Monday, February 27, 2023

Be the Wolf

Chapter 9 of Search For a Dancer, a serial memoir about a week I spent in Iceland. Mondays on Flippism is the Key
I can’t even begin to explain it, much less justify it.
The stage play Vertu úlfur (Be a Wolf) is based on Héðin Unnsteinsson's autobiographical narrative of the same name.

I saw it tonight in the National Theatre (Þjóðleikhúsið). The show took me on a crazy journey through the “… dangerous places of the mind into a world of anarchy and despair and back again, the struggle of a man who manages to break out of the vicious cycle and manages to turn his most terrifying experience into the strength needed to change.” The book was nominated for the Icelandic Literature Prize and was made into a solo play by director Unni Ösp Stefánsdóttir.

This really pushed me out of my comfort zone with its 100 minutes of Björn Thors’ nearly nonstop monologs in Icelandic. The stagecraft and Björn’s masterful emoting and body language enabled me to be thoroughly enthralled throughout.

Why would anyone go to see a play in a foreign country, performed in an incomprehensible language? I’ve done stranger things, but not many. What began as a whim in 2004 has become a compulsion with me: Icelandic live theatre. I lost my Þjóðleikhúsið virginity attending a performance of Þetta er allt að koma (“Things Are Going Great”). My mind was blown that night; perhaps this infatuation is actually my attempt to pick up the pieces. Tonight was to be dedicated to the intense one-man play Vertu úlfur (Be the Wolf), based on the book by Héðin Unnsteinsson. This production had been a rousing success, with over 100 performances seen by tens of thousands of people, including many middle-school students who were there in abundance that night:
Between trigger warnings and censorship, I can’t see that a performance as intense as this one would be allowed to have an audience of older children and young teens in the U.S.A.

The play opened with a closed curtain. A man in a suit (actor Björn Thors) stepped out with a pocket full of sand. He used the sand and a piece of chalk to draw a circular diagram of his family and its history. Out of this simple introduction came the story of his struggle with manic-depression, two hours of intense acting that enthralled me with its vivid portrayal of a man struggling with his inner demons. His body language became a sublime dance, choreography of the human spirit. The stagecraft was just as brilliant—the minimal sets were transformed again and again with its archetypal imagery (a rain shower! a forty-foot-long duvet! a road to nowhere!) and evocative lighting.

A typical tourist, unless they happened to walk into the theatre’s box office out of curiosity about the theatre’s imposing facade, would be unaware of the miracles this venue performs on a regular basis. The Reykjavík area has a population of about 200,000. And if that wasn’t enough culture for one town, the city boasts of another live theatre complex of equal stature, plus several smaller companies.

Before the play started I was sitting on a bench in the outer lobby when woman came in and sat down next to me. We started talking about Icelandic theatre, she was a regular and I mentioned Hallgrímmur Helgason’s Þetta er allt að koma. She had known Hallgrímmur since he was three years old! She also mentioned what a great man he was—the second time I heard someone say that today!

When the woman who my bench-mate was waiting for came in she said to us: “Ah! Brúðkaupsbekkurinn!”

Search for a Dancer Index…

By Professor Batty

Comments: 5 

Friday, February 24, 2023

The Night Before…

and the day after:
Found images.

By Professor Batty

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Wednesday, February 22, 2023

The Fires

The Fires
A Novel
By Sigríður Hagalín Björnsdóttir
Translated by Larissa Kyzer

Presenting: a new Icelandic author, with a new novel, in a new genre: Geologist-Disaster-Romance!

The title has a dual meaning: fissure-type volcanic eruptions are called ‘The Fires’ in Iceland, where they are more common than an explosive eruption that forms an iconic cone. They can burn for years. The other type of fire is a sudden outburst of desire, as displayed by the main character, Anna Arnardóttir. Anna is an expert in Icelandic vulcanism, as was her late father. She is part of a response team that has to deal with government, civil defense, tourism, and the safety of the public at large. A minor underwater eruption near the Keflavík International Airport puts everyone on edge. While touring the area in a helicopter Anna meets a photographer with whom she starts a most unprofessional affair that goes against her own best interests as a wife and mother.

