Gyrðir Elíasson

„Um tíma átti hann nokkrar hænur, en þær urðu skammlífar; komust í gersull eftir að hann var farinn að brugga og hættur að bíða áfengisferða til Seyðisfjarðar. Hann hafði hellt botnfallinu út á grasflötina bak við húsið og hænurnar komu vappandi í glampandi sólskini og tóku að stinga niður goggum á þessum litla bletti.“
(Trésmíði í eilífðinni)

Gyrdir Elíasson was born in Reykjavík on April 4, 1961. His family comes from the East fjords but he grew up in the town of Sauðárkrókur in Northern Iceland and went to both elementary school and college there. He lived for a while in the western part of the country, in Borgarnes and Akranes, but later in Reykjavík.

Gyrðir has been a full time writer almost all his adult life, he has published a number of poetry books, novels and collections of short stories. He is one of Iceland's most acclaimed writers of his generation. Hirst published book is the poetry collection Svarthvít axlabönd (Black-and-White Suspenders) from 1983. Gyrðir is also an avid translator, especially of books about and by American aborigines, and has translated four of Richard Brautigan's novels. In 2011, Gyrðir sent forward a large collection of translated poetry, with poems by thirty-six poets from fifteen countries.

Gyrðir has received various awards for his work, among them the Icelandic Literature Prize in 2000 for his short story collection Gula húsið (The Yellow House) and the Nordic Council Literature Prize in 2011 for Milli trjánna (Between the Trees), also a collection of short stories.

Gyrdir Elíasson lives in Reykjavík, is married and has three children.

Publisher: Uppheimar.

From Gyrðir Elíasson

I was born in Reykjavik on April 4th 1961. Moved with my parents to Saudárkrókur in Northern Iceland when I was two years old and lived there until I was past twenty. However both my mother’s and my father’s family come originally from Borgarfjördur in the east and there I spent a great many summers with my maternal grandparents. Perhaps it’s because of this that my connection with Skagafjördur did not become more decisive. In fact, everything in my childhood was linked with the eastern fjords. I suppose the childhood surroundings are very important to most writers, an in my case the two fjords have played a big role in my writings—this actually happens more or less unconsciously. Perhaps a writer can never really write about anything but what he knows. Another fact which most of those who write have discovered is that it is almost impossible to come up with anything completely fresh. There are always some parts of the writer’s life that pop up.

I graduated from Fjölbrautarskóli Nordurlands Vestra in Saudárkrókur (FNV) in 1982 and then moved south to go to the university comparative literature to be exact. It didn’t last long, only a few weeks in fact, and then I’d had enough of that subject as such. The following year I tried the Iceland University of Education (IUE) and lasted there just over a year. After that I lived for one year in Borgarfjörður Eystri where I pretended to be practising some kind of art education. What I was really doing was to try to write. I had first began, while in FNV, to write poetry for the school paper—which is best forgotten there. I think that I didn’t make a very good start, to be honest. But while I was studying there a man called Geirlaugur Magnússon started working there and he engaged in writing poetry. He had a huge collection of foreign books he allowed me to examine as much as I wanted and I showed him what I was trying to write. He didn’t like it all that much, understandably enough, but I continued. The first collection of poetry came out in the fall of 1983, the year I began my studies at the Iceland University of Education. After the winter I spent there it was pretty clear that teaching was not for me (even though I tried after that to teach at Borgarfjördur) and the idea that I might write for a living started to grow. I don’t know now what caused me to believe it except my stubbornness. Ever since I learned to read I had read a lot but not done much writing until in FNV, with the exception that when I was five I put together a book about a squirrel and used the name of it 22 years later as the title of my first published story. Since then I have spent my time almost equally writing stories and poetry as well as translating. Translation is a very good school, I think, you approach language differently and learn a lot, both from mistakes and from success. It’s also good to take a break from oneself; to go deeper into another writer’s work in a way that reading, to give an example, does not give full room for. Besides, I feel it to be almost the duty of Icelandic writers to give a hand in translations because, as everybody knows, they are very important in as small a language area as this.

I am married and have three daughters, one from the “first war” as we say! Pétur Gunnarsson once said that he didn’t find himself in his writing until after the children were born and I think I can agree with that. But what about H. C. Andersen? someone may ask. Yes, but he was his own child. Children regenerate and keep your vision awake though it may be difficult at times to make this strange job and ordinary family life work together on a day to day basis. The role of the author in contemporary society is possibly quite a bit different, though perhaps his position has not changed as much as people’s position to him. But poets who are also the prophets of society are probably ancient history. And yet its hard to say. But even the most low-spoken poets can have a clear position. The Icelandic poet Thorsteinn Valdimarsson is a good example. All his life’s work was marked by a position to life that was, at its core, religious—and for that reason a little poem of his about a flower became highly political in the sense that it condemned almost without words the destruction of nature: the flower was a symbol against war and the intrusion on nature. This is perhaps not given enough attention when contemporary poets are criticized for introversion and apathy for the burning issues of their time. Yet I am not saying that the criticism is without its basis. Poets should not of course get locked up, chew the cud in a stall of specialization, where dealing in words is their only acknowledged area of expertise. In earlier times art and religion followed the same path. It was not until the last century that ways parted on the surface and art grew towards science, through naturalism and realism. At its core art has still always been closer to faith, the occult, than to science. I think that now, at the end of the 20th century, the so called artists are gradually realizing this and that in the end these two ideologies will come together again. I am not a prophet, however, so this may be just my feeling.

