Brick 107

Man Is What He Would Be


Translated from the Icelandic by Philip Roughton
Brick 107

Skúli W. Skíðdal was undeniably one of Iceland’s best-known and respected writers in his time. By the end, he had peacefully held his seat as an undisputed leader in the spiritual realm for years. Oddly enough, people these days seem to find him something of a puzzle, increasingly so over the years following his death. It was as if the nation lost its bearings upon Skúli’s passing and didn’t quite know what to think of him and his works.

Worse, however, is that in recent years I’ve often found myself noticing a rather pressing need among certain members of the younger generation to “reckon with” Skúli. I think that this isn’t just a case of the ordinary, almost classical patricide that all major writers and artists have to endure at some point in their careers, though they generally rise from such murders unscathed, sprightlier than ghosts, greater and better fathers than before, when the by-blows emerge from every nook and cranny and throng around them once again, begging for comfort and attention. No, as matters stand now, it seems to me for various reasons that something far more serious is happening, unfortunately. It has clearly become a kind of fashion or epidemic among younger literati to “expose” Skúli W. Skíðdal.

Frankly, though, this criticism doesn’t cut deeply. It doesn’t take much delving into the writings of the aforementioned intellectuals to see that it’s always the same feature with which they take umbrage, the same platitude that echoes from person to person, namely the fact that Skúli W. Skíðdal never wrote anything. As if they never realized this authorial trait of his until he was gone. Now, even the unlikeliest of people join in and act as if this is some grand new discovery. It may sound paradoxical, but it appears as if many people took no notice of it until the books that never came stopped . . . not coming.

Pay heed, young people. There is no exposure of anyone going on here. Skúli W. Skíðdal never donned any veil of mystery but rather came to the door as he was, most often naked, perhaps having thrown on a robe, at most, if his doorbell was rung aggressively enough. But take good note: he only answered the door if he was at home.

As I consider myself to have been one of those who personally knew the late Skúli best, at least during his later years, I find myself compelled to give something of an account of his career, dear diary. It is my duty to the literati of the future, who otherwise could have trouble recognizing the most remarkable elements in the life’s work of my friend Skúli, and could even get wrong ideas about his works.

Honestly, the follow-up is easy, simply put, for most other writers who tread conventional paths. After their deaths, they can hide behind their books, which, of course, are often sufficient, in and of themselves, for misleading ignorant readers who tend to forget entirely that a particular writer was perhaps no writer in actuality. Any old fool can fall into a pot of gold now and then if he tries.

Such dishonesty in the artistic realm (as well as in others) was of course foreign to a person such as Skúli. Trickery of any form is simply inconceivable when it comes to a person of his ilk. And, truth be told, I allow myself to state it here once more, and shall explain it in more detail, that it is precisely the feature certain people find fault with and label as the “dishonesty” (!) of Skúli W. Skíðdal, “the literary scandal of the century,” “the emperor’s new (!) clothes,” and goodness knows what else, yes, it is precisely this feature that forms the very core of Skúli’s life’s work, that made him a writer. In other words: we have come to the wellspring itself—and woe to you who wish to piss in it.

Before going any further, however, I shall willingly make one confession to those other angry young people, a confession that ought to show that they have, for their part, mitigating circumstances. Keeping in mind their immaturity, as well, may help make their witch hunt understandable to a certain extent but in no way excusable, of course.

My confession is this: it was this same feature, now considered most newsworthy and the greatest “scandal,” that, in its time, became the catalyst for my acquaintanceship with the late Skúli. By this I mean his so-called “nonproduction,” which, you might say, brought us together in an indirect way.

I developed a genuine interest in literature early on, and thirsted to acquaint myself with most everything that our writers produced. It soon became clear to me, “having determined to take the pulse of many,” that Skúli W. Skíðdal occupied a very high place among our nation’s writers. Yet every time I had an inclination to read something by him, I felt, while still young and inexperienced, that I was more or less clutching at straws. It was as if his works were nowhere to be found, despite their being all around and forever near at hand as an inevitable part of people’s conversations. I clearly remember finding this a bit uncomfortable sometimes, but in educated company I didn’t let it show, speaking like everyone else with admiration for Skúli and everything for which his name was a kind of common denominator. I quickly became accustomed to this, and then found that I was just as well read as others in the works of this writer. It was a great windfall for a young literatus to be able to stand on equal footing with the most erudite of people in regard to such a top-flight writer, and without any of the bother that usually accompanies familiarizing oneself with the works of this nation’s writers.

