Svava Jakobsdóttir was born on October 4, 1930 in the small town of Neskaupstaður. She graduated from highschool in 1949 and completed a B.A. degree in English and American literature at Smith College in Northhampton in Massachusetts in 1952. Svava was a graduate student in Old Norse literature at Somerville College in Oxford, England, from 1952-1953, and studied Sweedish modern literature at Uppsala University in Sweeden from 1965-1966.
Svava worked for the Icelandic Foreign Ministry and in the Stockholm Embassy from 1955 to 1964. She was a journalist for Lesbók Morgunblaðsins 1966-1969 and worked in the department of broadcasting at the National Radio (RÚV) in 1969-1970. Svava was a member of Parliament for the People’s Alliance in Reykjavík between 1971 and 1979.
Svava was on the board of The Icelandic Writers Association from 1968 – 1971. She has served in a number of public committees, among them a committee for writing a bill on the participation of the state in building and financing Kindergartens in 1971 and in 1973 she joined a committee for a draft of law concerning the Writer’s Salary Fund. She was also on the board of The Icelandic Centre for Research from 1971-1974 and stayed on as a vice member from 1978-1979. Svava was furthermore a vice member at the Nordic Council from 1971-1974 and a member of its board in 1978 and 1979. She was a representative at the United Nations general conferences in 1972, 1974, 1977 and 1982. She was on the board of Mál og menning publishing house from 1976-1979 and a member of its representative body. From 1978-1980 Svava sat in the Icelandic Writer’s Council. Svava was Iceland’s representative in a consultation group doing a survey of the cultural collaboration of the Nordic countries, based on the nordic cultural-agreement from 1972-1978. She was a vice member of the management board of the Nordic House in Reykjavík from 1979-1984, and a member of the Museum Council in The National Gallery from 1979-1983. She was the Icelandic representative in the Committee for Equality of the Nordic countries from 1980-1983. Svava was also on the administrative board for The Icelandic Dramatists’ Union from 1986-1990. She was the Icelandic representative in the arts-presentation of Scandinavia Today in Japan, 1987.
Svava is one of Iceland’s leading contemporary authors and her short stories, often depicting the lives of women, hold a special place in Icelandic literature. Her first work of fiction was the short story collection Tólf konur (Twelve Women), published in 1965. She wrote short stories, novels and plays for theatre, radio and television. She also wrote a number of longer and shorter articles for magazines and newspapers, and produced radio programs. Her works have been translated into many languages, and her plays have also been staged abroad. Many of her best known stories appear in Englihs translations in the book The Lodger and Other Stories, published in 2000. Svava lectured and presented her own work for various foreign accociations, as well as literature departments at the universities of Bergen in 1979, Oslo in 1979 and 1988, London in 1984, Freiburg in 1987 and Amsterdam, 1988.
Svava Jakobsdóttir passed away in Reykjavik on February 21, 2004.
Author photo: The Reykjavík Museum of Photography.
From the Author
Fiction Writing as Life and a Search
one word found another
word for me
is a quote taken from the 141. verse of Hávamál. To me, these lines capture the quality of words and my experience of them. The first word is not happy about being single and autonomous and immediately begins a search for another word as soon as it has been formed, even if it was itself also made from a word, without us being any closer to knowing the original word ... Who should give these words, begetting other words, a meaning – or do they not have a meaning? Sometimes we say figuratively that something is just empty words. The word empty has then become the void into which the words go forth. Then Story steps in. She is always struggling to fill the emptiness and turn space into time. So the original word must be life!
If I had to describe my attitude towards fiction writing, the key words could be life and a quest. The one who seeks is curious... always asking every word, every event: where do you come from, where are you headed and what are you seeking?
I tend to work myself up from the roots. Gunnlaðar saga (The Saga of Gunnlöd) which is set both in the present and in the Copper Age, is formally unwritten. It is a silent reminiscing of memories, some of which are other people’s oral narratives. The story ends as the protagonist of the book, the mother, is put in prison and from there she plans to write the book. One of her last utterances is: “In a fire inside the chest of the prisoner, a land rises.”
I have a feeling that this land is to be found in a “realistic” context in a short story that has the same title in my book, Undir eldfjalli (Under a Volcano).
Svava Jakobsdóttir, 2001.
Translated by Vera Júlíusdóttir.
The verse from Hávamál translated by Carolyne Larrington (in The Poetic Edda. Oxford University Press, 1996).
