Gunnar Gunnarsson is one of Iceland’s most esteemed writers. His works are full of references to world literature, to the past and to his present time. One of his specialties is the description of nature. Icelandic artists and writers still seek inspiration in his works today. Writers like Jón Kalmann Stefánsson have been inspired by Advent (The Good Shepherd):
...“Gunnarsson’s Advent style is so skillful – simultaneously light and polished – that he manages to communicate everything without our even noticing. All he does is simply create an atmosphere for us to feel, to inhale – to experience for ourselves.”
Gunnar was the first Icelander to turn to creative writing as a profession and the first one to be on the bestseller lists. Thus he was a role model for writers such as Halldór Laxness, since he proved that contemporary Icelandic literature could be successful in mainland Europe. Even though Gunnar Gunnarsson lived in Denmark for more than 30 years he always saw himself as an Icelandic writer.
Gunnar Gunnarsson was born on May 18, 1889, at Valþjófsstaður in Fljótsdalur Valley, the next farm to Skriðuklaustur. Aged seven, he moved with his parents to the farm Ljótsstaðir in Vopnafjörður where his mother died the following year. While still young Gunnar dreamed of becoming a writer and in 1906 his first books were published, small collections of poems. As the poor son of a peasant, he left for Denmark at the age of eighteen years for his education. Instead of returning home after two winters at the Folk High School in Askov he decided to make his dream come true.
Still, fame did not arrive easily. He lived for a time in poverty in Århus and Copenhagen, reading and writing to develop his talents. This struggle bore fruit. In spring 1912 Gunnar signed a contract with Gyldendal publishing house. The foundations of his career were laid’ and the young writer was able to marry his love, Franzisca.
By his thirties, Gunnar’s works had made him famous throughout Denmark. A major film was produced from his first novel, Guest the One-Eyed, and translations of his books started to appear in languages other than Danish and Icelandic. The media of the time discussed Gunnarsson for the Nobel Prize in literature, and he was in fact nominated for it. Gunnarsson figured prominently in the Danish press around this time, owing not only to his own fiction but also partly to his diligent efforts to have Danish translations published of the Icelandic sagas. Another factor was his open support of “Scandinavianism”, whereby Gunnarsson felt that the ideal solution for the Nordic countries was to unite in a single democracy.
In 1911 Gunnar Gunnarsson met his future spouse, Franzisca Antonia Josephine Jörgensen, from Fredericia, Jutland. Her father was a blacksmith and her mother from noble lineage in Germany. Franzisca was born on April 4, 1891, one of many siblings. One of her sisters also married an Icelandic artist, the sculptor Einar Jónsson. Gunnar and Franzisca had two sons, Gunnar junior in 1914 and Úlfur in 1919. During the thirties Gunnar had a love affair with another woman, Ruth Lange, and his third son Grímur was born. That was hard for Franzisca but their marriage did not break down and she followed her husband to Iceland and died in Reykjavík October 22, 1976.
Though Gunnar wrote his stories in Danish, he always set them in the native land that was constantly in his thoughts. In 1939, he had a mansion built as his family home on the farm Skriðuklaustur. The German architect Fritz Höger, a friend of the author’s, designed the mansion as well as other buildings planned for the property, most of which were related to farming but were in fact never built. The mansion, however, remains a monument to the lofty intentions Gunnarsson had when returning to Iceland after achieving fame during his 30 years in Denmark.
THE LAST YEARS
Gunnar’s last novels appeared in the 1950s, and he devoted his remaining years to translating into Icelandic his own works, which until then were only available in translations by others. Gunnar died on November 21, 1975 and Franzisca the following year. Their graves are on Viðey island by Reykjavík.