This exposition is a prelude to THE BIG ONE, when a swarm of eruptions marches across the Icelandic landscape with catastrophic results. The book is fast-paced and easy to read despite the use of Icelandic names and its use of an interesting choice of punctuation—omitting all quotation marks. Some reviewers have jumped on this, but it works well, helping the flow of the story. The geology of Iceland’s volcanoes is clearly explained and there are also numerous maps and even a character index to help keep things straight. Larissa Kyzer’s translation flows smoothly but be forewarned: this is not ‘high’ literature.

All of that said, this novel is primarily a romance, and a fairly steamy one at that. The biggest weakness of the book is that Tómas, the love interest, is somewhat a somewhat shallow and a rather unlikable character, and Anna is no prize herself. It would be interesting to see a movie adapted from this material, it would be stunning with the action played out in front of a backdrop of active volcanoes.

Marginal recommendation.

By Professor Batty

Comments: 0 

Monday, February 20, 2023

Summit at Sandholt

Chapter 8 of Search For a Dancer, a serial memoir about a week I spent in Iceland. Mondays on Flippism is the Key
I spotted her immediately.

We were meeting at the Sandholt Hotel/Bakery/Restaurant/Haberdashery for a late lunch. Even though it was after 1400 hours the restaurant was still crowded. She walked in just before me; I had to hustle a bit to catch up to her. I touched her shoulder lightly and said “Silja… ” She turned and said “I was wondering if you would recognize me.” I assured her that it wasn’t a problem, although it had been 10 years since we last met and her visage had been featured in numerous articles that I had read online since then. Her face showed her years but her posture and the sparkle in her eyes belied her age.

When it comes to Icelandic literature, Silja is the real thing: a writer, an editor, a translator and even theatre critic. In her presence I felt as if my Flippism blog-posts on Icelandic culture was the work of a poseur—a literary wannabe—as well as the Laxness in Translation website that I had developed years ago. That site (about the works of Icelandic author Halldór Laxness), was how we came to know each other. She had written an essay on the novel Salka Valka that had been published in The Reykjavík Grapevine, an English language weekly tabloid newspaper. It had been easy to get in touch with her via Já.is  (a national directory), and she had been willing to let me publish her essay. The site was fledgling then but in the last decade it had become sort of a de facto international clearinghouse for information on the author and his work. Our previous meeting was rewarding and I was looking forward to talking with her again.

Salka Valka, first published in 1931, had recently been republished in a new translation, creating quite a stir in literary circles and garnishing many favorable reviews in the print media including The New Yorker, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal. At my mention of it Silja became more and more animated as she described her participation in a recent seminar. Halldór’s biographer Halldór Guðmundsson was scheduled to lead a discussion group about Salka Valka and had a scheduling conflict so he asked Silja to take over. She jumped at the opportunity; “I was on fire… ” she said, eyes dancing, “… and the reception was most enthusiastic.” Adults of all ages had been captivated by the story of the poor girl who grew up unwanted in a fishing village. More than just a character, her struggle with the injustices of society was and is an inspiration to thousands of Icelandic women. We talked about how the book presaged the #MeToo movement, and how it was also a critique of both Capitalism and Socialism.

I had read that she recently participated in a literary retreat with renown Icelandic writer and artist Hallgrímur Helgason; I spoke of it and conversation turned to that topic. “Hallgrímur, what a wonderful man,” she said, gushing with obvious affection. She noted that in spite of his often pointedly satiric novels and plays, he had a great love for Iceland and its people, about how he had embraced the #MeToo movement with an article about his rape experience. I mentioned speaking with Hallgrímur (on Zoom) about his play Þetta er allt að koma and she remembered it vividly, commenting on its fantastic set design. She also brought up the play’s lead, Þorunn Erna Clausen, and rued that she had not pursued her theatre career further, I mentioned that she had been featured in Documentary Now! (a parody show that featured Fred Armisen) and she was also on the television series Trapped! At our first meeting she had given me some tips on Icelandic theatre productions; I then discovered that she had published ‘amateur’ reviews in TMM (a literary magazine) which were a fount of information that I consulted whenever I went to the theatre in Reykjavík. Being a critic in a small country like Iceland requires a great deal of tact and her reviews reflected that, but her lack of animosity made them invaluable for an outsider like me—just the basics—there was no literary baggage to unpack. I told her of my wife and seeing Páll Óskar in The Rocky Horror Show in 2018. “Ah! I saw him in that when he was in college!” she said, smiling at the memory.

