Men at Axlir: The Story of a Book
The combination of being a wild skier and not having much cash meant that when I went cartwheeling down that slope out in Iceland in 1972 and my cheap bindings failed to open, I ended up in hospital. It was when I was there that the Icelander in the next bed, hearing that I was a writer, asked if I knew the story about Sunnefa Jónsdóttir and Sheriff Wium…
But it was only later, when I’d won the Somerset Maugham Award for which the money had to be spent abroad, that I decided to go back to Iceland and research the story.
I spent a bit of time in Reykjavík talking to people, reading old books and papers and then went off to a farm in Skaftafell, right under the glacier in the south of the country, to try and plan out my new book. Of course I already had half a story, namely the historical facts, of how in the 18th century Sunnefa and her brother had had a child together and that while they were awaiting trial and she was being held on the farm of one of the Danish sheriffs, this sheriff supposedly raped her and got her pregnant again... The job I’d set myself was to create a fiction around these few known facts.
But Iceland is a small place and everybody knows not only everybody else but often their parentage and history too. So when I got off the bus and was met by the farmer’s wife and we were walking back up the hill to the farm, she asked me what my book was going to be about. ‘Sunnefa and Hans Wium,’ I replied. ‘Oh,’ she said, ‘he was one of my ancestors.’ Quite bizarre that I was going to be spending some weeks in the house of one of the descendants of my main character. And a character whose behaviour history had so far suggested was the villain of the piece.
In the event, tying together fact and fiction turned out to be rather more complicated than writing straight fiction. But day after day as I paced the hills and scrambled around the edge of the glacier, I slowly began to fill in the gaps and make my decisions about what might have really happened.
Back in Scotland, I borrowed a friend’s house up in Ardnamurchan that January for the business of putting together all the notes and ideas that I’d gathered in Iceland. This was in the days before mains electricity had arrived in West Ardnamurchan and my evenings —which I always put aside for typing up the day’s writing—would be spent by the light of an oil lamp.
Unlike my earlier books, this one came to me almost as fast as I could write, I imagine because I’d sorted out all the complicated stuff before I’d begun. There were occasional patches when the pace slowed a bit but nevertheless I’d soon finished, having written 80,000 words in 3 months—something quite unheard of for me.
When Men at Axlir finally appeared in 1978 it received a few glowing reviews but also some singularly bloody-minded and cavilling ones. At the time I certainly didn’t much appreciate this latter but in hindsight I think it just goes to show that not all books will ever appeal to all people. When some readers found the Icelandic names difficult, I pointed out how Russian novels, with all their complex names and their endless affectionate diminutives, never seemed to be a problem.
Later the same year the book was also published in the USA. But it was not to be until 1992 that the novel first appeared in paperback.
Each time it comes up for re-publication it offers me the chance of tweaking the text. And somehow the very passing of the years gives one a clearer sight into the merits and weaknesses of a piece of writing. The tweaking doesn’t involve any real re-writing in the sense of actually altering the story: it’s more a matter of tightening up the text (usually by cutting extraneous words and phrases) and thereby strengthening it.