In 1937, W.H. Auden (b. York) and Louis MacNeice (b. Belfast), published their co-authored Letters from Iceland, ‘the most unorthodox travel book ever written’ (Daily Mail). Less an account of their actual journey undertaken the previous year, than a mock-heroic model of collaborative practice, Auden describes Letters from Iceland as a ‘collage’ – ‘a form that’s large enough to swim in’. Playful in spirit and parodic in intention, these verse epistles, absurd tourist notes and personal correspondence combine to produce a non-fictional text that refracts the poets’ anxieties about the imminent collapse of Europe.
The following exchange of letters among three Irish writers and friends seeks to remodel, and reflect on, the conditions of this collaboration. These Letters to Iceland were first presented publicly at the 5th NonFictioNOW conference, held at the University of Iceland, in Reykjavik, in June 2017.
Introduction – Selina
‘Islands are places apart where Europe is absent.’ So W.H. Auden wrote to Christopher Isherwood from Iceland in June 1936, before adding doubtfully: ‘Are they?’
For three months, this most classical of left-wing poets travelled around the fjords and glaciers of Iceland by bus, milk-cart and pony. The blond young Englishman must have made a conspicuous figure, dressed in his ‘plus-fours let down to the ankle’ or, in less clement weather, a pair of riding breeches worn over ‘flannel trousers and pyjamas’, matched with ‘two shirts, a golf jacket and a coat under [an] oilskin’. Wystan had managed to wangle a lucrative commission out of his publishers for a travel book about Iceland on the strength of his father’s spurious, but long-held, belief that their surname – Auden – the long broad vowel so flatly Yorkshire – derived from Odin, the Old Norse god of war and poetry. His parents advanced his friend, and fellow Faber poet, Louis MacNeice, £25 to join their son for a few weeks in August. The resulting text, Letters from Iceland, is a co-authored scrapbook that satirizes the very genre Auden had been commissioned to produce.
This is no Baedecker guide. Instead the book adopts Lord Byron’s mock-heroic style, and includes a series of four verse letters addressed to him, written in rhyme royal.
I’m going to be very up to date indeed.
It is a collage you are going to read.
— ‘Letter to Lord Byron,’ Part 1.
The collage includes actual letters, written to friends and family in England, and offers general observations about Icelandic culture, topography and history:
[Icelanders] are very fond of satirical lampoons.
Also in the mix are extracts from the sagas, topical tips for tourists (‘It is not advisable to take coffee and skyr together just before riding, as it gives you diarrhoea’), and a series of letters to the future KGB spy, Anthony Blunt, written as a homo-erotic spoof from one girl guide leader (Louis MacNeice as ‘Hetty’) to another (Anthony as ‘Nancy’), about the behaviour of their charges,; closely based on the boys of Bryanston School whom they’d joined at Langjökull for a camping holiday.
This giddy farrago is nevertheless conducted under an anxious star. ‘We are all too deeply involved with Europe to be able, or even to wish to escape,’’, Auden writes to Isherwood in one of his early letters on the road. Only the year before, he had married the cabaret artiste and writer, Erika Mann, to secure her British citizenship. ‘What else is a bugger for?’ he gallantly declared to Isherwood, whom he replaced as her groom.
Two of the most revealing letters Auden wrote in Iceland are addressed to his poly-amorous wife. She was the eldest daughter of the German Nobel laureate, Thomas Mann. By the mid-1930s, the novelist had yet to declare his open and public opposition to the Nazis, unlike his outspoken daughter, and her tragic brother, Klaus. Erika’s influence on Letters from Iceland is profound, not just as a recipient, but as an experienced writer in the genre herself. In 1929, she published All the Way Round: A Light-Hearted Travel Book, co-authored with her brother, primarily to subsidise their taste for drink, drugs, and expensive hotels acquired on an American lecture tour.
On 17 July 1936, the day the Spanish Civil War broke out, Auden arrived, by milk -cart, to Hólar. He spent the morning inspecting the wooden carvings in the local church. Their violence shocked him. He described it in his letter to Erika as follows:
Mysterious . . . figures rise out of the background slashing at prisoners without looking at them. Impassive horses survey another world than theirs. One of the thieves has his head thrown right back, and on his forehead dances a bear holding a child.
When he returned to his hotel for lunch, he found the staff busily preparing for the arrival of a small party of Nazis. Among them was Hermann Göring’s younger brother, Albert. ‘Rosenberg is coming too’, he remarked. No need to supply the forename; it would have been all too familiar to Erika, whose own maternal grandfather had been forced to adopt the name of ‘Israel’ at the age of eighty 80 and suffer the confiscation of his property. Alfred Rosenberg was a blood and soil anti-Semite, a believer in the Nordic pre-destiny of the Aryan race; a man identified at Nuremberg as providing ‘the impetus and philosophy of National Socialism’. Erika Mann, who never bothered to divorce W.H. Auden, would cover the Nuremberg trial in full for Liberty Magazine. Rosenberg was the fourth among the ten 10 men hung on 16 October 1946.
This brief encounter resonates far beyond the daily narrative required by the travel genre. For the benefit of the general reader, Auden explains: ‘The Nazis have a theory that Iceland is the cradle of the Germanic culture’. He believes this to be cracked: the sagas provide no basis for society, he writes, displaying ‘only the gangster virtues’. Five days later, he recounts a bus journey between Akureyri and Myvatn, ‘full of Nazis who talked incessantly about the Aryan qualities of the stock’, blind to a pair of children they pass on the road who look to him, ‘as black as night’.
