Gender and Class in Icelandic Women’s Literature of the 1970s
In Jakobína Sigurðardóttir’s (1918-1994) autobiographical book Í barndómi (In Childhood), which was posthumously published in 1994, there is a description of a girl who wakes up one morning in her childhood home and sees that the world has been taken over by snow. The sea has disappeared, everything has turned into snow, and even the rays of the sun are white. The sea ice has reached the shore, and the narrator connects the sight to a traumatic childhood experience, when, as a little child, she touched a corpse and felt its coldness.
The part of the country where Jakobína Sigurðardóttir grew up is now uninhabited, but those who moved from Hornstrandir left a part of themselves behind in the small settlements in the deep fjords, far up under the high mountains. What was it that remained?
In the book Í barndómi, Jakobína Sigurðardóttir gropes her way like a blind person through the childhood farm, sensing and remembering. Í barndómi is a declaration of love for a world that is gone: “[...] turned into ruins, collapsed in on itself, and for the most part become one with the soil, as I myself shortly will”. Í barndómi casts a retrospective light over her entire oeuvre and its thematisation of an alienation that touches on employment, class, and gender.
Even though Jakobína Sigurðardóttir sides with the working class, she does not idealise it to the extent authors did during the time of crisis. In the two short story collections from the 1960s, Púnktur á skökkum stað (1964; A Full Stop in the Wrong Place) and Sjö vindur gráar (1970; Seven Gray Spools), she writes, for instance, about linguistic powerlessness which can result in a desperate failure of communication between people. She writes about opportunism and cowardice, about worn-out bodies, poor nerves, envy, and bitterness.
Jónsdóttir, Ragnheiður (born 1933): Uden navn III. Etching 1976. Kjarvalsstaðir, Reykjavík Kunstmuseum
In Jakobína Sigurðardóttir’s early works, a gender perspective is clearly subordinated to a class perspective. Bourgeois women can share female experiences with working class women, they can have similar problems – but the material differences between them, and their conflicting interests, will sooner or later mean that they no longer understand one another. This happens, for example, in her debut novel Dægurvísa (1965; Popular Song), to the lady on the ground floor and her household help, a young single mother who lives in the basement.
Dægurvísa depicts the course of one whole day in the house. The narrative moves between the different people living in the house, and the book forms a collective novel. Jakobína Sigurðardóttir is considered to be one of four authors to introduce modernism into Icelandic prose in the 1960s. The others were Svava Jakobsdóttir, Guðbergur Bergsson, and Thor Vilhjálmsson.
The novel Snaran (1968; The Noose), which can be characterised as a negative vision of the future, describes a future Iceland that has turned into an enormous factory run by North America. The narrator is an old worker, a cleaner at the factory. He reflects on the personal and political developments that have led to the situation described in the book. He tells about the wartime and post-war demoralisation, the destruction of values, and the Americanisation of the island. The old worker converses with another worker, who is absent from the text and yet present, because one gets a sense, now and then, of his utterances through the reactions of the narrator.
The experimental novel Lifandi vatnið (1974; The Living Water) is about the worker Pétur Pétursson, who sets out on a desperate journey back to his childhood home in order to try to recapture the insight of childhood. After all of his earlier ideals, his marriage, and his relationship to his children have lost all meaning, his only remaining point of reference is nature. But the realm of childhood has disappeared. The new farming generation has turned nature into something unrecognisable. When he has reached the end of his journey and is faced with meaninglessness and emptiness, he has a psychotic breakdown and is locked up in a psychiatric ward.
Female sexuality is the main theme of Jakobína Sigurðardóttir’s short, but meticulously structured, artist-centred novel Í sama klefa (1981; In the Same Cabin). The novel is structured like a Chinese box: the author writes about herself as a young writer. There is, in other words, a twofold first-person narrator who, on a trip, shares a cabin with another author who recounts her life story.
Her travelling companion is the farming woman Salóme, from the West Fjords. Salóme does not seem very intelligent: she is passive, a loser, but she wants to tell her story, which is a very dramatic account of forbidden love, sin – and punishment.
The young female writer is ambivalent towards Salóme right from the start. She has decided to become a famous and admired author, while Salóme represents something ancient, something primitive and unacceptable. The author does not like her, does not want to hear her banal story, and distances herself from her since they cannot possibly have anything in common. Or can they?
“But the snow, the normal snow that covers the windows, blocks the door, drowns the yard and the outhouses [...] that snow is a depressing fact that no-one can really understand except through their own experience [...] A firn in calm weather and sunshine can be a fascinating sight from the window of a cosy living-room, and one knows that that clean, ice-cold beauty does not carry a threat. But – if the roads disappear beneath the snow, if you are trapped in that white beauty for days, weeks, months – then the snow becomes snow again”.