About the Author
Mirror, mirror … : The fiction of Svava Jakobsdóttir
[...] the fact that she was familiar with the surroundings surprised and frightened her – she became certain that she was no longer in Reykjavík, maybe not even in Iceland, because the wrong bus would never drive along the same route as a bus going the right way. The surroundings had been transported and reassembled somewhere and the accuracy of the assemblage only made her more certain in her knowledge – no one showed such detailed precision except to deceive.
Svava Jakobsdóttir: “Kona með spegil” (“Woman with a Mirror”)
The first lodger
During the mid-twentieth century the magazine Líf og list (Life and Art) announced a short story competition. The winner was a nineteen-year old girl called Svava Jakobsdóttir and the story, “Konan í kjallaranum” (“The Woman in the Basement”), was published in the magazine’s 1950 July edition.
This appears to be Svava’s first published piece, but she has not chosen to include it in subsequent anthologies and perhaps considers it as an example of youthful experimentation. Yet the story remains a competent contribution to the realist tradition of Icelandic short fiction. It demonstrates Svava’s early and abiding interest in analyzing the backdrop or mise-en-scène most often taken for granted in traditional storytelling – namely living quarters. Already at the very beginning of her career Svava realizes that the dwellings that frame peoples’ lives are fraught with meaning: we call such accommodations living quarters but the quarter given to the inhabitants is often revealed as less than perfect when examined as a reflection of human existence.
The central figure in “The Woman in the Basement” is a lodger, a precursor of the famous lodger in the later novel by the same name; however, this character is a student from the country (which in fact makes him almost a foreigner in the modern city) who rents “a room on the first floor of a house on the west side of town”. The family living in the basement owns the room and so the lodger is ironically placed beneath the people who live below him. In addition, the woman in the basement looses her husband at the start of the story. What does that signify? The text jokingly states that “the woman in the basement was the owner”. The student follows the movements of the people in the basement closely – spying from behind curtains in a traditionally effeminate manner – and it becomes clear that his multiple desires are directed towards the objects of his gaze. He longs for the home the basement represents, and his longing is both that of the child and of the man. He tests the woman when her husband is home sick, challenging the husband on the his home field as it were, by asking the woman to sew a button onto his shirt. It is the student, however, who is made to yield. When the husband dies and the woman doesn’t leave the basement for days on end the student “longs to go downstairs to her”. When he finally does, she announces that he has to vacate the room.
„[...] I can get a tenant who can pay twice as much rent as you and – you understand, I need the money. I hope it won’t be too long before you can move out.”
Then she closed the door and he was alone outside.
The woman in the basement had become a widow.
This ending to the story can be characterized as romantic irony that furthermore announces a certain truth about human relations and fiction: one plus one does not always equal two.
Even though he is engaged in a business administration course at university, the student, blinded by other thoughts, had not been able to figure this woman out. The woman grows out of the space he had “placed” her in. Svava’s stories constantly testify to the importance of the home yet simultaneously demonstrate that the ego cannot be contained within – it will always expand beyond the walls.
Svava graduated from collage in Reykjavík one year prior to the publication of this story. She was born in the East Iceland fishing village Neskaupstaður on 4 October 1930 but as a child moved to Canada when her minister father was appointed to the emigrant Icelandic parish at Saskatchewan. When Svava was ten she moved back to Iceland with her family and settled in Reykjavík. Traces of these childhood moves between languages and cultures have had a considerable effect on Svava; certainly, their effect is evident in her work, particularly in the short story “Fyrnist yfir allt” (“The Rest is Silence”), published in 1989 in Undir eldfjalli (Beneath a Volcano), which starts with the words “her earliest memory of herself was of being situated on the border between languages.”
After the publication of her award winning story in Life and Art, Svava did not publish fiction for a number of years. She attended university, first at the University of Iceland and subsequently at Smith College in Massachusetts where she earned a BA in English and North-American literature in 1952. She went on to study medieval Icelandic literature at Oxford in 1952-53 but subsequently joined the diplomatic service and spent several years working for the Icelandic embassy in Stockholm. In the early sixties she worked as a teacher, a producer for the Icelandic National Broadcasting Service and as a journalist, writing, amongst other things, for a major Icelandic newspaper’s literary supplement.
