Every now and then a writer changes the whole map of literature inside my head. The most recent has been the Icelander Sjón, whose work is unlike anything I had read, and very exciting. He was born in 1962 and published his first poetry collection when he was fifteen. He was a founder of the neosurrealist group Medúsa. He has published eight novels and books of poetry, plays, and librettos. He writes lyrics for the Icelandic singer Björk and was nominated for an Oscar for his lyrics for the Lars von Trier film Dancer in the Dark.
I think of Icelanders as erudite, singular, tough, and uncompromising. Sjón is all these things, but he is also quicksilver, playful, and surreal. His pen name is an abbreviation of his full name, Sigurjón Birgir Sigurðsson—Sjón means sight.
Three of his novels have been translated into English—The Blue Fox, From the Mouth of the Whale, and The Whispering Muse. They are set in very different historical periods. The Blue Fox is set in the 1880s. It has two main characters—Fridrik Fridjónsson, a naturalist, and Baldur Skuggason, a harsh priest who hunts foxes. Like all Sjón’s work, it contains two worlds at once, which are ultimately the same world—the solid earth (harsh and Icelandic, raging fire under frozen and stormy mountains) and the shape-shifting world of magic and storytelling (also Icelandic). It is Fridjónsson who proclaims in Copenhagen, “I have seen the universe! It is made of poems!”
The narrative appears to be in two separate strands, which at the end join perfectly. Baldur Skuggason sets out to hunt the blue fox in a blizzard. He is implacable and very nasty, yet at some level we simply accept his stolid existence—the pleasure with which he devours a cod’s head, the layers of clothes he wears, his calm when he finds himself imprisoned in a snowdrift. He kills the fox and carries it away in his jacket. She comes back to life and they agree to discuss electricity in a cave—Skuggason believes it is wrong to confine electrical impulses, created by God, in wires. He kills her again while she is distracted. His name mirrors hers—a blue fox in Icelandic is Skugga-Baldur.
Fridjónsson the naturalist is gentle and civilized. He has rescued a “mongoloid” girl who calls herself Abba. At this time such children were suffocated at birth—any who survived were sold into slavery and abused. Abba, in Fridrikson’s care, becomes a naturalist in her own way, collecting Icelandic flora and feathers, inventing a personal language.
From the Mouth of the Whale is set in 1635. This book too is about science, religion, magic, and the way they transform each other. Its hero, Jónas Pálmason the Learned, was a real man whose works and harsh fate Sjón has studied deeply. He lived at a time when magic and religion and science were all part of one another—he wrote an autobiographical poem called “Sandpiper,” manuscripts on natural history, a commentary on the Edda, legends, outlaw ballads, genealogies, and made pictures of whales. The church is again harsh in this tale—because he is convicted of blasphemy Jónas is exiled to an island off the coast of Iceland where subsistence is barely possible, along with his wife, a woman clever enough to have worked out what causes eclipses of the sun and moon.
The novel is studded with his observations on creatures both mythical and very real, fish and whales observed precisely, laver and stones. He remarks that “when a thing has been classified correctly, it is tamed.” This remark, however, is made during a long episode when he and another poet are trying to exhaust a walking corpse by driving it along while reciting exorcising verses. Sjón is quite remarkably good at describing corpses. He is good at stinks and decay and flesh as it changes color.
Jónas is temporarily rescued by a stranger in a boat who takes him to Denmark to meet the naturalist Ole Wurm. While there he explodes the myth that narwhal tusks are the horns of unicorns—thus damaging the Icelandic trade in these objects. Before he sets out he is given an Edenic vision of all the birds of the air, the fish of the sea, the beasts, and the plants—this vision of wholeness and order and plenitude recurs in Sjón’s work alongside the contrary vision of destruction and dissolution. Jónas writes:
Bird in air,
mammal on moor,
fish in sea,
plant on shore.
Stone in ground,
man in the middle,
monsters of the sound,
The Whispering Muse is set in 1949, aboard a ship owned by the Jung-Olson family’s Kronos line. I imagine that Jung-Olson can be translated as “Young Old.” The ship is on the Norwegian coast at Mold, loading bales of new paper from a paper mill to be taken to the Turkish Black Sea coast. The novel has headings like “Life on the Ocean Wave” and is much of the time comical, even farcical, though as always with Sjón there are sudden grim touches and moments of nastiness.
It is narrated by a simple, self-important, impercipient man called Valdimar Haraldsson. He is the author of Fisk og Kultur, a journal discussing the racial superiority of the Nordic races, which is, he claims, the result of a predominantly fishy diet. He is also the author of Memoirs of a Herring Inspector. During World War II he broadcast in Icelandic for the German government. He has been invited as a guest of the company on the paper-transporting voyage. He makes a series of completely unfunny jokes which are simultaneously very funny in their inanity. The ship’s table is full of excellent and sophisticated food, but no fish is served. Then he is provided with a rod and line, and catches an enormous cod that provides several simple and nutritious meals for everyone. Subsequently his rod disappears.