The following morning, Auden and Albert Göring exchanged pleasantries over breakfast – ‘He didn’t look in the least like his brother, but rather academic’. History bears out the poet’s first impression. Albert, the baby of the family, appears to have been the son of Hermann Von Epenstein, his mother’s aristocratic Jewish lover. But it is not only this parentage that distinguishes him from his elder brother whose guilt at Nuremberg was judged to be ‘unique in its enormity’. A sizeable literature now attests the efforts Albert made to save hundreds of Jewish lives during the Holocaust, including imitating his brother on the telephone to secure the release of Jewish prisoners, and forging his signature to procure the necessary travel documents. Later, placed in charge of the Skoda car factory, Albert facilitated the escape of forced labourers, and colluded in sabotage on the production line. His brief appearance, alone at breakfast in a small hotel dining room in the north of Iceland in 1936, happy to engage in idle chit-chat with a young English poet while the chief ideologue of the Nazi party dozes on upstairs, suggests a Zelig leitmotif that is hard to ignore. It suggests that several of the observations in Auden’s letters to Erika – ‘Some of the Icelandic music reminds me of the sort of intoning at a Jewish service’ – are not just picturesque, but offer a form of mild resistance to the ideological appropriation of his host country, Iceland, a place he describes elsewhere as ‘friendly, tolerant and sane’.
The ideological battlegrounds of Europe, then, set a firm horizon on the poets’ picnic, as Auden would observe in the second edition. What gives this comedy a desperate edge is the participants’ awareness that this holiday offers a mere temporary reprieve from the moral choices they must face on their return. In the revised version of Journey to Iceland, Auden reframes his question to Isherwood – ‘Islands are places where Europe is absent. / Are they?’ as a credo:
Europe is absent: this is an island and should be
while acknowledging the failure of this ‘limited hope’:
Our time has no favourite suburb, no local features
are those of the young for whom all wish to care;
its promise is only a promise,
the fabulous country impartially far.
Letter 1 – Selina to Rosita 24 April 2017
The Tyrone Guthrie Centre, Annaghmakerrig, Newbliss, County Monaghan, Ireland.
I arrived here at lunchtime and am writing to you from Lady Guthrie’s bedroom, overlooking the lake, a view you know well. I cannot think of anywhere more fitting to pick up our correspondence after a break of what must be eighteen years or so. You’ve always been better than me in this regard. The postcard you included with your letter from Burma is tucked in to my mirror at home. It bears an Indian stamp and has two peacocks, one with its tail feathers raised, painted over a message in a script I do not know. Today, I have the moonstone you bought me in Ubud on a chain around my neck, so at least I have your new ‘elsewhere’ here to keep me company in mine.
Mindful of its twin destinations – first your letterbox, then a stage, modest, small, in a seminar room in Reykjavik, I had started typing a letter to allow for the many revisions such a semi-public document would require. But I’ve abandoned this cautious draft. I am no longer used to writing without editing myself, and it occurs to me that what I have missed about our correspondence is the headlong rush of it; that hurry to confide all the vagaries of our lives that substituted for a conversation similarly eager for intimacy and entertainment.
Auden and MacNeice were twenty-nine when they made their journey. The copy of Letters from Iceland I have here belongs to Colin. It includes his student lecture notes from Queen’s University in Belfast. I imagine Prof. Edna Longley, so sharply focused on the text itself, delivering her impassioned analysis of MacNeice’s poetry, while my husband, a wan twenty-one year old in loose white shirt, butcher’s bike chained outside, doodles a compass around the hole in his lined foolscap pad. Beneath it, appropriately enough for Belfast in the Troubles, he has drawn a pistol, the bullet resembling the nib of a pen, as it lets fly beneath the bubble writing BANG. Somehow, I feel our younger selves are congregated in this project: Louis MacNeice defined Letters to Iceland as a ‘hodge-podge thrown together in gaiety’, with Auden’s grave addendum that ‘its authors were all the time conscious of a threatening horizon to their picnic: world-wide unemployment, Hitler growing every day more powerful and a world-war more inevitable’. And here we are, marking its eightieth anniversary, under like circumstances.
Auden’s reflections on islands have set me thinking on our own. You know that banker’s joke that went the rounds a decade ago: ‘What’s the difference between Iceland and Ireland? – One letter and about six months’? Well, this past year, I’ve regarded the Irish Sea with deep disquiet – such a smug, flat, unambitious barrier against all the hard questioning of what it means to be European. It insulates us from facing up to our privilege, and the responsibility that entails to provide sanctuary for those whose lives have become unbearable in countries despoiled to provide our comforts. I think of Joyce’s anti-Semitic Mr. Deasy – ‘his sea-cold eyes looked on the empty bay’ – and his lying, ignorant boast:
—Ireland, they say, has the honour of being the only country which never persecuted the jews. Do you know that? No. And do you know why?
He frowned sternly on the bright air.
—Why, sir? Stephen asked, beginning to smile.
—Because she never let them in, Mr. Deasy said solemnly.