Gyrðir Elíasson, 2000.

Translated by Jóhann Thorarensen.

On the Works of Gyrðir Elíasson

Early Poems

Gyrðir Elíasson’s first collection of poetry, Svarthvít Axlabönd (Black and White Suspenders), which appeared in 1983, has remarkably little of the rhetorical and political poetic style that had been so dominant in the poetry of the younger poets in Iceland around 1980. The only references to the political poem of the seventies are ironical, such as the title of the poem “Dagur verkalýðsins” (“May Day”), which is a description of hangovers and loneliness, set with witty references to other works of literature such as “the poet never receives any letters” or “an exchange student in Wonderland”. Most of the poems are compact and disciplined, constructed by simple images or carefully thought out word games. The longer ones are colored by the style that would later characterize Elíasson’s poems in the coming years: Ideas and things of the most varied kind are pooled together in harsh, almost aggressive figurative language. Most often the poetic awareness is alone in its world and many of the poems are about isolation and loneliness. This isolation rarely breeds self-pity or hopelessness, it rather underlines the special tone that is sometimes amusing and sometimes aggressive: Elíasson’s lone person often views his isolation angrily, without being able to find ways out of it. He flirts with suicide, talks of his head as a “white-chalked vault” and contemplates limitation, but he does it in a tone bordering between mischievousness and destitution. It is descriptive of this vision of the lone person’s lot that the reader is not wholly convinced whether the final words of the book, “I don’t feel good,” (which are from the poem “From a Lone Person’s Evening Book”) are meant as a lonely speaker’s sincere expression or are some sort of a comical misrepresentation. At least the snapshots of this poetic awareness of his life a lone person are varied and it is not always to be fully trusted that this is an “honest” expression of loneliness or being lonesome. Ever since, this mixture of unexpected and at times even contradictory associations, humour and sensitivity, has been the main characteristic of Elíasson’s poetry.

Poems of the Eighties

A. A New Language

One of the main characteristic of poems by Gyrðir Elíasson and other poets who appeared in the eighties, such as Ísak Harðarson, is a combination of a renewed emphasis on the aesthetic premise of modernism and a discussion of contemporary media, other means of communication than poetry, like radio, newspapers or television. Concerning Elíasson’s poetry this is particularly noticeable in the two books that follow Svarthvít axlabönd: Tvíbreitt (svig)rúm, (Double (bed)space) (1984) and Einskonar höfuð lausn (A Kind of Head/Ransom) (1985), but an interesting progress of these themes can be seen in his fourth collection of poetry, Bak við maríuglerið (Behind the Mica glass) (1985).

If we look at the two former books first we have there a similar poetic awareness as in Svarthvít axlabönd, the lonely, but unpredictable and often comic voice and it is for example prominent in the beginning poems of Tvíbreitt (svig)rúm, “Insomnia” and “Weight.” Both of the books are not, however, characterized by descriptions of “alienation,” the distance between two men, but by an emphasis on the things the poetic awareness sees outside its own lonely circle and on the words it reads and hears. The one who speaks though has just as hard a time finding connections to the things as he has a hard time making connections with other people. It is as if he does not see the things for the words that are used to symbolize them. The poems become a collection of diverse fragments of communication, fragments of other poems, titles of books, old songs, names of characters in books, television shows and movies, graphic printed symbols and phrases from advertisements and the media. The self-expression of the lonely awareness becomes an expression of the things that reach it. It perceives itself as isolated, but at the same time completely full of other people’s words, phrases that pile up and link with other phrases. The poetic awareness has very few words it can call “personal,” but instead of skipping speaking (or writing about silence, about the problem of communication, which is a common theme in modernist poetry) it seizes the clichés in the air and twists them around, distorts them and moulds them into a text that is either scary or comical, but most often both.

