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.

See also in this blog: A View of the Kingdom

Wednesday, 26 April 2017

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