Silja related a story about the James Joyce tower in Dublin—a writer’s dream vacation—which turned into a nightmare after she fell and broke her leg, severely. One of the Irish EMTs who attended her wanted to take her to a local clinic, but the other one thought it serious enough to go to the main hospital where a group of doctors operated and reset her leg with pins. They must have done a great job in that she was able to walk so well now. “My son-in-law helped me, I couldn’t live at home because of the stairs, so he took care of me every morning, with a hot breakfast and fresh-squeezed orange juice, he was an angel. Now my house is for sale—my late husband said that when we can’t handle the stairs we would move out; that time is now.”

We talked a bit about blogs, I said that the traffic to the Laxness in Translation website was steady, although there wasn’t much of a surge when Salka Valka was republished. I mentioned that my personal blog, Flippism is the Key was still holding on, in its 18th year, but that i could see a time when I would stop posting. She looked at me closely and then asked, “How old are you?” “72,” I replied. “Oh, you’re just a baby!” she exclaimed, “I’m 79, and I just finished translating Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility into Icelandic!” I have often been in awe of my Icelandic correspondents achievements, this was one of those times. After we had been talking for about an hour she said “I haven’t spoken English a long time.” Her use of the language was impeccable.

We finished our meals, and then prepared to leave. “I’ll take take of this,” I said, picking up the check, “It makes me feel like a big shot.” Silja gave me a side-eye. We went out and walked the half-block to the bus-stop on Hverfisgata. As we waited for her bus our conversation flowed on. My thoughts went to the word Sprakkar, an Icelandic word meaning outstanding or extraordinary women, recently used by the ‘first lady’ of Iceland, Eliza Reid, married to Guðni Thorlacius Jóhannesson, Iceland’s president. Here was a sprakkar, standing right in front of me, being extraordinary and outstanding. After thinking of Eliza, I mentioned that I was going to see the President of Iceland speak on Thursday morning, to which she replied: “Oh!, My daughter is his secretary.”

Of course. Everybody in Iceland knows Silja.

Search for a Dancer Index…

By Professor Batty

Comments: 0 

Friday, February 17, 2023

Hear, Hear

After I lost 90% of my hearing (due to a Covid-caused inner ear infection), I made the decision to get hearing aids.

While my ear infection was successfully treated I still had my previous hearing loss which, while not severe, was enough to interfere with activities in my daily life. Following conversations, especially in noisy environments, were difficult. Music had lost its ‘sparkle’ and understanding dialogue in television and films, particularly with the mumbling of modern actors, was becoming impossible.

So, after consulting with some of my friends, I explored my options. I found the internet site ZipHearing, which was highly rated and offered a substantial discount. The site works as a brokerage, working with selected audiologists, to send customers their way and handle all the billing issues. I got in touch with Jeff (who is also the president of ZipHearing!) and he explained everything and got the ball rolling.

After a consultation with a certified audiologist who had an office near me, I sprung for a pair of Widex 440 Moment hearing aids. A few weeks (and $4600) later I was hearing things like I used to years ago. I had avoided hearing aids for years due to the older models having problems with latency and ‘artificial-ness’. The newer aids (and the Widex in particular) are much more natural sounding. The sound processing they do is very sophisticated, yet I remain unaware of what it is doing, it also has a iPhone app to tweak the sound if needed.

