Saturday, August 18, 2012

In Suðarsveit

Thórbergur Thórdarson, or Þórbergur Þórðarson to use the Icelandic form of his name, was born in 1888 on a turf farmstead named Hali in Suðarsveit, an isolated district on the southeast coast of Iceland. Said to be too frail for farm work, he moved to Reykjavík, where he tried his hand at various occupations before taking up the pen. He eventually became one of Iceland's most important modern writers, though his name is scarcely recognized outside of the country. The Stones Speak, a memoir of his childhood, which has been published this year in an English-language translation by Julian Meldon D'Arcy, suggests that he deserves to be more widely known.

The Stone Speaks begins with the stranding of a French schooner in 1886, a momentous event in local history which provided local farmsteads with an unaccustomed bounty of such luxuries as French bread, red wine, and cognac, as well as more utilitarian items like fishing tackle, rope, and nails. It proceeds to the wedding of his parents shortly after, and his difficult birth two years later, and then examines in detail the farm buildings, livestock, and the rugged but beautiful terrain, caught between the sea and the glaciers and volcanoes of the hinterland. If the book were only that it would be of great historical and anthropological interest, for the precarious way of life of the farmers and fisher folk of the southeast coast had in many ways remained all but unchanged for centuries. In a region where supplies of wood were limited to what washed up on the shore and where horticulture was marginal at best, the inhabitants of Suðarsveit lived in houses constructed from turf and stone, cooked and heated with dung, relied on midwives and herbal remedies for medical care, and ate whatever their livestock provided or what they could harvest from the sea.

It quickly becomes evident, however, that Thórbergur is no mere documentarian, but a vivid and imaginative recreator of his own childhood self in all its idiosyncracies. (An Esperantist, socialist, and occasional nudist, Thórbergur was accounted a great eccentric by his contemporaries.) He captures not only the strange otherworldliness that was part and parcel of rural life, including a belief in the active presence of ghosts, "hidden people," and other supernatural entities, but also what Joseph Campbell called "the spontaneous animism of childhood," in which not just farm animals but natural features of the landscape and even everyday objects were seen as possessing souls and characters of their own, and in which personal names and even ordinary nouns and adjectives held potent and uncanny visual associations:
With the adjective 'mad,' an elliptical stone used for weighing appeared hanging in thin air before me, but with the adjective 'crazy' there appeared a sheep's head with horse-shoe shaped horns on a living sheep butting its right horn under something, a bar in a gate for example, with its head leaning over a little to the right. When someone was said to be 'mad and crazy,' the weight first appeared and then the sheep's head immediately after. A rather large sheep's head with horse-shoe-shaped horns also appeared in association with the man's name Ari, but then the sheep didn't butt anything. It stood still, or was moving, and I saw its face from the front at an oblique angle.
The Stones Speak is only the first of four volumes, collectively entitled Í Suðursveit, which Thórbergur devoted to memories of his childhood; the remaining three are as yet untranslated. As far as I can tell, the only other of Thórbergur's books to have been translated into English, long out-of-print but not difficult to obtain second-hand, is In Search of My Beloved, which is an abridgement of Íslenzkur aðall. There is also a slender volume, which I haven't seen, called In the Footsteps of a Storyteller, comprising excerpts from his writings (mostly, I think, from The Stones Speak), accompanied by photographs. Though the text is in English and German, it is, like The Stones Speak, barely obtainable outside of Iceland.

There is now a museum at Hali devoted to Thórbergur; its dramatic exterior wall takes the form of a uniform edition of his writings. The district is no longer as isolated as it was in the past, as Iceland's ring road now runs through it, and there are guesthouses as Hali and nearby farms. An evocative if somewhat romanticized video shows scenes from Suðarsveit today.

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