Thursday, 27 April 2017

Ivalu's Color

Further to our series of posts on modern Greenlandic literature, a reminder that Amazon are now advertising the publication of a new novel by Nauja Lynge entitled Ivalu's Color. From the publicity sheet:

NAUJA LYNGE is the great granddaughter of Henrik Lund, author of Greenland’s national anthem, and granddaughter of Hans Lynge, author, politician, painter and promoter of increased Greenlandic independence in a time before the Home Rule government. She left Greenland for Denmark as a child, and gradually returned to reclaim her native identity as a Danish Greenlander. Through this journey home, Nauja has seen the effects of cultural stereotypes affecting the economy, language, and very heart of those torn between two worlds. She has made this the core of her labors and continues to actively work towards helping Greenlanders gain their due rights. This is her first novel.

Wednesday, 26 April 2017

Art is also Vanity

[Nordic Voices blog has received from an anonymous author the text of the following essay, called 'Art is also Vanity', about the work of the Icelandic novelist Ólafur Gunnarsson, whose latest book, a large-scale narrative entitled The Painter and the Sinner (Málarinn og Syndarinn), appeared in two parts from 2012 to 2015. The novel awaits English translation. We are publishing the text in more or less unedited form as an introduction to the work of this unusual and highly distinctive writer.]

Ut pictura poesis

From the days of the Ancient Greeks people have wondered about the relationship between the visual arts and literature. Plutarch called paintings silent poems and poems paintings able to speak; famous are the words of Horace, Ut Pictura Poesis: Literature should be like a painting. Thoughts of that relationship undeniably linger in the mind after reading Ólafur Gunnarsson‘s latest novel, The Sinner, as well as the one before it, The Painter, as both told dramatic stories about two dissimilar painters. But it is not only the subject of Ólafur that connect the two arts, the words of Horace about pictures and literature have multiple meanings for those novels, and especially the latter one, The Sinner, as I will come to later.

The Painter was published in 2012. It is a novel about crimes, forgery and its consequences are in the foreground at first but the story ends in a brutal manner when the painter David Thorvaldsson murders his teenage daughter. The murder is without reason and empty of meaning, David attacks his daughter Sandra so she won‘t reveal his misdeeds and misdemeanours which are actually trivial as such. Unlike what we have sometimes seen before in Ólafur‘s works, there is no religious or moral context. David is no Abraham or God, the murder of his daughter is no sacrifice. But more about a religious context later.

The Sinner begins where The Painter left off. One of the minor characters in The Painter, the artist Illugi Arinbjarnar, is the main protagonist in the novel. He is feted by critics and art lovers, both in Iceland and in the international art world. The two painters are connected as in The Painter Illugi writes a slanderous article about David’s art, which is one of the things that pushes David off the edge. Many of the characters in the novel seem to think that Illugi is responsible for the murder, one of them being himself.

In The Sinner the spotlight is on Illugi most of the time, and a strong spotlight it is. In the beginning he wins his biggest victory, his private exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York is a success and he sells paintings for amounts rarely seen in the Icelandic art world. The pictures are, like all the works at the show, part of a great series of paintings of the Second world war, showing the battles between the armies of the Third Reich and the Red Army. The series is called Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union.

Two incidents happen at the exhibition that affect Illugi for the rest of his life. One is that an old man criticizes him, calls him a liar and a forger regarding the subject of the paintings and sets himself on fire to protest and the second is that he meets a young Icelandic journalist, Helga, who interviews him, goes back home with him and becomes his student.

The consequences are complex and involve many characters, Illugi‘s relatives are prominent businessmen, David Thorvaldsson‘s wife is very involved in their business but David is in prison wrestling with himself and God.

Two, long historical digressions cleave the story, in one we hear the narrative of the Cossack Ivan who sets himself on fire at Illugi‘s exhibition at MoMa to protest what he considers is a falsification of the history of the Second world war. It describes the cruelty of the Soviets and their allies towards the Cossacks and the role of the German army is different from what we usually see in history books. The other digression is a story Illugi reads in an old notebook, it is decorated with a swastika and seems to contain the diary of a young Icelandic writer in Copenhagen. Sigurd, as he calls himself, joins the resistance in the summer of 1942 but becomes, for the vagaries of fate,  a spy in Hitler‘s SS. These stories seem to be connected but things are more nebulous than they seem.

Ivan‘s story inspires Illugi to paint a new series where he takes on the Second world war again but now he concentrates on the fate of the Cossacks who fought with the Germans but were in the end betrayed into the hands of the Soviets by the Allies. When those pictures are exhibited Illugi is called a Nazi and becomes an outcast in the art world. In Illugi‘s past there are also events that seem to underscore the accusations; as a young man he created a happening with a swastika flag and Nazi speeches that were supposed to mock the political radicalism of his peers on the left but look bad in hindsight.