The narrative is doubled by a series of tales told at dinner by the second mate, who is in fact the mythical hero Caeneus, who sailed with Jason on the Argo—and was once a princess, raped by Poseidon, who, when the sea god said he would fulfill any wish of hers, asked to be made a man so he would never experience that pain again. Caeneus listens to a wooden fragment that he says is a fragment of the original Argo. His tales are tales from William Morris’s The Earthly Paradise, in which a company of Icelandic sailors, seeking a new home, end on a Mediterranean island sharing tales with the Greek inhabitants.
Sjón’s Caeneus runs stories from Morris’s Sigurd the Volsung into stories from Morris’s Jason into stories from Greek tragedy—this book is about the endless renewability and interactivity of stories, like the Kronos line, old and new. It is appropriate that the cargo is raw paper, unwritten on. Paper that is destined to “preserve the words of the Prophet or the speeches of Atatürk” at present is discolored “half-worked pulp, for although the blocks had appeared snow-white from a distance, I now saw that they were shot through with bark-colored fibers that sometimes had a greenish tinge.” Tree trunks into paper into words… And there is a sinister addition.
Sjón pulls off the difficult task of creating an unboring bore with panache. Not only that, he allows a twist at the end that changes our perspective, somewhat, and allows Haraldsson a good joke. The English versions of the novels have been excellently translated by Victoria Cribb.
The first two parts of a trilogy set in the time of World War II have been translated into French though not yet into English. De tes yeux, tu me vis, the first part, takes place in Lower Saxony and tells the story of Marie-Sophie, who is appointed to nurse a mysterious Jewish fugitive named Leo Löwe (Lion Lion), which was the name of the creator of the golem, the living man of clay. Löwe is a fugitive from the prison camps and does indeed create a clay child whom he carries in a hatbox, washing him in goat’s milk. “De tes yeux, tu me vis, alors que je n’étais qu’un ébauche informe”—with thine eyes thou sawest me, even when I was a formless shape; an ébauche is a first sketch or essay.
This first part is narrated by Löwe’s son, to a companion who poses questions. It is a galloping, terrifying mixture of tales—tales of rape and seduction, of unicorns, virgins, and angels, of creation and destruction of creatures and worlds, living and ersatz. It is a world of shapes and fantasms and is hard to pin down or keep one’s bearings in. Marie-Sophie is good and sensible and tells stories to the speechless patient until finally he speaks. Terrible things happen to her too.
The second book, Sur la paupière de mon père (On My Father’s Eyelid), tells the story of Leo Löwe’s flight to Iceland on the mailboat Goðafoss. He is still carrying the clay boy in the hatbox, and is tended in his illness by a black American. This man later appears as a professor of comparative religion. His name is Anthony Theophrastos Athanius Brown and his father was a Pentecostal preacher somewhere near Atlanta who specialized in handling venomous snakes with his bare hands. Anthony is rescued from muggers by a rich “benefactor” who likes strong, handsome young men, and turns him into a champion wrestler and scholar of classical art and literature. From there it is only a step to studying the religious forms of Iceland.
Leo’s other companion is a Russian pastry cook and Soviet spy named Pushkin. In this second part of the trilogy, Sjón’s descriptions of real Icelandic life take on the grotesque shape of the earlier tales in the first part. There are the intricacies of the trade in valuable rare Iceland stamps, the hazards of the process of acquiring an Icelandic name—as all immigrants until recently had to do. There are parallel Masonic meetings and meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous; there is a graveyard being used as a secret vegetable garden and an assembly of ghosts. It is not easy to imagine what form volume three will take. According to one golem legend, the golem grows too large to be allowed safely to exist. This novel ends with him being lovingly dressed in nappies and baby clothes.
Sjón’s poems, excellently translated by David McDuff, are sometimes lyrical, sometimes absurd, sometimes comic. His collection sóngur steinasafnarans (the song of the stone collector) was nominated for the Icelandic Literary Prize in 2007. Some of his poems consist of singing lists. “Danse grotesque,” for instance, is dedicated to Cindy Sherman, and lists nine places in which nine women “died a moment ago”—in a forest clearing, in an outhouse, in a ditch, on a beach, under a bridge, on an unplowed field, on a bedroom floor, at the bottom of an algae-soft pond, in the lowest basement of a parking garage. The poem lists their clothes—velvet, nylon, silk, wool, sacking, cotton, plastic, “nothing/but its own body hair”—and goes on to list
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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