In Iceland, they eat puffin. The best-tasting puffin is soaked overnight in milk. ‘Then give the milk to the cat’, says Sjón.
This is one of the more practical things I learnt when I met the Icelandic writer earlier this year. Sjón has written seven novels and the three that have been translated into English comprise similarly strange yet somehow humane oddities. The Blue Fox, The Whispering Muse and From the Mouth of the Whale (published by Telegram and translated by Victoria Cribb) owe much to myth and the Icelandic Sagas and have earned Sjón the Nordic Council Literature Prize and the title of ‘Best Icelandic Novel’ for The Whispering Muse.
The gnawed-away landscape of Iceland, as perishing as it is revelatory, is the backdrop for this work. Sjón creates a world of metamorphosis, entailing a recognition of man’s potential for debasement – animals talk and are wise, men slaughter and flay. It comes as little surprise, then, that he worked with Lars von Trier on the song ‘I’ve Seen It All’ for Dancer in the Dark, for which he was nominated for an Academy Award.
While his writing mourns the loss of an interlinked and readable world, it continually returns to the joy of language and storytelling, offering words for warmth. I find the inexhaustible curiosity, thoughtfulness and wit of these novels once again in their author.
QThe White Review — Where are you from? And how did you come to write?
ASjón — I was born in Reykjavík in 1962. From the beginning I read everything, from children’s books to newspapers – whatever printed material came into the house. At the age of 8 I discovered Icelandic folk stories, which is when I truly started waking up to literature. A year later, I discovered poetry. In school we were given a big collection of poetry, which was to last us throughout our school years, and I started reading this book for pleasure at home. I was reading detective novels, Icelandic folk stories, and Icelandic romantic poetry from very early on. Early reading teaches you the different possibilities of text.
When I came into my teenage years I became a huge David Bowie fan. To be a David Bowie fan in Iceland you more or less had to teach yourself English – to translate the lyrics, to be able to read the interviews in NME. My infatuation with Bowie prepared me for my discovery of modernist poetry, first in translation. At the age of 15 I found a book of Icelandic modernists from the end of the Second World War. That’s when modernism came to Iceland – and they were very much influenced by the surrealists. Somehow, I was bitten by the bug. It simply fascinated me that you were allowed to use the Icelandic language in this way, to create these incredible images and metaphors, and to present such ideas with the Icelandic language. I felt like I should be a part of it. So I started writing poetry and in a few months time I had written enough poetry for a book. I published my first book of poetry the summer I turned 16.
QThe White Review — You speak of an early interest in the various kinds of text, and your own writing is not easily assimilated into any single textual mode. As a writer, lyricist and poet, you move in and out of these different formats. What do you classify yourself as first and foremost, if anything? How might this resistance to categorisation link in to your interest in surrealism?
ASjón — I’m a novelist who occasionally writes poetry. I write librettos, lyrics and children’s books but these are all collaborations that I do in between working on novels and poetry. One of the wonders of the novel is how easily it absorbs diverse texts. Everything that is written, whether it is non-fiction, old archives, newspaper articles, lullabies – somehow it can always find its place in the novel, and for that reason the novel became more important to me than the poem.
The novel is encyclopaedic: all of the different manners of expressing oneself in words can find their place there. In the Eighties my friends and I formed a group of surrealist poets called Medusa. Surrealism brings so much with it and one of the first things I realised when I became excited by surrealism was its link with folk stories. Surrealism is always non-academic, always looking for the source of human activity, looking into the back alleys and the darkest clearing in the forest for excitement. Somehow it was always very natural for me to bring all these different things together in what I was doing.
QThe White Review — Your novels are hybrids – a crossbreed of narrative fiction, historical fact, myth, music…
ASjón — I like my novels to be made up of different parts, realities, states of consciousness. I now see my work as realist because everything I write is grounded in at least the experience of the character, here, in earthly life. The strange things that happen in the books are what happens in people’s minds, what they experience as truth. That of course creates a hybrid, when your standard is something normalised and accepted as the only way to experience reality.
QThe White Review — Music is a great part of this assortment – you’ve mentioned Bowie as an influence, and you have collaborated with musicians such as Björk. Do you think that words can achieve the condition of music, which has a much greater immediacy and is far less freighted with multiple meanings?
ASjón — I think it’s very important to be open to influence from diverse artistic forms and forms of expression. I have been very much influenced by music and one of the routes I took to literature was through the music of David Bowie. I have worked with musicians in all fields – contemporary composers, pop artists – and I’ve worked with very diverse styles of music. But there is a huge difference between words being sung, spoken or read. The emotion that the singing voice brings to the world when sung out loud is something you cannot recreate on paper. I don’t think you should even try.
