What Are Poets For If They Can’t Help Us Live?
Alec Dewar reviews Jón Kalman Stefánsson’s About the Size of the Universe (trans. Philip Roughton)
Iceland has an unusually intimate relationship with literature. You could almost say that literature is the base material of the nation. The story of the founding of Iceland by the Vikings is told in the medieval Book of Settlements (Landnámabók), covering the discovery of the island, the exploration of its terrain, and the establishment of the first farms in the late ninth century. The nation’s growth is charted throughout the celebrated sagas (Íslendingasögur), which carefully detail lines of descent and the tit-for-tat of inter-familial feuds, grudges, vendettas. Between them, The Book of Settlements and the sagas comprise a unique national literature that poeticises the landscape and provides a narrative record of its people’s roots. Looking back over the centuries, both the terrain of Iceland and generations of its inhabitants are tethered, ultimately, to the written word, rather than to origin myths first expressed by oral or visual means.
In the recent novels of Jón Kalman Stefánsson, family dramas like the ones depicted in the sagas play out against a landscape described like something from the Book of Settlements. And in addition to invoking the literary history of Iceland in his novels, Jón Kalman constructs an overarching narrative that considers the worth of literature in Iceland today: in a sense, his work is about what it means to belong to a nation with a history of valuing literature very highly. Best known for his epic trilogy Heaven and Hell (2010), The Sorrow of Angels (2013), and The Heart of Man (2015), a tale of folkloric simplicity set against the awesome backdrop of Iceland’s West Fjords, Jón Kalman has recently switched gears to focus on more domestic concerns in a grittier corner of the country. In Fish Have No Feet (2016), he introduced the character of Ari, a washed-up fortysomething publisher, who returns to Iceland after an absence of several years when he receives word that his father is dying.
Ari’s story is narrated by an unnamed cousin who acts as a cipher, accompanying Ari on part of his journey home, and it arrives at a conclusion of sorts in Jón Kalman’s most recent book, About the Size of the Universe (trans. Philip Roughton), a self-proclaimed “companion volume” to its predecessor. Told in muddy, convoluted prose at odds with the clarity of the earlier trilogy, and unspooling a mundane narrative quite distinct from the trilogy’s adventurousness, these two books mark a significant change in direction for Jón Kalman. Unfortunately, the result is a project whose aims are more impressive than its execution.
Fish Have No Feet and About the Size of the Universe both take place in Keflavík, west of Reykjavík, a part of Iceland in which the desolation of the landscape is matched only by the desolation of the local economy. In his descriptions of Keflavík, Jón Kalman seems determined to write against the idyllic view of Iceland as “nothing but pearls of nature, calm weather, blue skies and docile horses”. In Fish Have No Feet, he even depicts a scene in which Ari, at the airport, browses a rack of postcards and decides that the pictures sold to tourists “don’t show the real Iceland but rather our fantasy of Iceland; they don’t show the wind, the temperament of the weather, its capriciousness, don’t show the dampness, the horses drenched and dripping in the rain, don’t show the squalls, the sleet, the grey days, and absolutely don’t show Keflavík”. “Keflavík isn’t Iceland”, he adds, “isn’t part of the fantasy”. It is, instead, “undoubtedly the most dubious place in the entire country”, a town built on “lava, which at first is an old scream, and then moss-covered silence”, where the collapse of the local fishing industry has left behind economic ruin and “a hint of pain or anxiety in the fishermen’s faces — as if they’ve gone down to the pier to check whether their lost years have been caught in the nets”.
Actually, the fate of the fishing industry, caused by the introduction of fishing quotas in the 1980s, is only one of the troubles that blight present-day Keflavík. The town also suffers from the decay of the aluminium smelting plant that provided employment opportunities after fishing went awry, and then the closure of the U.S. Army base whose staff had acted as an economic stimulus for the region until the early 2000s. In Fish Have No Feet, the narrator reveals that he and Ari are not originally from Keflavík. They are from Njardvík, “the village that will always look like a warm-up act for Keflavík”, but their families abandoned Njardvík when the two boys were still young, and the boys themselves abandoned Keflavík in their early twenties, when the fate of the town became apparent. Still, it is to this grim place that Ari returns, not least because his father has retired, resettled, and is now ailing, somewhere in the vicinity.
