Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir was born in Reykjavík in 1958. She was a lecturer of art history and -theory at the University of Iceland and has also taught art history elsewhere. For some time she was the director of the University of Iceland's Art Museum. Auður Ava has also been a curator and has written about art and art theory in newspapers and magazines.
Aður Ava's first published work of fiction was the novel Upphækkuð jörð (Elevetated Ground) in 1998. Her second novel, Rigning í nóvember (Butterflies in November) came out in 2004, followed by Afleggjarinn (Rosa Candida) in 2007. Auður sent forward her first book of poetry, Sálmurinn um glimmer (Hymn on Glimmer) in 2010.
Auður Ava has received numerous recognition for her work, both at home and abroad. Rigning í nóvember won the Tómas Guðmundsson Literature Prize in 2004 and was also nominated for the DV Cultural Prize for Literature. Afleggjarinn (Rosa Candida) received the latter award in 2008, as well as the Icelandic Women's Literature Prize and was nominated for the Nordic Council's Literature Prize in 2009. The novel gained much attention in France after its publication there in 2010, and also won an award in Québec in Canada in the spring of 2011. In 2019, Auður Ava received the Nordic Council's Literature Prize for her novel Ör (Hotel Silence) and in 2019, Eric Boury's French translation of her novel Ungfrú Ísland (Miss Iceland) won the prestigeous Médici Prize for translated fiction.
“After four laps, the cravings had turned into painful hunger pains, so I decided to go home by myself and have some skyr and a glass of milk. If I had decided to do three more laps, you would have been born on the city’s frozen pond.”
(Butterflies in November)
The earth’s vegetation
In Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir’s 2007 novel The Greenhouse, a child is conceived in a greenhouse. It is Auður’s third novel, but in her first novel, Elevated Ground (1998), a child is conceived in a rhubarb patch. In The Greenhouse, the child appears to be a symbol for the earth’s vegetation—either that or the earth’s vegetation symbolises the child. In fact, all of Auður’s three novels are about children and their interactions with their guardians, who are not necessarily their parents. Thus, interactions with both children and vegetation can be seen as one of the major themes of her fiction, but beyond that her books all generally revolve around communication and self-expression. Thus, Ágústína, the protagonist of Elevated Ground, struggles to express herself in a way that her teachers find acceptable, while in Butterflies in November (2004), Auður’s second novel, a woman takes a trip with a deaf child. Furthermore, in The Greenhouse protagonist Arnljótur settles in a small village where he must learn an almost extinct language. He also befriends a polyglot monk during his stay.
As Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir touts a second career as an art historian, it should come as no surprise that her novels tackle communication and self-expression. Art itself is rarely an overriding theme in Auður’s work. Instead, her background is evident in how she approaches her subjects and how she addresses the common dilemmas that lie behind all artistic self-expression. In her work, she looks at the many questions that relate to the difficulties and infinite variations of such self-expression, while also questioning the set rules of how one interacts with one’s environment and fellow human beings—whether or not those rules serve to force such interactions along a premeditated course.
Aside from her three novels, Auður has published one book of poetry: Hymn on Glimmer (2010). The book actually contains a single, long-form poem that narrates a journey—or exile—on par with the days of the Icelandic outlaws. As the poem’s narrator explains in the latter half of the book, while sheltering in a cave with her partner:
dear Icelanders near and far
me and my lover have found shelter in a cave
it’s a two-room cave
with ice flower panelling
near a dead
The poetry is marked by its oracle-like narration and is filled with references that pull the reader in so many different directions that at times it can be challenging to deduce the poet’s intentions. In a way, the poem is addressing Iceland’s folklore and literature; the country’s cultural heritage. This can clearly be seen in the following passage:
it might not be obvious to look at me
wearing glimmer skies on my eyelids
to commemorate the occasion
how deep my roots go
in a frozen-to-the-bone churchyard
north of the mountains
from the dust it emerges
that my ancestor
was an infamous good-time gal
who sailed to the island
across the depths of the ocean
in the sea-merchants’ final boat
over the white tide of time
and married a priest prone to premonitions
a fumbling hand from the
madelaine stood for hours by the breaking waves and
spoke in a foreign tongue to the dead fish who washed ashore
such was the power of her words
together they made an eloquent wolfish son who
translated a few sonnets by louise labé
The momentum here reminds one of the stream of consciousness writing associated with the modernists, where the mind is allowed to roam free and form a multitude of unexpected connections.
