Icelandic poet, playwright, and novelist Sjón (pronounced “Shohn”) rummages through all of nature, history, and imagination in his newly translated trilogy, cobbling found fragments together. The resulting work holds up not through any logical scheme or solid foundation but through collective heat and gravity. More important than the fragments themselves, however, are the gaps between them, which open onto a larger and more sublime world, far beyond what any single book can encompass.
Perhaps best known as a lyricist for Björk (he co-wrote the Oscar-nominated “I’ve Seen It All” from Dancer in the Dark, as well as many other songs), three of his books – The Blue Fox, The Whispering Muse, and From The Mouth Of The Whale – have just appeared for the first time in America, in snazzy FSG editions translated by Victoria Cribb.
They’re peculiar things. Ribald, raunchy, sometimes brutal and sometimes unselfconsciously goofy (a revered 17th century Danish scholar is named Dr. Wormius; a merchant ship sets sail for Mold Bay), they combine legends and tall tales, magical realism and biblical allegory, landscape and maritime studies, arcane scientific and theological musings, YA-style swashbuckling and personal confession. Calling to mind Borges and Sebald with their cracked pseudo-scholarship and deliberately pedantic inquiries into botany, zoology, geography, and the cosmos, they’re wonder books, cabinets of curiosity, and extended riffs, not straightforwardly plotted and thematically streamlined novels.
Projecting tricks of light and memory across frozen fields, lonely islands, and stormy seas, Sjón takes a distinctly human pleasure in relating how harsh and inhospitable the world can be to human habitation within it. He renders nature, which “breeds in its lap both unimaginable horrors and precious gems,” with the romantic longing of Caspar David Friedrich and the cool desolation of Nicholas Winding Refn’s film Valhalla Rising.
Life impacts Sjón’s characters like Forrest Gump bled of all corny uplift. Dwarfed by superstition, politics, and endless winter, they bear their torment by thinking and talking endlessly, spinning a loose narrative web out of whatever absurdity is afoot.
Entering this web as a reader felt like slipping into a drawn-out encounter with an enthusiastic and linguistically agile stranger at a bar. Professing to be in no hurry, I listened to the stranger toss off boastful yarns and laments about his and the world’s younger days. As we both went on drinking and the night got deep, I found myself believing him more and more.
There’s something frivolous about an exchange like this, a sense that nothing concrete can be accomplished, but there’s also a desperate import, a sense that transitory, half-coherent communication is our only recourse in a world that always gets the better of us. The truth can never be said outright, but a storyteller like this convinces you it can be stabbed at.
In The Blue Fox, a priest trapped for five days under a glacier begins to fear for his sanity, “so he did what comes most naturally to an Icelander when he is in a fix. That is to recite ballads, verses, and rhymes, sing loud and clear to himself…This is a failsafe old trick, if men wish to preserve their wits.”
It’s a failsafe old trick in much of world literature, but there’s something distinctive in the simultaneous lightness and heaviness of Sjón’s touch, the way in which his narrators are always both joking and not-joking. “Uncouth exclamations about endless nights, burning snow, whales the size of mountains, trumpet blasts of the dead from volcanoes and icebergs”: Jonah, the exiled scholar who narrates From The Mouth Of The Whale, lists “far-fetched tales” about his homeland. But, he concedes, “in some strange way they come close to the stories we ordinary, humble folk tell ourselves in an attempt to comprehend our existence here and make it more bearable.”
What is Iceland to me? As soon as my imagination strays from the clean modern streets of Reykjavik, it lapses into a medieval dreamscape of glaciers, fjords, elves, bright astral phenomena, ships emerging from or disappearing into the mist.
I’m woefully ignorant when it comes to the Edda, which Sjón is surely playing with, and I quake before Halldór Laxness, Iceland’s “Nobel Prize winner who bridged the nation’s literary past and future,” their Mann or Hamsun. Sometimes I range over his books on the shelf and fantasize about having read them, but most of the time I fear I’m no longer brave or patient enough to take that plunge for real.
Beyond this, of course there’s Björk, but, more crucially for me, there’s Sigur Rós. Their eerie, spacey soundscapes, built of sporadic percussion, bowed guitar, and angelic falsetto vocals, have soundtracked many a headphones-wearing bus or train trip through the dead of night, or hours spent half-sleeping in layover airports…so much so that I hear them now whenever I enter these disembodied headspaces, whether or not I’m listening to their music.