Against her will, the narrator recognises – through her own experience – the suffocating, straitened, lonely space allocated to the women of the farming community, the space symbolised by Salóme through “the eternal, never-ending snow”.
Jakobína Sigurðardóttir was a poor, hard working farming woman her whole life, and the mother of four children. In her last book, Í barndómi, one meets an extremely sensitive, intelligent, and imaginative child, who grows up in a world that modern readers have no means of understanding. Jakobína Sigurðardóttir lifts the veil on her own life – at least in part – and her readers find out, for the first time, why it was her voice, in particular, that was heard.
Like the work of so many other authors of her generation, Nína Björk Árnadóttir’s (1941-2000) poetry occasionally contains political motifs, but first and foremost she describes the psychological reality of her characters. The key-note of her authorship was already sounded in her debut Ung ljóð (1965; Young Poems), in which she writes about the anxiety that drains her characters of life; and she had already developed a figurative language in which to describe eroticism and suffering as pure, untouched nature. She used images from nature, in which the woman is a valley and the man is a river, two inseparable natural phenomena that merge in harmony, and that establish balance and peace; but storms break out in people’s souls just as often, because they can establish contact neither with themselves nor with each other.
In “Söknuður” (Longing), the first poem in Nína Björk Árnadóttir’s Ung ljóð (Young Poems), there is a strong sense of the loneliness and absence that characterises her entire output:
I caress the flower you gave me.
Its fragrance is now bitter,
and the leaves bow their heads.
If I kiss it, the leaves fall off,
but the crown remains and cries.
In the television play Líf til einhvers (1987; A Meaning in Life), Marta is a successful, beautiful, and well-educated social worker, and has a young lover and a teenage daughter. Things run nice and smoothly, but only on the surface: into this world comes Bryndís, a poor single mother who works in a factory, but who goes on drinking sprees in the evenings. When Marta sees to it that Bryndís’s child is taken from her, the worlds of both women cave in: Bryndís’s because she cannot live without her child, Marta’s because Bryndís begins to pester her with endless phone calls. In the end, she forces her to admit that her own life, buttoned up and emotionally restricted as it has become, is no better. Marta lives in a world characterised by superficiality and an ice-cold silence that no-one tries to break, neither her lover nor her daughter. She ignores her daughter’s gnawing loneliness, brushes her aside with monosyllables, and declares that she is just being a difficult teenager. Whatever cannot be seen or heard does not enter into Marta’s consciousness. Bryndís finally destroys this illusion, however, towards the end of the play, when she tries to kill both herself and her child. Marta is left in a state of horror: she understands that her life will never be the same again. The author’s sympathy is directed towards Bryndís who, in the last scene, lies in a hospital bed, screaming desperately before being calmed down with an injection.
Music fills the living room, restless, piercing, crazy. A majestic waterfall tumbles over the edge of the rocks, and the roar merges with the music that becomes louder and louder, until it turns into a deafening roar. It is 1 January 1987. The Icelandic state television is premiering a new play by one of the country’s most important dramatists, Nína Björk Árnadóttir. The play is called Líf til einhvers (A Meaning in Life), and the opening scene gives a taster of what will follow: intense suffering, disintegration, clashing conflicts. Nína Björk Árnadóttir published her first book in 1965, the poetry collection Ung ljóð (Young Poems). Thirty years later, she had published eight poetry collections and ten plays, and in 1987 she wrote the novel Móðir kona meyja (Mother, Wife, Maiden).
The powerlessness of those on the lowest rung of society does not always show itself so clearly in Nína Björk Árnadóttir’s works. Pain is just as often expressed in what is not said, as for example in the poem “Anna” from Svartur hestur í myrkrinu (1982; Black Horse in the Dark). The poem concludes with three dots, in silence. But Anna does not give up, and continues in another poem, “Útskýringar Önnu” (Anna’s Explanations). She gets no closer to herself here either, but she tries, at any rate.
Hear me Maria
you bright, clean mother
tonight he settled down with me
the cold, black winter
he locked up his anxiety
in the innermost sanctuary of my soul
and he will not – he will not leave
come to me Maria
you bright, clean mother
and let the light in
to the innermost sanctuary of my soul
so that he must flee – so that he must leave
the cold, black winter
come to me Maria
you bright, clean mother
(“Bæn” (Prayer), Svartur hestur í myrkrinu (1982; Black Horse in the Dark)).
The attempt to master a difficult life is characteristic for Nína Björk Árnadóttir’s entire production. Sometimes death is the only solution, as in Líf til einhvers or the play Súkkulaði handa Silju (Chocolate for Silja) from 1983. This work also describes a factory worker and her difficult relationship with her teenage daughter, a conflict that ends with her strangling her daughter.
