Iceland will be the Frankfurt Book Fair’s Guest of Honor this fall. E.J. Van Lanen talks with Icelandic authors Bragi Ólafsson and Sölvi Björn Sigurðsson about thirsty protagonists, longing to be elsewhere, and found-poems in gutted fish. An excerpt from Sölvi Björn Sigurðsson’s novel The Last Days of My Mother can be read here in this issue of The Quarterly Conversation.
E.J. Van Lanen: In Bragi’s The Pets and The Ambassador, and in your book, Solvi, the characters seem to be in constant transit to and from Iceland. Is this theme of leaving and returning a typically Icelandic one? Is it something you both have consciously chosen to address? Or do your characters just happen to be wanderers?
Bragi Ólafsson: In my latest novel, which has a rather long title in the original but would probably be called [The Screenplay] if translated into English, the two main characters travel from Iceland to Hull in England on a trawler. And then back to Iceland after they have finished their business in Hull. One of these two characters is the father of the main character in my novel The Ambassador, who travels from Iceland to Lithuania, and back. In the second novel I published, The Pets, one of the two main characters travels to London, and back, and when he returns to Iceland he is forced to stay under his bed for the rest of the novel, and as he is still under the bed when the story ends there is no way of telling if he’ll ever come out from under it. In my first novel, which is called [Days of Rest], or [Days Off], the main character intends to travel a few kilometers out of Reykjavik to explore a cave he knows about, and in the last pages of the novel he actually does so: he enters a taxi which takes him out of Reykjavik.
It is rather obvious as I’m going over these novels in my mind, which transit to and fro Iceland or Reykjavik, the theme of leaving and returning is one of the recurring themes in my books. And it is not only so in my novels but also in my poems. However, it is not the usual theme in my plays, as my plays usually take place in just one room. But of course one can travel a long way within the walls of one room, so perhaps my plays are also about transit from one place to another.
This doesn’t have to mean that the travel theme is a typically Icelandic one. And it’s not something I have consciously chosen to address. For me personally it is very important to travel, especially to other countries, and that is probably the reason for the constant travels of my fictional characters (who are always based on some 40 to 45 percent of my own character). I always have the occasional urge, or longing, to be living abroad, especially now in the last couple of years as one is not too happy about the situation in Iceland, nor the near future prospects, but as I haven’t made that move yet. I excuse myself with a quote from Octavio Paz: “You were born to live on an island.” And living on an island has advantages: one is constantly thinking about what is happening on the other side of the ocean.
Sölvi Björn Sigurðsson: Just like with Bragi, I think it’s safe to say that most of my characters always long to be someplace else. This might just have to do with some general rule in literature: it’s hard to imagine a fascinating character who is entirely happy and has no need of transforming himself into something else or towards a different place. Of course this transit doesn’t need to be strictly objective, it can just as well be an emotional one; Madame Bovary and Donald Duck are both great adventurers in that sense. As for my own books, it seems as if I always have to send the characters on some sort of quest‚ which usually involves some form of traveling. I’m a very nostalgic person; I miss old shoes, run down hotel rooms. I’ve spent a great part of my life switching apartments and moving from one country to another, and this has probably had a lot to do with the topics I choose to write about. In fact I think Bragi is spot-on about the lure of foreign countries to us Icelanders: to flee or not to flee, that is the question. Growing up in a remote place doesn’t come without hunger, especially when all hell breaks loose up here, traveling becomes as important as the cold air you generally breathe.
E.J. Van Lanen: This “longing to be somewhere else,” is that the same drive that leads to your characters’ drinking alcohol as well? It seems that you both have some thirsty protagonists . . .
Sölvi Björn Sigurðsson: There’s been quite a habit over the years for Icelanders to drink a lot when abroad and I guess I do make some fun of this in my last novel. Alcohol is so expensive in Iceland that you basically lose a fortune on each duty free beer that escapes you. It’s like we’re conditioned: airport—beer—schnapps! This is particularly noticeable with people over 60. They take airport-boozing very seriously and force themselves to drink as early as 5 in the morning.
