When it comes to mail delivery service in Iceland, two days stand out from the rest. The first is when the IKEA catalogue arrives. The second is when the bókatíðindi shows up in the mailbox.
“This is the Christmas catalogue,” says Bryndís Loftsdóttir of the Icelandic Publishers Association, handing over a copy of last year’s glossy, 208-page tome. “It’s always the same,” she continues in an amused tone. “Weeks before this is published we anxiously get phone calls from people asking, ‘When is it coming? Can I get it now?’”
A copy of the bókatíðindi, which lists approximately 90% of the books published in Iceland each year, is mailed to every household in the country, free of charge. While in most countries the presents under the Christmas tree come in all shapes and sizes, Loftsdóttir jokes that in Iceland one finds a row of neatly wrapped books. “The book is still the most popular Christmas present in Iceland,” she says. There’s even a name for the phenomenon: the “jólabókaflóð,” which means Christmas book flood.
The history of the nation is inextricably linked to the written word; Icelanders produced the Sagas and the Poetic Edda, captivating historical (and sometimes fantastical) records of the country’s early years, filled with heroes, villains and monsters, written down almost a millennium ago and inspiring countless writers, include J.R.R. Tolkien. (A new translation of the Edda will be published by Canadian poet Jeramy Dodds this fall.) Literature has always been part of Iceland’s national identity.
“We really feel, and think, that our little contribution to world literature is worth noticing,” says Sjón, one of the country’s foremost contemporary authors, sitting in a bookstore in downtown Reykjavík on a rainy April morning. “This was a very poor country — a third-world country — until well into the second, third decade of the 20th century,” he says. “We have no cathedrals to show from the past. We have no paintings. We have no symphonies. We’ve got nothing.
“Literature is the only constant cultural activity that has been going on here throughout the centuries.”
It’s an ongoing cultural activity. While the Icelandic Publishers Associations boasts about 40 members, including Forlagið, the largest of the country’s publishing houses, Loftsdóttir says the real number is north of 100 when you factor in tiny indie publishers and pop-up concerns that release a book or two before vanishing. (Although I never got my hands on one of their titles, I kept hearing about Tunglið (Icelandic for moon) which publishes two books every full moon in editions of less than 100.)
“We don’t know very much about banking, but we know about books,” says a smiling Agla Magnúsdóttir of the Icelandic Literature Center, which was created last year to promote Icelandic writing abroad. (Curiously, the economic crash, which was just beginning to strike the country last time I visited, in 2008, may have actually helped book sales: “People kept on buying book, if they didn’t just buy more books,” says Magnúsdóttir. “Instead of weekend trips, they spent the money buying books.”)
In recent years, books by Icelandic authors have proved popular in bookstores outside Reykjavík, too. The English market, especially, has “opened up” during the last five years, says Sjón, who published widely-acclaimed translations of three of his novels with Farrar, Straus and Giroux last year. The turning point, according to many people, was 2011, when Iceland was guest of honour at the Frankfurt Book Fair, the largest annual gathering of the global book trade.
“I think that in some countries that weren’t looking at Icelandic literature seriously, they just said, ‘OK, we might be missing something,’” says Magnúsdóttir. After Frankfurt, it seemed like the country “sold out of works to be translated,” says Loftsdóttir, setting off a wave of interest — in markets around the world — that hasn’t really ceased.
“In terms of publishing abroad, you would think that it would be a disadvantage to have such a small language, but quite a lot of authors have had books published in more than 10 languages,” says Andri Snær Magnason, whose book LoveStar was published in the U.S. in 2012. “It’s very nice to get the chance to get into a bigger room and be considered on par [with] other international writers. It lifts the lid off this small place. It’s given us some confidence.
“You’re not just writing into the void,” he continues. “You can feel the waves.”
Besides Sjón, Icelandic writers making waves include Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir (her new novel, Butterflies in November, will be released in North America in December), Ragna Sigurðardóttir (longlisted for the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award), and crime writers Arnaldur Indriðason and Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, all of whom have benefitted from the spike in interest in Nordic (especially crime) fiction in recent years. (When Indriðason won the Crime Writers’ Association Gold Dagger Award in 2005, Loftsdóttir, who at the time worked for the nation’s largest bookstore chain, Eymundsson, recalls, “We’d get phone calls from publishing houses in England saying ‘What other authors do you have writing crime?’ ”)
In August 2011, Reykjavík became a UNESCO City of Literature, one of only seven in the world and the first non-native English speaking city to receive the designation. Kristín Viðarsdóttir, who spearheads the project, took me on a walking tour through the city streets, where QR-code enhanced plaques are affixed to buildings where writers once lived or which provide the settings for famous books.
“People think about literature as private … but it’s a community thing,” she says. “It’s our mission to bring literature out of books, out of the libraries, out of people’s houses.”
In a way, the entire country is a literary walking tour. When I sat down with Magnason, he recalled how, the previous week, he’d been sailing in a remote part of the country. Though he was practically in the middle of nowhere, the area was the setting of one of the Sagas dating from the 12th century, a 19th century story, and a contemporary crime novel, to name but three examples.
“You have one deserted fjord, and it has layers upon layers of literature — only in that remotest areas of Iceland!” he says. “This is how our landscape is in many places: you don’t see any buildings but it has layers of memory that has been preserved.”
Increasingly, people are visiting Iceland not just for its landscape and hot springs, but for its literary culture. In April, I was a guest of the Iceland Writers Retreat, a new cultural event that brought in a dozen established writers (including Canada’s Joseph Boyden and Susan Orlean and Pulitzer Prize-winner Geraldine Brooks from the U.S.) for four days of lectures, workshops, readings, panel discussions and receptions (including an audience with Iceland’s president, Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, who spoke at length about the country’s illustrious literary heritage). The event proved so successful — attracting 50 writers from outside the country — that organizers will hold a second next April, with authors Adam Gopnik, Alison Pick and John Vaillant among those confirmed to attend.
“The Icelandic component was critical to the success of the retreat,” says co-organizer Eliza Reid, a Canadian who has lived in Iceland for more than a decade. “This event could not have taken place anywhere else.
“I think it was also important for us to showcase some of this country’s literary heritage to visitors. We live here and so we know about the impact that the Sagas have had on literature, about Halldór Laxness winning the Nobel Prize, and about the increase in popularity in Icelandic crime fiction. But I was pleased that we could show visitors this dimension. Perhaps most importantly, one comment we heard from participants was how happy they were to be recognized as writers: One person in particular mentioned that when she is at home and says she’s a writer, people often then ask her what her ‘real’ job is, or how she can possibly earn a living from that. But in Iceland, locals immediately took that job title seriously and were interested in her work.”
At the end of the week, I visited the home of Halldór Laxness, the country’s only recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature, which has been transformed into a museum about 20 minutes outside the city. There was a reception for the participants, and Sjón read from one of his novels. Afterwards, at my hotel, I noticed something that had previously escaped my attention: a room bearing Laxness’ name. It turns out the hotel has a dozen themed rooms, named and modelled after famous Icelandic poets, featuring their photos, biographies, and writing on the walls. It seems that in Iceland you’re always surrounded by the country’s literature, even while you sleep.
from: National Post