The discourse of the mentally ill is often heard loudly and clearly in the poetry collectionsBörnin í garðinum(1971; The Children in the Garden), Mín vegna og þín (1977; For My Sake and Yours), and Svartur hestur í myrkrinu, in which Nína Björk Árnadóttir in long sequences writes about women who have ended up in a psychiatric ward. None of them know, fundamentally, why they are there, but they try to talk themselves out of the darkness, to describe all their invisible wounds to the men in white who give them pills and injections in order to finally shut them up. The drugs give them a break, for a time, from anxiety, from the shakes and the sweats, but at the same time they wipe out their consciousness. There is a dual sense of being cooped up: cooped up in the self and cooped up in an institution, in the ward for “the artificially happy”. These women are the victims of external conditions, and are at the mercy of a power that tries to suppress and control them. Many of them have ended up as alcoholics and prescription drug addicts, their children have been taken away from them, their husbands beat them and rape them, and they are finally left with crushed personalities and consciousnesses cracked in every which way. This grimness is emphasised through oppressive imagery: “the forest of anxiety”, “the bird of darkness”, and “the bird of anxiety that takes a person in its claws and flies away with it, far away from happiness”. The characters’ pain often appears in the jarring contrast between what they do and what they think, as can clearly be seen in the poem “Minning frá Haderslev” (A Memory from Haderslev) from Svartur hestur í myrkrinu. In this poem, the first-person narrator (a woman) finds herself in a foreign town, where she dances, sings, tells stories, laughs, and gets others to laugh. But suddenly she gets up, goes off to an adjacent room, and cries “without knowing why”. The woman parties in the town right up to the last day, but it is as though she suddenly realises that the pain cannot be danced away; and her trip nears its end without her having been able to reconcile her inner longing with the outer reality.
A recurrent theme in Nína Björk Árnadóttir’s oeuvre is precisely this nightmarish disparity that arises when emotions break loose and turn conscious intentions into abnormal actions.
Málfríður Einarsdóttir (1899-1983) was an old lady when her first book, Samastaður í tilverunni (A Place in Life), appeared in 1977. She was no literary novice, however, since she had in fact been writing and translating for decades. Many of her texts had been published in newspapers and journals, and she had therefore been gathering material for her books for a long time. All in all, she managed to publish six books: two novels and a four-volume autobiography.
Málfríður Einarsdóttir’s twin brother lived only for one day, and their mother died a week later; and Málfríður Einarsdóttir connects her life-long anxiety with the loss of her mother who, in her sorrow and despair, did not even want to see her newborn daughter. The premature separation from her mother becomes a painful source of artistic creation. In her books, language and language use is a recurrent theme, and she differentiates sharply between the languages of the two genders. She complains a great deal about the fact that the adults in her childhood talked so little. In her silent home, books were her only pleasure, and even though there were numerous books, many of which were good, she felt the constant lack of books, especially books written by women.
Málfríður Einarsdóttir says that her literary output dealt, to begin with, with insignificant matters and was a failure. What held her back in particular was the thought of the sharp and critical eyes of the reader. It was only much later, when she realised that writing is ephemeral and is vanquished by fire or is forgotten, that she was able to write for herself without the fear of criticism.
As a young woman, Málfríður Einarsdóttir heard of Selma Lagerlöf and her fame. And since Selma Lagerlöf had attended a teacher training college, Málfríður Einarsdóttir felt that entering the teacher training college in Reykjavík would be the proper way in which to prepare herself for her own literary activity.
The notion of language control and criticism stems from her father’s and uncle’s perception of language. In her paternal grandparents’ house, the brothers had learned to cultivate and tend to language:
“[The brothers’] unremitting attention to language was so extreme that none of the younger children, especially the girls, dared to let a single word pass their lips out of sheer fear of the reproachful looks of these despots. And everyone therefore kept silent. Even the arguments were muffled”.
Of her aunts’ language, the language of the sisters who were silenced, she says:
“But the girls, who had to be quiet all day, did not make extravagant use of the gifts placed by God on their tongues: they said neither too much nor too little, and their voices were clear and distinct. They never spoke in a sentimental manner, but there was never any sense, either, that they harboured a secret desire to show off. Now that they are dead, I do not feel that anyone in this country knows how to speak”.
Málfríður Einarsdóttir’s style, language use, and perspective are characterised, throughout her entire oeuvre, by a deconstruction of proper and correct meaning, and by a sense that nothing is as it seems. She constantly undermines the meaning of words, and more often than not pulls the rug out from under established meanings in a mocking or playful manner. Rásir dægranna (1986; In the Course of the Days) tells of a certain Guðrún, the daughter of Sveinbjörn Egilsson, whose female gender is debatable, even though she officially lived in accordance with the gender that was given to her at birth. The story is witty, and displays the black humour and playfulness that characterise everything she wrote: “And she (Guðrún) was forced to go about with the wrong gender her whole life, which was, in all likelihood, harmful to both herself and her husband. A priest called Þórður, as far as I remember, courted her, but she advised him not to marry her. They nevertheless ended up getting married, but they had no children, although the priest’s wife’s maid claimed that she was the father of her child, which she could not deny”.
