From Iceland — Second Sight: A Conversation With Sjón

Second Sight: A Conversation With Sjón

Published December 9, 2016

Photo by
Hörður Sveinsson

“I write as little as possible,” says Sjón, with a barely perceptible smile and a twinkle in his eye. “In fact, I do everything I can to avoid actual writing.”

When he issues this joking-not-joking statement, we’re sitting in a comfortable coffee house where the Icelandic author—full name Sigurjón Birgir Sigurðsson—is often to be found reading, chatting, and passing time. It’s an unexpected sentiment to hear from one of Iceland’s finest and most prolific authors. Sjón has published twelve books, and at least as many collections of poetry, with one coming out every year or two. He was Oscar-nominated for his lyrical contribution to Björk’s ‘Dancer In The Dark’, and collaborates with her regularly. His output has been translated into 35 languages and won five awards, including the Nordic Council Literature Prize for ‘The Blue Fox’.

“I’m just like a cat,” he continues, warming to the theme. “I have a small routine. I try to do a little as possible and relax as much as possible.”

Creative history

Sjón’s description of his method is, of course, deceiving. Although his style is deliberately sparing and economical with words, his books are carefully sculpted and rich with colourful context and meticulous detail, revealing the amount of work that goes into creating each character and scenario. ‘The Blue Fox’ is set in 1883, and chronicles the rural life of the time; ‘From the Mouth of the Whale’ takes place even earlier, in 1635. Both paint a vivid picture of the time in which they’re set.

“I do quite a lot of research,” Sjón admits. “Most of my novels call for that. I’ve been working mostly with historical material over the last ten to fifteen years. I enjoy that: going to the national library or the city library, browsing through books, photocopying anecdotes from here and there.”

“I’m always looking for strange things—the exceptions in human life and in history.”

“That is really the fun part of it,” he continues. “Reading through old newspapers and magazines, biographies—it’s such fun. You come across stuff that’s truly amazing and strange. I’m always looking for strange things—the exceptions in human life and in history. They very often offer the possibility to go and work with material that has been thoroughly defined by official historians, and to twist it around.”

Sjón’s deliberate habit of not writing is also a method of preparing or even cajoling himself to produce new work. “It builds up the need for writing,” he explains. “I definitely have a need for it. I sincerely believe that having written since quite a young age—I started at fifteen—my mind has become attuned to this. It’s become a physical need more or less. By avoiding writing, I build up the need for it. Then I go to my small house in Eyrarbakki. And then I might write for three weeks in a row, working sixteen hours a day. I completely immerse myself in that world.”

“Because, of course, I have to write!” he exclaims. “I have to produce something.”

Real imaginings

Sjón’s latest work to be released in English translation is ‘Moonstone – The Boy Who Never Was’. It’s an engrossing tale set within a pivotal and dramatic moment in Iceland’s history.

“In this case, I started with the Spanish influenza,” he explains. “I thought I was going to write a novel about the rise of the spiritualist movement. I discovered that the spiritualist movement had quite an easy start around 1912 and then more or less fizzled away, until the Spanish influenza. In the aftermath of that—well, the need for conversations with the dead grew, and they consciously took advantage of that. We have letters between the people who founded that movement, and they say, ‘Now is the opportunity to do something.’”

At the same time, Sjón was also researching the origins of film culture in Iceland. “When I looked at the key dates of the Spanish influenza, I saw that the dates coincided with cinema in Iceland,” he continues. “That helped me to develop the character. Making him a cinephile, and realising these two elements would have come together in his life.”

This technique lends a grain of reality that grounds his stories in a believable reality. “I’ve sometimes said I work this way because I’m lazy,” says Sjón. “I don’t like to spend too much time imagining stuff. I’m wary of completely imagined storylines. There’s always a danger that they become contrived. If reality—as it’s represented in the original research material—if that hands you elements you can work with, that’s the best thing. Then my job is to make it work as a story and to imagine that world. But it’s made from something real.”

