I’ve finally gone off the deep end on this Icelandic Literature thing. It’s one thing to read a few Icelandic mysteries, see a few Icelandic films, and build a web site devoted to Halldór Laxness. But when I reach the point of reviewing a 53-year-old reference book, perhaps I should step back and re-examine my priorities.
It's already too late.
Actually, I found this to be a most interesting volume. To have almost a thousand years of Icelandic literature presented in a lucid and chronological order really helped me understand how The Sagas and The Eddas influenced generations of writers, poets and songwriters, even if the narrative ends in 1956, the year after Laxness won his Nobel prize. Stefán does a thorough job in covering the sagas, and also in explaining various meters and styles of poetry. He covers in detail the early 20th century authors, both in Iceland and in North America, capturing the stylistic and intellectual foment of the times.
Those of you who have visited the Wikipedia page on Laxness will note that this book is referenced several times—the Einarsson quotes, while colorful, are a snapshot from the mid-point of Laxness' career. Daisy Neijmann's recent book of the same title (my next purchase?) or Halldór Guðmundsson's biography give the reader a broader perspective. Einarsson was personally acquainted with many of these prominent 20th century writers so his absolute objectivity may be questionable. Still, the book is loaded with little "nuggets" of information. When writing about Icelandic publications in North America he describes many of the publications which sprang up, primarily in Manitoba. My favorite line:
Some periodicals were designed to delight rather than educate; these cannot be mentioned here.
A History of Iceland
by Knut Gjerset
Macmillan, New York, 1924
I found this well-preserved book at a local antique store, that’s the 88 year-old dust jacket of my copy pictured above! I was intrigued by its subject of course, but was pleasantly surprised to find myself reading a well-written and comprehensive reference. Knut Gjerset was a professor of History and Norwegian at Luther College in Decorah Iowa from 1902 until 1936. He was the original curator of the Norwegian-American Historical Museum (Now the Vesterheim Museum) which I visited in 2011.
A big problem in trying to grasp the history of Iceland is the blur of names, places and events over the last 1140+ years. This book helped me understand how Iceland changed over that time, in particular the power struggles between the goðar (chieftains) and the saga-heroes of the early years. The Icelandic people were then challenged by the Church and the royalty of Norway and Denmark, made chattel to monopolistic traders and even besieged by pirates! Obviously, the book ends right after World War I, with a chapter devoted to Icelandic emigration.
While I may have finally read enough Icelandic history for it to finally “stick” in my brain I wouldn’t want to take a test on what I've read. This book turned the flow of Iceland’s history into a compelling narrative, particularly from 1300 to 1700. It is not a rare book; a diligent researcher should also be able to find a copy in WorldCat.
Eleanor’s CBC podcast interview with Hallgrímur Helgason on Icelandic culture—discussion of Laxness is from 14:00 to 20:00…
Dagný’s Icelandic Literature Centerarticle about Iceland’s literary history…