As a thought experiment, imagine two movie projectors aimed at the same spot on the wall. Each projector shows a different short film: One is realistic, and the other is fantastical. The two films have their own separate narratives, but when projected together with one image superimposed over the other, the resulting composite has a hallucinatory complexity and brightness, as if both stories were engaged in a surrealistic conversation with each other.
For the last three decades, the contemporary Icelandic novelist, poet, and lyricist Sjón (the pen name of Sigurjón Birgir Sigur∂sson) has written several brilliant short novels that are capable of disturbing the reader’s expectations about what happens at the outer reaches of realism. Out there, what is seemingly “real” is hybridized with myth, folklore, and fantasy, as if two or more narrative frames have been compacted together. The fixed idea in his work is that other worlds simply must permeate this one, and so, in his fiction, they do. Because the membrane between everyday reality and its counterworlds is very thin, almost every scene he writes is haunted and intensified by the spectral.
In Sjón’s newest novel, Moonstone: The Boy Who Never Was, beautifully translated by Victoria Cribb, we are given one brief, suggestive scene that appears to instruct the reader about what the entire narrative is up to. The novel’s protagonist, a gay 16-year-old, Máni Steinn Karlsson, is seated in a movie theater when he sees a girl, Sóla G—, with whom he is obsessed, at the moment when she stands up in front of the screen. The theater is showing a part of Louis Feuillade’s epic (seven-hour) silent film Les Vampires, starring Musidora as Irma Vep:
It was when the girl stood up to leave that it happened. The instant her shadow fell on the screen they merged—she and the character in the film. She looked around and the beam of light projected Musidora’s features onto her own.
In case the reader didn’t get the point of this incident, it is echoed later in the novel when the protagonist, ill with the flu and in the grip of fever and delirium, feels a similar projector throwing another image onto him: “The film on his chest shows a close-up of gas blowing out of a heating vent in an opulently papered wall.”
This image serves nicely as a metaphor for the highly charged and compressed energies in Sjón’s remarkable short novels. If a contemporary equivalent of Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita exists, that equivalent would be these books taken together as a group. (Sjón has said that The Master and Margarita is “his favorite book of all time.”) With their talking pieces of wood, semicomical exorcisms, wild flights of invention, and a general atmosphere of “poetic ecstasy,” to cite a phrase from an earlier Sjón novel, these books bring us stories that are equally at home in the ordinary and the fantastical, and most at home when the ordinary and fantastical are fused. Junot Diaz called one of Sjón’s earlier novels “an epic made mad,” but the madness in these books contains a comic equanimity, so that every deviation from the norm seems to be both natural and inevitable. Sjón’s demons, like Bulgakov’s, are often rather good-natured, even benevolent. They grow on you.
* * *
Sjón was born in 1962. Like many lyric novelists, he began as a poet, and his first book, a collection of Dadaesque poetry, was published in 1978. A volume of his poems, Night of the Lemon, translated into English by David McDuff, was published here in 1993; as a sign of his interest in the contemporary art scene, one of the poems is dedicated to Cindy Sherman. Sjón was a founding member of the neo-Surrealist group Medúsa, which, according to a tribute to Sjón written by Björk, “wrote poetry, did scandalous food performances around the city [Reykjavík], ran a gallery (which was actually kind of a shed), had exhibitions of paintings, drawings, and sculpture, and played music.” He subsequently performed with the rock group the Sugarcubes and co-wrote lyrics for Björk’s Dancer in the Dark (for which he was nominated for an Oscar). Sjón has also written children’s books, plays, opera librettos, and nine novels, four of which have been translated into English.
Jorge Luis Borges once observed that realism is merely an episode in the larger history of literature. For Sjón, realism itself can have countless permutations and may accommodate all kinds of mythic patterns. Resisting antiquarianism, his novels don’t read, or feel, like most contemporary novels and short stories. While often situated in the past, they don’t resemble most historical fiction either. Instead, Sjón’s tales are quite hospitable to ghosts and spirits, mythic deities and quests, along with metamorphoses from the human into the animal and back again. All these remnants of an earlier, mythic world have been renovated and placed before us as if the entire process of disenchantment had somehow been reversed. As Sjón himself observed, discussing one of his novels with Michael Silverblatt, he wanted “to make this rendezvous between the absolutely banal…and the big heritage that we see in the great epics of world literature.”
