Introduction to the works of Sjón
Sjón: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the Reader of Sjón. Her current mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no Reader has gone before. Apologies to the writers of Star Trek, in this, its 50th anniversary year, but this is what reading the novels of Icelandic author Sjón is like. The first American edition of Sjón’s novel Moonstone – The Boy Who Never Was, was published earlier this year. While I read it, I often wondered just how it is possible for someone to express so precisely, in such visually compelling language, such foreignness, not only to readers not from Iceland, but also probably for readers from Iceland. It is in English, capably and truthfully translated by Victoria Cribb, but at the same time it is a journey into places, minds, characters, mores and subjects that I had never before encountered in a novel.
The Iceland where the author lives has an alienness about it in his novels, a strangeness that is hard to comprehend. It is as though he turns the harsh Icelandic landscape and the reputedly tough Icelandic people into creations far more otherworldly than even their Viking ancestors may have been. I prefer, like journalist Charlie Rose, to read new novels “cold” without having studied up on the authors’ writing styles or œuvres beforehand. That way I am largely unbiased. But with Sjón, after having struggled for literally years with one of his earlier novels, The Whispering Muse, I had to resort to some interviews to make sense of his very short novels or novellas.
AN ASIDE: THE ICELANDIC SAGAS
Sjón – like all Icelanders – are more than familiar with the Icelandic Sagas, or The Sagas of Icelanders (Icelandic: Íslendingasögur), also known as family sagas, prose narratives that also contain long poems. They are based on historical events that took place in Iceland in the 9th, 10th, and early 11th centuries, during the so-called Saga Age. They are the best-known specimens of Icelandic literature, focused on history, especially genealogical and family history. They reflect the struggle and conflict that arose within the societies of the early generations of Icelandic settlers. Sometimes Sjón’s writing style has parallels with those sagas, when he uses, as he put it, “cut to the bone” language, but also with the metaphors he uses. The sagas are about kings, princesses, battles, witches, curses, feuds, voyages, dreams, predictions, poetry, singing, declamations, romance, always the sea, and tales within tales. But occasionally, they refer, plainly, to a town, like “Foss” which is still, after centuries, just a little town in southern Iceland. There is the exoticism of the events and characters in the sagas, and the occasional fantastical element, and then there are the heartfelt emotions, like the connection with the sea, which, still today, ring true; The sea-flood’s “swartness” and “burden” are still with Icelanders. Here are a few extracts:
“One thing I will not do is write a thick book. I have always admired stories that cut to the bone without much ceremony. My stories are really boiled-down epics—they usually take place in times of great upheaval, and they always acknowledge the size of the world even though they happen to take place on the smallest of stages. So that is what I will continue to offer my readers. I think of the novel as a whale you can put in your pocket or handbag. In some cases, it is a blue whale.” (Sjón quoted in Asymptotejournal)
The art of very short novels
That is the best explanation of Sjón’s novels, at least these three; Moonstone – The Boy Who Never Was, The Whispering Muse and The Blue Fox. They are short – The Whispering Muse is 141 pages.; Moonstone – The Boy Who Never Was is 143; and The Blue Fox is 115. The first part of The Blue Fox consists of some 30 pages with only 1 or short paragraphs on each page. Not only the paragraphs are brief, but also the sentences. The novels are small in size and dense with meaning.
Iceland, where all three novels are set, is an island so small that you can drive around the outer edge in about 11 hours, depending on the traffic. There are not many people (332,529 in 2016) and there has never been many people. Like bugs under a microscope, the contained and isolated, but heavily scrutinized nature of the islanders has resulted in some pretty extraordinary accomplishments, such as being the 3rd happiest nation in the world in 2016, the 13th most-developed country in the world, and having outstanding artists, such as Sjón, Björk, Of Monsters and Men (one of my favourite bands); Sigur Rós, Mezzoforte (another favourite since the ‘80s), Baltasar Kormákur (director of 101 Reykjavik, my favourite film director after Aki Kaurismaki) etc., etc.
Of these luminaries, Sjón stands out for me as someone who has captured the essence of Iceland. But more than that, he creates an odd, alternate view of it. His novels are more than just about Iceland, they create a wonder, a puzzlement about the world and its meaning by injecting an unexpected element of strangeness into the everyday. And his “everyday”, the “normal” settings, are described in such a way that they are tantalizingly exotic and desirable, from a little, perky blue-grey-furred vixen hiding out in the snow (The Blue Fox), to the girl dressed in black like a vampire on a motorcycle (Moonstone – The Boy Who Never Was), to bales of off-white papers moving on a cable across the water, like big flakes of snow – with a dead hand hanging out of it (The Whispering Muse).
