Kristín Marja Baldursdóttir was born on January 21, 1949 in Hafnarfjörður. She graduated from Iceland’s Teacher Training College in 1970 and received a B.A. degree in German and Icelandic from the University of Iceland in 1991. Kristín studied German at the Goethe Institut in Bremen in Germany from 1979 – 1980, took courses in education in Denmark 1985 – 1986 and a journalist course in Germany in 1992. She taught at the primary schools in Reykjavík from 1975 – 1988. In 1988 Kristín Marja switched jobs and started working as a journalist for the daily Morgunblaðið untill 1995.
Kristín Marja’s first novel, Mávahlátur (Seagull’s Laughter) was published in 1995. The book was adapted for the stage and shown in the Reykjavík City Theatre in 1998. The novel was also filmed by Ágúst Guðmundsson in 2001 and received many awards at the Icelandic Edda-festival that year (The Icelandic film and television prize). Kristín Marja has since published other novels, a short story collection and written the biography of writer Vilborg Dagbjartsdóttir, Mynd af konu (Picture of a Woman), published in 2001.
Kristín Marja Baldursdóttir lives in Reykjavík. She is married with three grown daughters.
Publisher: Mál og menning.
From Kristín Marja Baldursdóttir
When I read the biography of the German critic Marcel Reich-Ranicki, I was reminded of how merciless the love of books can be. Or perhaps I should say the literary passion, as Reich-Ranicki calls it. Cold and hungry, I would be mesmerized by a book until the bitter end. Even though I had not read all the Russian masters before the age of fifteen like this German literary pope, I already had devoured a sizeable collection by that age. My childhood memories are confined to the dining room floor, behind the dinner table, amidst stacks of books. In my teenage years I would take a small step upwards; my bed would offer more comfort whenever I had a ten-hour reading session ahead of me. In those days I would immerse myself in a good book on a regular basis.
Nowadays this is a noteworthy occurrence.
Now I simply read texts. Texts and more texts. Study the form and the words, and repeatedly need to start from the beginning because I could not remember what I was reading the last time. Modern literature tends to be like this, but I read it, of course, out of curiosity and politeness. Occasionally however, a real gem falls into my hands and when it happens, I go all misty-eyed with gratitude. Try to pretend I have the flu so I can stay in bed undisturbed and read. It is just that it happens so rarely.
When I got my hands on the aforementioned biography I had been starved for a story for a long time. It is like never getting anything decent to eat. One just nibbles and picks at the food and at the same time has vague memories of delicacies feasted on before. And then I bought this book of almost six hundred pages and I read it sitting and standing, I think almost sleeping too; and my joy was such when I finished reading it that I retold it many times to everyone I met. Now, this was not a novel but a biography, and no fantasy element in it; yet it was written in such an entertaining, lively and informative way that it sometimes felt as if I was reading a great novel by a master.
I have been wondering if the increased popularity of biographies in recent years can be attributed to a lack of great novels. Life is more colourful than fiction and man has a need to see himself and his life reflected in a work of fiction. During the War years Reich-Ranicki was hounded, like other Jews. A Polish farmer sheltered him and his wife and in order to get something to eat once in a while, a piece of bread or a carrot, he told the farmer and his wife stories at night. For weeks and months he retold everything that he had read. Young Werther, William Tell, Effi Briest and even the story lines of operas, Aida, Traviata and Rigoletto. And even if farmers new nothing about Shakespeare, they had great sympathy for King Lear and liked to discuss him endlessly. Fragmented texts would barely have sufficed for carrots. Yet it can be said in favour of such texts that it is easier to write them, it takes less time and they do not wear you out emotionally. Which in a sense is perfect for computer people who are pressed for time.
You can not always pretend to have the flu.
Kristín Marja Baldursdóttir, 2002.
Translated by Vera Júlíusdóttir.
Woman, Art and the Art of Being a Woman: On the Works of Kristín Marja Baldursdóttir
Kristín Marja Baldursdóttir has published four novels and her latest work is Karítas án titils (Karitas Untitled), which came out in 2004. She has also written a collection of short stories, as well as one short story that appeared in an anthology, and a biography of the poet Vilborg Dagbjartsdóttir. Looking at her works as a whole, her books have many things in common and deal with similar topics, but from different points of view. Her works often deal with art and its influence on people’s lives, but also with women, their lives and loves, passion and pain. The characters in her novels are well rounded and her stories are rigorously composed. Everything has a purpose and a reason, Kristín Marja’s style is haunting and fascinating and she manages to turn the reader into a fly on the wall in the characters’ lives.