Has Reverend Þórður agreed to be the child’s stepmother? We don’t know, but in a text like this, where all meaning is unstable, such an exception would not come as a surprise.
In the preface to Samastaður í tilverunni, Málfríður Einarsdóttir emphasises that the words ‘I’, ‘here’, and ‘now’, which ought to be particularly important in an autobiography, have no fixed meaning in her text. She says of the main character: “In this book, an awful woman airs her disappointments. ... The truth is, I have only ever heard anyone speak of this person in terms of shame and disgrace”.
The writer of the preface is not the same as the one writing in the first person, and the first-person narrator of the main text likewise changes. The indicators of time are also fluid:
“The indicators of time are fluid: that which comes first refers to a different period than the one that came later, and there can be inaccuracies of up to 25 years. The reader is kindly asked to note this”.
There is no less confusion when it comes to indicators of place: “This is written partly in Copenhagen, partly in Reykjavík, and the word ‘here’ does not always mean the same thing”. By giving a solemn account of the unreliability of time, place, and the first-person narrator, Málfríður Einarsdóttir attacks the traditional understanding of character as well as of autobiographies, the aim of which is to stabilise these concepts, not least the concept of ‘I’, within an unshakeable system of meaning.
The position of the female subject in the traditional system of meaning is rejected, and the author achieves a long-desired freedom, as well as the possibility of artistic creation. If ‘I’ no longer exists, or no longer corresponds to a traditional understanding of it, no one can shush ‘me’ anymore; the grammar of the father and his brothers, and their notions of correct language, can no longer be ‘mine’, and the censorious, strict, and critical eyes can no longer fall on the place of writing.
The 1970s were characterised by the Icelandic Women’s Liberation Movement, which was founded in 1970. It would, however, be misleading to talk of a particular literary movement or awakening in association with the new women’s movement, as was the case in other Nordic countries. The absence of new feminist literature in Iceland can perhaps be explained by the fact that ‘confessional literature’, confessions of the suppression and humiliation of women, became a controversial taboo in a small community where everybody knows each other; and it was therefore difficult to ‘make the personal political’ – or, at any rate, to make the private public. However, the decade saw the publication of numerous books that debated the issue of women and the family. The fight for women’s liberation was discussed in books written, in particular, by those authors termed ‘neo-realists’. And this holds true for books written by men just as often as those by women.
The Icelandic Feminist Movement gained a reputation, early on, for being radical, fanatical, and uncompromising in their demands. The feminists made their greatest mark on society at the start of the 1970s. In the middle of the decade, internal conflicts led to a certain lull in the movement, but it blossomed again between 1977 and 1980 until it again declined, partly as a result of internal disputes, partly because of the emergence of the Women’s List, which was originally established as a splinter group of the Feminist Movement.
At the end of the 1970s, a number of young women made their voices heard. They were making their debuts as novelists, but their works gained considerable attention and provoked a heated debate about the situation of women in Iceland. The authors concerned were Ása Sólveig (born 1945), Magnea J. Matthíasdóttir (born 1953), and Auður Haralds (born 1947).
Ása Sólveig was already known as a playwright when her first novel, Einkamál Stefaníu (Stefanía’s Private Affairs), about the life of a young housewife, appeared in 1978. Stefanía is pregnant for the second time, and her husband, who works day and night, wants them to move to Sweden where the quality of life is better. Stefanía does not want to go as she is dependent on her family, in particular on her mother and aunt. The bonds tying Stefanía to her family are strong, but the family has secrets that everyone knows and nevertheless keeps silent about. Stefanía’s cousin is married to her friend Rúna who is suffering badly from post-natal depression. But no-one appears to understand her condition, or know how to react to it, least of all her husband, who forcibly controls her and locks her up. Stefanía and Rúna’s mother-in-law try to intervene, but their assistance arrives too late, and Rúna commits suicide by throwing herself off the fifth-floor balcony of the block of flats in which they live.
Einkamál Stefaníu (Stefanía’s Private Affairs) received a lot of attention and praise when it appeared. It was, for instance, awarded a cultural prize launched by Dagblaðið (The Newspaper), and it was nominated for the Nordic Council Literature Prize.
Ása Sólveig published another novel the following year, Treg í taumi (1979; Stubborn), about the housewife Guðný, who is an alcoholic. Ása Sólveig’s novels enact a muted but painful confrontation with the myth of the strong, close-knit Icelandic family.