Illugi‘s paintings are in the spirit of the Old Masters like Rembrandt, Caravaggio, Brugel, Bosch but also modern painters who paint historical subjects like the Mexican Diego Rivera and the Norwegian painter Odd Nerdrum, who is a direct and indirect part of the story. Illugi is a very brilliant painter who emphasizes anatomy, light and shadow but the structures and motifs are inspired by the masters. One of the paintings in Illugi‘s later series is based on a notorious fresco by Diego Rivera, Man at the Crossroads from 1934 and Caravaggio‘s painting, The Taking of Christ or the Kiss of Judas from 1602 inspires another work. Other models are for example Picasso‘s painting, The Massacre in Korea.

Illugi‘s attitude to art reflects his choice of models, he is in a conscious revolt against modern art. He articulates it clearly in an interview with Helga:

But that is my style: Not to follow in the footsteps of the Old Masters, as has been said, but to take on the best of them, use all my powers and see how far I can go. I could spew out 100 abstract paintings a day if I could be bothered and stack rye bread in piles from morning to night. But everyone who takes a look at the painters you mentioned sees that they are better than most if not all. (75)

Illugi‘s character does not only seek models in the paintings of the masters of the last few centuries. His self-image, personality and even perception are like a swollen version of the romantic idea about the artist as a male genius. As an artist he doesn‘t seem to be able to help himself, he always sees his surroundings as a subject for a painting and he paints some of his works in a sudden rush of inspiration.

It is tempting to see a parallel between those paintings and Ólafur Gunnarson‘s novels from the last two decades, though thereby I‘m not comparing him to Illugi Arinbjarnar in any way! Ólafur‘s career underwent a great change with The Trolls Cathedral in 1992. Since that time his novels, apart from The Ax and The Earth, have been written using methods that remind the reader more of the old masters than modern trends. As many have pointed out, Ólafur himself and others who have written about his works, he seeks his inspiration in the works of Dostoyevsky and other realist giants. 

Another writer who inspires Ólafur, Herman Melville, is mentioned in the The Sinner and gives the story its motto.  Illugi twice refers to Melville to describe his choice of subjects and Ólafur Gunnarsson‘s as well: „No great book will ever be written about the flea.“ (73, see also 19).

The characters in Ólafur‘s novels would never be called fleas. They are larger than life, their character, actions and flaws, are on a gigantic scale.

The narrative method of The Sinner reminds one of the Old Masters as well. The story is told by an omniscient narrator, he sees into the minds of most of the characters and looks at the world from their perspective. Most of the time he follows Illugi but some chapters are about his brother Karl, Kolbrún and other characters. At the end when David is alone on the stage, we see the world of the story through his eyes.

Ólafur is better than most writers at creating a grand and living historical world and one can look at his novels as powerful „pictures“ who together create some sort of a series showing Reykjavík in the 20th century, from the year 1919, which he shows us in Head Ransom (2005)  to the year 2000 which is when the epilogue of The Sinner ends. But just like the Old Masters of painting, Ólafur doesn‘t „paint“ surroundings and characters for fun, or to create a faithful mimesis, even though imitation is important to him, his scenery and characters always have a symbolic dimension, just like an allegorical painting never shows anything that doesn‘t have a hidden meaning, whether it is historical, moral or religious.

Destructive masculinity

Ólafur‘s first novel was called Million percent men (1978),  it told the story of the wholesaler and importer Engilbert and his grandiose business dealings. Business has also been a noticeable theme in his realist novels from the last two decades. In them giant warehouses are constructed and business empires rise and fall. In The Painter the Hafskip shipping company scandal has a great effect on the fate of some of the characters and in The Sinner the grocery business is central to the story. Illugi‘s father creates a great business empire that in fact is built on sand and then gives it to his Illugi‘s son who becomes the president of the company at eighteen, embezzles hundreds of millions from its customers and creates a great scandal at his father‘s wedding before he kills himself. The story of young Baldur is like a miniature in a bigger work that reflects the whole of the work and maybe the whole series as well, from The Trolls Cathedral to The Sinner; it is a picture of a male who can‘t handle his responsibilities, goes downhill in his relationships with women and is destroyed in the end. 

It could be easy to use words from Greek tragedy to describe the men in Ólafur‘s stories and talk about arrogance or hubris but it is probably more to the point to look at the fate of the characters in the light of the criticism of traditional ideas about masculinity that weaves like a red thread through Ólafur Gunnarsson‘s novels, ever since he wrote his second novel, The Nickname which was published in 1980. This criticism is put forth in a powerful, sometimes even exaggerated manner. The men in Ólafur‘s novels are like giants, they are strong and their interests are the interests of traditional, exaggerated masculinity: Boxing, weight-lifting, cars and business. Despite their outward size they can‘t handle their role, they bend and break when dealing with responsibility, their own dreams and expectations and last but not least women. This applies to almost all the men in The Sinner, they lose everything they own; if not their life then at least their worldly success and/or reputation.

