Recent Books About Iceland

by Ian Watson

From the Reykjavík Grapevine, 9 February 2007, page 22

These five intriguing books are all either wholly or partly about Iceland and all have come out over the past year or so. All are available on loan from Reykjavík’s libraries, or can be ordered online or from Bóksala stúdenta.

The Ice Museum: In Search of the Lost Land of Thule
By Joanna Kavenna.

The Ice Museum is a kind of travelogue about north European regions, with chapters on Oslo, Shetland, Iceland, northern Norway, Estonia, northwest Greenland, and Svalbard, loosely tied together by the puzzle of trying to identify the place that the ancient explorer Pytheas called Thule. Kavenna also reports on a visit to Munich where she tries to understand the Nazi fascination with the north.

I found Kavenna’s web site on the Internet, and saw that she has also written some fine travel journalism and a novel. But this book, unfortunately, offers little to those who know the north already. The search for Thule is too thin a concept to sustain a book, as she half admits. Nor is The Ice Museum a fully satisfying travel book. Kavenna’s love of commas and run-on sentences makes her prose sputter and cough, and her insights into this jumble of eight very different places are necessarily shallow. Her Iceland write-up rehashes earlier journeys by Burton, Auden, and MacNeice, and she wastes three pages ranting about the Volcano Show in Reykjavík, to which she took a peculiarly strong dislike.

Kavenna lives in London, in an apartment overlooking an expressway, and what she is really chasing is an elusive, halfreal landscape of open space and broad ice fields, not the human reality of the countries that she visits. Over and over she uses phrases like “northern dreamworld,” “silence of the plains,” and “purity as a plain white space,” and she admits to an “anti-social impulse.” Recalling part of a winter spent living near Trondheim, Kavenna says that “everyone was quiet and friendly in this snow world [and] they waved from a distance” – a compelling image if you are squeezed into a sweaty subway train in London, but one which turns the people who live in the snow world into stick figures. There are few insightful character sketches in the book, she seems ill at ease with people, she spends a lot of time in bars, and many of the interactions she reports on are anonymous. In Iceland, the only person with whom she reports a conversation is a poet she meets briefly in a pub who claims to write in the tradition of the sagas.

How much better a book this might have been if Kavenna had been able to make readers genuinely feel the paradox of human settlement in the far north: lives lived out every day on the brink of habitability, the fragility of supply and communication, the coexistence of beauty and danger, and the small scale of social institutions. Her Greenland chapter comes closest to managing this, and also has the most interesting cast of characters. But for the most part, I found The Ice Museum hard going.

Inside Reykjavík: The Grapevine Guide
By Bart Cameron

Yes, I have a conflict of interest in reviewing this book, as I have done work for the author, and the Grapevine holds the copyright, and some of its material originally appeared here in this magazine. But hey, I’m not on this newspaper’s staff, and nobody else on the island seems to have reviewed this truly unusual book. Someone had to do it, and because I have slogged away in the travel guidebook industry for nearly 20 years and am supposed to have developed some kind of perspective on it, I gave myself the job.

Inside Reykjavík is not precisely a guidebook to Reykjavík, as it’s way more sophisticated and doesn’t cover hotels, transport or sightseeing. It’s more of a companion to the city. It lists restaurants and clubs, but not their hours or prices. It covers daily life, swimming pools, cafes, food, going out, shopping, music and art, and daytrips. There are more than thirty superb candid photos, selected by Guðmundur Freyr Vigfússon. (I recognised a few people I know; so might you.)

Bart means to be tongue-in-cheek when he says that the book is “doing a commendable and historical sociological service in documenting the phenomenon that is Reykjavík today,” but in fact this is just what the book does. And it’s cutting edge. It’s ahead of the curve. As Bart himself might put it, the book voices “key thoughts” about Iceland that many people think but are “unable to state.” It’s one of the best things to come out in English on Iceland since Amalia Líndal’s Ripples from Iceland.

Bart bursts tourist clichés. He shows you how to think beyond weather, volcanoes, and the old story about Iceland and Greenland being misnamed. He explains why you shouldn’t discuss elves, Vikings, or geology with Icelanders. He includes Sólheimajökull, Hafnarfjörður, and EVE Online in the daytrip section. He reviews swimming pools and fast food, and dares to discuss cod worms. Actually, I found the fish section a bit weak, but the other 99% of the book convinces me of the merits of guidebooks written by people who really know a town, not scribblers who fly in one week and fly out the next. For travel guidebook junkies: Inside Reykjavík has similarities to A User’s Guide to Tallinn, put out by students at the Estonian Art Academy several years ago, but it is more practical and less fartsy.

