Jón Kalman Stefánsson was born in Reykjavík on December 17th 1963. He lived there for the first 12 years of his life, then moved to Keflavík and returned to Reykjavík in 1986 with his higschool diploma. From 1975 – 1982 he spent a good deal of his time in West Iceland, where he did various jobs, worked in a slaughterhouse, in the fishing industry, doing masonry and for one summer he worked as a police officer at Keflavík International Airport. Jón Kalman studied literature at the University of Iceland from 1986 until 1991 but did not finish his degree. He taught literature at two highschools for a period of time and wrote articles and critique for Morgunblaðið newspaper for a number of years. Jón lived in Copenhagen from 1992 – 1995, reading, washing floors and counting buses. He worked as a librarian at the Mosfellsbær Library near Reykjavík until the year 2000. Since then he has been a full time writer.
Jón Kalman’s first published work, the poetry collection Með byssuleyfi á eilífðina, came out in 1988. Since then, he has published other collections of poetry, short stories and a number of novels. His novel Sumarljós, og svo kemur nóttin (Summer Light, and then Comes the Night) won the Icelandic Literature Prize in 2005. Three of his books have also been nominated for The Nordic Council’s Literature Prize. Some of Jón Kalman’s work has been translated to other languages, German, French, English and the Scandinavian languages among them.
Author photo: Ragnar Axelsson.
From the Author
From Jón Kalman Stefánsson
A little less than five hundred years ago, the life of the Nepalese poet Keki Arun Das was threatened unless he stopped writing. He had composed poems and written satyrical stories about a chieftain or a king, who in turn threatened to remove the poet’s head unless he detracted his words. Take the head, said Keki Arun Das, without the words I am useless anyway. According to the story the chieftain got so frightened by the power or fanaticism in the poet’s answer that he let him go – unconditionally.
For some reason I often think of this story when I am asked why I write; what drives me to the desk. Maybe it is simply because I do not know how to reply. Beckett maintained that he wrote because he could not help it, did not know anything else. I compose poetry for my cat, says Werner Aspenström, even if he did not own a cat; to prevent asphyxiation, is what Sigurður Pálsson claims somewhere. All the answers are good, equally honest in their own way, and ideal to appropriate as one’s own. Maxim Gorki would most likely have claimed to write in order to defend humanity, but must not the injustice and the hardship Gorki experienced in late 19th century Russia have influenced his attitude? Because I suspect, and strongly so, that behind all answers, behind all the cats and all the justice that the answer to the question; why does a writer write, is always the same: because he can not help it. There is this internal restlessness, you can call it what you like; the curse of needing to convert everything into words: the colour variations of the sky, the fragrance of the earth, the murmur of the heart and the way an elderly man bends down to pick up a piece of paper or a stick. Additional layers can be added according to the inner workings of each writer: the need for attention, idealism, ambition...
Yes, something along the lines that the need to write is in the rush of the blood, and that it is as natural to me as walking, or breathing, and this most likely puts me in the same camp as Sigurður; writing to prevent asphyxiation, probably metaphorically speaking. What we have here is not romanticism but calculated reasoning, and the reason for my fumblings when faced with the question is that I am uncertain where the need to write comes from, the need I cannot for the life of me escape, and probably would not want to, even though I often think of the words of Hannes Sigfússon, about how the gift of writing is also a curse. I only know that it controls my life: should it disappear I might possibly wither away, but certainly become impossible to be around. Yes, I would probably sacrifice a finger, an arm or even the head in order to be able to continue writing. That is the one thing I know. And I also think that whoever tries to put the creative process into words is trying to catch fog with his hands.
Do not misunderstand me, this is not romanticism, but ice-cold reasoning. I feel that if someone brought me the gift of creativity in his palms, the same person would bring me proof of the existence of another life – and even proof of what we call god. And this is possibly the reason why I sidestepped the question, why do I write, and hid behind other writer’s answers and only retorted with: It is the only thing I know. He who asks why a writer writes, asks at the same time about the creative process; what it is, where it comes from. And thereby we are faced with doubt, and uncertainty, faced by a classic question about matter and spirit; asking about The Beginning. Whether human talent is just a chemical reaction, and all life a faceless chant of molecules? This I cannot answer. Unfortunately and most fortunately. But I think the uncertainty in these speculations is one of the prime reasons which forces me to write.