Nowhere is this clearer than in Illugi‘s character and there something unexpected happens. Illugi‘s industriousness and monomania is expressed in art but that creativity doesn‘t seem to ennoble him in any way. Just like the industriousness of other men in Ólafur‘s novel, Illugi‘s art has no point except to glorify its creator and give him an outlet for his urges. Even though his subjects are historical or political it is almost a bagatelle; what matters above all is how he can deal with the Old Masters and be better than his contemporaries in art at the same time.

Industriousness, whether in business or art, touches the women in the story in different ways. The journalist Helga is captivated by Illugi as a painter, not as man, much to his disappointment. She becomes his student, begins by mixing colours, „like they did in the Middle ages“, but soon graduates  to painting parts of the paintings and even paints one herself which Illugi marks as his own and sells. She starts to resemble her master. She seems to miscarry because of overwork and at the end of the novel it becomes clear the she has been „infected“ by Illugi; just like he, she is dominated by art, sacrificing her life and even her empathy with others in its service. She is just barely rescued from a burning hotel in New York when she tries to save a painting by Illugi. The last thing we see of her in the story is when she stands on the pavement outside the burning hotel:

Suddenly people screamed and pointed to the hotel. A woman hung from a railing on the sixth floor and the fire reached out to the balcony. To her dismay Helga sensed this event as a painting (394).

Kolbrún, the main female character in the novel is different. At the end she has won, she is married to Illugi‘s passive brother, the businessman Karl. The last picture of her shown to the reader is when she has gained control of the grocery chain her father in law founded, by using her business sense: „And she was chosen as businesswoman of the year and was more beautiful than ever before on the cover of Free Trade, holding her newly born son.“(374). This Madonna image of Kolbrún in the organ of Mammon is actually contradictory just like all the descriptions of her in the story. She often reminds the reader of Sigrún, the main character in The Winter journey (1999), who also beats the patriarchy at its own game in business. Both have lost their old families but gained new ones and great riches.

Kolbrún also has it in common with Sigrún that she is ruthless and men fear her. When Illugi meets her at the opening of his own exhibition she appears to him like the female monster Medusa in Caravaggio‘s painting with „her hair flying and worms in her hair“ (272). This picture of Kolbrún is grotesque. It shows Illugi‘s fear but also hatred and even a death wish; Caravaggio shows the cut off head of the monster after the male hero Perseus has conquered her. But this image is innocent compared to the last picture Illugi paints with Helga as his model; he has painted her naked before and made her model for him as he paints a picture of the execution of a pregnant woman. But when he has lost his power over her his fear dominates and again it is Medusa who inspires him;

And as he made more drawings of her, the more devilish she looked until the pile of snakes that was her hair circled the neck, she looked triumphantly at the one who held the pen and drew her, he sketched her wide open legs and played with drawing her pubic hair with quick movements so they were like small blind worms with sharp teeth. (377)

Illugi's "play" shows the deep fear he has in common with other men in Ólafur Gunnarson‘s works, the women in his stories are ruthless and Helga and Kolbrún are not the first who remind the reader of a man-eating monster like Medusa.

All is vanity

In volume V. of The history of Icelandic literature is this description of Ólafur Gunnarsson‘s trilogy that began with The Trolls Cathedral:

The characters in the novels have in common that they sacrifice everything for material wealth and vanity, they put themselves on the same pedestal as god himself and lack all humility. Those who survive this crazy chaos are not necessarily the characters who have good intentions and are „good“ in the common sense of that word, they are rather those who start to believe and are able to bow to something that is higher than themselves.“ (642).

The conclusions of Ólafur‘s last two novels are in a similar vein. But maybe the conflicts in The Painter and The Sinner are even more violent and in many ways contradictory because the works that the hands of the characters have made are not only connected to business and material wealth gathering, but art itself. The conclusion of this great work about art, creativity, keeping faith with the old masters and the inspiration of the genius is that all is in vain, except maybe one picture saved from total destruction, a picture of Christ on his mother‘s throne: „In his arms rests Reinhard Heydrich, the head of Gestapo and creator of Auschwitz. He has been forgiven, and at the top of the painting is an inscription in Latin: Forgive each other as I have forgiven you. (412). And the conclusion of the prolicide David Thorvaldsson who is alone on the scene at this point, is that „that will also be his fate“, he will also be forgiven, as he has atoned by literally following Matthew‘s command: „If your hand or foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away.“ (Matthew. 18.8)

This is a rather definite conclusion but should not surprise those who know Ólafur Gunnarsson‘s works. When the dust is settled, the characters have lost nearly everything they love and even themselves, the only thing left is the grace of god. When reading the stories the words of the Preacher undeniably come to mind: „But I looked at all my works, that my hands had done, and the toil I had expended and I saw that all was vanity and striving after wind and nothing to be gained under the sun." (Ecclesiastes 2.11)

This definite conclusion creates questions that point to different answers: First, one could ask whether the novels themselves, the great series by Ólafur Gunnarsson, are not the same as Illugi‘s paintings, that their value is mostly to be measured by the message about the grace of god they give to us – all else is vanity? And then the reader who does not agree with Ólafur about matters of eternal affairs has to ask himself how to approach the books. The simple answer, and probably the only one on offer, is that a reader can enjoy great religious art like Ólafur‘s novels in the same manner as he enjoys a medieval cathedral, a fugue by Bach or Mozart‘s Requiem – however much of an atheist he is. For this writer, that answer suffices.

