‘Moonstone: The Boy Who Never Was’ by Sjon ***

Moonstone: The Boy Who Never Was has been translated from its original Icelandic by Victoria Cribb.  The novella was first published in its native Iceland in 2013, by one of the country’s most revered authors and songwriters, Sjon.  I visited the biggest bookshop in Reykjavik when I visited in February, and many of his books were on display, both in Icelandic and their English translations.  To date, I have read a couple of his books, including the relatively well-known The Blue Fox, which I would go as far as to say is his most prominent work in the English-speaking world.

Characteristically, Sjon’s style does tend toward the sparse, and is almost simplistic on the face of it.  Moonstone begins in 1918, with this sentence: ‘The October evening is windless and cool.  There is a distant throb of a motorcycle.  The boy puts his head on one side to get a better fix on the sound’.  What comes next is rather a graphic scene, in which a young man – our main character – sexually gratifies an older man: ‘Mumbled words escape from between his clenched teeth; snatches at the land scenes he is staging in his mind’.

Our protagonist, sixteen-year-old orphan Mani Stein Karlssson (possibly a spelling error in the book) is from 15,000-citizen strong Reykjavik, in which ‘those of the same age cannot help but be aware of one another’, and has lived with his great-grandmother’s sister since his mother’s death.  His real passion in life is going to the cinema, watching, as he does, ‘all the movies that are imported to Iceland’.  Mani is illiterate, and works as a gigolo to earn his money; it is not a job which he dislikes, and he never says anything to make the reader think that he is being exploited, or is performing acts solely for the monetary reward.  In fact, more could have been made of this element of the plot.

Images and imagery are both of importance here; the result is gory and strange, but incredibly memorable.  Throughout, Sjon’s use of imagery is both interesting and thought-provoking: ‘With his back pressed to the cliff, the man appears to have merged with his own shadow, become grafted to the rock’.  Some of his descriptions – and, indeed, Cribb’s interpretation of them – are striking: ‘She appears on the brink like a goddess risen from the depths of the sea, silhouetted against the backdrop of a sky ablaze with the volcanic fires of Katla…’.  Indeed, the geographical prominence of the landscape features wonderfully:

‘Although it’s past midnight there’s still a small crowd gathered on the hill to watch the Katla eruption: drunkards, policemen, labourers… and waifs and strays like himself…  When not conversing in low voices they gaze intently at the light show in the ease where the volcano is painting the night sky every shade of red, from scarlet through violet to crimson, before exploding the canvas with flares of bonfire yellow and gaseous blue.’

For the first quarter or so of the novella, if it wasn’t for the inclusion of dates, it would be difficult to pinpoint the period in which Mani’s story takes place.  There is very little else, at first, to give the era away, and its writing style – or perhaps its translation – feels relatively contemporary.  There are those things going on in Icelandic society which we recognise from the modern-day media – eruptions from various volcanoes, such as the aforementioned Katla, steamers coming across from Denmark, and a referendum about the country’s independence.

Later comes the first reference to Spanish influenza, which the remainder of the plot revolves around, and which builds a sense of history in a far more effective manner.  As Sjon writes, this epidemic acts almost as a uniting force: ‘An uncontrollable force has been unleashed in the country; something historic is taking place in Reykjavik at the same time as it is happening in the outside world’.  The influenza is consequently personified, given human attributes and actions: ‘By the time Miss Inga Maria Waagfjord, guitar player and chanteuse, slumps unconscious from the piano stool during the second episode of ‘The Golden Reel’ at the New Cinema, the epidemic has snatched away the last person in Reykjavik capable of picking out a tune’.

At first, whilst Moonstone provides some character portraits which warrant exploration on behalf of the reader, there is a definite sense of detachment to the whole.  The novella takes a while to find its feet, but it can certainly be said that it builds in intensity after the first few chapters, and becomes almost compelling in consequence.  The detachment disappears after a while, and the third person perspective cleverly becomes a necessary, rather than a distancing, tool.  Sjon has demonstrated, however, how quickly the city changed in the face of the epidemic, and how its atmosphere and bustle all but disappeared.  An important time in history, which does not appear to have been very well documented in Western history (at least in the English-speaking world) has been demonstrated in Moonstone, which alone makes the novella well worth reading.

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Reading Iceland

I am currently enjoying a week in Iceland with my boyfriend (hooray for scheduling posts ahead of time!), and thought I would coincide this with a post recommending several books set in Iceland.  Whilst there are many more books published in the country’s healthy book industry than are translated into English, there is still a plethora of wondrous works which are well worth a read.  The books which I would recommend are as follows.  For each, I have copied their blurb to give you an idea of the story.

