Is Iceland the Most Literary Country in the World?
Novelist and Björk collaborator Sjón on Icelandic literary history that spans millennia
Electric Lit relies on contributions from our readers to help make literature more exciting, relevant, and inclusive. Please support our work by becoming a member today, or making a one-time donation here.
Sjón, born Sigurjón Birgir Sigurðsson, has spent the past two decades writing a trilogy of books about a man who was born at the exact same time as him. Originally, he was influenced by what it meant to create human life, but over the course of 20 years, he expanded his scope beyond what he ever imagined.
CoDex 1962 is a trilogy of books originally published in Icelandic in 1994, 2001, and 2016 under the titles Thine Eyes Did See My Substance, Iceland’s Thousand Years, and I’m a Sleeping Door. The three volumes weave multiple genres through a decades-long story of a family. While that general synopsis may sound like a typical generational family saga, Sjón moves far beyond that. The narrator, Josef Löwe, is the one who was born exactly when Sjón was, yet this is far from a work of autofiction. The author merely uses his experience in time to set the stage for what another’s life could have been in a different world. He explores Josef’s life (before and after) through three books, each with its own genre entirely. The first book is a love story while the second is a crime story. The third shifts to sci-fi thriller all while exploring the creation of life.
The Icelandic author has won numerous award for his fiction, including the 2003 Nordic Council’s Literature Prize for The Blue Fox. He’s been nominated for an Academy Award for his songwriting. He played an instrumental role in Björk’s early band The Sugarcubes. In addition to his long-gestating trilogy finally coming to completion, he was selected to write a book for the Library of the Future, which will publish novels 100 years from now.
I spoke with Sjón about the history of politics and literature of Iceland, how his trilogy shifted course over the last two decades, and his interests in eccentric world-views.
Adam Vitcavage: What is the background of the Icelandic literary history?
Sjón: Literature is the only constant cultural activity since Iceland’s settlement in the 9th century. They started writing prose narratives in the Icelandic language in the 12th or 13th century. Those were the Icelandic sagas along with historical narratives. It was the recording of the Germanic heritage of epic poetry; both mythical and legendary. On top of that, they started translating European literature such as the Arthurian romances.
This is what they were doing in the 12th, 13th, and 14th centuries. This is the literary history we follow. It has always given us the license at the table of nations in terms of culture. We are an old literary culture.
Let’s say between the 16th and 20th century, Iceland was extremely poor. You could have called it a Third World country. We have very little to show for our existence here during those centuries. There are no cathedrals or any kind of buildings of stone until the 19th century really. There are no paintings or anything. The only thing that we kept working on was writing. We were always a written culture.
There was a great revival of Icelandic literature in the middle of the 19th century with the romantic movement. It was a big national ideal that was brought to Iceland from Germany via Denmark. That is when the renaissance of Icelandic literature.
During the 20th century we, of course, have many great writers. The big man of Icelandic literature was Halldór Laxness, who received the Nobel Prize in 1955.
AV: What sort of stories were being written during these centuries?
S: The sagas are really big prose narratives usually revolving around a real character from the settlement. For instance, there is one of a poet and warrior that tells his story, but also tells about the politics of the time between the Icelandic settlement and Norway. These stories are remarkable because they are told in a Hemingway-esque style. There is not an extra word put in. It’s very sparse. Authors weaved poetry into the text. They included supernatural aspects that were considered part of the world. You just had to battle a group of the walking dead and you’d continue with the story.
They are close to what later became the novel. At the time they moved away from folklore and mythological. They are stories about people and their struggles in the world.
AV: Was there any country in particular that had a heavy hand in influencing Icelandic literature?
S: The mythological base and the world-views that are present in the sagas are the Germanic myths. You have Thor and Loki there. The influence from Celtic mysteries and legends can be found in certain sagas. The people populating the sagas, the character gallery, are from Norway, Denmark, Ireland. They go from Iceland all the way to Jerusalem and North Africa. There is a large reach in those sagas.
They were written by Christian people. By the learned man and possibly women. It was around the 12th century and they were highly versed in literature and allegory. It was an incredibly tight web they weaved in those books. They were also translating very early on and would bring books from Europe to Iceland. For instance, the story of Tristan and Isolde was translated. Translation is nothing new. It has fueled literature always.
Literature is the only constant cultural activity since Iceland’s settlement in the 9th century. We are an old literary culture.
AV: The novels in this trilogy touch heavily on politics. How much has politics played a role in Iceland’s history?
S: For a few centuries after the settlement, Iceland was a rare case because there was no king. We were under the Norwegian crown and the Danish crown. For centuries, we were a Danish colony. We only became a fully independent colony in 1944 just at the end of the second world war.
