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by Bamber Gascoigne

Kristmann Gu­mundsson (1901-1983)


Icelandic writer, who published over 30 novel and gained fame with his books of romantic fiction, several written in Norwegian. With Gunnar Gunnarsson (1889-1975) and Halldˇr Killian Laxness (1902-1998) Kristmann Gu­mundsson was among the first internationally known Icelandic authors. His novels often dealt with youthful, erotic passion, which earned him a reputation as a northern D.H. Lawrence. Gu­mundsson published over 30 novels, which have been translated into thirty-six languages. His most acclaimed early works include Bjudekjolen: Roman fra Island (1927, The Bridal Gown) and Livets morgen (1929, Morgen of Life). 

"'Oh, dear, oh, dear,' she sighed, 'That wasn't a very jolly fairy tale—but most folk have a hard time. There are many even who have a bridal gown, but who never celebrate their wedding. That is bitter too." (from The Bridal Gown, 1927)

Kristmann Gu­mundsson was born on a farm in Ůverfell in the district of Borgarfj÷r­ur. His father, Gu­mundur Jˇnsson, was a temperamental rover, not ready to settle down for family life; thus Gu­mundsson was raised by his maternal grandparents in SnŠfellsnesi. SigrÝ­ur Gu­laug Bj÷rnsdˇttir, his mother, was a country girl. She offered him a model for love of the soil, the underlying theme of many of his novels. 

Gu­mundsson's early years were hard, shadowed by lack of parental care and by sickness. Because of the poverty of his family, his formal education was minimal, but he grew up to be a healty boy with a thirst for learning.  Later in life he studied at 'folk high-schools' in Denmark and Norway.

His first stories and poems Gu­mundsson wrote when he was a child. At the age of 13, immediately after his confirmation, Gu­mundsson ran away from home, optimistically trying his luck in odd jobs. In his free time, he read voraciously on all topics. Talented with a broad range of skills, he started to work in 1923 as a journalist. When many Icelandic writers moved to Denmark, among them Gunnar Gunnarson, he decided to go to Norway, where he embarked on a career in literature. Until 1938, Gu­mundsson worked as a free-lance writer in Copenhagen and Oslo, and then returned to ReykjavÝk. In 1941, he settled with his fifth wife, Gu­r˙n Gu­jˇnsdˇttir, in Hverager­i, where he lived for the next two decades, and cultivated a garden there. 

While in Oslo, Gu­mundsson published a collection of stories, Islandsk kjŠrlighet (1924), which gained success and astonished critics with its mastery of Norwegian idiom and style. Livets morgen (1929, Morning of Life) was praised for its strong and noble protagonist who incarnates the heroic ideal of the sagas in his struggle against fate. Haldor Bessason, a sailor and farmer, is happily married with the beautiful Salv°r. After a storm his boat is stranded on a far shore. He spends a passionate night with a French girl, and after returning home Haldor realizes that he cannot forget her. He separates from Salv°r who marries a Danish shop owner. Haldor's life with Maria doesn't give him the comfort and happiness he experienced with Salv°r. Robert A. Stemmle's sceen version of the novel, entitled Du darfst nicht lńnger schweigen (1955), contributed to boom of the popular Heimat-film genre in the 1950s. Although shot partly in Sweden with German actors, the film was otherwise faithful to Gu­mundsson story. Helmut Ashley's cinematography captured the close relationship between the characters and the rugged landscape.   

In spite of writing in fluent Norwegian in Norway, practically all of Gu­mundsson's works were set in Iceland. The autobiographical novel Hvite netter (1934) brought out the author's optimistic world view. Gu­mundsson's other famous early novels include Brudekjolen (1927, The Bridal Gown), a family saga set in rural Iceland. Again love largely determines the fate of the characters, Bj÷rn, Hallgerdur, Sigurn, Matthildur, and others. Upon the publication of the book, a critic called it perhaps the best love story of the year. Det hellige fjell (1932) described the old Norse and Irish settlement of his birthplace.

