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Explore Iceland through its literature too

Iceland publishes more books per capita than any other country and there is no shortage of notable authors on the island. Iceland's harsh climate encourages its inhabitants to pursue indoor activities, and many Icelanders are both poets and writers as well as musicians and singers in their spare time. From the Icelandic Sagas to the latest crime novel from Arnaldur Indriðason, here is a brief guide to Icelandic literature.

These are some of the major figures of Icelandic literature.

Arnaldur Indriðason

The master of Icelandic crime fiction, highly adept at developing classic detective story plots imbued with subtlety and suspense. From Reykjavik to the fjords of the East, Indriðason slowly develops the plots of his books using the natural landscapes of Iceland as his setting and placing Icelandic characters at the heart of his compelling stories.

A few of his works published in English: 

- Kleifarvatn - The Draining Lake, Vintage Publishing, London, 2007

- Vetrarborgin - Arctic Chill, Vintage Publishing, London, 2008

- Harðskafi - Hypothermia, Vintage Publishing, London, 2009

- Myrká - Outrage, Vintage Publishing, London, 2011

- Reykjavíkurnætur - Reykjavik Nights, Vintage Publishing, London, 2014

Jón Kalman Stefánsson

A contemporary author living in Reykjavik, both his sense of the poetic and his sensibility are detectable in each and every phrase he writes. Over the course of these three books, the reader follows the twists and turns in the life of the central character and the adventures he experiences at the heart of Iceland's cold and hostile natural landscapes. The reader accompanies him every step of the way, savouring each detail as the author so gracefully distils them throughout the course of the story. In a word: beautiful!

The trilogy available in English:

- Himnaríki og helvíti - Heaven and Hell, Quercus Publishing, London, 2010

- Harmur englanna - The Sorrow of Angels, MacLehose Press, London, 2013

- Hjarta mannsins - The Heart of Man, Quercus Publishing, London, 2015

Halldór Laxness

Recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature and undoubtedly the most famous of Iceland's authors. His works are richly imbued with Icelandic folklore, which he introduces the reader to over the course of his novels, painting a fascinating picture of life in Iceland as it was at the beginning of the 20th century. His descriptions of Icelandic peasantry are incredibly vivid and lifelike. 

A selection of his works available in English: 

- Paradísarheimt (1960) - Paradise Reclaimed, Methuen, London, 1962

- Islandsklukkan - Iceland's Bell, Vintage Books, 2003

- Brekkukotsannáll (1957) - The Fish Can Sing, London, Methuen, 1966

The Icelandic Sagas

There are not many places you can go in Iceland without hearing people speak about the Sagas. The tales and historical stories that make up the Sagas recount the lives of the people who first settled in Iceland in the 10th and 11th centuries. With many of the Sagas tracing the epic story of a particular family, they provide a strong link back to the country's early history and its folklore. Various places in the country are strongly associated with the people who occupied these lands all those centuries ago. 

Available in English:

- The Sagas of the Icelanders, Penguin, London, 2005

- Njal's Saga, Penguin, London, 2001

A traditional Icelandic turf-roofed house

Emmanuelle Bluman
157 contributions
Updated 24 March 2016

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