It is therefore a well educated and experienced woman who publishes her first book entitled 12 konur (12 Women) in 1965. And it is difficult to find any signs of the new author in the book which is characterized by a disciplined sense of stylistics and keen, psychological insights into the mind and lot of the women and girls here filling the apostolate twelve. The stories furthermore possess a fresh quality, still evident forty years later. 12 Women is a testament to an attempted re-working of narrative realism through an introduction of traditional fairy tale-, national myth- and religious motifs. Tradition also makes an appearance in the setting: familiar rural Iceland provides the backdrop to both the opening story and the close of the last one. Conversely, the country is portrayed as menacing and dangerous, and the women protagonists in these two stories both “loose” their child (albeit in different ways) in this setting. The country appears as both an inversion and mirror image of the modernity Svava writes about, yet the country cannot accommodate it. Svava does however use the rural background of two characters from separate stories, the girl in “Gerviblóm” (“Artificial Flowers”) and the workman in the story by the same name, as a reminder of the country; a place to which neither character is likely to return. Two of the stories are set in foreign countries but must of them happen in the emergent Icelandic city.
It is the city, this relatively new type of settlement, which forms the main subject in many of Svava’s stories. These settlements are dangerous, as the first story announces, but the danger also resides in the everyday. Danger appears when the mother in “Slys” (“Accident”), who believes she has sacrificed so much for her daughter, hears gravel rattling and brakes squealing and fears that her daughter may have been hit but simultaneously feels a longing stir. Not that she would want her daughter to have an accident, but some part of her longs to act the role of the bravely suffering mother who must start over again. The apple is the main symbol in this story and as a symbol, it acquires phenomenal new connotations.
The very lives of mothers and housewives are threatened in these stories. The existence of some of these women has become so synonymous with the bourgeois home that their morals and values have become extensions of familiar objects and housewifely “duties”. In “Snyrtimennska” (“Tidiness”) a lady has organized a sewing circles’ trip to the country, mainly as an excuse to rendezvous with a man she has met. In the end, what stops her from going is not the idea of being unfaithful to her husband; rather, his pants still need ironing, and she cannot decide whether the vase would perhaps “be better placed on the small table?” (12 women, p. 33). This artful humor conceals a sharp insight into deeper existential anxieties: Do I belong here? Does this home, these markers of bourgeois life relate to me? Or do I merely skirt the periphery of the type of being this apartment establishes and mirrors? Interestingly the only two male characters the women protagonists form any kind of connection with are the workman who has left the country and the vagrant in “Merkið” (“The Sign”).
Phantasms and mirrors
These stories demonstrate that Svava is engaged in exploring profound questions about women’s identity and freedom in her fiction. Often these issues also concern children, as the women’s lives are inextricably bound to their offspring. This is even the case when the woman in question is barren, as in the story “Veggur úr gleri” (“Wall of Glass”). The woman is never at peace with herself, but feels better when objects fill the void she senses around her: “Things. Large and little. Abrasive, smooth, soft – all tangible and real to her touch. Vases, bowls, trays, tablecloths, tables – these objects gladly and guilelessly accepted her care” (12 Women, p. 76).
These stories also testify to Svava’s rare insight into the minds of children, especially young girls, whose point of view is portrayed both sensitively and boldly yet without prudery in such stories as “Rautt og gult” (“Red and Yellow”), “The Sign” and “Faðir minn í kví kví” (“My Father in the Sheepfold”). The development of boy children has been well documented in literary works, but the same can hardly be said about the formative years of girls. Both in this volume as well as in later work, Svava brings her insight to bear on points of existential crises that mark the journey of the young girls’ lives, sometimes illustrating these junctures by employing motifs from national myths, fairy tales and other types of ancient ritualistic literature which can often be ugly or cruel. The girl Erla Herlaugsdóttir in “My Father in the Sheepfold” has never known her father, but learns that he is aboard a ship docked in the harbor. Erla gets her friend Silla to accompany her to the ship where Erla identifies herself to her father. He promptly asks Silla if she is his as well and offers the girls a drink. The cook drops by the cabin and asks if he’s interrupting, to which the father answers:
“Not in the least. This is a family affair and everything is fine and dandy. These are my daughters.”
Silla was still giggling.
“You should take the fattened calf and slaughter it,” he continued. “Or isn’t that appropriate in this case? I can never remember what the deal is with the calf.”
Silla’s giggling rang in her ears like a cutting, unbearable earache. Her heart was pounding heavily and her eyes were glazed by shame and despondency. And now she realized that Silla was sitting next to Herlaugur, pressing flirtingly up against him and his arm lay across her shoulders and breast. The glass in her hand was half-empty. (12 Women, p. 46)
Assumptions about fathers, youth and friendship – more than one world come tumbling down in this scene. As Erla hurries off the ship she realizes that a new yet familiar space has opened up inside her “and her mother’s severity now resounded in her own words, well-known echoes bounding off every wall” (s. 47).
