LAST WINTER, I FLEW TO ICELAND. On the night of my departure from JFK, sitting outside on the dark tarmac, service vehicles busied themselves, blinking and rotating around our plane, while inside flight attendants helped people settle into their seats. A light, wet snow was falling, but inside the plane smelled of fresh coffee. I love international flights, but when I got to my row I saw I had the middle seat. For some time I situated myself, then flipped through the Icelandair magazine, sipped some water. I began to think I had the row to myself when I was startled by a light tap on my shoulder. Standing beside me were two enormous men. Both had light-colored, close-cropped hair, both wore thick sweaters and carried parkas. They brought to mind a pair of fairy tale brothers — large, oafish, difficult to tell apart, and for a while they loomed in the isle, one’s head barely visible over the other’s meaty shoulder. The anticipation of the luxurious privacy of an empty row was dashed as the first man squeezed into the window seat while his companion took the isle. I was lodged between them, and soon resigned myself to five hours of being unable to move my arms.
After settling in, both men folded their coats and placed them neatly on their laps. Each carried a small backpack — the size a child might carry — and almost simultaneously, they began to paw around in them before drawing out books. Each man found the switch for the in-flight entertainment screen and turned it off, then they both opened large novels and began to read. They did not bother to turn on the overhead light, but hunched a bit and brought the books closer to their faces. They drew in on themselves the way readers do when they become absorbed in what they are reading. No meal was served on this flight, and so they did not pause. For five hours they read, turning pages with a forefinger they dabbed lightly on their tongues, as Greenland’s glaciers passed, invisible, beneath us. As we approached Keflavik, they looked up to accept a cup of coffee passed to them on a tray. It was morning in Iceland, and time to put away the books.
Iceland is a nation of readers. More people read for recreation and pleasure in Iceland than anywhere else in the world, and for a country of just over 300,000 residents, they have a robust literary culture. In 2012, NPR reported on the annual Jolabokaflod, or Christmas Book Flood — the term given to the great number of books sold at the holidays. Books are the favored gift there, where annually five titles are published for every 1000 Icelanders. The Icelandic Eymundson bookstore chain has branches throughout Reykjavík and elsewhere in the country. The stores are busy, full of people reading, shopping, drinking coffee, and meeting friends. I met an Icelandic friend there last winter, and we talked about her two book projects in the works — one a collection of avant garde knitting patterns based on traditional designs, and the other a book of sex advice for women. She knitted quietly while we talked and sipped our coffee. Bookstores in Iceland — indeed all of Scandinavia — are vital centers of culture, social interactions, and pleasure.
Two years ago in Stockholm, I attended a book party for a debut novelist hosted by the Salomonsson Agency which represents many of the major figures of Scandinavian crime fiction. The gathering was like no book party I’d ever been to — more akin to an art opening or cast party for a film. Located at a gallery in the old city, the room was packed with the tall, glamorous, and famous. There were various Skarsgårds and Kinnamans, and when the reader began, I realized my feeble Swedish was seriously compromised when I couldn’t watch the speaker’s mouth; most everyone in the room was easily a foot taller than I was, and my view was impossibly blocked by casual and artful blond haircuts.
The recent popularity of Scandinavian crime fiction has also made its way to Iceland. The gloom and grit of these novels adds to their sinister appeal, and the great crimes described in The Sagas of Icelanders have created a template for new writers of crime fiction. The late Swede Stig Larsen had a particular knack for describing vivid misdeeds that skirt the edges of pornographic fantasy, but all throughout Scandinavia — including Iceland — authors are riding the wave of strong demand for chilly, brooding intelligent inspectors who demonstrate their frustration and angst by drinking quietly by themselves. My experience with these crime books is limited to watching the Wallander dramas on Netflix (both the Swedish and the British productions) based on Henning Mankell’s novels, the Danish series The Eagle with its Icelandic protagonist Inspector Halgrim Halgrimsson and the excellent Danish remake/import, The Killing which airs on AMC.
The great irony of Scandinavian crime fiction is that these nations are some of the safest on the globe. Fewer violent crimes happen in Sweden than almost anywhere else. Last summer, while packing to return to the US after several brightly lit summer weeks in Stockholm and on the Archipelago, I turned on the television. The news was on, and the two remaining newscasters were dressed as though they were headed to a barbecue. There were only two stories to report, and both were on a regular loop. Somewhere, outside Stockholm, a shed had burned down. No one seemed to know how the fire started. In another story, residents of a town in Smaland were distressed by the influx of gypsies who were camping in the woods and picking mushrooms. While not technically illegal, there were vague concerns, and the town council held a meeting to discuss the matter. Glum residents sat with crossed arms and stared at the counsel members seated behind a dais. In Sweden, almost nothing happens in the summer, so a crime novelist must have an active and dark imagination tuned toward that which is hidden and conspiratorial.
