From Iceland — The Traditional Form does not Appeal to me

The Traditional Form does not Appeal to me

Published September 12, 2008

Photo by
Viktor Svan

Jón Kalman Stefánsson won the Icelandic Literary Prize for his novel Summer Light, and then Comes the Night in 2005. He is the author of seven books of prose and three volumes of poetry. His books are widely available in German, but translations to Danish, Swedish, Czech and French are forthcoming from the prestigious Gallimard publishing company. My guess is that Jón Kalman’s novels will be described as full of small-town mystique and dreamy mountain fog by the international press, once they discover him. I’ll even bet that the phrase ‘the literary equivalent to Sigur Rós’ will be tossed around. But this is a serious article. It’s about literature so let’s put on a checked cardigan and be quiet, shall we?
    I meet Jón Kalman in his study, which he built especially in the backyard of his home in Mosfellsbær. He is the picture perfect novelist. There is no computer to be seen on his desk: only a modest lamp, a pen and an empty piece of paper. The walls are covered with bookshelves so stacked with books that it almost looks like wallpaper. 
Despite giving the impression of being a traditional novelist, Jón Kalman is neither traditional nor ordinary. His books do not follow the traditional structure of the novel and his style is both very mystical and yet casual. “My publisher has discussed with me how to define my books, whether they should be called novels or short stories. I usually don’t mind what they are called,” says Jón Kalman. Still, he understands the confusion.

A Vein Burst
“The traditional form does not appeal to me but there are many new exciting things happening. To name an example I can’t wait for new novels from the Spanish author Javier Marías. It is like he discovers something new on each page. I tried writing traditional novels but it ended with two scripts in the can. Then something happened. It was like something burst inside me, and it has been flowing out of a vein ever since”.

How would you describe your style?
“I take influence from poetry. I think poetry is the deepest form and it has elements that can move you like no other form can with the possible exception of music. I have tried to apply this in my books. The way poetry can be illogical but still make sense. I must note though that this is not something I do knowingly. I would rather say that this notion breathes through me. I guess I do it without meaning to.”
    At this stage of our discussion I ask if I’m putting him through hell by making him analyze his own work. He denies this, and says it’s normal. Still, we agree that it is probably not the author’s role to define his prose. We move on to talk about the themes and settings of his work.

Interested in ordinary people
“I write about ordinary people. If I would write a book about Sturlungaöld [age of clan-warfare in medieval Iceland] I would not write about the chieftains but about the ordinary people. I try to find the casual perspective that we all understand so well,” he says. I think about Bruce Springsteen’s lyrics. I once heard them described as being about ordinary people in unordinary situations.
    “My first three books all took place in the countryside, two mostly revolve around Reykjavík and my latest one takes place a 100 years ago in a fishing village and at sea. I just write about what comes to mind at any given time. Sometimes I think it doesn’t even matter that much what books are about but rather how they are written. For example, a book that would take place a 1000 years ago could tell you much more about modern times than a book that deals with contemporary events.”

Astrologist turned Poet
What about Jón Kalman himself? Is his life incorporated in his work? “It is up to some level. Many of my stories take place in the countryside. I grew up in Reykjavík until I was 12 but I spent a lot of time in the countryside. As a teenager and young man I did various ordinary jobs and got to know the life I sometimes write about in my books.” So were you not always destined to become a writer? “No, not at all. As a teenager I wanted to be an astrologist after I saw documentary shows with Carl Sagan on television. I enrolled in school as a physics major but then I realised that it was the poetry behind the astrology that appealed to me. It is fascinating to listen to how the astrologists use words to explain the unknown parts of the universe,” says Jón Kalman and we agree that extreme science can represent beautiful poetry. “Scientists and artists have one thing in common and that is the doubt. Their main role is to expand boundaries.”


Jón Kalman Stefánsson was born in Reykjavík in 1963. His first published work, the poetry collection With a Gun Permit against the Eternity (Me› byssuleyfi á eilíf›ina), came out in 1988. He is known for his distinctive style where he blends together short tales of ordinary people into a wholesome piece, mostly linked together with an invisible subtle thread that flirts with mysticism.

Main novels by Jón Kalman Stefánsson
Ditches in Rain (Skur›ir í rigningu – 1996)
The Summer behind the Hill (Sumari› bak vi› brekkuna -1997) – The Light on the Mountains (Birtan á fjöllunum – 1999) – A Few Things about Giant Pines and Time (†mislegt um risafurur og tímann – 2001) – The Crackle in the Stars (Snarki› í stjörnunum – 2003) –
Summer Light and then Comes the Night (Sumarljós og svo kemur nóttin – 2005) –
Heaven and Hell (Himnaríki og helvíti – 2007)
    As he sits in his chair by the desk with the lamp, Jón Kalman looks a little bit like a scientist. His subject is the human soul with all its unpredictable longings and needs. His study is an experimental lab for literature. I decide to flee the scene before the scientist analyzes me with his professional yet sympathetic way of digging out long forgotten passions

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