Sometimes you come across a book that seems as tailor-made for you as the gate is for the man from the country in Kafka’s little marvel “Before the Law.” Such is the case for me with Sarah Moss’s travel memoir Names for the Sea: Strangers in Iceland (2012). (For this analogy to really work, though, you couldn’t know beforehand that it’s made for you; you’d have to think it was for everyone and wonder why no one else ever came along.) Moss is a British novelist whose had more success in the UK than here (though she does have a US publisher); her new novel is just out over there and her publisher, at least, thinks it will be her break out. When I learned that she had written a book about the year she spent in Iceland, I immediately reserved it at the library. (Central Arkansas Library System, I sing your praises now and forever!)
I think most of us have dreamed of returning to live in a place we’ve only visited. The appeal of those dreams, for me at least, is the belief that everything that’s difficult or tedious about my current life would vanish in the move. There’s the thrill, too, of starting over again, learning how another place works, imagining ourselves as insiders in the place where as tourists we are outsiders. These dreams, at least for me, are as frightening as they are enticing. Starting over again, learning how another place works—what could be more daunting? And how could this new place not bring its own difficulties and tediousness? Even the same difficulties and tediousness. After all, I’d still be me, even in a different place.
Of all the places I’ve visited, Iceland is where I’ve most indulged these dreams. Something about that place gets me thinking long and hard about picking up everything. So when I first heard about Moss’s book, I felt intrigued and envious in equal measures. Moss, a professor of creative writing, left her job at the University of Kent to take up a visiting teaching position in Iceland. As a professor of literature—that is, as someone the world in its current formation has decided it really does not need—I spend a lot of psychic energy bemoaning how rooted, even stuck, I am in the position I know I am lucky to hold. My professional life is governed above all by the idea (so far borne out in reality) that I am not portable. So how could this person, I asked myself indignantly, simply up and move to the place I want to move to, without having to give anything up? One answer is: she is more famous than me. Another answer is: of course she had to give things up. One of the things her excellent book is about is what one gives up and what one gains in moving to a foreign country.
I can’t quite remember how my wife and I got so obsessed about Iceland. I think it started when we lived in Berlin and M read the first Arnaldur Indridason crime novels in German translation. (You know about Indridason, right? You have to read him. The Erlendur series in particular is amazing. Each outing is different, none a standard procedural. He’s a cut above almost every other Scandinavian crime writer.) We first visited Iceland in May 2009 and returned for a shorter but even more memorable trip this February. And we will definitely be back. The climate (those endless days in summer, the long dark of winter), the geology (you really feel the earth to be a changeable, tangible, almost living thing in Iceland, with all the bubbling and steaming and flowing of ice and ash and lava), the location (at the edge of Europe but at the center of a North Atlantic realm stretching from Newfoundland, even Nova Scotia all the way to Finland)—all these things fascinated us. People buy more books in Iceland than almost anywhere else. They sit in hot pools as much as possible. How could we not be smitten?
Above all, we’re fascinated by the North, as much by the idea as the reality. That’s where Moss starts, too, before describing her first trip to Iceland, as a nineteen-year-old university student in the summer of 1995, when she and a girlfriend travelled the ring road (the highway that encircles the island and is pretty much the only one in the country), camping rough and scraping by on the most meager of budgets.
Like most travelogues Names for the Sea is structured roughly chronologically, describing the year Moss and her family (husband and two small boys, Max, 7, and Tobias, 3) spent in Iceland and then, in an important coda, a three-week visit in the summer of the following year. Along the way, Moss touches on some of things you might expect if you know anything about Iceland: the role of the “hidden people” (elves, trolls, and other spirits who have an active role in Icelandic life; famously roads are constructed with their living places in mind, explaining some of their particularly tortuous and otherwise nonsensical bends); the dramatic change in lifestyle and life expectancy from the middle of the twentieth century onward, changes primarily related to Iceland’s role as a military base (first British then American) in WWII and beyond; the relation of climate and geology to everyday life; and, especially, the political, economic, and psychological effects of the kreppa, the economic collapse of 2008 brought on by the unregulated banking and financial excesses of the early 2000s.
The book held my interest from the start, though I was initially underwhelmed by the prose, which seemed undistinguished if never actually awkward or bad. But as I continued to read I was more and more caught up in the book, to the point that I stayed up until two in the morning reading the second half in one glorious session.
The kreppa is Moss’s great subject. In her discussion it’s at least as much psychological as economic. Icelanders keep telling her that the national psyche, going back to the time of the Vikings, values aggression and risk taking. The economies of fishing and farming, for centuries the only industries at all, are so fickle, so dependent on outside forces that Icelanders have developed a remarkably stoic, even dangerously casual attitude to the idea of risk, change, and sudden reversals of fortune. Moss speculates these attitudes explain the lack of apocalyptic rhetoric in Iceland, whether about the kreppa or the volcanic ash that shut down European air space for weeks in 2010.
Moss helped me understand something that had puzzled us back in the summer of 2009, nearly the worst moment of the crisis: if you didn’t know the economy had just collapsed you would never have guessed it. There were a few empty storefronts, but no homeless people on the streets, no panhandlers, no signs of desperation overt enough for preoccupied tourists to note, at any rate. There weren’t any political protests, either (that had happened a few months earlier, the so called pots and pan revolutions that chased out the government so closely tied to the bankers). Moss discovers in many aspects of Icelandic daily life a peculiar relation between effacement and aggrandizement, shame and pride.