The reference to the fattened calf in the quote above may come as a surprise, but Svava often offers bold interpretations of seemingly familiar signs. “Artificial Flowers” tells of a young woman’s relationship with a man who, though obviously caring little for her, courts a certain kind of intimacy. As he makes himself comfortable on her sofa she watches “the vase standing on a table by the sofa behind his head. She had never really fancied that vase. But she had not noticed until now how much it resembled the human frame. It stood there on the flat table, confident and unwavering, slightly curved towards the middle and boldly inflated towards the top; the handle a defiant arm rested on a hip, and the mouth sprouting artificial flowers” (p. 60). Artificial flowers may initially seem too obvious a sign of the man’s false affection, but this graphic description of an ejection of boastful pride, whether perceived as symbolizing the man’s promises or his more material input or both, puts a newfangled and effective spin on tradition. This passage is also an example of what could be referred to as the “deconstruction” of masculinity.
The author’s unflinching boldness when it comes to describing relations between the sexes, sexual relations included, is especially evident in the story “Séð í spegli” (“Discerned in a Mirror”). The story begins as follows:
I stood in the bedroom in front of the mirror. It was a large and shiny mirror, highly polished. It stretched from floor to ceiling. I could see all of myself in it. Mirrors have always fascinated me. They reverse vision. We can see what others see. And turning vision on its head is quite an experience – right becomes left and left right, and what’s inside me becomes the surface: this is why I never approach mirrors with frivolity. (p. 49)
These words are an apt description of Svava Jakobsdóttir, the author. Mirrors of all shapes and sizes have always been an integral part of literature but Svava is one of the authors who not only use mirrors, but delve into them, exploring this device that is so important to self-determination and mimicry, literary mimesis included.
Returning to the woman in the story, who, bored by the party, is standing in the bedroom “in front of the sparkling and glacial mirror” (p. 49), trying to see herself “like Gylfi is wont to do” because even though she has lost interest in him she still needs him to look at her (p. 49). Gerða enters the room. “There was an altogether dark and rough air about her. She was stocky, almost powerfully built” and she steps up beside the narrator and looks at her in the mirror. Gerða says she’s been watching her from the doorway. “And she made a deep, throaty, cooing sound” and said: “I love you” (p. 50-2). This must have been quite shocking to some readers in 1965, coupled with the following description of the two women in bed together; the narrator’s flashback to a dream or nightmare she had of herself and Gerða. All of a sudden Gylfi is in the bedroom and when the narrator doesn’t respond according to the pattern established in their relationship, he punches the mirror and she watches as the cracks slowly extent across “its surface” in which she sees “Gerða’s distorted face. She stood behind us, waiting, and the smile playing on the corners of her lips had turned into a smirk beneath the heavy eyelids” (p. 53-4).
This mirror reflects the realism in the stories – it is very tense, both in expression as well as in the offered psychological insights. In this story, realism cracks from the tension and thus announces (along with “Wall of Glass”) the modernist work Svava was to produce later. Yet a broken mirror still reflects reality, even though it alters its composition slightly, so that a smile on the lips can become a smirk beneath the eyelids.
Party beneath a stone wall
I have been focusing on Svava’s first book so far, mainly because it is generally overshadowed by her better known later work: the short story collection Veizla undir grjótvegg (Party Beneath a Stone Wall, 1967) and the novel Leigjandinn (The Lodger, 1969). Some of the stories in Party Beneath a Stone Wall are defined by the same sharp realism that characterized Svava’s first book. This holds for the volumes’ opening story, which is also the title story. It discusses the previously mentioned new urban settlements and the settlers’ tendency to overreach. Efforts to simply build a roof over ones head turn into endeavors to build fortresses and chapels. Even the country and nature are not to be left outside and it is not enough to hang the traditional painting of the old homestead above the sofa. Entire mountains are transported into the home where they are made to feature as decorative stone walls in living rooms, as in the case of the couple in this story. But the wall also dominates the new home and symbolically separates husband and wife. In fact, the text states that the woman’s confidence “was like a wall between them” (Party, p. 9), an image that recalls the story “Glass Wall” from 12 Women. In “Glass Wall” the wife’s humble acceptance of her lot in a loveless marriage is “solidified in a glass wall, sparkling, shining, resplendent wall of glass separating herself and her husband, sheltering her like a shield” (12 Women, p. 78). The reader expects this fantastical description to be revealed as a metaphor, developing according to the logic of the realist tradition – but this does not occur. The glass wall is there, a solid object amongst its peers, and the single object dearest to the woman. It stands until the husband dies and “brings the wall down when he falls” (12 Women, p. 79).
