overcoat, so he decides to swipe someone else’s jacket—which, obviously, doesn’t end up working all that well for him.
Here’s how Karen Russell—author of Swamplandia put it in a recent issue of PEN America:
Bragi Olafsson’s English language debut [Ed. Note: The Pets was his English language debut, but whatever], The Ambassador, is the strange, hilarious, and brilliant story of Sturla Jon Jonsson, a building superintendent who also happens to be a venerated Icelandic poet. He’s on his way to Lithuania to represent his nation at a literary festival, opening the door for all kinds of scathingly funny insights into the “situation of the writer.” It’s a tricky book to paraphrase—boozy, literary Icelandic black comedy? Icelandic picaresque? No “elevator story” exists for it, according to the book’s publisher, the fabulous Open Letter. It’s unlike anything else out there, anda joy to read. Sturla gets into all sorts of jams over the course of this short, weird novel, from being accused of nicking his latest poetry collection from a dead cousin to losing his overcoat, the only piece of clothing with a high thread count that this starving artist has ever owned. Kafkaesque yuks and keen insight are brought to you by the badass genius translator Lytton Smith—one of my favorite poets and author of the acclaimed debut The All-Purpose Magical Tent—and he uses all his creativity and rigor here, as well as his deep knowledge of Icelandic culture. Sturla’s inimitable voice can now infuriate and delight an American crowd.
And Agni just reviewed this, stating:
When we read as consumers we are consuming a product; but reading a novel like The Ambassador requires us to look at literature the way my father looks at ferries—to see an ingeniously designed, carefully constructed assemblage of parts, an assemblage that is good and valuable because it functions so well. Ólafsson’s novel has no flashy packaging—the main characters are devoid of youth, beauty, and conventional charm, the pacing is slow, and the plot wanders—but he has assembled these homely and mismatched materials into an exquisitely crafted novel that is gratifying to see at work.
One other bit about the book before we get to the sample. In The Abassador, everyone who attends this Lithuanian poetry conference receives a copy of The Season of Poetry featuring translated poems from a number of the conference participants. Well, Lytton actually recreated this book, which is available as a $.99 ebook and features “translations” from writers such as Jason Grunebaum, Jesse Ball, and Matthew Zapruder. So, for the price of a John Locke novel, you can get some faux-international poetry! (This actually is a brilliant collection—both the poems themselves and the games surrounding these poems are immensely satisfying.)
At long last, here’s a bit of The Ambassador. This is actually the editorial Sturla Jón Jónsson writes for the newspaper before taking off for the international poetry conference (after the jump):Read More...
When I first started talking about Icelandic Week, Intern Six (aka Liz Mullins) insisted that I include an Emiliana Torrini song, which reminded me that Torrini is actually Icelandic . . . Here’s her bio from Last.fm:
Emilíana Torrini is an Icelandic singer-songwriter, born on 16 May 1977 in Kópavogur, Iceland. Her full name is Emilíana Torrini Davíðsdóttir. She is best known for her 2009 single “Jungle Drum,” for the closing theme entitled Gollum’s Song of The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers film, and for her international debut album, _Love in the Time of Science. _
Her father is Italian and her mother Icelandic. Emilíana grew up in Kópavogur, where at the age of 7, she joined a choir as a soprano, until she went to opera school at the age of 15. Later she worked as waitress at her father’s restaurant from Iceland. In 1994, Emilíana became well-known in Iceland after winning the song competition of junior colleges in Iceland (Icelandic: Söngkeppni framhaldsskólanna), at the age of 17, singing “I Will Survive”.
Torrini’s Me and Armini is a very sweet album, with a number of catchy pop song, like the aforementioned Jungle Drum, and the incessantly bouncy Big Jumps. But instead of going with one of those, I decided to play my favorite song from her album, the more spooky “Gun.”
Amiina is sort of the perfect Icelandic post-rock/electronic/experimental band. They formed as an all-woman string quartet back in the 1990s, and went on to perform as the string section for Sigur Ros.
