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by Bamber Gascoigne

Gunnar Gunnarsson (1889-1975)


Prolific Icelandic novelist, dramatist, essayist, and poet, largely self-educated as a writer, whose work celebrate the courage and dignity of the common people of the North. Gunnar Gunnarsson published his books in Danish to gain a wider audience. With Kristmann Guðmundsson (1901-1983) and Halldór Killian Laxness (1902-1998), he was among the first internationally known authors of his country. Gunnarsson's fiction was somewhat nostalgic or austere in tone. His stories, which often depicted the rural Iceland of his youth, are marked by deep psychological understanding and religious faith.

"What else was his life, what else was one's pilgrimage through life, than an unceasing service, which, however, leaned on hope, expectation, and preparation?" (in The Good Shepherd, 1936)

Gunnar Gunnarsson was born in Fljótsdalur, the son of Gunnar Helgi Gunnarsson, a farmer, and Katrín Þórarinsdóttir, the daughter of a farmer-fisherman. The death of his mother, when he was eight years old, left him with an emotional trauma; the shattering of an idyllic world was a theme to which Gunnarsson returned again and again. Gunnarsson grew up in Vopnafjörður, where the family moved in his childhood.

Until the age of 18, Gunnarsson attended country schools and helped on the farm. In 1907 he moved to Denmark, studying at Askov Folk High School for two years. As a writer Gunnarsson started his career before the age of 17. He published two collections of verse, Vorljóð and Móðurminning  (memories of my mother). From 1910 he devoted himself entirely to writing, which meant in practice the sacrifice of his own language: "I'm forced to write in Danish in order to survive," he wrote in a letter to a friend. "I won't return to Iceland until I have won a name and reputation for myself". ('Den man vil forraadge dig': Mutual Translators and Nobel Competitors – Gunnar Gunnarsson and Halldór Laxness, and the Price of the Icelandic Nobel Prize by Martin Ringmar, in True North: Literary Translation in the Nordic Countries, edited by B.J. Epstein, 2014, p. 7) In 1911 he met Franzisca Antonia Josephine Jørgensen; they married the next year.

Although Gunnarsson wrote his early works in Danish, practically all of the stories were set in his native country. Even while living in Denmark, he nurtured an image as Icelandic writer. Gunnarsson translated Laxness's Salka Valka in 1934 into Danish, and reciprocally, some of his novels were translated into Icelandic by Halldór Laxness.

The first volume of Gunnarsson's family saga, Af Borgslægtens Historie  (1913-14), became a Scandinavian bestseller in 1912. It was followed with other three parts and was made into a feature film by the Danish director Gunnar Sommerfeldt in 1920. The nostalgic novels, recalling a Kain and Abel story, depicted three generations of an Icelandic farm family. One of the farmer's two sons is a dreamer, torn between the call of his art and the call of the soil, while his brother is a demonic evildoer. The work showed the influence of Selma Lagerlöf, the Swedish Nobel Prize author, who wrote in romantic style. Gunnarsson himself was nominated for the prize several times (in 1918, 1921 and 1922, and in 1955), but from the 1940s, Laxness was considered the most plausible Icelandic Nobel laureate. That, in turn, led to Gunnarsson's growing bitterness toward the Swedish Academy and Laxness. He claimed that the "pro-Laxness lobby" sent the Academy a telegram to prevent the Nobel Prize from being divided. Several Icelandic intellectual thoughtthat the prize should be given to Laxness.

Following the outbreak of WWI, Gunnarsson plunged into pessimism, leaving its mark on his fiction, among others in Salige er de enfoldige(1920, Seven Days' Darkness). This work dealt with the eruption of Mount Hekla and the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic. The dualism, tension between two opposite forces, which marked the author's earlier stories, also gave basic structure to Livets Strand (1915). It depicted a clergyman who comes in conflict with his faith and reason. Varg i Veum (1916) was about a young man in rebellion against bourgeois standards.

In 1921 Gunnarsson moved from Copenhagen to Grantofte and in 1929 to Fredsholm in Zealand. Between 1920 and 1940, Gunnarsson lectured throughout Scandinavian countries, and also in Germany, where his books sold well, and published several essays on culture and social problems. A selection of these writings was published as Det nordiske Rige (1927). Gunnarsson's great dream was the unification of the Nordic countries into one state; this pan-Scandinavian sentiment partly motivated his interest in historical subjects. When he met the Finnish writer Olavi Paavolainen in the Dichterhaus, founded by Nordische Gesellschaft, he said: "There is no other country in Europe than Germany that gives a traveler crossing the border such a feeling of tranquility."

