Icelanders seem to have a deep-seated preoccupation with how they are perceived by the outside world and a belief that “recognition comes from abroad.” The modern Icelandic proverb expressing this sentiment, “upphefðin kemur að utan,” can be traced back to a line in Nobel Prize-winning author Halldór Laxness’s play ‘Strompleikurinn’ (“The Chimney Play”) from 1961. However, its essence is perhaps best captured in his 1957 novel ‘Brekkukotsannáll’ (“The Fish Can Sing”), in which an Icelandic opera singer is celebrated in Reykjavík as the nation’s famous “world singer” though nobody in Iceland has actually heard him sing. They assume that he must be great, though, as he has performed all over the world:
I do not think that any paper was ever published in Iceland in those days which did not carry at least a brief notice about his fame as a singer, and sometimes even more than one article in each issue. The headlines always went something like this: “ICELANDIC SONG ABROAD”; “ICELAND’S ART WINS FAME AFAR”; “ICELANDIC MUSIC IN OTHER LANDS”; “THE WORLD LISTENS TO ICELAND”; “IMPORTANT CONCERT IN CAPITAL CITY”; OR, “ICELAND APPLAUDED IN INTERNATIONAL PAPER LE TEMPS.” The Subject of the articles was always the same: Garðar Hólm had yet again earned fame for Iceland abroad. In the town of Küssnacht he had sung the following songs: How Beautifully that Bird did Sing, The Sheep are Bleating in the Pen, and The East Wind Coldly on Us Blew, and the newspaper Küssnachter Nachrichten had said such and such.
Although his novel is set in the early 20th century, at a time when Icelanders were still fighting for their independence from Denmark, Laxness’s commentary on Iceland’s preoccupation with being in the international spotlight seems as relevant today as it was then. In fact, Halldór Laxness’s fictional parody of Icelandic society and journalism from 1957 seems to be the reality of Icelandic society and journalism in 2015.
This is part of a larger feature story that explores the Icelandic media’s tendency to pick up and cover articles about Iceland in the New York Times.
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