When the Icelandic writer Gunnar Gunnarsson returned to Iceland in 1939, with fame and fortune and a reputation greater than most other North European writers, he built the house that houses me now at Skriðuklaustur farm. His goal was no less than to save Iceland. The question of “from what?” is a good one — and one important to ask and to answer in the early 21st century.
Icelanders Standing Firm Against the Wind
Hofstaðir, March 20, 2013
A drive to protect his homeland had been a major motif of all Gunnar’s novels, essays, reading tours and his innumerable literary and political lectures from before the First World War up through the beginning of its sequel. They took him down roads few followed, tangled him up with German nationalist ideology, Danish communist ideology, Scandinavian pan-nationalism, nordic cultural politics and English globalism, and left him as a riddle. It’s not that hard to unravel, though, and goes to the heart of modernism and the developments that came out of it, including the time you and I live in today.
Competing Beer Signs and a Bit of 1960s Who-ha
Not exactly Gunnar’s idea. Reykjavik, March, 2013.
Gunnar was a conservative man, who in his own life climbed several social classes and learned some hard lessons about being a colonial subject along the way (and carried some of its brittleness along with him). In the new colonialisms that are springing up around the world as I write these words and you read them, including new political structures based around oil, water, religion and the melting of northern ice, Gunnar’s words of warning and mock-modesty to a gathering of students in Copenhagen in 1925 are as much to the point now as they were then.
I am embarrassed to be speaking out publicly on a matter which by many will undoubtedly be labeled as a Utopia and thus probably rendered inconsequential, despite that we and all our surroundings are nothing but former Utopias, but since I have been requested to do so I have not wanted to refuse the request. There may be as much liability in silence as in speech.
The Northern Kingdom, 1925
By this point in history, Scandinavian politicians had given up on pan -Scandinavianism. Not Gunnar. Seemingly, not some students, either. The point about silence being culpable remains a good one, however slyly it may originally have been said and however much it might be turned on its head, to say that there is as much liability in speech as in silence.
In a way, as a rural intellectual and literary artist (as was Gunnar), I know what he means. One has things to say that come from a great distance from urban intellectual structures and one must try to find a way to translate them, with words that remain elusive and at times just don’t see quite up to the job. This guy knows it, too, I suspect.
Bragi Benediktsson Shelters from the Wind Behind His Weather Station in Grimsstaðir
A Chinese Billionaire wants to buy this land for a golf resort. It looks more like the setting of a Biblical parable or a northern military outpost. As a point of interest, Bragi would have been four years old when Gunnar came back home.
Still, Gunnar was worrying a bone. It’s worth looking at what he found and had sunk his teeth into. I’ll be doing that here over the next few days, as I argue that Gunnar was acting (at least in his own mind) as a secret agent, even a double agent, in Iceland’s interests (as he understood them). He was doing so in complex literary ways that fit none of the regular literary genres. Fiction? Short story? Parable? Political tract? Essay? Poetry? Saga? All of them at once is more like it. None of his literary endeavours were really fiction or literary as the terms are understood today — to our poverty, by the way, not his.
Some of Gunnar’s Books in the Skriðuklaustur Artist’s Residence
And some novels on the bottom shelf. What a change in worlds.
Still, poverty. Gunnar had known incredible poverty from childhood, he had a very clear view of it, and he wanted to dispel it. Part of this poverty was the poverty of lack of access to influence structures of power, including the ruling social classes. More precisely, Gunnar knew poverty well enough to know that it could be a strength, as long as it did not lead to powerlessness, foreign occupation, exploitation, and starvation. Those were all within Icelandic experience as well, and he believed he had found a way to dispel them by writing in Danish, the colonial language, and using it and his immense popularity within Germany as springboards to influence German public opinion and ultimately German foreign policy in the crucial years leading up to World War II.
Gunnar’s Book “Advent” Was the Perfect Cover for a Secret Agent
Literary, a Christian parable, autobiographical, romantic, and heroic, Advent was first published in German in 1936, in Danish in 1937, and in English in 1939. For a book that has gone on to sell a million copies, it is intriguingly non-narrative. There is, I think, a message in that for writers everywhere.
Advent appealed to all groups of Gunnar’s audience, and had a special political message for each of them. Let me take a moment here to show you some portions of the German one. This is the story of a shepherd Benedikt who returns every year to the highlands, as Icelanders still do every year, to gather in sheep that others have abandoned to the cold. Alone except for his animal companions, he goes where no others will go, heroically overcoming the harsh elements. We should remember that no book was published in Germany during the rule of the Third Reich that did not further its political aims, and what were those in 1936? The same as the always were: the annexation of Germany’s territories divorced from it by the Treaty of Versailles after World I, firstly, as well as the annexation of Austria and all Germans to the East, secondly (for example in the Ukraine and Russia), into a Greater Germany. They were, in the sense of the Regime, lost sheep, that only a true leader dared to bring home. The imagery of the book, however, is not particularly German, as that is understood today. Take a look:
Alpine Imagery in “Advent in the High Mountains”
Germany is a largely flat, rainy, foggy country. The imagery here is from its edges: Austrian, Bavarian, Czech and Polish — exactly the objects of Hitler’s eye. Not only that, but this peasant figure is a common folk motif from the Mountains of Giants in Silesia — the old man of the mountains, said to have sprung from the land and the trees themselves, the ancestor of all Germans. Accident? No, not in the Third Reich.