Here’s a description from Last.fm:
Amiina’s debut album, Kurr (2007), was performed on a disparate jumble of instruments—musical saws, kalimbas, music boxes and seemingly anything that could be plucked, bowed or beaten on—resulting in a work that ebbed and flowed “in a strange, powerful place between sophistication and innocence,” according to The Guardian.
While the above is equally true of Puzzle (2010), this time around the group’s sonic palette is broadened by the contributions of drummer Magnús Trygvason Eliassen and electronic artist Kippi Kaninus (Guðmundur Vignir Karlsson), permanent members of the group since 2009. Accordingly, the songs on Puzzle are more rhythmically rugged than amiina’s previous work and feature heavier use of electronics. amiina’s long-standing fondness for zero-g melodies and open-minded instrumentation, however, continues.
“Rugla”—the song embedded below—comes from Kurr, and is a very pleasant way to wake up on a Tuesday morning . . .
This one’s a given. Bjork + Bragi Olafsson. (We’ll be featuring Bragi’s literary work later this week.) Man, does this take me back . . . Originally released in 1988, Life’s Too Good is still pretty awesome.
“Birthday” was what really put The Sugarcubes on the map, and evokes a very particular period of time (for me at least). It’s charming song, one that Bjork referred to as a “tasteless pop song.” In her own words:
“It’s a story about a love affair between a five year old girl, a secret and a man who lives next door. The song’s called Birthday because it’s his fiftieth birthday, but not many people can figure that out of the lyrics ‘cos it’s more about the atmosphere around it and how they touch. It’s a tasteless pop song—not even that. A pop song—very unusual”
“I was always changing my mind about what the lyrics should be about. I had the atmosphere right from the start but not the facts. It finally ended up concentrating on this experience I remembered having as a little girl, among many other little girls’ experiences. It’s like huge men, about fifty or so, affect little girls very erotically but nothing happens . . . nothing is done, just this very strong feeling. I picked on this subject to show that anything can affect you erotically; material, a tree, anything.”
Yep. More Icelandic music and books tomorrow!
This is a guest article by Amanda DeMarco, editor of Readux: Reading in Berlin and contributor to Publishing Perspectives. Just so happens that Amanda is in Iceland right now, and totally wanted in on this Icelandic Week project. In addition to this piece, she’s working on at least one more for us, which will run later this week. In the meantime, be sure and check out her site—it’s incredible.
Couple quick notes about Icelandic names: Since last names are patronymics—refer to the person’s father, such as Gisla-dottir, or Olafs-son—it’s common practice to refer to someone just by their first name. And in terms of characters, ‘Þ’ can be replaced with ‘th,’ and ‘ð’ can be replaced by ‘d.’
“It started here actually,” says Þórdís Gísladóttir. She and Þorgerður E. Sigurðardóttir are talking with me in Kaffitár, Iceland’s largest coffee shop chain, in downtown Reykjavik. It’s a sunny Saturday afternoon and the place is packed with sweater-clad Icelanders chatting over steaming lattes. Þórdís and Þorgerður are the founders of Druslubókablogg,1 Iceland’s most popular book blog.
In December of 2008, Þórdís and Þorgerður sat down in Kaffitár and started talking about blogs. The two had been making radio programs about literature together, and they decided to branch out and do a blog, where they could write about whatever interested them instead of being restricted to an editorial program. Druslubókablogg now has fourteen regular writers, all women ranging in age from 25 to 46, who together post one update per day.
“We don’t really think of it as criticism,” explains Þórdís. The plan was always to be open to anything, so you’ll find reviews of chick lit next to literary fiction, recommendations for attractive bookshelves next to postings for readings, and since recently, interviews. Visually it’s a simple blog, though Þórdís says they’re upgrading to a “fancier” WordPress version soon.
Druslubókablogg gets anywhere from 300–400 to 1,500–1,600 visits per day. “I think that’s everyone who’s interested in literature,” says Þórdís, not joking. Considering that there are about 300,000 native speakers of Icelandic worldwide, it comes out to between 0.1% and 0.53% of all people who potentially could read it.