Estonian Literary Magazine

The spring issue of ELM , the English-language quarterly of Estonian literature, is now available as a free PDF download from the website of the Estonian Institute in Tallinn. The issue highlights the work of a number of contemporary authors, including Indrek Koff, Nikolai Baturin and the poet Sveta Grigorjeva. There are also features on Estonian classical literature. Although the offerings are diverse, with numerous black-and-white photographs, there's a slight lack of imagination in the way the material is presented, and one has a feeling that the magazine would be more interesting if the editorial approach were more dynamic and less curatorial - at present one has the sense of being in a museum rather than a meeting-place for living authors. There's also a problem with the English in which some of the articles and interviews are written: it doesn't always read naturally, and there's a distinct touch of 'translatese' here and there ('In one respect, she takes a realist attitude close to the land (with her feet on the ground, so to say)'). However, it's good to see the magazine still appearing regularly now.

Tuesday, 25 April 2017

Body and Soul

Out of the Blue: New Short Fiction from Iceland, edited by Helen Mitsios, with a foreword by Sjón. University of Minnesota Press, 183 pp. 

In addition to being an enjoyable read, this anthology of recent short Icelandic fiction in English translation gives an overview of contemporary prose writing from a part of the world where writing, and the profession of writer, are traditionally held in high esteem. The Icelandic author is a representative of his or her nation, travelling the globe with some of the same nonchalance that the ancient Vikings brought to their more goal-oriented excursions.

Some reviewers of the collection have expressed regret that a number of the stories are set not in Iceland but abroad – mostly in regions of southern Europe. Yet given the history of Icelandic culture, with its openness to Roman and Hellenic influences, this does not seem unnatural. The Icelander abroad is a chameleon-like figure, at once distinctive and transparent, changing according to surroundings, and abandoning foreign cultures and languages as quickly as adopting them. 

Auður Jónsdóttir’s ‘Self-Portrait’, the opening story in the book, is a study of the tension between the fragile consciousness of the vulnerable outsider and the actually threatening nature of a foreign environment. The Sardinian beach resort, with its heat, its homeless people and Mafia operatives, turns out to be more forbidding than the austere northern climate it was supposed to replace and compensate for – in the end it’s a threat to the self, and needs to be rejected.

In Kristín Ómarsdóttir’s ‘Afternoon by the Pacific Ocean’ the film stars Greta Garbo and Marilyn Monroe, both of Nordic descent, read Joyce and Icelandic sagas together on an afternoon picnic under the Californian sun:

Marilyn lay down on her side in the fetal position, and with one hand under her cheek, she looked wide-eyed at Greta, who opened Egil’s Saga. They were at the part where Egil wants to marry Asgerdur after returning from a successful raid. Greta started reading with Marilyn watching her. The sun over the Pacific pierced through the curtains of the big window and bathed the actresses’ feet in golden rays.

The stories set in Iceland – and there are more of them in the volume than some reviewers have implied – blend elements of nature, psychology and society to create an inner and outer portrait of individual people whose lives are at once conditioned and set free by a sense of being at the margins, yet able to look into the depths in a way that is unusual and uncanny. The father in Ólafur Gunnarsson’s ‘Killer Whale’ is gripped by a death wish that is linked to archetypical figures of Icelandic natural and human history:

“No, they’re loners,” Olaf said. “They live in their own herds, by themselves. They don’t mix with other whales. They attack them. They feed on them.”

Likewise Gyrðir Elíasson’s ‘The Black Dog’ focuses on a negative, destructive element in Icelandic folklore and national psychology: in a Kafkaesque parable, the author’s own depression materialises in the image of a dog that ‘for some reason’ can be seen ‘only in mirrors’.

Not all of the narratives dwell on the darker side of human nature, and instead explore the quirkier regions of the supernatural. As Sjón points out in his foreword, in place of philosophy and metaphysics medieval Iceland had poetry and tales – ‘debates on the interaction between body and soul, for example, could be conducted through the medium of verses or stories about birds.’  Óskar Árni Óskarsson writes about a pen that possesses a magical power, granting the gift of originality to its poetry-writing owners as it passes from hand to hand – a cheap, unremarkable Biro. And again in parable form, Magnús Sigurðsson presents a series of dream-like narrative reflections, one of which centres on a play between the Latin word lego, ‘I read’, and the etymology of the Danish toy manufacturer Lego.

For the most part the translations by several hands read well, with the occasional lapse where the process becomes too literal a transposition of Icelandic syntax and phrasing. 