I’ve always been rather fond of books that use the mystic lure of intoxication as a particular drive. This can be done in a lot of different ways, of course. There are some very funny boozing scenes in Money by Martin Amis, but their appeal is very different from the almost rhetorical approach toward the dérèglement of the senses in the works of Rimbaud and Baudelaire. In the end there’s just something very basic and metaphorical about the human soul that can be revealed through drinking alcohol and writing about people doing it. There’s a great scene in [Party Games], one of Bragi’s novels, where an entire staff goes partying in the country. There’s something so dreadfully domestic and awkward about it that it still remains one of my favorite chapters in all his books.
Bragi Ólafsson: It seems that Sölvi and I have more in common than I imagined. “Switching apartments, moving from one country to another, to flee, to long to be somewhere else‚ etc. But this description is probably the average description of a writer, of a hopeless romantic, or perhaps rather, a hopeful romantic. Just as all the leaving and returning in my books comes naturally, then the alcoholic consumption is there without me having consciously chosen to address that subject. Although there’s some pretty bad alcoholism in my family—as in all Icelandic families—then drinking is in my view a totally indispensable thing in life, I just can’t imagine existence without wine or whiskey. And usually fictional characters reveal more of themselves when they drink. Which is good for fiction, especially realist fiction as I like to think I write myself.
The two or three next works of fiction I have sketched in my head inevitably include some drinking, but then I have set myself the goal of writing a story which is absolutely bereft of alcohol —it might be an interesting experiment. But in retrospect I’ve never made my characters use any drugs, not even cannabis or marijuana, because drugs are one of the most depressing and boring things in life. This is not entirely true: in my last play I had a female character smoke some weed, but that was for a very special reason.
Sölvi has probably taken the thirsty traveler theme to its very extreme end in his book The Last Days of my Mother. I think it’s a glorious homage to the wonderful world of creative drinking.
E.J. Van Lanen: A last question on the “travel” theme, I promise. I read recently that 139 Icelandic books will be translated into German this year, and I suppose that the audiences for your books abroad are at least potentially larger than any Icelandic audience you might reach. How do you find that your books travel abroad?
Sölvi Björn Sigurðsson: This is a better question for Bragi because he has been much more widely translated. I only received my first sample translations in English a few days ago so no one has really seen them. It’s a tiny bit of a problem, of course, with regard to international recognition, to be writing in a language that almost nobody understands. But I really can’t complain. A few days before my last novel was published in Iceland I went to Denmark on a reading tour and was fortunate enough to have a Danish publisher present who understood Icelandic. He liked my book so much that he bought it on the spot. [The Last Days of my Mother] will therefore be out in Danish in a few weeks. Now I’ll just have to find all the other international Icelandic-speaking publishers with great taste and the world’s my oyster! But, on a more serious note you always hope the book can travel, even if it was just to reach a larger readership—we really are a wee nation.
Bragi Ólafsson: Being translated and published in countries like Germany should of course mean a larger audience for the book, as the population of Germany is over 80 million, and in Iceland 320,000. However, the two novels I’ve had translated into German have sold far more copies in Iceland than in Germany! I am not sure what this means. It may mean that my books are not very typically Icelandic, but of course if can also mean that they don’t travel very well, or simply are not very good books. I think I’ve had a very positive response from American readers, and it also looks as if the French appreciate my way of writing, judging from the reviews of The Pets in France, but it’s difficult for me to say exactly how my books travel; I haven’t been in much dialogue with my foreign readers, so to speak. It is very well possible that my novels are most comfortable with just traveling within the country they are written in . . . (which then might mean that my first novel, [Days of Rest], would do well in England, as it is written in Oxford!).
E.J. Van Lanen: How do your books fit in to the Icelandic literary scene? Is there a very specific Icelandic canon that you feel you’re responding to? Or do you feel that your books, being books from an island, are responding to literatures from all over the world?
