Names for the Sea: Strangers in Iceland by Sarah Moss - review by Joanna Kavenna

Joanna Kavenna

Moon Country

Names for the Sea: Strangers in Iceland


Granta Books 358pp £14.99)

In the nineteenth century travellers flocked to Iceland, enticed by sagas and later hyperboles, in search of a ‘wild weird clime’ (Edgar Allan Poe) and a place ‘infernal to be looked upon’ (Anthony Trollope). Richard Burton and William Morris also went there, admiring the dusty mountains, blackened lava fields and spectral glaciers. In 1936, W H Auden and Louis MacNeice followed on, retreating from ‘over-emphasis’, dire events in Europe, and their sense that, ‘in England … one cannot see the ground/For the feet of the crowd, and the lost is never found’. They co-authored a witty, irreverent travelogue, Letters from Iceland. In 1996, Simon Armitage and Glyn Maxwell followed on from Auden and MacNeice in Moon Country – their title a reference to one of MacNeice’s lines, ‘the songs of jazz have told us of a moon country’.

In her latest book, a memoir, Sarah Moss describes a year she spent in Reykjavik. At first, this seems to be one more follow-on: she takes her title from Auden, ‘each poet has a name for the sea’, and echoes his disdain for the sagas, William Morris, and history fetishism in general. ‘I don’t want to see the bath of the great historian,’ she

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