Guðbergur Bergsson was born in the year 1932 in Grindavík, which was at that time a godforsaken village with a human existence that was good for the mind against the open sea. Today it is much bigger and has acquired municipal rights. Grindavík is still very much alive, even more than ever, on the rough south coast of Iceland. Earthquakes are frequent, even an everyday affair, but not of much use. To the south there is nothing to see but the endless ocean, to the east there are stretches of mountains, as there are to the north, but to the west a grey lava-field stretches out and in some places fumes from hot springs can be seen. Apart from that there is lava all around, also to the south where it cannot be seen under the sea where the fish hides itself to spawn in narrow lava holes far from the jaws of greedy sharks and whales. Because of this particularly clever instinct of the cod and the harmony between it and nature the people of Grindavík could make a living and still can, exactly as they have always done and will continue to do until the end of time.
Guðbergur's father was a fisherman during the winter and a carpenter during the summer and his mother a maid-servant until she became a wife and worked at home. Since he was born during the Great Depression, everything around him, the houses, the people, and the way of life was as simple and as deprived or empty as the sky, the lava, and the weather. On the other hand, what was seldom seen or not plainly obvious on land ?man's disposition and emotions?was as rich or even richer than in more populated places. The connection between people is closer and different in smaller places than in more populated areas where you can find special kinds of entertainment that has no other purpose than to provide oblivion for a moment; what is called a pastime. In those days everyone in Grindavík was his or her own dark cinema but also, in their own way, a secret silver screen for others. People were their own novels, poems, operas, and danced a ballet of the emotions. It is similar with artists. They are characterized by the unconscious but they train themselves to unify all the arts in the same work, each after his or her own liking, first in the workings of the mind which they then change into a piece of art, for example a novel.
Like everyone else in Grindavík Guðbergur first worked at sea. Then others wanted him to learn shipmaking. He did not want that. Then he began studying, not what he wanted but something of which he could make a living. He could then use his spare time to do what was impossible to make a living of at that time, namely writing fiction. Others hindered him from teaching children so he took to cooking for foreigners. He then wove rugs for a few years after which he worked as a nurse at a mental hospital. Then he decided to leave the country and study literature and art history in Barcelona during the reign of Franco. Slowly he started to weave the world he has mostly lived in ever since, the world of his art. He has not lived anywhere but in his work, which is more prose than poetry. All this is naturally linked with and a logical result of having been born and raised in as isolated a place as Grindavík, a place where people were their own theatre but also a theatre for others; their own novel, poem, opera, philosophy, and piano concert. Most things in an artist's mental makeup are the result of himself but also his parents and his surroundings. It is not necessary to live in a so called intellectually rich environment in order to be able to braid or weave the cloth that is rich art. But he who is born into a poor environment, amongst poor people, needs to be endowed with a will and an inner fullness which he carefully nurtures. Above anything else he needs to be self-sufficient. He cannot depend on anyone but himself. Few people understand him. He needs to be strong in his solitude, unafraid to go into the world to reach maturity, not into what is known but that which is unknown. The one who only associates with himself and others like himself dies into emptiness and harmony with others, yes-men and women who never disagree. Disagreement is the root of growth.
Guðbergur has tried to compose a life's work based on his own aesthetics and he knew it would not be well received. In all things he has remembered the lava where he grew up. Lava is like this: A burning mass of rock running from a volcano. It stops, cools down, and dies, but only up to a point. In this rough state it slowly becomes covered with moss which crumbles and turns into soil from which even high trees can grow under the right conditions.
Guðbergur knew that this would probably be the destiny of what he worked at for years, in his theatre, in the opera, in the cinema of his self.
Few things are harder on the mind than the endless ocean, the barren lava, the earthquakes, and villages on the edges of the world where strong ocean storms hit the coast. At the same time, this can be stimulating if external conditions are looked at in a certain way: "This is how nature intended it to be."
This attitude which stems from Guðbergur's childhood surroundings is most likely one of the reasons why the most distinct feature of his fiction is not the will to evoke sympathy but contemplation, wonder, rebellion against situations, and the question: "How can you withstand the complex trial nature puts before your life and your nature and that of others?"
Guðbergur Bergsson, 2000.
Translated by Jóhann Thorarensen.