On Kristín Steinsdóttir’s á eigin vegum (Your Own Way- Eigene Wege) – Icelandic Literature

a eigin vegum

This time I’ll tell you the bad news right away. Kristín Steinsdóttir’s novel has not been translated into English. I don’t read Icelandic, so I picked the German translation called Eigene Wege. I’ve always meant to read more Icelandic books and have a small pile on my bookshelves. A lot of what interests me however is only available in German. A eigin vegum/Eigene Wege/Your Own Way was Kristín Steinsdóttir’s first novel for grown-ups. She has won many prizes for her children’s literature.

Siegtrud is an elderly widow, born far away from Reykjavík, but later, she and her husband move to the city, where she’s still living at the beginning of the book. Siegtrud isn’t well off and although she’s at least 70 years old, she still has to work. She delivers the morning papers. Every day she gets up at five, works for two hours and then she returns home and goes to bed with her cats for another couple of hours. In the afternoon she finds amusements that are for free. She drinks a cup of champagne during the opening of an exhibition. She attends funeral services of total strangers, and joins the families for something to eat afterwards. She loves the singing in the church just as much as the free food.

Siegtrud’s family history is a bit of a mystery. She never met her mother who died in childbed and doesn’t know anything about her father. She owns a suitcase, in which she carries all of her treasures: the picture of her grandfather, a book about France, a harp and her mother’s French woollen scarf. Her foster-mother told her that her grandfather was French. Ever since Siegtrud was a little girl she dreamt of going to France. She wanted to see Paris and the country of her ancestors for herself.

The book moves back and forth in time. It tells us of Siegtrud’s life in Reykjavík and of her early childhood, her teenage years, her marriage. The story is as much the story of a woman, as it is the story of a country that underwent a lot of changes.

Siegtrud has had a hard live. She was born with a crippled hand, she had no parents, and not a lot of material possessions. She even lost the love of her life and her only child. Despite of this, it’s a cheerful book because Siegtrud is a character who knows how to enjoy life, and even at 70, she  thinks it’s not too late for a new beginning or an adventure.

I loved that Kristín Steinsdóttir chose a character who is neither wealthy, nor famous, nor young, but has a rich inner life and is able to enjoy the smallest things.

Thanks to Sigrun for letting me know in the comments that this book was nominated for the Nordic Council Literature Prize in 2008. It was published in 2006 in Iceland, the German translation is from 2009.

32 thoughts on “On Kristín Steinsdóttir’s á eigin vegum (Your Own Way- Eigene Wege) – Icelandic Literature

  1. Great commentary on this book Caroline.

    The protagonist does sound different for all the reasons that you mention. In addition it is very surprising that as you describe it, the book is upbeat. One would not expect that based upon the description of the plot.

  2. Hi, Caroline! From the way you describe the novel, it sounds like a really good read and something along the lines of a good, strong Barbara Pym novel. I happen to know a translator who can do German into English, but I don’t know if that’s done anymore (instead of translating directly from Icelandic into English). I mentioned your site to her, because I thought it more polite to let her get in touch with you if she sees feasibility in this, and the two of you can talk it out. I stress that this is just an idea floating around in my head; I only e-mailed her this a.m., and she has tons of work to do, so it may not be a possibility for that reason as well. But it’s very important to have someone doing the kind of work you do with world literature. I hope things work out.

    • Thanks, Victoria, that’s great of you.
      I know it is done but it’s not liked. The German market is great when it comes to translations especially from Nordic languages.
      I’m often disappointed when I see what finally gets translated. The classics are fine, of course, but some of the modern books, also from German.
      I’ll be interested to talk to hear and hear what she says.
      I must say however I didn’t remind me of Barbara Pym at all. She’s too isolated a charcater while I seem to remember Pym’s characters are not loners.

      • Hi again. I guess when I said your recollection reminded me of Barbara Pym, I was thinking of the strength of the female character rather than whether or not she had a community of friends. Somehow a lot of writers can only write about female characters when they also plan to write about a love interest, and though I don’t know if that appears or not in the novel, it sounds as if the main part of it is devoted to the character herself, and her being. That’s how I would compare it to Barbara Pym. And after all, I’m operating in a void here in making the comparison, because I read neither Icelandic nor German.

        • Ah, I see what you mean and you’re absoslutely right. Pyms women are similar in this and I loved that about th is book, that this is strong woman who can rely on herself. We never ever think she’s lonely or not content. The adventure she embarks on at the end is something quite different from a love story.

