Monday, 12 September 2011
Iceland's Snæfellsjökull, still haunting my dreams since we saw it loom so large in fair if cold weather, is your ultimate powerful fictional backdrop. I'm sure it must have produced more novels than the two I've come across, as recommended by Hilary Finch: a disposable but human detective story by Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, My Soul to Take, and an undisputable mini-masterpiece, Nobel Prize winner Halldór Laxness's Under the Glacier.
How to describe Laxness's metaphysical comedy? Susan Sontag does a better job of it than I can in the introduction to the Vintage edition, laying out categories of novel that defy the 'artificial norm' of 'so-called real life' - 'Science fiction. Tale, fable, allegory. Philosophical novel. Dream novel. Visionary novel. Literature of fantasy. Wisdom lit. Spoof. Sexual turn-on' - before adding that Under the Glacier (in Icelandic the title is the less sellable 'Religion Under the Glacier') is the only novel she knows which fits into all those categories.
There's a church, of course, but unlike the beautifully kept one at Hellnar, it's been boarded up and a new home owned by a mysterious magnate who only appears past the novel's halfway mark has been jammed right up against it. The protagonist, emissary of the Bishop of Reykjavik who abbreviates himself 'Embi'and starts out, in Sontag's words, as 'the generic Naive Young Man', has to investigate a pastor who seems to have given up his religious duties to fix Primus stoves, a mysterious absent wife called Ua - the noise, the 'resurrected' woman later tells us, eider ducks make - as well as a casket and a possible corpse up on the glacier, which every local acknowledges to be the centre of the universe.
From mordantly witty 'reporting', the novel unfolds to include all sorts of weird interviewees and New Agers - even in 1968, it seems, hippies were finding their way to Snæfellsjökull in search of spiritual enlightenment - within a dissolution of time and space which, Sontag rightly points out, allies it with Ibsen's more supernatural works and Strindberg's A Dream Play. I love its musical refrains: the wry references to Verne's Journey to the Centre of the Earth, the local poet's ode to Palisander wood, the mittens Ua knits for Peruvian fishermen, the shrunken-head ritual - well, that will give you enough of a taste of how weird it all is. But I can't convey the style, which seems to me brilliantly rendered by none other than Magnus Magnusson.
Sigurðardóttir - or rather plain 'Yrsa' as I should call her in Icelandic form - is surprisingly reluctant in her often nailbiting thriller, or perhaps unable, to convey much of a sense of place, beyond the first murder on a foggy basalt beach. One thing I do know: the above cover is completely wrong, since the action, apart from the creepy prologue, takes place in June, in other words in a capricious Icelandic early summer; no snow, despite the elegiac gravestone disquisitions.
Yrsa does have a warm and witty way with characters, and it's refreshing to have an amiable, slightly prudish and only mildly dysfunctional heroine with a level-headed boyfriend. And here the swipes at new spiritualism are unequivocally incredulous. Was there an implied point-scoring against the slightly alternative hotel at Hellnar which was fully booked when we tried to get a room? Hilary thinks possibly so. On, now, to the Auden/MacNeice Letters from Iceland, which I bought in a handsome first edition for the diplo-mate's birthday: perfect late night reading-aloud material. Then a pile of other Laxnesses, which I've ordered up.
Quick church walk report, before I eventually get round to downloading the pictures and writing it up: 16 churches and 19 miles covered on Saturday in humid, windy and intermittently sunny weather, with a spectacular sunset to round it off. More anon.