QThe White Review — You have spoken of realising that ‘you could take the classical string quartet as a model for the composition of The Blue Fox’. How did you achieve this?
ASjón — I think the fact that I can take the form of the string quartet and use it as the basis of a novel is another proof of how dynamic the novel is. I’m sure that a composer writing a string quartet can learn something from a movie or the structure of film. It was music that gave me the idea of constantly breaking up the narrative. The Blue Fox would be a completely different novel if it were chronological. In it, there are constant cliff-hangers and repeated refrains – I’m playing with the element of two melodies that come together but never fully, only in the end finding a solution. It was very interesting that the first people who commented on the book were composers. They said it was very clear to them that I was always playing with volume of information versus text, which is the same thing they do – volume of tones versus time. You can take a melody and stretch it over five minutes, or compress it down to three seconds. They were very much aware of how I was playing with text versus information.
QThe White Review — Does your involvement in the world of music, and the musicality of your novels, betray some sort of frustration with the limits of the written word?
ASjón — No. I am in the position where I can move between those different ways of writing. For me, it is a celebration of the many possibilities given to an author. I play no instruments, my only involvement with music is in collaborations with people who know how to do it. It is a privilege to be working with these musicians and to be allowed to bring my words to their work. To hear the words sung is a wonderful present from these people.
QThe White Review — How do you approach each different form of writing?
ASjón — In most cases when I write lyrics for songs the melody is there before the lyrics. The melody dictates the structure of the verses, the number of syllables, the number of lines. I don’t have to discover the form of the poem alongside writing it or working on the content. There is a big difference there. With the contemporary poem, or the poem as I practice it, which is based on the avant-garde tradition, each poem involves a search for its form. Each poem seeks its form as well as bringing out the meaning or the content. But with music, that’s not the way it works. I’m working with fixed, given elements. I’ve also written librettos and what I enjoy there is the possibility of repetition, the possibility of going from one state of consciousness – spoken words – to a heightened state of reality, which is when the character starts to sing. There are many possibilities in opera which I really enjoy working with.
QThe White Review — In your novel From The Mouth of The Whale you base the character of Jonas on Jón Guðmundsson, a seventeenth-century healer. Why did this figure interest you?
ASjón — Originally I became interested in him through a small article I read, maybe twenty years ago. It told me of a healer, a natural scientist, a poet, a bone and book carver, a journalist, who had been influenced by Paracelsus in his world view. I had come across Paracelsus’ name and history in the writings of André Breton. Breton was very excited about pre-Enlightenment thought, and how pre-Enlightenment science could only be understood today through poetic thought. So I thought ‘Okay, here’s this Icelandic character who I’ve never heard of before, who was influenced by Paracelsus, whom I got to know through André Breton. Maybe there is an opportunity here.’
Years and years later, when I started looking into what this man was really about, I discovered that he had left behind an incredible wealth of texts. He wrote his life story as an epic poem and attempted the first natural history of Iceland. He also wrote an amazing account of the massacre of Basque whalers in the west of the country, which we wouldn’t know about it if he hadn’t staked his life on documenting it. Socially, his position was very strange: he was nor a farmer, nor a work-hand; he was self-educated, but trying to live life as an independent scholar. And this is the seventeenth century where everybody who did not work under a secular authority or a religious authority was a delinquent. I realised that through his texts I had an eyewitness account of the most turbulent times in Icelandic history. It was simply an opportunity that was irresistible for an author, an opportunity to revisit those times with somebody who had been there and had an independent view of it.
This view actually went against everything that I had been taught in school. The Reformation is presented in Icelandic history books as something very benevolent and it was convenient to ignore that in the first decade after the Reformation life was very difficult for the common man and for scholars. The Methodist church became very dogmatic, and everything that had to do with the old Nordic religion, with old wisdom or old medicine, was banished as sorcery. He is the only historical voice that we have speaking against this. It was an opportunity to put a seed inside somebody’s skull, and take a walk through those times with his eyes.
QThe White Review — How does that time offer a parallel to our own? Alongside the diminishment of a folkloric existence, there is the emergence of capitalism and a growing sense of individualism.
ASjón — The reason that I felt it right to enter this world, this state of complaint against a world going to pieces, is because he lived through the period when the Catholic Church, the only socially responsible institution, was all of a sudden taken away. In Iceland, it is a fact that the Catholic Church was the only welfare structure in the country – we had no king, no dukes, we had no one to take over the social responsibilities when the Catholic Church vanished overnight. All the monasteries were closed down, all the orphanages, the old people’s shelters – everything, overnight. And the duty that the rich had – to keep the livestock alive on behalf of the religious priests who fed the poor – that vanished too.
