7

One From the Archive: ‘The Poetic Edda’, translated by Carolyne Larrington ****

First published in 2014.

The Poetic Edda is a collection of Norse-Icelandic mythological and heroic poetry, which has inspired so much of the literature and media which we in the modern world know and love.  Many of the poems in this collection – which has been both translated and edited by Carolyne Larrington – were penned by an unknown writer around the year 1270, and can be found in a medieval Icelandic document, the Codex Regius.  It has not been possible to prove whether these poems came from Iceland or Norway, as experts on the poems have noted that elements of importance are often included from both countries.  It is worth noting that many of the poems within The Poetic Edda were written before the conversion of Scandinavia to Christianity.

9780199675340In her introduction, Larrington sets out the importance of the poems within The Poetic Edda.  She believes that the collection is ‘comic, tragic, instructive, grandiose, witty and profound’, and that it contains scenes which have been ‘vividly staged’.  Larrington goes on to write that the Edda, incorporating as it does ‘comedy, satire, didactic verse, tragedy, high drama and profoundly moving lament’, is one of the greatest masterpieces in world literature.  Larrington’s introduction is well written and informative, and is split up into useful sections which deal with such different elements as the Old Norse cosmos and mythological history.

The Poetic Edda ‘contains the great narratives of the creation of the world and the coming of Ragnarok, the doom of the Gods’.  It traces the exploits of many characters from Icelandic and Norse mythology, from Thor to Sigurd and Brynhild, and their doomed love affair.  In their style, the poems are relatively simple, but they are often profound and always striking in the scenes and imagery which they present.

Larrington’s version of The Poetic Edda has been beautifully translated, and the flow of each poem is perfect.  The narrative voices and structure used in each is coherent and well wrought, and the collection as a whole is absolutely fascinating.  Each poem is different from the next, and every single one is filled with many memorable characters and scenes.  Violence abounds in The Poetic Edda, as do history, passion and emotions.

Oxford World’s Classics’ revised edition of the poems includes a select bibliography and a section on the genealogies of giants, gods and heroes.  Larrington has also chosen to place two new poems within the collection – ‘The Lay of Svipdag’ and ‘The Waking of Angatyr’.  There is also an invaluable section with notes on the meter and style of the poems, which is essential for any student of the work.  Each poem is prefaced by a useful contextual introduction, making The Poetic Edda accessible to all.

Purchase from The Book Depository

1

One From the Archive: ‘Letters from Iceland’ by W.H. Auden and Louis MacNeice ****

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. 41pxwwejz8l-_sx316_bo1204203200_

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’.

LouisMacNeice_NewBioImage

Louis MacNeice

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’.

WH Auden in London in 1938

W. H. Auden

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.

Purchase from The Book Depository

1

Reading the World 2017: ‘The Ice Lands’ by Steinar Bragi **

The Ice Lands is the second novel by Icelandic author Steinar Bragi, a critically acclaimed poet and author in his native land.  Translated by Lorenza Garcia, the novel takes as its focus two couples, all in their thirties, who have been affected by Iceland’s financial crisis. We meet reckless Egill, recovering alcoholic Hrafn, and their partners, Anna and Vigdis.  The quartet decide to embark upon a camping trip; the weather and the poor visibility which it brings mean that the Jeep in which they are travelling crashes into a farmhouse in the middle of nowhere.  When they meet the couple who live inside said farmhouse, the premise heightens somewhat: ‘… the isolated dwelling is inhabited by a mysterious elderly couple who inexplicably barricade themselves inside every night.  As past tensions within the group rise to the surface, the merciless weather blocks every attempt at escape, forcing them to ask difficult questions: who has been butchering animals near the house?  What happened to the abandoned village nearby where bones lie strewn across the ground?  And most importantly, will they return home?’  A Swedish publication, Corren, deemed the novel ‘Iceland’s Twin Peaks’.

9781447298816The novel’s overall review score is quite poor, I felt, standing at 2.84 out of 5 on Goodreads.  This made me a little sceptical, I must say, but I love Icelandic literature, and was determined to give it a fair chance.  I felt a definite comradeship with all of the reviewers who have marked this a two- or one-star read quite early on, however; the dialogue is rather dull, and whilst the story is what really drives the whole onwards, it has not been overly well executed.