Gunnarsson returned from Denmark to his home country with Franzisca in 1938. From then on he wrote only in his native language. He also began to translate his earlier works into Icelandic. While lecturing in Germany in 1940, Gunnarsson met Adolf Hitler in his chancellery in Berlin. His work was known well in Germany before the Nazis came to power and along with such authors as Knut Hamsun, Trygve Gulbranssen, Selma Lagerlöf, and Sigrid Undsen, he was one of the most frequentlty reprinted Scandinavian authors.

It has been disputed whether Gunnarsson was a Nazi sympathizer. He was a member of the the Nordische Gesellschaft (Nordic Society), founded in 1921 and Nazified in the Third Reich. Moreover, he praised the Anschluss, the annexation of Austria into Nazi Germany in 1938, in the Icelandic press. The Danish embassy in Berlin warned him of having too close contacts with the Nazi elite. On the other hand, Gunnarsson never made anti-semitic public statements, and he never joined the Icelandic or the Danish Nazi Party. ('A Study of Antisemitism in a Country without Jews' by Vilhjálmur Örn Vilhjálmsson, in Antisemitism in the North: History and State of Research, edited by Jonathan Adams and Cordelia Heb, 2019, p. 96) At the end of WW II, Gunnarsson's home was searced twice by American soldiers.

Until 1948 Gunnarsson remained a farmer in the parish of his birth at an ancient chieftain estate named Skriðuklaustur. There were rumors that Hitler was hiding in his large house, designed by the German architect Fritz Höger, who had been a member of the Nazi Party.The last period of his life Gunnarsson lived in Reykjavík. He donated Skriðuklaustur to the Icelandinc nation. 

A prolific writer, Gunnarsson's works include over 40 novels, short stories, articles and translations. After his five-volume autobiographical suite, Kirken på Bjerget (1923-1928), about Uggi Greipsson's struggle to fulfill his destiny as an a writer, Gunnarsson started a long series of novels, planned as a narrative of Iceland's history. He choose sensational or stirring episodes from history, as in Jón Arason (1930), the dramatic story of the last Catholic bishop of Iceland, who was executed with his two sons in 1550. Other works include Edbrødre (1918, The Sworn Brothers), about the first two settlers in Iceland, Hvide-Krist (1934), about the arrival of Christianity to Iceland around the year 1000, and Graamand (1936), exploration of the incipient dissolution of the Icelandic Commonwealth during the 13th-century.

Gunnarsson planned a five-volume series of novels on life and social developments in his home country during the first half of the 20th-century, but managed to compile only two. Svartfugl (1929, The Black Cliffs), was about a double murder that took place under the "pestilential atmosphere" of an inaccessible farm in 1800 or so, and Vikivaki (1932) examined the responsibility of a writer. This novel is considered his most enigmantic work of fiction. The novella Aðventa (1936), about a shepherd who every Advent season goes to the mountains in search of forgotten sheep, posed the question, is not all of life a sacrifice? This story was published in German as Advent im Hochgebirge (1936) and in English as The Good Shepherd (1940).

Gunnarsson was a honorary professor at the University of Iceland, at Reykjavík, and was granted a honorary Ph.D. from Heidelberg. He was a Commander of the Icelandic Falcon and Knight of Danneborg, a Danish order. Gunnarsson's last novel was Brimhenda (1954). He died in Reykjavík on November 21, 1975, and was buried in the cemetery at Viðey Island. About six of his books have been translated into English. There are no original letters from Laxness in Gunnarsson's archive in Reykjavik.

For further reading: A History of Icelandic Literature by Stefán Einarsson (1957); Gunnar Gunnarsson islänningen by S. Arvidson (1960); Leiðin til skáldskapar by S. Björnsson (1964); 'Gunnarsson, Gunnar' by S.S.H. [Sveinn Skorri Höskuldsson, in Columbia Dictionary of Modern European Literature, edited by Jean-Albert Bédé and William B. Edgerton (1980); Mynd nutimamannsins: um tilvistarleg viðhorf i sogum Gunnars Gunnarssonar by Matthias Viðar Sæmundsson (1982); 'Gunnarsson, Gunnar,' in World Authors 1900-1950, Volume 2, edited by Martin Seymour-Smith and Andrew C. Kimmes (1996); 'Gunnarsson, Gunnar,' in Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Volume 2, edited by Steven R. Serafin (1999); Tru i sogum: um heiðni og kristni i sogum og samti´ma Gunnars Gunnarssonar by Halla Kjartansdottir (1999); Skáldalíf by Halldór Guðmundsson (2006); True North: Literary Translation in the Nordic Countries, edited by B.J. Epstein (2014).