(It’s worthwhile to note that playing the numbers game in Iceland is a mind-trap for outsiders trying to make comparisons with their home country. The population is so small that it does not scale, so figures should be regarded as a curiosity or a general indication of popularity. The ‘this would be read by 200,000 people a day if it were in English!’ game doesn’t work.)
Þórdís attributes the site’s popularity to the lack of Icelandic alternatives: “If you’re interested, there’s not that much out there.” (This is a common form of Icelandic modesty—‘Oh it’s so small here, there’s no competition!‘—that should be taken with a grain of salt.) The site is read widely by Icelanders abroad looking to stay in touch with book culture at home—there’s a particularly large population in Germany that accounts for a couple hundred visits a week.
Þorgerður adds that Icelanders’ unusual proclivity for Facebook helps online projects like Druslubókablogg really take off: “Iceland is one of a kind when it comes to Facebook.” I know, I know, how could anyone be more obsessed than us? According to Þorgerður, it’s a deeply networked society: “All of Iceland is on Facebook and everyone is friends with everyone.”
Druslubókablogg has gotten big enough that several major Icelandic websites have wanted to host it. But according Þórdís, the sites haven’t been exactly what they wanted to be associated with: “The last offer we got was sort of from Iceland’s yellow press.” Þorgerður adds, “We have high standards in terms of the environment we’re in. It’s not just about getting more people to read.”
This was the point at which I really realized just how far Icelandic book culture diverged from either the American or German versions I’m used to, how deeply integrated books were into their media. Can you imagine foxnews.com or bild.de absorbing a major literary website? No, no you cannot. Þorgerður and Þórdís insist the sites only want their traffic, which I don’t doubt, but the fact that a sleazy news site can covet a lit blog’s traffic is telling in itself.
As Iceland’s premiere book bloggers, Þorgerður and Þórdís have a unique overview of Icelandic publishing culture. I asked them about some trends they’d seen recently. In the wake of the financial crisis that rocked Iceland’s economy in 2008, “there’s less coming out,” notes Þórdís.
But new genres have appeared, says Þorgerður. Historical fiction based on the Sagas always existed, but “the trend anyone can see is people are writing suspense, mystery, and crime novels. We take our literature very seriously, so people didn’t write mysteries before. It’s something you just didn’t do.” It’s a shift occurring across the Nordic countries, and one significant enough to be visible to English-speakers via translation.
Though it’s a significant cultural organ, Druslubókablogg is just a side interest for both women. Þorgerður works for a radio station and Þórdís is an award-winning poet and Swedish-Icelandic translator. “For us this blog is a hobby,” says Þorgerður, “but we’re always thinking about it.”
1 Druslubókablogg means “Book Sluts,” but it actually comes from an Icelandic radio show, not the well-known American book blog of the same name.
In addition to featuring various Icelandic tunes this week, I also want to highlight a number of works of Icelandic literature that are available in English translation. And since Halldor Laxness is Iceland’s one and only Nobel Prize winner, he seems like the perfect author to start with.
Laxness was born in 1902 and died in 1998, and wrote dozens of novels, story collection, and volumes of poetry during that time. His most well-known book is probably Independent People, a novel about Icelandic farmers in the early part of the twentieth century. But rather than focus on that particular book, I’d rather highlight Under the Glacier, translated from the Icelandic by Magnus Magnusson, and which is available in a pretty Vintage edition with an introduction from the late Susan Sontag.
First, check out the jacket copy:
Nobel laureate Halldór Laxness’s Under the Glacier is a one-of-a-kind masterpiece, a wryly provocative novel at once earthy and otherworldly. At its outset, the Bishop of Iceland dispatches a young emissary to investigate certain charges against the pastor at Sn?fells Glacier, who, among other things, appears to have given up burying the dead. But once he arrives, the emissary finds that this dereliction counts only as a mild eccentricity in a community that regards itself as the center of the world and where Creation itself is a work in progress.