Jón Guðmundsson is unique in that he is the only one who wrote about this. He bore witness to a world in which man had been relieved of his duty to show charity to his fellow men. This is very much what the last decade has felt like, at least in Iceland, if not many parts of the West. With the deregulation of the economic system, social responsibility was thrown out of the window and all of a sudden the rich became richer and they had no duties any more. This is something that happened with the fall of the Eastern Bloc – the message that we were told then was that capitalism had won and communism was the dark art. The Left lost its voice, at least in Iceland. The centre Left – the social democrats – they decided to start playing along with the capitalists, which is what you would call New Labour here. The real Left was all of a sudden presented as the losers of history, even though these people had been in opposition to the totalitarian regimes in the East for decades. All of a sudden everything that began with the word ‘social’ was a dirty word. The social contract that was established in most of the West after the Second World War, was dealt the final blow.
Jón lived through similar times, when the ideology and worldview of the Catholic Church was taken away from people overnight and became a heresy. When I was writing From the Mouth of The Whale, looking out of the window of the National Library of Reykjavík and seeing huge black SUVs driving back and forth and crowding the streets of the city, I really knew I was living in a parallel world to that of the book. That gave great urgency to the book. At the same time, I didn’t want it to be seen only as a fable for that. I’m also very interested in the world before the Enlightenment – a world in which natural science was rejected. Maybe we lost something when we started classifying nature by the difference between things rather than what we have in common.
QThe White Review — Is your use of myth a way to navigate this discord, to somehow compensate for this loss?
ASjón — The classical world seems to return to us over and over again. With the Renaissance, with the baroque, with the romantic movement, Freud goes to the Greek tragedies to give name to the things he is talking about, and then with surrealism. Now we are back in a world in which myth is important as a tool to understand where we are. For me, myth is one of the amazing tools that we have been given to use, and I am a great believer in the idea that the myths and the gods never left. There is a wonderful essay by Heinrich Heine, the German poet, called ‘Gods In Exile’, in which the Greek gods have disguised themselves as shepherds and prostitutes, carpenters – they are in hiding all over Europe and their moment is coming.
On 11 September 2001, I felt that a power had been released. There had been a breach in reality which we all experienced watching television, seeing those planes hit the towers, and everyone had that feeling that they were watching a movie, and there was a breach in our sense of reality. Somehow the unreal took over. It had a massive effect on a very deep level on our understanding of what is real. That’s why I think the myths are coming back, because they exist in that field of human experience, where the real and the unreal simply exist together, and in a way you can only explain the real through what is supposed to be unreal. I think that the power of total confusion and chaos, the power of the great god Pann, was released on September 11 and we’ve been in a state of panic ever since. In times where grand narratives are needed we look to the grand narratives of our culture. In our case it is the great myths, and sometimes it is to give name to something like the panic after September 11. Myth always puts man down to size, and man realises he is just this tiny figure moving from one meal to another on his way to the grave.
QThe White Review — Oral tradition is very much a part of myth. Is this something that can still exist today?
ASjón — You have a whole continent, Africa, which has so many languages that have still not found a written form. There are places that have an unbroken tradition, stretching thousands of years back, of telling the same stories over and over again. Mostly here in the West we have lost the ability to protect our culture orally, and maybe we are in danger. What will happen when all the books have flared up and all the Kindles lost their battery power?
QThe White Review — Literary translation and the rise of world literature could perhaps be seen as a continuation of that tradition – allowing conversation between countries.
ASjón — We are living in times where different parts of the world are coming together through literature. I really believe that this is one of the fundamental needs of man – to tell and to hear stories. We are curious by nature, always swapping stories. It is one of the great civilising truths of human beings. It is really beautiful how this world literature scene is growing and how interest in literature from far away places is growing. It might have to do with the global media, this feeling that we really need to connect with the individual experience in those places we see on our screens. It’s not enough to see people in Johannesburg running around in the street on your television, you want to be with them and know how it is to be one of them. So that’s very nice, it gives you hope that we care.
Our stories in a way confirm our existence. The fundamental need is to have the individual story and the story of the community where the individual is coming from. There is a Danish scriptwriter and film scholar called Mogen Rukov, he wrote the script for Festen (or The Celebration) and was the screenwriting teacher for Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg, and all these people behind the Dogme 95 movement. He believes that one reason why we like to watch films from foreign and faraway places is because we like to see people doing the same things we do, but differently. If we watch a film from Peru with a funeral in the mountains, what you bring to it is your knowledge and your experience. You know the emotional involvement in that scene. What’s new is the way that they do things, the way that they carry a coffin, whether there even is a coffin… There is a reassurance in that, that we’re here for God knows how many years and we are the same species, we are experiencing the same pain, the same joy… We just do things differently.