Sjón and the Literature of Iceland

Hannah Kent, deputy editor of Kill Your Darlings, has spent time living and writing in Iceland, the setting for her forthcoming debut novel, over the past eight years.

The Australian visit of one of Iceland’s leading literary lights, Sjón, is just days away. Hannah provides a perfect introduction to Icelandic literature – and Sjón in particular – in this passionate appreciation.

Hannah Kent

Hannah Kent

There is an Icelandic riddle that asks: ‘What in the house keeps silent and yet speaks to all?’ The answer? A book. It is a maxim that is revealing of Iceland’s profound respect for and love of the written word. A small island, its coast of black sand washed on all sides by the cold waters of the North Atlantic Ocean, Iceland’s nationhood has, in many ways, been built on a reverence for language; its heritage is unquestionably literary.

Books, reading and storytelling have not only long been part of Icelandic cultural traditions, but arguably comprise its cultural landscape. The Icelandic sagas (Íslendingasögur), medieval prose histories relating the lives of the Norse and Celtic inhabitants of Iceland in the tenth and eleventh centuries, form the nation’s cultural backbone. Landmarks of world literature, with many of the manuscripts preserved to this day, the sagas are ‘the great foundation myths’ of Iceland; singularly responsible for threading the country’s mythologies and historical traditions through the generations.

For hundreds of years Icelandic households gathered in the evenings during the dark grip of winter for kvöldvaka, where a member of the family would read aloud to amuse the others as they turned their hands to chores: knitting, fulling wool, mending tools. Recitation and contemplation of the sagas, many of which were known by heart, and readings of devotional books, newspapers and – in later years – published books of folktales, not only helped pass the snow-locked hours before sleep, but cultivated the education of Iceland’s people.

Unlike its European and Scandinavian neighbours, Iceland’s population achieved almost total literacy before 1800 – a remarkable feat for a country that, even after 1800, possessed only one school. As Uno Von Troil, a traveller to Iceland in 1772, remarked in his journal:

‘You will seldom find a peasant who besides being well-instructed in the principles of religion, is not also acquainted with the history of his country, which proceeds from the frequent reading of the traditional histories (sagas) wherein consists their principal amusement’.

This sentiment was supported by Sir George Steuart MacKenzie, who travelled to Iceland in 1810 – ‘the literary character of the people is doubtless the most extraordinary and peculiar’. He was struck by the fact that literature could thrive amongst a community ‘so oppressed by all the severities of soil and climate, and secluded amidst the desolation and destructive operations of nature’.

In modern times there has been little sign that Icelanders’ love affair with the book and with storytelling is diminishing. Reykjavík, the country’s capital, was appointed as a UNESCO City of Literature in 2011, in recognition of its ‘outstanding literary history with its invaluable heritage of ancient medieval literature’, and ‘the central role literature plays within the modern urban landscape, the contemporary society and the daily life of its citizens’. Despite the fact that these citizens amount to only 317,000, the country continues to publish the most books per capita in the world – the equivalent of five books each year for every 1,000 citizens – and has produced a vast number of internationally known writers, including 1955 Nobel Prize for Literature winner, Halldór Laxness. Other, more contemporary Icelanders to achieve international acclaim include Arnaldur Indriðason (2005 winner of the Golden Dagger Award) and Yrsa Sigurðardottir, both crime writers, and Nordic Council Literature Prize winners, Thor Vilhjálmsson, Einar Már Guðmundsson and Sjón.

Sjón cuts a distinctive figure in Iceland's cultural landscape

Sjón cuts a distinctive figure in Iceland's cultural landscape

Sjón (born in 1962 as Sigurjón Sigurðsson) is perhaps most emblematic of the vibrancy and originality that can be found in the contemporary Icelandic literary scene. At only 16 years of age he published his first poems, and a few years later he formed the surrealist poetry group, Medusa, with other artists. Now the author of seven novels and many collections of poetry, Sjón has applied his creativity in other areas: establishing the record label Smekkleysa (Bad Taste), and collaborating with Lars Von Trier and Björk on the lyrics for Dancer in the Dark. His literary abilities and interests are manifold and reflected in the style of his work; from the precise, controlled lyricism of his novel The Blue Fox (Skugga Baldur, 2005) – where a priest hunts an enigmatic blue fox through a wintered landscape and a naturalist finds a young girl shackled to a ship wreck – to the stream-of-conscious surrealism of his most recent publication, From the Mouth of the Whale.

From the Mouth of the Whale (Rökkurbýsnir, published in Icelandic in 2008, and translated into English by Victoria Cribb in 2011), is, like Sjón, representative of the way in which Icelandic literature today coalesces the country’s rich history with modern sensibilities. It is the story of Jónas the Learned, a self-taught naturalist and healer who has been sentenced for sorcery and necromancy, outlawed to Gullbjörn’s Island in 1635. Shortlisted for the 2012 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, From the Mouth of the Whale is a portrait of seventeenth-century post-Reformation Iceland: a bleak island shrouded in poverty, mysticism and superstition, just as the bright light of science is dawning upon the world. It is a novel where tradition is amalgamated with discovery.

*From the Mouth of the Whale* – or *Rökkurbýsnir*, if you're Icelandic

From the Mouth of the Whale – or Rökkurbýsnir, if you're Icelandic

The Iceland represented by Sjón, as Jónas narrates his story to a lone sandpiper, similarly teeters between the magical and the known: ravens’ heads are roasted and their brains picked apart in search of bezoars; a solar eclipse drives peasants to despair and madness; the ghost of a parson’s son runs riot until it is exorcised with poetry; whalers are massacred; and corpses are invaded by the Devil, who ‘rides the deceased like a cruel jockey driving his horse’. Sjón’s prose is at once intensely surrealist and peculiarly charming, and – like so many Icelandic authors – he plays with the myths, history and folktales of his country. Just as Jónas breathlessly exclaims, ‘Every book is imbued with a human spirit,’ so are Sjón’s novels imbued with a spirited appreciation and exploration of language and Icelandic literary culture.

In a 2011 interview with David Shariatmadari from the Guardian, Sjón acknowledged Icelanders’ need for storytelling: ‘In a small country, you really feed your identity with stories. Nobody else is … looking at you, so the only people you can assume are interested in who you are, and where you come from, and where you’re going is yourself and your people. So you’re very much reliant on the story of your origin…’ It’s a philosophy and a recognition that, as Reykjavík’s City of Literature site suggests, ‘the art of the word is the strongest thread in Iceland’s cultural history’. It is what holds Iceland together as a nation, what connects it to its past. As Jónas exclaims in From the Mouth of the Whale:

‘And so it is with all the far-fetched tales […] of this world with their uncouth exclamations about endless nights, burning snow, whales the size of mountains, trumpet blasts of the dead from volcanoes and icebergs, witches who can sell sailors a favourable wind or send their sons to the moon; in some strange way they come close to the stories that we ordinary, humble folk tell ourselves in an attempt to comprehend our existence here and make it more bearable.’

Portrait of Hannah Kent

Hannah Kent's debut novel, Burial Rites (2013), was translated into twenty-three languages. It won the ABIA Literary Fiction Book of the Year and the Indie Awards Debut Fiction Book of the Year, and was shortlisted for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction, the Stella Prize, the Guardian First Book Award, and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. Hannah’s second novel, The Good People, will be published in October 2016. She is also the publishing director and editor of Kill Your Darlings journal.

Related posts