What is the emissary to make, for example, of the boarded-up church? What about the mysterious building that has sprung up alongside it? Or the fact that Pastor Primus spends most of his time shoeing horses? Or that his wife, Ua (pronounced “ooh-a,” which is what men invariably sputter upon seeing her), is rumored never to have bathed, eaten, or slept? Piling improbability on top of improbability, Under the Glacier overflows with comedy both wild and deadpan as it conjures a phantasmagoria as beguiling as it is profound.
And if that isn’t compelling enough, here’s the opening of Sontag’s introduction:
The long prose fiction called the novel, for want of a better name, has yet to shake off the mandate of its own normality as promulgated int he nineteenth century: to tell a story peopled by characters whose opinions and destinies are those of ordinary, so-called real life. Narratives that deviate from this artificial norm and tell other kinds of stories, or appear not to tell much of a story at all, draw on traditions that are more venerable than those of the nineteenth century, but still, to this day, seem innovative or ultra-literary or bizarre. I am thinking of novels that proceed largely through dialogue; novels that are relentlessly jocular (and therefore seem exaggerated) or didactic; novels whose characters spend most of their time musing to themselves or debating with a captive interlocutor about spiritual and intellectual issues; novels that tell of the initiation of an ingenuous young person into mystifying wisdom or revelatory abjection; novels with characters who have supernatural options, like shape-shifting and resurrection; novels that evoke imaginary geography. It seems odd to describe Gulliver’s Travels or Candide or Tristram Shandy or Jacques the Fatalist and His Master or Alice in Wonderland or Gershenzon and Ivanov’s Correspondence from Two Corners or Kafka’s The Castle or Hesse’s Steppenwolf or Woolf’s The Waves or Olaf Stapledon’s Odd John or Gombrowicz’s Ferdydurke or Calvino’s Invisible Cities or, for that matter, prono narratives simply as novels. To make the point that these occupy the outlying precincts of the novel’s main tradition, special labels are invoked.
Tale, fable, allegory.
Literature of fantasy.
Convention dictates that we slot many of the last centuries’ perdurable literary achievements into one or another of these categories.
The only novel I know that fits into all of them is Halldor Laxness’s wildly original, morose, uproarious Under the Glacier.
Sontag loved a lot of books, and is quoted on a ton of them, but regardless, this is some pretty high praise. And her introduction carries on for a number of pages, explaining how Under the Glacier fits into several of these categories—“Science Fiction,” “Philosophical novel,” “Dream novel,” “Comic novel,” and “Visionary novel.” In many ways, Laxness is the one Icelandic author everyone should read, and if you’re going to start anywhere, why not start with a fairly wild 240-page novel that blew away Susan Sontag?
Just to give you a taste, here’s an extended quote from the beginning of the novel:
The bishop summoned the undersigned to his presence yesterday evening. He offered me snuff. Thanks all the same, but it makes me sneeze, I said.
Bishop: Good gracious! Well I never! In the old days all young theologians took snuff.
Undersigned: Oh, I’m not much of a theologian. Hardly more than in name, really.
Bishop: I can’t offer you coffee, I’m afraid, because madam is not at home. Even bishops’ wives don’t stay home in the evenings any more: society’s going to pieces nowadays. Well now, my boy, you seem to be a nice young fellow. I’ve had my eye on you since last year, when you wrote up the minutes of the synod for us. It was a masterpiece, the way you got all their drivel down, word for word. We’ve never had a theologian who knew shorthand before. And you also know how to handle that phonograph or whatever it’s called.
Undersigned: We call it a tape recorder. Phonograph is better.
Bishop: All this gramophone business nowadays, heavens above! Can you also do television? That’s even more fantastic! Just like the cinema—after two minutes I’m sound asleep. [. . .]
Bishop: What do you say to putting your best foot forward and going to Snaefellsjokull to conduct the most important investigation at that world-famous mountain since the days of Jules Verne? I pay civil service rates.
Undersigned: Don’t ask me to perform any heroic deeds. Besides, I’ve heard that heroic deeds are never performed on civil service rates. I’m not cut out for derring-do. But if I could deliver a letter for your Grace out at Glacier or something of that sort, that shouldn’t be beyond my capacities.
