Editing: Zachary Jacoba
Transcription: Miriam Schulten
Interview: Zachary Jacoba, Max Richter
Sjón, the contemporary Icelandic author par excellence, was among the internationally renowned poets and novelists who were invited to the second annual Poetica festival for world literature in Cologne. Norrøna was granted an interview with the astoundingly versatile writer and thus received the opportunity to pick his brain concerning himself, his work and literature on the whole.
Norrøna: You’re here in Cologne for the Poetica festival, which gives your work the chance to be read in front of an audience and in a way close the gap between reader and writer that usually characterizes literature. Are literary performances and festivals an intrinsic part of literature as an art form, or just a part of the business?
Sjón: Well, my background is in the Icelandic scene of the eighties, where poets and musicians came together and rock concerts were a very important place for us to meet people and make ourselves heard. I used to read my poems between bands at these rock concerts, so I was very much aware from the beginning that there is an added dimension when you perform the poems yourself. But it’s not something that I try to rely on too much when I write them. They should survive my existence and have a life of their own.
However, I’m also a reader of poetry myself, and to be able to just be a part of the audience and listen to other poets perform is always a special thing. But as a writer of poetry, literary festivals like Poetica provide us poets with the opportunity to also simply hang out with one another, which is of great importance. Talking to colleagues about how they write poetry and what they’re trying to achieve, both with content and with form, is highly rewarding.
Norrøna: You just mentioned that you hope for your work to outlive you. At the opening event of Poetica, you talked about melancholy and the human condition, and called art “the tiniest gesture one can make in the face of death”. So does writing have something to do with leaving behind not only your work, but also a part of yourself that will live on after you’re gone? I’m particulary thinking about your novel Stálnótt (1987), where you worked your alter ego ‘Johnny Triumph’ into the story.
Sjón: Many well-known authors tend to be forgotten quite quickly, so you can’t write with that goal. You just write as truthfully and honestly and well as you can while you’re here. Of course I hope that people will keep reading my works in the same way that I read 2000- or 3000-year-old literature, but naturally only a tiny fragment of what is written can survive. So I’m not striving for immortality at all. I know those tiny gestures and can make them while I’m here. Some of them will survive for some time and then maybe they’re lost.
Stálnótt was my first novel and I was really taking a step from poetry into prose. I actually stopped writing poetry for a while in the late eighties because I got really tired of the lyrical I, the fact that the poet is always at the center of the poem. I thought it might be interesting to work with stories and characters, but somehow I couldn’t completely let go of it. In Stálnótt, I’m the one who brings the story ashore, and I’ve kept using meta-fictional elements like that in all of my novels. So I do actually have a presence in all of them. Sometimes it’s a very tiny cameo, sometimes it’s much more clear.
Norrøna: Besides possibly preserving a piece of the author, one could also say that one of the many functions of literature is that it’s a means for mankind to reflect upon and preserve itself, its past and present, its capabilities and shortcomings.
In your work, you often carefully interweave your own personal style with explicitly traditional elements. Is it your intention to enhance that self-reflective, preservative function of literature by continuing and yet also simultaneously altering certain literary traditions, raising almost epistemological questions in the process?
Sjón: Well, I think one of the functions of literature is that it’s a tool to reflect on the human condition, to think about what kind of beings we are and what we are capable of figuring out about ourselves and how we behave.
Literature has a tendency to be very autonomous because it is made of language, which every person is born with. It seems that we’re born with the need to tell stories and make poems, otherwise we would have stopped ages ago. I don’t know if you can find a Darwinian reason for why we do this, but obviously we need to do it. We have not decided to be a literary species, we are a literary species. It’s very strange.
That’s why I like to bring literatures from different times into play in my writing. That’s also a part of what literature is. It’s this huge project of keeping this tool alive and checking its limits, both in the light of the circumstances we find ourselves in in our times, and also simply the narrative possibilities of exploring language itself.
Norrøna: The importance of your oeuvre within the Icelandic literary canon is often compared to that of Halldór Laxness’. Do you feel comfortable being set on one and the same level with the man who innovated the 20th century Icelandic novel?
