Sunday, October 5, 2014

my chief preoccupation, the link between fish consumption and the superiority of the Nordic race - a couple of little Sjón novels

Two novels by Icelandic wonderboy Sjón, The Whispering Muse (2005) and From the Mouth of the Whale (2008), both translated by Victoria Cribb, both published in English along with The Blue Fox (2004) in April 2013.  I wonder, did the stunt work?  In terms of sales, attention, anything?  I read and enjoyed all three, but that is evidence of nothing.

The original titles are, respectively, Argóarflísin, Rökkurbýsnir, and Skugga-Baldur, all of which should have been retained for the English versions.  The first is especially aggravating.  The “whispering muse” of the English title is, as the Icelandic title specifies, a splinter from the Argo, the ship that carried Jason and the Argonauts, but heaven forbid you scare off a reader with a classical literary reference from a novel packed from beginning to end with classical literary references – a novel based in part on a fragmentary Euripides play, in fact, about classical literary references.

Also medieval, and even Victorian, since one of the models for The Whispering Muse is William Morris’s The Earthly Paradise, which is, as you likely do not remember since you likely skipped those posts, a gigantic poem consisting of alternating stories in verse, one classical, one medieval, on and on seemingly forever – no, there were only twelve of each.  Sjón, a creature of our time, sensitive to our shortened attention span and electronic distractions, has the good sense to tell only one classical and one medieval story, although now the medieval story is also a classical story.

Sjón brilliantly blends the Argonautica with the Niebelunglied, with Sigurd as Jason and Gudrun as Medea; the result is entirely credible, bravura, even.  The author is looking for, finding, universal stories.

Then the whole thing is surrounded by a frame that sounds like this:

I, Valdimar Haraldsson, was in my twenty-seventh year when I embarked on the publication of a small journal devoted to my chief preoccupation, the link between fish consumption and the superiority of the Nordic race.  It was written in Danish, under the title Fisk og Kultur, and came out in seventeen volumes over the space of twenty years.  (3)

This dullard has also written Memoirs of a Herring Inspector (self-published, 1933), and is a Nazi fellow traveler.  Knut Hamsun makes a cameo appearance, sort of, to rub in the point.

What a reader who is not already familiar with these stories – maybe even invested in them – would think of this novel is an open question.

From the Mouth of the Whale is longer and more varied, the story of a 17th century Icelandic sage, Jónas Palmasson the Learned, who runs into trouble at every turn.  He is a man of science and reason, yet, a man of his time, a mystic.  The big show-off scenes are a couple of visions (or hallucinations) and the messy, long exorcism of a filthy Icelandic ghost.  The half-troll hero of the 14th century Grettir’s Saga is powerful enough to crush a ghost to death – Icelandic ghosts are not like English ghosts – but Jónas Palmasson defeats it with learning, which means learned poetry, “’tell[ing] the ghoul the history of the world, of spirits and men, both evil and benevolent [and] where it fits into God’s great mechanism’” (87-8), which, after a struggle, works – “it flinched under the verses, which became ever harder for it to bear the more skillfully and aptly they were composed” (89).

This novel is the story of a man who was born in the wrong time and suffers for it, but never loses his curiosity or integrity:

And so we leave Jónas Palmasson the Learned in that happy hour, a frail old man dancing with the universe.  (227)

I would read another of these Sjón novels, if there were one for me to read.


  1. From the Mouth of the Whale sounds like my kind of book. The framing story of the boring but prolific writer, the battle between epic poetry and the spirit world, the frail old man dancing with the universe: what's not to like?

  2. I think you'd enjoy both novels - all three. I would only gently steer away readers who were sick to death of any hint of the meta-.

    But this is an Icelandic writer! Those old stories are part of who he is. Of course he writes about them.

  3. For those who read French, there are a couple of Sjon's other books available: De tes yeux, tu me vis(Made in Secret / Your Eyes Saw Me /Augu þín sáu mig) and Sur la paupiere du mon pere(With a Quivering Tear /Með titrandi tár)

  4. I do hope these English versions sold well enough or added enough prestige to the press to lead to more translations of Sjón.

  5. These sound wonderful--and are luckily available in the public library. Not that I won't just buy them first, if I can.

    Have you ever written a post about how you find the books you read, Tom? You read much more widely than probably anyone I "know," so I'd be really curious to hear about your discovery/selection process...

  6. I think you'd like these. I'd recommend them to anyone without a debilitating allergy to fantasy elements.

    I saw quite a few reviews of these books on the blogs of the "fiction in translation" crowd, but what really convinced me was a review of them by A. S. Byatt in the New York Review of Books a year ago, unfortunately not available online. And then I was reading the relevant William Morris - one book just follows another, as if by machinery.

    My process is straightforward: at various times I have looked into the history of different literary traditions. Lists of books I want to read someday inevitably follow. I have used literary history to make a mental map of the library.

  7. Your excerpts make me pretty sure you're right. Thank you for continuing to rock out.