This autumn, Sjón’s anglophone readership will be glad to discover a new novel by the author in UK and US bookshops. However, fans of this master of the short novel might be surprised —thrilled, even—by the sheer heft of the book in question. More than twenty years in the making, ‘CoDex 1962’ could be said to span the entirety of Sjón’s career to date. It is comprised of a trilogy of novels, the first of which marks one of the author’s earliest forays into novel form. The translation is by Victoria Cribb, who in 2017 received the Orðstýr award; an honorary award presented to her by the President of Iceland for her work promoting Icelandic literature through translation.
A big, stupendous book
“I always knew it would be a big book,” Sjón admits. “Of course, I’ve changed as an author since 1992, when I started writing it, but even back then I knew I wanted to write a book like this: a big, experimental novel that pulls out all the stops. Where I could try out all the different approaches to writing that fascinated me as a young reader, discovering for the first time how far some writers can push the novel form.
“In 2016, when it came time to close the trilogy, it was invigorating to reacquaint myself with where I started as an author. How I initially wanted to write books that dared to do things other books didn’t. Back then, I wanted to write a book just like this; a take-it-or-leave-it kind of book.” He laughs. “I know some people are going to give up halfway through, and that’s okay. I’ve given up on books like this; it’s fine. There are always a few readers that finish them.“
Underground literature then and now
Speaking of the writer he was when he began writing ‘Thine Eyes Did See My Substance’—the first novel in the trilogy—Sjón mentions the influence of Mikhail Bulgakov and Icelandic modernists like Thor Vilhjálmsson and Guðbergur Bergsson.
“Also, what we called ‘underground literature’ was very important to me early on,” he reminisces. “Authors like William Burroughs—who would probably never find a publisher today. The books he published back then—‘Naked Lunch,’ ‘The Wild Boys,’ ‘Nova Express’—it seems crazy that they were published by big publication houses and reviewed in major magazines. Authors attempting similar literary experiments today would probably have to stick to publishing online or find some micropublisher that lets them do what they want.”
Gobbling up texts
Over the past decade, Sjón’s own novels have gradually spread into other languages and found a readership in different countries, perhaps precisely because of the way his writing weaves together references from sources around the world—an act of pilfering that he freely admits to.
“I have a talent for parroting,” he mocks. “I found a home for this skill in the novel form. That’s why my novels are filled with different styles, different approaches to writing. To me, the novel form is like a whale: it swims around, mouth wide open, gobbling up anything that gets in its way.” He laughs. “Or maybe it’s more of a shark! Sharks have been cut open to reveal all sorts of things that have no business being inside a shark. Grandfather clocks and body parts and whatnot.”
The tools of a narrative
In Sjón’s writing, this amalgam of sources and influences is subverted as well as celebrated, so that the final effect reaches far beyond simple retelling. “If I choose to write in a biblical style, for example, it doesn’t mean I’m retelling stories from Christian or Jewish mythology,” Sjón explains. “Rather, I’m experimenting with what happens when you use the tools those narratives offer to tell a wholly different story. You might say that I’m trying to tell the story of the narrative itself, rather than a particular story from that narrative world. This is especially true in ‘CoDex 1962,’ where the narrator is attempting to thread together all the various ways in which humanity has tried to tell its story into one narrative.”
Fiction as dialogue
This narrator, Joseph Löwe, freely admits to being a golem—a physical manifestation of written language, shaped out of clay by his father and mother after their chance meeting in WWII-era Germany. As he recounts the story of his birth and the whole of his life, Joseph draws equally from the annals of history, folklore, theology, literature and science as from entertainment such as pulps, comics, films and music. Sjón is adamant that although such interplay of sources might be particularly apparent in his work, all fiction is in some way doing the same thing.
“It’s nonsense to think that you can write in a vacuum,” he stresses. “You can only write in dialogue with other writers. I’ve always readily admitted that a part of my process is harvesting other texts; texts that I converge with my own text. The only rule I have is that I would never apply this approach to another writer’s fiction; merging someone else’s fiction with my own—at least not without making it explicit in the text that I am doing so.
“However, news reports, interviews, academic and autobiographical writing and so on; those texts fall within the realms of the real world. They might be offering a processed reality, but they still claim to represent reality. Fiction, on the other hand, stands separate; it speaks to reality from outside of it.”
The voice and character of a book
All of this research takes up a major part of his writing process, he says. He might be gathering material for a book for years before actually starting the writing, compiling things for numerous novels at the same time.
“Mario Vargas Llosa said that the first character you create is the voice of the book itself,” he explains. “I spend a lot of time searching for that voice. I might be gathering material for a book for years, having a storyline, major characters and so on, without ever finding the book’s voice. I’ve started books that never amounted to anything because I couldn’t find their voice—the right way to tell their story. That’s okay. All that research, the exploration and experimenting, it all ends up somewhere—usually in some other book.”
Writing for dopamine
It is evident that for Sjón this process is rewarding in itself, and the act of writing has a separate existence from the fruits of its labour.
“I think writing is basically a physical thing,” he ruminates. “I get agitated and tense when I haven’t written for a while. Most writers start writing at a young age. Even if you don’t actually publish anything until much later, your mind is already occupied with writing. It becomes a part of the daily functions of the body. If you start to enjoy the writing process, you want more, just like any other stimulus. The dopamine begins to flow when things are going well, and you get addicted. A few years of that and writing becomes just another part of being alive. I experience a pleasure in writing that is completely inconsequential to whether the writing itself is coming together or not. I like sitting there, stirring words together, arranging them into sentences.”
He laughs and gestures with his fingers. “You know, just finding enjoyment in kneading the dough.”
‘CoDex 1962’ is out now in the UK, US, and elsewhere.