by Ian Watson
From the Reykjavík Grapevine, 21 September 2007, p. B15
You know the story already: a comfortably off writer buys an old farmhouse in France or Italy, drags their sceptical spouse along, meets the eccentric neighbours, learns to cook with the local herbs, and writes a best-selling book about their new life. But what about the people who move north and west, not south? These five classic books tell of their authors’ fascination with the North Atlantic, and the enthusiasm that made them leave their southern homes and come here to live ... three Americans, one Austrian, and a young man from Togo.
Greenland — An African in Greenland
By Tété-Michel Kpomassie (1981)
Tété-Michel Kpomassie grows up in a good family in Togo, and one day discovers a book about Greenland in a used bookstore. With the adorably random obsessiveness of youth, he decides that he just has to go there. After several years of working his way north via Paris and Germany, he finally gets the right visa and reaches Greenland in 1964. He’s a handsome and agreeable kind of guy, young Greenlandic women quickly fall for him, and his description of the sometimes casual, sometimes ritual promiscuity of Greenlandic life is riveting. Kpomassie drifts from village to village, hosted by one family after the next. He is alternately exhilarated by the thrill of learning to ice-fish and drive a dog-sled, and repelled by Greenlandic isolation, drunkenness, underemployment, poor housekeeping, and village jealousies. After a year and a half, he returns to Paris, where he has lived ever since. Originally written in French, this book has been translated into many languages and has slowly become a real classic.
Available at Borgarbókasafn’s downtown branch, or for less than a dollar from Amazon. com.
Faroe Islands — Far Afield
By Susanna Kaysen (1990)
In the early 1970s, Susanna Kaysen accompanied her then-husband Jonathan Wylie to live for a year in the village of Skopun in the Faroe Islands, where Wylie collected material for his Ph.D. dissertation at Harvard University. Her book Far Afield, published twenty years later, fictionalizes their experience, even going so far as to write herself out of it. Though the novel falls slightly short of classic status, it is easy to read and one of the most accessible portraits of Faroese life in English. Kaysen is best known for her subsequent book Girl, Interrupted, which was made into a movie starring Winona Ryder and Angelina Jolie. Wylie has also written several fine books about Faroese history and culture.
Get it from the Seltjarnarnes, Gerðuberg, and Seyðisfjörður public libraries, or for literally pennies at Amazon.com.
Svalbard — A Woman in the Polar Night
By Christiane Ritter (1938)
A tiny hut on the snowbound northern coast of Svalbard was home to the Austrian couple Christiane and Hermann Ritter during the winter of 1933–1934. Christiane Ritter’s superb book about her year in Svalbard came out just before World War II, and the German-language edition is still in print (Eine Frau erlebt die Polarnacht). She would not have come but for her husband, who had already made several trips to Svalbard, and she describes her ambivalence at leaving her civilized Central European life to keep house in the far north for her husband and his hunting and trapping buddies. Ultimately, she comes to love the Arctic, and her depiction of raw nature and isolated beauty is second to none. During World War II, Hermann Ritter’s Svalbard experience landed him a job running a German weather station in Greenland. The station was discovered, and Ritter ended the war as an Allied prisoner in Scoresbysund before returning to Austria, where he died in 1968 and Christiane Ritter in 2000.
Not held by any Icelandic library, but used copies are for sale on abebooks.com for about $8. Easily available used or new in German.
Iceland — Ripples from Iceland
By Amalia Líndal (1962)
Amalia Líndal met her Icelandic husband when they were both students in Boston just after World War II. She came back to Iceland with him in 1949 and raised five children in Kópavogur. In between meals and diaper changes, she wrote – collecting her observations of Icelandic society into this book, and later editing a magazine called 65° Icelandic Life. Her prose is light and readable, her opinions forthright, sincere, and sometimes controversial. Twenty short chapters cover subjects like moving to Iceland, childbirth, home ownership, gender roles, class distinctions, alcohol use, motherhood, sex, religion, and Christmas. Forty-five years later, it is amazing to see both how much Iceland has changed, and how much Líndal’s descriptions still ring true. Líndal’s marriage broke up in 1971, she renounced her American citizenship when the Vietnam War put her sons under threat of the draft, and in 1973 she left Iceland for Canada, where she remarried and passed away in 1989. Get the second (1988) edition of the book, which includes an interesting epilogue.
Available at almost any Icelandic library, or on sale at Reykjavík bookstores for less than 400 ISK.
Ireland — The Island of the White Cow
By Deborah Tall (1986)
A divorced Irish playwright comes to teach for a year at the English department of an American university. He falls for a pretty student named Deborah Tall, she falls for him, and he convinces her to run away with him after graduation to the island of Inishbofin off the northwest coast of Ireland. The book tells the story of their five years there, from 1972 to 1977. This was Ireland long before it got all those European Union development grants and slashed its corporate taxes to attract business. The islanders are fascinating, and make good company, but are (much like Kpomassie’s Greenlanders) burdened by unemployment, alcoholism, remoteness, jealousy, and frustrated ambitions. The island lacks a good store, reliable telephone service, and a running water supply. Tall is forced to cast off most of her romantic notions of island life, but she gains wisdom from her hardship, and she writes beautiful prose. This book speaks to anyone who has ever dreamed of giving it all up and buying an old house by the green fields and stormy coasts on the western edge of Europe. Eventually, Tall and her Irish friend split up, and she returned to the United States, where she had a successful career as writer, editor, and teacher before her untimely death in 2006.
Not held by any Icelandic library, but used copies from Amazon.com cost $4.