Last Places: A Journey in the North

p. 132-4, on Johann Petursson, keeper of the lighthouse at Hornbjarg: Johann took the Hornbjarg job in 1961 because he figured it would buy time for, and even fuel, the novel he was writing. It was unheard of, he said, for an Icelandic writer to combine teaching with the labor of his pen…. His literary colleagues tended lighthouses, from which they still managed to carry on a lively dialogue with their public, like the Skálavik keeper Oscar Adalstein Gudjónsson, who read sections of his works in progress over shortwave to the fishing fleet. Yet between navigating boats around icebergs, gathering errant fishing floats, and enduring assistants who couldn’t read the cloud charts…, he, Jóhann, had scarcely written a single word in twenty-six years.

We went inside the lighthouse and I saw another, equally good reason for not being lonely. Here in the Westfjords it used to be said that the more remote the holding, the bigger the library and the more literate the occupant. Well, Hornbjarg was about as remote a holding as you could get without slipping off into irrevocably Arctic seas, and by Jóhann’s own estimate the lighthouse had 16,000 books lining its walls, rising up in precarious piles from the floor, thrust into boxes in closets, and choking the cloud charts…. I even expected to find a few books inside the freezer next to his cache of whale meat.

Pride of place went to the Sagas, complete in several editions, including a few odd volumes of The Foster-Brother Saga, which is set around Hornbjarg and is best known for a scene where one fowler falls off a cliff and another fowler tells him not to make so much noise, he’ll scare the birds. But unlike some of his countrymen, Jóhann did not draw the line with the Sagas (or the Sagas’ apparently universal shelf-mate, Jane Fonda). I also noticed the collected works of Faulkner, Dreiser, Hemingway, Dostoyevski, Hamsun, Hardy, Nexø, Dickens, Isak Dinesen, the Icelandic Nobel Laureat Halldor Laxness. There were well-thumbed copies of Dee Brown´s Heygda mitt Hjarta vid Undad Hne and ex-chairman Mao’s Rauda Kverid. There was the Icelandic translation of Moby Dick done by Julius Hafsteinn, a retired sheriff from Húsavik, who had seen two whales copulating at sea and was so impressed by the sight he decided to translate Melville. There was Joy Adamson’s Borin Frjáls, John Steinbeck’s Thrứgur Reidarinnar, Richard Llewelyn’s Graenn Varstu, Dalur, the midwife Margarete Tόmasdottir’s translations of Colette, and the pharmacist Helgi Hafdanarsson’s translations of Shakespeare. There was an odd quarto volume in English entitled A Short Commentary on the Flowing Back of the Waters of the Red Sea for the Passage of the Israelites.

Jóhann had the most eclectic reading taste of any person I’d ever met. I tried to convice [sic] him that Sámsbaer (Peyton Place) wasn’t a very good book. (“You actually like that book?” “I do.” “But it’s very badly written…” “Not in Icelandic, it isn’t.”) But I didn’t persist, since a hungry man ought to be allowed to consume whatever he pleases.

Said Jóhann: “Did you ever read Ástsaga [Love Story]? Now that’s another good book….”

“And maybe it was, in the lovely mists of Hornbjarg.”

p. 155, in the loneliness of Greenland he says: Finished Epictetus and started a Simenon mystery.

p. 197, in Labrador: Read a Simenon mystery by flashlight.

p. 206: I flushed up spruce grouse by the dozens; they flew to neighboring branches where they sat and clucked at me in astonishment. And I read The Lure of the Labrador Wild, Dillon Wallace’s harrowing account of the ill-fated Hubbard Expedition from North West River to Ungava Bay.

p. 212-23: I listen to the bravura orchestra of the wind and read some of E. H. Carr’s biography of the Russian anarchist Bakunin….

p. 228: Only book worth readin’ is The Lure of the Labrador Wild, declared the eldest son. “Ought to teach that book in the schools,” said the Eskimo-dark son. “Instead of algebra and geometry,” added the third son….

p. 231: I’m curled up in my sleeping bag reading Suetonius’s Lives of the Twelve Caesars….