  1. Fish Can Sing by Halldor Laxness 9781860469343
    ‘Abandoned as a baby, Alfgrimur is content to spend his days as a fisherman living in the turf cottage outside Reykjavik with the elderly couple he calls grandmother and grandfather. There he shares the mid-loft with a motley bunch of eccentrics and philosophers who find refuge in the simple respect for their fellow men that is the ethos at the Brekkukot. But the narrow horizons of Alfgrimur’s idyllic childhood are challenged when he starts school and meets Iceland’s most famous singer, the mysterious Garoar Holm. Garoar encourages him to aim for the “one true note”, but how can he attain it without leaving behind the world that he loves?’

  2. The Blue Fox by Sjon
    ‘The year is 1883. The stark Icelandic winter landscape is the backdrop. We follow the priest, Skugga-Baldur, on his hunt for the enigmatic blue fox. We’re then transported to the world of the naturalist Friethrik B. Friethriksson and his charge, Abba, who suffers from Down’s syndrome, and who came to his rescue when he was on the verge of disaster. Then to a shipwreck off the Icelandic coast in the spring of 1868. The fates of Friethrik, Abba and Baldur are intrinsically bound and unravelled in this spellbinding book that is part thriller, part fairy tale.’
  3. 9780199675340The Poetic Edda, edited by Carolyne Larrington
    ‘After the terrible conflagration of Ragnarok, the earth rises serenely again from the ocean, and life is renewed. The Poetic Edda begins with The Seeress’s Prophecy which recounts the creation of the world, and looks forward to its destruction and rebirth. In this great collection of Norse-Icelandic mythological and heroic poetry, the exploits of gods and humans are related. The one-eyed Odin, red-bearded Thor, Loki the trickster, the lovely goddesses and the giants who are their enemies walk beside the heroic Helgi, Sigurd the Dragon-Slayer, Brynhild the shield-maiden, and the implacable Gudrun. New in this revised translation are the quest-poem The Lay of Svipdag and The Waking of Angantyr, in which a girl faces down her dead father to retrieve his sword. Comic, tragic, instructive, grandiose, witty and profound, the poems of the Edda have influenced artists from Wagner to Tolkien and a new generation of video-game and film makers.’
  4. Letters from Iceland by W.H. Auden and Louis MacNeice
    I reviewed this comprehensively on the blog recently.
  5. Ragnarok by A.S. Byatt 9781847670649
    ‘Recently evacuated to the British countryside and with World War Two raging around her, one young girl is struggling to make sense of her life. Then she is given a book of ancient Norse legends and her inner and outer worlds are transformed. Intensely autobigraphical and linguistically stunning, this book is a landmark work of fiction from one of Britain’s truly great writers. Intensely timely it is a book about how stories can give us the courage to face our own demise. The Ragnarok myth, otherwise known as the Twilight of the Gods, plays out the endgame of Norse mythology. It is the myth in which the gods Odin, Freya and Thor die, the sun and moon are swallowed by the wolf Fenrir, the serpent Midgard eats his own tale as he crushes the world and the seas boil with poison. It is only after such monstrous death and destruction that the world can begin anew. This epic struggle provided the fitting climax to Wagner’s Ring Cycle and just as Wagner was inspired by Norse myth so Byatt has taken this remarkable finale and used it as the underpinning of this highly personal and politically charged retelling.’
  6. An Island on Fire: The Extraordinary Story of Laki, the Volcano that Turned Eighteenth-Century Europe Dark by Jeff Kanipe and Alexandra Witze
    ‘The eruption of Laki is one of history’s great untold natural disasters. The eruption, spewing out a poisionous fog, lasted for eight months, but its effects lingered across Europe for years, causing the death of people as far away as the Nile, and creating famine that may have triggered the French revolution. Island on Fire is the story not only of a volcano but also of the people whose lives it changed, such as the pastor Jon Steingrimsson, who witnessed and recorded the events in Iceland. It is the story, too, of modern volcanology, and looks at how events might work out should Laki erupt again in our time.’
  7. 9780099455158The Atom Station by Halldor Laxness
    (The list would not be complete without a second Laxness work, after all!)
    ‘When the Americans make an offer to buy land in Iceland to build a NATO airbase after World War II, a storm of protest is provoked throughout the country. The airbase provides Laxness with the catalyst for his astonishing and powerful satire. Narrated by a country girl from the north, the novel follows her experiences after she takes up employment as a maid in the house of her Member of Parliament. Marvelling at the customs and behaviour of the people around her, she emerges as the one obstinate reality in a world of unreality. Her observations and experiences expose the bourgeois society of the south as rootless and shallow and in stark contrast to the age-old culture of the solid and less fanciful north. A witty and moving satire on politics and politicians, Communists and anti-Communists, phoney culture fiends, big business and all the pretensions of authority, Laxness’ masterpiece of social commentary is as relevant today as when it was written in 1948.’

