GUNNAR GUNNARSSONThe Forgotten Star of Icelandic Literature

3.12.2004
Words by Valur Gunnarsson
Born in 1889 in Fljótsdalur as the son of a farmer and growing up in Vopnafjörður in the East, Gunnar Gunnarsson seem destined for life on the farm. But Gunnar had other plans. In his teens he published two volumes of poetry and in 1907, at the age of 18, he decided to move to Copenhagen to become a writer.
There he fell on lean times for half a decade, but in 1912, his first novel, The History of the Borg Family, became a Scandinavian best seller. Although he wrote in Danish and was a passionate believer in Pan-Scandinavianism, the unification of the Nordic Countries into a single state, all his novels are set in Iceland. Most of his works celebrated the common man, but he also drew on history. His novel Jón Arason was about the execution of the last Catholic bishop. The novel Öxin og jörðin by Ólafur Gunnarsson on the same theme was a best seller in the last Christmas season. His novels were translated into Icelandic by Halldór Laxness, and Gunnar continued to enjoy success abroad, reaching its height in the interwar years. For a while he was the biggest selling author in Germany after Goethe, his books were taught in Danish classes in Denmark, and a film of the book about the Borg Family was the first film to be made in Iceland.
Walt Disney even called him up asking to make a cartoon of his book Advent. Gunnar, never a big fan of motion pictures, hung up when Walt said he was not used to paying authors commission.
Gunnar moved back to Iceland with his Danish wife Franzisca in 1938. He bought land at Skriðuklaustur, where he intended to build a manor house in the continental manner. German architect Fritz Höger designed the house, but any similarity to Hitler´s Eagles Nest at Berchtesgaden is said to be purely coincidental. The couple moved in in 1939, but the rising prices that came with the Second
World War, as well as Franzisca´s illnesses which necessitated the proximity of a doctor, led to the couple abadoning the house in 1948 and presenting it as a gift to the state. The couple moved to Reykjavík where they lived until Gunnar´s death in 1975. He spent some of his later years translating his own works into Icelandic, but many still prefer the Laxness versions.
Whether his comparative obscurity next to Laxness is because of his rather verbose and slowpaced style not aging as well, or just because Icelanders cannot truly consider someone who wrote in Danish as one of their own is open to conjecture. But his mansion at Skriðuklaustur remains, at least, a testament to his material success.

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