Some remaining issues are that the earpieces, while fairly comfortable, remain inserted in your ear canals and I’m aware of them and can be tiring (especially after a full day's use) and a lot of the restored high frequency sounds are really just noise that I could do without.

By Professor Batty

Comments: 2 

Wednesday, February 15, 2023

The Beautiful Child

A faded photograph of a beautiful child, a Victorian ideal, makes for a suitable subject for restoration.

Many old photographs lose their story after a century or more, but I knew this one.

If the first-born holds a special place in the hearts of many parents, I can’t begin to imagine what the first-born child of a second marriage would mean to a father whose first wife and their first-born had died.

A dozen years later this father, who was the photographer, would also be dead and the beautiful child’s beautiful childhood came to an abrupt end.

Many years (and many tears) later the beautiful child would grow up and persevere, continuing her father’s artistic legacy while making her own beautiful ‘children’ in the world of art.

While I can’t bring her back I can at least I add a touch of color to her memory:

Wanda Gag, circa 1897, restored, 2023

By Professor Batty

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Monday, February 13, 2023

Castle House Tuesday Morning

Chapter 7 of Search For a Dancer, a serial memoir about a week I spent in Iceland. Mondays on Flippism is the Key
Ikea dominates the decor in The Castle House.

Universal, Scandi, neutral, Ikea’s greatest asset is that it doesn’t get in the way. Tables, chairs, kitchen utensils, bed and bath, its all there, the same as everywhere, Castle House is no exception. Even the little artistic touches in the room are inoffensive and forgettable. On the other side of the apartment door is Reykjavík in all its wind-swept glory, a mash-up of modernism, both early mid-century and post. Most of the buildings are less than than 100 years old; building booms in the 1920s, 40s, 50s and 60s shaped the inner city, while the outlying areas are more recent. It was Tuesday, my first morning in the Castle House. A breakfast of dismal English Weetabix and delightful European strawberries started my day.

I packed up my swim gear and left the apartment, walking between the National Museum and the church, then down to the path along the pond. I felt good, the air temp was in in the mid-thirties (3°c) and the sun was shining and the wind had yet to make its presence known. The mile-long walk to the pool was invigorating. Going past the cemetery, then alongside Grund, the senior residence (my room is ready) and then I turned off of Hringbraut and walked through the residential area, streets lined with pebble-dash and shell-dash stucco houses, mostly duplexes and four-plexes. They were old enough to be remodeled; construction activity was present in almost every block.
The Vesturbæjarlaug pool was a bee-hive of activity.

I did my laps, explored the various hot-pots, and finally settled in at the 40°c hot-pot. I saw Ingvar, the actor, make his rounds, and was soon joined by a man who recognized me from years previous. “You’re that guy with the Halldór Laxness website,” he said. I had recognized him immediately because he was a doppelgänger of one of my neighbors at home. We made some small talk, he asked why I was here. I mentioned the festival, and also said that I was going to meet up with some old blog-friends. “I’m having lunch with Silja A—, the writer at TMM, to talk about the new translation of Halldór Laxness’ Salka Valka. “Oh, you’re in good hands with Silja,” he said, smiling.

Everybody knows everybody here.

On the other side of the lap pool was a grass-covered earthen berm, it helped cut the wind and offered a bit of privacy. As I talked with my old ‘pal’ I noticed two men in swim suits lying on the side of the berm, feet up-head down. The air temp was warmer now, it had risen to 4°c (39°f) but it was still cooler than I would like when taking a nap in my Speedo. They must have stayed there for several minutes, I stopped watching after a while, when I looked up later they were gone. I looked at the clock and it was 1230 hours. My luncheon date was at 1400 hours, and on the other side of the city from the pool, about a half mile from my apartment. I said goodby to my tub-mate, and headed back to the apartment to prepare for the afternoon’s adventure.