Within art history as well as the visual arts, there is an ongoing debate concerning the contradictions of putting responses to images or visual experiences into words. (We will not be delving any further into the complex idea of whether art is actually limited to a visual experience in this article.) To some extent at least, creating a visual artwork is an attempt to capture a sensation, experience or self-expression that cannot be put into words. If so, how can you expect to appraise, describe or critique the artwork, whether verbally or in writing? This discussion has incorporated various theories and word games concerning the interplay of words and images, which have given on to some very fruitful and important debates within academia and the artworld itself (viz-a-viz art not being limited to images). Auður has herself written an article on this matter, which is titled: “If I was a picture, how would you phrase me? The intersection of imagery and language as seen by the interpretive processes of art history” and can be found in Ritið 1/2005. Her discussion considers the effect that language has on images—or whether it has an effect at all. This is then applied to construct an argument about how everything plays a part in shaping the viewing experience; e.g. the museum or gallery itself as well as gallery programs and titles (i.e. “untitled” is in fact a title and reflects on the artwork, just like any other official title would). This all involves a level of skill in what is called “image-reading”—a skill which has by and large not been considered nearly as important as being able to read and comprehend written or oral language.
What makes Auður’s fiction so interesting is that she uses it to approach this subject from an entirely new angle. In her novels, there is a type of exploration of how visual arts as well as art history affect and intersect with written language; especially poetic language. Here, we are obviously returning to the previously referenced themes of communication and self-expression found in her books, but the wealth of imagery in Auður’s prose further magnifies the interplay of these two art fields. One might consider Auður’s prose a form of visual reading, and The Greenhouse in particular calls out for an illustrated reprint. In this way, Auður’s novels seem to exist at the intersection of visual art, art history and written language and in fact offer a powerful antithesis to the point of view commonly found within the art world which claims that any description of a work of visual art will inherently suffer from limitations.
“Transforming images into words”
Even though the setting in Elevated Ground is rather familiar—an Icelandic fishing village resting below a mountain—it is also a little fantastical, as the island that the village is located on seems to be rather smaller than Iceland. The time period is also rather vague. Though the story contains some modern elements there is a sensation of timelessness throughout, which resembles the nebulous past usually found in fairy tales. In the village, there is a teenaged girl named Ágústína, who lives with her aunt, Nína, because her mother is a scientist who travels all over the world to research bird migrations. Still, her mother regularly sends Ágústína letters from foreign parts, which add to the story’s sense of adventure. Ágústína is disabled: her feet are almost useless, and she has to use crutches to move around. However, her arms and hands are strong, and she uses them to play the oboe, shoot birds, swim, row and especially to plant vegetables, flowers and trees in her garden. Her dream is to scale the mountain that towers over the village, and she does so at the end of the book.
Whether it is due to her absent, foreign father or some other element, Ágústína is very different from the other townspeople. Her experience of the world differs from others, as can be seen in the trouble she has with her teacher, who says: “I have to say that overall Ágústína’s approach to her assignments at school is rather odd. She starts at their edge, so to speak, and from there she drifts into unrelated subjects and loses the thread. God knows how she thinks or reasons. Her mind seems to be all over the place, all at once.” Nína answers: “She can be a bit of a dreamer sometimes, my Ágústína” (78). Earlier in the book, there is a description of how the girl experiences her surroundings:
At a young age, she became aware of her special place in the world. Not just on account of her legs, but also because of the constant barrage of pictures that piled up inside her head, or did so until she started organising them, turning them into words that she used to build great towers. Thus, picture mountains turned into word mountains, layer by layer. The bottom layers had the most words, so that the tower wouldn’t collapse. The bottom layers of the word mountains were like the bottom layers of Nína’s tarts; they needed more stuffing, more canned fruit and chocolate chips and more cream than the rest. (22)
Here, the process of pictures turning into words and vice versa becomes clearly visible, with the prose also exploring different sensory experiences. It is not just words that are treated thusly by Ágústína, but numbers also:
How she interacts with numbers is not normal. [...] When she writes down numbers, she stacks them and turns them this way and that, creating all sorts of intricate patterns. A kind of three-dimensional web of numbers, with a backside to it and shadows, like asteroids that she can advance on from different directions. She doesn’t seem to comprehend that numbers and calculations only have one side. (79-80)
Still, Nína does not take much heed of the teacher’s comments. Overall, little attention is paid to such practical problems, even though Ágústína and her aunt are obviously rather poor and live in a leaky house. The sense of adventure pushes such real life concerns out of the way. Still, the story stays grounded through everyday household tasks, such as making jam or preparing traditional Icelandic food stuff.