In general Helen Mitsios is to be congratulated on having compiled a highly readable and often entertaining miscellany of writing from a European literary culture that is still not as well known to the rest of the world as it ought to be. The characters of these short stories inhabit a realm that lies somewhere between fiction, mythology and poetry, and everywhere in them there is the sense of a lone, reflective wanderer, observing and noting inner and outer realities. It’s almost as if the same narrator were somehow present throughout the entire volume. As a result, the stories are best read in sequence, almost like a collective novel rather than as isolated texts: I found it the most satisfactory way to absorb this fascinating and eminently re-readable book.

Sunday, 23 April 2017

Eric Dickens

It is very sad to learn of the death of Eric Dickens, one of the founder members of this blog back in 2009, though he later left it. The news of his passing was not widely shared, alas, and I have only heard it now from Mel Huang on Twitter. Dalkey Archive Press posted a notice some weeks ago, and I thoroughly endorse its sentiments.

Out of the Blue

Minnesota University Press have published a new anthology of Icelandic short fiction, edited by Helen Mitsios, with a foreword by Sjón. I'll hope to review it in a future post here. The writers include Auður Ava Olafsdóttir, Kristín Eiríksdóttir, Þórarinn Eldjárn, Gyrðir Elíasson, Einar Örn Gunnarsson, Ólafur Gunnarsson, Einar Már Guðmundsson, Auður Jónsdóttir, Gerður Kristný, Andri Snær Magnason, Óskar Magnússon, Bragi Ólafsson, Kristín Ómarsdóttir, Óskar Árni Óskarsson, Magnús Sigurðsson, Jón Kalman Stefánsson, Ágúst Borgþór Sverrisson, Guðmundur Andri Thorsson, Þórunn Erlu-Valdimarsdóttir, and Rúnar Helgi Vignisson.

Saturday, 22 April 2017

The vexed question

Though it has no particular Nordic focus, this recent article by Tim Parks about literary translation and the conditions under which many or most translators live and work touches on some vital issues. In particular, I'm struck by Parks' suggestion at the conclusion of the piece, which echoes thoughts I've sometimes had myself:
My own feeling is that the problem is less difficult than everyone pretends; that it surely would not be impossible to bring together editor, translator, and, say, an expert in translation from this or that language to establish how demanding a text is, how much time will be involved in translating it, and what would be a reasonable payment for doing so. Perhaps it is time for translators and translators’ associations to focus on putting such arrangements in place, without getting bogged down in the vexed question of authorship and royalties.

Under Cirrus Clouds

As blood springs out on a forehead,
radiant, red clouds of ice crystal
high above the earth, before the sun goes down,
compact smell of pine needles
is brought on a breeze from the trees further away.

A swarm of insects hangs in the air,
I remember how it was to be kept awake
by a story without fighting sleep, just watch
lips in motion, listen to words from a mouth,
feel the warm breath flow towards me,
keep me hovering in the light of the lamp
like the insects in front of me.

Only after the story did I land in the dark,
which was good,
left to myself
words kept constantly bubbling out.

I’m present, and listen to my breathing in the middle of the path
where I’ve stopped,
as I heard my breathing in the dark as a child
without calling for anyone. My lungs

swelled out when the lamp was switched off,
in those days the stories had no conclusion,
they kept on, incalculably,
there was no goodbye,
no one talked about anything ending.

When one story ended, the next one continued,
there were only beginnings, genesis, openings,
as if the stories needed me
in order to unfold, or I needed them
in order to have life breathed into me, to draw breath,
so my lungs reached the sky, expanded
as now in the breeze under the cirrus clouds.


Som blod springer
frem på en pande,
lyse, røde skyer af iskrystal
højt over jorden, før solen går ned,
kompakt lugt af fyrrenåle
føres med en brise fra træerne længere borte.

En sværm af insekter hænger i luften,
husker, hvordan det var at blive holdt vågen
af en historie uden at kæmpe mod søvnen, bare følge
læber i bevægelse, lytte til ord fra en mund,
mærke den varme ånde strømme mig i møde,
holde mig svævende i lampens lys
som insekterne foran mig.

Først efter historien landede jeg i mørket,
der var godt,
overladt til mig selv
piblede ord uophørligt frem.

Jeg er til stede, lytter til mit åndedrag midt på stien,
hvor jeg er standset,
som jeg hørte min vejrtrækning i mørket som barn
uden at kalde på nogen. Lungerne

spilede sig ud, når lampen blev slukket,
historierne var uden slutning dengang,
de blev ved, uberegneligt,
der var intet farvel,
ingen talte om, at noget ville ende.

Når ét eventyr sluttede, fortsatte det næste,
der var kun begyndelser, tilblivelse, åbninger,
som om historierne behøvede mig
for at folde sig ud, eller jeg behøvede dem
som nu i brisen under fjerskyerne.
så lungerne nåede himlen, videde sig ud
for at få pustet liv i mig, for at trække vejret,
som nu i brisen under fjerskyerne.