Why this now? Because I fear Mr. Deasy’s logic underpins Ireland’s sense of itself as a nation that does good in the world. We may feel a humane abhorrence for the drowning of thousands in the Mediterranean Sea, but no sense of national shame. All right, our naval vessel, the LE James Joyce, helped rescue some of the 10,000 desperate people afloat in the Mediterranean. But we seem quite content to incarcerate those who seek asylum here in a direct provision system that, uniquely among EU members, denies them access to the labour market. It is not uncommon for the decision on their right to remain to take eight years; but it can take longer. I just looked up the figures. There are nearly 4500 people living in direct provision, one third of them children, without access to kitchens, and subsisting on €19.10 per adult, €9.60 per child per week.
In 1956, a small group of Hungarian refugees, just over 500 of them, arrived at Knockalisheen in Limerick, to be accommodated by the Irish Red Cross in a makeshift summer barracks. It was December, and the wooden huts, one plank thick, had no heating. By April 1957, the Hungarian refugees had gone on hunger-strike to protest for the right to work. Of course, they arrived as the Irish were leaving in droves to find work across the Atlantic, so there was little available. In the end, some jobs were found for them, including factory work in your home town, Ennis. A German businessman, Mr. Hauser, had set up a business manufacturing artificial pearls from isinglass and fish scales obtained from the bleak – a small coarse fish native to the Shannon. The factory was on Parnell Street. Your mother might remember it?
I’m curious because Knockalisheen is the starting point for the novel I’m writing. Ágnes, a fine arts student, is a Hungarian refugee who finds her way to Ireland in late 1956. She gets her first break at Mr. Hauser’s factory, and eventually winds up teaching at the National College of Art and Design. When she moves back to Budapest in her seventies, she soon realizes Ireland has become her ‘home.’ She has left it too late to reintegrate in her native city, a city riven by political division. When I started to research the story four years ago, Victor Orbán’s authoritarian demagoguery sounded alarming but atypical; but his views now resonate across Europe. And what I’ve learned, but had considered shamefully little before, is that the bass notes in this anti-immigrant noise are plucked on the old familiar strings of anti-Semitism. In Hungary, as in Putin’s Russia, the government have found their bogeyman in George Soros – the financier whose investment in liberal causes honours his own experience of a Jewish childhood spent evading the Arrow Cross.
I hear you advise, ‘All this is a long way from Reykjavik, Selina’. True, though Auden provides the imprimatur when he writes cheerily from Egilsstadur:
In the bus today, I had a bright idea about this travel book. I bought a Byron with me to Iceland, and I suddenly thought I might write him a chatty letter in light verse about anything I could think of, Europe, literature, myself . . . . This letter in itself will have very little to do with Iceland, but will be rather a description of the effect of travelling in distant places which is to make one reflect on one’s past, and one’s culture from the outside.
I’ll spare you my light verse, but otherwise follow in his tread.
Do you remember when we met in Krákow? Me tumbling late at night into the bottom bunk in the hostel dormitory, bangles jangling, your sleep in the top bunk, broken by the whispered litany of curses. It was Easter 1993, and the entire town seemed pretty much closed. The next day, we went off in search of somewhere to eat and talk, to celebrate the odd fortune of our new acquaintance – and found a café in the ghetto, beside a large empty square. We drank advocaat as far as I recall, and consumed huge amounts of borscht and pierogi, and mused on how chilling it was to find this part of the city left exactly as it had been in 1945, even down to the posters on the walls instructing Jews to wear the yellow star. We wondered solemnly how they could have survived the intervening decades of communism, without realizing, until a crew stumbled in, that, like idiots, we’d mistaken the set of Schindler’s List for real.
The fear of being so naive again haunts my current project. I’ve read as much Hungarian and Hapsburg literature I can get my hands on in translation, but my characters speak a language I only know as a tourist, and possess a history that goes well beyond my own. I suppose I want to feel the force of that history bearing down on the story and see what way it turns under these conditions. In Ireland, where the Second World War was popularly reduced to ‘The Emergency’, we love euphemism. Suckled on the Oedipal tit of England, the Holocaust seemed peripheral to our sense of nationality – a horror of the continent, not ours to share. I’m shocked by that innocence now.
A line from Joseph Roth recurs as I watch the news footage: ‘The right to live in the West belongs to anyone who sacrifices himself by going to look for it’. Of course, the circumstances are different – for these migrants Europe is a sanctuary, tense as it is, and cannot be compared to what went before. But I find the line haunting nonetheless. It comes from The Wandering Jews, a book republished in 1937, the same year as our source text. The introduction contains the desperate observation that the German Jew – envied in 1925 for achieving a degree of assimilation denied to the Galician cousin arriving in Vienna’s Hauptbahnhof – is now in a more perilous situation than Roth’s own relations, left behind in Lvov. Now there’s the definition of a tragic and ‘limited hope’.
Why is this all on my mind? Well, I’m deeply immersed in Philippe Sands’ extraordinary East West Street. It’s a memoir, a personal investigation by an international human rights lawyer into the origins of genocide and crimes against humanity. It centres on Lvov, a city that changed state five times between 1914 and 1944. It served as an administrative hub for the Eastern part of the Hapsburg Empire, whose sleepy bureaucracy once extended from Bukovina to Sarajevo to the Tyrol and to Krákow, where we first met. The Empire encompassed eleven nationalities and many more distinct ethnic groups, who co-existed in relative harmony within this larger entity, until the Archduke’s assassination on 28 June 1914. It’s difficult not to think of the European Union as heir to that empire, while all the little Englanders appear descended from Gavrilio Princip who fired that fatal shot.