Metaphors as well as mirrors are thus taken seriously, and, in fact, metaphors function as a type of mirror. The well-known story “Saga handa börnum” (“A Tale for Children”) is about a mother who takes the traditional role of motherhood quite seriously and literally “gives her all to house and children” (Party, p. 43). Her heart and mind don’t metaphorically belong to the children; they literally possess her body. First the children cut her toe off out of scientific curiosity and when they want to see what a human brain looks like she lets them perform a brainectomy on the kitchen table, after which her mind is kept in a jar. Afterwards, the housewife still keeps performing her duties about the house, ever a willing and eager servant. When the children move out, however, her life changes and finally the woman has her heart removed. As it turns out, none of the children want to preserve it.
This highly physical tale, with its sharp, satirical critique on the lot of women and mothers, has affected readers over a number of years, occasioning everything from outrage to laughter to revolution. Or perhaps all responses occur simultaneously, as the story questions the traditional idealization of a mother’s love, instead describing the sacrifices it calls for as part ridiculous, part horrendous and positioning both within the “innocent” realm of the home.
The ten stories in Party Beneath a Stone Wall are mostly concerned with the process of relocation, of creating homes that are mean to reflect a new type of existence. The women mostly stay behind the new walls whereas the men come and go and in the two stories featuring mail and husband protagonists, “Naglaganga” (“Nailwalking”) and “Víxillinn og rjúpan” (“The Bill of Exchange and the Grouse”), wander about aimlessly. In “Woman with a Mirror”, carpenters are putting the finishing touches on a new home and their last task is to hang a mirror in the hallway. This home is supposed to be the woman’s sanctuary so literally that she plans to lock the door from the inside and throw away the only key. She has decorated a magnificent den and the mirror was “supposed to reflect the living room in all its glory […] in the hallway, foliage and greenery would be reborn”. Rebirth and life is affected with the aid of the mirror – the woman presumably plans to look into it and ask ‘mirror, mirror…’. But when she approaches the mirror for the first time it turns out to be to small: “It reflected nothing more than a travesty of a garden; shredded leaves and half a flower” (p. 86-7). Her Eden refuses to appear in the mirror. This should perhaps not come as a surprise, as one possible interpretation is that the woman was looking for herself. This understanding is supported by the rather remarkable journey she undertakes in order to return the mirror. On the way she looks into it, “and she saw herself, if not her whole self” (p. 89). It is as if she’s looking at the world reflected by a distorting mirror; some of her cotravellers on the bus are lacking body parts and the surroundings aren’t quite right either – they “had been transported and reassembled somewhere and the accuracy of the assemblage only made her more certain in her knowledge – no one showed such detailed precision except to deceive” (p. 92).
A girl in another dramatic fantasy titled “Krabbadýr, brúðkaup, andlát” (“Crustaceans, Weddings, Funerals”), is also looking for herself, but her mirror is provided by world literature. She is quite young when her readings reveal to her the date of her death and now that day, her wedding day, has arrived. The groom is readying their new home while the bride tries to finish the last story she has yet to read. It is a story of the trials of a small crustacean who is engaged in the noble pursuit of driving ocean currants for its brothers and sisters by waiving its tiny arms. It’s a repetitious job and the story itself becomes repetitive. This surprises the bride who is pressed for time and must finish the story soon because her world is moving fast around her. Actually everything happens so fast that the wedding, move into the new house and the funeral all merge to become one condensed ceremony. The two story levels mirror each other and, focusing as it does on reading, the story challenges the reader to “write” the two narratives together; the story of the tiny crustacean’s monotonous existence and the fantastical tale of the psychic bride in whose life everything barely happens once.
Lodgers and cornerstones
Svava’s first two books earned her a reputation as one of Iceland’s best short story writers – a general opinion with which I do not disagree. In addition, Svava has been applauded for her important contribution to the battle for women’s rights in Iceland: her work mirrors the various enchainment of women, both the obvious kinds of enslavement but also reveals less visible forms, masquerading as cosseting kindness. The latter form of injustice is examined from various points of view in her first books which were published during times of upheaval that lead to great changes in women’s issues.
These first books, however, were also published at a transformational period in literary history. Svava’s fantasies and revolutionary symbolism became key to the advent of modernism in the Icelandic story-telling tradition in the late sixties. Fiction especially was revolutionized, and in her first novel, The Lodger (1969), Svava continues to renegotiate the realist tradition while introducing a modernist perspective on the narrative world and simulated reality. The words from “Woman with a Mirror”, quoted at the start of this discussion and again in the text, are illustrative of these experiments. It is surprising and horrifying that we should recognize these surroundings: it is Reykjavík yet not quite; the surroundings have been transposed and painstakingly reassembled elsewhere, most certainly in order to deceive – but where to and why?
