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Recording Reykjavik and Oslo

Research turns into inspiration when I get off task and take a taxi to the Munch Museum. It's a modern space, and the outdoor café seems, at least today, to be a meeting spot for new Norwegian mothers. Inside is a rather complete collection of Edvard Munch's work, beginning with his stiff and unpromising early drawings then plunging into the tortured, visionary paintings and woodcuts for which he is world famous. Mixed in with the familiar Munchs are a couple of paintings that mysteriously conjure within me all that I have not yet understood about the story I am writing. The first is called Selvportrett mot Rød Bakgrunn ("Self-portrait Against a Red Background"), and it shows the artist in a blue suit and vest in front of a deep red background, his hand in his pocket. Something stirs within me, and then I see Selvportrett i Helvete, in which he imagines himself in hell, staring out at us before a background of flame and smoke. He is naked to the pubic bone; there are slashes of red paint across his neck and green around his back and shoulder. My traveling companion, also a writer, joins me in front of "Self-portrait in Hell," where I've been standing for 15 minutes.

"What's up?" she asks.

"My guys are going to hell," I say. "It's a sex tour led by Satan. That's the part of Lincoln Castle I could never figure out."

She nods, and then says, "He's the devil?"

"Maybe not the but a."

We spend a couple of days in Norway. I feel my work is done, but I continue to scribble in my notebooks. (I will never take a camera on a trip again.) The fjords are glycerin. No, scratch that: the fjords are black ice. The train ride from Oslo to Bergen brings us past glaciers, waterfalls, immaculate farms. Peace and prosperity at every turn.

The breeze in Bergen touches you like fingers that have been feeding lox to a loved one. An acquaintance in the Norwegian music business takes us to a waterfront bar called Femte i Andre, where the eloquent bartender gives us a history of aquavit in his BBC-inflected English, reveling in the mythology of Scandinavian drunkenness while lighting my cigarette, our companion's cigar, and, in a moment of overzealous chivalry, my girlfriend's eyeglasses—she has made the error of taking them off, and in the bartender's peripheral vision they are a tobacco product. As Jo Ann wipes the sulfur smudge off her glasses, I am thinking: This is definitely going in. But the truth is, I am barely here. When a writer finds what he wants, he needs to get down to work, and ever since standing in front of the Munch paintings two days earlier, I was done, I was gone, I was already home.


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