After returning to his native country, Gu­mundsson began writing in Icelandic, confirming his place among the most popular writers. At the height of his international fame, Gu­mundsson dissuaded a Czech professor from nominating him for the Nobel Prize for Literature, because Icelanding left-wing intellectuals had already agreed that they would campaign in favour of Laxness. In Norway, where Gu­mundsson had launched his literary career, his work fell gradually into oblivion.

Gu­mundsson's central themes were obsessive love, hate and fear. Gu­mundsson, who was married seven or nine times, was known as an incurable womanizer. His life furnished material for his fiction. Also forces of nature play a major role in the stories. Det hellige fell opens with a sudden thunder, and then under the clear sky three Viking ship start they voyage toward north, to a strange misty island. Askell Gunnkallsson is leaving with his family Norway; the house is sold and there is no turning back. In Jordens barn (1935) Valborg falls in love with Thorgils in spring. The marriage is not happy and her little child, Gunnar, dies in a cold autumn night.

In Brudekjolen a folk tale of a magic stain on a bridal gown allegorically reflects the tangled relationships between two families, which affect the lives of the younger generation. Kolfinnan, the central character of the story, inherits her mother's bridal gown but she washes the black stain away. The historical romace Winged Citadel (1937) was set in Crete during the Mycenaean times, but it also was full of allusions to psychoanalysis and World War II politics. In another excursion into the early European history, Ůakan rau­a (1950-52), Gu­mundsson dealt with the creator of the ancient V÷luspa poem, which probably came from the period when Christianity was making its way in Iceland. Its author represented the old faith in such gods as Odin, Balder, Loki, and the day of Ragnarok.

The impact of the presence of American troops in Iceland was recorded in FÚlagi kona (1947), in which a poet named Eggert Hansson falls in love with an American army nurse and have to choose between his country and her. With Kristmannskver, published in 1955, Gu­mundsson returned to poetry. His later books from the 1960s and 1970s are considered light entertainment, which still show his joy in telling a good story. Fer­in til stjarnanna (1959, A Journey to the Stars), a science fiction story written in the reformist spirit of H.G. Wells, was published under the pseudonym Ingi VÝtalÝn. The first volume of his memoirs, entitled Isold hin svarta, came out in 1959. It was followed by DŠrgin blß (1969); Loginn hvÝti (1961), and ═sold hin gullna (1962).  Gu­mundsson died on November 20, 1983, in ReykjavÝk.

"Gu­mundsson is a master of the modern romance. Like no other Icelandic novelist he understands the psychology of love, especially young love, and describes it with a realism that nevertheless seems ethereally romantic." (Stefßn Einarsson in Columbia Dictionary of Modern European Literature, ed. Jean Albert BÚdÚ and William B. Edgerton, 1980, p. 334)

"'Have you read Kristmann Gudmundsson?' I asked.
Oh, yes, she said she was fond of Kristman. His books were excellent for young girls, never coarse or vulgar even though they were frank and realistic, everything with pink borders . . . " (from The Sword by Agnar Thˇrdarson, 1970, p. 129)

Believing to be a victim of persecution, Gu­mundsson accused communists within the Icelandic Post of stealing his correspondence with foreign publishers during fifteen years. In the communist press he was labelled as a paranoid. (True North: Literary Translation in the Nordic Countries, edited by B.J. Epstein, 2014, p. 6) Even though his claims were never proven, the fact was that Gu­mundsson spoke against communism and not surprisingly, his works were attacked by communist critics.  Gu­mundsson's libel suit against the writer Thor Vilhjßmsson in the 1960s was the subject of Sigurjˇn Magn˙sson’s novel Borgir og ey­imerkur (2003). Gu­mundsson won the legal battle but lost in the court of public opinion. 