This is especially true of the book Einskonar höfud lausn, where things are taken further than in Tvíbreitt (svig)rúm in using various tricks of format and printed symbols to show the closeness of the text to other media than the poem where different semantic fields are constantly hurled together. An example of this is the poem “Q":

glasslike eyes stagnation focal point
sun of autumn going down(radiosised
ozone layer)two girls haveacokeandsmile
billboard mountain range azure blue short of breath
cars hurrying home(the hurricane
diana expected on its way southeast
to buckingham)
mist that grows thicker (22)

These tricks have obvious parallels in the concrete poetry of the sixties and seventies and the perception of language is not unlike the one to be seen in many European poets of that time. To begin with the main emphasis is on the medium, the language, but at the same time the prevailing feeling is that it is creased and worn out, the ideology of the awareness industry and the media have distorted it and made it into useless machinery. The only possible move is to twist things around, make a parody, rearrange the known so that it becomes new, or at least seems new, and dig for strange and comical connection between otherwise unconnected words that show other associations than those that are most often pointed out to the users of the language. Nevertheless it cannot be said that Elíasson has especially focused on the language in these books. Instead he gave significance to the clichés outside the language games, got them to express a threat and an impending fright that was a dominant undertone in the poems. Added to this is also the thought that the connections between language and a threat are very complex because to a certain extent the threat is beyond the language, it is too inordinate to be put in plain words. The cliché thus became a sort of a vehicle that pushed the reader in the direction of the feeling of fright. The familiar words became even more horrifying when they expressed tragedies and death.

B. Eyes and Glass

Elíasson’s attempts to use format, word plays and phrases from the media (or references to the media) in order to capture the feeling of threat can clearly be seen in a well known poem in Einskonar höfuð lausn, “f.” It is set up as an atom mushroom and the atomic death is linked with the homely contemporary fire in the fireplace of television because the end arrives when “they have just/turned off the television (a program/about the celebration of Easter in Israel)” (43). And when “they” have thrown themselves face down on the close-cropped carpet and shut their eyes tightly these lines appear (which are set up as the stalk of the mushroom): “remember/the oven/in his/&crie/d she/screams you/mean the witch/mumbles/he drinks in burning hot air cannot breathe-”

These metaphorical connections between an atom bomb and an oven are descriptive of Elíasson’s poetry in the eighties. They pop up again in Bak við maríuglerið and even later in Elíasson’s first novel, Gangandi íkorni (A Walking Squirrel) (1987) and they are constantly present in the poetry collection Blindfugl/Svartflug (Blind Bird/Black Flight) (1986). Elíasson turned the media fragments and the glossary that faced him into an expression of the historical reality of the eighties, the final stage of the Cold War, but at the same time created symbols and images to describe this reality which rise above time and describe the threat as a situation and not just as something tied to a place and moment in time. Bak við maríuglerið is thus clearly marked by the fact that the battle with the linguistic purifying was in fact only an attempt to approach the threat and it has now made way for a new vision of the connection between awareness and the outside world, the connection between awareness and mediating. The fragments from the media lingo are transformed into nightmarish descriptions and aggressive figurative language and there is a very heavy undertone in the poems, inexplicable “terror.”

A good example of this shift in direction is the fact that the media have now changed from textual fragments into a “presence.” They are thus sometimes personified, become a “being,” and view as such the speaker or assail him in the form of a ghost. Sometimes they are simply an “eye” that is behind glass of any kind, a mirror or a windowpane. And sometimes the presence of the glass alone is adequate to awaken the feeling of threat. The “presence” arrives uninvited in the speaker’s everyday life and alters his vision of the environment, makes it strange and difficult or is an omen of disappearance and destruction.

We can see here the same connections between television and oven we did in the poem “f” and the feeling of horror we get from them. The oven is not shown as the spring of well being and heat, it is not described from the viewpoint of him who sits by it and looks at it, but from the viewpoint of him who is in it and burns there. The speaker to some extent looks out of the Mariaglass, but not in. “Mariaglass” is after all glass in an oven to make it possible to see whether there is fire in it and the analogy to the television screen is obvious. It is no longer an innocent piece of furniture in a room, but a burning box and in some sense the poetic being is positioned in this box, inside the television and its flames.

This is better seen when we look at the title poem of the book, “Behind the Mariaglass.” There the speaker is tied to the bed (in Tvíbreitt (svig)rúm he was taped to the television screen) and announces that it does not matter to him at all what words mean, words and things can become disorganised for all he cares. Yet he cares “for some things/am sometimes afraid that the bulging glass/of the black box explodes in/my face or my head explodes in/all directions.” The fear that came with Elíasson’s poetic awareness right in his very first book has now become pure terror, a nightmare. This fear has its origin in the voices of the media. Thus the images of Armageddon the speaker describes are copied from a distorted serial story he reads in a newspaper, they are distributed by others to him but show, nevertheless, his fear. The mysterious “messenger from the beyond” who suddenly “materialises” in the room, is no divine emissary, but from this mysterious “near world” which is in television, in the world of the media. It should come as no surprise that the messenger brings the bed-tied speaker a ticket to a gruesome destination, a one way ticket, and the poem ends with an image of Armageddon; soon it is supposed to start “raining burning oil,” “the first drops have begun to/fall.”