Mávahlátur (Laughter of Seagulls) was Kristín Marja’s first novel, published in 1995. It tells of Agga, who loses her parents at a young age and is raised by her grandparents and her aunts. They live in a small fishing village near the capital. Her grandfather is a seaman, her grandmother a homemaker. Her aunts Dódó and Ninna still live at home and in the basement lives her grandfather’s sister, Kidda, who plays an active part in the daily life of the family. There is a true matriarchy in the home, since the father of the household is often absent. One more woman is added to the household in the shape of their aunt Freyja, who had emigrated to America as a young woman and has now returned, after her husband’s death, to set up house in the family home.
The narrator of the novel stays with Agga, and this is the best way to find out what is going on. At the beginning of the novel, Agga is still a child and uses the methods of a child to find out what is going on inside the family. As in most other families there are plenty of secrets, which Agga is not supposed to be privy to. Her curiosity is strong and she eavesdrops to find out what is going on. Agga eavesdrops religiously and therefore knows about almost everything that happens in the village.
Apart from Agga, Freyja is also the main character of the novel and the village life revolves mainly around her after she comes back from abroad. Freyja has been transformed since her departure: she is now quite thin, with a mass of long hair, and carries herself and dresses like a lady. From the start, Agga senses that something is not right about her aunt from America, and her curiosity soon confirms her suspicion. Freyja maintains that her husband died from a stroke but on meeting Agga’s grandfather for the first time after her arrival in Iceland she tells him that she killed the husband. Although no one takes this statement seriously, it soon emerges that there may be some truth in what she is saying. The longer Freyja stays in the village, the more dubious things take place around her and it becomes clear to everyone that it is not wise to upset her in any way. Since Freyja refuses to be a part of the accepted customs and traditions in the village, to sweep injustice under the carpet and accept class divisions, she puts her finger on many problems that had remained covered up before she arrived. She arrives from America, the Land of the Free, where she has known a way of life, which is quite different from Icelandic village life. Freyja’s behaviour causes a disruption the village. She sells pharmacy alcohol to the town drunks and invites them into her home; in Agga’s mind she is responsible for a man’s death and she snatches a boyfriend from the town’s gym teacher, who comes from a prominent family in town. After catching the town’s most eligible bachelor, Björn Theódór, an engineer and a doctor’s son, she sets out to make life miserable for her mother in law, as a punishment for insulting her. Freyja goes against everything that the townspeople see as right and proper behaviour, but she is more motivated by a desire for revenge and a need to always have her way in the end, than by any kind of social idealism.
Freyja leaves Björn Theódór after he has a tryst with his old girlfriend, and she returns to Agga’s house. Björn Theódór makes repeated attempts to approach his wife again, but has not taken into account the solidarity of the women who surround Freyja. Agga is not a part of this closed community of women yet, as she is still a child. She has been giving her friend, the policeman Magnús, regular news of Freyja, while trying to convince him of her criminal nature. But when Agga realizes the possible consequence of this, that her family may be dragged into it, she takes everything back and claims she has lied about everything. Agga refuses to side with the men and their power and in so doing positions herself on the women’s side. This also makes her a sexual object and at the end of the novel, a sexual tension forms between her and Magnus.
Kristín Marja’s next book is the novel Hús úr húsi (House to House), which was published in 1997. It tells the story of a young woman, Kolfinna, who moves in with her mother after a failed relationship. The relationship between mother and daughter is strained; the daughter is unemployed and spends her days watching videos. Kolfinna’s life seems to have reached a dead end and seems destined to remain so, but then she finds some work cleaning homes in the centre of town. The work is only temporary, as she is replacing her friend who is on maternity leave. The people whose houses she cleans are all very different types: an elderly lady in an nice house; a handsome lawyer with a bright future ahead of him; an arrogant and unfriendly academic; and a singer who lives only for her art.
Kolfinna cleans one house a day and starts with the old lady, Listalín. There is a room in her house, which has a strange effect on Kolfinna, and every time she cleans it she feels faint and beset by waking dreams or hallucinations. She has a vision of herself aging and wrinkling up, and these dreams crystallize her fear of becoming old, without having accomplished anything, without owning anything. There is also the fear of ending up like her mother, who works in a canteen and does not have much of a life outside her work, is always complaining, was in a loveless marriage and is riddled with physical pains. Listalín, on the other hand, personifies all the things Kolfinna wants to be; a woman who is pleased with her life and feels she has led a beautiful existence. The singer who Kolfinna cleans for is full of energy and passion but seems a bit lost. Yet she takes on the task of trying to find Kolfinna a direction in life and teaches her to appreciate beautiful music and singing. She helps Kolfinna to reinvent herself and assigns her a personality, wardrobe, hairstyle and interests. Kolfinna is like a tabula rasa compared to her, stuck inside an adolescence that has long since passed. Kolfinna is quite taken with the singer, who offers her future employment as her assistant, but when she makes sexual advances to her, she realizes that this is not the life that she wants.
