A Wind from Islandia
The only part of summer I like, and I don't get it every year, is the occasional cool, even chilly day that pops in usually sometime in August to put everyone into light jackets and make me oh so happy. In the 60s or even 50s, cloudy, windy, sometimes with rain...you can actually feel fall on the wind, feel the changeover starting up, smell the cold that is coming behind the heat. Just lovely.
New York was blessed with such a day today. A/c off, windows wide open, lovely north/northeast breeze streaming right in. Temps barely in the 60s today, going down into the 50s tonight. Absolute bliss. I'd been trying to magically pull cool air down from Canada, and it actually heard me and came. A little bubble of coolth all over the Tri-state and New England. It's warming up again tomorrow, but God bless Canada.
But what weather like this really does for me is get me to reread certain books. Usually books with some kind of similar weather outlook. And quite often the book is Austin Tappan Wright's gorgeous and monumental "Islandia".
I first read it in the winter of 1967. I was still at Harpur, living off-campus in Binghamton in a wonderful tiny apartment in a fabulous old Victorian house, on the top floor, so I had a view of rooftops, steeples and hills not far away. When spring and early summer came, the leaves of big old trees screened my windows. But it was in winter, February, March, that I found "Islandia" in the paperback rack of a tiny grocery store near my apartment (I also found there, at the same time, "The Worm Ouroboros," by E.R. Eddison, another splendid and earth-shaking find...what a strange magical little nexus that grocery store must have been, those two glorious and influencing books put there just for me.)
"Islandia" is the hefty story (over 1200 pages) of a fictional island-continent in the South Atlantic where, at the start of the 20th century, a young man named John Lang is sent as US consul. His best friend at Harvard, Dorn, scion of one of the oldest and noblest Islandian families, has gone home to help organize resistance to a treaty that would have Islandia join the community of nations, and Lang is torn between wanting the Islandia he soon falls in love with to remain unspoiled, and wanting the country to take its place in the world and allow in foreign trade and investment, which Lord Mora, the prime minister, is pushing for, and which the young king, Tor, the Dorn family (led by young Dorn's great-uncle, Lord Dorn) and most of the Islandian people are very much against. The book is the account of this epic clash between Dorn and Mora, acted out in the younger generation and joined by Lang, but it's also so much more than that.
(People in Islandia have only one family name, with another name to indicate place in the family, modified with feminine endings: thus Lang, as he is known there, has a girlfriend named Hytha Nattana, indicating that she is a female of the Hyth family, and Nattana is the feminine number-name for a fourth-born---if she'd been a boy, he'd have been Hyth Natta).
Wright sets Islandia up as an Edwardian-era Luddite paradise: no technology more sophisticated than a plow or sawmill, no transport jazzier than a horse or horse and wagon. They have an army and navy, mostly to defend them against the black and what looks like Arab-origin peoples across their northern barrier mountains; they practice sophisticated medicine, have great literature and music, but otherwise they live simple agrarian lives of astonishing complexity. Tanar, or proprietors, own the land, but they work in harmony with deneri, or dependents, who live on the farms and have a share in them; as Wright describes it, it's practical utopianism. Some folks live in The City, or in towns, but for the most part farms are the way of it. Very hippie-like.
The reason that cold rainy days in high summer send me back to "Islandia" is that, even more so than Tolkien (!), ATW is the master of weather writing. Because the natural scene is such a vast part of Islandian life, he writes of how weather impacts every aspect of that life, and the weather and geographic descriptions are unparalleled. (Food descriptions too: he makes a great fuss about hot chocolate, which is just fine with me, and he's got these meatroll things for traveling that sound nummy.)
So there was a scene early in Lang's life in The City when Dorn comes to fetch him (amazing description of Lang's house) and they set out riding across the country to Dorn's home in the Marsh, an island archipelago far in the traditional West. The details of packing up, riding out in a rainy morning on wonderful mountain horses, what the young men wore and ate, where they stayed...fabulous. And throughout the book he repeats these small triumphs of scenes: sometimes he describes deep winter in high mountains, or the trek through them as Lang goes traveling; sometimes it's deep hot summer or blazing fall or cool misty spring...it's the most evocative book I've ever read, and it's A FANTASY. Islandia never existed. Yet he makes it realer than real...
Anyway, as I lie here on my many pillows with the cool wind blowing in on me, so that I have to cuddle up in my nice fleecy sweatshirt blankie, I open "Islandia" and start reading...maybe you should try to get hold of it too. And I think I'll make myself some hot chocolate.