The long poem Blindfugl/svartflug (1986) which followed is considerably different from Bak við maríuglerið in structure, the book is one unbroken poem which counts 400 lines. It can, however, without a doubt be seen as the conclusion of Elíasson’s earlier collections of poetry, the climax and the final stop of the poetic vision he had developed in the years 1982-1986. The isolation of the poetic awareness now transforms into a universal image, expands into a special world that can hold everything which before opposed the awareness or moved within it. Narrations, dreams, visions, texts and messages of the media are moved into this world, into “the vault,” which is now a metaphor for the whole book. Nothing really exists any longer except this vault, everything occurs inside it and everything is measured against it. In it is the same impatience as in the books that appeared before it. The poem literally begins with a statement from the poetic awareness in that tone: “I can’t deal out tranquility,/of it I have nothing, the cruising range/of irregular ideas seems without/limits” (1-4). These lines can be called the epigraph of Elíasson’s first five books of poetry.

First Works in Prose

In 1987 Gyrdir Elíasson published his first work in prose, the novel Gangandi íkorni, and a year later the short story collection Bréfbrátarigningin (Paper-Boat Rain) appeared and since then he has written both poetry and prose.

The story is about the “eccentric” boy Sigmar and his double, the walking squirrel. It starts with fragmentary narratives about him where he is living in the country with the couple Ágúst and Björg who themselves had a boy who is now dead. In the middle of the book Sigmar changes into an animal and walks into a world he himself has drawn on machine paper. He is killed there, or seems to get killed, when the drawing is thrown into an oven. As in Bak við maríuglerið an ordinary domestic oven has become a machine of terror, this time some sort of a nuclear reactor and the burning of the world of fantasy has become a substitute for the burning of the world.

What role the child plays in this book as well as in the first three stories of Bréfbátarigningin has been well dealt with (Ástráður Eysteinsson, 1990). Here, and in fact also in Elíasson’s story collection from the nineties, the characters’ childhood is far from being the typical journey to maturity it has been the custom to portray it as in works of literature where the child’s growth and its path to adulthood is placed in the fore. The child is non-existing, it is on its way somewhere and this somewhere is not necessarily our idea of a mature grown-up being, the child is an open system. This is clear in Gangandi íkorni where the narrative constantly “jerks,” and a real progress or an evolution towards a conclusion in Sigmar’s life is not described. For example, the reader gets no information about where he is from or why he is on this farm where very little happens and where ordinary work on the farm is rarely described. Life is, despite realistic atmosphere, rather mysterious.

When the works Elíasson wrote in 1987-1990 are looked at as a whole: Gangandi íkorni (1987), Bréfbátarigningin (1988), Tvö tungl (Two Moons) (1989) and Svefnhjólið (The Wheel of Sleep) (1990), it is obvious that there is a constant overlap between fantasy and realism in all of them. In terms of form these works are very different. Gangandi íkorni, as has already been stated, is a short novel, almost a novella. Bréfbátarigningin is a collection of four short stories which together form a tight whole and is bordering between being a loosely connected novel and a short story collection. Tvö tungl is a collection of poetry, but there is a wholly different atmosphere in it than in the earlier collections of poetry, the poems are more comic, often like little narratives, and the horror that used to take up so much space is greatly lessened. Svefnhjólið is a novel and is Elíasson’s longest unbroken narrative so far.

The basic idea in these works is to show the reverse side of the realistic surface, a world behind the world of things. The two worlds are connected on many levels and a great deal of the enjoyment in reading the texts is in looking for their places of contact, to see connections and parallels, analogies and opposites. One thing that also characterises the double vision is the play the overlapping of what is real and what is fantasy create, the dissimulation and the strange humour that is visible everywhere, though never as clearly as in Tvö tungl. The symbol of this is the clown or the artist of all things. The performance described here sounds like circus humour where serious manner and ridiculous performances are mixed together and where people possess a strange skill to do their tricks which have no other purpose than to be tricks, be jokes. These tricks are often mean ones, caused by bad temper and boredom. Sigmar, the boy from Gangandi íkorni, obviously sees his pranks as a certain kind of humour, but they are also cruel, if not beastly, even though the meanness is not always what is most important. In a description of Sigmar’s and his nanny Ágústa’s trip to town these elements of the clown are obvious and at the same time we see how “strange” this world of clowns is. In the world of the clown there are no reasons for why he falls on his butt, destroys the bike he is about to use or hurts others. He does what he does because it is comic, but because he never laughs himself the whole of his scheme seems to be based on a complete misunderstanding. Perhaps the clown simply does it because he is uncertain about what to do next? Maybe he does it simply because of how frightened he is.

The clown’s humour is also littered with dark tones of the blues, fear and depression. In all of the stories in Bréfbátarigningin danger hovers over, impending death and a conclusion. The stories are relatively realistic, but in all of them one of the main characteristic of the clowning style is to be seen, to invoke laughter without laughing or being “funny” in the traditional meaning of the word. The humour springs more from the ridiculous circumstances, the strange happenings and last but not least the roles the characters take on. The story “Vængmaður” (“Winged Man”) describes how, for example, an ordinary man who works at a printer’s workshop in a town in the country has put on “the costume of a winged man,” which he then gives to a little boy and thus initiates him into the world of wonder. This role is in a sense the role of the clown, an instrument of fun, but it also has a deep-rooted existential reality to it. The man’s presence is caused by the role and is unfathomable without it, as soon as he departs from it has changed.