Right, the sun has appeared and it seems wrong to perpetuate the dark shadows of this letter. I’m off for a walk, down the avenue and left, and left again, along the country lanes cloudy with hawthorn. I’ll put this in the post before I can regret what I’ve written and change it.
Please pass on my love to your father. I think of him as the one who set this voyage rolling with that volume of the sagas published by the Hakluyt Society, you plucked from his shelves. He’s always been a voyager, and must be so pleased to have seen you take to the whale roads across the globe.
Lots of love,
Letter 2 – Rosita to Selina Guinness Monday, Mayday 2017
Ennis, County Clare
We may have stopped – or paused – writing letters to each other (and many others, in my case), but the story-telling has never stopped. A delight in stories, in language and the thrill of sharing them, and knowing that they’re valued. Conversation more than literature is an art. You have always been a compelling story-teller. My mother, last night, talking again about Crocodile, said that she was reminded of a modern Grace O’Malley: which, from a Galway-born woman, there can be no higher praise!
In Auden’s ‘Foreword’ of 1965, he says that many of those he and Louis MacNeice met in 1936 are now dead, including MacNeice. He writes: ‘Rereading a book written half a lifetime ago has been an odd experience’. In my own current project, rereading diaries written elsewhere, half a lifetime ago, has also been an odd, unsettling, but ultimately rich experience. At present, I am trying to write about memory, and what you remember when you have no visual images in the form of photographs. I am writing about travelling in Antarctica without a camera, and weaving into it, a meditation on the fact that not only were all four of my grandparents dead long before I was born, but I have no photographs of either my maternal grandparents. How bizarre, that before I ever travelled to Antarctica, I had a better idea of what that continent looked like than what the dead faces of my own flesh and blood looked like.
I was on the ship for 10 days, and it was noticed I was the sole passenger without a camera. One evening, a man was editing the 1500 pictures he had taken that day. They were of the Adelie rookery we had seen, of the colour of compressed icebergs, of the pack ice and the stark unearthly beauty of the white landscape. He had an excellent eye, and superb technical ability. He showed me some of the images, and then pointed to the diary I had been writing. ‘No words can ever capture all this’, he said with confidence, gesturing to the window and the white world beyond.
A decade later, it’s the ‘all this’ I keep meditating on. What is the ‘all this’? Over time, the ‘all this’ becomes something else. When Auden sat down to write the new foreword to Letters from Iceland in 1965, when MacNeice, his travelling partner was dead, what was his ‘all this’? He concludes, not with analysis of what has happened in Europe since 1936, when ‘a world-war seemed inevitable’, but an acknowledgement of an inner self and emotion: ‘ … the three months in Iceland upon which [the book] is based stand out in my memory as among the happiest in a life which has, so far, been unusually happy and if something of this joy comes through the writing, I shall be content’.
Europe in 2017, 80 years after the publication of Letters from Iceland: how ironic that the description of Britannia on p. 54 remains modern and relevant:
Britannia’s lost prestige and cash and power,
Her middle-classes show some wear and tear,
We’ve learned to bomb each other from the air.
In a year when Brexit was finally ‘triggered’ (even the language is reminiscent of warfare), Britannia is already losing prestige and cash and power.
Auden and MacNeice had the shadow of Hitler falling over their Icelandic travels. Today, there’s Trump in the US, a French far-right presidential candidate, and the general malaise of a community of the Alt-Right in so many countries. Borders matters both less and more than they did in 1936 when it comes to warfare, and ISIS operates above borders. And yet, borders are more political than ever in a Europe that was meant to be united as one union.
A few years ago, I stood on a quay in Sicily and watched as a Dutch ship came into port, to disembark the Syrian, Eritrean, Libyan passengers who had risked their lives in inflatable and overcrowded wooden boats that were never mean to hold so many, or go so far. They were all seeking refuge. They landed safely, but so many others have drowned. At Catania train station in Sicily, with the help of an Arabic translator, I talked to a Syrian man who had come in on a boat the day before. The traffickers had made everyone throw their bags overboard before they allowed the boat to leave: so that they could pack more people in. I saw for myself some of these small wooden boats on the pier that had been picked up by the Italian navy: knackered, fragile, wrecked. I saw a hatch on one that opened like a well into the hull, and it’s in there, down those hatches meant for fish, that so many were crammed, to die at sea. Every generation perpetrates cruelty of the highest order on itself.
FOR A LITTLE LIGHT RELIEF!
The longest word in Icelandic.
a latch-key belonging to a girl working in the office of a barrister.
As well as the borscht, and the Easter Sunday in Krákow in the café, and the wine and the coffees, and the more wine, I remember being reprimanded by an elderly Polish woman because we were laughing too much or too loudly. Or just annoying her by laughing at all. What a curious thing to be exercised by! Even then, we were talking about stories and writing and projects and travel. I recall finding a book on your bunk – I cannot remember who it was by – but I did ask, ‘Who’s travelling with poetry?’, as you returned from the shower rooms to claim ownership. (I had suspected from the accent of your curses the previous night that we were fellow citizens.)
I remember too, once in Camberwell, you telling me I couldn’t write anything that wasn’t true, and you couldn’t write anything that was. Your prediction for my writing career turned out to be true. I’ll be twenty years a journalist this year, and for me, it’s always about getting people to tell their stories in ways that represent greater truths about life and society.
I have been trying for a year now to find a way to tell some of my own travel stories.