Now and then, most often while still groggy from sleep, my mind lingered on the dear departed Skúli’s distinctive authorial trait, until it so happened, as I mentioned, that I came indirectly to know the man himself and in that way acquired, by good luck, a definitive understanding of his writing and outlook on life.

I had personally begun putting more energy into writing, determined to become an author and having already published a book. It was the poetry collection Diverse Asides, which, upon its release by the publisher Jólnir, garnered considerable attention, if I do say so myself. And what I mean by attention, frankly, was something of a different sort than that which the same book has recently garnered. Personally, I don’t remember anything about this book, except for my battle with the publisher, which is still fresh in my memory. For sales purposes, he really wanted the book to be titled Christmas Asides but was finally forced to give in to me—a young, determined writer who never compromised on his artistic demands.

This little book of mine, along with a children’s television program that I and some schoolmates had done for Icelandic National Broadcasting, sufficed to gain me membership in the Icelandic Writers’ Union, which I felt to be the greatest honour.

Now a writers’ conference happened to be held. I don’t recall what the theme of the conference was, but many attendees gave quite eloquent talks, best of all being Skúli W. Skíðdal’s. You might say that he “owned the room,” for a time. On the other hand, I have better memories of the reception held by the president of Iceland at his residence at Bessastaðir at the conclusion of the conference, patchy though those memories might be. The mood was exuberant at the ancient seat of Snorri Sturluson as writers and champions of the spirit gathered there, hungry and thirsty. And it was, in fact, there that I met Skúli W. Skíðdal, in the way in which I shall now describe.

Around mid-reception, I was in the president’s library, lightheartedly absorbing the cultural atmosphere, although by then my judgment had probably begun to become somewhat clouded by drink. In that state, I happened to look up at one of the bookshelves and what should be the first thing I set eyes on but my book, Diverse Asides. A warm wave of joy and pride passed through my consciousness and inundated whatever scraps of discernment I had left, and before I knew it, I had reached for the book to pull it from the shelf and stood there holding it in my hands. As soon as I did, though, I realized just how childish and absurd this was of me, and felt as if the book were glowing red as I tried, trembling with embarrassment, to slip it back onto the shelf without anyone noticing what book it was that, of all of them, had drawn my attention.

Thinking I had managed to do this unseen, I was horrified to feel the eyes of Skúli W. Skíðdal resting upon me—and to see the little smile that he was giving me. Of that I was convinced, but looking back I realize that it could not have been so. Of course, at that time, Skúli W. Skíðdal had no idea who I was, and therefore had no reason to think it ridiculous if I chose to take a closer look at that particular book. Furthermore, his eyes hadn’t actually rested on me; instead, his right eye tended to stray when he drank alcohol—quite widely, in fact, and at the same time it picked up little at gatherings, when tobacco smoke clouded its perception. Moreover, the behaviour of which I suspected him would have been in glaring contrast to the sort of person he was.

Concerning all of this, however, I knew nothing, naturally, and as I stood there, a peculiar anger flared up inside of me. He was making fun of me, the bastard; he had touched a nerve. I’m a vain person, and found it extremely humiliating to think that a famous man, a cultural pioneer and writer such as Skúli W. Skíðdal, should get the idea that I was conceited. Due to such a mischance, as well. Such encouragement for a young writer!

I didn’t really notice that Skúli simply continued to chat amicably with the president and others standing in a semicircle a short distance away. It should have been clear to me that Skúli W. Skíðdal had no interest whatsoever in me or my book. But it was warm in there, and my agitation shattered the few remaining shards of my sense of judgment. In a fit of panic, I felt that I needed to make a joke of this in order to save “the situation,” which was of course nonexistent. Excessively loudly, I butted into the others’ conversation, saying:

—Yes, indeed, Skúli, yes, people certainly are preoccupied with themselves, Sæmundur Örn, Diverse Asides, what else? Hey, should we take a look at one of your books?