Pia Tafdrup - from LUGTEN AF SNE (THE SMELL OF SNOW), 2016

translated from Danish by David McDuff

Wednesday, 21 December 2016

Finland-Swedish dictionary online

The Institute for the Languages of Finland has made freely available an online dictionary of Finland-Swedish. The dictionary's compilers are Charlotta af Hällström-Reijonen and Mikael Reuter. Editing is by Bianca Holmberg, and the publisher is Schildts & Söderströms Ab.

Thursday, 8 December 2016

And now I am here

»Och nu är jag här.
I ett land som i fyra decennier haft en socialdemokratisk regering.
I ett samhälle där opinioner,  debatt, skolväsen – hela samhällsklimatet formats av detta socialdemokratiska etablissemang.
Och jag grips av samma förlamande depression, samma kvävningskänslor som i 1930-talets monolitiska Finland.»

Marianne Alopaeus, Drabbad av Sverige (1983) 

Monday, 5 December 2016

Mirjam Tuominen - complete works

The Swedish publisher Eskaton has begun its republication of the work of Mirjam Tuominen in ten volumes. The first two volumes in the series are Besk brygd (1947) and Tema med variationer (1952). The first reviews have begun to appear - notably a very positive one in Bernur.

For a short introduction to the new series and the current resurgence of interest in Mirjam Tuominen's life and work, see Hbl Litterarum.

Monday, 18 April 2016

The Smell of Snow

Pia Tafdrup's new collection Lugten af sne (The Smell of Snow) will be published by Gyldendal in May 2016.

One of the poems from the new book can be read in my translation here.

Sunday, 17 April 2016

Caught in the Act

by Pia Tafdrup

The fish catches its food
and itself is caught, has its head
cut off with a cracking sound,
the smell of fish blood rises while
under the knife the fish still twitches.

The light bones and feathers
lie scattered among grass and stones,
where the bird circled in the air,
smelled its way to earthworms in the soil,
before the marten consumed its meal.

On the grassy plains a hungry wolf
goes after the sheep's bellies and guts,
on the carcasses the ribs
are gnawed away, flies and worms
take care of the last remnants.

In the dust among the rubble of war
the wounded lie,
I recognize the smell,
when an angel is grazed.

In the dust among the rubble of war
lie the dead,
victims of a bloody hour, who once
lay in wombs,
must now be placed in the grave
infinitely close to our hearts.

Breathing, collision,
the locations accumulate,
rocks and clods of earth,
the whole world is a crime scene.

translated from Danish by David McDuff

Essay Tour

I've translated a section from Gösta Ågren's latest collection, Dikter utan land (Schildts & Söderströms, 2015):

A tour through the essays of Ralph Waldo Emerson

The essays themselves are here.

Tuesday, 1 September 2015

Gösta Ågren: 5 poems


Att riva ett hus är svårare
än att bygga det. Du kan
avlägsna tak, väggar och golv,
men det går inte att  få bort
de tomma rummen.


To demolish a house is harder
than to build it. You can
remove roof, walls and floors,
but you cannot get rid of
the empty rooms.


Vi existerar, en skuld,
som måste betalas. Vår
hänsynslösa vistelse kräver
ett svar, som är större
än brottet.


We exist, a debt
that must be paid. Our
reckless sojourn demands
an answer that is greater
than the crime.


Fönstren är sönderslagna;
man kan inte längre se
igenom dem. Dörren
saknar lås. Den kan
inte längre öppnas. En ram
har ingen tavla; man ser


The windows are shattered;
one can no longer see
through them. The door
lacks a lock. It can
no longer be opened. A frame
has no picture: one sees


Han sitter orörlig
i mitten av sitt nät,
som ingen kommer igenom
utan att ge eller
inte ge.


He sits motionless
in the middle of his net,
through which no one comes
without giving or
not giving.


Tiden är bara en tanke.  För
att kunna gå behöver den
en kropp, hjärtat.

Också evigheten är
en tanke. För att kunna
stå stilla behöver den
samma hjärta.


Time is only a thought. To
be able to move it needs
a body, the heart.

Eternity, too, is
a thought. To be able
to stand still it needs
the same heart.

from Gösta Ågren, Dikter utan land, Schildts & Söderströms, 2015

translated from Finland-Swedish by David McDuff

Thursday, 4 December 2014


Kineserne betragter metallet som et element. Jeg holdt mig til den vestlige tankegang i kvartetten, men metallet blev ved at spøge og dukker op i denne bog, hvor den knytter sig til smagssansen. I digtet vises forbindelsen mellem flere elementer, dels når de forholder sig produktivt til hinanden, dels destruktivt. En cyklus, der kan gå begge veje. Det produktive kan afføde mere positiv produktion, men kan også slå om i sin negation, så det destruktive tager over. Det er to sæt af kræfter, vi må forholde os til, to forskellige kræfter, der griber ind i vores liv.
The Chinese view metal as an element. I stuck to the Western way of thinking in the quartet, but metal continued to haunt it and it shows up in this book, where it is linked to the sense of taste. In the poem the connection of several elements appears, partly when they relate productively to each other and partly when they do so destructively. A cycle that can go either way. The productive can generate more positive production, but can also turn into its negation, so that the destructive takes over. There are two sets of forces we must relate to, two different forces that intervene in our lives.