Sjón by Hörður Sveinsson

Spoken by few

Sjón writes in Icelandic, with his work then translated for foreign readers. It’s an interesting position for an international author to occupy, and one that he’s considered in depth over the years.

“Icelandic is ‘a language spoken by few,’ as we say here, rather than saying it’s a ‘small language,’” Sjón explains. “That phrase came from our former president Vigdís Finnbogadóttir, who said that if Shakespeare can be translated into Icelandic, Icelandic is a big enough language for Shakespeare; and if you can translate the Quran into Faroese, then Faroese can accommodate the Quran. I think that’s a beautiful way to look at languages.”

But Sjón notes that many young Icelandic authors are writing directly into English, and links this decision to technology, and the rise of the internet. “I ask them why,” he says, “and, of course, they often say it’s they want to reach a bigger readership. But some of them do it because they get interested in English-language literature online. Maybe they get first get interested in reading—and writing—fanfic, science fiction or fantasy online, in English. And then there are some who say they find it intimidating to write in Icelandic—that the bar is raised so high, they feel like they have to be better at it than they are at writing in English.”

“I spoke to a translator recently who said there might be something in that,” he continues. “The nature of how it’s structured and how words are combined and things like that, asks for a different way of writing. You have to produce more literary language. You can be more direct in English. So many young authors feel they can be clearer in English. This is a very interesting thing.”

The Future Library

Future language

One of Sjón’s most recent projects is writing a book for the Future Library project. One hundred authors will each write a book—one per year—which will then be published simultaneously in the year 2114 and housed in a specially constructed library in Oslo.

For Sjón, taking part in the project invites consideration of what the Icelandic-language readership might be like a century from now. “I feel like I should write in Icelandic, and I will,” he says. “But it means that I’m faced with the difficult question of how Icelandic will survive.”

“I feel like I should write in Icelandic, and I will. But it means that I’m faced with the difficult question of how Icelandic will survive.”

Sjón quotes rising immigration—Iceland’s immigrant population is forecast to rise from 10% to 25% by 2060—as one part of the equation. He also cites the rise of speech-driven technology and “the internet of things” as potential factors. “For all of the great software developers and information tech developers, Icelandic is not the most important language,” he says. “This means that Icelandic and other ‘languages spoken by few’ will be left behind by speech-driven technology. And what happens to language, when it falls out of use in your daily life? When you start ordering food from the supermarket through a discussion with your refrigerator, which only understands English, French, Spanish, Chinese… what are you going to do?”

Life’s elixir

Sjón thinks that the government could play a more proactive role in the preservation of Icelandic. “The authorities are completely blind to what’s going on with the language,” he muses. “For example, there’s no policy when it comes to teaching Icelandic to foreigners. It’s expensive, it’s impractical, it’s in places that shift workers and such have trouble getting to. There’s no policy. And then at the same time, politicians speak of the Icelandic language as life’s elixir or something. They don’t make the connection that if they want to preserve the language they’re responsible for keeping it alive in contemporary society.”

But at the same time, the constantly evolving nature of language is something that excites Sjón. “I went to a play a couple of years ago that was staged by a group of people from different countries,” he says, his face brightening at the memory. “The play was in many languages—some spoke Icelandic, others spoke in their native languages. There was a Brazilian there. The Icelandic sounded so beautiful in the Brazilian accent and rhythm. It was a moving experience for me, to hear it, and to realise Icelandic can also have that rhythm and those accents. This is what will be exciting in the future for the Icelandic language.”

“I’m excited about those things,” he finishes. “I’m not a pessimist. If the language goes, it goes. But one way to help Icelandic survive would be to make it accessible for the people who move here, and to give them the possibility of a role in developing it.”

With that, Sjón smiles, waves, and slinks off back into his daily routine. As he walks back towards Austurvöllur, he looks every bit the carefree flaneur. But no matter how relaxed he might seem, beneath the surface is a mind that’s always at work.

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