Again a driver
Pulls on his gloves and in a blinding snowstorm starts
Upon his deadly journey: again some writer
Runs howling to his art.
– The final lines of W.H. Auden’s “Letter to Christopher Isherwood” in Letters from Iceland
In 1936 W.H. Auden embarked on a three month journey to Iceland and was later joined by fellow poet and friend Louis MacNeice. What remains of their trip together is a frivolous travel and verse account that they pieced together through whimsy, some effort, and most of all fun. It pays tribute to what great writers both men were – showing them in their less premeditated and polished verse selves, but nevertheless the persona of the book is still one loaded with both men’s sense of humour, personality and infectious desire to be as studious and capricious as possible. As Auden concluded in his opening letter to Isherwood in a characteristically friendly and self-deprecating aside: “The truth is, we are both only really happy living among lunatics.”
Despite all the travelogue’s quirks it does also reflect Auden’s ever-present ability to see to the heart of a matter. His powers of perception as a traveller, writer and student of human nature are always preeminent. In fact one of the things that really struck me when I started reading his book, with several weeks experience of living in Iceland now behind me, was how relevant and faithful to its subject matter, it still appeared to be. All of Auden’s facetious remarks about not being able to find a decent brandy in Reykjavik or the local ‘artificial lake’ that it boasted in its historical heart, even his more slanted and critical remarks, were things I felt a twenty-first century reader could relate to. This could be in part due to two things: firstly the timelessness of a really good piece of travel writing – after all perhaps our cultures and societies do not change as much as we would hope they do – or Iceland’s immunity to the constant laws of change that affect life elsewhere in Europe. I would perhaps be hesitant about making such a sweeping generalisation, were this idea not itself constantly impressed upon me by many of the Icelanders I spoke to personally. One historian I met claimed: “It is widely acknowledged that Iceland did not modernise till after the war.” World War II that is. If he is right, given the small population size and the special atmosphere of containment that almost all visitors feel when they arrive in Iceland, perhaps it is possible that I could still relate personally to a travel book written in the 1930s. Of course there are parts of Auden’s book that are hideous and he is guilty at times of sounding like a total snob. But Auden was not afraid of making his opinions on taste and art freely available, he was a man and part of that generation. Thank goodness, his wisdom and intelligence generally protect him from any serious gaffs, however there are still moments when you read the book that you feel hang about, what gives you the right to speak about the whole country like that?!
Of course everyone was at it. I can still imagine Lawrence pattering out huge chunks of prose in Sardinia with only a passing knowledge of the place. I don’t really think these writers were elitists or cultural supremacists, their writing is just implicated in the old thumbscrew that the author sounds like the authority. But both of these men had a horror of authority and would not have seem themselves as experts of countries they had simply passed through. The problem is with us, then, the readers, and how we perceive the writings of talented white English male travellers. It’s a question of trying not to be anachronistic and juding them by the standards we hold today. Anyway, Auden’s saving grace is his sense of humour and tendency towards satire, which frequently acknowledges his own folly and pretension. Auden was not one to hold back his criticism, sometimes his scepticism stings even if it is true.
Take this mischievous passage on Reykjavik in answer to Isherwood’s Question: “What does R. look like?”
There is no good building stone. The new suburban houses are built of concrete in sombre colours. The three chief buildings are the Roman Catholic church, the (unfinished) theatre and the students’ hostel, which looks like waiting-rooms of an airport. There is a sports ground, with a running track and tennis courts, where the young men play most f the night. In the middle of the town there is a shallow artificial lake full of terns and wild duck. The town peters out into flat rusty-brown lava-fields, scattered shacks surrounded by wire fencing, stockfish drying in washing-lines and a few white hens. Further down the coast, the lava is dotted with what look like huge laundry-baskets; these are really compact heaps of drying fish covered with tarpaulin. The weather changes with extraordinary rapidity: one moment the rain blots out everything, the next, the sun is shining behind clouds, filling the air with an intense luminous light in which you can see for miles, so that every detail of the cone-shaped mountains stands out needle-sharp against an orange sky. There is one peak which is always bright pink.
Despite Auden’s reserve and his economy of language, you get the sense throughout the book that he was actually very fond of Iceland. This is recapitaulated in the foreward to the 1967 edition: Iceland was were he spent “three of the happiest months” of an “up till that moment very happy life.”
However, this meditation on Auden leads us back to a question I gestured at before: how can we prevent travel writing from sounding like judgement? Because of course all good works of criticism are also works of judgement. But making judgements about places and people seems far more complicated and loaded with problems than about a work of art which threatens to hurt only the feelings of the creator. In any case how can we place a value judgement on a culture, an environment, on local manners and habits? The only answer I can see is that the modern work of travel writing is not a work of criticism, it is an observation of a place that freely admits the subjective laws of experience and cogitation that guide it. It is reportage not critique.
Why do I begin my own humble letters from Iceland by harking back to Auden and Macneice’s? Not, I assure, because I see my work on any level approaching theirs, just to contextualise my own obviously unmethodical approach to writing about Iceland. In fact, though I wrote a fair amount of material about Iceland when I was there, there was no logic to how it was recorded or stored. I wrote on napkins, on exhibition tickets, backs of books, anything made of paper. I had very little money at the time. Collating this material together has raised a few eyebrows in the British Library. However, I think the action-based real-world experiences I had in Iceland provide a healthy counterpart to my more dream-like experiences in Ghent. I hope you enjoy reading my letters and that you also find the time, one day, to visit Iceland yourself.