Viðar Hreinsson has come and gone. We are better for his visit.
Viðar is the author of Wakeful Nights, the biography of Stephan G. Stephanson. The Icelandic version was published in two volumes in 2002 and 2003. The English version is one volume. In his talk last night he said that if he had the opportunity to re-edit the original Icelandic publication, he would have cut out some material. However, individuals who have read the book or are part-way through reading the book say that they love the detail because it gives them not just a picture of Stephan G’s life but of life in Iceland and later in the USA and Canada.
We picked up Viðar at the Clipper ferry terminal. He´d been in Seattle giving a reading and talk at the Icelandic Club there. His trip was arranged with the cooperation of the Icelandic National League, the various Icelandic clubs, the Richard and Margaret Beck Trust and the Icelanders of Victoria.
The Clipper that brought Vidðar is a catamaran that takes two and a half hours to make the trip from Seattle to Victoria. He said the weather was good, the trip over, smooth. Thank goodness. In rough weather, the Clipper has been known to deliver a lot green, wobbly passengers. In any event, since Viðar has worked on Icelandic fishing boats and experienced bad North Sea weather, we expected him to easily handle anything the waters around the BC Coast could throw at him.
The day was hot. The sky clear. We intended to take him sight seeing but one of the circuits in the house blew out when I went to change a light bulb. My son in law and an electrician friend responded. Instead of seeing Gold Stream Park or the Empress hotel, Viðar got to watch the intricate search for an answer to why there were live wires that weren´t supposed to be live and dead light bulbs that should have been live. It wouldn´t have mattered except the circuit that went down included his guest bedroom, the dining room where the food and coffee were to be served and the stairwell the guests were expected to ascend.
As the search went on, we began talking about Icelandic history and literature. Viðar knows his Icelandic history, politics and geography and has an opinion about them all. He´s not shy about taking stands and it is easy to see why he would want to write a book about Stephan G.
Here are Viðar’s wonderful shoes.
Stephansson was a man ahead of his times. Today, we do not think of poetry as a way of expressing political, economic and social views but in Stephansson´s time, (b. Iceland, 1853-d. Alberta, 1927), poetry, particularly in the Icelandic immigrant communities was used for all these purposes. Poetry was not all about the beauty of daffodils or pretty girls. For Stephansson, his poetry was a way for him to express deeply held beliefs about war, capitalism, and the role of humans in the environment.
Over coffee, Viðar talked about the difficulty of supporting a family as a free lance scholar and writer. Not for him, the security and comfort of a tenured academic position, but the hurly burly, high energy world where individuals, corporations and institutions have to be convinced to provide funding for projects like Wakeful Nights.
Making a living as a writer of any kind is precarious. The stories in the newspapers or on TV about some writer who has just received a million dollars for a first time manuscript is there because the occasion is rare. So rare, that it is news. The struggle of most writers is to pay the rent, the grocery bill, or, as Viðar told us, to buy a pizza to celebrate his son´s birthday.
Here’s Viðar´s wonderful book.
Viðar read from the book, then gave a talk about the content of the book, followed by a reading of some of Stephansson´s poems. Even though most of us do not understand spoken Icelandic, it made no difference. We followed along on handouts and let the music of the language wash over us. Afterwards, there was a question and answer period. All the available books were bought. We had coffee, dainties, fruit and conversation.
It was a pleasure to have this event in my home. After the talk, Tom Benjamin, the president of the Icelanders of Victoria club, thanked Viðar and I mentioned to the guests that this was an historic occasion because soon after the first Icelandic settlers arrived in Victoria in 1886, gatherings such as we had with Viðar was an important part of their life.
Ben Sivertz, in his autobiography says “There were Sunday gatherings in different homes where the house would fill with people in an atmosphere of story and song, coffee and cake and poems – always poems. Recent compositions would be read and met with universal applause.”
This evening with Viðar was about poetry, about a great poet, about the life of these immigrants who had travelled far and formed new communities and new identities, about Iceland. There was coffee and cake. We lived, for those hours, in a proud tradition.