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Read Your Way Through Reykjavík

You will perhaps have heard of Laxness’s best known novel, “Independent People,” which was originally published in the early 1930s and became one of the first Icelandic novels to be released in the United States, in 1946. If you continue down Laugavegur and then make your way up to Skólavörðustígur, you will undoubtedly be able to find a copy of “The Book of Sheep,” as we called it when we were young and irreverent, in the Eymundsson bookstore across the street from the old city jail. The store has a good selection of whatever Icelandic literature is available in English, and a cafe to boot. There you can sit and browse, and perhaps even read the first pages about Bjartur’s quest for independence from other men and his daughter’s quest for independence from him. And about his sheep.

Laxness inspired but he also cast a shadow, and if you had been an aspiring writer in Iceland in the ’40s or ’50s, or even the ’60s, you would probably have felt both. Eventually other shadows joined his — including many from abroad — so that, in time, it was as if there were no shadows at all, only inspiration.

At Eymundsson, you may want to pick up “The Good Shepherd,” Gunnar Gunnarsson’s classic novel — the deceptively simple tale of Benedikt, a man looking for sheep in the dead of winter. Gunnarsson wrote mostly in Danish and was translated into Icelandic by Laxness. Later, he translated some of his novels himself, but Laxness turned out to be a better Gunnarsson in Icelandic than Gunnarsson himself.

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Moving closer to us in time, I recommend you pick up Einar Már Guðmundsson’s tender story of madness “Angels of the Universe”; Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir’s “The Greenhouse,” subtle and elegant; Sjón’s “The Blue Fox,” a lyrical, fable-like novella; Hallgrímur Helgason’s “The Woman at 1000 Degrees,” which is louder than the previous three novels (as it should be — the protagonist is living in a garage with her laptop and an old hand grenade); or Auður Jónsdóttir’s “Quake,” where memory loss and family secrets are intertwined. Then there is Jón Kalman Stefánsson’s historical novel “The Sorrow of Angels,” which transports you to the West Fjords, and Einar Kárason’s “Storm Birds,” which takes you straight out to sea in treacherous weather.

You will also discover that crime fiction is alive and well in Iceland, ably represented by Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, Arnaldur Indriðason and Ragnar Jónasson.

I wish there were many more Icelandic authors available in English translations: Perhaps by now you’ve been inspired to learn Icelandic to help remedy that.

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