It’s a quirk of the human condition that it is difficult, in winter, to remember what it was like to be warm. Or, in summer, to recall what it was like to be cold. Which might be why we decided to publish books by two of our favourite Nordic authors in the last week of August*.
Fish Have No Feet is the first part in a new series by Jón Kalman Stefánsson. It is a timeslip novel that sets a writer’s return to present-day Keflavik – perhaps the darkest place in Iceland, surrounded by black lava fields and hemmed in by a sea that may not be fished – against the story of his grandparents’ struggle to survive in a village on the eastern coast. It was translated by Philip Roughton, who won the Oxford-Wiedenfeld Translation Prize earlier this year for his translation of Stefánsson’s The Heart of Man.
In a review in The Spectator, also published today, Boyd Tonkin, a long-term admirer of Stefánsson writes:
Set in Iceland’s west fjords around 1900, Stefánsson’s glorious trilogy — Heaven and Hell, The Sorrow of Angels, The Heart of Man — proclaimed a talent not only for gale-force lyricism but the delicate carto-graphy of a hero’s mind. This novel, which will have a sequel, begins today with Ari — middle-aged, divorced, disconsolate — returning from Denmark to visit his sick father. Soon it dives back both to Ari’s late-teenage years in Keflavik and to his grandparents’ harsh lives as fisherfolk on the eastern coast. Around these storm-battered shores, Stefánsson’s prose — translated with craggy eloquence by Philip Roughton — rolls and surges with oceanic splendour. ‘God,’ as the literary fisherman Tryggvi puts it, ‘composes magnificent poems.’
The Unseen was a huge bestseller in Roy Jacobsen’s native Norway when it was published to great acclaim in 2011. It is about a family that lives on an island just off the Norwegian coast at the beginning of the twentieth century. About a girl who, her parents fear, might not be quite right, but who proves herself more capable and resourceful than anyone else. And there is a wonderful contradiction at its heart – island life is tough, a slog, but Jacobsen’s prose is delicate and beautiful:
Nobody can leave an island. An island is a cosmos in a nutshell, where the stars slumber in the grass beneath the snow. But occasionally someone tries . . .
The Unseen is a spellbinding tale of life lived in the lap of the elements. It is translated by Don Bartlett and Don Shaw, who have together translated two previous books by Roy Jacobsen: Borders and Child Wonder. The cover image is a painting by the Norwegian painter Kjell Nuppen, who famously invented his own shade of blue.
* These aren’t actually the snowiest and most wintery of these authors’ books. Stefánsson’s trilogy is essentially one, huge, life-threatening blizzard, and Borders by Roy Jacobsen is partly set in Stalingrad in 1942. Brrrrrrrrrr!