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.
Iceland, where the author was born and still lives part of the time, 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.
“Now when it was told Ketilrid that they had been driven out to sea and were dead, she fell into a faint; but when she came to herself she sang this stave as she looked out toward the sea:
‘No more now may my eyes
meet the sea ungreeting,
Since the day my speech-friend
Sank below the seabanks.
I loathe the sea-flood’s swartness
And the swallowing billow,
Full sore for me the sorrow
Born in sea-wave’s burden.’
(From: The Saga of Viglund the Fair)
“Again Gisli chaunted a song:
‘Deep beneath her golden veil
Rides her grief that lady pale
Still down fields where roses blush
Streams from slumber’s fountain gush.
From her heart dim mists arise,
Filling all her beauteous eyes,
Down her cheeks tears chase each other:
Thus Auda mourneth for her brother.’
And again he chaunted:
‘She the goddess, ring-bestowing,
Sets the waves of sorrow flowing;
From her golden eyebrows pressed,
Down they dash upon her breast.
Vestein’s voice no longer singeth,
Pearl on pearl his sister stringeth;
Gems that round her dark eyes glisten
My song is o’er–no longer listen!’
(From: The Saga of Gisli the Outlaw)
“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.
The Whispering Muse
In this novel, the reader should expect:
- economical use of language
- complex, multiple themes
- elements of surrealism
- something essentially Icelandic, and
- a short but hugely impressive read.
In The Whispering Muse, the first person narrator is “Valdimar Haraldsson”, who is something of a pompous ass who has spent his life obsessed with the connection between fish and the superiority of Nordic Culture, and was the publisher of an obscure publication on that subject. The elderly Haraldsson gets a trip on a voyage of a Danish merchant vessel, courtesy of a wealthy benefactor. He is a pretty pedantic fellow, and thinks nothing of lecturing to others, being convinced of his own importance. He dutifully records the everyday happenings on the vessel, on which he is the only non-commercial passenger. He does not notice that, right off the bat, the whole thing is odd. He is, for one, in a luxurious two-room cabin. And, oddest yet, the first mate, called “Caeneus”, is the story-teller or chief entertainer at the captain’s table every night. Caeneus gets his inspiration by holding up a small piece of wood to his ear. The wood whispers to him, so it seems, and it is the “Whispering Muse” of the book title.
Is this man really the immortal Caeneus or Caenis, of Greek Mythology, who sailed with Jason and his Argonauts on the Argo? Or is he just a guy entertaining the passengers? Of course, the former is impossible, or is it?
The fable of Caeneus and sea-tales
Ovid told the fable of Caeneus in his Ancient Greek work Metamorphoses. According to legend, Caeneus sailed with the captain of the most famous battleship ever, Jason, on the ship Argo, with his crew the argonauts. (Remember Jason and the Golden Fleece?) Caeneus, as the sailor on the modern vessel reveals, was originally a woman, Caenis, made immortal by the gods with an impenetrable skin, and when she or he couldn’t be killed, his enemies drove him into the ground like a tree-trunk, but he escaped as a golden-winged bird. There are many sea-going myths and legends of the ancient world that have now been preserved as narrative poems or sagas in modern languages and are part of the canon of Western literature. These include the poems of the Vikings, Greeks and Saxons, for example Homer’s epic poem The Odyssey, about the hero Odysseus and his adventures at sea, the Anglo-Saxon poem The Seafarer, famously interpreted in English by Erza Pound, the Icelandic Saga of Eric the Red (c.1220-1280), or early European travel narratives like Richard Hakluyt’s Voyages (1589).
Sea-tales, especially for island nations and the descendants of peoples that conquered the world by crossing the sea, like the Vikings, are reflections of history and also an integral part of the Weltanschauung of a people, their way of looking at the world. In the same way that the lyrics of the Icelandic band Of Monsters and Men primarily are about the sea, ships, mythological monsters, etc., they also have something of the resoluteness, gravity and introspection of the Icelandic spirit.
“When you live in a country which moves alarmingly under your feet every five years or so with an earthquake or a volcanic eruption, you face, like the saga heroes of old, a choice of two courses of action, neither of them good: Either to flee the country and all its hazards, or to stay and brave them out. For more than 1100 years the people of Iceland have chosen to stay and brave them out.”
Magnús Magnússon, Reykjavík, September 2001
Of course, you need not know all this to figure out, about halfway through the book, that something is not quite right on this voyage.
And now for the weird bit…
As the novel progresses, it looks more and more as if the narrator is sailing on the reincarnation or incarnation of the mythical ship Argo, and that the captain is not himself but Jason, and the talkative first mate is the mythical Caeneus. As the modern-day vessel runs into difficulties, small but worrisome nevertheless, so the tale that the first mate tells at dinner reaches its pinnacle – the Argo is rediscovered as a wreck in the ships’ graveyard in Corinth, Jason is so decrepit he has lost his mind, and Caeneus, well….
“Caeneus shrank away from this terrible revelation. He called Jason’s name, called his own name, called on Hermes to free his tongue from its fetters, but all the son of Aeson [Jason] could see and hear was a herring gull squawking on a rock. Caeneus craned his neck, cocked his head back and screeched: “Arrk, arrk! Ga-ga-ga-ga! Arrk, arrk…” (p.95)
But the ship still has a voice, and speaks to Jason:
“Take me away. Sail me out to sea, the blue sea, where Poseidon shakes his trident at bold seafarers who steer their ships through the mountainous waves as if they were thunderbolts from the hand of supreme Zeus.” (p.97)
Caeneus breaks off his story when he recounts how “he” reverted to a being a bird (“It was I, Ceaneus.”) and Jason and his crew left the island of Lemnos where they had been “servicing” the rapacious women, the only inhabitants. On p. 129, the passengers toast the Jung-Olsen family and the Kronos shipping line, since Haraldsson has decided to go home. The next paragraph, he returns to his quarters and his room has gone missing. The bathroom had become an armoury with ancient weapons and a mighty suit of armour on a stand. A page later, when he flees the room to look for the crew, he finds them in the engine room, in white coats, seeing to the ship’s clockwork (?!) engine, something so absurd as to trigger the suspension of disbelief in the reader: the captain sees him and says:
“The old man will sleep there tonight. It’ll take Caeneus till noon to wind up the ship.” (p.134).
Then Sjón skips directly the next scene in which Haraldsson is home again – no explanation of how he got home and what happened to the ship, and one could imagine he had had some kind of mental breakdown. But he is a changed man – his girlfriend calls him a “Viking” and;
“One sign that I am an altered man is that I have changed the topic of my conversation at Café Sommerfugl. I haven’t entirely given up discussing the influence of seafood on the Nordic race but I spend less time discoursing on this and more on the fittings on board the MS Elizabet Jung-Olsen.” (p.137)
And he has got his hands on the sliver of wood that had been the Muse of ship’s mate Caeneus – the piece of wood that could have come from the Argo, the piece of wood that has aphrodisiacal powers (as it had empowered the sailors when they landed amongst the sex-starved islanders of Lemnos). And his relationship with his neighbour is no longer platonic – nope, the wood sliver turns him into a fine lover. Only occasionally, a herring gull sits on his windowsill and complains, Arrk!, and he chases it away. It might be Caeneus wanting his Muse back.
What more can one say – the questions and possibilities raised in this novel have no answers. They sit in reader’s mine like icebergs in a fjord – grinding away at each other and at any sensible answers that drift their way. But that’s the fun of reading Sjón.
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)
- Madonna (1979)
- 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)