- Pia Tafdrup, in a note on her new collection Smagen af stål (The Taste of Steel), Gyldendal 2014

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Friday, 17 October 2014

Two Collections

Here are links to the Amazon pages for the forthcoming Bloodaxe collections One Evening in October I Rowed out on the Lake by Tua Forsström and Salamander Sun and Other Poems by Pia Tafdrup, both in my translation. Both books are scheduled for publication on January 25, 2015.

Friday, 10 October 2014

Tove Jansson: Work and Love

I now have an advance copy of my translation of Tuula Karjalainen's biography of Tove Jansson, which will be published by Penguin's Particular Books imprint on November 27. Am pleased with the production of the book, and the clarity of the illustrations and artwork.

Tove Jansson Letters

My translations of selected letters of Tove Jansson and an introductory essay by Pia Ingström are now online at the Books from Finland website.

Tuesday, 7 October 2014

Pia Tafdrup: Snow Flowers


The snow has settled on the branches, filled
the empty bird nests in trees and bushes along
roads that all lead to the church.
The March sun dazzles, the snow on the ground dazzles,
shadows fall where we walk,
flocks of crows circle high up above us.

The cold in the church, the cold round our feet, silence
swirls giddily in the vaulted space,
where no sounds from outside
Having to lose is what we can’t make ourselves ready for.

The dead woman
we have come to bury is not here. No tracks
lead anywhere.
An invisible frontier is crossed, a part
of our life is gone,
a chapter of Europe’s history over.

We must bury the body she left behind,
she herself carried on,
though we see her in the open coffin, give thanks for
what we received.

We see the dead woman,
see her dressed in travel clothes, see the dead woman
with  mouth closed and lips pressed together,
though in life she was always laughing and talking,
muscles robbed of movement, skin like stone.

There was a time when it was to us
she laughed and talked.
The loss we must all bear, it
does not make it any less hard.

We see and don’t understand. We are present here
and don’t understand.

We lay flowers, stand
in the smell of incense with lighted candles.
Except that her head is not tilted,
the dead woman resembles

the image of the Virgin Mary in the icon
that is placed in the open coffin.

The funeral is
for the living, the dead woman's soul
has already gone.
Several days ago it vanished for us.

Dear soul,
We bury your body, but you are free.

The language we speak is not the same as before,
the snow falls into me,
snow flowers drift cold in the blood.
We look and look at the dead woman.
The sight of her face is imprinted
forever, the wax candles are burning down.

Now it is us. Now loneliness shines.
Star-visited night,
many-multiplied arrival,
frost-lit fields, ice-bound soil,
loss burns itself into the mind,
a strange and unfamiliar freedom.


Sneen har lagt sig på grenene, fyldt
de tomme fuglereder i træer og buske langs
veje, der alle fører til kirken.
Martssolen blænder, sneen på jorden blænder,
skygger falder, hvor vi går,

flokke af krager cirkler højt oppe over os.
Kulden i kirken, kulden om fødderne, stilhed
hvirvler svimmelt i det hvælvede rum,
hvor ingen lyde udefra
trænger ind.
At skulle miste kan vi ikke gøre os klar til.

Den døde,
vi er kommet for at begrave, er her ikke. Ingen spor
fører nogen steder hen.
En ikke synlig grænse er passeret, en del
af vores liv er væk,
et kapitel af Europas historie slut.

Vi skal begrave legemet, hun efterlod,
selv fortsatte hun,
skønt vi ser hende i den åbne kiste, takker for
hvad vi fik.

Vi ser den døde,
ser hende iført rejseklæder, ser den døde
med lukket mund og læberne presset sammen,
skønt hun i live altid lo og talte,
muskler berøvet bevægelse, hud som sten.

Der var en tid, hvor det var til os,
hun lo og talte.
Tabet skal vi alle bære, det
gør det ikke mindre svært.

Vi ser og fatter ikke. Vi er til stede her
og fatter ikke.

Vi lægger blomster, står
i duften af røgelse med tændte lys.
Bortset fra at hovedet ikke hælder,
ligner den døde

billedet af Jomfru Maria på ikonet,
der sættes i den åbne kiste.

Begravelsen er til
for de levende, den dødes sjæl
er allerede rejst.
For flere dage siden forsvandt den for os.

Kære sjæl,
Vi begraver din krop, men du er fri.

Sproget, vi taler, er ikke det samme som før,
sneen falder i mig,
sneblomster fyger koldt i blodet.
Vi ser og ser på den døde.
Synet af hendes ansigt prentes ind
for altid, vokskærterne brænder ned.