Do not misjudge Sjón’s skinny novels for being simplistic. His use of language is economical, but every word is packed with meaning, and while you are cruising through the “normal” parts, and you think you understand it as just an ordinary plot, you will soon, without warning, be dropped into that alternate universe of exceeding strangeness to which I have referred. And it is literally in the space of a paragraph: one page – normal, next page, surreal, just like in the Icelandic sagas.
Moonstone – The Boy Who Never Was
Moonstone – The Boy Who Never Was is set in 1918 Reykjavik with the themes of homosexuality, the first movies, the great Spanish flu epidemic, the arrival of the independence of Iceland, the eruption of the local volcano, Katla, the First World War, the cruel treatment of lepers and homosexuals, and the Icelandic obsession over the “perversion” apparently caused by watching too many films. Yes, all that. The main character is a teenage prostitute, a boy who roams the city getting money for sex with sailors and the men of the city who come from all levels of society. The sex scenes are depicted in detail, but so plainly (again, as Sjón puts it, “without ceremony”), that after the first shock to the reader it seems business as usual. The boy in question, “Máni Steinn” (literally in Icelandic, moon/máni + stone/steinn = moonstone) seems a one-dimensional figure. Apart from his love of films and his love for a certain girl who wears black like a vampire in the old movies, Sóla G— , he wanders around not speaking much and not working or going to school. He watches all the movies he can. When he is caught out while having sex with a sailor off a recently arrived ship, the authorities exile him to Paris to be cured of his “sickness”.
Máni’s name is appropriate. Moonstones, a variety of the feldspar-group mineral orthoclase, is a less valuable gemstone, easily confused with similar-looking stones or even glass. During formation, orthoclase and albite separate into alternating layers. When light falls between these thin layers it is scattered producing the phenomenon called “adularescence”. Adularescence is the light that appears to billow across a moonstone gem. It is a pale bluish stone, as blonde and pale and ethereal as Máni Steinn. Máni has strange dreams, hallucinations, even his daily existence seems to be an illusion. And at the point where Máni becomes ill from the Spanish flu, Sjón does his thing of introducing the surreal.
And now for the weird bit…
“In the evening, when the birds on the shore have drowned in the boy’s blood, Sóla G— comes and fetches Máni Steinn from the washing line. She takes him home and puts him on. She thinks his red lips, lined eyes, and earrings suit her, but she washes off his mustache and sheathes his nails.” (p.69)
The story concludes with a jump forward in time. In 1929, a group of artists – actual ones, if I am to judge – arrive in Rekjavik, The Pool Group. One of them is the interpreter and movie electrician or “best boy”, M. Peter Carlson. M. Peter Carlson is Máni Steinn, all grown up. He visits his grandmother’s grave, “The rowan saplings planted in 1919 have grown tall. Their flowers light up the evening like a myriad white suns.” (p.135)
Now, the moment arrives that is on parallel with the archdeacon becoming a fox and the merchant vessel turning into the Argo:
“Carlson is only fifty yards of the Leper Hospital when he experiences a sudden sensation of weightlessness. Glancing at his hands, he discovers that he can see right through them. He gropes for his body and finds that he is clutching at thin air. He can’t feel a thing apart from the wingbeats where his heart used to be.” (p.141).
Máni/Peter has turned back into the boy who never was.
A man who comes out of the Leper Hospital misses seeing Máni disappear, and sees instead a large black butterfly alight on his hand. Then Sjón reveals that this book was written in memory of “Steinolfur Saevar (Bósi)” the descendant of the man who walked out of the hospital when Máni disappeared.
“And it will be in memory of Bósi – sailor, alcoholic, booklover, socialist, and gay – who will die of AIDS in the month of May 1993, that Sigurdur Ásgrímur’s eldest son, Sigurjón, will sit down to write the story of Máni Steinn, the boy who never was.” (142).
Sjón’s real name is Sigurjón Birgir Sigurðsson. Is it possible he is implying he is the relative of the “Steinolfur Saevar (Bósi) Gíslason Geirdal” mentioned here, and of whom there is a photo on p. 147? Or is he simply closing the loop in the history of Máni, gays and lepers in this story of injustice and homophobia? Perhaps the boy who never was, was Bósi – or his life imagined – or perhaps he was simply a fictional character, no more than that. Either way, Máni never “was”. He was as ignored, sidelined, misunderstood and generally badly used by all and sundry as if he were simply an object, not a real, thinking, feeling boy. At the end, he is again as translucent but also as easy to mistake for some other gemstone, as a moonstone. Sjón uses the lack of identity and the outsider status of the victims he portrays in both Moonstone and The Blue Fox, as a way of introducing criticism of Icelandic society and its treatment of minorities and those that don’t fit in. After my initial discomfort with his blunt portrayal of Máni’s sexuality, I felt real sympathy for the beautiful, lonely boy living in the world of movies.