The young lawyer’s house is big and impersonal, modernist artwork hangs on the walls and the house seems for the most part to be a status symbol, which is much too big for its only occupant. The lawyer is very charming, and tries to introduce Kolfinna to art, which is one of his main interests apart from law. He also gives her financial guidance and shows her a life in the style to which she’d like to become accustomed. Although he charms Kolfinna at first, he also oversteps his boundaries when he wants her to be his mistress, domestic help and future nanny; she realizes this is not the life she had in mind either.
The academic is also young and fascinating in his masculine and coarse way but Kolfinna is shocked by the dirt in his home and his lack of manners towards her. His house is small and untidy; he collects junk and books and is a terrible slob. Like the others, he tries to introduce Kolfinna to his hobby, reading and studying, and seems to partly succeed in awaking her interest. Kolfinna falls in love with the academic and they share a night together, but soon after she finds out that he is not what he seems, any more than the others.
These three customers of Kolfinna all seem to fall for her, and they themselves are all searching for some fulfilment in life. They all offer her additional work; she housesits for the lawyer, waits on people at a party at the singer’s house and catalogues books for the academic. One might say that the three younger customers of Kolfinna symbolize three paths that she could choose or could have chosen in life. They all try to influence this aimless woman who seems to have no personality.
Kolfinna’s customers represent the opposite of the life choices that her friend Matthildur (who she is replacing) and her mother have made. Matthildur is a single mother of three and Kolfinna is everything she has; Kolfinna’s mother is bitter over how her life has turned out. To Kolfinna, her mother and her friend represent what she does not want to become, but they are also her link with reality, when they think she is becoming too invested in finding herself through her customers. When Kolfinna’s mother dies suddenly, Kolfinna wakes up from the daze and blindness, which has marked her life and begins to re-evaluate her life on her own terms. She discovers something that she had not noticed before, that her customers all had close ties to one another but had drifted apart following some dispute. When she discovers the truth, the connection between them becomes obvious to her and she sees now that they have all been taking advantage of her. After giving them their just desserts, she pulls herself together and starts to clean her own house. The imagery in the novel sets up an obvious parallel between houses and psychological states. At the beginning of the novel, Kolfinna has a dream about a house, which at first is only weatherproof but then becomes more and more beautiful as time goes by. Listalín’s interpretation of the dream is that it shows Kolfinna’s life, and that it will become a beautiful life in the end. In the beginning, Kolfinna’s home is falling apart, grey and pallid, just like Kolfinna herself, and in the same way the houses of the other characters symbolize them and show their inner states. When Kolfinna decides to tidy up her house, it is a sign that she is ready to find herself, and she also tidies up her psyche.
Þórsteina Þórsdóttir is the protagonist of Kristín’s Marja’s third novel, Kular af degi (When the Day Grows Colder, 1999). Þórsteina is a gifted teacher in her own opinion, and an elegant cosmopolitan to boot. Petit bourgeois lifestyle irritates her and she wishes to lead a culturally elevated life, she visits France regularly, has a French lover and cooks French gourmet food. Teaching is important to her and through the years she has developed highly sophisticated methods of instructing each student on his/her own terms. She takes herself very seriously and considers herself superior to other people, conducts radio interviews with herself in her head and appears to be touched by megalomania.
Þórsteina reads dictionaries. She systematically learns them by heart, weighs the books and tackles a few words a day. She reads all kinds of dictionaries and time spent with a new dictionary is sacred in her eyes. Her dictionary reading says a lot about Þórsteina’s personality. She is a woman who wants everything around her to be in order and when it is not, she does not take it very well.
When one of Þórsteina’s old students arrives as a substitute teacher at her school, she is about to find out that the world is not quite as she thought it was. He notices things that Þórsteina and the other teachers have not seen or do not want to know about, like the fact that some of the teenagers in the school are completely out of control. The students bully the substitute teacher, shout obscenities at him, fail to show up for classes and when they do they are high on drugs. When he tells Þórsteina and the female teachers in her circle about this, none of them wants to deal with the problem, because they have enough on their hands already and have never noticed anything themselves.
The chapters of the novel are divided into short units. They describe the day-to-day existence of Þórsteina at school, her interactions with Stígur in the downstairs flat and her colleges. There is also a kind of an inner monologue, where Þórsteina runs through her interactions with people in her head and conducts interviews that she will have in the future and speeches made in her honour. There are also interludes, where Þórsteina seems to be under interrogation, but she is of course in charge and the interrogations take place according to her own system. A few times in between there are very short chapters which indicate that something is wrong in Þórsteina’s life, or in her house. An external voice asks her peculiar questions, but no answers are given until the very end.
