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A Magus of the North

byatt_2-101013.jpg
Palazzo Ducale, Venice/Cameraphoto Arte/Art Resource
Detail from Hieronymus Bosch’s Triptych of the Hermits, circa 1487–1493
Two million eight hundred thousand feet of nerves
six hundred millilitres of bile
three hundred and seventeen pounds of fat
one hundred and twenty fingers
(if one includes the ring finger that was torn from the left
hand of the woman who was murdered under the bridge)….

It also describes decomposition and subsequent dancing.

There are various poems about stones—the song of a stone collector, a lithograph made by Edvard Munch after an imaginary visit to Marie Curie—“the picture has been lost—to dream it predicts the dreamer’s death.” There is a very moving “attempt to resuscitate du’a khalil aswad” who was stoned to death—the “big stone” “lands on the body of a seventeen-year old girl in love.” There is a crazy poem listing thirteen people and creatures who have been “hit by a stone on the head”:

I am corresponding with members of the mineralogical
society in london—when they read my reports of
icelandic stones they doubt that they would survive one day in
reykjavik—I replied that I’m still hanging on so educated
men like them ought to be safe here too

We are bedeviled in our time by a muddle about the words “modern” and “modernism.” Modernism is by now not modern at all—we are told a story about it that says if we have understood Sterne and James Joyce all sorts of writing become impossible. We have had postmodernism and its game-playing, which are also no longer modern. We need a word for modern which is not the same as “contemporary,” something to do with the nature of literary forms. I feel that Sjón’s use of very many interwoven stories, old and new, is a new modern phenomenon. In an interview with The Coffin Factory he declared that he is “almost immune to the realist novel. I have a hard time reading a realist novel,…and I’m, of course, always very happy when I discover somewhere in the realist novel that the novelist has given in to some sort of folkish element.”

He cites Borges, who he says “felt [that] realist fiction was a betrayal of literature at its core, that you are abusing story-telling and literature by not employing the elements of the sublime or fantastic or mythical or folkloric. Because that’s what we are keeping alive.” He believes that humans are essentially storytellers, and that the stories make humans human, rather than writers making the stories.

Sjón says that Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita is his “favorite book of all time” because it tells many stories and many kinds of story all at once. And because it deals with perpetual ideas, like the nature of evil and the nature of history.

Bulgakov and Borges are both elegant inventors of stories who make the old new. I associate Sjón with a group of writers—mostly southern Europeans—who also tell and retell old tales. Roberto Calasso, Italo Calvino, and Claudio Magris reshape history and the history of thought with interwoven tales. I think only Sjón could have set about retelling William Morris’s verse epics, Victorian and booming, which would have pleased Morris with his passions for Iceland and for retelling old tales. It is interesting that Sjón’s backward look is mostly toward the Greek and Roman classics, both the Greek tragedies and Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and toward Christian stories and shapes, rather than towards the Eddas, the Voluspa, and Nordic myths.

From the Mouth of the Whale opens with its own version of Goethe’s Prologue in Heaven in Faust. Lucifer comes home from the hunt and finds the Seventh Heaven in a state of terror and disarray. The angels are appalled:

The most sensitive were slumped against pillars and benches, vomiting spasmodically, the ectoplasm gushing from their mouths to flow unchecked over the azure floors of Heaven. Underlying the hideous spectacle was the whispering sound that is formed when sheer despair filters out into the flight feathers, causing the soft plumes to tremble and the air to play over them with a shrill whistling like a blade of grass blown by a child….

The disaster that has happened is the creation of Man, and with him “the stench of blood and urine, sweat and sperm, mucus and grease.” Lucifer refuses to bow down to the puny creature in the Creator’s hand, which is trying to say its first word, “I.” I have quoted this because it is an example of the way in which Sjón uses an old motif and imagines it anew. At the end of the same novel he describes Jónas the Learned getting his bearings inside “a north whale; an evil leviathan that grows to eighty or ninety ells long and the same in width, and its food is by all accounts darkness and rain, though some say it also feeds on the northern lights.” Again the image is very old and Sjón’s specificity makes it also entirely new, the heat, the motion, the texture of the inside of the creature.