These are important questions because they address the relation between Icelandic and foreign realities and worldviews. New Icelandic settlements still provide the main focus of attention. The novel opens with the well-known sentiment that “a person lives such an insecure life as a lodger” and develops into a discussion of the various meanings of renting and security. An unexpected foreign man, simply called “the lodger”, moves into the hallway of the house in which the couple Peter and the woman narrator are themselves lodgers. He becomes such a fixture that he moves with them when they take possession of their new house and finally, towards the end of the story, his character and Peter’s merge.
The Lodger has been read as a fable or allegory of the presence of a US defense force in Iceland, in which interpretation, the lodger represents the army. Yet it is difficult to make such a reading work seamlessly; to match all events in the fictional world of the supposed allegory to historical occurrences in the real world. Indeed, this article has already demonstrated that Svava is notoriously playful when writing about such “reflections”. The US occupation, however, is certainly part of the narrative world, as is the cold war and the discourse of insecurity and constant threat that characterized that era. Svava later addressed this topic from a different perspective in the play Lokaæfing (Dress Rehearsal, 1983) – the couple protagonists have built a house but scramble to complete a fall-out shelter before the bombs come crashing down. And then of course they have to practice living in the shelter for real…
The Lodger examines the perils of the home, focusing especially on the relation between women and living quarters. The woman’s relationship with her new house is extremely involved. She rests her hand against the wall, relieved to find resistance “as if she’d expected to feel empty space”, and she stands still “until she could no longer tell where her skin ended and the stone wall began and she could feel her nerves and veins extending into the walls of the house, her heart pumping blood into a frame whose existence was delineated by concrete” (1969, p. 101). These are oft-quoted lines and doubtless some would cite these words as exemplifying the materialism and alienation Svava critiques in her work. Certainly Svava is engaged in such critique, yet the text has much wider connotations. The woman in the story, like so many of Svava’s characters, even after she moves into her new house, is ever searching for refuge, stability – her place in the world. The flip side of the materialism in Svava’s stories can be called objectivism: the endeavor to forge an organic connection with the material world and a person’s close environment. Alienation appears as the inability to reach other people without loosing oneself in the process. The girl in “Artificial Flowers” fears that she no longer “exists except in his actions and words; or somewhere behind them. Or remains unspoken” (12 Women, p. 61).
The Lodger is about a woman who would avoid such imprisonment and her last actions in the story are aimed at opening the front door – but it turns out be no easy task. The story is, however, too complex a weave to reveal an obvious feminist thread. In her next piece, the play Hvað er í blýhólknum? (What’s Concealed in the Cornerstone?, published in 2003) premiered by theatre company The Mask, on the other hand, Svava addresses feminist issues directly. The play showcases excerpts from protagonist Inga’s life, revealing how the patriarchy and its ideology has forced her life to take a certain course, despite her occasional resistance, which leads to her enclosure as a housewife until she as a “mature woman” decides to undertake further studies and to make her own choices. The dialogue is interrupted with asides from the media, city council meetings and other official venues. One such aside reads as follows: “In the episode of television program Divided Opinions on 11 August 1970 a man stated that “no man would hesitate to free the woman – if he thought it would make her happy” (What’s Concealed, 2003, p. 27). When Inga’s husband tells her that the family is “the cornerstone of society”, Inga asks: “And what’s carved into it?” Her husband recalls that it says something “to commemorate … the building, I suppose. Something of historical value, or the stone may contain some valuables”. He is forced to admit that these valuables will probably never be seen again, “except perhaps in case of an earthquake” (pp. 33-4). It would prove difficult to ascertain what wisdom or valuables might have been placed in the “cornerstone of society”; the family resembles an ancient building in that respect. Inga is fully cognizant of her lot and the weight of tradition, but it is no easy task to shake the building.
Gunnlöð and volcanic life
There was a lull in Svava’s artistic production during the seventies while she served as a congresswoman in the general assembly for the People’s Alliance from 1971 to 1979. Despite a hectic career she managed to publish a few short stories and three plays for the stage and radio. She returns to short fiction with a force with the publication of Gefið hvort öðru… in 1982 (Give Unto Each Other…). This is a collection of new stories intermingled with older work, thus creating a link between fiction from the late sixties and early eighties. The title story, originally published in 1968, was and remains a currant read – it is still affecting to read of the young girl’s altruism when she responds positively to the request for her hand:
She opened the top drawer on her dresser and took out an axe. She held the axe up to the light and ran her finger thoughtfully along the edge. Then she put one hand on the plastic covering and hefted the axe with the other, aimed, and deftly hacked her hand off. She couldn’t help but admire her handiwork. It was neatly done, amazingly so, considering that she had never done it before. (Give Unto Each Other…, 1982, p. 10).