Fish Have No Feet is mostly concerned with the events that led to Ari’s departure from Iceland. In short, having managed to escape the confines of Keflavík, he married a woman he loved and started a family of his own. But then he was unfaithful to his wife, he was caught out, and he was made to realise — agonisingly — that his love for his wife had faded, or that his capacity for love had atrophied. “[L]ove doesn’t always survive as long as a person”, the narrator laments,
but pales with the years, cools, loses its individuality.
How can that be?
How can the unique, the incredible, become, in a relatively short period of time, perhaps just a few years, the ordinary, the drab Tuesday; how is it possible to make it through life relatively undamaged when so much wears out — when passions fade, kisses cool, and so little goes in the direction we chose? Why do we live in a world of imperfection, where marriages fail because love, that first, second and third wonder of the world, has changed into a drab Tuesday, into routine, sterile security?
Ari’s departure, when it occurs, is described like so: “It’s a quiet Tuesday, no wind, a neighbour walking the dog, an old pop song on the radio, and then there’s an explosion at the breakfast table”. Ari berates his wife, Þóra, in a “calm” voice, then lashes out with an arm and sends everything on the table crashing to the floor. “His gesture”, the narrator says, “is a scream”. It’s telling that this gesture, which defines the dramatic conflict between Ari and Þóra, and between Ari’s past and present selves, and which is repeatedly re-described in the course of Ari’s narrative, is encapsulated in the same word that the narrator uses to describe the lava landscape of Keflavík. The family saga and the site of settlement are defined by the one term: “scream”.
The above ruminations on the nature of love will give you a good idea of what to expect from the narrator of Ari’s story. He is pseudo-philosophical, portentous, repetitive, and given to issuing lofty pronouncements on grand abstractions, often resorting to the royal “we” to make sweeping and absolute statements about the nature of the human condition. He is a capital-R Romantic, a man whose sentiments are a better fit for the eighteenth century, and while he does have his charms from time to time, his company is often exhausting to endure.
Some of his tiresomeness might be related to the difficulties of translation. His speech is thick with run-on sentences and comma splices, which suggest breathlessness and rapture when they occur at length in English prose, although they occasionally have a different feel and different grammatical functions in the original language. This is not to doubt the faithfulness of Philip Roughton’s translation, but to wonder whether the tone of the narrator, in English, might have been less grating, less stuffy and Wordsworthian, if the sentence structures had been Anglicised along with the individual words. Then again, some of the narrator’s tiresomeness is also clearly one facet of the character as created by Jón Kalman Stefánsson. His habits of speech really are — bizarrely — digressive and recursive at the same time. All that business about the “drab Tuesday” appears again and again in Fish Have No Feet, as do many other images and phrases in which the narrator attempts to galvanise the significance of an event: an old scream, a pair of buttocks, and even an anal probe. In addition, his narrative is thick with mundane details, and thin on dramatic incidents, which means that it takes a very long time for even the simplest things to happen: Fish Have No Feet begins with Ari flying in to Iceland and ends not long after he has left the airport, and About the Size of the Universe devotes its first hundred pages, a quarter of its total length, to recapping the scant events of the earlier novel. And then, on top of all this, the narrator likes to jump around haphazardly between a number of narrative strands that never quite come together: Ari’s arrival in modern-day Keflavík, the wild days of Ari’s youth in the Keflavík of the 1980s, and the lives of Ari’s ancestors on the waters of Nordfjördur, on the opposite side of Iceland, in the early twentieth century. Readers of these two novels are called upon to really do some work, to show some stamina, to knuckle down and persevere, if they are determined to appreciate the qualities that make the books worthwhile.
There are at least two reasons to stick with the books to the end, although Jón Kalman himself invests his energies only in the second one. The first is their intriguing, difficult take on gender relations in the Iceland of the late twentieth century. For all the stasis of its narrative, Fish Have No Feet ends on a shocking note: Ari receives a letter regarding a couple of events from his teenage years, events which are depicted several times earlier in the novel, played for laughs at his expense, poking fun at his naiveté, and when the author of the letter shares her perspective on what happened, we realise that those events were, and still are, much more serious, more criminal, and more traumatic than Ari believed. At issue in these events is the relationship between men and women in Iceland, specifically the male objectification of women and the male sense of entitlement to treat women as objects. The book comes down very emphatically against the actions of men, and the narrator explicitly articulates a feminist politics to mitigate these incidents of objectification. Then, in About the Size of the Universe, Ari himself complains to the narrator about exactly this issue: he regrets that he “did nothing, realised nothing, just felt sorry for myself” when confronted with evidence of a sexual crime, and more recently, he adds,
I bought a porno magazine at Kastrup Airport, suddenly felt horny seeing the cover photo and looked forward to checking out the magazine in private, but the woman on the cover turned out to be a girl of about the same age as my daughters and I felt like I’d wronged them somehow, agreed to the notion that their bodies were commodities meant for men; how can you ask if everything’s alright when you have two daughters in a world designed by men; society, culture, religion tailored for them and God in the shape of a penis…
And yet, despite the narrator’s politics and Ari’s protestations, Fish Have No Feet and About the Size of the Universe are very much the work of a man’s man. Masculinity is the water they swim in. It’s impossible to keep track of how often the men in these books think about their penises, talk about penis size, and joke about the penises of others. It’s also impossible to keep track of how often women are objectified and eroticised, sometimes in a way that might be considered artful — as, say, embodiments of an ethereal beauty — but more usually in ways that are blatantly sexualised, with plenty of focus drawn to breasts, nipples, vaginas, and, conspicuously, the pleasure that women experience in the embrace of men.
There’s no way to square the circle here, hence the earlier remark on Jón Kalman’s “intriguing, difficult take on gender relations”: these novels espouse a gender politics that is totally antithetical to the one they assume and embody. The awkwardness reaches dizzying heights in About the Size of the Universe, in a scene set in the 1980s, when Ari’s mother and father have sex so loudly that they are overheard by the elderly couple upstairs. “She’s approaching climax”, the narrator says, “tosses her head side to side and moans to avoid exploding, almost out of her mind with pleasure… she bares her teeth, moans and makes other sounds, some of which resemble suppressed barking”, and so on. Then, absurdly, the sounds of the woman’s orgasm inspire the eavesdropping old man to make love to his wife at the same time, all the while fantasising about the younger woman downstairs and referring to her, over and over again, as “the filly”. Read on if you dare, as his wife is described:
Yes, the years have made her skin pasty as well, pulled down the corners of her mouth and her breasts, which once were big and plump, a feast for the eyes, other men had eyed her up, unable to help themselves, had ogled her, envied him, couldn’t refrain from mentioning in his hearing that she looked like a film star with those breasts, but now they hang like crumpled, half-empty rubbish bags…
There might be more eloquent or inventive ways to go about describing a woman like this, in a situation like the one she’s in. But even she can’t escape the objectification that sweeps across all the women in these books, and there’s no way to rationalise how severely that contradicts the politics they avow.
The better reason to stick through to the end of About the Size of the Universe comes back to its treatment of literature. Especially fascinating is Jón Kalman’s approach to the idea of writing literature in a nation that has traditionally held literature in high esteem, but has now entered a post-literate age along with the rest of the world.
In these novels, the people of Iceland are extremely conscious of how marginal a role their nation plays in global affairs. In About the Size of the Universe, the pettiness of Icelandic politics in the 1980s is contrasted with civil unrest in Poland, preceding the collapse of the Soviet Union, as well as the brinkmanship of the Cold War more generally; there is a sense that Iceland could be obliterated in nuclear warfare and the rest of the world simply wouldn’t notice. And the people of Keflavík are conscious, too, of how marginal a role their town plays in domestic affairs. In both novels, there are running jokes about the scarcity of presidential visits to Keflavík and the misbehaviour of locals in the presence of foreign officials; everyone in Keflavík has a heightened awareness of their own neglect. Both Iceland and Keflavík have a longstanding literary history, however, and Jón Kalman is keen not to let his readers forget it: there are explicit references to The Book of Settlements, and Keflavík’s place in The Book of Settlements, as well as references to the sagas, to the Icelandic literary canon, and to other works describing Keflavík and Nordfjördur, all explicated in footnotes for non-Icelandic readers. Most significantly, Jón Kalman constructs his protagonist as a figurehead for literary esteem and post-literary concerns. It turns out that Ari was once a poet, fondly regarded for his talents and with a published collection to his name, but he gave up writing to work in lowbrow commercial publishing. Upon his return to Iceland, his rejection of literary ambitions causes concern amongst his family and friends.