The movement toward independence began in the mid-19th century. The romantic poets played a role in making people love their country and see the beauty in the harsh landscapes that were monstrous and hostile then. We became sovereign 100 years ago on December 1, 1918.
Because we went through this process of finding independence and then keeping it, there is always an underlying element of nationalism in politics there. It is constantly being juggled and people do not agree how to handle that. It was something we always explore.
AV: This set of books opens in World War II, around the time independence came to your country. The first book is also a love story. Were you thinking about the romanticism of that when you started writing this book two decades ago?
S: It started as one book. It was an idea to write Golem’s story in Iceland. A story that would bring the Golem of Prague to Iceland. I was interested in working with the artificial human. I started thinking about that when I had my first child, a daughter, in 1992. All of a sudden I wasn’t just a creator of words. I was the father to a human being. That’s when I started thinking about creation and what a human being is made of.
Because of my fascination with the Golem legend from Prague and Jewish fantasy from Europe, that was the form the book came. It was only supposed to be one book in the here and now. As I was working on the material, I got the idea to write a short chapter at the beginning to show where the character — this Golem operator — came from.
That started off the whole thing. All of a sudden, I had plotted out the first volume and I realized it would be the story of the impossible creation of this being.
I set it in the second world war because when I thought about where I came from, my beginning is in the war as my parents were born. My parents were born in 1936 and 1939. My existence in this world go back to then. I was born 18 years after World War II and I realized I was born into the aftermath of that horror. It was more about how the trauma of that war colored everything.
I realized I would need more volumes to tell the story. The first book is about the mother. The second is about the father. The third book is about the son. In a way, it’s a classic trinity tale. I also knew it was a race against time and the narrator would not live to tell his tale. That was clear to me from the beginning.
AV: Is mortality something you think a lot about when writing?
S: I never thought very much about the fact that the world will be here when I leave. I am more interested in books as things that only become alive when someone is reading them. That is more important to me that the way that books are the remains of me. A lot of the great works of literature are anonymous. That is something Icelanders are greatly aware of because the sagas are anonymous. We grow up with the idea that the work will become separated from the author.
I am more interested in the idea that while we are here, we need to interact with this world. Literature offers brief moments of clarity within the chaos. We need to help each other with that while we are here.
The narrator of the book is preoccupied with leaving a mark. However, he is aware that the mark he leaves may not be attributed to him. He’ll be satisfied with leaving it. He moved one pebble on the beach, you know?
I am more interested in books as things that only become alive when someone is reading them.
AV: These three volumes were written decades apart. You thought of it originally in the early 1990s. How has the project shifted throughout these years from what you thought it would be to what it became now?
S: When I finished the first volume, I think I believed it would be a more linear narrative. I thought it would be quieter and have more solidity. The first volume takes places over a few days and has a clear narrative. When I started working on the second volume and I needed to make a bridge, I realized it would become a work that disintegrates as we get closer and closer to the contemporary situation of the narrator. The second volume takes place over 18 years and the last takes place over 50 years. The discovery was the main change. That I would have to deal with change in some way.
AV: Earlier you mentioned the birth of your daughter was a big inspiration to kickstarting this idea. Were there any other events from the past two decades since starting this project that influences the work?
S: One thing that happened, which wasn’t on a personal level but in our country as a whole, was in 1996 an Icelandic doctor and specialist in genetic scientist returned from his studies in the U.S. started a genetic research company called deCODE. There was quite the political unrest due to it. He belonged to a generation and group of people who had recently come into power. His company was given license to operate on a level that you would never see in another country.
For example, the medical records in Iceland were opened up completely to this company and you as a citizen had to opt out for it. They didn’t need consent. You needed to opt out.
There was an idea that the research the company did would be the key to cure all illness in mankind. This would be the gift Iceland gave to the human species. They thought what they could do with everyone’s medical records could save the world. This was the dream of our small country that was trying to find our place in the world.
I knew that when this was happening, that it would play an important role in the second volume. Of course, so many things have happened since 1992 when I started working on this book. With the effects of climate change, that brought the element of doom to the third volume. So it’s not just about the death of the individual, it’s about the death of the whole species in the end.
AV: Now that this trilogy is finally complete, what topics do you want to explore moving forward?
S: I am interested in the eccentrics. I am very attracted to world-views. I like to explore how man interacts with the world and how they try to find different meanings through thought. Whether that be philosophical, political, artistic, or religious. I’m very drawn to that field of human existence. Those elements are most clear and visible when those who hold particular views come into conflict in society.
At the moment I am exploring a story which grew from my interested in how the Neo-Nazi thought was possible after the Second World War. It’s something I worked with in the second volume of CoDex 1962, but I want to explore it with more seriousness than I did there.