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.
Each of these books, translated by Victoria Cribb, echoes Iceland’s mythic past as well as its current climate of economic collapse and creative rebirth. From the Mouth of the Whale tells the story of Jonas Palmason, a 17th-century healer and natural scientist exiled for views neither fully secular or religious, but which express a hybrid, pagan ethos at odds with either school. The novel is a similar mash-up of the rational and the spiritual, juxtaposing taxonomical entries about wildlife with the lyrical and sublime: “The sea is a sheet of billowing velvet … and the whole vision is run through with tinkling bright silk thread.”
The Blue Fox is arranged, according to its author, around the phrasing of a string quartet. After opening with a hunt for the titular canid, a parallel story emerges that is at once a supernatural mystery, a précis of Ovid and a lament for the treatment of the developmentally challenged. These pieces unite in the novel’s final section, where, in what seems a direct nod to Laxness, the intrepid huntsman is swept up in an avalanche before “[coming] to rest in a hollow under the glacier.”
A similar twining structure is also at work in The Whispering Muse, perhaps the best introduction to Sjón’s writing for its clarity of theme and language. Told in vibrant, first-person prose, the story begins with the invitation of an elderly scholar, Valdimar Haraldsson, aboard a merchant ship sailing from Norway to Turkey. A sort of amateur eugenicist, Haraldsson is the founder of Fisk og Kultur (“Fish and Culture”), a journal dedicated to promulgating the theory that Nordic people are “superior in vigour and attainment to other races” because of their primary diet of seafood.
Yet, when the first meals served aboard the MS Elizabet Jung-Olsen consist of roast beef and pork shanks, Haraldsson descends into a funk – until, that is, he drops a line into the ocean and catches a mighty cod to feed the crew. “Most of the diners tucked in with gusto,” Haraldsson notes gleefully, oblivious that his passions are mostly humored – even grudgingly tolerated – by his shipmates. Later, he delivers an unsolicited lecture, detailing Homo sapiens’ aquatic origins and concluding, “The sea is the mainspring of the Nordic nations!”
This is a novel rich in sly ironies, and Haraldsson recalls Robert Walser’s great comic creation, Jakob von Gunten, for his blind, clueless enthusiasm. But The Whispering Muse offers more than a series of oddball vignettes, approaching Borges or Calvino in how it doubles back to become a study of narrative itself. The novel incorporates multiple forms: song lyrics, lecture notes, book quotations and a serialized, Odyssean fable told every evening after supper by the ship’s second mate. This mysterious character, who either channels or is Caeneus, the transgendered hero of Greek mythology, conjures each nightly chapter from a splinter he claims to have salvaged from the hull of the Argo.
All the while, the Elizabet Jung-Olsen lies anchored in a Norwegian fjord, awaiting its cargo; with fascination Haraldsson observes the activities of an on-shore paper mill from the ship’s deck. “The greatest pleasure for me,” he says, “was to see the blocks of raw paper gliding past the wheelhouse windows.” Yet there is drama here too; after a tragic accident kills one of the mill workers, Haraldsson spies “one of the deceased workman’s hands trapped in the outer layer of the paper pulp.”
Everywhere, suggests The Whispering Muse, one finds stories, from Caeneus’s fantastic tales of marine adventure to the drama aboard the docked ship (who is the purser’s wife sleeping with? how might the paper mill’s labour dispute resolve? are his shipmates enjoying the fish?). As the novel progresses, the twin storylines begin to braid, until “fantasy” and “reality” conjoin in the book’s climactic scene, revealing any distinction between the two as arbitrary, even false.
Despite so much of the novel being plot-driven, The Whispering Muse defies easy summary. Instead, it is one of those immersive, experiential works of art: exhilarating, then bewildering when one looks up from the page and tries to refocus on “so-called real life.” Through Sjón’s skewed lens, our world appears equally strange as one in which gods transform girls into boys, heroines grow wings and ancient warriors turn up on merchant ships to entertain their fellow seamen.
The bedrock mythologies of almost every culture, which integrated the marvellous with the everyday, were stories of and from and about the people, collectively. These have been largely replaced by the self-help solipsism common to modern fiction, which invariably requires some lone character to emerge epiphanic and changed. Sjón has spoken about how myth “puts [us] down to size.” Perhaps, in today’s climate of individualism, grand stories create discomfort in a culture so focused on self-actualization and personal fulfilment.
Almost by default, the epic has become a literature of dissent. Narratives that access realms beyond human comprehension and experience suggest that, as Sjón puts it, “man … is just this tiny figure moving from one meal to another on his way to the grave.” Yet these seem exactly the sorts of stories we need, as they not only force us outside our own narcissism, but also address the hybridity of modern lives half-spent in virtual realms: part real, part imagined.
These are not new ideas; in the mid-20th century a number of authors grew discontented with realism, a condition articulated by the critic Jerome Klinkowitz: “If the world is absurd, if what passes for reality is distressingly unreal, why spend time representing it?” Yet the novel’s tendency away from the epic also seems symptomatic of how out of touch we’ve become with this continent’s original stories.
Compared with Iceland, Canada’s literary traditions seem almost synchronized with their own present; were one to ask most Canadian writers about their influences, very few (short of Thomas King, Lee Maracle and a handful of like-minded aboriginal authors) would cite the aboriginal legends even more ancient than the great Norse sagas.
How inspiring, then, to discover a contemporary writer like Sjón, who is willing to harken back to ancient traditions, to acknowledge that life remains strange and mysterious, to honour the gold of the “mouth-tale” and to write novels that capture the duality of existence arguably more prevalent now than ever before. “I am a great believer,” he has said, “in the idea that the myths and the gods never left.”
Pasha Malla is the author People Park and The Withdrawal Method.