And then I went to search the shelves. The reception-goers watched me curiously as I, red-cheeked and quivering, ran a finger over the books’ spines. There were numerous books by Skúli Rútsson and Skúli Black, the names of the writers displayed prominently on the spines (tasteless and like them!), but no other Skúlis as far as I could see. Not a single book by Skúli W. Skíðdal. Of course not. Not there any more than anywhere else. Only then did it become clear to me how badly I’d blundered. Everyone nearby had realized my mistake. They gave me disdainful looks and the president immediately changed the topic of their conversation. To what, I don’t remember—but it was quite clear that it was, first and foremost, something else. That conversation, however, was doomed, dead in the water. Everyone just stared at me in awkward silence.

I stood there like an utter wretch, clueless as to what to do next. Finally, I resorted to grabbing my glass, which I had set aside, and raising it to my lips to toss it back. The glass was already empty—of course—and the cocktail pick stuck me in the eye.

I’m quite certain that I would have died of embarrassment right then and there, with the cocktail pick in my eye, if no one had come to my aid. And the person who did so was none other than Skúli W. Skíðdal, that great and valiant man. He patted me congenially on the shoulder and said:

—Yes, my friend, so it goes; I suppose I just ended up on the wrong shelf.

This prince’s unostentatious, jovial declaration worked straightaway to lighten the mood enormously. The guests laughed and the president gave a cheerful little smile. I myself managed to laugh somewhat normally, and just like that, the danger had passed and the matter was dropped.

Skúli’s conduct in this unfortunate business was especially magnanimous. Here, he, an experienced and respected writer and person, had stepped in on behalf of immature, pert young me and saved me from an extremely awkward situation that I had gotten myself into by, so it seemed, belittling him in front of important people. And my only saving grace, that that had never been my intention, no one could have known just there and then.

His stepping in allowed me to relax and enjoy the remainder of the reception. On my way out, I stopped in the foyer to write my name in the guestbook, and as I was doing so, Skúli W. Skíðdal walked up. He greeted me cordially, saying:

—You should stop by my place for a chat sometime, Sæmundur Örn. I’m certain that our conversation would lead us to diverse asides more than worthy of our interest.

I felt as if I’d hit the jackpot and, in fact, this turned out to be the start of our excellent acquaintance. Not long afterward, I paid Skúli a visit at his home. At the time, he lived, as he did throughout his final years, in the tower of the old fire station in Reykjavík, between Tjarnargata and Suðurgata Streets. This, of course, best displays his undisputed position in Icelandic literature, that he, our pre-eminent writer, should have been chosen to live his life in this place, after the Reykjavík City Council decided to preserve the tower, have it retrofitted with ivory, and make it the city’s honorary residence for writers.

During that first visit, we sat and drank tea in pleasant weather on the balcony at the top of the tower (where I am, in fact, sitting right now, recording these thoughts). I recall how Skúli looked over the city and said:

—Here is where I keep watch.

Afterward, we would turn out to meet numerous times. You might say that I was the young disciple sitting there at the footstool of the master. It was thrilling, listening to his stories from his long cultural life. And as his trust in me grew, he gradually opened up to me in detail about his own writing. I began to feel as if in me, Skúli sensed the person who could perpetuate his work. And of course, eventually, as I’d hoped, I was able to steer our conversation carefully but naturally to that oft-mentioned distinguishing feature of his career, the fact that he “left nothing behind” in the traditional sense of those words.

I broached my musings as if the question had just occurred to me, what the reason could be for the perfect writer not taking the final step. He was articulate, a great poet, with a fertile, ever-alert mind, knowledgeable, broad-minded, intelligent, respected and admired, highly esteemed by all. Nothing was missing really, except, perhaps, slight bits here and there. How did this happen?

Skúli thought long and hard. I’d almost begun wondering whether I’d offended him, so I stammered:

—Of course, this is just a nicety . . .