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One From the Archive: ‘The Whispering Muse’ by Sjon ***

Sjón’s The Whispering Muse is more of a novella than a novel, filling just 143 pages. The author is a celebrated poet and novelist in his native Iceland, and his books have been translated into twenty five languages to date. The Whispering Muse won the award for best Icelandic novel in 2005, and has recently been translated into English by Victoria Cribb.

The novel, which has been heralded by such authors as Alberto Manguel and David Mitchell as ‘a marvel’ and ‘a lovingly published gem of a novel’ respectively, opens in 1949 and takes place over a relatively short period of time. Its protagonist is an Icelandic man named Valdimar Haraldsson, who is rather an eccentric character from the start. He is twenty seven years old when the story begins, and states his ‘chief preoccupation’ as ‘the link between fish consumption and the superiority of the Nordic race’.

One of the few men who believe Valdimar’s theory, that the Nordic diet of fish makes the race ‘superior in vigour and attainments to other races that have not enjoyed such ease of access to the riches of the ocean’, is a Danish shipbroker named Hermann Jung-Olsen. Hermann, ‘born with a silver spoon in his mouth’, is described as ‘a fine figure of a man, a firebrand with an insatiable appetite for work’. After his untimely death, Hermann’s father, Magnus, invites Valdimar on a cruise on one of the Jung-Olsen family’s own liners, from Copenhagen to Norway, and then on to İzmit in Turkey.

The second mate of the ship is the mythical hero Caeneus, working in disguise. Each night after supper he weaves stories for those present, apparently striking his inspiration from a piece of wood chipping which he holds close to his ear. He tells of his adventures aboard a ship named the Argo, which Valdimar deems to be ‘fascinating stuff for the most part, if a little on the racy side’. The interwoven story is inventive, and Sjón has struck just the right balance in his telling of the tales of Valdimar and Caeneus. The concept is a clever one.

A good mixture of sentence structure has been used throughout The Whispering Muse, particularly with regard to the balance between short and long sentences. Valdimar’s first person narrative voice is strong, and he comes across as a likeable character from the outset. His narrative is light and relatively informal, and his style is a chatty one. Sjón’s character descriptions too are rather inventive and often amusing. The purser of the ship, for example, is ‘a likeable chap, despite an inability to pronounce his ‘r’s’. The story does feel rather factually heavy at times, particularly when such elements as freight weights and the intricacies of the paper making process are included.

Where the writing style is concerned, the majority of the book has been very well captured in translation. The author’s descriptions work incredibly well, particularly those of the sea, and a real sense of place is created when the liner first reaches Norway. Caeneus’ dialogue is nothing short of poetic for the most part. The only downside to Cribb’s interpretation of the text is the way in which several of the phrases used do sound rather clumsy – ‘when we made landfall on the island’, for example.

On the whole, the story is a clever one, but elements of the bizarre creep in throughout. The ending of the book does sadly seem a little abrupt, particularly where Valdimar’s transformation as a character is concerned. Still, The Whispering Muse is a must-read for anyone interested in mythology and fables, or those who merely wish to expand their knowledge of contemporary Icelandic literature.

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‘The Blue Fox’ by Sjón **** (Book Club, October 2013)

I have had my eye on this beautiful looking novella for such a long time, and thought that it would be a wonderful book to discuss as part of our book club here at The Literary Sisters.  The Blue Fox, first published in 2003, is a novella written by Icelandic poet, novelist and lyricist Sigurjón Birgir Sigurðsson.  His pen name, Sjón, means ‘sight’.

'The Blue Fox' by Sjon

‘The Blue Fox’ by Sjon

This is the second of Sjón’s novels which I’ve read, and I am saddened that I was a little disappointed with The Whispering Muse, first published in his native Iceland in 2005 and read by me earlier this year.  Whilst the novel had an interesting storyline, and its mixture of mythology and the focus placed upon its protagonist’s obsession with fish consumption was done well, I felt that its execution, particularly with regard to the ending, was rather abrupt and underdeveloped. I had high hopes of The Blue Fox regardless.

The story in The Blue Fox is a relatively simple one.  A man somewhere in the midst of wild and remote Scandinavia is trying to hunt a blue fox.  The tale meanders from this foxhunt to a funeral and then travels onward, encompassing themes such as loneliness and disability as it goes.

The entirety of The Blue Fox is so beautifully written.  I loved the way in which the text was broken up throughout, with small sections of the story separated from what comes before and after.  The storyline which was threaded throughout connected every single tiny detail of the plot.  Along with the lovely poetic quality which Sjón has woven, there is a definite darkness to the story.  The sense of place which Sjón creates is stunning, and it was certainly my favourite element of the entire novella.  He conjures the landscape deftly, leaving his reader shivering in the Icelandic snow along with his characters.

The Blue Fox is an odd tale but a memorable one, and one which I would highly recommend to anyone with an interest in nature, Scandinavia, beautiful writing and Icelandic fiction.