For further reading: 'Kristmann Gu­mundsson' by G.G. HagalÝn in I­unn 14 (1930); History of Icelandic Prose Writers 1800-1840 by S. Einarsson (1948); Det moderna Islands litteratur 1918–1948 by Kristinn E. Einarsson (1955); A History of Icelandic Literature by Stefßn Einarsson (1957); 'Gu­mundsson, Kristmann' by S.E. [Stefßn Einarsson], in Columbia Dictionary of Modern European Literature, edited by Jean-Albert BÚdÚ and William B. Edgerton (1980); A History of Scandinavian Literature 1870-1980 by Sven H. Rossel (1982); ═slensk bˇkmenntasaga IV, ed. by Gu­mundur Andri Thorsson (2006); A History of Icelandic Literature, edited by Daisy Neijmann (2007); True North: Literary Translation in the Nordic Countries, edited by B.J. Epstein (2014)

Selected works:

  • R÷kkurs÷ngvar, 1920
  • Islandsk kjŠrlighet, 1926 [Icelandic Loves]
  • Bjudekjolen: Roman fra Island, 1927 (Br˙­arkjˇllinn)
    - The Bridal Gown (translated by O.F. Theis, 1931)
    - Morsiuspuku (suom. Lauri Hirvensalo, 1933)
  • ┴rmann og VildÝs, 1928
    - Myrskyn mentyń (suom. Anna Talaskivi, 1934)
  • Livets morgen, 1929 (Morgunn lÝfsins)
    - Morning of Life (translated by Elizabeth Sprigge and Claude Napier, 1936)
    - film: Du darfst nicht lńnger schweigen (1955;  (aka: Es geschah unter der Mitternachtssonne), prod. Alfred Greven Film, dir. by Robert A. Stemmle, starring Heidemarie Hatheyer, Wilhelm Borchert, Werner Hinz, Ingrid Andree (the first German edition of the novel, translated by Else von Hollander-Lossow: Morgen  des Lebens, 1934; reprinted in 1940 and 1953)
  • Sigmar, 1930
  • Den blň kyst, 1931 (Str÷ndin blß)
    - Kaukainen ranta (suom. Mika Waltari, 1935)
  • Det hellige fjell, 1932 (Helgafell)
    - Pyhń tunturi (suom. Anna Talaskivi, 1938)
  • Den f°rste vňr, 1933
    - The First Spring (translated from the Norwegian by Malcolm New and Stig Nylund, 2005)
  • Hvite netter, 1934 (Bjartar nŠtur) [White Nights]
  • Jordens barn, 1935 (B÷rn jar­ar) [Children of the Earth]
    - Maan lapset (suom. Mika Waltari, 1937)
  • Lampen, 1936 (Lampinn)
  • Gudinnen og oksen, 1937 (Gy­jan og uxinn)
    - Winged Citadel (translated by Barrows Mussey, 1940)
  • Arma Ley, 1940
  • Nßtttr÷lli­ glottir, 1943
  • FÚlagi kona, 1947 [Comrade Woman]
  • Saga um Sklad, 1948
  • Kv÷l Ý ReykjavÝk, 1948
  • Leikmanns Ůankar, 1949
  • Ůakan rau­a, 1950-52 (2 vols.)
  • H÷ll Ůyrnirˇsu. Stuttar s÷gur, 1952
  • Arfur kynslˇ­anna, 1953
  • Kristmannskver, 1955
  • Heimsbˇkmenntasaga, 1955-1956
  • Isold hin svarta, 1959
  • Fer­in til stjarnanna, 1959 (as Ingi VÝtalÝn) [A Journey to the Stars]
  • Ăvintyr Ý himingeimnum, 1959 [Adventures in Space]
  • DŠrgin blß, 1960
  • Gar­aprř­i, 1961
  • Loginn hvÝti. Saga skßldis, 1961
  • Voluskrin, 1961
  • ═sold hin gullna, 1962
  • Torgi­, 1965
  • Skammdegi. Skßldsaga, 1966
  • Blßbrß og fleiri s÷gur, 1968
  • TilhugalÝf: skemmtisaga, 1968
  • Smi­urinn mikli, 1969
  • Sumar Ý SelavÝk. Skßldsaga, 1971
  • Brosi­. Skßldsaga, 1972
  • Leikur a­ ljˇ­um, 1974
  • Stj÷rnuskipi­: geimfer­asaga, 1975 [The Starship]
  • Skßldverk, 1978 (8 vols.)
  • Haustljˇ­, 1981
  • 'Summer Night', 1982 (in A Ray of Sunshine and Other Selected Short Stories from Iceland, edited by Evelyn Scherabon Firchow)

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