Category Archives: Art

Why Gunnar Gunnarsson Did Not Win the Nobel Prize

In 1955, the Icelandic writer Halldór Laxness, Genius of Wordsmithing, Bane of Gunnar Gunnarsson the Scold, won the Nobel Prize, which Gunnar, who had friends in high Scandinavian places like Copenhagen and Oslo, thought would be his. Here’s Halldór, looking like the 1920s in 1984.

Halldór is rightfully famous for a number of books, but perhaps most importantly for Independent People, his masterpiece of Icelandic stubbornness, lack of planning and general nrrrghhhhh!

The Ogre of Dritvik


Right, here is the ogre in book form:

Sjálfstætt Fólk: Self-Standing People

In translation, it loses a little something:

And that’s the irony, eh. Gunnar and Halldór thought they were competing for a literary prize, but, really, it was a political one. In 1955, NATO needed Iceland as a military base blocking Soviet access out of the Arctic, which means it needed it to be independent, and with Icelandic leanings towards communism, who better than a reformed communist like either Gunnar or Halldór? Perfect. Even better, Halldór wrote like an American, while Gunnar wrote like a German, all tangled up with prayers and poetry and other bits and pieces of Icelandic Nrrrghhhhh!. Here, let his neighbour today show you:


Gunnar translated this neighbourly chat into his book Advent, which the Americans translated, complete with skis like a bazooka and a fur hat like a military helmet, to secure their WWII military base on Iceland:

Neither of them in their little wrestling match quite understood that right. Halldór’s Nobel prize speech is an example:

But if an Icelandic poet should forget his origin as a man of the people, if he should ever lose his sense of belonging with the humble of the earth, whom my old grandmother taught me to revere, and his duty toward them, then what is the good of fame and prosperity to him?

A dig at Gunnar, I’d say, who wangled his writing into fame on the European continent, especially with his friends in the German Propaganda Ministry, for whom he, nonetheless, wrote books about Icelandic peasants who would have been right at home in Halldór’s Independent People, although, ahem, Halldór also left Iceland when he was 17, and lived for decades abroad, mostly on the European continent, and it’s all so sad now, that old politics, because somewhere in their time, someone broke a shovel handle at Kirkujubær and just left it there in a spate of “Nrrrghhhhh!” (you can find it still, today at the sheepfold, one of Gunnar’s favourite spaces)…

In Gunnar’s Iceland, both wood and shovel would have been untold wealth.

… while the modern world that replaced that fierce stubbornness has also gone to ruin now for the same reasons:

“Nrrrghhhhh!, Back to Reykjavik!”

Ah, perhaps, we might give Halldór the last word:

It is not so strange perhaps that my thoughts turned then – as they still do, not least at this solemn moment – to all my friends and relations, to those who had been the companions of my youth and are dead now and buried in oblivion. Even in their lifetime, they were known to few, and today they are remembered by fewer still. All the same they have formed and influenced me and, to this day, their effect on me is greater than that of any of the world’s great masters or pioneers could possibly have been.

After all, not just the Nrrghhhhh but also the wealth remains:

Horse-Drawn Wealth-Spreader Waiting for Resurrection


Now that the West needs Iceland as a military base once more, I think we can expect the Nobel Committee to turn its eyes to Iceland once again, and writers being writers, I think we can be pretty sure that they will talk about words. Meanwhile…

The ogre waits.

The Secret of Skriðuklaustur

For four weeks, I studied this stone wall above the old monastery, trying to catch it in a light that revealed it. My gut told me that these rocks were culturally-altered, but nothing came clear that I could identify — nothing that couldn’t also be explained by geological processes of decaying, exposed basalt. The archaeological team came to the same conclusion, so used the rock as support for a viewing platform … while also protecting it from the weather. Clever.

So, what do you think?

I was pretty sure that there was a raven in this sculpted gouge, worn out by some peri-glacial river long ago.

And ravens are important in Norse mythology, and, if you’ll look below the raven’s wing, the raven’s companion, the god Oðin, was known, like Christ, to hang on a cross from time to time.

Was there a language here? It’s simply not possible to tell, although we do know that some of the patients at this hospital had come from Greenland — what kind of glyphing had they brought with them? Deep within the monastery, the rocks suggest some kind of talismanic scratching of simple crosses into the rock in the near-dark, but here, in the light?

Was the old practice of tracing natural forms in the rock to gain their power. One wouldn’t have to carve. One would receive the energy, without any intermediary art. It is the reverse of normal pictograph-making, where a pattern is worn by a finger dipped in fish grease and sand and run thousands of times over the same groove, to transfer power that can then be picked up by the sea, but here, where is no sea, and no humanly-created shapes? Might they be, nonetheless, humanly-imagined and traced? Here, look again, later in the afternoon…

There was a ritual in the Monastery of Maulbronn in Germany (far older than this one), of pouring wine into a crack in the stone, so the simple monks could catch it in their fingers… so good, they said, it was “eleven finger wine.” The spirit of God in the wine, in other words, united with the spirit in the rock, a fine Christian symbol, and came to life through the hands of monks lifted to their mouths. Might the same thing have been happening here? We’ll never know, but we’ll never know if it didn’t, either.

Preparation is All

Everything catches your eye. The world is not what we expect but what we answer when it calls to us. The two gestures are the same. Preparation is all, even if you don’t know the preparation you have done. When I first travelled to Iceland, we were given an itinerary and sent on our way, and, being curious and easily wowed, kept stopping the car and being late for dinner.

Now I understand that if we hadn’t wanted to be caught, and if we hadn’t been ready to be caught, we would have driven on, and made dinner. Because we stopped, I saw into the heart of the world, and have written two books and am deep into two other manuscripts. And still that lamb dinner calls!

Colonial Iceland

Like people in all countries deeply impacted by colonial experience, including my Canada, Icelanders love putting on the identities of others, in the way people in non-colonial cultures enjoy putting on a new T shirt.

Identities on Sale in Reykjavik

Just remember, people can take them off just as easily, and that the real person is hidden: first by a self worn as an ornament of status in an imagined elsewhere (which plays out locally) and, second, by a lack of words to describe that self. In Iceland, you can meet Icelanders, but it’s hard in downtown Reykjavik or online, where Icelandic is losing ground to English. In both cases, foreigners like myself are being given a genuine, although guarded, welcome. It is, nonetheless, business, and business is business. It is not to be confused with this: