Fiona Shaw read from Justice Undone by Thor Vilhjalmsson. This was followed by Ted Hughes’ introduction of Thor, who later answered questions from the audience.
Ted Hughes: After that I feel sort of superfluous.
I was really going to simply welcome Thor to England and his book into English, and say something, really, of how I see what you’ve just heard, and the rest of his writing – or what I’ve read of it. What I know of it. Where it comes from and what it fits into. Because I think just hearing it, as we’re so little aware, perhaps really (most of us) of Icelandic literature and the long tradition of Icelandic literature, that we read it more or less as just a modern European novel – we might. But I think it’s something very different; and I was first attracted to Iceland, itself, by the sagas – which I read very early and the read long and devotedly – and by Icelandic folk-lore.
Well the sagas, as you may know, are one of the great bodies of literature in the World’s history. The most realistic, bleakest, most formidable tragedies that any group of men have ever put together. Where the hardest conditions of life and the highest values and, somehow or other, the collision of all those early warrior races of Northern Europe are like the forge, where all those things came together and produced – for a short space – these extraordinary stories about just ordinary happenings among the Icelandic families. And they’re remarkable for being – not only for this intense, strange, economic realism – but for the fact that they’re rooted in this peculiar land, this unreal moon-land, which is really a volcano, just covered with whatever managed to grow on this volcano.
And these very few people, these scattered families, all more or less at war with each other, because the whole of Iceland, of course, is a matter of farm borders… they say one man in every three in Iceland is a lawyer; they’re the most litigious people in the world, continually struggling and embattled with each other. That’s why they had to invent there a great parliament, just to deal with the problems. But not only… These sagas are not only just these bleak, realistic, very bare tales, they’re also of a piece with that early European legendary history – legendary literature. And Icelandic folk-lore is both completely different and yet all-of-a-part with it. Icelandic folk-lore is the most haunted, ghostly, peculiar folk-lore I know of. They’re all – all the stories are as if real stories. They’re not about – (well, they are about the various gods, when you go right back into the early Icelandic poetry) – but the ordinary folk-lore of the people are anecdotes about just people who lived there, and who lived here-and-there, and the strange things that happened to them, and the strange apparitions that they meet, and the strange presences that permeate their lives. As if everybody in Iceland, as far as their folk-lore is concerned, lives in a world that is not separated in any way from a completely supernatural world. Where the supernaturals are beings, strange powers that live in rocks and river and places, and farms and field corners, and a very strange, saturated atmosphere. But that also moves into the sagas, where occasionally, the weirdest things happen, the strangest, ghostly appearances emerge into these bleak tales.
So, they were the two literatures that I knew when I first went to Iceland. And I went there really fascinated by Iceland, and to find some fishing. And so I travelled right around Iceland – there’s a perimeter road that goes right around the edge. And I’d met Thor before, at a festival long ago in Spoleto. And so I rang up Thor when I arrived in Iceland – the one person I knew in Iceland – my one point of contact. And he was very hospitable – took me in- I went there with my son. And we drove right the way round – called on Thor – from the North to Reykjavik – then right around back to Husavik in the North – then back to Thor. So I saw Thor twice in this complete circuit of the land.
So, I got a very good impression of this bleak, wonderful landscape with its glaciers and its moon sort of bareness, and its strange shoreline – because you’re travelling around the shore the whole way – on a track that’s like an English farm track for most of the way. And so I got a very strong impression of these bleak homesteads. Wherever you stop in Iceland – it’s, I don’t know, two-and-a-half thousand miles around – you see a little stream, empty desolate land all around you, and you creep down into this stream, and you think you’re going to find a fish in that stream. Then you look up and there’s a man watching you from that hill, and there’s a man watching you from that hill, and if you move to touch the water [laughing] they’re down the hill: [T.H. shouts an Icelandic phrase suggesting “That is forbidden!”]! The whole land is policed in this way. Every man watching his neighbour. And you get the impression of these intense, lonely lives – just boiling passions and the Icelanders themselves (apart from Thor, who I take it isn’t really a typical Icelander – perhaps Margaret isn’t a typical Icelander) – get the impression that they’re… they’ve grown out of the land itself. They don’t have the sort of… I think of Thor as being a sort of global character – but Icelanders are very embedded in the landscape itself and it’s very difficult to extricate them from it. They’re a very serious, introverted set and very difficult to get them to laugh, I noticed. And when they laugh they… Auden makes the remark – when he was travelling through Iceland – he says they have a strange, wild stare and they laugh with the wild stare completely unaltered, so the bottom half of the face laughs and the stare stares at you. And you get this saga – you feel all the sagas are still there just boiling away under the surface.