It is perhaps this unflinching specificity, this precision of invention, that makes Sjón’s work so unusual. He describes a massacre of Basque whalers by a horde of Icelanders. The description of the slaughter is appalling—and Sjón has said that he has left out some details from the original historical description—but more startling and appalling is Jónas’s meditation on the way in which tools from daily life suddenly become weapons:

What fisherman first toyed with the idea that it would be an excellent thing to stick large and small hooks in a man’s flesh? What blacksmith first raised his glowing tongs from the fire and was filled with the urge to crush his sister’s breast?…. Who first thought of employing all these useful objects to torture their fellow men to death?… And how can the bloody instruments of murder then return to the world of practical use?… One can still find tools in the Strandir district that today play an indispensable role in people’s lives but twenty-two years ago were used for unspeakable atrocities, like the men who wielded them. Augur, awl, shovel, ax, and spade, all turned to weapons in their hands.

I once heard Sjón talking about his thoughts on the fate of Caenis/Caeneus in The Whispering Muse. He was in Athens looking at the derelict temple of Poseidon where no one worshiped any longer. He then walked to the cliff top overlooking the sea and suddenly saw the sea as it came pouring toward the land, and saw what it would be like to be invaded by all that force, and power, the foam, the dark water, the endlessness. He remarked that people didn’t really imagine what being raped by Poseidon entailed, and then wrote a description that made sure, with his usual unflinchingness, that we did.

And yet, paradoxically, he creates a world in which nothing stays the same, everything is in flux, things shift shape and change their relations to each other.

At the end of From the Mouth of the Whale Jónas meditates at length on grotesque images in old manuscripts, and how these combine forms in new shapes—“a centaur here, an old woman with bird’s feet there, a three-headed dog.” This leads him into the nature of perception itself:

If one watches a river of lava, or clouds of steam or great torrents, or a field rippling in the wind, the eye and mind will not rest until they have tracked down familiar images in the flow….
The grotesques are just like those fleeting images that I myself have often perceived in smoke, lichen, or clouds….
Oh, those thousands of freaks and interwoven absurdities that invigorated me when I was stumbling my way through the thick volumes in the Museum Wormianum… One never knew where one creature began or ended… A goat’s hind legs might, on closer inspection, turn out to be the beginning of a flower stalk… But the stalk sprouted not petals but stork feathers, on top of which sat a cluster of butterfly wings… Nor was it certain whether the goat’s body was made of flesh, mineral, or vegetable… And even if one was fairly sure that the lower half of its body was made of marble, it was just as certain that blood flowed through its stony veins… Was the blood red and hot or green and cold? Everything grows from something else….

This is Sjón’s own way of proceeding, concrete things always shifting shape, metaphors becoming creatures and objects. In From the Mouth of the Whale, Jónas takes issue with the great master Snorri Sturlusson, who prescribed rigorous consistency in imagery:

A metaphor is thought to be well conceived if the notion that has been adopted is maintained throughout the verse. But if a sword is called a serpent, and later a fish or a wand,…people call it monstrous and regard it as spoiling the verse.

Snorri’s prescription leads to a kind of solid grandeur. But Jónas and Sjón desire quite the opposite:

Balderdash, I say, let the sword turn into an adder and the adder a salmon and the salmon a birch twig and the birch twig a sword and the sword a tongue…Let it all run together so swiftly that it cannot be separated again…

Iceland is a land of fierce contrasts, fire and ice. It is a land where real people believe in a matter-of-fact way that our visible world is interwoven with magic—a country in which the places are known where elves live and work. I have seen marked boulders where the doors to the other world are known to be. Sjón’s great variety of figures, simultaneously very solid and shape-changing and vanishing, are Icelandic, and beyond that European. He has changed the way I see things.

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