In Sjón’s four novels translated into English, nothing is as it first appears to be. The Blue Fox, originally published in Iceland in 2003, is a rather somber tale. Set in the 1880s, its two major characters—one a tenderhearted herbalist, the other a mean-spirited priest—are both students of the Icelandic landscape. The priest kills the blue fox of the title, but she returns to life and carries on a conversation with the priest about electricity until he kills her again. Meanwhile, the herbalist, Fridrik Fridjónsson, in a subplot, rescues a girl with Down syndrome, who in due course collects natural wonders of the Icelandic environment and invents her own language. Commenting on the everyday wonders of his life, Fridjónsson announces to his companions, “I have seen the universe! It is made of poems!”
The Whispering Muse, published in 2005, is narrated by Valdimar Haraldsson, a comically unpleasant fellow who believes that a heavy diet of fish accounts for the superiority of the Nordic race. In the course of the novel, he encounters Caeneus, who sailed with Jason and the Argonauts in search of the Golden Fleece. Haraldsson’s encounter with Caeneus occurs in 1949. The gods never left us, although their names may have changed, a situation that brings to mind Edwin Arlington Robinson’s great poem “Many Are Called,” which begins: “The Lord Apollo, who has never died….”
From the Mouth of the Whale (from 2008) may be Sjón’s greatest novel to date and is a book that resists any rational plot summary. It can be said that the story takes place in 1635 and that its narrator is Jónas Pálmason, a healer and poet who worries about such questions as “how is a dead man to tell the difference between himself and the living if he is still able to walk around, participate in fights, and run errands?” Pálmason (based on Jon Gudmundsson, a 17th-century writer) is accused of blasphemy, and he and his wife have been exiled to an island, where he observes both natural and fantastic phenomena, including a corpse that is absentmindedly taking a walk. The book, like The Master and Margarita, handles its darkest events, including an exorcism, with a wry, steady wit, unrolling its long paragraphs stuffed with wonders in a tone of stately, lunatic logic.
The American reader who resists digressions and meanderings might well find no pleasure in these books (or in the work of Robert Walser or W.G. Sebald, for that matter). Reading From the Mouth of the Whale requires a certain patience, a letting-go, a loosening of the grip that timetables and practicality have on us. You have to let the spells in these books work you over. In them, common sense just goes missing, as does the disenchantment characteristic of our era and our material culture. The path to Sjón’s kind of aesthetic delight cannot go in a straight line; the gods wait at the curve in the road, in the digressions, behind that clump of trees, ready to pounce.
* * *
A reader accustomed to earthly, practical matters and who resists the fantastical would probably understand Moonstone perfectly well until its last 20 to 30 pages. In a recent interview in The Paris Review, Sjón notes that his new book “called for a realistic style, which I then broke from at a crucial point at the very end. But underneath it all is a mythical pattern where Máni Steinn has the character of the moon, and Sóla G—, the sun.”
The book, the most recent one of Sjón’s novels to be translated, is an excellent, though slightly uncharacteristic, introduction to this author’s work, but it can be recommended as an entry point to the others. Compared to them, it is relatively straightforward, even when both of those movie projectors are operating at once.
Deviation and its consequences in early- 20th-century Iceland constitute the subjects of the book. Máni Steinn, the “moonstone” of the title, is an orphan growing up in Iceland and coming into adolescence during the First World War. He seems to reflect light, passively, in particular the light cast upon him by Sóla G— and by the movies he watches avidly.
By the age of 16, he knows what he wants and what he has to do to get it: The novel opens with a graphic description of a blow job that the boy, a street hustler, is giving to a stranger. But the scene has Sjón’s fingerprints all over it: In the background, Máni can hear the sound of a motorcycle, a Harley-Davidson, driven by that girl, his soulmate, Sóla G—. The stroke of the engine coincides with the rhythms of the act. As if this weren’t enough, the stranger whom he is servicing, like a movie villain, “appears to have merged with his own shadow.” Once he has climaxed, “the man peels himself and his shadow from the cliff face.”
The scene—where sex, motorcycles, and shadow images seem to merge and fuse—captures a world in which no one ever inhabits one realm at a time. After all, two or three worlds and time frames are typically part of anyone’s ordinary experience. We pay our bills thinking of a movie we once saw, or we give out advice while “Strawberry Fields Forever” or some other song runs through our head. We may even daydream of something else while making love. In daydreams begins irresponsibility: “I love you” is sometimes contaminated with the thought of yesterday’s lunch.
Sjón seems to insist throughout the novel on such double and triple consciousness. We are all formed and nurtured by a ghost-and-fable-haunted culture. Viewed from a distance, the culture of Iceland seems to be one source for Sjón’s sensitivity about how this kind of layered consciousness works: Spooked and enriched by its past, Iceland is a laboratory for epic artistic productions. Given its Eddas, its remote geographies, and its resident spirits, Icelandic culture confounds the literal-minded realist in search of the ordinary. A New York Times article from September 28, 2016, for example, informs us that Icelandic construction workers this year, encountering difficulties in clearing a roadway, blamed the trouble on elves.