Bragi’s opening paragraph captures Iceland’s darkness effectively, yet rather simply: ‘Over the highlands all was still.  The shadows on the horizon darkened, growing sharper against the sky, before dissolving into the night’.  Sadly, the writing never really regains this quiet power, and an inconsistency is visible throughout.  The prose is very much of the telling rather than the showing variety, which gives the whole an element of dullness, and which renders the reader (or rendered me, at least) rather impatient for something to happen.  Bragi is very matter-of-fact, and a lot of the details discussed or included feel superfluous.  It’s just quite a boring book, and excerpts of prose such as the following would encourage me to avoid the work in question: ‘Through the open door of the barn they glimpsed bales of hay wrapped in green and white plastic.  In the yard in front of the barn stood a sand-blown Willys jeep.  The old woman was crouching beside one of the wheels in a pair of grubby overalls, poking a tool under the body of the vehicle.  Clearly she was in charge of more than the housework’.

The Ice Lands had a lot of potential, due not only to its setting, but to the intrigue of its plot.  Not a great deal else occurs that is not described in the book’s blurb, and it caused this particular reader to give up around a third of the way through.  Had an author such as Halldor Laxness used a similar plot in his fiction, I imagine that it would be incredibly compelling, and quite difficult to put down.

Purchase from The Book Depository

0

Flash Reviews: ‘Independent People’ and ‘O Caledonia’

Independent People by Halldor Laxness **** 9780099527121
Whilst in Iceland in February, I was lucky enough to pass the homestead where Laxness spent much of his writing life.  As a consequence, every single piece of work which I read of his feels even more vivid to me; it is as though, by seeing all that surrounded him, his already marvellously personified settings spring to life all the more before my eyes.

The beginning couple of chapters of Independent People were a little confusing in relation to the whole, but they certainly set the scene well.  The writing and translation are fluid, and the whole has been so well handled.  There wasn’t a single sentence rendered here which felt clumsy or underdone, and some of the prose is breathtaking.

Laxness has written with such depth; alongside the characters, one learns about Icelandic politics and history.  As with every one of his books, the novel has its sadnesses, but it is all the more realistic for them.  There are stories within stories within stories here.  Whilst I found parts rather difficult to read due to their subject matter and my squeamishness, Independent People is basically a masterpiece.

 

9780956567208O Caledonia by Elspeth Barker ****
I had incredibly high hopes for O Caledonia, and hoped it wouldn’t disappoint.  It did not; in fact, it is certainly one of the best coming of age stories which I have read in quite a while.  Startling, vivid, intriguing, and marvellously Gothic.  Troubled Janet was a fabulously crafted character, and I was so entranced as soon as I began to read her story.  I loved Barker’s prose style, and the delicious darkness to the whole.  O Caledonia is a mesmerising and incredibly well crafted novel, with a marvellous and surprising conclusion.

 

Purchase from The Book Depository

0

‘Moonstone: The Boy Who Never Was’ by Sjon ***

Moonstone: The Boy Who Never Was has been translated from its original Icelandic by Victoria Cribb.  The novella was first published in its native Iceland in 2013, by one of the country’s most revered authors and songwriters, Sjon.  I visited the biggest bookshop in Reykjavik when I visited in February, and many of his books were on display, both in Icelandic and their English translations.  To date, I have read a couple of his books, including the relatively well-known The Blue Fox, which I would go as far as to say is his most prominent work in the English-speaking world.

Characteristically, Sjon’s style does tend toward the sparse, and is almost simplistic on the face of it.  Moonstone begins in 1918, with this sentence: ‘The October evening is windless and cool.  There is a distant throb of a motorcycle.  The boy puts his head on one side to get a better fix on the sound’.  What comes next is rather a graphic scene, in which a young man – our main character – sexually gratifies an older man: ‘Mumbled words escape from between his clenched teeth; snatches at the land scenes he is staging in his mind’.