That is of course an old story, and maybe I am simply retelling one of the best poems by Stephan G. Stephansson, Faithlessness. For he who reads the poem will be convinced that uncertainty makes the light brighter, the shadows greater, the mind nimbler, the senses sharper.
Why do I write? I am not sure, but it probably has got something to do with cats, breathing and keeping one’s head.
Jón Kalman Stefánsson, 2001.
Translated by Dagur Gunnarsson.
About the Author
The Work of Jón Kalman Stefánsson
All the novels of Jón Kalman Stefánsson dwell, in one way or another, on past times. What they all have in common is the narrative voice of a man looking back and hoping that he will be able to put his memories into words. The stories come from an ever-present narrator who is frequently looking into the past and extracts from the corners of his mind both colourful characters and scenes, which in the end make up a continuous narrative. The narrative is, however, constantly interrupted by the narrator’s thoughts on the passage of time and his role in recording the past. Thus the novels all have the hallmarks of memoirs and to some extent they are also preoccupied with discussing the narrator’s lot when confronted with the past, no less than the actual description of the lost world of the past. In his reminiscences, past events take on a universal feeling and the characters are anything but ordinary. The narrator compares to this lost world his own simple existence as a recollector and recorder of the past and one cannot but feel that life is always larger and grander in those lost times, when the past has been turned into fiction. This nostalgic narrator is in fact the main character in all of Jón Kalman’s novels and just as much the author’s offspring as the other characters. I do however suspect that the author and narrator have a very close relationship, but it would be wrong to confuse the two, since we are dealing with novels, and not memoirs based in history. The books in question are four: Skurðir í rigningu (1996), Sumarið bak við brekkuna (1997) and Birtan á fjöllunum (1999), they form a series of stories that all take place in the same rural area and feature the same characters, but the authors latest novel, Ýmislegt um risafurur og tímann (2001), is separate from this series and tells the story of a young boy on a visit to his grandparents in Norway.
Jón Stefánsson started his writing career as a poet and in the poems it is possible to detect many of the themes that were later to characterise the novels. Thus the poem “Slitrur úr gömlum formála” (fragments of an old prologue), published in the collection Úr þotuhreyflum guða from 1989, contains these lines:
ég stend á herðum tímans
og sé sjónvarpsstöðvar
verða að söfnum gleymskunnar
[I stand on the shoulders of time
and see television channels
become museums of oblivion]
The narrator speculates on the connection between the past and the present, but he stands on the shoulders of both and tries to get a broad overview. Another theme that is explored throughout the works of Jón Kalman is the poet’s relationship with language, and the following lines from “Slitrur úr gömlum formála” are a good example of his attitude to language.
ég hef ekkert að segja en
er konan í lífi mínu;
krjúpandi við fótskör hennar
gruna ég svik bak við hvert orð
[I have nothing to say but
is the woman in my life;
kneeling at her feet
I suspect treachery behind every word
The author’s continuing works must, however, raise doubts about his claim that he has nothing to say, but the declaration of love of the language and the suspicion of its treachery is a running theme in all his novels, and this will be discussed below. This doubt about reliability of language and the contradictory love the author feels for it puts one in mind of a statement made by the French theorist Maurice Blanchot, along the lines that authors have nothing to say but are driven by an uncontrollable urge to utter this “nothing”. Speculations on the value of language and doubts thereof are the main themes in postmodern studies. So are ideas on the connection between reality and fiction, but reflections on that connection often show up in the novels of Jón Kalman Stefánsson, as well as in his poetry.
