About The Author
Born in Reykjavik, Iceland, Sjón (born Sigurjón Birgir Sigurðsson) published his first poetry collection at the age of 15. He has since published seven novels and numerous collections of poetry plays, libretti and picture books for children. He was one of the founding members of the neo-surrealist group Medúsa and has held held the Samuel Fischer Guest Professorship at the Freie Universität in Berlin.
His long-time collaboration with the Icelandic singer Björk led to an Oscar nomination for his lyrics for 'I've Seen It All', used in the Lars von Trier's film, Dancer in the Dark. He even appeared as a guest vocalist, under the name Johnny Triumph, on The Sugarcubes' 12" single 'Luftgitar' and appeared with the band at their 2006 reunion concert.
In 2005, his novel The Blue Fox (Icelandic: Skugga-Baldur) was awarded the Nordic Council's Literature Prize, perhaps the most prestigious award to available to writers in from the Nordic nations. It was also shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize.
His latest novel to be published in English is The Whispering Muse (Argóarflísin). An elderly Icelandic professor, with an obsession for extolling the importance of fish in the Nordic diet, is taken on board a Danish merchant ship heading for Mediterranean waters. Much to his frustration, talk at dinner every night is dominated by the ship's second mate, Caeneus, who regales the crew with epic tales of his adventures with Jason on the Argo two thousand years before. The novel is currently being adapted for an opera due to be premiered in Copenhagen in 2013.
Sjón has been compared to Italo Calvino, Jorge Luis Borges and Vladmir Nabokov. The Whispering Muse has been described by David Mitchell as "quirky, melodic, ticklish, seamlessly-translated, lovingly-polished gem of a novel" and by Alberto Manguel as "an extraordinary, powerful fable, travel-log, adventure story and metaphysical mystery. A marvel."
In this exclusive interview for Foyles, Sjón talks about the links between Nordic and Greek mythology, creating a place where the words can make love and shamelessly breaking down of the barriers between myth and reality.
Questions & Answers
Your narrator, Valdimar Haraldsson, seems unaware of his own absurdity, not understanding for instance how his lectures on the importance of fish to the Nordic diet could be any less gripping than the heroic tales with which Caeneus regales the crew. Is he a symbol or cipher of some kind?
Dear old Valdimar represents us contemporary mortals who strive to believe that we, and our ideas, matter - even though we live in the shadow of the great godly forces and the classical grand narratives of the past. So, just as he feels his eccentric ideas should be listened to - even though they are but a mouse's squeak compared with the Titans' roar of the story Caeneus is telling - I offer my tiny novel to the reader in spite of its insignificance when placed on the same bookshelf as, let's say the Odyssey.
Caeneus is a relatively minor figure in Greek myth, making an appearance in Ovid's Metamorphoses. Did you choose him so allow you the freedom to embellish the original myths?
When I found Caeneus on the crew list of the Argo, as proposed by Robert Graves, I knew I had found my man. Being born a woman and then metamorphosing into a man (and later from man into bird), Caeneus gave me the opportunity of working with a less masculine view point when telling the story of Jason and his men's visit to Lemnos; an island inhabited solely by women. So, that girl-man-bird figure provided the extra injection of oestrogen and wonder I needed for the story to become truly dynamic.
The myths of ancient Greece have always been seen as a cornerstone of many western European nations' literary canons. Is this also the case in Iceland?
Yes, Snorri Sturluson, the author of the prose Edda, written in the 13th century, insisted that the Nordic gods had their roots in the Mediterranean pantheon. Thor is a mutated Hector, Odin is Hermes (with a bit of Ares thrown into the mix), Freyja is Aphrodite and so on ... So, we are quite skilled in comparative mythology up here in the north and it came in handy when writing The Whispering Muse to be able to fuse the two traditions.
Why do your books so often blend the everyday with the mythical and magical?
Because it is a reality that is there for everyone to see in their mind's eye and as a 'realist' I try to encompass all the dimensions of the human experience in my books. It is something I learned as a teenager by reading Mikhail Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita and André Breton's essays on the marvellous as the true state of the world and I try to stay true to these main teachers of mine.
Victoria Cribb is your English translator; do you work closely with her on the English translations of your fiction?
I am truly fortunate to have Victoria as my translator and during the translation process I am always willing to answer any questions she might have. I don't make her work easy so I am constantly astonished at her skill at finding English solutions for the often obscure language I use, whether it is a phrase built on a 17th century poetic stanza or a contemporary tongue twister. So, yes, we work as closely together as Victoria feels necessary for each novel, but the hard work and the great outcome are all hers.
Are there particular countries in which your books have found a significant readership?
So far Germany, Denmark and Spain are the places where my books have found most readers, but the French and the Swedish are also sympathetic to my work. And now, I am happy to say, they have been very warmly received in the UK.
Your books are being published in English some years after their original publication in Iceland. Do you find your own perceptions of your writing have changed in the interim?
As Skugga-Baldur, the novel published in English by Telegram as The Blue Fox, has now been published in more than twenty languages, I have had to launch it in almost as many countries. Luckily that particular book is open to many interpretations and in each new place I have been able to look at it from a new angle and sometimes I learn something new about it. Of course, there are bits and pieces in every book I know I would do differently now, than at the time of their writing, but in general I am content with my past works. At the moment I am launching The Whispering Muse in the UK and I am feeling quite proud of how daring it is in its shameless breaking down of the barriers between myth and reality and between time and space. I had forgotten quite how far I went with that idea and I am happy I did. It gives me courage to keep working in that spirit ...
You write in many forms: fiction, poetry, children's books, plays, libretti and song lyrics. Is there anything they all have in common?
In all of them I try to bring together different states of consciousness, to bring unlikely narratives or poetic styles into play on the same stage, to create a place where the words can make love....