A Conversation with Jón Kalman Stefánsson

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A Conversation with Jón Kalman Stefánsson

Watch an interview with novelist Jón Kalman Stefánsson.

By Sébastien Marrec.

In Under the glacier, the Nobel Prize Halldor Laxness wrote about his country: “Whoever doesn't live in poetry cannot survive here on earth.” And genuinely, no country in the world has produced more poets per capita than Iceland. But at the end of the 19th century, in any other country living in poetry could be more dangerous. “The struggle for life and daydreams don't mix well. Poetry and salt cod are irreconcilable. No one could feed on dreams,” notes the writer Jón Kalman Stefánsson, 49 years old.

In his novels, even the characters who do not read are haunted by “melees of dragons and hydras, and clouds of phantoms as in Milton,” as Victor Hugo wrote in Les Misérables. It is precisely because the fisherman Barður is engrossed in the reading of a borrowed copy of Milton's Paradise Lost that he forgets his waterproof and dies, in the early chapters of a trilogy begun with Himnaríki og helvíti (Heaven and Hell, 2007).

A nameless boy, working in the same fishing camp, does not manage to save him from the cold. This trauma leaves him inconsolable. His only friend lost, he decides to embark on a rough journey in order to return the book to its owner. He should be taught to hate the power of words, and yet the books prevent him from committing suicide. He knows no more than the sky and the earth’s horizon, and discovers what is the best and the worst of humanity: other lives than his own, the fear, his first loving emotions.

Each passing day and each farm bring their share of unforeseen and colourful characters, who for many of them share a certain taste for alcohol, an intense loneliness and a furious urge to survive: Kolbeinn, the old blind captain, Geirþrúður, a fiercely independant and beautiful widow, Álfeiður, the young girl with blazing hair, or Hjalti, the melancholy giant. That is what it is all about. And is much more.

Stefánsson’s writing reminds us about the time when the harshness of a rough-and-ready daily life was the common lot of all Icelanders, the time when they lived off and died of fishing. Stefánsson is a novelist who writes poetry, a poetry sometimes frugal, sometimes epic, punctuated by lyric flights of expression that suddenly turn into prosaic statements. His sensory writing is soaked of primary emotions and self-evident philosophical truths, irritating or fascinating, that are always in danger of no longer being taken seriously for granted.

Here and there, mysterious darkness voices from the past, stuck within the boundaries between life and death, tell the story, interrupting the third-person narration and the minimalist dialogues. Fed on memories, they deliver some bitter thoughts all along this initiation trip, from the frigid and dark waters to an endless snowstorm, on this hostile land where winter forbids any burial of a loved wife.

AT THE AUTHOR’S HOME

Jón Kalman Stefánsson has come a long way since he won the Icelandic Prize for literature in 2005 for a collection of short stories, Sumarljós og svo kemur nóttin (Summer light, and come the night). Publishers, critics, readers have made no mistake about this original voice in foreign literature, in a time when best-sellers and crime novels are preferred by many of them. His trilogy, opened the doors to many translations – including English – and to new readers.

Stefánsson’s next book in English translation, The Sorrow of Angels, second volume of the trilogy, is scheduled to be released this summer. In spite of, or because of, the success of his last work and almost unanimously rave reviews, the author who received us in his office and library in Mosfellsbær remained a reserved and humble man. His muddy blue eyes are not unlike the reflections in the waters of the North Atlantic he speaks so much about.

For this filmed interview, the writer evokes the singularity of Icelandic literature, his readings, his writing and the conception of the trilogy. In the second volume, Jón Kalman portrays one of the main characters, Jens, a taciturn postman  “always aware of the precautions that the words need.”

Once you have read Stefánsson’s work, and while you are observing him carefully look for words for one hour and a half, you cannot help but think that this description could also be applied for himself.

By Sébastien Marrec

Born in 1991 in Bordeaux, Sébastien Marrec now lives in Brittany. He is a student at the Institute of Political Studies in Rennes.

At the age of 15, he discovered Iceland thanks to a photography portfolio by the French landscape photographer Philippe Desgraupes. He decided to move to Iceland for one year and has been working as an intern at the National Museum of Iceland over the past few months.

The above video was originally published on Vivre en Islande.

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