Finally, he said:

—No, no, it’s no nicety at all. Actually, I never let anyone into my workshop, as a rule. It’s the alchemist in me, you see. But surely I can make an exception for you. Perhaps you are my one true colleague. (I swear that these were his words. S. Ö.) Yes, yes, you’ve noticed this. The simple fact of the matter is that I don’t follow traditional paths in this regard. Therein lies my originality. This is my fief. It is my domain, into which others cannot and will not stick their noses. Some writers are always fiddling with form, others with perspectives and themes, lyrics, notes, or suchlike in order to find outlets for their originality. Which is perfectly fine. I, however, have adopted this particular method. No other writer has dared to adopt this sort of manifestation. Unfortunately, I might say, but to be honest, I also think, quite sincerely: fortunately. To a certain degree, I have definitely enjoyed being all alone in this area. And other areas are out of the question. I’m afraid that in the absence of this method of mine, my work would have been branded as hugely average. Apart from the key issue, the practical one: What is our destiny? Yes, if we’re lucky, we mature as writers. Some, naturally, aren’t so lucky, always writing worse and worse books, which is tough enough. But are the others any better off? The lucky ones? Let’s say that over the course of his career, one such writer writes twenty to thirty books, developing from one book to another. But how has he improved? In actuality, when such a writer dies, the books that he wrote simply stand there lined up in a long row, each and every one a monument to a different stage of underdevelopment. Amoeba, fish, ape, Neanderthal. Even his final book will not be the crown of his creation, as many people seem to believe. In the first place, the old links will all have been lost by that stage, all rendered obsolete. In the second place, the writer knows at the moment of his death that he could have done better, if only he had waited longer, left off writing the book at the stage of underdevelopment from which he was now emerging. In my work, I have accepted the ultimate consequences of these facts. Young man, MAN IS WHAT HE WOULD BE.

Upon concluding this speech, Skúli began recounting for me all the works that he had created at the various stages of his life as a consequence of internal struggles and untiring labour but did not, in fact, write. I won’t go into any detail about these works, as I would be betraying the writer’s confidence by attempting such a thing. Yet I assert that the corpus of works by Skúli W. Skíðdal has become, as we know, both incentive and boon to Icelandic literature precisely because he left them unwritten.

This unexpected “opening” of this honorable and serious artist, that brief moment when I got to peek into the workshop of the proud alchemist, led to a watershed in my own writing career. You might say that I had the fortune to toss my soul, bound in a bag, into Skúli’s workshop, as the old woman in the folktale tossed the soul of her dear Jón into Heaven. I decided immediately to stop publishing books, and after a five-year battle with myself, I was done with writing.

Perhaps this fact played something of a part in the way that numerous critics have considered me to be influenced by Skúli W. Skíðdal. But nothing is farther from the truth, though in and of itself, I find it no shame to be compared to him. However, the books that the two of us decided to write are, in fact, completely different.

After mastering this method, I have enjoyed increasing success as a writer. And no surprise, as in doing so, I ceased putting weapons into the hands of my adversaries. One thing, though, has turned out to have hobbled me precariously for the longest time: my book, Diverse Asides. Several discreditable younger critics have gotten hold of it through thievish antiquarian booksellers and occasionally write about it in an extremely unfair way. Some have even gone so far as to read it, and are unsparing in their rants and harsh critiques. But a writer should of course be judged by the best that he could have done.

In any case, I must admit that it was exceptionally foolish of me to publish this book. They could certainly criticize me for that. In their eyes, that book is the writer Sæmundur Örn. It is he, pinned down like a butterfly beneath the glass of the critics’ display cases. Look, there he is, that’s how he is and that’s how we want him.

With that publication, I was putting my light under a bushel, and that, no true artist must do. Skúli W. Skíðdal could never have bent so low, which is why he went as far as he did.

Now, when the vultures have begun circling over the works of the deceased genius, I feel it right to make these things known. Away with you, vultures! What appears to you to be perfect for sinking your beaks into could prove fatal to you. Thus did Skúli W. Skíðdal live and work, weak in his strength and strong in his weakness.

What he would be, he could never have become if he had become what he had to become but always tried not to.

Brick 107

Þórarinn Eldjárn lives in Reykjavík and is a writer and translator. He has published a number of poetry collections, short-story collections, and novels, as well as translations of fiction for adults and children from English and the Scandinavian languages.

Philip Roughton is a translator of Icelandic literature. He earned a PhD in Comparative Literature from the University of Colorado, Boulder, with specialties in medieval Icelandic, medieval Chinese, and Latin literature, and he taught modern and world literature at UC Boulder and medieval literature at the University of Iceland.