Anyway, I got this as the impression I’d accumulated on my way around. And at one point, right away in the East at Breiddalsvik, I stayed in a hostel which was a school during the year, but [blank tape] married to a young Icelandic girl, about twenty-year-old, and so we were talking and I said: “Well what do you do in the winters? They’re long winters”. He said, “Well”, – he said he got restless – “But she reads”. So I said: “What does she read? What is there to read?”. He said: “She reads the sagas”. A twenty-year-old, very pretty Icelandic girl, spends her winters reading the sagas. And then he went on to say how they also write books themselves, and they all publish small publications and sell them to each other – or give them to each other. More books published in Iceland, I think, than any country on earth. ([to Thor] Am I right? Is that right?). Certainly more books read. And inside some of these farm houses – some colossal specialist libraries. They’re an intensely literate people. So, I was impressed first of all by this – the fact that the sagas were still there, and still of obviously devouring interest to a twenty-year-old Icelandic girl. That went home.
And then I went around and I ended up again at Thor’s house, and he wanted to entertain me for an evening. So he invited in some friends. Margaret and Thor invited in – three lawyers? Three lawyers. So they arrived and we sat… there was silence. And these three grim-faced lawyers – grim-faced Icelanders – and I thought: “Well, is this going to be a heavy evening? Icelandic law [laughing] what do I get into?”. And then one of them began, and he told a strange story. And so that started a telling of stories which lasted for the rest of the evening. And on that evening, I accumulated stories that I’ve lived on ever since.
They were all – they all had an extraordinary quality. They had the quality of the folk-lore – of being absolutely real. All happening to people that the lawyers knew. They were telling these stories about their friends. But being completely strange and bizarre. For instance, I remember one of them – ([to Thor] and you must correct me as I go along) – this is an absolutely typical story – not the most extreme. I won’t tell you the most extreme – this was the most credible.
A friend of theirs, another lawyer, had a dream that he suddenly began to court the wife of another lawyer – a friend of his – a woman he knew well. They knew each other socially quite well. ([To Thor] “Yes?”). And so he mentioned this fact among her circle and it was a joke. And then he dreamed again – that he’d been to her again. And so, in his dreams, in a recurrent dream, regularly over the next weeks, he wooed and finally seduced the wife of his friend, in his sleep. And all the time, this particular woman said: “Well, it is a curious fact, but I’m having the dream that he comes to me and tries to seduce me”. And when, finally, he managed to seduce her, she said: “Yes, isn’t it ridiculous? Here we are, we don’t really like each other, and he’s seduced me, and we’re having this raving affair – in our sleep”.
And this was a joke among their friends – among these lawyers. “And then”, he said, “the man dreamed that he began to visit the wife of another friend, another lawyer, and began to seduce her”. And so this story also became public knowledge. And she, laughing, said: “Isn’t it ridiculous, he’s trying to seduce me in his sleep, and it’s a dream that he comes and he courts me.”. ([To Thor] “True?”). Yes. And so this second affair developed and became, again… He seduced her… turned into a raging affair, in their sleep. And the first woman, who all the time was laughing at what was going on – such a ridiculous situation – had a nervous breakdown.
And at the end of every sentence, he would say “True!”. Like the sagas – “True!”.
And it seemed to me that this… And then they went on to tell, as I say, many more stories like this and many more fantastic that this. But it seemed to me that they lived – these hard lawyers – these hard, modern Icelanders – still lived in that whole historical perspective where the sagas are absolutely present in the landscape – this bare landscape, where so few people live, and where any Icelander knows many of the people, or many of the descendants of the people, to whom these things happened… the places and the farms where they happened. It’s all still present and this long history of the folk-lore – the folk-legend, the folk-tales, that have built up as little historical anecdotes – are all still there. But they’re not only there as a deposit, they’re actually still happening. The Icelanders are still living in this ferment of a supernatural world, in which they’re immersed – which is also the bleak world of these hard sagas.
And I think that’s the combination behind Thor’s writing. I see Thor’s writing as a modernisation, a sort of efflorescence from that history. So that when… I read his books in that long perspective and I think that’s the way that one can feel their full resonance and see that things are not, in a way, so much part of a modern fashion of literature, so much as natural development of a long history of one of the great literatures of the world.
Thor. As I say, I wanted merely to welcome you here and to welcome your book into England. I’m afraid I have gone on too long but anyway: Welcome and thank you for coming. Thank you.
Thor Vilhjalmsson. Thank you. When you were talking, I was thinking “I hope you go on and on and on”. It was so beautiful to listen to you weaving out of this strange world that you were gracious enough to visit – animators… and some were lawyers, yes, some were lawyers. Maybe not all of them. But those who were not lawyers, they maybe outwitted, often, the lawyers in court… And then when you were enchanting us with your gift it was so beautiful that there were suddenly some golden speckles suddenly born out on the leaves out there. Thank you.
[The tape continues with questions to Thor from the audience and his answers].
Transcript © Ann Skea.