‘A travel book about unconnected places becomes simply a record of a journey, which is boring’, so Auden advises in a letter to Erika. The challenge, though, is not the lack of material, but identifying the value of ‘all this’ within it. This journey has no map.
Today, I was writing about being guided to the location of my Kerry grandparents’ grave in a cemetery I hadn’t entered since I was a child. My father was on the other end of the ‘line’ – if we can still use such phrases for mobiles – and guided me from memory to the grave where my grandparents lie. Neither of their names are on the headstone. I wrote of hearing his breathing in my ear as I touched the headstone of the grandparents I had never met or known, and how I felt closer to them then, than in my whole life. My father never knew my grandfather either: he died of pneumonia aged 36, a fortnight before his birth. I wrote too of dishu, the Chinese calligraphy that involves writing words with water, and how my grandparents’ lives had dissolved into the ground beneath me, as those Chinese characters briefly glisten into visibility and then vanish; a body of words disappearing into the ground. Our lives are as ephemeral as words written in water. ‘All this’.
Perhaps I won’t succeed in my elsewhere project, but there’s merit in trying. ‘I’m more intuitive than analytic’. Better to try and risk failing – as Your Man said – and to laugh in Polish cafes, than to not ever extend or push oneself, to be creative and joyous.
Here’s to Reykjavik and more stories. Not sure about trying Hākarl, though! I’ve had two puffins baked in milk, whale steak (the Faroes) and half a cormorant (New Zealand), but Hākarl – hmm. We’ll see.
Letter 3 – Colin to Rosita 15 May 2017
Tibradden, Rathfarnham, Dublin 16
I’ve been thinking about you as a traveller who doesn’t take photographs and how that must make the world more vivid, storyfull, and memorable. Maybe photographs drain the colour out of the world and stop short its stories, and we’re in thrall to their stasis.
Selina and I were on the bookstall at the church fête last week. As usual there was a mountain of books left over. Most you wouldn’t want to read and yet how hard it is to think of any of them, even the very worst, being pulped. All those intentions to communicate stifled. In a box full of railway enthusiasts’ magazines from the 1980s which no one had shown any interest in, I came across an album of original photographs. Selina just noticed it here in my study this evening and is in despair at the extra clutter in the house. She’d predicted I’d bring it home.
The photos are from the travels of a trainspotter. Some shows trains as ordinary and local as the DART and the Dublin-Rosslare line. Some are from more adventurous travels, though even the photograph of the Rosslare train is kind of beautiful. The train black-and-oranges its sleek diagonal over sunbathing bodies on an Irish beach and there’s a path up the bank joining the trainline and the beach and the three parts of the photograph – sky, shrubs and sand. Accidentally, and occasionally, this photographer has a gift.
The album shows that he (it must be he?) went to England, France, Japan and South Korea in search of old trains, trams, museums of trains, new bullet trains and small gauge railways. In South Korea his everyday genius was inspired.
The station at ‘Sorae’, I learn from correspondence on Twitter, is now re-developed. In 1993 this guy had caught Sorae at the end of its quaintly ordinary, corrugated-iron life – open-doored, ready to welcome. Plainly gorgeous. On the platform is the most engimatic [sic] scene in these photographs – a man in a baseball cap stands alone at the edge of the platform, in a yellow jacket and jeans, just in front of the last carriage. He plays the trumpet. Through the trees there seems to be water. He serenades the train, the sun, the sea.
I like this photographer because he takes bad photographs. He doesn’t try and, in not trying, he sees. His family, his wife and daughter, I think, often accidentally appear in the frame. In one image his daughter stands in front of the massive ‘Evening Star’ in National Railway Museum in York, arms by her side, the bottoms of her feet just out of the frame. Her hair is aglow. His photographs are accidentally replete with other trainspotters taking photographs and of people quietly staring at engines.
And yet he travelled. He travelled and photographed and wanted to remember. I can’t get excited about what he is excited about (trams in Barcelona, railcars in Esk, Nene Valley turntables), but I love his excitement because it is ordinary and it is obsessive. It is alive.
I first read Letters from Iceland when I was a student. I loved MacNeice, and Auden, and went to England to do my PhD on communism and writers in the 1930s. The joy and cleverness of this book, back then, more than the poetry, alienated me though. I didn’t get the joie de vivre. I didn’t get the throwaway silliness and the ability to boringly list things and find that amusing. But thirty years later it makes sense. And, as you said in your letter to Selina, it makes sense more than ever today. To take a vantage point on the world ‘high up here in this vertiginous/ Crow’s-nest of the earth’ is not just to judge how the world stands but to take time out in ‘the pause before the soufflé falls’. In the complete version of Auden’s prose, the vast scholarly edition, there are photographs which Auden took on his Icelandic journey. Of all of them, my favourite is of the tail of a horse. I’ve included a copy. I love this image because it is a bad photograph, taken almost from the ground, and is mainly of sky and a horse’s arse. But it reminds me of that man in South Korea playing his trumpet to nothing in front of the train carriage, and of the trainspotting photographer who took his photograph. Ordinariness, and the everyday, and the sky and the land and living; all shown to be passingly as vital as any other thing in the world at that moment. Seen and recognised and recorded, just for that moment. ‘Stills from the film of life’, as MacNeice writes.