Magnea J. Matthíasdóttir had published a single, promising collection of poetry, Kopar (1976; Copper), when her novel Hægara pælt en kýlt (Easier Said than Done) appeared in 1978. The story begins as a fairy-tale, in which a princess has become utterly tired of hanging around in a rundown palace, with only her little prince and princess for company, while her husband, the prince, is busy with his own interests. One beautiful day she walks into a forest and is captured, along with her children, by a large dragon that flies her away to a faraway kingdom. The princess walks past some lakes and comes to a village, where she settles down amongst good people with her children. She has come to Denmark, and the village is Freetown Christiania in the 1970s. A new prince replaces the old one. The princess’s life does not change that much, despite the move: the reality of the fairy-tale and the fairy-tale nature of intoxication raise existence up above the emptiness of everyday life, but only temporarily: the inevitable comedown then follows. The novel mixes literary genres and styles. The section that takes place in Christiania is, to some extent, written in the language of junkies, and there is a glossary at the back of the novel for those readers who do not know what “shit” means.
In 1979, Magnea J. Matthíasdóttir published a new novel, Göturæsiskandídatar (Sewer Candidates), in which the reader inhabits the strangely loveless, but nevertheless sensitive, world of intoxicants, this time in Reykjavík. The narrative is realistic, the formal experimentalism of Hægæra pælt en kýlt, 1978, has been abandoned, and the novel lacks the magic of the earlier book. Magnea Matthíasdóttir’s third and last novel, Sætir strákar (1981; Sweet Boys), is once again concerned with young people on the margins of society, alcoholics who have reached each their own place in a process of self-destruction they call a revolution.
Auður Haralds’s novels from the 1970s and 1980s are first and foremost characterised by black humour and sharp irony. Her debut, Hvunndagshetjan (Workaday Heroes), became a sensation when it appeared in 1979. Exaggeration, farce, and humour permeate the narrative about a single mother. Over the course of just a few years, she has three children with three different men; and she has to put up with poverty, rejection, marital abuse, and other forms of degradation when she seeks social support.
The first section of Hvunndagshetjan describes the childhood and socialisation of a young girl in the 1960s. The main character is brought up to believe that she will inevitably get married, have children, and become a housewife. This vision has the status of a law, and both home and school prepare girls for it. Equipped with this mentality, the main character starts getting acquainted with men, which leads not to respectable marriage, but to rather more pitiful relationships and cohabitations with men, each of whom is more hopeless than the last.
The narrator of Hvunndagshetjan describes the way she thought as an eight-year-old: “And when I got married, I would have to wash people’s feet every day. Marriage seemed to be a kind of slavery”. At the age of eight, she became aware of her appearance: “And I saw that I was fat and ugly and unattractive. I realised that no-one would want to marry me. It occurred to me that I could commit suicide”. As a ten-year-old, she experienced the unhappiness of developing breasts: “What was I meant to do with them? They bounced when I ran, and wobbled when I rode my bicycle. They were a continual nuisance. And now I was not just fat, but fat with breasts”.
Læknamafían (1980; The Doctor Mafia) is closely related to Hvunndagshetjan, but the next novel, Hlustið þér á Mozart? (1982; Do you Listen to Mozart?), is not about the single mother, but about the enviable, well married woman. Lovísa spends entire days in bed with a variety of snacks and a romance novel to hand. Hlustið þér á Mozart? is, at its best, a Fay Weldon-like satire on the illusions and escapism of well-off middle-class women. Lovísa projects herself into the love stories and enters into conversations with the text, which means there is not much ‘reality’ left in her world.
In the next novel, Ung, há, feig og ljóshærð (1987; Young, Tall, Doomed, and Fair-Haired), Auður Haralds goes the whole hog. The story begins with a blueprint of the literary genre of the novel of romance, after which the author gets down to writing just such a novel. The narrative is constantly interrupted by the author’s observations and reflections, in which she muses on the form of the novels and reflects on the creative work of the writer. While a novel is being constructed, it is at the same time being deconstructed, mocked, and derided, and from this process there inevitably emerges a new novel which, in accordance with its nature, stands in opposition to the first one.
Neo-realism was rejected in the 1980s. Ása Sólveig and Magnea J. Matthíasdóttir have published no new literary works in decades, while Auður Haralds has written newspaper articles, radio plays, revues, and popular children’s books.
Dagný Kristjánsdóttir and Soffía Auður Birgisdóttir
When Fríða Á. Sigurðardóttir (1940-2010) published her first book, she was following in the wake of Auður Haralds and Ása Sólveig, whose recent books had gained a great deal of attention. In Hvunndagshetjan and Treg í taumi, the heroines are quick-witted, funny, and sarcastic characters who battle male dominance with words as their weapon. Nothing is sacred to them, and they loudly and openly protest the myth of the good housewife and mother.