Selected works:

  • Vorljóð, 1906
  • Móðurminning,  1906
  • Kongesøn, 1910
  • Digte, 1911
  • Sögur, 1912
  • Af Borgslægtens Historie, 1912-13 (Ormarr Örlygsson, 1912); (Den danske fru paa Hof, 1913); (Gæst den enøjede, 1913)
    - Borgin suvun taru (suom. Juho Tervonen, 1938)
    - Film:  Borgslægtens historie / Saga Borgarættarinnar / Sons of the Soil (1920), prod. Nordisk Film Kompagni, dir. Gunnar Sommerfeldt, starring Stefanía Guðmundsdóttir, Elisabet Jacobsen, Frederik Jacobsen, Ove Kühl, Inge Sommerfeldt, Gunnar Sommerfeldt, Gudmundur "Muggur" Thorsteinsson
  • Ormarr Ørlygsson, 1912 (Af Borgslægtens Historie)
  • Gæst den enøjede, 1913 (Af Borgslægtens Historie)
    - Guest the One-Eyed (translated by W.W. Worster, 1922)
    - Silmäpuoli vaeltaja: islantilainen romaani (suomentanut E. M., 1914)
  • Den danske Fru paa Hof, 1913 (Af Borgslægtens Historie)
  • Den unge Ørn, 1914
  • Livets Strand, 1915
    - Elämän ranta: romaani Islannista (suom. Hilja Walldén, 1929)
  • Varg i Veum, 1916
  • Smaa Historier, 1916
  • Drengen, 1917
  • Smaa historier, 1917
  • Smaa skuespil, 1917
  • Edbrødre, 1918
    - Fóstbræður. Saga frá landnámsöld (tr. 1919)
    - The Sworn Brothers (translated by C. Field and W. Emmé, 1921)
    - Valaveljet: romaani Islannin asuttamisen ajoilta (suomentanut Leo Sauvo, 1925)
  • Smaa historier: Ny samling, 1918
  • Salige er de enfoldige, 1920
    - Sælir eru einfaldir (tr. 1920)
    - Seven Days' Darkness (translated by Roberts Tapley, 1930)
    - Autuaita ovat yksinkertaiset (suom. Hilja Walldén, 1921)
  • Ringen. Syv Historier, 1921
  • Dyret med Glorien, 1922
  • Den glade gaard of andre Historier, 1923
  • Leg med Straa, 1923 (Kirken på Bjerget)
  • Den glade gaaard og andre historier, 1923
  • Skibe paa Himlen, 1925 (Kirken på Bjerget)
    - Kirkjan á fjallinu (translated into Icelandic by Halldór Laxness, 1941-1943)
    - Ships in the Sky; The Night and the Dream (compiled from Uggi Greipson's notes, translated by Evelyn Ramsden, 1938)
  • Natten og Drømmen, 1926 (Kirken på Bjerget)
    - The Night and Dream (translated by E. Ramsden, 1938)
  • Den uerfarne rejsende, af Uggi Greipssons Optegnelser, 1927 (Kirken på Bjerget)
  • Det nordiske Rige, 1927
  • Hugleik den Haardtsejlende, 1928 (Kirken på Bjerget)
  • En dag tilovers og andre historier, 1929
  • Island. Land og folk, 1929
  • Svartfugl, 1929
    - The Black Cliffs (translated by Cecil Wood, 1967)
  • Jón Arason, 1930
  • Rævepelsene eller Ærlighed varer længst, Komedie i 4 Akter , 1930
  • Verdens Glæder: En Tylvt Historier, 1931
  • Vikivaki. Jake Sonarsons efterladte Papirer, 1932
    - Vikivaki (translated into Icelandic by Halldór Laxness, 1948)
  • De blindes hus, 1933
    - Frá blindhúsum (translated into Icelandic by Halldór Laxness, 1948)
  • Jord. Roman fra Islands Bebyggelse om Ingólfur Arnarson og hans Æt, 1933
  • Hvide-Krist, 1934
  • Sagaøen, 1935
  • Graamand, 1936
  • Aðventa, 1936 (Danish: Advent, 1937)
    - The Good Shepherd (translated by Kenneth Kaufman, 1940)
    - Hyvä paimen: kertomus (suom. Albin Ahonen, 1941)
  • Trylle og andet Smaakram, 1939
    - Trylle and Other Small Fry (tr. 1947)
  • Das Rätsel um Didrik Pining: Ein Bericht, 1939 (Aus dem Dänischen übertr. von Helmut de Boor)
  • Heiðaharmur. Saga, 1940 (Urðarfjötur I)
  • Rit, 1941-63 (21 vols.)
  • Siðmenning - Siðspilling, 1943 (Haralds Níelssonar fyrirlestrar, 3)
  • Sálumessa, 1952 (Urðarfjötur I)
  • Árbók 1945-1947, 1948
  • Brimhenda, 1954
  • Vestræn menning og komúnismi, 1954
  • 'Sønnen', 1963 (in Danske fiskerfortællinger, edited by Orla Lundbo)
  • Sonnettusveigur, 1989
  • 'A Legend', in Christmas in Scandinavia, 1996 (edited by Sven Hakon Rossell et al., translated by David W. Colbert)

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