I was fortunate enough to travel to Iceland in February 2016. It’s one of those places I’ve wanted to visit since I was tiny, and I was so grateful that I was able able to travel there with my boyfriend. I have – perhaps unsurprisingly – always been interested in books set in Iceland, fictional or not, and have been attempting to get hold of a copy of Letters from Iceland for an awfully long time. I love travel books, and the fact that this is described as ‘highly amusing and unorthodox’ piqued my interest further. With the help of lovely Faber reissuing the book, and a Christmas voucher, I have finally been able to add it to my collection.
Letters from Iceland is so rich that I felt it warranted a full-length review. Whilst I was already familiar with, and enjoy, Auden’s poetry, the MacNeice which I had read was sparse to say the least, and I had barely touched upon the prose output of either man. Letters from Iceland is comprised of Auden and MacNeice’s letters home from their 1936 trip to the country, which were rendered into both verse and prose.
The new Faber edition includes Auden’s 1965 foreword, which I found fascinating in terms of how much Iceland had changed in just three decades. Clearly, Auden has a real passion for the place: ‘But the three months in Iceland upon which it [the book] is based stand out in my memory as among the happiest in a life which has, so far, been unusually happy, and, if something of this joy comes through the writing, I shall be content’.
Their trip to Iceland was taken at a fascinating time in history; the men set off during Hitler’s rise to power in Germany, and the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War occurred whilst they were there. The reasons for both being there, and what they wished to discover, varied, but the way in which MacNeice describes it is rather humorous: ‘You and I / Know very well the immediate reason why / I am in Iceland. Three months ago or so / Wystan said that he was planning to go / To Iceland to write a book and would I come too; / And I said yes, having nothing better to do’.
The imagery which both men present is gorgeous and rich. I loved the sense of rural history which was captured: ‘The town [Reykjavik] peters out into flat rusty-brown lava-fields, scattered shacks surrounded by wire-fencing, stockfish drying on washing-lines and a few white hens’. They are very aware of their sense of space, and their current position within the world. In MacNeice’s letter to Graham and Anne Shepard, for instance, is the following: ‘… but please remember us / So high up here in this vertiginous / Crow’s nest of the earth. Perhaps you’ll let us know / If anything happens in the world below?’
Much emphasis, unsurprisingly, has been placed upon the output of Iceland’s citizens in the fields of art and literature. The information which has been given about Icelandic authors, and the country’s reading population, is absolutely fascinating, as is that of creative life in the country: ‘The best-known authors and painters receive support from the state, without any obligations to output’.
Handy travel tips have been included for their late-1930s audience, ranging from appropriate clothing – ‘a cape is useless’ – and alternative boat routes to take for ‘those who like the sea’, to the believed necessity for a guide: ‘There are very few places in Iceland where it is pleasant to walk, and for long expeditions guides are absolutely necessary if you don’t want to lose your horses or get drowned in a river’. Reflections upon the Icelandic diet amuse too: dried fish, for instance, ‘varies in toughness. The tougher kind tastes like toe-nails, and the softer kind like the skin off the soles of one feet’, and the beer ‘is weak and nasty, and the lemonade unspeakable’. ‘Sheaves from Sagaland’, which is comprised of many different quotes from authors and visitors to Iceland, and regards different aspects of life in the country, is also rather funny in a tongue-in-cheek manner.
The poetic contributions are often most amusing. In Auden’s ‘Letter to Lord Byron’, for instance, is written: ‘… though it’s true / That I have, at the age of twenty-nine / Just read Don Juan and found it fine. / I read it on the boat to Reykjavik / Except when eating or asleep or sick.’ I have discovered, through Letters from Iceland, that I am very much a fan of MacNeice’s poetry, from such perfectly-formed stanzas as follows: ‘The songs of jazz have told us of a moon country / And we like to dream of a heat which is never sultry, / Melons to eat, champagne to drink, and a lazy / Music hour by hour depetalling the daisy’.
Auden can be rather sarcastic, and some of his comments occasionally border upon the scathing. In response to a question addressed to him by author friend Christopher Isherwood, he writes: ‘If you have no particular intellectual interests or ambitions and are content with the company of your family and friends, then life on Iceland must be very pleasant… I think that, in the long run, the Scandinavian sanity would be too much for you, as it is for me. The truth is, we are both only really happy living amongst lunatics’.
With regard to further travels, Auden informs us that he ‘didn’t go to Finland after all. I felt another country would only be muddling. Finland has not the slightest connection with Iceland, and a travel book about unconnected places becomes simply a record of a journey, which is boring. I dare say it’s all right if you’re a neo-Elizabethan young man who has a hairbreadth escape or meets a very eccentric clergyman every five minutes, but I’m not’.
Letters from Iceland is a very entertaining book, which is wonderfully varied, both in terms of its seriousness and frivolity, and its differing prose styles. The techniques used – poems, stories, proverbs, folk tales, and anecdotes to name a few – makes the book a perfect choice to read in one go. Letters from Iceland is highly recommended, and is a wonderful book to start any trip to the country with.