At times, everyone involved in Icelandic culture seems to regard him or herself as its outsider. This appears to be true about the country’s most celebrated and acknowledged writers, artists, musicians —even its Prime ministers and Presidents: the idea that whatever the country’s mainstream is, it is something all the others are doing. Perhaps they are all right. In any case, this feels like a qualification to make before introducing writer Guðbergur Bergsson, who arguably incorporates this state of contradiction with more authority than most: at 82, he has been among Iceland’s most celebrated authors for decades and yet remains an artist that very few endorse without reserve. As a ’68-generation rascal, he would easily be the darling of the political Left if he didn’t habitually strike against it where it hurts, coming across, at times, as a radical conservative. When Guðbergur makes an utterance against that grain, it is not dismissed and shrugged at, but becomes a topic of conversation for a week, before, nowadays, dissolving in our common electrical ether. The response is not exactly the same as that to a king sneering at his court or a mother scolding her offspring for their chosen way of life. Not exactly. There must be a more apt analogy out there.
The other day Fréttablaðið published an interview with Guðbergur, in which he was quoted as saying: ‘This nation scorns anything that stands the test of time and does not appreciate anything of high value. Our culture is so shallow.’ The words were spoken in relation to the thrill-seeking entrepreneurs who all but bankrupted the country. Never mind the context: it was that last line which hurt. Our culture? Shallow?
As far as I know, what followed mainly took place on Facebook. On comment threads, people enumerated works of Icelandic literature that have been translated abroad, foreign works that have been translated into Icelandic, the music scene, theatre etc. Could a country so productive in the arts suffer a shallow culture? Some pointed out that culture is more than the arts enumerated. All acknowledged that, of course, Iceland is no equal to France or Germany with their millions of inhabitants and age-old institutions and traditions. And still and yet and but and no! We are deep. We must be, because we are we.
A mischievous eavesdropper on these conversations might have been amused by the venue they took place in. As far as the written word goes, Icelandic culture is, nowadays, mainly debated on Facebook. Our spiteful observer might find the press-enter-to-post type comments somewhat contradicting the enthusiastic defense of the local culture’s profundity. Surely a culture of reputed depths takes special care of its cultural media. Where would you look for the real debate? The really hardcore stuff, involving either a threatening dash of recently forged concepts or strikingly new sentences —or both?
[To be Continued …]