The best thing about this book: This guy Bart Cameron can write. There’s one great sentence after the next. And he’s never boring. Some of the listings will be out of date soon, but this book will always be a monument to Reykjavík in 2006.

The Killer’s Guide to Iceland
By Zane Radcliffe.

The main character in this novel is a Scottish dot-com entrepreneur who sells his company and moves to Iceland to live with an Icelandic geologist he meets by chance in Glasgow. She doesn’t know that he is still haunted by memories of his former girlfriend and business partner. But she too turns out to have a more interesting past than he bargained for. Despite its implausible plot, stereotyped characters, sometimes clumsy dialogue, and misspelled Icelandic, why did I actually enjoy reading The Killer’s Guide and not want my time back? I think it was because of the pleasure of seeing the Reykjavík I know on the pages of a cheesy British novel. Radcliffe did his homework and much of the description of Iceland reads quite true to life. And, having been once new in Iceland myself, it feels a bit flattering to see the experience of newly arrived foreigners here given book-length treatment. Still, I wish I had a hundred crowns per “Heimæy,” “Bírna” and every other misspelled word in the book, and anyone who actually lives here will find some of the story details a bit too much to swallow.

The English Dane
By Sarah Bakewell

On 25 June 1809, the Danish governor of Iceland, Frederik Trampe, was arrested in his home on Aðalstræti in Reykjavík, marched under armed guard to the harbour, and imprisoned on the British ship Margaret & Anne. The next day Iceland was proclaimed free and independent of Denmark, and Jørgen Jørgensen, a Dane who had lived for some years in England, was appointed acting governor. Chapters four and five of The English Dane, a fine biography of Jørgen Jørgensen, tell the story of his brief “reign” as protector of Iceland in 1809.

I had only a vague knowledge of the story, and had been under the mistaken impression that Jørgensen was some kind of deranged sailor who acted alone in proclaiming himself sovereign of an unprotected Iceland. In fact, there was a whole group of adventurers involved, Jørgensen was not even necessarily the ringleader, and no less prominent a figure than Sir Joseph Banks was in on the plan. The episode had not only to do with the power vacuum in Iceland after the Danish military was disabled in 1807, but also with British interests in breaking the Danish trade monopoly in Iceland. Jørgensen lived an eventful life. He was born in Copenhagen in 1780, into a well-connected Danish watchmaking family. He had already sailed around the world on British ships before his Icelandic caper. Afterwards, he spent several unhappy years in Britain, ending in bankruptcy, a theft conviction for pawning his landlady’s mattress, and ultimately, in 1826, transport as a convict to Tasmania. There he worked as a police constable, what we would now call a freelance journalist, and as a hired explorer, mapping trails through the wilderness of western Tasmania.

Jørgensen is a troubled figure, swinging between debt, depression, drink, and gambling on the one hand and great energy, generosity, organisational skill, and prolific writing on the other. He had a talent for messing up his life, and sometimes my stomach churned with embarrassment at the scrapes he got himself into. There are many high points, such as the banquet he attended on Viðey island on 27 June 1809, and many low points, not least his narrow escape from a death sentence.

The book is meticulously researched and referenced, but all the footnotes are kept out of the text and the narrative is pretty lively and fast-moving. A few sections may go into a bit too much detail for the casual reader, but overall this book, which is also available in an Icelandic translation, gets my thumbs up.

Dreaming of Iceland: The Lure of a Family Legend
By Sally Magnusson

Scottish television anchor Sally Magnusson asked her father, the Icelandic-Scottish translator and television personality Magnus Magnusson, to go with her on a trip to Iceland to visit the places his family came from (mostly around Akureyri and Húsavík). While not a work of genius, the book that resulted is short and easy to read, Sally Magnusson comes across as a friendly sort of person, and if you have a maiden great-aunt (especially in Britain) who has never been to Iceland but would like to read something about it, this might be the gift for her. And I gotta say one really good thing about this book: Sally got herself a damn fine proofreader. All the Icelandic is spelled absolutely right. There are no Sigridurs or Porbjorgs in this book.

The Magnussons are not your average Icelandic family. Though born in Iceland, Magnus Magnusson grew up in Scotland where his father was the head of the SÍS export office in Edinburgh and later the Icelandic consul there. These are fine folk. They take a taxi from Keflavík to Reykjavík and their cousin built Hótel Borg. Sally and her dad are familiar to millions of British television viewers and they get the redcarpet treatment from everyone they meet. So this is kind of a celebrity confessional book, and one which will mean most to those who know Sally and Magnus from TV. It’s also a book about family history (someone else’s, of course), as well as an example of a rare genre: Icelandic diaspora literature. Sally, to her credit, is smart, and not a snob, and tries to ask critical questions about her Icelandic heritage and her family’s myths, though she doesn’t have room to go into much depth.