In the novel Svefnhjólið yet another version of the dramatic vision of the world can be seen because here Elíasson creates a unified world, which is really another world, the world of the deceased. The main character is a young man who travels between scenes when he falls asleep in the bathtub and the story invites a reading of it as fantasy, but when it is discovered that the hero is deceased it becomes obvious that it is describing a world that is not only imagined, but has existed, but does not anymore. Here a disappearance is being described, but meanwhile it is done after the clown’s methods, this vanished world is no less the world of Buster Keaton than memento mori-reprimands.

But in the book there is also present an agreement between the material and the supernatural that takes for granted that there is another world beyond, or at least parallel to this one. If Elíasson was before the typical modern man who has great difficulties in visualising the metaphysical existence of the world beyond, not to mention believing in it, he has here become a creator who presents the existence of the supernatural as a reality. He takes a completely fundamental step across the chasm between flirting with some sort of magic realism “where anything can happen” and take metaphysics on its words. The dead are not zombies—living dead—they live in their own world.

Poems of the nineties

A. Sympathy

The collection of poetry Tvö tungl (1989) is closely connected with the prose works from the same period as has already been stated. As in the stories the clown and the humour of the unexpected open up for a new perspective of Elíasson’s subject from the earlier years by making the horror milder but at the same time a new tone is added which is most certainly more humane and warmer than the reigning one in the earlier poems. The clownish behaviour opened up for more freedom in presentation and subject matter than before and the result of that was, among other things, more elbow room to write, and thus Tvö tungl is a very large collection of poetry where we can find poems which span a great range, from pure humour to rather serious and sad texts about the old fundamental themes threat and disappearance.

But the main tone of this book was however the feeling for the connection between the poetic awareness and the surroundings, the claim that is presented in the poem “Samkennd” (“Sympathy”) and can be termed as some sort of a motto of the book: “I am never completely alone.” With the book a fundamental change occurs in Elíasson’s writings, not in style and subject matter however, but rather in terms of a position towards the world and towards what fiction is to be about. Sympathy forms the main tone in all of Elíasson’s collections of poetry after this. Behind the veil that the poetic awareness was unable to pass through before, a whole new world is revealed which is not always pleasant to look upon, but which still meets the reader as a reality that to some extent at least is worth the trust and that bids him welcome, wants to strengthen the bonds.

A similar attempt can be seen here as in Svefnhjólið to rebuild in fiction the vanished unity of man and nature, man and the world beyond, even though this experiment is not very advanced in Tvö tungl. However, it takes the form of much more mature images in the books that followed, Vetraráform um sumarferðalag (Winter Plans for a Summer Trip) (1991) and Mold í skuggadal (Dust in Shadow-Valley) (1992) and is the main theme in his latest collections of poetry Indíánasumar (Indian Summer) (1996) and Hugarfjallid (Mt. Mind) (1999).

B. Simplicity

Radical change occurs in Gyrðir Elíasson’s career with the publication of his next collection of poetry Vetraráform um sumarferðalag (1991) which appeared parallel to the collection of narratives Heykvísl og gúmmískór (Hay Fork and Rubber Shoes) (1991). Here is in the fore a style of poetry where nature and man’s connection to it is most prominent, his feelings for it. In order to capture this thinking Elíasson uses what can be called a “Japanese” method. He records snapshots of spiritual illumination against nature and its wonders, sudden changes of weather, vegetation and rocks as well as mountains and the sea and the sun. This documentation is in basic terms mystical. He works towards the fusion of man and what is not within his grasp: the forces of nature, the spirits of the living world, the creator of everything that is. These are miniature pictures of the pleasure of picking herbs for teas, of walking tours, of seeing simple phenomenon such as rocks or peculiar mountains and it all correlates, most certainly, with Oriental poetry, but here are also reawakened popular attitudes towards nature and the environment, such as a belief in the power of rocks, and the sanctity of places.

It goes hand in hand with this new style that the language of the poems becomes very simple and quiet. The use of language is close to speech, metaphors are refrained from quite a bit and sometimes the poems become so straightforward that they reach the furthest limit for any real “poetic” form to be seen in them. Much rather they seem to be short glimpses of a longer text which is never published, which seems to be the way the books were thought of. They are all quite extensive for collections of poetry but it is very different how well the form fits the subject in the poems, the number is obviously important, not individual poems. Thus we can clearly see poems that are close to the traditional lines of poetry where the demand is to make “memorable” lines and powerful images that “stick in the readers’ minds,” but in between there are others that seem “weak” and find it harder to stand by their own, but accept the support of the book’s unity, if not of the whole of the author’s work. And once the books are read together this whole stares you in the face, a deliberate thinking behind the poems based on them being fragments of a larger picture. Meanwhile the reader is encouraged to participate in the poet’s thinking about man’s connection to bigger things.

