SJON / An Evening with the Icelandic Author
First things first: Sjón is pronounced “She own,” but as one syllable. It’s OK if you need to take a moment to practice—it’s not every day American readers are tested in the pronunciation of the names of Icelandic novelists.
In fact, to even name something pertaining to Icelandic literature, most Americans would have to reach back to the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1955 for Haldór Laxness, if not the Icelandic sagas of the eleventh century.
We think three novels by Sjón will convince you that in more recent years this has been to our own detriment: we have been missing out on one of the world’s great writers. Not one of the world’s great Icelandic writers—one of the great writers, period. Already hailed far beyond the borders of his native country by such luminaries as David Mitchell, A. S. Byatt, and Junot Díaz, Sjón’s writing has been translated into 25 languages.
This month we join with others to make his long overdue introduction to American readers with the simultaneous publication of three of his greatest novels.
While each is set in a different moment of Iceland’s history—from the pre-Enlightenment to the post-war—these novels share Sjón’s singular vision and voice. They are absorbing, sometimes dark and weird, but always playful, magical, and irresistibly charming—a mix of storytelling brio, the mythic and the bizarre, and Icelandic history, all filtered through a sharp, modern sensibility.
This is admittedly an unusual cocktail of adjectives, and they reflect Sjón’s diverse influences. As a child, he was an obsessive reader, and growing up in Reykjavík, his first exposure to literature came in the form of Icelandic myths. But as a teenager he discovered David Bowie (he in fact taught himself English so he could read his interviews in NME). As Sjón himself explains it, Bowie’s music served as a bridge to his next creative loves, modernist poetry and surrealism. Somewhat relatedly, he is active today in The Best Party, the anarcho-Surrealist political party that currently governs Reykjavík. And music remains important to him. He has appeared in Sugar Cubes videos and is on the board of Iceland’s Bad Taste record label. He’s written lyrics for Björk and even earned an Oscar nomination for his musical collaboration with Lars von Trier for Dancer in the Dark.
The Blue Fox, Sjón’s first novel, was awarded the Nordic Council Literature Prize, the Nordic world’s highest literary honor. It is a short, parable-like novella abouta rare fox and the nineteenth century Icelandic country priest who hunts it—and the way their stories intertwine unexpectedly with Fridrik B. Fridrikson, a naturalist who lives on the outskirts of the priest’s territory with his charge, Abba, a girl with Down Syndrome he rescued from an abandoned ship. A.S. Byatt calls it “comic and lyrical,” writing “The Blue Fox describes its world with brilliant, precise, concrete color and detail.” And, it must be said, The Blue Fox is also greatly admired by the one Icelander that all Americans are almost certainly familiar with—Björk. Björk writes, “When I need something epic andlyrical I call upon Sjón . . . The Blue Fox is a magical novel.”
From the Mouth of the Whale tells the story of a seventeenth century Icelandic healer and independent scholar Jón Guðmundsson. A man of reason and scientific rigor, Jónas is a man ahead of his time in a Reformation world dominated by superstition, poverty, and cruelty. It is an absorbing epic and a fascinating look at a critical moment in the history of Iceland and of the modern world. Junot Díaz calls it “achingly brilliant “and “an epic made mad, made extraordinary.” Hari Kunzru writes: “Hallucinatory, lyrical, by turns comic and tragic, this extraordinary novel should make Sjón an international name. His evocation of seventeenth-century Iceland through the eyes of a man born before his time has stuck in my mind like nothing else I’ve read this year.”
In The Whispering Muse, arguably his masterpiece to date, Sjón weaves the ancient and modern in a Borges-like tale, bundling the mind-bending and the visionary into a deceptively accessible package. The year is 1949. Valdimar Haraldsson, an eccentricscholar with elevated ideas about the influence of fish consumption on Nordic Civilization has had the singular good fortune to be invited to join a Danish merchant ship on its way to the Black Sea. Among the crew is the mythical hero Caeneus, disguised as the second mate—who every evening after dinner, entrances his fellow travelers with the tale of how he sailed with the fabled vessel the Argo on the Argonauts’ quest to retrieve the golden fleece. It is, as David Mitchell puts it, “a quirky, melodic, ticklish, seamlessly translated, lovingly polished gem of a novel.”
Sjón was born in Reykjavík in 1962. He is an award-winning playwright, and his novels have been translated into twenty-five languages. Sjón is the president of the Icelandic PEN Centre and the chairman of the board of Reykjavik UNESCO City of Literature. Also a lyricist, he has written songs for Björk, including for her most recent project, Biophilia, and was nominated for an Oscar for the lyrics he co-wrote (with Lars von Trier) for Dancer in the Dark. He lives in Reykjavik. Read more at Sjonorama: http://sjon.siberia.is/.
About the translator: Victoria Cribb lived in Iceland for a number of years, working as a translator, journalist, and publisher. She has translated the works of Sjón, Gyrðir Elíasson, and Arnaldur Indriðason, and is currently studying for a PhD in OldIcelandic literature at the University of Cambridge.
Co-sponsored by the Center for the Art of Translation