This dynamic plays out in the most unlikely ways, such as the almost complete absence of a secondary market for consumer goods. (All the more remarkable in a country where almost everything is imported.) Moss, who arrives with only a handful of suitcases, can’t find second-hand furniture or clothes or bicycles or even cars. Colleagues help her out by borrowing things from family members or friends. Passing on goods from one family member to another is (barely) permissible. But buying something from a stranger (itself a strange concept in a country of 300,000, where everyone really does know everyone) is not. Moss is startled when an acquaintance describes how she destroyed an old sideboard before taking it to the dump, because she wanted her decision to be rid of the item really to be her own, that is, to be final.
This background informs the best, most fraught chapter in the book, in which Moss, reluctantly playing investigative reporter, visits a surreptitious charity in Reykjavik that runs a weekly food bank. At first, the organization wants nothing to do with her; she gets access only when a friend of a friend speaks to the director. The director tells the staff they should speak freely to Moss, but they are reluctant to do so, though not as reluctant as the recipients of the charity. In many ways, the latter’s responses (or lack thereof) are perfectly understandable. But the open hostility Moss is met with surprises her, and shocks Einar, the Icelandic friend she has brought along to translate. His reaction is the most powerful thing in the book: he is shocked to the core of his being by the very existence of the food bank, which contrasts with his most fundamental belief in Icelandic exceptionalism: here everyone is equal and no one goes without. Moss is at her most nuanced in describing her reaction to his reaction:
I’m shocked by his shock, struggling to understand why Iceland should imagine itself exempt from the economic inequality that characterizes every other capitalist society. We all knew, I thought, we all accepted a deal, that there is poverty for some and wealth for others.
‘Not in Iceland,’ says Einar…. ‘Not in my country. I had never imagined it, it had never crossed my mind, that there were hungry families in Iceland. Not people needing help from strangers.’
Young Icelanders keep telling me that there’s no class system in Iceland, that inequality is a foreign phenomenon, but the fact of many students’ alienation from poverty seems to prove Icelandic social inequality. I remember a colleague in Sociology telling e that not only is there a difference between the middle class and the poor, but the difference is so great that the existence of the poor is news to some of the middle class. Einar starts his car. ‘I did not know,’ he says. ‘That is the worst thing. I did not know’
Maybe, I think. Or maybe the worst thing is that I’ve known about poverty all my life and I’m not shocked.
Einar’s response helped me think about my own decision to become an American citizen. Canada isn’t Iceland, but it’s also a country filled with a remarkable degree of certainty about its own righteousness. (Moss says the idea of being unpatriotic is entirely foreign to Icelanders. Interestingly, overt displays of patriotism have become much more prevalent in Canada during my life time.) There’s something not just naïve about being shocked that one’s homeland isn’t as good as one had been led to believe, but also, worse, clumsy and dangerous. (Even as Moss is quite right to observe the complacency that can arise from the surety that one isn’t good.)
We learn plenty of other fascinating things in Names for the Sea (the title is from a lovely poem by Auden, who visited in the 1930s, that Moss reads intelligently). We learn a lot about food (how hard it is to get in Iceland, where it comes from, what it says about a person who despairs because she can’t get all the spices and produce she wants, cheaply, whenever she wants them). We learn lots about knitting and its role in shaping how Icelanders think about themselves, especially their ideas of time. We learn lots about driving and car culture and the ambivalent relation to nature felt by anyone that lives in an extreme climate. We learn lots about Icelandic ideas of family and childcare, especially an alarming but popular theory of child education that separates boys from girls in daycare so that the boys’ innate aggression won’t harm the girls’ delicacy.
All this detail means that other things get left out. Most of those things concern Moss and her personal and professional life. We only get a glimpse of Moss’s teaching, for example. Most readers probably won’t be as disappointed in that as I was, but they might share my surprise at the elusiveness of Moss’s family in this story. I can understand why she’d not want to make them the focus, but her effacement of her husband, in particular, is surprising, even weird. He seems to have been at home all the time, surely difficult, though we don’t know enough about him to tell whether he was stuck there. Only occasionally can we see his frustration; we don’t get a sense of what he’s like, or what the two of them are like together. (The boys are much more vividly presented.)
We know more about Moss herself, but less than you’d expect in a travel memoir. I wish she’d told us more about the anxieties that drive much of her experience of the world: profound shyness, even diffidence, fear of opening herself up to the scrutiny of others that she always seems to assume will involve ridicule. Moss has a lot to say about the idea of foreignness, both as she experienced it and as Icelanders seem to conceive of it. I can’t decide whether her reticence to show us more of herself and her family is a failure to take up that concept of foreignness or a brilliant performance of it. (For she certainly remains foreign to us.) At any rate, she avoids the most unseemly tendencies of professional travelers, the tendency towards self-aggrandizement or ingratiation in their self-presentation to readers.
Moss’s discussion of foreignness is something that even readers who don’t love Iceland the way I do will enjoy. That abiding interest in the foreign is something Moss shares with someone otherwise remote from her English Romantic sensibilities, I mean that master of estrangement and defamiliarization with which I began this review, a person who didn’t need to leave home to tell us about what it means to be foreign, Franz Kafka. Surprised that no one else has ever arrived at the gate that has held his avid attention for decades, Kafka’s man from the country asks why no one else has ever shared his preoccupation. He is told that the gate has been made only for him, and that now it will be shut. I want you to read Names for the Sea, but some part of me thinks it has really been written only for me.