  3. Thanks for telling me right away that this is not translated. I’ve been meaning to read more Icelandic fiction, and of course, these days that mostly means crime because that’s where publishers seem to be interested.

    • I was thinking of you when I wrote that. I’ll do it always from now on. It’s a bit unfair to tell it at the end only.
      I guess it’s less risky to translate crime novels.
      A book like this would be more of risk. It’s really not plot-driven.

  4. A beautiful review! An old woman with a rich inner life playing out the role of protagonist … isn’t that something! The book is unfortunately not even translated into Norwegian (a sister language ..!). It’s worth mentioning that Kristín Steinsdóttir was nominated for the Nordic Council Literature Prize for this work in 2008, the prize went to Danish Naja Marie Aidt.

    • Hi, Sigrun! As to “an old woman with a rich inner life playing out the role of protagonist,” I guess world readers are finally coming into their own and finding books that meet this demand. The example I was familiar with after Barbara Pym but before Caroline’s excellent review of this book she’s discussed today is Muriel Barbery’s book “The Elegance of the Hedgehog,” and though it does (spoiler alert!) have a love interest, it’s not soppy, and ends unusually (I won’t give that away, since many people may not have read it yet). I think the breadth and depth currently being allowed older female characters is not only due to the demand, however, but to the realization, slow to come to some, that it’s not only men who have something to contribute when they reach a certain age, but that women do too, and that they have often overcome more odds due to the inequities of their situations. High time!

    • Thanks, Sigrun and thank for mentioning the prize. I thought she only received prizes for her children’s literature.
      I’m very surprised it wasn’t translated to Norwegian. I don’t think you find a lot of protagonists like her.

    • Thanks for this question, Judith. I always add the date of publication but forgot it in this case. I added it to the post now. It was published in 2006 in Iceland and in 2009 in Germany. The German paperback edition is from 2011.

  5. Beautiful review, Caroline! I love the character of Siegtrud. I love unconventional characters who lead rich inner lives. I think I will love this book. It is unfortunate that it is not translated into English. I hope one of the translators is reading your review right now and is deciding to translate it 🙂 Or maybe, I should learn German this year and then try reading the German translation of this book. I will add this book to my ‘TBR’ list. I will look forward to finding out whether Siegtrud is able to get to Paris, to the land of her grandfather. I love the cover of the book – simple and mysterious. Thanks for writing about this beautiful book.

    • Thanks, Vishy. Yes, she’s an unconventional character. I liked that.
      I was wondering how close to the original the translation is.
      Why not learn German? It would open up many more doors of book in translations. 🙂

      • Yes, I have been thinking about German classes seriously since the beginning of this year. It will be nice to read a German book in the original during GLM this year. And the kind of rich translations which are available in German – I I think I can learn German just for that 🙂

  6. I’ll definitely be looking for an English translation of this one! There are only a handful of of literary Icelandic translators and a lot of good Icelandic writers so there’s always a queue.

    • I hope there will be a translation. I feel very spoilt because I can read Icelandic literature in German. I discovered quite a few, maybe not all equally literary.
      I saw that Kristín Steinsdóttir already has another book for grown-ups out, which has also been translated.

  7. That little island sure does seem to pump out a lot of literature for such a small place. Too bad this isn’t available in English; it’s not in French either.

  8. I’m sorry that I won’t be able to read this one (at least for now). I’ve enjoyed Icelandic tales from the sagas through Halldór Laxness, and your description of this novel sounds wonderful. I love that the author has built a rich and deep story around an older protagonist. I think that is a very hard sell to publishers here in the US.

    • I’m afraid you’re right. It’s sad really. As a society we’re getting older and older, some older role models would be good.
      There’s still a possibility she will be translated since she’s winning prizes.

  9. I have visions of myself ending up like this–alone and having to work well beyond when others have retired–and maybe even being a little eccentric. Hopefully, though, I won’t be curmudgeonly but optimistic like this character. It sounds like a lovely story–I hope it is translated into English at some point! I have been in the mood for something set in Iceland, too, and am reading Burial Rites at the moment, though that is by an Australian writer and not translated….

    • I think you’d like it. I found it uplifting. It’s not the worst way of living. At least not when it’s the chose way. I don’t think you’ll ever be curmudgeonly. 🙂

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