Search for a Dancer Index…

By Professor Batty

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Friday, February 10, 2023

Devil’s Playground

Idle thoughts are the:
Radiation Therapy:
Vincent Van Dylan:
Frida’s Reactor Garden:
Laura Palmer Pop Art:
More A.I. hallucinations from Stable Diffusion

By Professor Batty

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Wednesday, February 08, 2023


I recently completed a jigsaw puzzle of the cover of The Beatles Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band album.

The album caused a sensation when it was released, and in no small part due to its astounding cover art. Developed from a sketch from John Lennon, it went completely beyond the pale in its puzzling creation of a modern-day mythos. Critical reaction was often harsh, the most virulent naysayers were those who were only capable of looking back—unimaginable trolls wallowing in their own crapulence. Its cover went on to be parodied and satirized, but all the people who were featured on it were inspirations to the Beatles: writers, philosophers, artists, models, movie and sports stars and musicians. All these ‘influencers’ were on equal footing.

The Beatles soon grew out of their costume stage, later albums were not so high concept, but the group continued to write memorable, and even great songs. But this album was a unicorn, a high water-mark, in a class of one, and any other clichéd metaphor for singularity you can dredge up.

Here is the link for a key to the people in the image.

By Professor Batty

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Monday, February 06, 2023


Chapter 6 of Search For a Dancer, a serial memoir about a week I spent in Iceland. Mondays on Flippism is the Key

I headed toward downtown from the bus station, walking on the sidewalk along Sóleyjargata, past the grand houses on my right, some of which had Jack-o-lanterns beckoning behind crumbling gates that once were used to receive visitors, back before the road became an automotive artery and parking was banned. The Hljólmskálagarður (concert hall park) was across the street. Ten years ago I watched a magnificent auroral display there—people were gasping with delight, no tour needed. Marching bands perform there, a dog-owners club has had meet-ups, and strolling tourists partake the pond and its views of the central district, one of the best wide open vistas of the city. After crossing Skothúsvegur (shooting house road), the street is named Fríkirkjuvegur (free church road), named for the church, and one of the best venues for this week-ends’ Iceland Airwaves. Going further, I passed Kvennaskólinn í Reykjavík, the Women’s school, a 19th-century school with a garden that becomes an enchanted forest at night. Next to it is The National Gallery of Iceland. In 2009, after the crash of 2008, the gallery had an art sale: items from the collections of bankrupt investment bankers. I saw some fabulous stuff priced cheap, but the prices were still an order of magnitude greater that what I could afford. Just beyond the Gallery was Fríkirkjan—in all its sheet-metal glory.

Fríkirkjan is another place of fond memories: the late Johann Johannsson premiering his IBM 1401, a users manual there with a string quartet in 2006, the art-pop group Hjaltalín with an orchestra in 2009, a children’s choir in 2018, and even a recital performed before an audience of 12 in 2006. I went to a CD release party for Biggi Hilmars in 2015 that was an extreme example of cognitive dissonance—everything was in Icelandic except for the lyrics of his Neil Young-inspired songs.

A very short walk along the south side of the church brought me to Castle House, a small apartment buiding with about a dozen units, six of which are available to rent. I’ve been coming here (and to its associated Embassy House)for years. Its location, just a few hundred meters away from the city center, is ideal—if you don’t have a car. Parking regulations in the City Center are Byzantine at best, and worse if you don’t have a working knowledge of Icelandic. The Castle house is a bit of a throwback to the 20th century in its approach to lodging. You deal directly with the ownwer, no refunds, but it does have housekeeping and each unit has a kitchenette. The room rates are, in the shoulder season at least, very reasonable, cheaper by far than an Airbnb and about a third of what a room in a hotel would cost. WhenI arrived the housekeeper was there and had already done my room so I could get in early. I dropped my stuff off and headed out to get my provisions.

Just a few blocks up the hill behind my digs was the Kronan supermarket. It isn’t as big as most, but it is thoughtfully stocked with almost anything you’d need to make simple meals and my whole basket of goods was cheaper than a single restaurant dinner and it would provide me with most of my needs (with some replenishing) for the upcoming week. Milk, cereal (Weetabix!), sandwich supplies and, of course, harðfiskur. An acquired taste, and probably best eaten alone if your companions don’t share your affinity (it has a definite odor!) I brought the bag that I had used for my wine (plastic is discouraged) and the self-checkout was efficient and quick: no lines and no problem with the credit card.Returning to the apartment, I stowed the food and arranged my things in a comfortable fashion.