Our protagonist, sixteen-year-old orphan Mani Stein Karlssson (possibly a spelling error in the book) is from 15,000-citizen strong Reykjavik, in which ‘those of the same age cannot help but be aware of one another’, and has lived with his great-grandmother’s sister since his mother’s death.  His real passion in life is going to the cinema, watching, as he does, ‘all the movies that are imported to Iceland’.  Mani is illiterate, and works as a gigolo to earn his money; it is not a job which he dislikes, and he never says anything to make the reader think that he is being exploited, or is performing acts solely for the monetary reward.  In fact, more could have been made of this element of the plot.
9781473613133

Images and imagery are both of importance here; the result is gory and strange, but incredibly memorable.  Throughout, Sjon’s use of imagery is both interesting and thought-provoking: ‘With his back pressed to the cliff, the man appears to have merged with his own shadow, become grafted to the rock’.  Some of his descriptions – and, indeed, Cribb’s interpretation of them – are striking: ‘She appears on the brink like a goddess risen from the depths of the sea, silhouetted against the backdrop of a sky ablaze with the volcanic fires of Katla…’.  Indeed, the geographical prominence of the landscape features wonderfully:

‘Although it’s past midnight there’s still a small crowd gathered on the hill to watch the Katla eruption: drunkards, policemen, labourers… and waifs and strays like himself…  When not conversing in low voices they gaze intently at the light show in the ease where the volcano is painting the night sky every shade of red, from scarlet through violet to crimson, before exploding the canvas with flares of bonfire yellow and gaseous blue.’

For the first quarter or so of the novella, if it wasn’t for the inclusion of dates, it would be difficult to pinpoint the period in which Mani’s story takes place.  There is very little else, at first, to give the era away, and its writing style – or perhaps its translation – feels relatively contemporary.  There are those things going on in Icelandic society which we recognise from the modern-day media – eruptions from various volcanoes, such as the aforementioned Katla, steamers coming across from Denmark, and a referendum about the country’s independence.

Later comes the first reference to Spanish influenza, which the remainder of the plot revolves around, and which builds a sense of history in a far more effective manner.  As Sjon writes, this epidemic acts almost as a uniting force: ‘An uncontrollable force has been unleashed in the country; something historic is taking place in Reykjavik at the same time as it is happening in the outside world’.  The influenza is consequently personified, given human attributes and actions: ‘By the time Miss Inga Maria Waagfjord, guitar player and chanteuse, slumps unconscious from the piano stool during the second episode of ‘The Golden Reel’ at the New Cinema, the epidemic has snatched away the last person in Reykjavik capable of picking out a tune’.

At first, whilst Moonstone provides some character portraits which warrant exploration on behalf of the reader, there is a definite sense of detachment to the whole.  The novella takes a while to find its feet, but it can certainly be said that it builds in intensity after the first few chapters, and becomes almost compelling in consequence.  The detachment disappears after a while, and the third person perspective cleverly becomes a necessary, rather than a distancing, tool.  Sjon has demonstrated, however, how quickly the city changed in the face of the epidemic, and how its atmosphere and bustle all but disappeared.  An important time in history, which does not appear to have been very well documented in Western history (at least in the English-speaking world) has been demonstrated in Moonstone, which alone makes the novella well worth reading.

Purchase from The Book Depository

0

Reading the World: Scandinavia (Part One)

I adore Scandinavia, and was very excited about choosing books to showcase this beautiful region, which, for my purposes, is comprised of Finland, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, and Iceland.  I have read a lot of literature, and some non-fiction books, set here, and it was so incredibly difficult to narrow down my choices that I have decided to show them in two parts.  There are some comprehensive reviews floating around on the blog for the majority of these, which I have linked.  So sit back, relax, and read about Scandinavia…

1. The Sculptor’s Daughter by Tove Jansson 9781908745330(Finland; review here)
‘Tove Jansson’s first book for adults drew on her childhood memories to capture afresh the enchantments and fears of growing up in Helsinki in the nineteen tens and twenties. Described as both a memoir and ‘a book of superb stories’ by Ali Smith, her startlingly evocative prose offers a glimpse of the mysteries of winter ice, the bonhomie of balalaika parties, and the vastness of Christmas viewed from beneath the tree.’