Nu er det os. Nu lyser ensomheden.
Stjernebesøgt nat,
mangedoblet ankomst,
frostbelyste marker, isbundet jord,
tab brænder sig ind i sindet,
en sær og fremmed frihed.

(from Smagen af stål [The Taste of Steel], Gyldendal 2014)

translated from Danish by David McDuff

Marie Under: Poems



Now once again on us these white nights fall,
no sleep is had by heavens, land or sea,
or the expectant blood of this humanity:
desire like embers burning in the soul.

These white nights are like silver fetters, chains:
and all the scents in flowers’ silk embrace
have woken trembling in their secret place
as from afar the waters bring refrains.

Then golden hair flies streaming in the breeze
and large eyes sparkle with a secret glow –
Who wove these dreams around me in the air?

And red and redder swell my lips with ease –
No one can kiss away and make them go,
the countless kisses that have ripened there.



Nüüd jälle tulevad need valged ööd,
kus und ei saa ei taevas, maa, ei meri,
ei inimlaste ootus-ärev veri,
kus ihad hinges hõõguvad kui söed.

Need valged ööd kui hõbevalged keed:
kõik lõhnad õite siidilises süles
on sala värisedes ärgand üles,
ja mingit kauget laulu toovad veed. 

Siis kuldseis juustes lehitsemas tuuled
ja suuris silmis salaline sära –
Kes kõik need unelmad mu ümber palmind!

Ja puna-punasemaks paisumas mu huuled –
ei suuda keegi suudelda neilt ärä,
mis lugemata suudlusi sääl sääl valmind.


Over a lonely path
half bent in two I walk,
always keeping my eyes
on time’s hurrying clock.

Beside the lonely path
the last flower freezes in air.
Death reaps time and fortune,
somewhere, somewhere...

Somewhere a house is waiting
Remember it where you stand!
Endure now, endurer,
waiting somewhere is a land.

Somewhere a house is waiting,
waiting somewhere is a land –
Endure now, endurer:
the heart will not ease its demand.


Üle üksiku raja
kõnnin poolkummargil,
silmad alati aja
ruttaval osutil.

Ääres üksiku raja
külmetab viimne lill.
Surm niidab õnne ja aja
kusagil, kusagil...

Kusagil ootab üks maja –
Mäleta mäleta!
Kannata, kannataja,
kusagil ootab üks maa...

Kusagil ootab üks maja,
kusagil ootab üks maa –
Kannata, kannataja:
südänt neist lahti ei saa.

poems translated from Estonian by David McDuff

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Sunday, 15 June 2014

True North

True North: Literary Translation in the Nordic Countries  (ed. B.J. Epstein)
is the first book to focus solely on literary translation from, to, and between the Nordic tongues. The book is divided into three main sections. These are novels, children’s literature, and other genres – encompassing drama, crime fiction, sagas, cookbooks, and music – although, naturally, there are connections and overlapping themes between the sections. Halldór Laxness, Virginia Woolf, Selma Lagerlöf, Astrid Lindgren, Mark Twain, Henrik Ibsen, Henning Mankell, Janis Joplin, and Jamie Oliver are just some of the authors analysed. Topics examined include particular translatorial challenges; translating for specific audiences or influencing audiences through translation; re-translation; the functions of translated texts; the ways in which translation can change a genre; the creation of identity through translation; and more. 
(from the publisher's book description)

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Blue Ejder - Karin Boye

Some of my translations of poems by Karin Boye have been set to music by the Swedish/English duo Blue Ejder, in a CD album featuring Sunniva Brynnel (voice, piano, kalimba), Aubin Vanns (guitars) and Neil Yates (flugelhorn, voice).

Saturday, 5 April 2014

The Thaw

Foreword Reviews have published a review of Ólafur Gunnarsson's latest collection of short stories. The stories are in English, translated by the author:
For all its thought-provoking content, the translation is uneven: “The nurse was tending to the child tenderly,” could have been rendered using a verb and an adjective that do not share the same root, for example. Likewise, it would be unlikely that a seven-year-old character would refer to his class art display as an “exhibition.” However, at other times, the translation fits with the story and showcases the author’s way with words, as in this description of an airplane accident: “And like a black goose that had been shot, the enormous plane crash-landed on the gravel airfield.” Or this ironic phrase that expresses a role reversal of a father and his terminally ill daughter: “[She] sat there in her wheelchair like a solemn old woman expressing her approval of her well-behaved grandson.”
Overall, in this elegant collection, Gunnarsson’s stories succeed.

Walker on Water

Unnamed Press, U.S.A., have published a new collection of prose pieces by the Estonian poet Kristiina Ehin, Walker on Water. An excerpt from Ilmar Lehtpere's translation:
Lately I’ve discovered that my husband’s head opens at the back. I hadn’t noticed that before. There’s a hatch there. When Jaan comes home after a tiring day at work, he opens the hatch and takes his brains out. They steam on the table, but Jaan stretches his legs out on the sofa and looks at me with his happy, drowsy eyes.