Bragi Ólafsson: Of course I like to think that my books are in a somewhat different category than most other Icelandic novels. Maybe I just think so because they are not historical novels or crime fiction or something I describe to myself as dry Scandinavian realism. But along with a handful of Icelandic novelists—Sölvi being one of them—I think I can state that my novels are in the “strange” department, that is: many people are not sure what to say about them; while one reader finds them exceedingly boring, another reader sees them as being comic. I heard about a comment from a reader of my latest book, who exclaimed: Why does he spend his talent on writing such a long book about nothing! This comment both amused me and made me seriously start thinking about the content of my books, because this specific book is in my view the first of my books which really addresses a certain “serious” topic. Usually I try to avoid imposing a message or an opinion on the person reading my book, but as soon as I start doing so—in a vague sort of way though—the reader complains that I’m writing about nothing!
About the question if my books respond to literatures from all over the world, then I think they must. I am Icelandic but I think about myself as a European writer. Many Icelandic novelists and short story writers maintain that their style of writing is influenced by the old Icelandic sagas, by their spare and robust way of telling a story and describing character, but I’m pretty sure that my influences come from elsewhere. Maybe that’s the reason why many readers have a hard time deciding for themselves what my books are about.
Sölvi Björn Sigurðsson: For a very long time there really wasn’t much room for a different fiction in Iceland and Bragi is one of the few writers who has changed that over the past 15 years or so. There is no question about that. The latter half of the 1990s was a great, short era when Icelandic literature went through a long due renewal. I’m not sure that much has been said or written about this but in some ways this period resembles the 1920s when modernism was finally brought to us and some great literature was composed. People started to think a bit differently. This probably has just as much to do with Freddy Mercury and his transvestite-vacuum-cleaning as any page of fiction you come across. Beauty and ways to describe it can be found in the most unlikely places. Last year I went into the Highlands, fishing, and caught a trout that had eaten an ad from a conservative local newspaper.
This is just to say
I have eaten the page
That you threw
In the water
I did not expect my attention to be brought to cut-rate, comfortable apartments in the Reykjavik suburbs on this trip—but cutting the fish open and reading this most welcome, bloody poem was a revelation. Not about real estate, but about art and its many strange arenas. To be touched when you don’t expect it, it’s the same with art and love.
The Icelandic saga tradition is very strong—so strong in fact that despite a want and a longing for something antithetic I find myself drawn to it again now, after years of trying to respond differently. As a younger writer I really wanted to meet up with traditions on my way to the bakery; to set up my desk on the IKEA parking lot. The urge for a change lived within a mind that was very domestic and flooded with dead and buried, old and magnificent brain cells of the late. My first, and yet unpublished, novel takes place in some sort of a resort where a lonely writer puts himself up in the hope of finishing his first (and yet unpublished) novel. Nothing happens, the story is incredibly boring. The resort is empty and lifeless. But then one night, Raskolnikov walks in and takes him into a hidden room which happens to be a chapter from The Idiot. Both of them are lost in the wrong books. Literary detectives hunt them. A hopeless writer runs scared through novel after novel, into rooms of dead writers and unfinished works, meatball-frying Foucaults and imprisoned Borgeses. I suppose this book was an odd attempt to react to tradition, and there is a reason why it hasn’t been published. In the end I put all these ideas into a novel where the protagonist rents Haruki Murakami’s sub-consciousness. It’s a detective novel and a love story, called [The Floating World].
Bragi Ólafsson is the author of The Pets and The Ambassador, both available from Open Letter. Ólafsson is also founder of the publishing company Smekkleysa [Bad Taste], and the translator of Paul Auster’s City of Glass into Icelandic. Sölvi Björn Sigurðsson is the author of three novels, including [The Last Days of My Mother], an excerpt from which appears in English for the first time in The Quarterly Conversation. Sigurðsson is also the translator of Rimbaud’s A Season in Hell and Shakespeare’s The Tempest into Icelandic. E.J. Van Lanen is the senior editor at Open Letter, a press dedicated to publishing innovative works of fiction from around the world.
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