If Karl Ove Knausgaard is the current bard of daily life and the meanings buried within it, Sjón, the Icelander, is the anti-Knausgaard. Compact where Knausgaard is sprawling, baroque where Knausgaard is plainspoken, mythic and otherworldly where Knausgaard is literal, Sjón brings us into a world where, as he once said in an interview, “people take the supernatural for granted.”
* * *
Máni, which in Icelandic means “moon,” is coming into his own at the novel’s start in 1918, which is also the year of Iceland’s independence from Denmark following the Act of Union. In October of that same year, the volcano Katla erupts, covering the island in ash. Following the eruption, another kind of natural catastrophe, the Spanish flu, strikes the country, making it into a death landscape that seems both unreal and familiar to the boy. (We learn, very late in the novel, that Máni also has some familial acquaintance with leprosy.) What looks eerie to everyone else is recognizable to him: “Reykjavík has, for the first time, assumed a form that reflects his inner life: a fact he would not confide to anyone.”
Máni’s inner life has been shaped by silent movies and the experience of growing up orphaned, gay, and nearly illiterate in a country born in a moment of natural and man-made catastrophe. The movie that has the greatest claim on Máni’s imagination is the aforementioned Les Vampires, whose villain-heroine, Irma Vep, “scales buildings like a shadow and breaks into apartments and government offices before making her escape over the rooftops.” She is a queen of the night, a spectral figure—one who, like the boy himself, hides in the shadows. Máni also recognizes her: She is the doppelgänger of his beloved Sóla G—, and a doppelgänger of himself. Through her ghostlike aura and uncanny vampirish powers, Irma Vep holds the society portrayed in the movie in the grip of fear: “Every other person is in disguise…nowhere is safe.”
If some of this background material may seem familiar to present-day American audiences, it’s probably thanks to Charles Ludlam’s camp comedy The Mystery of Irma Vep (1984), a play requiring some 35 costume changes for two actors of the same gender. It’s also a play that broadcasts, at high theatrical volume, a virtuoso, up-there comic hysteria on the subject of horror conventions. Something about figures of horror—the vampires, werewolves, and monsters viewed with alarm by straight society—is particularly comforting to teenagers and other outcasts; it’s like looking at your closest relatives in a family album. Ludlam’s Irma Vep (an anagram for “vampire”) is the very same figure from Les Vampires who is beloved by Máni Steinn for her blissfully efficient wrongdoing. In Ludlam’s play, she’s the source of hilarity. In Moonstone, she’s the purest of outsiders, stripped of camp absurdity, a danger to everyone, a carrier of infection, and something of a Surrealist.
* * *
The spell of silent movies is so powerfully felt by the boy that the novel, taking on his sensibility, begins to resemble a silent film. Narrated in a close third person, and in thrall to dramatic images, the novel gives us one scene after another free of dialogue and discursive paraphrase. In this mode, emotional states are not explained. They are simply visualized. Here is one of Máni’s visions, as he lies sick with the flu:
The nails of the boy’s left hand put on a spurt of growth, becoming as long as fingers in the blink of an eye. Both fingers and hand triple in size all at once, with a cracking of the bones. He drops the mirror. His shadow is lying on the floor, stubbornly human in shape.
The images in Moonstone carry the burden of the boy’s feelings and psychological condition, and the effect is properly dreamlike. Like many lonely teenagers, Máni imagines he is not just watching films but inhabiting them:
He’d had no inkling that when the pestilence took hold Reykjavík would empty and convey the impression that nothing was happening at all; that the town would become an abandoned set that he, Máni Steinn, could envisage as the backdrop for whatever sensational plot he cared to devise, or, more accurately, for the kind of sinister events that in a film would be staged in this sort of village of the damned—for these days the real stories are being acted out behind closed doors.
This passage is as close as we get to the boy’s feeling of being outside looking in, an actor in his own movie. Unlike many coming-of-age stories, both gay and straight, however, Moonstone is not particularly interested in neurosis or alienation. Máni goes from place to place, patiently watching and waiting, behaving in public like a normal boy, and in private like an adult who has been wised-up many times over. His rage over his condition—if indeed he experiences such rage—is completely sublimated, perhaps unknown even to him. The cognitive dissonance between his public and private lives is felt only in the novel’s clashing and echoing dramatic images. The book’s readers are never told exactly what Máni feels; we are invited only to watch.
