The Daily

Posts Tagged ‘storytelling’

Words Could Not Fell Me

December 29, 2015 | by

We’re away until January 4, but we’re re-posting some of our favorite pieces from 2015. Please enjoy, and have a happy New Year!

All photos by Karl Steel

Reciting sagas in the Westfjords of Iceland.

Haymaking time had come, warm, dry, and cloudless, on a late summer’s morning roughly a millennium ago. All the men had gone out to mow, except for Thorkel, who lingered in bed, eavesdropping on the women in the next room, digesting his breakfast, and, with less composure, the revelation of his wife Asgerd’s infidelity. At last Thorkel roused himself, to speak a verse:

Hear a great wonder,
hear of peace broken,
hear of a great matter,
hear of a death
—one man’s or more.

Thorkel’s prophecy came true with the help of a big spear. After an anonymous assailant stabbed Asgerd’s lover, Vestein, Vestein’s and Thorkel’s brother-in-law, Gisli—“a man of great prowess, [yet] fortune was not always with him”—initiated the obligatory, inexhaustible cycle of revenge killings. Honor and familial chore-shirking would doom Gisli to a life of feud, outlawry, and death by mob, but not before he, too, had seized the chance to speak a great many verses.

When I first heard the medieval Icelandic Gísla saga Súrssonar, I was sitting on a mound where archaeologists had excavated a Viking-era burial site, where Gisli might very well have buried Vestein, in the Haukadalur valley, on the banks of Dýrafjörður, in the Vestfirðir, or Westfjords of Iceland. It was July, and the grass grew high, spangled with toadstools, wildflowers, and dried sheep dung, but it wasn’t haymaking weather. Under a gray, drizzly sky, beside the subarctic waters of the fjord, I huddled with my husband, Karl, on a gray wool blanket. Read More >>

True Story

December 11, 2015 | by

Albert Anker, Der Grossvater erzählt eine Geschichte (detail), 1884.

One of the least endearing human verbal quirks is the “true story.” You know the drill: someone is telling some anecdote and at the end, the raconteur pauses dramatically and says, “True story.” In every single case, you’d had no reason to question the story’s credibility. In every single case, the story has been interminable. In every single case, the teller delivers the line with the air that he’s certainly blown your mind. He’s never blown your mind. Read More »

Words Could Not Fell Me

November 30, 2015 | by

Reciting sagas in the Westfjords of Iceland.

All photos by Karl Steel

Haymaking time had come, warm, dry, and cloudless, on a late summer’s morning roughly a millennium ago. All the men had gone out to mow, except for Thorkel, who lingered in bed, eavesdropping on the women in the next room, digesting his breakfast, and, with less composure, the revelation of his wife Asgerd’s infidelity. At last Thorkel roused himself, to speak a verse:

Hear a great wonder,
hear of peace broken,
hear of a great matter,
hear of a death
—one man’s or more.

Thorkel’s prophecy came true with the help of a big spear. After an anonymous assailant stabbed Asgerd’s lover, Vestein, Vestein’s and Thorkel’s brother-in-law, Gisli—“a man of great prowess, [yet] fortune was not always with him”—initiated the obligatory, inexhaustible cycle of revenge killings. Honor and familial chore-shirking would doom Gisli to a life of feud, outlawry, and death by mob, but not before he, too, had seized the chance to speak a great many verses.

When I first heard the medieval Icelandic Gísla saga Súrssonar, I was sitting on a mound where archaeologists had excavated a Viking-era burial site, where Gisli might very well have buried Vestein, in the Haukadalur valley, on the banks of Dýrafjörður, in the Vestfirðir, or Westfjords of Iceland. It was July, and the grass grew high, spangled with toadstools, wildflowers, and dried sheep dung, but it wasn’t haymaking weather. Under a gray, drizzly sky, beside the subarctic waters of the fjord, I huddled with my husband, Karl, on a gray wool blanket. Read More »

Casting the Runes

October 9, 2015 | by

From Night of the Demon, a 1957 film loosely based on M. R. James’s “Casting the Runes.”

I love being read to. I could pretend it’s because it takes my mind away when I have a migraine or because it allows one to appreciate the aural poetry of writing—and that would be partially true. But the appeal is more elemental, more regressive. When you’re being read to, you’re being taken care of.

Perhaps by the same token, something scary can be magnified in the hearing. Ghost stories are meant to be told orally, after all, and when you are listening to something recorded, you have the option of doing so in the dark. When October comes, no matter if it’s more Indian summer than crisp fall, I want nothing so much as the occult and creepy. And so I walk through the city or work in the kitchen or stand on line at the bank, with M. R. James playing in my ears. Read More »

On the Fjords

September 9, 2015 | by

Fritz Grebe, Blick in den sommerlichen Hardanger Fjord, 1881.

About an hour into the boat ride, I went below deck to buy two cups of hot chocolate. It was chilly and I hadn’t dressed warmly enough, but I didn’t want to miss anything.

The fjord was unearthly beautiful. It felt counterproductive in every way to try to capture anything with a camera—scale, color, grandeur—or impose yourself on the landscape, although admittedly, no one else on the deck seemed to feel this way. There was a view from the cabin, too, of course, but it wasn’t quite the same.  Read More »

The Last Word

July 16, 2015 | by

The conundrum of writing about the dead.

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Photo: Jennifer Boyer

Recently, I stood in the woods near Auschwitz in Oswiecim, Poland—the same woods where Jews waited to enter the gas chambers. It was a picnic-worthy spring day. Sunlight filtered through the pine trees. Unable to imagine the horror that had happened there, my thoughts turned instead to a picture I had seen the day before. It was captioned “Sniatyn—tormenting Jews before their execution,” and it shows five naked Jews—four men and a boy—and a handful of Nazis in uniform and civilian clothing holding sticks, apparently gathering before the execution. One of the Jewish men stands looking at the ground with his hands folded in front of him, the Jewish boy is still wearing his hat.

Whenever I see this photograph, I always have the same thought: After all that they have suffered, why should they also suffer the indignity of our gaze? I would not want to be seen in this moment of humiliation. This thought is immediately replaced by another: they are not suffering our gaze. They are dead, they are not suffering anything. And I am looking at them precisely because they were humiliated—without this humiliation, they would have slipped from seen to unseen, as almost all the dead do. They have been chosen for contemporary viewing because this moment tells a larger story that eclipses any squeamishness we have about displaying them in such a scene of degradation. Read More »