Food preparations play an important role in Butterflies in November, which includes a small book of recipes. In the novel, a recently divorced woman decides to make some changes in her life—putting her lover on hold and taking a trip. Her unexpected windfalls from a lotto and a raffle certainly come in handy for this plan, and after a strange sequence of events that starts with her heavily-pregnant friend slipping on ice, the protagonist is suddenly on the road in the middle of winter with her friend’s deaf son in the backseat of the car. On their journey, which spans the majority of the book, they encounter all kinds of adventures. It rains for most of the trip. Before their eyes, Iceland is draped in rain and fog, which is very different from the image of unspoilt natural beauty so often alluded to in Icelandic travel writing, and especially in Icelandic cinema: “While it rains, the landscape fades, the horizon replaced with fuzzy landmarks. In fact, the whole country is nothing but wasteland, once you’ve found your way out of the city, black sands, black lava, the black sea nearby and black skies above.” (102) Subversions of this kind are a good example of Auður’s unique approach to the traditional subject matters of Icelandic literature. Although it does not take place in Iceland, The Greenhouse offers a similar scene when Arnljótur is travelling in Southern Europe, driving through forests that seem endless: “the colour spectrum from green to green” (71).
Auður uses this greyness to play up the theme of Icelandic folktales; e.g. when the boy needs to pee while they are driving through the mountains and the protagonist decides to relieve herself as well. Wanting to find some shelter in the fog, she leads the boy towards a cairn. Despite their efforts, the cairn doesn’t seem to be getting any nearer, and they suddenly find themselves in the middle of a fox hunt: “Men wearing green terrorist outfits and brandishing shotguns jump out of the moss, the only animal that kills its own, they point their guns at us, surrounding me and the boy.” (107) However, once the men have put down their weapons they turn out to be rather friendly and even fix a flat tire on the twosome’s car. Later, she receives assistance from another man who also appears suddenly from the fog. This one claims to be a fairy but turns out to be human. He also knows sign language and can communicate with the boy.
Interactions with men form a major theme of the novel, but the main focus is the woman’s interactions with her friend’s deaf son, Tumi. He speaks sign language, but is also able to read and write, even though he is only four years old. To begin with, understanding the child is easy; e.g. in the supermarket where he simply points at what he wants, and the protagonist obeys. However, communications within the car are more complex:
Raising my voice in the front seat is useless, he can’t hear me, every time we need to talk I turn my indicator on and stop on the side of the road, turn around in my seat so he can see my lips moving and forming sound, my mouth opening and closing. (104)
Such scenes of communication and misunderstandings are continually inserted into the prose in short but effective interjections:
He means to speak softly once he’s in the bag, wants to whisper confidentially, but the voice is hollow and loud, even though he tries as best he can. His palm is too small to grasp the words of all the world’s messages. Still, I have three books on understanding deaf children in the car. I just need to find a convenient time to read them. (118)
It is to be expected that the protagonist considers their communication problems something that she’ll be able to read up on and overcome, as she is a polyglot and works as a proof-reader and translator in eleven different languages. In this case, however, it turns out that books are of little help, and communicating with the boy is something she needs to learn gradually while the two of them forge a connection.
“Mute in the mud”
Interactions between children and adults are again at the forefront in The Greenhouse, where a young father has to suddenly get to know his daughter, who was conceived purely by accident in a greenhouse. Arnljótur has inherited his mother’s interest in vegetation and gardening. As he has limited ideas about what he wants to do with his life, he decides to volunteer to work in a renowned rose garden whose history reaches all the way back to the Middle Ages. To get there, he heads off on a long journey through Southern Europe, which begins with him having to undergo surgery for a burst appendix. With him, he carries cuttings from a particular species of rose, red-violet in colour and with eight petals. The rose garden is located in a monastery in a small village. There, Arnljótur meets a monk named Tómas who speaks nineteen languages fluently and several more to various degrees. Then, the young man suddenly receives a phone call, informing him that the mother of his daughter is struggling with her academic work and needs to leave the child with its father for a while. The latter half of the novel describes how Arnljótur gets to know his daughter, Flóra Sól, and her mother, Anna. This unusual family concoction is reflected in the many other strange families that appear in Auður’s novels. In Elevated Ground, Ágústína does not know her father, nor does her mother, and the girl is raised by her mother’s sister. At the end of the novel, she receives news that her mother has had a son in a distant land with another man. In Butterflies in November, the young Tumi to some extent replaces the boy that the protagonist gave birth to and gave up for adoption when she was a teenager. At the book’s conclusion she decides to take Tumi with her on more trips. Tumi does not know his father, and his mother is busy taking care of her new born twins, fathered by another man who is also nowhere near. In The Greenhouse, Arnljótur lives with his father after his mother dies in a car accident. His twin brother is mentally challenged and lives in a group home, and the two brothers are as different as can be. Thus, a colourful pattern of familial relations is formed, not unlike the cohabitation of different plants within the same garden.