Elíasson’s next collection of poetry, Mold í skuggadal (1992), is most likely the one which most resembles his poems from the period 1983-1986. The tone is darker and sadder here than in others of his work during the last years and carries many of the “strong” poems of the book, such as “Blindness” and “The Children’s Shadow-Valley.” The majority is however poems which develop further the tone of consideration and mysticism and describe the primary symbols which govern this poetic world: light and darkness.

The interplay of these parts is enormously varied and their symbols last through all of the collections of poetry during the nineties, symbols like the lamp and the glimmer of light. The light is though always characterised by the fact that it cannot burn except in darkness which thus gains importance as the “companion” of the light. It may be said that this complex interplay between light and darkness reaches a certain climax in Elíasson’s latest collection of poetry, Hugarfjallid (1999). Here these reflections become most complete and to some extent Hugarfjallid opens up the other three, Vetraráform um sumarferðalag, Mold í skuggadal and Indíánasumar (1996) and shows their direction and their world. It can be said that we have here a Gnostic theory on man, a theory that he is only a material body in a very limited way, and much rather a weaving of light and darkness. His time, the time he lives in, is the time of darkness and his path the path into an ever growing darkness, away from simplicity, away from the light which surrounds everything that is good, original and whole. Man’s misery resides in the darkness and all service to it increases this misery. The poems are thus not dealing with every day matters. They are meant to create a metaphysical field where man and the universe are connected in a clear way in language every child can understand and is as close to common language as possible. In this field the great adversaries light and darkness are led forth in various roles, such as the recollection of will o’the wisp, that brings forth the contradictory nature of what seems at first to be all kindness. The idea of will o’the wisp bears with it an obvious religious flair since it comes from man, it is light made of darkness, when the real light is not his, but the creator’s. The light of caring, the light of love that shines forth from the pillars of metaphysics, has not on the other hand appeared due to dualism, is not based on having an adversary, because it is a light without shadows that is not thrown on things, but is in them. Wherever it is everything shines and not because of the darkness, but because of the light alone. The light exists because of the light. When this “theory” is kept in mind we can see how Elíasson’s poetry has gone completely in the reverse direction from where it was heading in the eighties and one of the poems in the book, “Tilskipun að ofan” (“An Order from Above”) is a clear indication of this. Here Gyrdir Elíasson settles his career as a poet:

Poems should be written
with solar power
with mind power
made of light

Not darkness

The Prose Works of the Nineties

After the publication of Svefnhjólið in 1990 Elíasson has not written anything else than short stories. They are usually very compact, sometimes no more than two pages, but with this small form he has fallen in love and it has followed him in four books. The first book of this kind was the other half of the twin books of 1991, Heykvísl og gúmmískór, two years later, in 1993, the book Tregahornið (The Blues Horn) appeared, then Kvöld í ljósturninum (Evenings in the Light Tower) (1995) (1994 was the first year since Elíasson began his writing career in which no book by him appeared) and finally Vatnsfólkið (The Water People) (1997) where attempts towards lengthening the stories again can be seen as well as moving a little aside the enormously sophisticated and disciplined texture of the texts in the other three books. These four books are very much related to each other in terms of subject matter and texture and in them we can see, as in the collections of poetry, a certain development towards consideration and metaphysical attitudes.

What they have in common is that in them an attempt is made at expanding the field of man and the awareness of man, at capturing in symbols and texts complex subjects such as the contradictory attitudes of modern times of the world beyond, the sadness over the disappearance of the values of nature and culture and the difficulties in handling fickleness, in connecting the fickleness nature controls and the fickleness man’s history brings on himself. But in these books emotional matters are also very prominent, stories about relatives and loved ones that can no longer stay together, stories about emotional shipwrecks and sadness over losing what you love the most and also stories about the strength of friendship, gladness over being together — connections between people.

Aesthetically speaking the stories are a part of the movement within modernist and later postmodernist literature of the Western world where a valid exposition of “core” or centre is rejected. The stories are “exalted” in the hermeneutic understanding the French philosopher Lyotard had of the word in his explanations of Immanuel Kant’s aesthetics. They do not have “a clear message” to deliver because they are about what is universal and thus have no clear symbols. This is obvious because of two things which take up a lot of space in the narrative collections: On the one hand because of the mysteries that are distributed widely in the texts because various traditional motivators for people’s behaviour is not present, there are “blanks” which hinder the reader from inferring psychological meaning to everything he reads. On the other hand the stories are almost without exception far from the “centre” of modern life and do not deal with people who are in the middle of finance, culture and the media. Their setting is most often rural areas, in imaginary worlds or parallel to traditional settings of the “modern story.” The image of society which ordinary people can read about in the media is far from Elíasson’s stories, and without a doubt it strikes many as strange. It only appears as an imminent force that disrupts the world of accretion of man and nature Elíasson so often tries to describe. Between his vision and the reality of the market economy of late capitalism there is constant tension which often breaks out in the symbols of threat, or a gnawing suspicion. Thus ideas such as competition and capacity never come up. Their foundation is always a dearly bought respect for the environment, the history and the way of life outside the main road. They are moralistic and are meant to increase sincerity and honesty at the cost of irony and weariness of life. They aim for the real pluralism of tolerance and communication, not for the fight of competition which never regrets the disappearance of the loser. Elíasson’s stories are on the other hand written against forgetfulness. They are not intended to make us accept the world as it is, but to remind us of the disappearance of values, the environment and history. We should not forget or accept that others forget.