2. The Vanishing Act by Mette Jakobsen (Somewhere in Scandinavia; review here)
‘This is a story about a snow-covered island you won’t find on any map. It’s the story of a girl, Minou. A year ago, her mother walked out into the rain and never came back. It’s about a magician and a priest and a dog called No Name. It’s about a father’s endless hunt for the truth. It’s about a dead boy who listens, and Minou’s search for her mother’s voice. It’s a story of how even the most isolated places have their own secrets. It’s a story you will never forget.’

97818435458353. Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name by Vendela Vida (Finland)
‘When Clarissa Iverton was fourteen years old, her mother disappeared leaving Clarissa to be raised by her father. Upon his death, Clarissa, now twenty-eight, discovers he wasn’t her father at all. Abandoning her fiance, Clarissa travels from New York to Helsinki, and then north of the Arctic Circle – to Lapland. There, under the northern lights, Clarissa not only unearths her family’s secrets, but also the truth about herself.’

4. Burial Rites by Hannah Kent (Iceland; review here)
‘A brilliant literary debut, inspired by a true story: the final days of a young woman accused of murder in Iceland in 1829. Set against Iceland’s stark landscape, Hannah Kent brings to vivid life the story of Agnes, who, charged with the brutal murder of her former master, is sent to an isolated farm to await execution. Horrified at the prospect of housing a convicted murderer, the family at first avoids Agnes. Only Toti, a priest Agnes has mysteriously chosen to be her spiritual guardian, seeks to understand her. But as Agnes’s death looms, the farmer’s wife and their daughters learn there is another side to the sensational story they’ve heard.’

5. Naive. Super by Erlend Loe (Norway) 9781841956725
‘Troubled by an inability to find any meaning in his life, the 25-year-old narrator of this deceptively simple novel quits university and eventually arrives at his brother’s New York apartment. In a bid to discover what life is all about, he writes lists. He becomes obsessed by time and whether it actually matters. He faxes his meteorologist friend. He endlessly bounces a ball against the wall. He befriends a small boy who lives next door. He yearns to get to the bottom of life and how best to live it. Funny, friendly, enigmatic and frequently poignant – superbly naive.’

6. When I Forgot by Elina Hirvonen (Finland)
‘Anna is on her way to the hospital where her brother has been sectioned. But – on route – she falters, and her world splinters into a blazing display of memory and madness fueled by her family’s psychological disintegration.’

97819086702437. The Looking-Glass Sisters by Gohril Gabrielsen (Norway; review here)
‘A tragic love story about two sisters who cannot live with or without each other. Far out on the plains of northern Norway stands a house. It belongs to two middle-aged sisters. They seldom venture out and nobody visits. The older needs nursing and the younger keeps house. Then, one day, a man arrives…’

 

Purchase from The Book Depository

12

Reading Iceland

I am currently enjoying a week in Iceland with my boyfriend (hooray for scheduling posts ahead of time!), and thought I would coincide this with a post recommending several books set in Iceland.  Whilst there are many more books published in the country’s healthy book industry than are translated into English, there is still a plethora of wondrous works which are well worth a read.  The books which I would recommend are as follows.  For each, I have copied their blurb to give you an idea of the story.

  1. Fish Can Sing by Halldor Laxness 9781860469343
    ‘Abandoned as a baby, Alfgrimur is content to spend his days as a fisherman living in the turf cottage outside Reykjavik with the elderly couple he calls grandmother and grandfather. There he shares the mid-loft with a motley bunch of eccentrics and philosophers who find refuge in the simple respect for their fellow men that is the ethos at the Brekkukot. But the narrow horizons of Alfgrimur’s idyllic childhood are challenged when he starts school and meets Iceland’s most famous singer, the mysterious Garoar Holm. Garoar encourages him to aim for the “one true note”, but how can he attain it without leaving behind the world that he loves?’

