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 writes. ‘I don’t want to know that the great historian had a bath.’ Paradoxically, she is searching for ‘an unmediated Iceland, even though I know there’s no such thing.’
This quest for the unmediated recurs in Moss’s work. Her first novel, Cold Earth, strands a group of archaeologists on the coast of Greenland; her second, Night Waking, is a comic existential thriller set on a remote Hebridean island. In Names for the Sea, Moss takes a job at the University of Iceland and brings along her husband and two small children. It is 2009, and Iceland is mired in the Kreppa, the financial crisis. Despite this, everyone tells Moss that she has arrived in a Nordic utopia, a place of immaculate gender parity and hardly any crime.
Moss sets her family up in a flat, unpacks the various oddments of parenthood, and buys some overpriced frozen vegetables. The crazy volcanic vistas lie beyond, scenery that could have been designed by Dalí – green lakes, mountains shaped like lions or perfect cones, striped bergs floating on silver waves. Yet all winter Moss is trapped in her flat, because the snow ‘doesn’t exactly fall … it’s coming horizontally’ and her children get blown over if she takes them outside. When the weather improves she goes with her family to see the northern lights, sketching out hurried impressions: ‘bright green, flickering across half the sky … Just look at the damn things, I think, buy a postcard later.’ Some of her wildest adventures are imaginary: ‘If we didn’t have children … we could go up there, crunching over the lava to the empty heart of Eldfell, the fire mountain, and we could peer down into the crater and turn to see the sea crawling against the new coastline.’
This is all funny, honest, and a useful corrective to the tradition of the lone traveller, the landscape poet striding across empty plains. It is like taking the Caspar David Friedrich painting of The Wanderer (usually found on the covers of books by Nietzsche) and adding a toddler straining to hurl himself into the misty depths below and another child who is bored and wants to go home. It also confronts the quandary a travel writer faces once she or he has gained a child or two: that while the cliché of the solitary traveller remains, travel can never quite be the same again. Moss simply ignores the cliché, and keeps dragging her family down ice-bound streets, along Route 1 (the ring road that circles Iceland) and even, occasionally, into the unkempt, car-wrecking interior. She relishes the seasonal changes of the land: ‘the greens and blues have turned to shades of grey’; ‘the clouds part and for the first time in months there is sunlight in the water, translucent sunbursts and flames of light’. She goes in ‘search of the Kreppa’, and finds – despite the utopian talk – more crime and less gender equality than advertised, and a hidden underclass: ‘it’s as if there’s been a collective forgetting, as if Icelandic poverty were as shameful as French wartime collaboration or the British concentration camps of the Boer War.’
Though often restricted in her movements, often stalled entirely by the needs of the young, Moss’s thoughts are agile and unfettered. She ranges from geopolitical instability, to romantic (or unromantic) exile, to volcanology, to the joys (or otherwise) of Icelandic knitting. There’s even a gag about an elvish car-jacking. In everything, she is robustly subjective. Auden and MacNeice despised the florid ubiquity of a certain sort of Victorian traveller, trotting from one saga site to another, exclaiming on cue about the pools of Beelzebub. Moss, similarly, casts everyone else off and finds a register of her own. She does so in a fascinating and unusual book, a piece of genuine news from nowhere, the gripping account of one person thinking and perceiving for herself.