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


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