The Prose Edda, one of the foundational texts of Norse mythology, is rich in allegorical fables that express a reverence for storytelling. In its second book, the Skaldskaparmal, Bragi, the god of poetry, tells Aegir, the god of the sea, of a king who divided his inheritance by the amount of gold each son could hold in his mouth. “And we have it as a metaphor among us now,” Bragi says, “to call gold the mouth-tale of these giants; but we conceal it in secret terms or in poesy in this way, that we call it Speech, or Word, or Talk, of these giants.”
The earliest “mouth-tales” of most cultures, from Scheherazade to Odysseus, have often invoked the supernatural, and just as often addressed and celebrated their own telling. Yet, as Susan Sontag notes in her introduction to the Icelandic Nobel laureate Halldor Laxness’s Under the Glacier, an illusory “realism” has developed as the contemporary novel’s dominant mode, and writers working in divergent forms and styles are, at least in North America, considered postmodern curiosities or relegated to the ghettos of science fiction, horror and fantasy.
Sontag speaks of Under the Glacier’s deviation from most fiction’s “artificial norm … of so-called real life,” and situates it in “traditions that are more venerable than those of the 19th century, but still, to this day, seem innovative or ultra-literary or bizarre.” Maybe this sort of literary nostalgia is particular to Iceland, which seems rare in how its writers have remained in touch with their narrative ancestry. “It is a great good fortune,” Laxness said in his Nobel banquet speech, “for an author to be born into a nation so steeped in centuries of poetry and literary tradition.” He even claimed his homeland produces “a separate literary genre,” with its own codes and frequencies.
While the specifics of that genre might be tricky (and potentially specious, for the English-only reader) to define, there are few countries as distinctly literary as Iceland, whose publishing industry produces more books per capita than anywhere else on earth. In 2011, Reykjavik’s designation as a UNESCO City of Literature coincided with the Icelandic Literature Centre’s “Fabulous Iceland” campaign, which introduced some of the country’s leading authors to the world stage. In their accompanying profiles, many of these writers cited the medieval Codex Regius of Eddic poetry as the text most influential to their work.
This storytelling culture resonates beyond Iceland’s literature, too: consider the huldufolk, those fairy-like, mystical creatures said to inhabit the countryside. Depending on which study you counsel – and there are many – up to half of the country’s population believes, on some level, in the existence of these “hidden people.” What might elsewhere be dismissed as folkloric kitsch warrants an Icelandic Elf School in Reykjavik; it also speaks to the unique syncretism of the country’s collective imagination, which combines the mythic, the populist and the fabulist.
While Halldor Laxness might be Iceland’s 20th-century “giant,” a new crop of authors has been gaining international renown. These include the magic realist Gyrdir Eliasson and, winner of 2012’s “Little Nobel” for Nordic Literature, Einar Mar Gudmundsson. Perhaps most apt to replicate Laxness’s success in translation is Sigurjon Birgir Sigurdsson – or, as the author of two dozen books and a handful of plays is better known, Sjón.
Sjón enjoys popularity in continental Europe yet has remained mostly unknown to English-language readers. His shortlisting for the 2013 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award could change that, as might this new release of his three most recent novels: From the Mouth of the Whale, The Blue Fox and, in its first English version, The Whispering Muse.