This new heroine was received with open arms by the feminist movement, but she did not live long. She made her opinions about both gender relations and women’s suppression clear, and she shouted herself hoarse, but she offered no solutions and was trapped by prejudices, down-trodden and bitter. In Fríða Á. Sigurðardóttir’s novel Sólin og skugginn (1981; Sun and Shadow), Sigrún, the main character, to some extent resembles Auður Haralds’s and Ása Sólveig’s main characters: she is witty, intelligent, and funny, and she attacks old traditions with grotesque humour. Sigrún suffers from a strange illness that the doctors are unable to diagnose, which fact is a problem for them. But instead of acknowledging their powerlessness, they blame Sigrún, claiming that she is hysterical and that there is nothing wrong with her. In this way, their problem ceases to exist. But Sigrún does not hesitate to give “the great gentlemen” tit for tat, despite her anxiety and sense of powerlessness. At the end of the book, Sigrún’s pain has still not been relieved, but she is more hopeful and stronger than before because she has never at any point doubted herself. Ása Sólveig’s and Auður Haralds’s main characters are alone in their fight against the system and against male dominance: they stand alone against the world. Sigrún, on the other hand, can seek refuge amongst the women in the hospital.
A similar solidarity can be found in Eins og hafið (1986; Like the Sea). This novel takes place in an ordinary fishing village, in the centre of which there towers a poor old frame house in which the main characters live. The house is a community within the community, and when its inhabitants feel under attack they stand together as one. The most serious threat is the owner of the house, the capitalist Ásgeir, who can throw the inhabitants out whenever he likes. However, the focus of this novel is not on class difference, but on love in all its many forms. Love is like the sea, sometimes beautiful and thrilling, at other times violent and cruel. The young women of the novel choose love, despite being forced to sacrifice a good deal in return, like Kristín who abandons her education so that she can move with her boyfriend to the city. She knows it is crazy, but she is led by her emotions, just like Svana who holds convulsively tight to her married lover because she prefers a fragile dream to dull reality. Both of them are locked in a battle between the desire for self-development and their traditional duty as women.
In this respect, Fríða Á. Sigurðardóttir’s short stories bear a resemblance to Svava Jakobsdóttir’s short stories and novels; the only difference lies in the narrative form. Svava Jakobsdóttir’s universe is a carnivalesque world, a world of wonder, scandals, and catastrophes. Fríða Á. Sigurðardóttir’s short stories, on the other hand, are realistic accounts that simply revolve around the same themes and ideas, and these two female authors’ works often enter into dialogue with each other. In the short story “Kona með spegil” (1986; Eng. tr. A Woman with a Mirror,) in Veizla undir grjót vegg, (1967; Party Under a Stone Wall), Svava Jakobsdóttir writes about a woman who wanders around town carrying a mirror. She suffers terrible anguish, and in the end the police take care of her and are not satisfied until she is returned to her proper place, her home, where she came from. In the short story “Draumurinn” (The Dream), in Þetta er ekkert alvarlegt (1980; Nothing Serious), Fríða Á. Sigurðardóttir depicts a woman who has a dream that no-one in her family can be bothered to hear about. In the dream, the woman finds herself in Paris, or some other beautiful dream-town; and in a room in the town, she comes across a horrible painting that she knows she herself has painted. She does her best to change the picture, she paints and paints and is quite happy with the result: a lovely, cheerful picture of a woman holding a flower in her outstretched hand. But when she tries to show the painting to her husband and children they want nothing to do with it. She takes the painting with her into town, but just like the woman in Svava Jakobsdóttir’s text, she encounters only silence and a lack of understanding. The picture is taken from her and restored to its original, monstrous form. Her attempted protests have no effect and the picture is displayed in her own home, in direct opposition to her will.
In Meðan nóttin liður, (1990; While the Night Passes; Eng. tr. Night Watch), a new woman makes an appearance, the superwoman Nína, who has achieved two of the goals of the women’s movement: economic independence and personal autonomy. She is resolute and self-confident, but at the same time arrogant, cynical, and unsympathetic: she rejects all emotions, everything that could possibly affect the image she has created of herself and the world. She is extremely unwilling to sit by her mother’s death-bed, but nevertheless does so. And while she is sitting there, alone in the dim hospital, cross and displeased, the story of her female ancestors begins to press upon her: the story of a series of women who fought for their lives in a little cove far north on the remote coastline. Although Nína finds it difficult to understand and identify with these women who, she feels, lived only in order to love and die, she is overwhelmed by their voices, and towards the end of the novel she is forced to acknowledge that she is only one link in a chain of generations. Nína’s attitude towards life changes during the course of the three nights she sits by her mother’s bed, and the narrative form emphasises this change. To begin with, she painstakingly tries not to give herself away, and speaks to people in short, mocking sentences. But her expressions gradually become gentler, and her sentences become longer. As Nína’s defence system crumbles away, so the style changes. In the last pages of the book, she faces the world unprotected and, powerless, asks herself: “What will happen to me now?”
