Adlon bar

”The swinging guys’ café, Adlon, a.k.a. Hungary, hunches between old wooden houses downtown, in a stuccoed-over hovel done up like a diner, with a lengthwise counter. The boy can’t bring himself to go shoot pool without first getting down a cup of lukewarm joe.”

– Vögguvísa (Lullaby) by Elías Mar. Translation by Sarah Brownsberger (unpublished).

The swing joint Adlon Bar

Adlon Bar, or Langibar as it was known in daily parlance, stood between Aðalstræti 6 and 8, the old Morgunblaðið building and the theatre Fjalakötturinn, respectively. Langibar was a popular haunt for youngsters, earning it the playful moniker of Ungverjaland – the Icelandic term for Hungary, which can also be read literally to mean “land of youngsters.” A prominent sign announcing the presence of a “Sodabar Fountaine” birthed an equally playful, if rather less-flattering title, Sódabarinn;  in Icelandic, the sóda- means “filthy.” The merchants Silli og Valdi, now almost mythological characters in the history of Reykjavík, opened the bar in 1946 and operated it until 1960, when an open sandwich restaurant took over the premises.

The bar appears in Elías Mar’s novel Lullaby, which was published in 1950 and is often referred to as the first Icelandic youth novel. A contemporary tale, Lullaby tells the story of a teenager known as Bambínó, who gravitates to the seedier underbelly of the of postwar Reykjavík, depicted with an unprecedented faithfulness in the novel. Elías also meticulously reproduced the slang and speech cadences of the day, which lends a colourful air to the prose. In autumn 2012, the publishing house Lesstofan republished Lullaby, and the new edition includes an illuminating appendix on the work, as well as a collection of slang terms that Elías compiled while writing the book.

“Lullaby is the first youth novel of the newly minted republic, and in short, it was a hit. Elías wrote it in the summer of 1949, the same summer he turned 25. The story opens with a break-in on a Wednesday night, and concludes on a Sunday evening, with Bambínó wallowing in snow turned to sludge at downtown Austurvöllur, ruminating on recent events. He is a city child, whose nickname is borrowed from a pop song. At fifteen, he is his group’s youngest member. They know nothing of the life of youngsters outside the city. The countryside is as remote as the Moon. The isolated Iceland of old has vanished; the modern Iceland with its business exchanges and American pop influence is here to stay. The teenagers of Lullaby don’t dream of a renaissance of Icelandic rural culture, they dream of being cool cats in killer suits. They haunt cafés and bars, play billiards, throw parties, collect pulp magazines and play boogie-woogie records. They don’t believe themselves to have any responsibilities. They steal money to counter the boredom of Reykjavík. They steal out of a devotion to a particular aesthetic. Their conversations are heavily influenced by pop songs and movies. Elías picked up the lingo at bars, pool dives and cafés, compiling a dedicated “slang dictionary” to write the book. The young republic took a direction that was wildly divergent from the intended one. Elías sensed this more acutely than anyone in 1949: the pop culture of teenagers was about to conquer the world. Some stories can discern the heartbeat of time.”

Hjálmar Sveinsson: “A new pen in a new republic.” Morgunblaðið, October 28, 2006.