Your ability to raise stories, your own and others’, into words and out of memory, is what makes you so good a journalist. Maybe the medium, photography or words, is not the important thing. It’s the recognition of what is experienced. The elevation of ordinariness out of mundanity something that is seen and heard. Like a letter – only meaningful in the receiving.
So, to Iceland!
Letter 4 – Rosita to Colin Monday, 22 May 2017
Every exciting letter has enclosures,
And so shall this – a bunch of photographs,
Some out of focus, some with the wrong exposures
Press cuttings, gossip, maps, statistics, graphs;
I don’t intend to do the thing by halves.
I’m going to be very up-to-date indeed.
It is a collage you’re going to read.
—‘Letter to Lord Byron’, Part 1.
One of our most-read stories online today is: ‘Rise and Fall of the Kindle; how real books are fighting back’. This makes me so happy, though I had suspected it anyway. The elemental physicality of paper is really hard to replace – not, oddly enough, when it comes to newspapers (I don’t care whether people read my stories on paper or online, as long as they pay for it), but for the journey of reading a book, it’s the flexible slab of paper that seduces every time. Hence, also, some paper enclosures of little mementoes from my travels, including one from our very destination – ICELAND!
I love the story of the albums of photographs you found at the church fête. Once, in Madrid, I found an album of hand-made crocheted tablecloths, hung on a washing line to display them. The same anxious pair of hands were in the corner of the shot each time, trying to hold them straight. It must have been her cottage industry: these tablecloths on a washing line in the same small urban back yard.
I have just finished writing my essay about being the only passenger without a camera in Antarctica. We never took photographs in our family. Weddings, anniversaries, holidays, birthdays, Christmases, first days at school – there are no pictures. It was never a thing. I don’t have a single photograph of my maternal grandparents – there aren’t any. They died, both of them, the summer my mother met my father, aged 26. They did not get to enjoy any of the material benefits their sons-in-law brought their children, with the move from rural farmers (my mother and her sisters) to urban middle-class life.
As for an epigraph for your train-spotting photographer in that marvellous album, how about this, from Auden to Erika?
The only decent photographs are scientific ones and amateur snapshots, only you want a lot of the latter to make an effect.
I did not read Letters from Iceland as a student, but I did read The Collected Poems of Louis MacNeice. I set about it as if it were a novel, and read it cover to cover. I still have that copy, mosaicked with coloured pencil where I marked the lines that pleased me most. The colour still endures, thirty-two years later; the book beside me as I write, reminding me of the sensibility I had at 19 and 20.
“the notes like little fishes . . .” from ‘Sunday Morning’
“sleek your leg with silk . . .” from ‘An April Manifesto’
“the moment cradled like a brandy glass . . .” from ‘The Brandy Glass’
“August going out to the tin trumpet of nasturtiums . . .” from ‘Autumn Journal’
“Tomorrow to be crossed, however deep . . .” (ditto?)
Selina tells me you are writing poetry! I am very curious to read some of your work, and especially about the subject matter. Your eye is very visual, as I’m sure you realise. It’s several years – 12? 14? – since I’ve written a poem, and I wonder if layers are transforming unseen somewhere inside my heart or soul, like turf being made; that slow transformation to a substance that will eventually ignite, giving light and warmth. I still have a folder I occasionally add to; of newspaper clippings and pictures that prod or excite me. One is an obituary of a man who was a famous creator of mazes; he designed the most astonishing pictures in hedges; puzzles, playful, beautiful and esoteric entities. I might build a poem on it: the Man who made Mazes. Perhaps this summer I will quiet the swifts and swallows of my thoughts and try to get lost again in the maze of poetry I loved to wander in.
It is always good to try, to experiment. What would we be without the things that propel us forward, whether your man in the album with his passion for trains, or us all with our consistent pursuit of some kind of universal truth?
‘And who knows which of our legacies will endure?’ (Auden and MacNeice, “Their Last Will and Testament”)
Onwards, to Iceland! Where there are many wonders in a cow’s head.
Letter 5 – Colin to Selina 29th May 2017
Tibradden, Rathfarnham, Dublin 16
It feels like we’re about to journey into a book. That MacNeice and Auden book (it’s always been MacNeice and Auden for me, never Auden and MacNeice) that I read as a student thirty years ago opens now like a portal to their world.
When I finished my degree and went off to England to do a doctorate on the thirties writers and tracked my way around England via MacNeice’s English places – London, the British Museum, Oxford, Birmingham. And then we courted each other on that road trip around Strangford and north Down, skirting my childhood. We drove as close as we could get to Clandeboye estate and the tower there. The tower built in memory of the poet Helena Selina Dufferin by her son, Lord Dufferin. Lord Dufferin – Viceroy of India and Governer General of Canada. But also author of Letters from High Latitudes. Remember, later you bought me a copy? His travel book of aristocratic indulgence, as he hired a ship and went to Iceland and then towards the North West Passage. It’s amusing, though – florid, sardonic, at ease with itself. What a curious symmetry there is – his Clandeboye estate on the southern shores of Belfast Lough, with its tower looking over to Carrickfergus on the northern shore where Louis MacNeice grew up – and the two of them travellers to Iceland.
Our lives are bound together from that moment, from that road trip, when we travelled around and about my home places, and the Antrim coast, and our talk was as vertiginous as the cliffs, and thrilling as the landscape. As a child driving along the coast road of Antrim, I’d scan the cliffs looking for the airy swing of a fulmar or a kittiwake, straight-winged, strong, northern seabirds, compassing semi-circles out from the rockface. And here we were driving and talking and pushing back the horizon of the possible, describing our love as it would become.