The narrator in the country trilogy more often than not voices the opinion that intangible phenomena are the best, that memories are better than the present and fiction far greater then reality. Similar thoughts on existence in general can also be found in the poetry. The authors last book of poetry, Hún spurði hvað ég tæki með mér á eyðieyju (1993), contains several love poems many of whom are numbered beneath one title, as for instance ellefta kennd til konu (ellefenth sentiment to a woman):
hvað ég tæki með mér á eyðieyju
bát og þig
og við brennum bátinn á ströndinni
síðan fór ég
en skildi hana eftir
til að halda í drauminn
what I would bring to a desert island
a boat and you
and we’ll burn the boat on the beach
later I departed
but left her behind
to hold on to the dream]
In the same way reality is better when recreated by memory, dreams seem better if they do not come true. The mind’s images lose their worth if they become tangible. That might be the reason why the narrator in the works of Jón Kalman Stefánsson, both in the poetry and novels, has a tendency to claim his mistrust of language, even though the language is also “the woman in his life”. A play on the author’s main themes can be seen in the next poem in Hún spurði hvað ég tæki með mér á eyðieyju:
tólfta kennd til konu
ég hef beðið öll tungumál heimsins
og skáld allra tíma um orð
einungis eitt orð
yfir þetta bros
ef hann er loksins til
og vorið ákallar þögn vetrarins
kallar á eina ljóðið
sem ég á ekki til
sem fæðist öskrandi
-hlýtur að fæðast öskrandi-
og síðan, kannski
sem er til
er ekki til
[twelfth sentiment to a woman
I have asked all the languages of the world
and poets of all times for a word
only one word
describing that smile
if he finally exists
bows his head
and the spring invokes the silence of winter
calls for the only poem
which I do not posses
which is born screaming
-must be born screaming-
and later, perhaps,
does not exist]
There are poems and novels written about many things which do not really exist. Skurðir í rigningu, the first book in the trilogy takes place, according to the book cover, in rural Iceland at the beginning of the 1970s. The story continues in the following instalments, probably into the 1980s. This demarcation in time and space is simply to mark an outer frame of reference and hardly qualifies as an accurate social study. The wonders of this particular world are perhaps not more dramatic than elsewhere; a ferocious bull, a remarkable tractor, discussions on literature and progress. The characters in this rural area are drawn in broader strokes than what is considered normal, the heated arguments are hotter and the life in the area seems more passionate than in most other places. The writer of these lines did indeed get to spend a few weeks on a farm during childhood and was scolded for spending time reading on a sunny day, people do not spend much of their time discussing Þórbergur and Laxness during the harvest.
The farmers in the stories of Jón Kalman are not like that. Their attitude to these great geniuses of language is of utmost importance and the most bitter arguments revolve around them. When these disputes are not taking place, other quarrels will surface similar to the public rows Laxness and Þórbergur themselves used to have in the press, such as the debate on the existence of God and electricity in rural areas. Some of the farmers depicted in the books want to embrace the future and modernise, but others do the opposite and knock down the lampposts in the area. As it says on the dust jacket of one of the books, these are not descriptions of bland everyday people. The accounts of the exaggerated personalities of these characters are often embellished to the extent of not being very believable to a reader who compares them to a bland everyday life, be it rural or urban. It must, however, be considered that Jón Kalman is not aiming to write in the realistic vein, the whole of the narrative and the narrative style reflect that this is an imitation of reality. It could possibly be called ’the reality of the imagination’. The narrator steps forward time and again in his own right and stops the narrative, ruptures the links in the chain of events and reminds the reader that the past only exists in memories and in words trying to catch it. When he turns off the main road in the beginning of Sumarið bak við brekkuna, he also takes a turn in his own memory and begins to remember the past in the manner of someone who intends to write a story about it. In a short passage later on in the book it is described how such a story comes into being, it is clear that the randomness of memory is the key and reality less so.
[U]ngum var mér kennt að eitt er það sem sögumaður má ekki gera, og það er að beita söguna ofbeldi. Hann á að berast áfram með henni einsog báturinn lætur ána fleyta sér áfram, því sögur eru einskonar ár: þær finna sinn eigin farveg, sinn náttúrulega farveg sem er ekki bara þekkilegri en hinn manngerði, heldur eru öflin sem móta hann á allan hátt dýpri og óræðari: þau eru lífið sjálft.
[I was young when I was taught the one thing a storyteller must not do, and that is to force the story. He should be carried forward by it just as the boat lets the river drive it forward, because stories are a kind of river: they find their own path, their own natural path that is not only preferable to the man-made one, but the forces that make it are also in every way deeper and more inscrutable: they are life itself.]
Thus the author moulds life into words, but all is not what is seems.