Þórsteina, like other of Kristín Marja’s characters, is not all she seems. Her megalomania makes her an unreliable narrator but the reader senses that she harbours a secret, which is revealed by the inconsistencies in her account and descriptions. Þórsteina, like Freyja in Mávahlátur, is a dubious character and one should obviously take everything she says with a grain of salt. She lives in her own world and follows her own rules, spies on people around her and does whatever she believes to be the right thing at the time, even if it often goes against what society deems advisable.
In Kristín Marja’s latest novel, Karítas án titils (Karítas Untitled, 2004), she is partly dealing with the same topic as before: women and art. The novel recounts the story of Karítas who as a teenager moves with her family to the town of Akureyri from the countryside, because her mother decides that all her children should go to school. Life is not easy for a widow with six children, but her mother obtains her goal through hard work and a steadfast belief in the children and herself. In Akureyri Karítas encounters an upper class lady who gives her private drawing lessons and pays for Karítas’s studies in a Copenhagen art school. When Karítas returns, after five years of studies, she decides to get a job to earn some money that will allow her to work at her art, but this will prove an elusive goal. She meets a man named Sigmar, falls pregnant and her life heads in another direction than she had planned. Finally, after many years, painful experiences and strong passions, she finds herself alone again, and is now able to devote herself wholeheartedly to her art.
This novel deals with Karítas’ struggle to be allowed to be herself and to work at her art without distractions or contempt. The community she lives in places a great importance on being the perfect housewife, like her sister Bjarghildur, and Karítas is repeatedly told that her plans are not acceptable. Karítas must fight hard for the chance to do what she wants more than anything and her fight takes her further away from almost everyone around her; they either desert her or are taken from her. Her situation is hard, but she is strong, and her goal becomes like a shining light in the dark, even in the toughest of times. The title of the novel is taken from drawings and paintings by Karítas; each chapter is named after a picture she is drawing, and the pictures that the chapters are named after are described at the beginning of each chapter.
In a similar way as Mávahlátur and Hús úr húsi, Karítas án titils is about finding one’s place in society, or rather at its margins. The main characters of the novels are all on the margins, they live in a society but at the same time they don’t. Agga in Mávahlátur finds her place with the women in the bo k, helps to cover up Freyja’s crimes and takes a stand against the policeman Magnús who both represents masculinity and power. In contrast, Freyja is on the margins from the beginning, like Þórsteina, and they both follow their own rules. Karítas takes a stand against society while siding with her elf, and like Kolfinna in Hús úr húsi she decides to form her own path, although her road is longer and more painful than Kolfinna’s.
Mynd af konu (A Picture of a Woman), which is a biography of the author Vilborg Dagbjartsdóttir, is for the most part similar in style to Kristín Marja’s novels. Vilborg seems to have much in common with the characters in Kristín Marja’s novels and Kristín is successful at creating a bond between the reader and Vilborg. The stories Vilborg tells are interesting, and the pace of the biography never falters in the account of the author’s life.
Kristín Marja’s short stories differ significantly from her novels. The stories in Kvöldljósin eru kveikt (The Night Lights are On) are mostly concerned with human interactions. They describe people at different ages and in different situations, social and economical, and their interactions with the people around them. The stories are snapshots, brief scenes from people’s lives, which the reader is allowed to enter for a short while. We see couples, parents and children, siblings, sons- and daughters-in-law, grandmothers, young and old. What matters most are the interactions between those people and the relationships between them. The stories touch on themes like aging, infidelity, divorce and marriages, mother and daughter relationships, to name a few. The narrative style of the stories is intimate and the reader gets the sense of witnessing firsthand the events that are being described, almost like Agga in Mávahlátur, eavesdropping.
Strong characters and a close relationship between the reader, the characters and the narrator characterize all the writings of Kristín Marja Baldursdóttir, whether one considers her novels, short stories or the biography. Kristín Marja has a definite authorial style and her descriptions of characters and events in their lives are deep and intimate. Her works deal with many aspects of life, but the common denominators remain the same, woman, art and the art of being a woman.
© María Bjarkadóttir, 2004.
Translated by Vera Júlíusdóttir.
Neijmann, Daisy L., ed. A History of Icelandic Literature
University of Nebraska Press, 2007, p. 457
2012 – The Knight’s Cross of the Icelandic Order of the Falcon, for achievements in writing and contributions to Icelandic literature
2011 – The Jónas Hallgrímsson Prize
2010 – The National Broadcasting Service Writer’s Fund
2008 – Fjöruverðlaunin, the Icelandic Women’s Literature Prize: Karítas án titils (Karitas – Untitled) and Óreiða á striga (Chaos on Canvas)
2008 – DV Culture Prize for Literature: Karítas án titils (Karitas – Untitled) and Óreiða á striga (Chaos on Canvas)
2006 – The Nordic Council’s Literature Prize: Karítas, án titils (Karitas – Untitled)