Our lives are bound together and tomorrow evening I’m going to your old school to listen to pupils read their creative writing. At the end I’ll summarise all they’ve said and written, and try to praise each one, and then I’ll tell them why literature matters. Some years ago I’d have that literature matters because it is the counter to a materialist assumption that money and career are the base onto which culture is added (except for the eccentric few of us who can afford to indulge ourselves permanently). But now things feel more urgent. It’s not just ‘culture’ that’s under threat, it’s language, and stories, and truth. Literature and the literary are now not just about imagination and creativity, not just about rising above economics as the reason for being. Literature is now important because it is about empathy, about placing yourself, not just in the position of the other, but in the language of the other. Global xenophobia and the new right fillet language. And they do that because language contains the otherness which opens one person to another, across time and space and cultures. They want to kill language and the multiplicity of stories because living language has in it within it the realisation that we need each other to mean ourselves, that what is other to us, comes before us. Isn’t that why letters are important? Isn’t that why we travel to other places? Isn’t that the centre of MacNeice and Auden’s book?
My enclosures here, exciting or not, are poems written by the language and stories of others who preceded me here.
But you will always have preceded me, my love, and give me my meaning. Let’s go to Iceland.
Beginning to fear a first Scotch sabbath
in this place, with its slipshod, do-nothing
air, I went to a dismal, reeking inn
close to the pier. Next, I had my hair cut,
in terror of the dreaded animal
howling ‘Cut it shorter!’.
‘Where to now, sir?’
And I did not know, so I walked myself
pretty well off my legs, buying odds and ends.
Being a stranger, the finger of scorn
was reserved for me. There was a racket
in the coffee room. Mariners discussed
tonnage and luggage. No matter to me,
I pretended. But my flesh creeps. Either
I shall perish from seasickness, or drown.
The figurehead was still warm from the furnace.
I had occasion to admire his talent for discerning
where the vegetables were to be found.
He was sitting in the stern-sheets, up to his knees
in potatoes, with seven elderly hens beside him;
on his head a queer cap; then came a green shooting jacket,
flashy silk tartan waistcoat, innumerable festoons,
and knotty boots. The multitudinous watch-chain
he wore in honour of the occasion when
the question of how to get fragile tea kettles
across the ocean was solved with a revolver,
undergirding, and an exhibition of spirit.
I hear the click click of the chain as they heave
The anchor. My next letter may be from Iceland.
Letter 6 – Selina to Colin 31 May 2017
Tibradden, Rathfarnham, Dublin
There is something furtive about writing a letter to a recipient who sits next door, in his own study. You’re getting through all the work correspondence, the decisions and indecisions pecking at your window like the magpie that wakes Ivor ‘in the middle of the night’ (i.e., at dawn) its sharp beak against the pane, attacking its own reflection. Twitter is good for such corvid personalities, attracted by the something shiny in 140 characters to strut for a moment on the window sill, and crow their genius. None of us are immune. This morning I opened up my mail to find notification of the portraits we circulated late last night of letter-readers – in each, the person reading is ‘lost’ in the act.
And yet, what you write to me is about being found in correspondence, and that rings true. I remember walking down Broad Street in Oxford, alight with you, and confiding to a friend how I felt you held me up to the window to read not just the sentences I’d written, the self I thought I’d authored, but the blank spaces between the lines where a text I’d never imagined was summoned into view. Levinas’s essay, ‘The Trace of the Other’, was among the first enclosures you ever sent, and I studied it like a code, trying to find in the faint tracings of your pencil, a more particular message. He writes:
The relationship with another puts me into question, empties me of myself, and does not let off emptying me – uncovering for me ever new resources. I did not know myself so rich, but I have no longer any right to keep anything. Is the desire for another an appetite or a generosity?
This morning, you told Kim about your visit to my old school, a school he will not attend, put off by its privilege, its shirts and ties and blazers, all of which, he feels, will prevent him from fulfilling his future career as a parkour athlete, a free-runner schooled on silage bales to jump between skyscrapers. Anyway, the pupils were asked to write about the oldest person they had met and a German boy wrote about attending a synagogue in Salzburg to hear a talk by a Holocaust survivor who was 104 years old. He had spent the entirety of the war in concentration camps, Dachau and Buchenwald, and survived as a translator for the guards, as he spoke both Polish and German. A detail at the end of his essay impressed you most. As the boy prepared to leave, he struggled with the zip on his jacket, which was caught in the cloth. ‘May I help?’ asked the speaker. He moved forward, gave the zip a small tug down to release it, and then fastened it closed. ‘What was the boy’s name?’ I asked. His surname was von Schulenberg.
He must be related then, in some shape or fashion, to our old friend, Charlotte, who as a young child fled Germany for Ireland. Her father, Count Friedrich von der Schulenberg, was a senior Nazi, ambassador to the Soviet Union. Later he became Governor of Silesia and joined in the conspiracy against Hitler in the July plot of 1944, a coup motivated by personal ambition and the military decision to make peace with the allies. He was caught and executed. His daughters were sent here as children to find sanctuary with a German family, living in Wicklow. I think Charlotte, through her generosity to the arts and to the Irish Worker’s Party, spent her life in one way or another working out an ethics to live by in the shadow of this family history; the right act for the wrong reasons. And here is her young relative thinking over the same questions. To quote Levinas again:
… a face is imposed on me without my being able to be deaf to its appeal nor to forget it; that is, without my being able to cease to be held responsible for its wretchedness … Consciousness is put into question by a face.