Why this concern? Because in places as marginal as Keflavík, where life has very little meaning in the grander scheme of things, literature that speaks to ordinary people takes on outsized significance, becomes a guiding light for those who yearn for advice on how better to live. This is made explicit early in About the Size of the Universe, when Ari, recently returned home, has a conversation with an old man named Svavar. Svavar draws a contrast between himself and the young poet who moved abroad to reassess his life and his purpose:
Personally, I never bothered about such things; I wasn’t like you, brooding all the time; I just enjoyed living. Anyway, my life turned upside down. It all began quite innocently, although I did change course now and then, gave up a steady job to go back to school, but there was nothing behind it, or so I thought, except a desire for something new. Slowly but surely, I realised that in a certain sense I’d lived without, well, without thinking…
“Isn’t this something that you poets should be helping us with”, Svavar exclaims, “even explaining, if only in passing, why it’s so hard for people to be happy? I mean, what are poets for if they can’t help us live?”
Indeed. That last question is more or less what Jón Kalman sets out to investigate in these two novels, and particularly in the second half of About the Size of the Universe. Amongst the people of a nation whose identity is defined through its literature, and amongst the people of a community with a powerful hunger for new definitions of selfhood, what are the expectations and responsibilities of writers like Ari? More worryingly — and this also occupies Jón Kalman, especially towards the end of Ari’s story — what is a writer to do, exactly, when the people for whom he writes don’t want to hear what he has to say, or won’t let themselves be guided or consoled or moved by his words? In spite of receiving the reproach of Svavar, Ari does recognise literature as something that holds an ideal importance in Iceland, but he is frustrated by the extent to which its importance is only ideal: the people who express a craving for what literature can offer are the same people who now, in a post-literate age, won’t turn to literature in the first place. Ari stops writing poetry because hardly anyone reads poetry anymore; he ends up owing money on the collection that bears his name. So, with the second half of About the Size of the Universe, Jón Kalman puts forward an ambivalent, multilayered critique of the literary culture in which he himself is at work. Much as he uses the postcards at the airport to drive a wedge between the Iceland of the tourists’ dreams and the workaday Iceland of the residents, he uses Ari’s predicament to distinguish the mythic literariness of The Book of Settlements and the sagas from the lacklustre literariness of a culture that just isn’t terribly interested in reading anymore.
Ultimately, it may be the case that all this is not interesting enough to hold the attention of readers who don’t already have an attachment to Iceland. Or it may be that this, on its own, would be enough to hold attention, but it’s not enough to justify the effort required to reach it through everything else in Fish Have No Feet and About the Size of the Universe. In the end, there’s simply too much fat on the bone: these two books barely have the material for a single volume, and would have benefited from the excisions and compressions of a bolder editor. They are not without their value as, for readers outside Iceland, they offer a portrait of a nation unlike any other, and an exploration of its outlook on a distinguished form of art that most other nations perceive as merely one avenue of entertainment among others. Ironically, however, they don’t make use of the immense resources of the art form to mount a defence of literature; instead they invoke “Literature” in a very outdated sense, “Literature” as a cultural force with auratic power, so that they end up inadvertently defending an anachronism. More’s the pity. In a post-literate age, literature needs its proselytisers and zealots, needs practitioners who will draw readers back to the page, back to the art of literature itself. While Jón Kalman’s books seem to share this view, and sometimes to voice it, their author remains at a loss as to how to act on it.