Bishop: I want to send you on a three-day journey or so on my behalf. I’ll be giving you a written brief for the mission. I’m going to ask you to call on the minister there, pastor Jon Primus, for me, and tell him he is to put you up. There’s something that needs investigating out there in the west.
Undersigned: What’s to be investigated, if I may ask?
Bishop: we need to investigate Christianity at Glacier. [. . .]
What I want to know, because I happen to be the office boy at the Ministry of Ecclesiastical Affairs, is first of all why doesn’t the man keep the church in good repair? And why doesn’t he hold divine service? Why doesn’t he baptise the children? Why doesn’t he bury the dead? why hasn’t he drawn his stipend for ten or twenty years? Does that mean he’s perhaps a better believer than the rest of us? And what does the congregation say? On three successive visitations I have instructed the old fellow to put these matters right. The office has written him all of fifty letters. And never a word in reply, of course. But you can’t warn a man more than three times, let alone threaten him—the fourth time the threat just lulls him to sleep; after that there’s nothing for it but summary defrocking. But where are the crimes? That’s the whole point! An investigation is called for. There are some cock-and-bull stories going around just now that he has allowed a corpse to be deposited int the glacier. What corpse? It’s an absolute scandal! Kindly check it!
If there’s one thing Americans know about Iceland, it’s that this small country has an amazingly vibrant music scene. And over the course of this week, we’ll be highlighting a bunch of bands and performers, starting with Múm (pronounced “Moom”), one of my personal favorites.
I like all of Múm’s albums, but Go Go Smear the Poison Ivy is probably the most accomplished and immediate. So many songs on this album feel like they’re just going to fall apart . . . But somehow, all the rhythms, instruments, and childlike cooing keep everything in place, resulting in a rather moving album that is both nostalgic and haunting.
In addition to the opening song—“Blessed Brambles,” embedded below—I particularly love They Made Frogs Smoke ‘Til They Exploded, Marmalade Fires, Dancing Behind My Eyelids, and Guilty Rocks. (Especially “Guilty Rocks.”)
The Frankfurt Book Fair kicks off next Wednesday, and since I won’t be able to attend this year (boo!), I’ve decided that instead, next week will be “Icelandic Week” here at Three Percent as a way of celebrating Iceland as this year’s Guest of Honor.
We’ve got an amazing amount of stuff planned for this, from excerpts of recent and forthcoming Icelandic works, to pieces about Icelandic book blogging, to music videos, to info about the Blue Lagoon, to videos of me doing shots of Brennevin (and hopefully not passing out).
Prose translators will likely disagree, but I believe translating poetry requires a significant level of talent, a commitment to the text, and near mania, all of which suggests that the undertaking is the greatest possible challenge. The task is to. . .
The biggest issues with books like The Subsidiary often have to do with their underpinnings—when we learn that Georges Perec wrote La Disparition without once using the letter E, we are impressed. Imagine such a task! It takes a high. . .
Following The Infatuations, Javier Marías’s latest novel seems, like those that have preceded it, an experiment to test fiction’s capacity to mesmerize with sombre-sexy atmospheres and ruminative elongated sentences stretched across windowless walls of paragraphs. Thus Bad Begins offers his. . .
Death by Water, Kenzaburo Oe’s latest novel to be translated into English, practically begs you to read it as autobiography. Like The Changeling, as well as many other works not yet released in English, Death by Water is narrated in. . .
Jocelyne Saucier’s Twenty-One Cardinals is about the type of unique, indestructible, and often tragic loyalty only found in families. For a brief but stunningly mesmerizing 169 pages, Twenty-One Cardinals invited me in to the haunting and intimate world of the. . .
We know so very little; so little that what we think to be knowledge is hardly worth reckoning with at all; instead we ought to settle for being pleasantly surprised if, on the edge of things, against all expectations, our. . .
Many of Virginie Despentes’s books revolve around the same central idea: “To be born a woman [is] the worst fate in practically every society.” But this message is nearly always packaged in easy-to-read books that fill you with the pleasure. . .