Sjón: I think I would have been a little bit embarrassed about it, let’s say 10 years ago. Today I think it’s okay. [He chuckles.] I mean, it’s okay for him.
There was an amazing Iraqi short-story writer, Hassan Blasim, whom I interviewed a few months ago in Reykjavík. I mentioned to Hassan that I think he plays with different forms in his short-stories that can be called kafkaesque. He said “I’m okay with being called kafkaesque. Like every other author, my goal is to become better than Kafka.” And people in the audience were like “What? Can you say that?”
But why shouldn’t a contemporary author of short-stories write with the idea that he or she would become a better short-story writer than Kafka? It is definitely not impossible. I’m quite sure that Kafka would probably not have been surprised that in the early 21st century there would be an Iraqi writer who could be better than him.
I’m 53 years old now and I realize more or less what I have done in the last 20 to 30 years. So yes, I’m fine with being on a shelf with Halldór Laxness.
Norrøna: The fact that you’re no stranger to a stage is obvious considering your past in the collective Medúsa in the eighties. But in 2007, you stood on a different kind of stage when you were appointed to a visiting professorship at Freie Universität in Berlin. How was it to stand in front of a group of foreign students and familiarize them with the literature of the European North?
Sjón: I was asked to do something with Nordic literature, so we read Brekkukots-annáll (1957) by Halldór Laxness, which was the backbone of the seminar. We then read Babettes Gæstebud (originally published in English in 1950) by Karen Blixen, Pan (1894) by Knut Hamsum, Hummelhonung by Torgny Lindgren, Ennen päivänlaskua ei voi (2000) by Johanna Sinisalo, and De fortabte spillemænd (1950) by William Heinesen. We were exploring how all of those authors use a tiny society, in one case just two farms out in the middle of nowhere in Sweden, and how you can actually use this as a platform for world literature.
What we discovered by the end of the seminar was that all good literature does and has always done exactly that. There were things that the students in Berlin saw in Brekkukotsannáll, which I had not seen, and they questioned some of my ideas of what was happening in the book, asking absolutely legitimate questions. I was very happy that we arrived at that place, and as a parting gift the students gave me Extremely loud and incredibly close (2005) by Jonathan Safran Foer. In this new novel based in New York, they also found that formula for all world literature that we had been working with in the seminar because it takes place in a small world within the big world of New York.
Norrøna: Speaking of foreign readers, your works have been translated into dozens of languages. I imagine it not only being flattering, but also quite odd to more or less surrender control of your own words like that.
Sjón: I know that many things are lost in translation. Though some can even be wrong in a very interesting way, creating a new literary work in the target language.
One of the greatest poems in Icelandic literature is a poem called Dymbilvaka (1949) by Hannes Sigfússon. It was one of the first modernist poems in Icelandic. Hannes was inspired by The Wasteland (1922) by T. S. Eliot, although he completely misunderstood it. But Dymbilvaka had a huge impact on people like me for example, so I’m even very thankful that he completely misunderstood what Eliot was doing.
Norrøna: It is often believed that artists live off of love, dreams and pain, which is probably at least true for their art, but I’m sure you can confirm that you also have to pay your electric bill. Many authors are reliant on a publishing house to have their work made accessible to a wider public, which often entails criticism and editing on the part of the publish house. Have you had to change or scratch parts of your novels? Or is the Icelandic publishing industry so nice as to grant its authors full artistic license?
Sjón: When I was part of the collective Medúsa, we published our books ourselves. Stálnótt was the first original work I did with a publishing house and the editor was allowed to be very critical of my writing. He made me fight for almost every decision I made, because he didn’t have a clue what kind of a novelist I would turn out to be. And I turned out to be a novelist that he personally didn’t care too much for. He didn’t like Stálnótt at all and thought I was making a big mistake writing it like I did. But he made me defend every decision and was satisfied in the end that everything in the book was written because of an artistic decision and had not been left to chance.
I think that is what a good editor does. He questions your artistic decisions. But if my publishing house would go bankrupt tomorrow, I’m lucky enough to have two or three friends whom I can turn to for this dialogue. I would just publish my books myself like I did in the old days.
If you need the stuff to get out there, you do it.
For more information about Sjón and his work, visit sjon.siberia.is.