But at the same time the age in which we live and its scepticism is imminent and rips asunder the whole image wilfulness intends to show. It is not the least this excitement that breeds the “exaltation” in the stories, the mysteries, which are as I have said one of their most important characteristic. In stories like “Ferðasaga” (“A Travel Story”) from Kvöld í ljósturninum it is obvious how a simple description of an ordinary phenomenon becomes a narrative about fickleness itself, the disappearance of all things in nature, the destruction and the loss. As so often in Elíasson’s texts the meeting of man and nature is described, the atmosphere of a place and details of the weather and surroundings that create a closeness, accurate and material picture of circumstances. These are real places, real people and real situations: Three men go to the fjord called Lodmundarfjördur in the eastern part of the country and stay in a house there. They are “the only men in the fjord” and do very little that is newsworthy, in the morning of the fourth day they leave the house and “placed the key under a yellowish brown flagstone in front of the house, where they had found it, and two took up a stand in the morning sun in front of the gable, while the third shot a picture of them and the house.” Nothing more happens on this journey, but when the pictures from the journey are developed and the men look at them closely something out of the ordinary is discovered in the photo that was shot that day. In the window behind them something can be seen: “And they see it is a hand that draws the curtains carefully aside, small as the hand of a child, and out from deep shadows behind the curtains it is as if someone is watching them, the travellers in front of the house—from the empty house.” But there is also something else in the picture. In the windowsill there is a fossil, “a many millions-year-old stonetree from the hill above the town, and the hand in the black and white picture almost touches this rough part of prehistoric age.” Strangely enough it is this fossil that is scarier than the unknown hand. Even though the hand is clearly that of death, because it reminds one of the men of the hand “that closed my father and mother’s eyes in the dream, the night before the accident,” the stonetree is worse. “Of what does it remind you?” one of the men asks and the other answers, and they are the concluding words of this very short story that takes up no more than two and a half pages: “’Ancient sunny days,’ he says quietly, but contrary to the brightness in the words is the voice which before was full of joy but is now like the whisper of a wind in withered grass.”

The fossilised natural history has visited the men and it does it through a photograph, through the works of men. They themselves are blind to nature’s fickleness, understandably since they are just travellers who spend only a few days in the fjord, but by accidentally shooting a picture of this fickleness they have moved it into their own world and thus discovered it. Technology is here not means to seize control over nature and break it. On the contrary, it is a way of understanding that man is fickle and with him everything he has created. The story is not the man’s, it is the subject of nature. This discovery does not however bring relief that man is set free from considering time his task. On the contrary, the men are terrified, paralysed against a force that is greater than they and which they know will sooner or later end their work and their lives. This terror strikes as a fear of the forces that are considered in a more reflective manner in the poems, here no hope is in sight, no reassurance that all will be well and this roughness is in various places throughout the stories, it worms through them like a cold gust of wind.

It would be unfair to leave Elíasson’s writings in the nineties without mentioning that the stories are in fact most often about hope. This hope is however based on the reality of fickleness. It is constructed around the idea that man’s hope is that without him the world is at work, without his interference and without his narrow-mindedness. The point of view turns from world history to natural history and thus the subject here is, to a certain extent, “the end of man,” a world where man in his present state no longer exists. When it is observed that Elíasson’s first work in prose, Gangandi íkorni, described precisely this kind of a world we can see how important the idea that there exists something “other” than the human world we now know is for him. In Gangandi íkorni mankind was almost extinct and nothing was left of it except skulls, those who survived were animals. The last story in Tregahornið also ends with the end of the world which even for all its terror and fear seems also like a way into a new world. The sun and the moon have disappeared from the sky. The whole earth is bathed in darkness but in the middle of this darkness a new hope is born and it does not reside in man, but precisely in that which is “inhuman": “The animals were supposed to know more about darkness than we humans, they could teach us now, and this time we would try to learn from them” (102).

Kristján B. Jónasson, 2000.

Translated by Jóhann Thorarensen.