On the surface the stories of rural life are a romantic monument to past times. The descriptions of the country life and the characters are, however, often ironic, and the author often shows the comic side of his creation. His fondness for his characters is obvious, and to him they even seem to function as a shield against the monotony of the everyday. But that does not prevent him from occasionally poking fun at them or even laughing at the rural life he misses so dearly:
Guð er bara staðreynd og maður eyðir ekki tíma í að grufla yfir þeim, þær einfaldlega eru. Þannig hefði Ágúst líklega svarað, hefði hvarflað að einhverjum að spyrja um afstöðuna til Guðs, en það spyr enginn stórbónda að slíku og Ágúst hugsaði heldur ekkert um Guð; fór bara til kirkju þegar við átti, umhugsunarlaust, svona ósjálfrátt eins og maður hirðir heyið þegar þurrt er, borðar þegar mann svengir, dællir olíu á traktorinn, ber fúavörn eða smurolíu á girðingastaurana svo hestarnir éti þá ekki og merkir við Framsóknarflokkinn í kosningunum. (SBB:44)
[God is simply a fact and one does not waste time thinking about facts, they simply are. This is probably the answer Ágúst would have given, had it occurred to anyone to ask about his attitude to God, but no one asks a big time farmer such things and Ágúst didn’t think at all about God; he simply went to church at the appropriate time, without thinking, in the same way you harvest the hey when its dry, eat when you are hungry, pump oil on the tractor, put waterproofing or machine oil on the fence posts to prevent the horses from eating them and vote for the Farmers Party at elections. (SBB:44)]
It has been mentioned that the narrator reflects on the past with regret. In his depiction of himself he portrays his youthful innocence more often than not in a self-deprecating and sarcastic light. This is a scene where the narrator gets a crush on a girl:
Það stóð á endum; þegar ég var búinn að blanda og ætlaði aftur inn, sá ég hvar hún kom ut og hvarf inn í gula Lödu Steisjon með þriggja barna föður sem var utansveitarmaður í þokkabót.
Skömmu síðar fór Ladan að rugga, stjörnurnar hrundu af himni og ég vissi að sólin skini aldrei framar í þessum heimi.
Daginn eftir vaknaði ég með mikinn höfuðverk. Sorgin var hnífur í hjarta mínu og gekk dýpra inn með hverjum andardrætti. Um nóttina hafði besta mjólkurkýrin komist í fóðurbætistunnu og drepist af ofáti.
[The timing was impeccable; just as I finished mixing [the drink] and headed back in, I saw as she came out and disappeared into a Lada Estate with a father of three and from a different county to boot.
In a short while the Lada started to rock, the stars fell from the sky and I knew the sun would never shine again in this world.
The next day I woke with an enormous headache. The sorrow was a knife in my heart that went deeper with every breath. During the night the champion-milking cow had made her way to the feed barrel and was dead from overeating.
Both style and content are reminiscent of another writer who, as stated before, is much quoted and discussed in the stories of Jón Kalman, that is Þórbergur Þórðarsson. Exaggerations and elated language describe the love troubles of the innocent narrator in a dramatic way and concludes with romantic irony as many of Þórbergur’s tales do. The connection to the Icelandic literary tradition is always there and visible in all the works of Jón Kalman. The content of his work seems almost deliberately clichéd and the execution is often close to a comic version of rural stories from Iceland and their idealisation of nature. It is ironic as the narrator’s voice often calls on the past with a sincere sense of loss, and it is this string connecting the innocent yearning for the past to the less-than-innocent sarcasm of the author, which quivers most strongly in his work. The author is perfectly aware that the period he describes is in the past and cannot be relived except in literature. And perhaps it never existed at all. Memory tends to change the reality and that is exactly what happens when literature is produced. The rural society in the books of Jón Kalman Stefánsson is often very “novelistic” and seems often to be formed by literary ideas of such a world. The characters seem often to be either in the “Laxness camp” or the “Þórbergur camp” in this rural area because they often share characteristics with certain characters in the works of those and other Icelandic authors who have written about life in rural Iceland. In some cases it seems that the characters live in a novel. One character even hints to another that their valley is merely a chapter in one:
Maður verður alltaf jafn standandi hlessa að rekast á fólk sem telur sig geta sagt, og það af botnfastri vissu, hvað sé veruleiki og hvað uppspuni, hvað líf og hvað draumur. Já úr því að maður er kominn út í þessa sálma er best að láta allt vaða; ekki einungis lamandi hissa, heldur líka fullur af depurð þegar ólíkustu manneskjur standa upp og lýsa yfir af töluverðri sjálfumgleði að svona sé hann þessi veruleiki, það dregur ínu, bendir og bætir við: hér eru endimörk hans ogsá sem stígur yfir línuna mun glata trúverðugleik sínum. Þá þykist maður kannski góður og svarar með sögu sem sýnir veruleikann snöggtum margslungnari en þetta fólk vill vera láta, sko sjáiði, sjáiði hvar hann þenst út fyrir ímyndunaraflið! Segir maður af ákefð jafnvel, krossfari hugmyndaflugsins, skekur vopn sín framan í villutrú alvörunnar en er þá bara svarað mæðulega og mildilega ávítandi: nú læturðu öfgarnar hlaupa með þig í bullið. Og það er nefnilega það sem var sagt við Starkað þegar hann, af hlakkandi meinfýsni, upplýsti okkur um að í raun og veru væri sveitin lítið annað en hugarfóstur skálds, sem sæti einhversstaðar fyrir sunnan og þvældi henni allri með fólki, fjöllum og vindum uppúr sér, gæfi út á bók, fengi starfslaun, viðtöl í blöðum, bros frá fögrum konum og spásséraði þannig um með mig og þig í höfði sínu, léti þennan detta í ána, þennan draga hann upp, þessa halda framhjá, þennan deyja, í stuttu máli, sjálfstæður vilji væri blekking, við værum ofurseld dyntum skálds. Hvaða skálds? Ja hver vissi nema það væri þessi úr Mosfellsbænum, nóbelskáldið holdi klætt, hver vissi nema við værum stafur eftir hann, líkami okkar samansettur úr orðum, einstaklingurinn frá tveimur orðum uppí nokkrar síður – fjandi óþægileg hugmynd! (SBB:16-17)
(It is always startling to bump into people who think they can tell, even with rock-solid conviction, what is reality and what is made up, what is life and what is a dream. Yes, well since I’ve started in this vein I might as well let it all flow; not only am I astounded, but also full of sorrow when different people stand up and declare with considerable self-importance that such is reality, they draw a line, point and add: here are the edges and whoever steps over the line will lose their credibility. This may prompt me to tell a good story that shows how reality is much more complex than what these people seem to think, there see, see how he inflates himself outside the boundaries of the imagination! Says someone excitedly even, a crusader of the imagination rattles his sable in the face of heretical reality, but the tired reply is slightly scolding: you are letting the extremes drive you to nonsense. And that is exactly what was said to Starkaður when he, quivering with sarcasm, informed us that this county really was the mere figment of some author’s mind, who was sitting somewhere in the south of Iceland and scribbled all of it, with people, mountains and winds onto a book, got a stipend, did interviews with the press, got smiles from beautiful women and took strolls with you and me in his head, he made someone fall into the river, someone else drag them up, this woman have an affair, another one died. In other words, free will is an illusion; we are forced to follow the whims of the author. Which author? Well, maybe the one who lives in Mosfellsbær, the Nobel prize winner himself, who knows, maybe we are a letter imagined by him, our body a compilation of words, individuals who range from two words to a couple of pages – a damned uncomfortable idea! (SBB: 16-17)]
The nostalgia one can sometimes detect in the narrator’s words is also a yearning for a past “literary world” and attempts to go back to the material of Þórbergur and Laxness. As in their work, there is a lot of ambiguity in the narrator’s depiction of the world recreated in his work and also a lot of obvious ambiguity directed at the tradition he is writing in – and against. Interwoven with the narrator’s yearning for the past is the knowledge that it is useless to wish for the past, and ridiculous. The narrator often forgets himself in the sense of loss for lost times but always regains his composure and carries forth with doubts of the value of reminiscing. He stands like a strange version of a Greek god with his feet in two oceans and carries time on his shoulders. Or perhaps he is the oracle in Völuspá who lives simultaneously in all periods. In any event it is difficult for him to experience himself exactly where he is. In this context it is appropriate to remember the words of the French poet Arthur Rimbaud: “Life is always elsewhere” and “I am an other”. The narrator in Jón’s books has the double role of being a character in, as well as the scribe of the story, added to that he might also be this “alter ego” authors become when writing their novels.
But what is the real view of this “alter ego” on the lost world he describes? When the wisdom of rural versus the urban are compared, or even nature versus civilisation, to broaden the context a little bit, nature always wins: “To be a modern man standing in bare feet and hatless in the grass whilst the rain falls, is an experience fully equal to ten years of university studies and surpasses it in many ways.”