In 1992, Fríða Á. Sigurðardóttir received the Nordic Council Literature Prize for the novel Meðan nóttin líður, (1990; While the Night Passes; Eng. tr. Night Watch), for which she had received the Icelandic Literary Prize the previous year. In the same year that she sat her literature exam at the University of Iceland, she published her first work of literature, the short story collection Þetta er ekkert alvarlegt (1980; Nothing Serious). Her work emerged bit by bit after that: the short story collection Við gluggann (1984; By the Window), and the novels Sólin og skugginn (1981; Sun and Shadow), Eins og hafið (1986; Like the Sea), Meðan nóttin líður, (1990; While the Night Passes; Eng. tr. Night Watch), and Í luktum heimi, (1994; In a Closed World).
In this book, Fríða Á. Sigurðardóttir abandoned the realistic narrative. The account is continually broken up by glimpses of the past, and words and sentences are fragmented – a narrative technique that clearly emphasises Nína’s state of consciousness. But it is not only the text that changes: the image of womanhood also changes. In Fríða Á. Sigurðardóttir’s earlier books, women are dependent on each other: they are frightened and powerless. Their world is effectively limited; even if they rebel, their lives are hopeless. And even if people can, for a period of time, demonstrate solidarity, this community is destroyed by those with greater decisive power. In Sólin og skugginn, the doctors decide the characters’ fate, and in Eins og hafið, Ásgeir has the old house torn down, despite the vociferous protests of the inhabitants. The characters withdraw or give up, with perhaps only the exception of Sigrún in Sólin og skugginn. Nína is different. It is not a cheerful Nína who appears at the end of the novel; but she is strong and, above all, free. The text is open, and makes promises about women’s possibilities.
Fríða Á. Sigurðardóttir knew the harsh nature described in Meðan nóttin líður personally. She was born in 1940 in Hælavík on Hornstrandir, in an isolated, beautiful, and dangerous area that is now uninhabited. She was the second-youngest of thirteen children; one of her older sisters, Jakobína Sigurðardóttir, was already a well-known author.
“We are looking for a woman / who left her home / in the dawn of the ages / scantily dressed / with a fiery glance”. Such is the first verse of Ingibjörg Haraldsdóttir’s (born in 1942) poetry collection Nú eru aðrir tímar (1989; Times Have Changed). It refers to the change in the political atmosphere, both that of the poet and of society. The youthful, ruddy-cheeked woman who “set off up the cliff-face and disappeared / into the treacherous fog” becomes a metaphor for a fiery revolutionary engagement, but since she disappeared into the fog no-one has “seen any sign of her”. Even though the young girl with ruddy cheeks has trudged up the cliff and disappeared, the woman who remains has not lost her fervour; the poet’s glance is still ablaze.
Ingibjörg Haraldsdóttir’s poem is critical of society, it is politically engaged, and it makes use of poetic devices. The image of the young, ruddy-cheeked girl is mocking, and the title, “Auglýsing” (The Advertisement), represents the ambiguity that has often characterised Ingibjörg Haraldsdóttir’s poems. On the one hand, it refers to the revolution in the shape of a young woman, but this picture is seen in a doubtful light. The girl walks somewhat hastily; she is sparsely dressed, and her ascent into the fog does not seem particularly provident. On the other hand, advertisements are an instrument of capitalism, and this image confronts the poem, which is a revolutionary tool; but when the revolution takes the shape of a young female poet, the circle is complete.
Ingibjörg Haraldsdóttir’s first book, Þangað vil ég fljúga (1974; I Want to Fly There), moves between two worlds. The book is tightly constructed and, to a certain extent, is linear. First of all, the world of childhood is seen in a rosy light: it is the start of October and a little girl comes home wearing red jeans, but childhood also means upbringing and education. A father explains about the strikes and teaches his daughter not to march like the soldiers. Then the scene shifts, nothing has happened, but the first-person narrator sits under a mango tree and becomes older. The second half of the book is full of homesickness and thoughts of home, experienced in foreign lands and on foreign shores. Seen from this perspective, the world of childhood seems full of light. The poem about the butterfly that only has a single day in which to dream points in both directions: partly towards the child, partly towards the adult sitting under the mango tree. Such nostalgia, however, is most apparent in the poem “Að vera útlendingur” (As a Foreigner), in which she keeps “a summer’s night in a quiet, luminous town” locked in a box that she opens when she is alone:
When I am alone
I open the box
and listen to my steps
echo in the sleeping houses.
þegar ég er ein
opna ég hirsluna
og hlusta á skóhljóð sjálfrar mín
bergmála í sofandi húsunum.