The axe in the dresser, the pun on “handiwork” and the discussion about the originality of the act comprise a disturbing humor that appears in many of Svava’s stories. The imagery in the story is both deadly serious and a dramatic reassessment of reality and the problematics of being a “whole” person.
The stories are a diverse literary collection, ranging from the fantastical to psychoanalytical realism. Diversification also describes Svava’s next creation, the novel Gunnlaðar saga (The Saga of Gunnlöð, 1987), albeit in a different manner. The Saga of Gunnlöð combines a realist narrative of contemporary occurrences and a well-known, ancient story with a touch of fantasy. A mother journeys to Denmark where her daughter Dís has been jailed for attempted robbery of an ancient golden bowl, preserved in Denmark’s National Museum. The bowl, described as having mirror-like qualities, has enabled Dís to glimpse the long-past world of Gunnlöð, the goddess charged with preserving the sacred bowl and anointing kings, in her case, Óðinn. While concerned with Dís on one level, the novel also examines ancient reports of Gunnlöð in Hávamál and furthermore constitutes a rewriting of the well-known story of Óðinn and the poets mead in Snorra-Edda.
Thus there are two narrative levels; two plains of existence actually, like in the short story “Crustaceans, Weddings, Funerals”. Further similarities can be drawn in that reading is also an important concept here, each narrative level expertly reading and informing the other as the story advances. Worlds converge and characters evolve to new levels of understanding, new roles. Through her daughter, the mother gets to know not only Gunnlöð’s subterranean world, a world betrayed along with Gunnlöð herself, but also the darker side of Copenhagen city. These two “underworlds” destabilize the mother’s bourgeois outlook. She willingly, curiously even, enters one of them which manifests in a squalid pub, and in so doing collapses the sociocultural walls in the story. The walls between present and prehistoric times also dissolve to allow various messages about importance and values to filter through.
Svava undertook a great deal of research in preparing for and writing the novel. She details the research in a remarkable essay, “Gunnlöð og hinn dýri mjöður” (“Gunnlöð and the precious mead”), published in the journal Skírnir in 1988 and republished in Svava’s own book, Skyggnst á bak við ský (Looking Behind Clouds,1999), which also contains three comprehensive essays on the poetry and poetics of Jónas Hallgrímsson. Svava’s passionate immersion into Jónas’s ideas and oratory has readers wondering how her analysis reflects on her own aesthetics and fiction. Svava has addressed the aesthetics of her own writing in an essay entitled “Reynsla og raunveruleiki” (“Experience and reality”), originally published in 1980 and republished in the 2005 collection Kona með spegil (Woman with a Mirror) in honor of the poet on her 75th birthday.
Svava’s last short story collection, published in 1989 and entitled Beneath a Volcano, contains six stories. None of these stories are as fantastical as those in Party Beneath a Stone Wall or Give Unto Each Other…, but the rich use of symbols is a persistent characteristic of the author: sometimes obviously invoking but at other times tiptoeing up to the reader and quietly influencing perception before one wakes to them. Actually there is always a touch of fantasy and creative tension in Svava’s reworking of literary heritage and tradition. “Saga bróður míns” (“My Brother’s Story”) is inspired by folk tales, “Pálmasunnudagsganga” (“Palm Sunday March”) makes use of religious motifs, and the title story recalls Völuspá. These allusions refer to modern humanity’s alienation from a natural existence and modern attempts at establishing their own place. This endeavor is also the subject of a story mentioned earlier, “The Rest is Silence”, of a young girl caught between two languages when she moves overseas. “Endurkoma” (“Homecoming”) however is about a woman returning to Iceland for a visit after having lived overseas for many years. She experiences many revelations: “She was surprised that she noticed the low-growing, dense foliage through the windshield” (Beneath a Volcano, 1989, p. 35).