This kind of identification of land, heroism, personality, and politics differed little from Gunnar’s return there to set up his farm (or ideal country) in 1939. It’s a story in which his farm was a kind of novel (and political vision), just as “Advent” was a kind of farm (or political vision). There really was very little difference — they just operated in different spheres, that’s all. Well, there was one difference, of course. That difference looked a bit like this…
German Mountain Troops on a Skiing Break, 1936
The photo was taken in Garmisch-Partenkirchen during the Mountain Division’s early build-up in 1936, on the site of the 1936 Winter Olympics, on the slopes of the Zugspitze, the highest mountain in the Bavarian Alps. These troops were instrumental in the assaults on Greece and Crete. Hitler sacrificed them all.
Gunnar, nationalist that he was, was not a National Socialist. His vision was nonviolent and inclusive of all points of view — and Hitler’s was neither. The German people? No, Gunnar’s audience wanted the rural ideals that Gunnar did. They wanted to return home to the land from the nightmare of exploitive urbanization and industrialization. For the most part, it was simple and sincere, rather Utopian, as Gunnar seemed to have realized deep down, and as strangely complicit in and mis-used by the National Socialist program as was Gunnar himself. The path to that realization, however, was a hard one for all.
Back to the Middle Ages: 1945, Hand-Printed Russian-Occupied German Stamp
Ironically, if such a word can even be used for such horrors, the retrogressive nature of Hitler’s agrarian-political vision, forged in the poorhouses of Vienna, hardened in the trenches of the First World War, and cynically enabled by the German military classes in the 1920s, led in the end to the simplest, physical expression of the core of its vision: destruction of modernity and the true creation of a new agricultural peasantry. So much for fantasy written as the world.
Well, that was Hitler’s vision gone wrong. Gunnar’s was far more wordly than that, and escaped much of the tragic fate of Hitler’s. The parallels with Hitler are strong: nordic romanticism, strong central leadership, the shaking off of colonial chains, re-definition of culture on the most elementary of local terms, and so on, but it ends there. Gunnar was neither a Nazi nor a violent man. In fact, he had more in common with his American contemporary, Ezra Pound, than anything, and even in comparison to Pound, Gunnar was an angel. Pound was just a brilliant fool, caught in a hard place by his own folly and pride.
US Army Mugshot of the Poet Ezra Pound
Pound, a staunch American nationalist and a naive supporter of Mussolini’s centralized leadership, stayed in Italy during World War II, in part to retain contact with his daughter, who was raised by peasants in the Italian alps. “What thou lovest well,” he wrote, ” remains. The rest is dross.” He paid his way during the war years by broadcasting rambling speeches over Radio Rome, encouraging American GIs to give up the war by explaining to them such things as the poetry of ee cummings. He paid for that by arrest on a charge of treason, and eventual incarceration for 13 years on a charge of insanity. Was he a fascist and a Nazi? No, not really, but even so he went miles further down the road of complicity than Gunnar ever did.
It’s important to straighten out the “nazi” word, or history will remain a cloudy pool and our collective future decisions will be made in a darkness that Gunnar and Pound, despite their failings and tom-foolery attempted, at the least, to shine light within. Gunnar’s publication in German was brave, foolish, dangerous and perhaps misguided and imperious, but was not done in any way to further Germany’s racial and military goals. It was done to further his own goals. Even the Americans did not share those. Advent went on from Germany to have a remarkable history. It even became an American Book of the Month Club selection, when the Americans needed some propaganda symbol of Icelandic independence and the heroism of lone sailors in the bitter cold of the North Atlantic, battling the German U-Boot threat from Reykjavik. Paper was rationed in the United States at that time; books were not published that without the approval of the Army. In that context, Advent must have had strong approval, indeed, as it was widely distributed.
Now Benedikt is Young and Wearing a Fur Version of an American Military Helmet!
And the mountains look like North Atlantic Waves. Amazing.
And that was Gunnar, Icelander to the core, negotiating a path between worlds, used by all, and seeking to retain is independence in between — not always successfully, but never without stoic pride. Ironically, the American occupation of Iceland, and the more damaging German occupation of Denmark, which led to Icelandic independence in 1944, a kind of child of the United States (while Denmark was still occupied by a more sinister invader) created the climate in the mid-1950s in which Iceland was deemed worthy of reward for a Nobel Prize — a country that had come out of the Second World War with its independence (just the kind of humanism that the Nobel Prize was set up to support). A deeper irony denied the prize to Gunnar, and gave it to the Icelandic communist Haldor Laxness instead (not exactly the primary goal of the Nobel Prize Committee). The gods must be laughing.
Sharing gossip about the world.
This conversation will continue tomorrow, with a closer look at the game Gunnar was playing with the Nazis. Thought and memory (or mind) … we’ll certainly be coming back to that, too.