Iceland’s richest cultural legacy has been its literature, but as visitors have pointed out, the other arts have had a harder time catching up. Until the construction of the Harpa concert hall in the last decade, there was very little architecture of note, other than the dramatic and imposing concrete Hallgrímskirkja that dominates the Reykjavík cityscape. Popular music has found wide contemporary audiences, and Björk’s music is one of the islands most important exports. In recent years she has begun to occupy the role of the music scene’s senior ambassador, mentoring, promoting, and celebrating her fellow Icelandic musicians, many of whom are occupying places on the world stage.
Iceland has been a place of fascination for a number of English and American writers. This is due primarily to the existence of two medieval masterpieces — The Sagas of Icelanders, and the Poetic Edda. These two works — one in prose and one in verse — are as much a foundation of Western literature as are the Greek epics. The early twentieth century brought many English language writers to Iceland who wanted to see for themselves the places and sources for these important works. J.R.R. Tolkien, William Morris, W. H. Auden, and Louis MacNeice all spent time in Iceland, learning the language, studying the literature, and thinking about and incorporating these northern epics into their own poems and fictions; without these trips and fascinations, I doubt Bilbo Baggins would ever have set off with a pack of dwarves to burgle a treasure out from under the Worm Smaug.
Published in 1937, Letters from Iceland was co-written by Auden and MacNeice, though most of the work belongs to Auden. The book is a charming and sometimes peculiar undertaking which combines prose travelogue, poems by both writers, letters, photographs, illustrations, maps, and statistical graphs. One section of the book includes advice for tourists. Here, Auden liberally shares his opinion on the food, “Soups: Many of these are sweet and very unfortunate. I remember three with particular horror, one of sweet milk and hard macaroni, one tasting of hot marzipan, and one of scented hair oil,” and, “The Danes have influenced Icelandic cooking and to no advantage.” He devotes one cool paragraph to the capitol city, which begins, “There is not much to be said for Reykjavík,” and continues to comment on the small handful of cultural offerings, “The Einar Jónsson museum is not for the fastidious.” In a letter addressed to Christopher Isherwood, he writes, “As a race, I don’t think the Icelanders are very ambitious,” and though he describes the sex life there as, “uninhibited,” he notes that “there is a good deal of venereal disease in the coastal towns.”
Given these sorry offerings in the tourist mainstays of food, museums, and friendly locals, what exactly did Auden find in Iceland? One thing he found gives us a clue as to why the Sagas and the Poetic Edda are far less known to American readers than other great works of the past. In the second published letter to his brother, Auden describes a bus trip he undertakes to Akureyri (a trip I took myself this past winter). “I caught the nine o’clock bus to Myvatn, full of Nazis who talked incessantly about Die Schönheit des Islands, and the Aryan qualities of the stock ‘Die Kinder sind so reizend: schöne blonde Haare und blaue Augen. Ein echt Germanischer Typus.” He doesn’t bother to translate this in the original text, but the Nazis touring Iceland spoke of its beauty and of the loveliness of Icelandic children with their “beautiful blond hair and blue eyes — genuine Germanic types.” Earlier in the book in his first letter to his brother, he writes, “Great excitement here because Goering’s brother and a party are expected this evening. The Nazis have a theory that Iceland is the cradle of the Germanic culture. Well, if they want a community like that of the sagas they are welcome to it. I love the sagas, but what a rotten society they describe, a society with only the gangster virtues.”
Auden writes movingly of the landscape, the farmers he encounters, the simple hospitality he enjoys while in the countryside. He ventures out on horseback, and the treeless expanses and volcanic mountains seem like uncluttered landscapes in which the mind can clear itself. What Auden was really after, I think, were the sources of the Poetic Edda, which he translated and adapted in his Norse Poems. These stories of the gods and goddesses, the trolls and dwarves and magical ravens, the Tree of Life, and of Ragnarok — the death of the gods — are vivid, and compelling, though we tend to know them only from those writers and artists — like Tolkien and Wagner — who have adapted the stories, themes, and images into other fictive works.
The adoption by the Nazis of the myths of Nordic culture has left a lasting taint that intervening years have not been able to dispel. The retreat of this great literary storehouse of stories and poems from the center of the western canon to the politically questionable outskirts has been one of the lasting cultural impoverishments the blame for which falls firmly on the heads of the Nazis who adopted and warped those works to their purposes. It’s a shame to allow that group of moral derelicts to interpose themselves between readers and one of the greatest and most ancient literary traditions the world has produced, and this from the most unlikely of places — a bony, treeless, sparsely populated island there on the northern edge of the world.
In February, in Siglufjördur, Iceland’s northern most town, the sun doesn’t rise until 10:30 in the morning, and after a few dim hours close to the horizon, it begins its fast decline until all is dark by 4:00 pm. The local market offers the mainstays of yogurt and rutabagas, lamb and dried fish and cheese, but the variety is not vast, and the range of foods fairly narrow.
For the month of a writer’s retreat I stayed in a house had once belonged to the Salvation Army, and had served as a place for indigent sailors who had found themselves stuck in Siglufjördur, which for a hundred years, was the site of a thriving herring fleet and cannery. The town has an excellent museum devoted to the days when the herring fishery was in full swing; (the herring no longer swim as far north and west as Iceland, but now go further south off he coast of Scotland and Norway). My days were spent writing and reading in the impeccable white rooms and looking out at the mountains and the brightly painted houses of the neighborhood. Once a day I would walk to the municipal pool where the geyser heated hot tubs bubbled outside, sometimes hissing from snow hitting the hot surface. There I swam and soaked and for a week watched rescuers drag the fjord to try to find the body of a man who was believed to have jumped to his death from the pier. It was, for the first weeks, a lonely if productive time.
I began to receive invitations from local residents, once they had grown accustomed to seeing me skate along the iced streets with my duffel bag as I headed to the gym and pool. It was February when someone from the Herring Museum asked me to join its staff and board for a Thorablot — a party to celebrate Thora, or Thor’s month. During this ancient holiday, reveler’s come together to drink brennivín (sometimes called Icelandic Black Death), and eat the traditional foods that have seen Icelander’s through more than a thousand winters. The table was jolly with candles and elegant and spare china and cutlery, and the buffet was set up off to the side. All eyes were on me as I passed through the line; I had vowed to try everything out of curiosity and gratitude for the invitation, but this was going to be a challenge.
The menu included roasted lamb heads (split down the middle to give access to the brain), putrefied shark (smells strongly of ammonia), pickled ram testicles, lamb fat, a jellied mutton head cheese, and sour whale (fibrous whale blubber preserved in whey). I was grateful for the herring and for the mashed rutabaga, until I realized — far too late — that the rutabaga was served cold and after gamely masticating whale blubber and a lamb’s burnt eyeball, I found myself gagging on, of all things, a forkful of rutabaga that had, in my mind, morphed into some yellow excrescence spooned from a snow bank.
I noted the near silence of the 18 or so guests as they gnawed away at little sheep skulls and sipped beer or schnapps. This old way of eating, it seemed, was something of a grim chore. I don’t recall if dessert was served, but after the dishes were cleared, it was time for some singing. One of the guests was a bespectacled and white bearded man who was known as one of the region’s best poets. The word for poet in Icelandic is skald, and this is how he was introduced to me, and me to him (I quite like the ring of Skald Mark Wunderlich!). Our poet read and recited rimur, or rhyming poems, the sounds and patterns of which could be clearly heard even by someone like me who does not speak Icelandic. Evidently, the poems were quite funny; the audience started by laughing and smiling politely, and by the end of one poem they were roaring with laughter, tears making their reddened faces shine. Icelanders, like all Scandinavians are not afraid to sing when in each other’s company, and the clever and sometimes haunting folk songs made the room warmer, the company rosy and happy.
At one point in the evening, a young museum employee excused herself from the table and taking her coat, ran down to the harbor. We could see her out the window as she went to meet her boyfriend, whose fishing vessel had just returned to port. Soon they joined our company, brennivín was poured, a plate was fixed for him and we listened to more poems and songs. This, it seems, is how the Icelanders have survived and thrived. These poems and songs cost nothing to make, and so they survived the harsh climate and long winters, the years of cruel poverty, staying fresh in the minds and on the tongues of skalds. This, I believe, is what Auden was seeking when he came here, and what I certainly found — a people for whom poetry is thought of as a means of lighting up a dark night.