I went out again, this time to the city centre for a stroll around the harbour. I went by Iðno, another charming 19th century building—the worker’s hall then—now it was a general purpose facility and a mainstay venue in the Airwaves festival. I went further toward the center, past the upscale Hotel Borg, that was once the premiere stop in the city (I stayed there in 2000), now there were a dozen other hotels that were more exclusive. Going towards the harbour I saw new mixed-use buildings, some of which were under construction the last time I was here (in 2018). They were uniformly dismal, replacing views of the harbour with sinister monochromatic rectangles. I walked back Hverfisgata and went into the ticket office of the National Theatre—Þjóðleikhúsið—to get tickets for two plays, a musical and a burlesque show, one play was tomorrow night, the others I would use to fill holes in the Airwaves schedule; not every act was worth seeing. I picked up a copy of The Reykjavík Grapevine, although I had read most of it on line already.

I made my way back to my apartment and prepared dinner, I ate it while catching up on my emails, including a confirmation from tomorrow‘s luncheon partner, Silja. I wrote on my blog for a while and managed to stay awake until 20:00 hours. I hung a ‘do not disturb’ sign on my door and then went to bed and slept for twelve hours.

Search for a Dancer Index…

By Professor Batty

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Friday, February 03, 2023

Love Has No Pride

“Behind every beautiful thing, there's been some kind of pain.” ~Bob Dylan

Love hurts, doubly so when you are the one causing the pain.

Years ago, I got a phone call from someone I used to work with, a lover I had recently dumped. She was not her usual non-committed self—her personal style was akin to the Eve Kendall character in the film North By Northwest—this call was full of emotion.

It has often been said that one should never work with your lover. If things goes bad, one or both of you may have to get another job. I had already gotten another job, so that wasn’t the cause of this break-up. And it wasn’t a sexual issue, lord knows problem we had was weiner-burn. It was just her mein: neutral, non-committal, reserved. I went with her for six months and didn’t know a thing about her background, her non-work friends, her aspirations, her medical history, her family. I tried to introduce her to my friends (I’ll admit that it was at a pretty raucous party), she was appalled by them. We did go to a movie once. No reaction on her part. I had been in another dysfunctional relationship previously, I was beginning to think something was wrong with me, if that was so she was better without me.

That’s why I found the phone call so strange. She said she wanted to see me. She wanted to touch me, to be touched. To not be alone. She was crying at the end. It was the one time she actually showed her true self, but it was too late. I got over her, I’m sure she got over me. Then she vanished—left her job, someone we used to work with said that she had moved to Superior, Wisconsin.

Now, a half-century later, there is no trace of her on the internet, not even her last name comes up on searches. What I did find, however, was a song that accurately expressed her feelings that day:

By Professor Batty

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Wednesday, February 01, 2023


My father would have been 100 years old today. 

Not many of his generation left, his remaining sibling died a few years ago. He came from a big family, fractured by the death of his mother, but they all made it to adulthood, bringing the up the crop of cousins that I am a part of, and several of them have passed as well.

I wouldn’t say that my childhood was blissful, there were many anxious moments, particularly after my father had been drinking. He did support me when it came to matters of principle, however, and even tolerated my rock and roll lifestyle. In his later years (after the grandchildren came) he mellowed, but could still be cranky, an inherited trait from his German upbringing?

Now that I am a grandparent I find that I’m often looking at myself, trying to nip the mean-old-man syndrome before it starts. My children have their own memories of their upbringing. I wonder what their impressions of me will be in 28 years?

At least they won’t be remembering any beatings.

By Professor Batty

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                                                                                     All original Flippism is the Key content copyright Stephen Charles Cowdery, 2004-2023