The narrator is however fully aware that some people might object to such statements and wonders whether it is possible to doubt his claim. The conclusion only serves to confirm his belief, and emphasise that the ideology of the narrator in the country trilogy is very romantic. This follows the quotation above:
Ja, það er nú einu sinni svo, að sá sem stendur berhöfðaður og berfættur í grasinu í þungu regni, helst með augun aftur og lætur hugann bara reika, sá hinn sami mun finna hvernig drambsemi mannsins koðnar niður og þá fyrst er viðkomandi móttækilegur fyrir boðskap skýja, þá sýna droparnir honum trúnað, þá finnur hann til samkenndar með grasi, með maðki, og verður hluti af andardrætti náttúrunnar. Þá en ekki fyrr uppljúkast hin einföldu sannindi sem í fábreytni sinni geyma djúpa visku.
Well, the thing is, he who stands hatless and in bare feet in the grass in heavy rain, preferably with his eyes closed and lets his mind simply wander, that very person will feel how the arrogance of man fades away and only then is that person open to the message of clouds, the [rain] drops will have faith in him, then he will feel sympathy with the grass, with worms, and becomes part of nature’s breathing. Then and not sooner simple truths will appear, truths which in their simplicity contain deep wisdom.]
It can only be said that this outlook on life, which can be so widely found in Jón Kalman’s country trilogy and permeates the whole of the work, is a wholly romantic and passionate ode to nature and rural bliss. As it happens it has been pointed out on these pages that the narrator is more often than not ironic in his descriptions and does not take himself too seriously. A strong case can be made for the conjecture that the romantic narrator of the books is in fact the voice of the author Jón Kalman Stefánsson, and that his respect for past times and the marvels of the countryside is sincere and undivided. He is different from the older generation of Icelandic authors who described the great migration of the nation from rural areas to the cities, and the novels of Jón Kalman do not have any social issues to tackle nor do they in any way describe “the changes in the life of a nation”. To no extent do his books have the sarcastic and moralistic judgements of the “realistic” authors from the turn of the century, who described their upbringing in Reykjavík and life there around 1900 to show the unspoiled rural life in a favourable light. It is not a certain fact that the author is at all in favour of a rural way of life. It just so happens that the past tackled by the narrator took him behind the slope and into the light of the mountains.
The main part of the works of Jón Kalman Stefánsson is the battle people have with their own memories, the past and things that can never return – except maybe in fiction. And there it will never be the same, and even somehow completely different. The author’s lot, loneliness of man and his hopelessness when confronted with the passing of time are the strongest elements in this trilogy.
The two first books have been translated into German when this is writtern (later books have also been translated later; ed.) and published under the same title Der Sommer Hinter dem Hügeln, Sumarið bak við brekkuna [The Summer on the other side of the slope]. This manner of translation emphasises the obvious connection between the books and shows that this is in fact the same novel, even if it has been published in two different books in the Icelandic publication. It is interesting to note that when first published Skurðir í rigningu 1996, the book was called a collection of stories, and thus implied that these where independent short stories rather than a continuos narrative. The three books form, however, a long and continuos story but the story is told in short scenes and digressions and atmospheric descriptions from the scenes of incidents rather than in a linear narrative. The story is, to rephrase, told as a memory develops in the mind of someone who reminisces on the past, not with a definite beginning or ending, dramatic climax and a thoroughly plotted solution in the last chapter. This story is fragmented like people’s memory and often chaotically executed. The execution is thus a part of the thoughts of what it is to tell a story, and the process from the first appearance of the memories to the written word is woven into the narrative itself. Birtan á fjöllunum begins like this:
Stundum er eins og allt það liðna verði að ljóði. Eins og minningarnar séu í ljóðum þar til reynt er að koma þeim í orð: þá breytast þær í sögu.
Það er dimmur vetrarmorgun í útjaðri borgarinnar en í huga mínum er júní og birtan á andlitinu tuttuga ára gömul.
Þannig hefst það.
Ég sit við skrifborðið en þegar ég lít upp, sé ég hvar rúta fjarlægist vegamót vestur á landi.
Ég seilist eftir blýanti og dreg ljóðið niður í flaum frásögunnar.
[Sometimes it feels as if all things past become a poem. As if the memories exist as poems until an attempt is made to put them into words: then they turn into a story.
It is a dark winter morning on the edge of the city but in my mind it is June and the light on my face is twenty years old.
So it begins.
I sit at my desk but when I look up, I see where a coach pulls away from a road crossing in the west country.
I reach for a pencil and pull the poem down into the stream of the storytelling.]