I wonder whether what I’m struggling to describe equates in any way to the ‘all this’ Auden mentions, and which Rosita has identified in her pursuit of ‘elsewhere’? I think her refusal of the photograph as an adequate document of her encounters with the world is also a rejection of that standpoint – the camera channeling that face-to-face moment in a particular direction towards wonder, record, intrusion. Can you capture the ephemerality of that moment when the face of the other breaks through the cloud of consciousness to reveal a sublime never before imagined?
It’s time I climbed down from such lofty speculations. [Photo 7] Speaking of photographs, here’s a strange coincidence. Last week, out of the blue, I received an email from a man called Gerry Guoy, titled ‘Krákow 1993’.
Blast from the past here.
I’ve been scanning old negatives and found one from that gypsy Jewish concert we went to in Krakow. I’m tracking down everyone I have amazing old pics with, from that backpacking trip, on the expectation you’ll want to see some history.
I’ve no memory of ever meeting him, nor of the gig. But there I am, caught sideways on,
listening to klezmer music in Krákow, twenty-four years ago, a night or two before I met Rosita. And I’m grateful for the image. I don’t have too many from that time, and the way our minds work now, memories attach more readily to the visual than the word.
Though perhaps that is wrong. The Slovenian writer, Dušan Šarotar, spoke last week of travelling for three weeks in Connemara, a journey recounted in his book Panorama. The book contains monotone photographs of rain, ruins, signs and clouds. ‘What does it mean to write in this visual era?’ he asked himself on stage. ‘Can I write one sentence that will exceed the flood of images?’ During the interview, his photographs were projected onto the exposed brickwork of the wall behind, the uneven surface rendering the tussocks of a bog curiously ruinous, the sod like crumbling mortar, as he spoke too of his grandfather – surname, Schwartz – the only man to return from the Holocaust to his village. Over lunch afterwards, he told me how scared he was of the rising anti-Semitism in his home country. Like you, he had recently done a talk at a local school, where he met a seventeen-year old boy.
‘I too studied sociology,’ Dušan told the boy. ‘What topics do they teach you now?’
The boy shrugged, embarrassed at the question.
‘Just name me one’, Dušan encouraged him.
‘Well, ok. Like the good and bad sides to Hitler.’
In telling me, he reeled back from the table, and spread his hands wide.
‘I did not want to shock the boy, he was just a student. So after a moment, I asked him, “Tell me, what are the good sides to Hitler?”’
The boy answered, ‘He improved transport, industry. He made Germany great again.’
‘And the bad?’
‘He lost the war.’
We sat at the table. We had been speaking about islands until then, how Dušan felt he could lie down anywhere in the Connemara landscape and feel that all he had to fear came from nature, the wind, the rain, the cold. Nothing, he said, from humanity.
At the end of his interview, he predicted that Trump’s America would be Europe in ten to fifteen years’ time. ‘We live in the mind at the end of the world. Really,’ he said, looking out at the small audience. Many seemed bemused. ‘Ireland’, he continued, ‘seems a promising country to live in at the end of the world.’
That evening, Werner Herzog expressed pretty much the same sentiment from the stage of the National Concert Hall. Being Herzog, it was a more macho image that appealed to him. In the week ahead, he would visit Skellig Michael, the monastic settlement stuck on a rock in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Kerry, now famous as a location for Star Wars. He had an image he explained, of a solitary man standing right on top, his arms outstretched to embrace the end of the world, and then the next shot would be a small wooden boat, setting out over the swell that came rolling in from America. We were to understand, I think, that the figure in the boat would be him.
So, to return to Auden. Islands, maybe just the British Isles and Iceland, are places, perhaps, where poets feel Europe to be absent, because on these islands, they escape the memory of the Holocaust. And yet, the best of them, know that to be delusional. It’s there continually as a pressure in W.G. Sebald, of course, but also in Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle – a shame to fathom, and perhaps, stare down.
I will leave it there, love. I’ve to go downstairs and find the eccentric items we need for our own trip to Dufferin’s high latitudes, swimsuit, goggles, and conditioner to survive the Blue Lagoon, insect repellent, sunscreen and waterproofs. With any luck, I might find me a sou’wester.
With love, as ever,
Rosita Boland is senior features writer for The Irish Times. She won Journalist of the Year at the national Irish Journalism Awards in 2018. Her book of essays, Elsewhere; one woman, one rucksack, one lifetime of travel, will be published in May by Doubleday. It includes the essay on Antarctica mentioned in these letters.
Colin Graham is professor and head of English at Maynooth University. His most recent book is Northern Ireland: 30 Years of Photography, which won the Michael J. Durkan/ACIS Prize in 2014 and was an Observer Photography Book of the Month. His poetry has been published in The Tangerine, Lighthouse, gorse, Banshee, and elsewhere.
Selina Guinness is lecturer in English (Irish literature) at the Institute of Art, Design and Technology, Dun Laoghaire. Her memoir, The Crocodile by the Door, was shortlisted for the UK Costa Book Awards in 2012. Her short fiction and essays have been published in The Dublin Review, Winter Papers, and various anthologies, including All Over Ireland (Faber 2015). She is currently finishing a novel set in contemporary Budapest.