They first took root in me when my freshman year roommate passive-aggressively strung a bunch of Christmas lights across our shared sleeping quarters. Instead of asking him to take them down so I could maybe sleep (I don’t think I even considered this option), I started playing Sigur Rós on repeat all night on my laptop.
For that year and several thereafter, I couldn’t sleep without going to the place their music took me to, which is to say that I couldn’t sleep without going to Iceland. I’ve never been there in my waking life, but I’ve spent thousands of sleeping hours constructing a dream-version of it.
At first, Shields’s call for boundary-breaking fiction is laughably at odds with Sjón’s compendia of wonders and horrors. Almost too fittingly, from Reality Hunger:
I don’t have a huge pyrotechnic imagination that luxuriates in other worlds. People say, “It was so fascinating to read this novel that took place in Iceland. I just loved living inside another world for two weeks.” That doesn’t, I must say, interest me that much.
But, as I thought more about it while continuing to read both, they drew unexpectedly together.
What I understand Shields to be saying, beneath his supposed attack on fiction, is cut to the chase. Whatever you’re trying to do in writing, do it right away. Don’t build a house for the things that are important; just spill them naked onto the page.
Sjón’s ultra-digressive style does just this. Though he relishes not getting to any particular point, soaring through stories within stories like a rogue angel of history, he makes no attempt to do anything else. His narrators aren’t dragging their feet or turning their backs on more pressing matters. They’re interested in a great many things and they leap freely and sometimes jarringly among them, but they aren’t motivated by anything other than their own genuine interest.
These aren’t books designed to be filed in memory as discrete artistic units. Rather than telling any definite and delimited story, they open a tap and let out a draught of Story, formless and potent as beer. “What a symphony,” Whale’s Jonah exclaims as he tries to gather his thoughts. “It is as if the east wind is bringing me all the songs of Earth at once, bellowing out the saddest dirge together with the most joyous paean…”
This is a recognition, in the mind and in nature, of the same charged collage quality that Shields hungers for in literature.
As if I needed any help, Shields got me thinking hard about death. He has no interest in literature that doesn’t confront it directly; he won’t invest in a writer who promises escape or treats writing like a safe haven.
Without getting too Jungian here, I’ve always felt that leaving behind plot and entering Story (what John Crowley calls “The Tale” in Little, Big) is a means of subjectively overcoming the dominion of my own death, not just of ignoring it for a while.
Conventional novels begin and end. Whether or not the characters you identify with die, the last page marks the death of the world the novel has labored to create, a world that has tried to impress its autonomy and uniqueness upon you. This death is singular and finite. You can read the novel again but you can’t use it to enter a place bigger than what it contains.
The Story that Sjón’s books open onto is such a place. It’s a place of Life and Death, not of individual lives and deaths. When I’m truly engrossed in this realm, I feel neither alive nor soon-to-be-dead. I feel nothing but engrossment. Death becomes no less awesome, but it does not remain in ultimate opposition to everything else. It becomes part of the party rather than the infinite darkness that shuts it down.
The drunken storyteller, like the 1940’s sailor in The Whispering Muse who claims to have sailed with Jason and the Argonauts, takes on a life that’s immeasurably greater than that of a single person. Both he and Jonah appreciate that “God’s tongue…pronounced the world, as if it were a tale so tremendous that no one but He Himself would live to hear it all.” Story is greater than any lifetime and yet only realized, in the moment of telling, through a living teller: somehow it houses life while housed within it.
Sjón’s narrators aren’t talking about other worlds; they’re talking about the real but often unseen places beneath and inside of this one. In a flight of especially poetic prose, The Whispering Muse characterizes the onset of Story thus:
Once the ear has fallen asleep, the humming takes on a new form. It becomes a note, a voice sounding in the consciousness, as if a single grain of golden sand had slipped through the mesh of the sieve and, borne on the tip of the eardrum’s tongue, passed through the horn and ivory-inlaid gates that divide the tangible from the invisible world.
Ships rarely get where they’re going, but this voyage away from the tangible world and into the invisible proves possible for those who sincerely attempt it. For me, it was a journey back to the Iceland I first discovered during those long nights in college, contemplating the grim relief of drifting off to the place the music was coming from and never returning.
David Shields won’t place his faith in the bulwark of a novel that claims to encompass everything. He wants porous, disjointed work that makes no attempt to master all that it takes on. One way or another, the literature that saves his life has to take on everything, all of Life and all of Death, and break down in the face of that ambition, rather than living and dying in a vacuum. He doesn’t want to hang out in a place of make-believe with Death lurking just outside. Neither do I. I want to open the door, invite Death in, and take it from there.