No, the novel lies not dead. It‘s merely sleeping. And the person to rouse it for the 21st century is one David Mitchell. Not the comedian or the slalom canoeist (the world is full of David Mitchells), but that wonderful author of ‘Cloud Atlas’.
In an era where stories in books all seem to revolve around wizard boys, ageing Nordic alcoholic police investigators or big city girls shopping for boys (some of these references may be outdated, but you get my drift), David adheres to that most old-fashioned of genres, the epic, and one full of—what was that thing again—ah yes, meaning.
Indeed, ‘Cloud Atlas’ begins in the mid-19th Century, a time full of Tolstoys and Dickens, when books still mattered, in fact were suspected of an ability to change the world. But Mitchell is well aware that things have progressed since then, and before we’re done, he’s managed to serenade us in the style of ‘30s romantic gay drama, ‘70s pulp crime fiction, contemporary- set Ealing- style old- folks comedy and science fiction consumerist dystopia, all before winding up with future post-apocalyptic survivalists starring, inevitably, Tom Hanks in the movie version. Then, just for show, he plays the entire piece backwards.
But Mitchell is not just master of plot. It’s his poetry that pleases most, the days passing in iron or gold, his words crunching like candy you can’t refuse. If only all sweetness had such substance.
That’s all well and good, David, to be able to write in every style known to man since the Romantics. But around here, we all know that literature reached its peak with the 13th century Sagas and has been on a downward slope ever since, breaking only for Laxness. Now what have you got to say for yourself?
What’s that, you rather like Laxness, you say? You greatly admire ‘Iceland’s Bell’ and wrote your latest novel, ‘The Bone Clocks’, to prove it? Jeez, David, is there anything you can’t do?
Well, I will have you know I am half-way through the new one already. You have taken me in on a trip through the Kentish countryside and on a skiing holiday to Switzerland, and so far there is no sign of Iceland. Yes, I know your books are long, but has anyone complained of orgasms taking forever? We will see how this one turns out, it will no doubt take us into the future as is your habit, and you seem to know it suspiciously well.
When Carl Sagan sent Jodie Foster into space, she complained upon surveying the stars that they should have sent a poet. Well, Mr. Mitchell, I deeply suspect you of being a time traveller, and that those crafty 24th centurians indeed did send us a poet.
And while, in this particular time and place, books might be highly unlikely to change very much of anything, you nonetheless remind us that the best of them do make life worth living. No, not just living. Savouring. It’s not just for gulping down.
I look forward to seeing you at the Nordic House on September 11 at one pm, where you will be discussing being “Inspired by Sagas” with Vilborg Davíðsdóttir and Emil Hjörvar Petersen.
If you drop by the 10th century on your way there, do bring along Egill Skallagrímsson. But tell him to leave the axe. The last thing Icelandic literary criticism needs at this point is writers armed with double-edged weapons. Especially when drunk.
Featuring a gourmet selection of local authors, along with esteemed visitors such as Teju Cole, Timur Vermes and some guy called Dave Eggers, The Reykjavík Literary Festival commenced on September 9, and will be ongoing ‘til September 12.