  2. The Blue Fox by Sjon
    ‘The year is 1883. The stark Icelandic winter landscape is the backdrop. We follow the priest, Skugga-Baldur, on his hunt for the enigmatic blue fox. We’re then transported to the world of the naturalist Friethrik B. Friethriksson and his charge, Abba, who suffers from Down’s syndrome, and who came to his rescue when he was on the verge of disaster. Then to a shipwreck off the Icelandic coast in the spring of 1868. The fates of Friethrik, Abba and Baldur are intrinsically bound and unravelled in this spellbinding book that is part thriller, part fairy tale.’
  3. 9780199675340The Poetic Edda, edited by Carolyne Larrington
    ‘After the terrible conflagration of Ragnarok, the earth rises serenely again from the ocean, and life is renewed. The Poetic Edda begins with The Seeress’s Prophecy which recounts the creation of the world, and looks forward to its destruction and rebirth. In this great collection of Norse-Icelandic mythological and heroic poetry, the exploits of gods and humans are related. The one-eyed Odin, red-bearded Thor, Loki the trickster, the lovely goddesses and the giants who are their enemies walk beside the heroic Helgi, Sigurd the Dragon-Slayer, Brynhild the shield-maiden, and the implacable Gudrun. New in this revised translation are the quest-poem The Lay of Svipdag and The Waking of Angantyr, in which a girl faces down her dead father to retrieve his sword. Comic, tragic, instructive, grandiose, witty and profound, the poems of the Edda have influenced artists from Wagner to Tolkien and a new generation of video-game and film makers.’
  4. Letters from Iceland by W.H. Auden and Louis MacNeice
    I reviewed this comprehensively on the blog recently.
  5. Ragnarok by A.S. Byatt 9781847670649
    ‘Recently evacuated to the British countryside and with World War Two raging around her, one young girl is struggling to make sense of her life. Then she is given a book of ancient Norse legends and her inner and outer worlds are transformed. Intensely autobigraphical and linguistically stunning, this book is a landmark work of fiction from one of Britain’s truly great writers. Intensely timely it is a book about how stories can give us the courage to face our own demise. The Ragnarok myth, otherwise known as the Twilight of the Gods, plays out the endgame of Norse mythology. It is the myth in which the gods Odin, Freya and Thor die, the sun and moon are swallowed by the wolf Fenrir, the serpent Midgard eats his own tale as he crushes the world and the seas boil with poison. It is only after such monstrous death and destruction that the world can begin anew. This epic struggle provided the fitting climax to Wagner’s Ring Cycle and just as Wagner was inspired by Norse myth so Byatt has taken this remarkable finale and used it as the underpinning of this highly personal and politically charged retelling.’
  6. An Island on Fire: The Extraordinary Story of Laki, the Volcano that Turned Eighteenth-Century Europe Dark by Jeff Kanipe and Alexandra Witze
    ‘The eruption of Laki is one of history’s great untold natural disasters. The eruption, spewing out a poisionous fog, lasted for eight months, but its effects lingered across Europe for years, causing the death of people as far away as the Nile, and creating famine that may have triggered the French revolution. Island on Fire is the story not only of a volcano but also of the people whose lives it changed, such as the pastor Jon Steingrimsson, who witnessed and recorded the events in Iceland. It is the story, too, of modern volcanology, and looks at how events might work out should Laki erupt again in our time.’
  7. 9780099455158The Atom Station by Halldor Laxness
    (The list would not be complete without a second Laxness work, after all!)
    ‘When the Americans make an offer to buy land in Iceland to build a NATO airbase after World War II, a storm of protest is provoked throughout the country. The airbase provides Laxness with the catalyst for his astonishing and powerful satire. Narrated by a country girl from the north, the novel follows her experiences after she takes up employment as a maid in the house of her Member of Parliament. Marvelling at the customs and behaviour of the people around her, she emerges as the one obstinate reality in a world of unreality. Her observations and experiences expose the bourgeois society of the south as rootless and shallow and in stark contrast to the age-old culture of the solid and less fanciful north. A witty and moving satire on politics and politicians, Communists and anti-Communists, phoney culture fiends, big business and all the pretensions of authority, Laxness’ masterpiece of social commentary is as relevant today as when it was written in 1948.’

Purchase from The Book Depository

3

‘Letters from Iceland’ by W.H. Auden and Louis MacNeice ****

I am off to Iceland in a couple of days, and could not be more excited if I tried.  It’s one of those places I’ve wanted to visit since I was tiny, and I am so grateful that I am now 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. 41pxwwejz8l-_sx316_bo1204203200_

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’.

LouisMacNeice_NewBioImage

Louis MacNeice

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’.

WH Auden in London in 1938

W. H. Auden

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.

Purchase from The Book Depository