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.
I left New York for Windhoek in early October, exchanging the end of an Indian summer for the beginning of an African summer. Around January, I began to despair of my lost winter, and I experienced that peculiar disorder in which the current season obliterates the memory – indeed, the existence – of all other seasons. Maybe John Crowley felt the same way when he wrote: “Love is a myth, like summer. In winter, summer is a myth. A report, a rumor. Not to be believed in.”
I bought Crowley’s Little, Big shortly before I came to Windhoek. After special-ordering it from my local bookstore, I waited patiently for it to arrive, sustained by Harold Bloom’s assurance that it was a book he “regularly reread[s].” The family tree in the introductory pages, the flowery miniature work throughout, and the headings (“Sylvie and Destiny,” “Some Notes About Them,” “Lady with the Alligator Purse,” and “Still Unstolen,” among others) within chapters within books immediately won my heart. But Little, Big was not such an easy conquest, especially for a reader like me who loves devouring books whole and quick. For the first hundred pages or so, I felt the way I feel when I eat a hardboiled egg too fast and I have to stand still, sipping water until the thickness passes through my gullet. I foundered, starting and stopping the book numerous times over the course of three months. Its extended, reproachful presence on the windowsill next to my bed began to undermine my vision of myself as a diligent and avid reader.
Finally, I cut the nonsense and undertook one of my approximately bi-monthly, epic reading nights, in which I stay up until 3 or 4 in the morning finishing a book, then stay awake another hour thinking about the book. (George Eliot’s Middlemarch inspired the last such night.) Little, Big squeezed the sides of my brain and fought me for each page. In one story line, Sophie Drinkwater, a probable descendant of fairies, unknowingly goes for years without sleeping, only to have her sleep finally returned by the child who was once stolen from her and replaced with an ancient baby-like creature who eats coals. That’s a fair interpretation of what it felt like to read and finish the book.
The book truly is little and big at the same time: relationships fated for a hundred years last for one month; the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa is resurrected as a New York-based political leader who fights for a kingdom the size of a thumb; Smoky Barnable is instructed to travel by foot, not by bus or train, from New York City to Edgewood – a house that swallows people up in its architectural mishmash – in order to marry Daily Alice Drinkwater, another fairy descendant; their son, Auberon, meets a girl with a Destiny in New York, while he writes the story of his fairy-sprinkled family into the plotline of a soap opera. They are all part of a tale that is foretold in a stack of cards. I was often lost in the book’s epic relationships and murky details, in the same way that visitors to Edgewood become lost within its endless corridors and transient doorways. I don’t think I could say what the Tale exactly was, what fairies are, or who won the final battle. This thin veil between knowing and not knowing seemed natural, deliberate, and inevitable with a book whose subtle magic lies in leaving patterns half-obscured and cataclysms unrealized.
Harold Bloom is right. It is a tale that requires multiple readings, whose story lines will alternately disappear, expand, and fluctuate with each return. But I think I will wait to come home from dusty Windhoek, where I first met this book, until I can sit down in the enclosure of a deep American winter to return, by foot, to Little, Big. By then, my endless summer will be a myth. A report, a rumor. Not to be believed in.
Bonus Link: Celebrating the anniversary of Little, Big
Matt Ruff is the author of Fool on the Hill, the award-winning Set This House in Order, and, most recently, Bad Monkeys.This year, while millions of Harry Potter fans celebrated and mourned the end of their favorite series, a much smaller but no less devoted group of readers marked another literary milestone: the publication of the last book in John Crowley’s Aegypt Cycle.We’d been waiting a long time. The first book, originally called Aegypt and later rechristened The Solitudes, was published in 1987. I was just 22 years old then, fresh out of college and awaiting publication of my own first novel. I was already a fan of Crowley’s work, in particular his fantasy Little, Big, and I picked up The Solitudes eagerly when it appeared, having no idea what I was getting myself into.The book’s protagonist is Pierce Moffett, a history teacher whose studies of the Renaissance have led him to theorize that the world “once worked in a different way than it does now; it had a different history and a different future. Its very flesh and bones, the physical laws that governed it, were other than the ones we know.” Although this theory is intended as a metaphor for the way pre-Renaissance belief in magic and religion was supplanted by post-Renaissance acceptance of reason and science, Pierce begins to suspect that it might be more than just a metaphor, that it might “actually literally really be so” that the world sometimes changes its nature – and that another change is due.The Solitudes is divided into three sections, each titled, for reasons explained in the story, with a Latin verb corresponding to one of the first three houses of the zodiac. The scheme suggested that it was only book one of a quartet, although the text, in a classic Crowley touch, cast doubt on this assumption. Late in the novel, there’s a scene in which Pierce Moffett’s old mentor Frank Walker Barr lectures his students on the difference between modern fiction and classic folktales. In modern fiction, Barr says, we expect logical progression, a plot with a beginning, middle, and end. Folktales operate instead on a principle of thematic repetition, the same elements recurring over and over again, like the seasons, “until a kind of certainty arises, a satisfaction that the story has been told often enough to seem at last to have been really told.” There are also “some interesting half-way kind of works… which set up for themselves a titanic plot, an almost mathematical symmetry of structure, and never finish it; never need to finish it, because they are at heart works of the older kind…” Barr offers The Faerie Queene as an example of one of these “half-way kind of works,” but it sounds as though he might also be describing the book that he himself is a character in.It was like a bonus mystery: was The Solitudes a standalone novel, or was there more? Fans were left to wonder until 1994, when the sequel, Love & Sleep, finally appeared.Love & Sleep set Pierce Moffett on a quest to find the one thing that had survived the last change of the world (Boney Rasmussen, Pierce’s patron, is hoping that the one thing might be the philosopher’s stone, which grants immortality). It set readers on a quest, too: to make it to the end, now that we knew we hadn’t reached it yet, and see how the story turned out.As I say, it was a long wait. Book number three, Daemonomania, didn’t show up until the year 2000. By then the first two volumes of the series were out of print, and Crowley’s publisher made the perverse decision not to reissue them. Since this wasn’t the sort of story you could come in on the middle of, that pretty much doomed Daemonomania to commercial failure, and put the publication of the fourth and final installment in doubt.For six more years, devotees of Aegypt traded rumors and speculation on the Internet: Was Crowley still working on the book? Was he finished yet? How was his health, by the way? The man was getting older, and we were too, and the philosopher’s stone had not yet been found.At last Crowley himself made the announcement on his blog: the book, Endless Things, would be published by Small Beer Press. It arrived in stores last April, and even before I read it I knew that, for me, this was the book of 2007.Having read it, I can say that it was definitely worth the wait. To say more than that is difficult; I’m still a bit dismayed to not have it to look forward to anymore, and I also know that, as good a book as Endless Things is, no one who needs my recommendation to read it will experience it in anything like the way I did – not without a time machine and a whole lot of patience.But at least you can read it, along with the rest of the series. Overlook Press has begun reprinting the entire Aegypt Cycle in trade paperback. The Solitudes is already out, and Love & Sleep is due this month. If it’s not the same story for you that it was for me – and it won’t be, for the world is different than it once was – it’s still a great story. Do yourself a favor and check it out.More from A Year in Reading 2007