Awards

2015 – The Icelandic Association of Translators and Interpreter’s Prize: Listin að vera einn (The Art of Being Alone)

2012 – The Icelandic Association of Translators and Interpreter’s Prize: Tunglið braust inn í húsið (The Moon Broke and Entered)

2011 – The Nordic Council Literature Prize: Milli trjánna (Between the Trees)

2000 – The Icelandic Literature Prize: Gula húsið (The Yellow house)

2000 – The Halldór Laxnes Prize for Literature: Gula húsið (The Yellow house)

1998 – Bröste´s Optimism Award

1997 – DV Cultural Prize for Literature: Indíánasumar (Indian Summer)

1995 – The Icelandic Broadcasting Service Writer´s Prize

1989 – The Þórbergur Þórðarsson Prize for Literary Style

Nominations

2012 – The Icelandic Literature Prize: Suðurglugginn (The Southern Window)

2009 – The Icelandic Literature Prize: Milli trjánna (Between the Trees)

2003 – The Icelandic Literature Prize: Tvífundnaland (Twicefoundland)

2002 – The Nordic Council Literature Prize: Gula húsið (The Yellow House)

1997 – The Icelandic Literature Prize: Vatnsfólkið (The Water People)

1996 – The Icelandic Literature Prize: Indíánasumar (Indian Summer)

1992 – The Icelandic Literature Prize: Mold í Skuggadal (Dust in Shadow Valley)

1991 – The Nordic Council Literature Prize: Bréfbátarigningin (Paper Boat Rain)

1990 – The Icelandic Literature Prize: Svefnhjólið (The Bike of Sleep)

1989 – The European Short Story Award: Konan með grösin. Tregahornið, p. 24-27 (“The Woman With the Grasses": In The Blues Horn)

 

Criticism

Agnarsóttir, Áslaug. “Gyrðir Elíasson.”
Icelandic Writers (Dictionary of Literary Biography). Ed. Patrick J. Stevens. Detroit: Gale, 2004. 116-124.

On individual works

Gula húsið (The Yellow House)

Kirsten Wolf: “Gula húsið”
World Literature Today, 76, 2002, pp. 194-195

Terje Holtet Larsen: “Den rasende og den lavmælte / The Irate and the Calm”
Nordisk litteratur 2002, pp. 54-58

Svefnhjólið (The Wheel of Sleep)

Friedhelm Rathjen: “Ein bischen Roman”
In Tintenkurs Nordwest: mit der Lesefähre durch Golfstromeuropa: Holland, England, Wales, Irland, Schottland, Dänemark, Färöer, Island. Scheeßel, Edition ReJoyce, 2006, pp. 150-151

Verena Stössinger: “Das Isländische am Isländischen: über Steinunn Sigurðardóttirs Der Zeitdieb und Gyrðir Elíassons Das Schlafrad”
In Literarische Reise um die Welt: Island. Baden: Buchhandlung Librium, 1999, pp. 22-23

Robert Zola Christensen: “Sömnhojen”
Gardar 1993, årsbok 24. Lund: Walter Ekstrand, pp. 47-48

John Erik Riley: “Gjenopplivet: irritasjon og glede, liv og död í Sövnhjulet av Gyrðir Elíasson”
Vinduet, 54, 2000, pp. 34-37

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From reviews of Gyrðir´s work

Ástráður Eysteinsson: “Gyrðir Elíasson´s work in progress: a portrait” 
Nordic Literature Magazine, 1996

Childhood is a world that Gyrðir Elíasson has explored in greater depth than most other Icelandic writers. It turns out that the bridges connecting the child with the adult self are not always where we think they are; they travel elusively within us, unexpectedly inviting us to the eternal vaults of magic and anxiety, playfulness as well as isolation. As in the works by Franz Kafka, but differently, the child is intimately linked with the creative mind, or the artist, and the figure that completes the triangle is the animal. But in Elíasson´s case, the group of three should perhaps be supplemented with the ghost, a figure that guards the border between life and death, belonging to neither, and who also links the humorous with the horrible. Elíasson´s literary field abounds with eccentric characters, children, old people, animals, and ghosts, all of them belonging to cultural margins, but as such they illuminate the outlines and otherness of society. (15)

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Jón Yngvi Jóhannsson: Vatnsfólkið (The Water People)
DV November 27th 1997

In the short story collection, Vatnsfólkið, Gyrðir Elíasson takes a bigger step towards a traditional narrative than in any of his previous books. It should however be mentioned that in spite of this there is no lack of that which has up to this point drawn readers to his work. Here one can find the world his readers know well by now, a world that is familiar without ever becoming foreseeable, a strange mixture of the known and secure and the unexpected, even uncanny. Still, there seems to be more space in this world than before and it is inhabited by more people than one is accustomed to in Elíasson´s stories. [...]  

Various threads connect these stories, both to literature by other authors and to Elíasson´s previous work. The idea in fact becomes more convincing with every new book that Elíasson´s work forms one continuos web, where various connections, both obvious and less so, link individual texts. This volume of short stories is thus a kind of a text-maze from where the reader can wander through different channels in unexpected directions.

(Translated by Kristín Viðarsdóttir)

 

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