The stillness, figuratively expressed in the sleeping houses and in the low echo of the steps, which reigns in this poem is typical of Ingibjörg Haraldsdóttir’s poems and, at the same time, is her greatest strength. Some poems express the individual’s powerlessness when faced with the darkness, when “murder is committed while you sleep”, as well as the foreigner’s powerlessness when faced with a world that is strange to her, so strange that she cannot even articulate her thoughts. And yet she can, for Ingibjörg Haraldsdóttir’s art tries precisely to articulate the most varied moments, glances, and thoughts, to suspend them in their flight, as she herself puts it in the poem “Andartak” (A Moment) from 1983:
look into nearby eyes
think about something
– a moment
can you pierce it with a needle?
suspend it in flight?
place it under glass?
Þú dokar við
horfir i nærstödd augu
hugsar um eitthvað
– eitt andartak
geturðu níst það prjóni?
stöðvað það á flugi?
sett það undir gler?
It is the stillness of Ingibjörg Haraldsdóttir’s poems that makes it possible to suspend the moment. In this tranquillity, the images are as clear as the stars at night, stars that live at night and die in the day, stars that make promises, and stars that fall. “We live with each other on this star”, she reminds us in the poem “Hvatning” (Encouragement) from Þangað vil ég fljúga. In this book, the first Ingibjörg Haraldsdóttir published, there is nevertheless, in the midst of the stillness, a strong sense of tension, an undefined impatience, perhaps to change the world?
In Orðspor daganna (1983; The Daily Trail of Words), there is a vague glimpse of a pessimism or scepticism concerning Icelandic reality and the materialist rat race: the construction of a house is seen as the building of a prison, and security is bought at the price of freedom. Ingibjörg Haraldsdóttir merges all of this with the homecoming from abroad: the poems of the first two sections of the collection depict the disappointment felt in this homecoming, and the sense of longing is then turned in the opposite direction, towards foreign lands. Time is the main motif, time that has disappeared without a trace or has fallen out of the kitchen window in the midst of an endless washing-up session. The poet is still politically engaged, but she finds no shelter in her homeland: she is chained to the kitchen sink, encased in a house. The resigned tone, however, is not absolute: the first-person narrator wakes up from a hundred-year sleep, gets resolutely out of bed, and is ready to fight with her two empty hands. As the poem “Þyrnirós” (Sleeping Beauty) puts it: “Now I stand up resolute / and awaken from a hundred-year sleep / or am I being born? ... Someone has told me / that I belong here”. The particular process of working through poetic expression is what gives Ingibjörg Haraldsdóttir’s poems their distinct stamp. Although there is no unbroken, epic thread running through them, there is nevertheless a clear linear development, a continuation and connection between the poems. Many of them are characterised by bitterness and resignation, yet they have, on the whole, a vigorous tone. Perhaps this optimism can first and foremost be seen in the children, whom Ingibjörg Haraldsdóttir gradually turns into a motif; they will inherit the land, and the daughter drinks in her mother’s fighting spirit with her mother’s milk in the poem “Barn á brjósti” (Breastfeeding) at the end of the book.
I admire women
who, prepared to fight, set out
into the slippery streets
such are my thoughts
while my daughter drinks
in my thoughts
with her mother’s milk
Orðspor daganna, 1983).
Ingibjörg Haraldsdóttir’s third book, Nú eru aðrir tímar (1989; Times Have Changed), was published at the time of Gorbachev’s perestroika and the beginning of the end of communism. The nostalgia that characterises the earlier books also appears in Nú eru aðrir tímar; it is just more ambiguous than before, since ideas and attitudes have changed, and so has the poet. There is no bitterness; in the closing poem “Úr myndabók hugans – Moskva” (From the Album of Reflection – Moscow) memories merge with a new insight, with a new perspective on communism in the Soviet Union, but also with a sweet yet painful joy concerning the hours lived under it, which no-one can take away or repeat, in “a world that existed / and that we owned together”. Nú eru aðrir tímar is, on the whole, unmarked by the growing unrest that can be found in Orðspor daganna. Instead, it looks back over its shoulder with a derisive smile, as in the first poem about the youthful, ruddy-cheeked woman who disappeared into the treacherous fog. Politics and the position of women are still dominant themes in Ingibjörg Haraldsdóttir’s work; the nation stares into the abyss of television, and a woman with a wild gaze hammers with her bare knuckles on the windowpane and shouts: perhaps it is the same woman who fell, uncontrollably, out of the kitchen window in “Angist” (Anxiety), from 1983? Here, in this book, the imagery is more polished and perfected, and the stillness is even more pronounced. The calmness of the poems seems to reflect the emotional calmness of the poet, and is most clearly expressed in the poem “Endurkoma” (Return), as follows: “Then she came and saw / her life ruffle / the calm surface / of time // a life that could not / be given again”.
Translated by Brynhildur Boyce