The Greenhouse is Auður Ava’s most concise novel. Her previous books tend to pull in different directions, but in The Greenhouse, everything is in its place. It is tempting to make metaphorical use of the novel’s sections on gardening, where “the first week is spent pulling weeds and snipping my way through the dens rose shrubberies” (140). Later, the narrator is “constantly discovering new species of roses within the wilderness, tree roses, shrub roses, climbing roses and creeping roses, dwarf roses and wild roses, clusters of roses and large single flowers on long stems, different shapes, scents and colours” (141). In the same way, the reader is pulled into this lush novel, which also serves as an axis between the two previous books. As I said before, there is a theme of communication evident in all three novels; both general communication as well as communication specifically between an adult and a child. These interactions are often bound up with ideas about disabilities and special needs—things that the unusual family units in Auður’s novels all have in common. In The Greenhouse, the presence of a “higher power” is given more weight. In the two previous novels, the supernatural is merely a background theme. In Elevated Ground, Ágústína is religious and hopes that God will perform a miracle on her, and although religion is not at the forefront in Butterflies in November, the protagonist at one point purchases a small model of a church which she glues to the dashboard of the car. However, Butterflies in November also offers different concepts of higher power; e.g. at the beginning of the book when the protagonist visits a medium who predicts the major events of the novel—a foreshadowing that calls back to the dream premonitions of the Icelandic Sagas. Dreams are also important in The Greenhouse, where religion obviously also plays an important role—especially as the rose garden is located inside a monastery. In addition, art has some significance, as when Arnljótur visits a church in the village and discovers a painting of Mary holding the Baby Jesus which bears a striking semblance to his daughter.
In this way, art plays a significant role while also being intrinsically connected to religion. Art is not seen as a neutral factor, no more than vegetation, but has a life of its own. This becomes ever more evident as the story progresses, when art is used to reflect on memories and imagination, as in the description of the scene of the accident that killed Arnljótur’s mother:
I stop before approaching mom, who is inside the flipped car in the lava basin. I take an inordinately long time to look at the surrounding nature, circle the area for a while, like a cinematographer using a boom camera to get an aerial shot of the scene, before zooming in on mom, the leading actress that everything revolves around. The date is the seventh of August and I decide that fall has come early. That’s why there are so many red and flame-yellow colours everywhere, I imagine infinite variations of red at the scene of the accident: rust-red berry bushes, blood-red sky, violet-red leaves on a few nearby shrubs, golden moss. Mom was dressed in a burgundy cardigan, the coagulated blood was invisible until Dad rinsed the sweater in our bath tub. By lingering over the minor details of the scene, like how you begin by inspecting a painting’s background before considering its actual subject matter, I delay mom’s final departure [...]. (21)
Arnljótur was not actually present at the scene, so the picture he draws is his own creation—as is made evident by how he “decides” that fall has come early. Here, we can also see how Arnljótur systematically makes use of vegetation, both directly and metaphorically, throughout the whole novel; from his staging of his mother’s death at the start of the journey to the green colours of his trip through Southern Europe—which ends in the famous rose garden that needs to have its colour scheme tended to. Vegetation becomes a self-expression that grows and extends beyond language and muteness, but vegetation and gardening are also the tools that Ágústína makes use of to express herself and gain control of her life. These motifs of vegetation and gardening keep the novels grounded, but they also at various times serve to set the scene and take the form of emotion, celebration and, last but not least, maturity.
© Úlfhildur Dagsdóttir, 2011
Mica Allen: “No Ordinary Journey”
Iceland Review, 2010; 48 (2), s. 36-38.
2019 - Prix Médicis: Ungfrú Ísland (étranger)
2018 - Bókmenntaverðlaun Norðurlandaráðs: Ör
2018 - The employees of booksellers award: Ungfrú Ísland (best novel)
2016 - The Icelandic Literature Prize: Ör (Hotel Silence)
2011 - Prix Page des Libraires (Québec): Rosa Candida (Afleggjarinn, translated by Catherine Eyjólfsson). In the category translated fiction
2010 - Prix de Page: Rosa Candida
2008 - DV Cultural Prize for Literature: Afleggjarinn (Rosa Candida)
2008 - The Icelandic Women's Literature Prize: Afleggjarinn
2004 - Tómas Guðmundsson Literature Prize: Rigning í nóvember (Rain in November)
2019 - The Icelandic Women's Literature Prize (Fjöruverðlaunin): Ungfrú Ísland
2018 - The Icelandic Literature Prize: Ungfrú Ísland
2018 – Premio Strega (Italy): Ör
2012 - The Icelandic literature prize: Undantekningin (de arte poetica)
2010 - Lire (literary magazine, France): Rosa Candida
2010 - Prix du Roman FNAC: Rosa Candida
2010 - Prix Fémina (France): Rosa Candida
2009 - The Nordic Council Literature Prize: Afleggjarinn
2005 - DV Cultural Prize for Literature: Rigning í nóvember