It really does not matter whether Jón Kalman Stefánsson is trying to catch his own past, or whether the narrator is imaginary and thus makes the imitation a double one. The past is no more and cannot be caught, except in the poetic images of the mind, the very images authors try to put into words. And in his attempts at catching the past a constant comparison of the present and the gap that can not be spanned takes place. The narrator is so occupied by the constant and invisible advance of time (which only becomes visible in narrative) and the hopelessness of the attempts at trying to get it under control, that he forgets himself time and again in speculations on the relationship between man and memories, memories and language, and the relationship between language and what really happened:
Ég er valdalaus alvaldur. sit við skrifborðið og reyni að færa minningarnar sem óma yfir tungumálinu í orð. Fyrir utan er dimmur morgun gegnumstunginn götuljósum en stöku bílar aka út úr borginni og hverfa inn í myrkur landsins; en ég man svo vel annan morgun, miklu bjartari, þegar við Starkaður nálguðumst þorpið á sjötíu og fimm kílómetra hraða. Ég veit semsagt núna það sem ég vissi ekki þá, að það var ekki bara þorpið sem kom á móti okkur, heldur örlögin, örlög Starkaðar. Þetta vildi ég segja; bráðum ekur gulur kafbátur, dulbúinn sem rauð Lada, inn í þorpið og þar bíða örlögin eftir Starkaði Jónassyni frá Karlsstöðum.
[I am an impotent omnipotent. Sit at the desk and try to put the memories that resound above the language into words. Outside there is a dark morning pricked by streetlights but every now and then a car will leave the city and enter the darkness of the country; but I remember so well another morning, much brighter, when Starkaður and I approached the village at seventy-five kilometres per hour. Thus I know now what I did not now then, that it was not only the village coming towards us, but fate, the fate of Starkaður. This is what I wanted to say; soon a yellow submarine, disguised as a red Lada, will enter the village and there fait awaits Starkaður Jónsson from Karlsstaðir.]
The past certainly becomes a poem, and a poetic and descriptive style is one of the hallmarks of these stories. A sentence like: “Fyrir utan er dimmur morgun gegnumstunginn af götuljósum?” [“Outside there is a dark morning pricked by streetlights?”] is a typical example of his wealth of poetic descriptions in the books of Jón Kalman Stefánsson and a reminder of the fact that he was originally a poet. But his poems have turned into a story. The narrator of the country trilogy is constantly reaching for the poetry of memories, but is also frequently wondering how they turn into a story and what happens when the past turns into words. The narrator’s belief in language is not total, but it is his only weapon when trying to catch something that once was tangible but is not any more. Words are the building blocks in the recreation of the tangible, and this almost material value can sometimes be seen in interesting metaphors coming from the narrator and the characters he describes: “En nú má enginn álíta að orð mín séu bátar á siglingu útá biblíulegt úthaf.” [Now, it cannot be construed that my words are boats sailing on a biblical ocean.”] (Sumarið bak við brekkuna, p. 8); “Eftir vörubílsfarm af ferlegustu blótsyrðum, settist hann á eldhúsbekkinn?” [After a truckload of terrible swearwords, he sat himself down on the kitchen-bench?”] (Skurðir í rigningu, p. 58). Speculations on the value of words and the creation of a story are a large part of the trilogy, and both manifest themselves directly in the pondering thoughts of the narrator, as well as in descriptions of the different story-talents of the characters. Here on this [web] page where the author of the stories discusses his job, he mentions “The curse of having to turn everything into words”. The curse is constantly revealing itself in his books.
The main themes that have been discussed here crop up again in Jón Kalman’s novel, Ýmislegt um risafurur og tímann. As before, the author looks to the past for his material and produces a narrator who once was a small boy abroad, where the wonders are larger than in the bland everyday. On the surface this is a story about childhood and it has its similarities with so called “boy-stories”, where pranks are like the heroic antics of Tarzan and Lightfoot [the horse of Lucky Luke].
