With the cold wave of Nordic literature crashing on UK shores over recent years, SIGURJÓN BIGIR SIGURÐSSON or ‘Sjón’ is glad to suggest ten books for those who want to prepare themselves…
Sigurjón Birgir Sigurðsson
Some of the authors I choose here will be appearing at the Southbank Centre and some are featured in the anthology that I have edited with Ted Hodgkinson, The Dark Blue Winter Overcoat and Other Stories from the North. Others are to be found at all hours of day and night in their books.
Never in history have so many diverse books from the north been translated, and in the last five years in the UK and the USA the list has been growing. This can be seen in the success of contemporary authors such as Karl Ove Knausgaard and Sofi Oksanen, of crime novelists such as Arnaldur Indriðason and Henning Mankell. And then we have the old guard: Strindberg, Ibsen, Hamsun, Lagerlöf, Blixen/Dinesen and the Sagas, to provide us with an impeccable pedigree.
While working on the the anthology, I was more than ever convinced that the literatures of the region have more in common that not. The dry wit, the willingness to dwell in melancholia and look at the world through its blue-tinted glasses, the social criticism that comes with bringing to light the stories of the marginalised, the exploration of style and form as integral part of diving into any given theme, the deep-felt belief in literature’s role in keeping our societies humane.
1. Tómas Jónsson, Bestseller by Guðbergur Bergsson (translated by Lytton Smith)
Bergsson is the grand old man of Icelandic literature and this is the novel every Icelandic author must love and resist. Written in 1966, when biographies of turn-of-the-century greats were dominating the bestseller lists in Iceland, the novel pretends to be the autobiographical musings of its ageing protagonist. Having nothing to his name but the fact that he is descended from Vikings, and the small flat where he lives in one room, renting the rest out to lodgers, Tómas does his best to prove worthy of a book of his own. Only recently translated into English, it is a fabulous feast of wilting light, with a whiff of Beckett’s Unnamable’s underpants.
2. Novel 11, Book 18 by Dag Solstad (translated by Sverre Lyngstad)
If there is a motto to the books I have read by Solstad, it is: “We are born to embarrass ourselves before our destruction.” Here we follow the slow but sure decline of one Bjørn Hansen who leaves his wife and infant son for life in a small town where he becomes involved in amateur theatre, with all its petty in-fighting and jealousy. When his son turns up eighteen years later, things take a darker turn.
3. The Endless Summer by Madame Nielsen (translated by Gaye Kynoch)
At once the foremost stylist of contemporary Danish literature and the most provocative one, Nielsen shocked readers with the sudden beauty and tenderness of this novel. The reader is swept away by the flow of the narrative, the warmth and wit of a storyteller who presents modern tales of destiny with a fearless presentation of the bittersweet melancholy of existence.
4. Not Before Sundown by Johanna Sinisalo (translated by Herbert Lomas)
This is a beautifully constructed fable for our times, where Sinisalo addresses humanity’s changing relationship with nature. So, if you have been waiting to discover a novel about a young and lovesick photographer named Angel who finds and takes in a catlike, feral troll kid, this is your book. But it is far from whimsical, and a subplot about a Filipino mail-order bride kept locked up in one of the flats of Angel’s building poses questions about our human to human relationships as well.
5. New Collected Poems by Tomas Tranströmer (translated by Robin Fulton)
A collective cheer could be heard from the north when this Swedish poet was awarded the Nobel prize in 2011. He was the first Nordic laureate in decades and the one we all hoped for. His poems are never sentimental but always full of emotion, never sweet but always beautiful — always rich in images while appearing minimal, always of their time while speaking to all times and the people at their mercy.
6. Crimson by Niviaq Korneliussen (translated by Anna Halager)
Korneliussen’s novel tells the story of a group of friends living in modern-day Nuuk, Greenland’s capital city of 18,000 inhabitants. Like young people anywhere, they are grappling with coming of age in world they never made, discovering their sexual identities and futures. Told in emails, messages, journals, short stories, it transports us to a cold homeland where the blood runs hot.
7. Mirror, Shoulder, Signal by Dorthe Nors (translated by Misha Hoekstra)
Nors’ minimalist, experimental stories read as if they were thorough reports on the complexity behind the everyday situations men and especially women find themselves in. She is a master of the undercurrent, and the simplicity of her sentences makes them magnets for the reader’s own contribution to the reading experience. We can’t help mirroring ourselves in the characters, matching our own attempts at making sense of what has brought us to the moment of truth in similar situations.
8. The Tower at the Edge of the World by William Heinesen (translated by W Glyn Jones)
Heinesen is the last of the 20th-century masters of Nordic letters still to be discovered by a global readership. A match with Iceland’s Halldór Laxness, Denmark’s Karen Blixen and Norway’s Knut Hamsun, he was the one who wrote from the smallest of the northern worlds, the tiny community of Tórshavn in the Faroe Islands. I use every opportunity I get to bang the drum for his books. Now his poetic evocation of life on an island that to the vast ocean is “just about the same as a grain of sand to the floor of a dance hall” is being published in a new English translation. I hope some readers of these words will follow him there.
9. The Gravity of Love by Sara Stridsberg (translated by Deborah Bragan-Turner)
This novel’s protagonist is the daughter of a suicidal alcoholic living in a deteriorating mental hospital. If one believes, as I do, that investigating the harshest things in life through the literary use of language – where vulnerability and cruelty, confusion and determination, are described with equal precision – is one of our main tools to keep ourselves grounded and humane, then Stridsberg’s story is vital reading.
10. Inside Voices, Outside Light by Sigurður Pálsson (translated by Martin Regal)
Inspired by the dark surrealism of the Atom Poets – the group of modernists who broke Icelandic literature out of the confines of tradition in the years after the second world war – Pálsson’s poetic world is at once highly lyrical and playful. Everyday life inspires contemplations of the tragic optimism of the human being; for at the core of man’s many balancing acts – dancing, slapstick routines, staying in love, keeping the head high – there is always the threat of destruction, and the only antidote to our awareness of our fatality is poetry as it was practised by Pálsson.
SIGURJÓN BIGIR SIGURÐSSON is the co-editor of The Dark Blue Winter Overcoat and Other Nordic Stoties. He writes for The Guardian.