* * *
The natural catastrophes that are looming finally enter the narrative in the novel’s last half. Once Máni gets sick and delirious, the boy’s hallucinations take pride of place. It’s almost as if Luis Buñuel, that wily old Surrealist, had been invited onto the set and had lowered himself into the director’s chair.
The more the boy coughs, the hotter he becomes.
…A rock the height of a man, made of moon-pale stone, stands in the middle of the floor.
The projectionist waves to the boy and bounds into the gym…. [H]e limbers up, stretches, flexes his biceps, sizes up the rock again, then heaves it over his head….
The coughing boy gets a hard-on….
In the evening, when the birds on the shore have drowned in the boy’s blood, Sóla G— comes and fetches Máni Steinn from the washing line. She takes him home and puts him on. She thinks his red lips, lined eyes, and earrings suit her, but she washes off his mustache and sheathes his nails.
In these passages and the ones that follow, Moonstone takes its place among the great works of literature that have documented life during the Spanish-flu epidemic, including Katherine Anne Porter’s story “Pale Horse, Pale Rider,” William Maxwell’s novel So Long, See You Tomorrow, and Ellen Bryant Voigt’s book-length poem Kyrie. In these stories and poems, the survivors of the illness—touched by something that is possessive and godlike—remain permanently changed by the experience, touched somehow, and unable to take reality for granted, or as a given, ever again.
Máni recovers from the flu and decides to work as an aide for the doctor who saved him and who goes from place to place, treating the epidemic’s victims. The boy finds himself relatively at ease among the dying. A certain distinctive quality about the sick seems familiar to him, though we don’t discover why until the novel’s end. But he has never stopped being gay, and eventually he is discovered in flagrante with a Danish sailor. The scene is played like a silent movie: high drama, the demands of Eros, a sudden discovery followed by public rage and disingenuous shock.
The boy, now in disgrace, is sent off to Denmark. The narrative pauses, and much time passes, and we next see him as an adult in the company of the Pool Group, an actual poetry-and-film collective much inspired by the French Surrealists, one of whose members was the poet Hilda “H.D.” Doolittle. At this point in the novel, the plot springs several surprises, though the alert reader may have anticipated a few of them.
For one thing, the flu epidemic, and Máni’s dreams of blood and infection, may strike some as a precursor to the AIDS epidemic. Tainted love and tainted blood are also the constants in both vampire stories and tales of the AIDS epidemic, and these two subjects help tie together the ’90s of the 19th century to those of the 20th. The fear and horror of infected blood, in a spectrum with vampires on one side and those afflicted with the HIV virus on the other, somehow resonates invisibly all through Sjón’s novel. The book feels like an elegy to a set of bygone styles, aesthetics, and heroic subversion and suffering of every kind.
* * *
There are so many motifs, so many impacted images and echoes in Moonstone that the reader may have to work a bit to sort them all out. So be it. For all that, Sjón’s narrative does not have the musty smell of a novel filled with outworn bric-a-brac. Its found objects are still very much alive, still breathing.
As a novelist, Sjón seems most at home in other historical eras and rarely, if ever, in the present, but this is hardly a failing for someone in search of the gods. Despite his taste for counterworlds, his work somehow manages to keep the breath of life flowing through its events, no matter how remote their times and locales. After all, his central character in this new novel takes the form of a chrysalis. When he breaks out and flies off, no one should be surprised.
The last object we’re given in Moonstone is not a sentence but a photographic image, à la Sebald, an image for which the entire novel may have been written. When I came to it, I confess that I had to stop for a moment to take a deep breath. The photograph is that of Sjón’s uncle, Steinólfur Saevar, who died of AIDS in 1993. “Sailor, alcoholic, booklover, socialist, and gay,” Sjón writes of him. The book we have just read was written in memory of this man, a novel-as-memorial about a boy who suffered and, as an adult, overcame that suffering.
We are told that Sjón’s work has been translated into 35 languages. No one in this country—other writers, editors, and readers—to whom I have spoken, praising his work, has ever heard of him. To be fair, Moonstone comes decorated with praise on the dust jacket from David Mitchell. Despite his relative obscurity in this country, Sjón is one of our era’s great writers. Like Ovid, Kafka, and Bulgakov, he is fascinated by metamorphosis and, from apparently limitless resources of the imagination, can convey what it must feel like. Here is our hero, Máni Steinn, now an adult, turning into a butterfly:
Glancing at his hands, he discovers that he can see right through them. He gropes for his body and finds that he is clutching at thin air. He can’t feel a thing apart from the wingbeats where his heart used to be.