This is why Sjón is a fantastic writer – with his forceful directness and economical language come poignancy, completely unexpected twists, surrealism and mind-blowingly original ideas. Others have called him brilliant. I agree.top
About the Author
Sigurjón Birgir Sigurðsson (born 27 August 1962), known as Sjón (/ˈʃoʊn/ shohn), is an Icelandic poet, novelist, and lyricist. His pen name (meaning “sight”) is an abbreviation of his given name (Sigurjón). Sjón frequently collaborates with the singer Björk and has performed with The Sugarcubes as “Johnny Triumph”. His official website, Sjonorama, is here. His works have been translated into more than 35 languages. If you have any doubt as to his status as an established and acclaimed author – look at the lists below. He has won numerous awards including the Nordic Council Literature Prize 2005, and he was nominated for an Academy Award and a Golden Globe for the song I’ve Seen It All from the film about Björk, Dancer in the Dark, for which he wrote the lyrics in collaboration with film director Lars von Trier. The song also features on Björk’s album of the film soundtrack, Selmasongs.
Night of Steel (“Stálnótt”, Mál og menning, 1987)
Angel, Stovehat and Strawberries (“Engill, pípuhattur og jarðarber”, Mál og menning, 1989)
Night of the Lemon (Greyhound Press, 1993)
Made in Secret / Your Eyes Saw Me (“Augu þín sáu mig”, Mál og menning, 1994)
The Story of the Great Cap (“Sagan af húfunni fínu”, Mál og menning, 1995)
Númi and his Seven Heads (“Númi og höfuðin sjö”, Mál og menning, 2000)
With a Quivering Tear (“Með titrandi tár”, Mál og menning, 2001)
The Story of the Strange Bird (“Sagan af furðufugli”, Mál og menning, 2002)
The Blue Fox (“Skugga-Baldur”, Bjartur, 2003)
The Whispering Muse / The Splinter from Argo (“Argóarflísin”, Bjartur, 2005)
From the Mouth of the Whale / The Marvels of Twilight (“Rökkurbýsnir”, Bjartur, 2008)
Moonstone – The Boy Who Never Was (“Mánasteinn – drengurinn sem aldrei var til”, JPV/Forlagið, 2013)
Visions (“Sýnir”, 1978)
Birgitta (Medúsa, 1979)
How Does One Make Love to Hands? (with Matthías Sigurður Magnússon) (“Hvernig elskar maður hendur?”, Medúsa, 1981)
The Blind Man’s Bicycle (“Reiðhjól blinda mannsins”, 1982)
The Book of Illusions (“Sjónhverfingabókin”, Medúsa, 1983)
Oh, Isn’t it Wild? (Medúsa, 1985)
obscure figures (“myrkar fígúrur”, Mál og menning, 1998)
the song of the stone collector (“söngur steinasafnarans”, Bjartur, 2007)
Collected Poems 1978–2008 (“Ljóðasafn 1978–2008”, Bjartur, 2008)
“Shadow Play” (“Skuggaleikur”) – a libretto based on the short story “Skyggen” by H. C. Andersen – Strengjaleikhúsið – Reykjavík 2006
“Gargoyles” (“Ufsagrýlur”) – a play – Lab Loki – Reykjavík 2010
“Tales from a Sea Journey” – a play written in collaboration with the theatre group – New International Encounter – Oslo 2011
“The Motion Demon” – a libretto based on the short stories of Stefan Grabinski – Figura Ensemble – Copenhagen 2011
“Red Waters” – a libretto co-written with Keren Ann and Barði Jóhannsson – CDN Orleans – Rouen 2011
“Folie à Deux” – a libretto in six songs created with composer Emily Hall for opera company – Mahogany Opera Group – premiered Bergen 2015
COLLABORATIONS WITH BJÖRK:
“Isobel” on the album Post (1995)”Bachelorette” on the album Homogenic (1997)
“Jóga” on the album Homogenic (1997)
“Scary,” an extra track on the original “Bachelorette” UK single (1997)
Lyrics for the songs featured in the film Dancer in the Dark and its soundtrack, Selmasongs, written in collaboration with Lars von Trier (2000)
“Oceania,” written for the opening ceremony of the 2004 Summer Olympics and featured on the album Medúlla (2004)
“Wanderlust” on the album Volta (2007)
“The Comet Song” featured in the film Moomins and the Comet Chase (2010)
“Cosmogony,” “Virus,” and “Solstice” on the album Biophilia (2011)