This story, along with others in the collection, reveals an awareness of transience and a new perspective on nature, also apparent in The Saga of Gunnlöð. If the woman in The Lodger never managed to forge an organic bond with the concrete walls of her new house, man and rock now connect in “Fjörusteinn” (“Beach Rock”): “It was an ordinary rock he would never have looked at twice when he was younger, but he now realized that age made you sensitive to the language of rocks and enabled one to listen to their story and tell them ones own” (Beneath a Volcano, p. 72). This is an exchange in which the husband and wife in the title story are also engaged. Despite having passed their prime and being fully aware of the volcano’s destructive powers, they have decided to cultivate a barren tract of land at the foot Mt. Hekla. The subject of this exchange comes from a bygone era, much like in The Saga of Gunnlöð. In a column she wrote for the Icelandic Literature website, the cybernetic neighbor of my own article, Svava says about the mother in that story: “One of her last utterances is: ‘From the fires burning inside the prisoner, land emerges’. I suspect that a ‘real’ version of this land can be found in the title story of Beneath a Volcano”. I would add that the last words of The Saga of Gunnlöð are actually “Yes, two trees on a beach” and that “Beneath a Volcano” states that “a new world will emerge here, a verdant world where golden slates will be found in the grass” (Beneath a Volcano, p. 27). The two stories are thus connected through Völuspá and the idea of a new world, new life and a new understanding of nature.
© Ástráður Eysteinsson, 1 October 2005
Translated by Agnes Vogler.
Comments from the author
In writing this feature article, I have indirectly utilized my other writings on particular works by Svava Jakobsdóttir (refer to the list below), and in one place I quoted my words from the essay “Að eiga sér stað”.
– “Að gefa í boðhætti: Módernismi og kvennapólitík í Gefið hvort öðru … eftir Svövu Jakobsdóttur”, in Umbrot. Bókmenntir og nútími, Reykjavík: Háskólaútgáfan 1999 (originally published in the literary journal Tímarit Máls og menningar, vol. 5, 1983).
– “At Home and Abroad: Reflections on Svava Jakobsdóttir’s Fiction”, intro. to English transl. of Svava Jakobsdóttir’s The Lodger and Other Stories, trans. by Julian D’Arcy et al, Reykjavík: University of Iceland Press 2000.
– “Að eiga sér stað: Tómarúm, staður og steinn í sögum Svövu Jakobsdóttur”, in Andvari, vol. 126, 2001.
– “Mörk byggðar og óbyggðar”, in Kona með spegil, ed. by Ármann Jakobsson, Reykavík: JPV-útgáfa 2005.
Dagný Kristjánsdóttir: “Oprindelsens sprog”
På jorden 1960-1990, Nordisk kvinndelitteraturhistorie, bind iv, ritstj. Elisabeth Møller Jensen og fl. København, Rosinante 1997, s. 36-41
Kristinn Jóhannesson: “Två isländska forfattarinnor”
Gardar 1976, vol. 7, pp. 5-24
Soffía Auður Birgisdóttir: “Svava Jakobsdóttir (1930-2004)”
Icelandic Writers. Dictionary of Literary Biography, vol. 293, ritstj. Patrick J. Stevens, Detroit, Gale 2004, s. 343-348
See also: Neijmann, Daisy L., ed. A History of Icelandic Literature
University of Nebraska Press, 2007, pp. 430-432, 503-4, 539-41, 545, 549
On individual works
Gunnlaðar saga Sven-Axel Bengtson: “Svava Jakobsdóttir. Gunnlöðs saga : övers. från isl. av Inge Knutsson” (review)
Gardar 1991, vol. 22, pp. 50.
2001 – An honorary award from the Writer’s Library Fund for her contribution to Icelandic literature
2000 – An award from the Equal Status Council as a pioneer in working on gender equality
1997 – The Henrik Steffens Award
1996 – Elected Honorary member of the Icelandic Writer’s Union
1983 – An award from the National Radio’s Writer’s Fund
1982 – An award from the Iceland Writer’s Fund
1968 – An award from the Iceland Writer’s Fund
2000 – DV newspaper Culture Prize for literature: Skyggnst á bak við ský (Behind the Clouds)
1990 – The Icelandic Literature Prize: Undir eldfjalli (Under the Volcano)
1988 – DV newspaper Culture Prize for literature: Gunnlaðar saga (The Saga of Gunnlöd)
1984 – The Nordic Council’s Literature Prize: Gefið hvort öðru (Give unto Each Other)
1972 – The Nordic Council’s Literature Prize: Leigjandinn (The Lodger)
1971 – The Nordic Council’s Literature Prize: Leigjandinn
Gunnlöth's TaleRead more
Gunnlaðarsaga (Gunnladarstory)Read more
Eldhús eftir máli (Kitchen by Measure)Read more
Hvað er í blýhólknum (WhatRead more
La saga de GunnlödRead more
Sögur handa öllum (Stories for Everyone)Read more
Smásaga í Wortlaut Island (A short story in Wortlaut Island)Read more
The Lodger and Other StoriesRead more
Tutto in ordineRead more