Jón Kalman Stefánsson stylistic traits come into their own in this book and make it, in my opinion, the most enjoyable part of his work. It conveys his sense of humour well because the main character is a child, and the tiny incidents of the everyday can easily become material for epic adventures in his mind. The scene has moved abroad, but in keeping with the other books it is still set in the country, the antithesis of the streetscapes of Reykjavík, which seem to be the original background of this narrator when he commits his story to paper. The struggle is as before, between the present and the past, rural and urban areas, and this story also contains the speculations on the lot of the modern man, with his hands and feet constantly wriggling in the oceans of time. In fiction he finds a safe haven and there he can allow himself to be more romantic than in reality, which does not often offer the chance. One poem in the author’s first book, Með byssuleyfi á eilífðina, shows this strong yearning for the romantic, but the yearning is not unbroken and certain, but hesitant and self-deprecating, as the last line in the poem indicates:
Reykjavík Ó Reykjavík
hér hef ég numið
ég sem orthef í saltan vind
suður með sjó
og vaknað í morgunroðanum
þar sem fjöllin eiga heima
ég segi þér að
mig þreytir þetta landslag húsa
þessir nafnlausu nágrannar
sem aldrei er
því segi ég þér að
tek ég saman sjóinn og fjöllin
í huga mínum og hverf
burt frá þér
[Reykjavík O Reykjavík
here I have sensed
the hum of the nightlife
and the culture;
the totem poles of modernity
I have written poetry to a salty wind
down by the south coast
and awakened in the sunrise
where the mountains live
I tell you that
I tire of this cityscape
of these nameless neighbours
and the silence
which never is
Thus I tell you that
I will pack up the sea and the mountains
in my mind and disappear
in a cloud of dust
away from you
I gather that Jón Kalman Stefánsson still lives in the capital, but that might be irrelevant because it is hazardous to connect the face on the dust jacket too closely to the voice resounding on the pages. Still it is possible to say that Jón Kalman has left Reykjavík in his mind and put down images from other places in his published work. It is in these places where the author seems to enjoy himself the most. On the pages in his books he sincerely tries to capture a past world, and to “... try to put the memories that resound above the language into words.” On his way to the past he encounters all kinds of difficulties, because the road in a man’s mind is not straight but turns and bends and goes over rough ground and hollows. Jón reminds his readers constantly of the fact that his vehicle on this road is the language, and it is as fragile as any that has to cover rough ground. It has nonetheless brought him safely to three books of poetry and four novels. I would like to see any sceptics fare better!
Sölvi Björn Sigurðsson, 2002.
Translated by Dagur Gunnarsson.
Neijmann, Daisy L., ed. A History of Icelandic Literature
University of Nebraska Press, 2007, p. 461
Bergur Ebbi Benediktsson: “The Traditional Form does not Appeal to me.” An interview with Jón Kalman Stefánsson
The Reykjavík Grapevine, December 9 2008, see here
Paul Engles: “Interview with Jón Kalman Stefánsson.” [About Heaven and Hell]
MacLehose Monday, see here
On individual works
Heaven and Hell
Marc Vincenz: “Heaven and Hell by Jón Kalman Stefánsson.”
The Reykjavík Grapevine, October 10, 2010, see here
Sumarið bakvið brekkuna
Preben Meulengracht-Sørensen, “Færøsk familiekrønike : islandsk kærlighedshistorie og hjemstavnsparodi = A family chronicle from the Faroes : a love story from Iceland, and an Icelandic parody on regional literature”
Nordisk litteratur 2001, pp. 42-46.
2011 – Per Olov Enquist Literary Prize (Sweden): Himnaríki og helvíti (Heaven and Hell)
2007 – The Icelandic Bookseller’s Award, best Icelandic novel: Himnaríki og helvíti (Heaven and Hell)
2006 – The Icelandic Broadcasting Service Writer’s Fund
2005 – The Icelandic Literature Prize: Sumarljós, og svo kemur nóttin (Summerlight, and then Comes the Night)
2017 – The Icelandic Booksellers‘ Prize, best Icelandic novel: Saga Ástu (Ásta‘s Story)
2017 – The Icelandic Literature Prize: Saga Ástu
2017 – The Man Booker International Prize: Fiskarnir hafa enga fætur (Fish Have No Legs)
2015 – The Icelandic Literature Prize: Eitthvað á stærð við alheiminn (Something the Size of the Universe)
2015 – The Nordic Council’s Literature Prize: Fiskarnir hafa enga fætur (The Fish Have No Legs)
2013 – The Icelandic Literature Prize: Fiskarnir hafa enga fætur (The Fish Have No Legs)
2011 – The Icelandic Literature Prize: Hjarta mannsins (Heart of Man)
2007 – The Nordic Council’s Literature Prize: Sumarljós, og svo kemur nóttin (Summerlight, and then Comes the Night)
2004 – The Nordic Council’s Literature Prize: Ýmislegt um risafurur og tímann (On Giant Firs and Time)
2001 – The Nordic Council’s Literature Prize: Sumarið bakvið brekkuna (The Summer Behind the Hill)
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