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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

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