Gimli Life: drove into Winnipeg yesterday to attend a book launch for David Arnason’s new collection of stories, There Can Never Be Enough. Had supper at the Prairie Ink restaurant that is part of McNally Robinson bookstore at Grant Park. Jim Anderson, that writer of all things Labau, stories and poems of marshes and fishing, bookseller of extraordinary Icelandic Canadian documents, organized a table of writers and editors so conversation before David’s reading was lively and interesting. Filing the other tables were relatives, friends, colleagues, admirers, fans. For me it was a chance to meet and chat with people I might otherwise not see during my three months in Gimli. Linda Sigurdson Collette was there, sitting with the Consul General Hjalmar W. Hannesson and his wife, Anna Birgis, and when David and I and Hjalmar were getting our pictures taken, got us organized so David’s books were front and centre.
It was a happy crowd and the Prairie Ink restaurant is a happy location, its staff used to the vagaries of writers and fans, used to having service cease while an author is introduced and gives a reading and, hopefully, signs large towers of books hot off the press. David’s new collection was so hot off the press that it had just arrived from Turnstone Press two hours before the launch. There’s a nail biter for you.
David and I went to the Gimli Collegiate together. Not surprisingly, given his family’s penchant for discussing saga characters as if they lived on the farm just down the road, he became a teacher of literature. While I and my new wife went to Riverton in 1961, David and his new wife (it was a time of new wives and husbands and we were shockingly young) went to Arborg so he could teach literature there. Our paths crossed again, when two years later David and I bought taught at the Transcona Collegiate.
I went off to teach in Snow Lake and scurvy and David, much more sensibly, went on to earn a Phd. During those years, he was learning about Canadian literature and honing his craft in the writing of fiction and poetry. Like many members of the Icelandic Canadian community, like a moth attracted to the flame, or an Icelandic Canadian from the Interlake, attracted to Lake Winnipeg and vinartera, he returned to teach at the University of Manitoba. He had a house in Winnipeg and a cottage on Willow Island with, as I remember vaguely, some amazing literary beach parties. He was part of and central to the growing canon of Canadian literature, Manitoba literature and, particularly, Icelandic Canadian literature.
He has taught for decades and, as a result, has had a large influence as a teacher, writer and editor on hundreds, if not thousands of individuals. His CV would take a strong man to carry.
When all these external successes are set aside, the position of acting Head of the Department of Icelandic Studies, the head of the Department of English, all those well deserved rewards for hard work well done, it is his writing, particularly his short stories that best define him. He is a fine reader with an excellent sense of timing. I have heard him read his work many times and, each time, it is a pleasure for his stories are filled with truth and laughter. Years go by and a chapter from a novel (his chapter on the problem of his family’s kissing all the time, I will never forget) or a short story will spring to mind and I’ll chuckle to myself and people nearby look around to see what it is that I’m laughing at.
David’s reading last night was like that. He read a story about square dancers and the questions their existence raises. The story was delightful, laughter rippled through the room, I look forward to taking There Can Never Be Enough out into the sunshine and sitting and reading it and laughing out loud no matter how many strange looks I might get.
This was one of those “You should have been there moments”. Driving back to Gimli (it is an hour and a half each way), I was pleased that I had gone into the city to hear David and to see people in the crowd whom I hadn’t seen for a while.
Gimli, Manitoba has always been about commercial fishing. However, it is often pointed out that the Icelandic settlers who came to this area in 1875, in spite of terrible poverty, brought books in their trunks. We know that is true because books in Icelandic seem to be everywhere. Jim Anderson specializes in finding homes for them. It is said that every Icelander and every North American of Icelandic descent is determined to publish a book before he or she dies. From the number of books published in the Icelandic Canadian community that also seems true.
David, with his place at Willow Island, the very place where the first Icelandic settlers landed in 1875, represents a great tradition.