I don’t know what I expected a book by an Icelandic writer to be like – it was probably rather shallow of me to expect it to be anything other than itself – but this little collection of short stories met my expectations head on and then body swerved them. Icelandic literature is rooted in sagas. Gyrðir Elíasson’s tiny tales couldn’t be further from sagas if they tried. Not quite short enough to be called ‘flash fiction’ most of these stories barely stretch any more than two or three pages. The longest is the epic ‘The Summerbook’ which clocks up an impressive 9½ pages.
Elíasson was born in 1961 and is well known in his native Iceland, mainly as a poet, but his published prose work is growing now having four novels (Walking squirrel, Paper boat train, Sleepcycling and The night lantern) and seven short story collections under his belt. His is a unique voice in modern Icelandic literature. Whereas his contemporaries set their books in the cities and tackle life in the 20th and 21st centuries head on Elíasson shifts the action into the hinterland, “a realm by no means found on regular maps, for the author is, as he put it himself, a ‘mystical ruralist,’” as opposed to your everyday magical realist.
I’ve never been to Iceland but I imagine Reykjavík is like any other city, a cultural centre and a gateway to foreign parts. If I want to visit a city there’s one just down the road. No, were I to go to I’d want to experience the “real Iceland”: a couple of geysers at least, a volcano perhaps, a fjord or two, something grand I could take photos of. Ironically there’s precious little of that in this book; the landscape is there but we’re somehow distanced from it, or travel through it just to get to a decrepit guesthouse where we find ourselves trapped inside with the story’s protagonist. Considering these are stories set in the wide open spaces Elíasson manages to find the claustrophobic everywhere; oftentimes his "strangely sensitive and quirky" characters bring it with them. Claustrophobia is, of course, a fear and the core of all fear is the unknown; you might expect but you can’t know until you experience it, until you cross whatever boundary that keeps your fear from you.
Iceland has an exceptionally high rate of literacy — more books are produced per capita than in most other countries in the world. I had assumed that the fact books appear in virtually every story was just that part of the author spilling over into his writing, but perhaps not so. There are references to bookselling, bookbinding and writing as well as simply reading. When I realised this I started to think about the other things that find themselves in more than one story and, even though none of these tales is connected with any other, there is a feeling that some of the props have been shifted to another stage where a different scene is enacted.
The blurb on the back of the book describes each of these tales as “a study in self-exile” and that’s as good an expression as any. "I was supposed to be thinking out my life afresh; if not for others, at least for myself," explains the narrator of the first story in Stone Tree, about why he has come to be living alone in a cabin with no company for weeks. Few of the protagonists are alone all the time though and indeed some of them long for company but they’re by themselves because they’ve chosen to go to these places (in both a literal and a figurative sense) alone expecting another to follow or to wait on their return. That doesn’t happen. In one story a man’s wife drives off with the kid in their car literally stranding her husband; in another the wife goes to visit an aunt in Sweden and never returns; and much the same happens in the last story where the wife promises to come and join her husband but instead moves back to Vermont to “visit” her mother.
Many of the protagonists in these stories are visitors, like the writer from Melville (which is not far from Cape Cod) or the bird painter from Boston. Even the native Icelanders are away from home so that they’re in an unfamiliar part of their own country but even where, as in the case of the young boy whose father arranges for a piano to be delivered so that his son can begin having lessons, home doesn’t feel homely. In almost every story we find people taking leave of their normal lives in order to take their dreams more seriously. This is where ‘The Piano’ is a little different because the boy doesn’t want to learn to play:
‘You must learn to play the piano,’ his father had said one evening, with a determined set to his face. The boy’s eyes went to his mother but she only nodded. He had gone up to his room and stared out of the window at the leafless tree.
(Keep that last sentence in mind. I’ll come back to it later.)
Removals men arrive and manoeuvre the piano into the living room.
[The boy] did not want to go too close or to touch it, yet he couldn’t help privately admiring the black sheen of the wood.
On this point at least, if on no other, he and his father appear to agree because after the lesson, which terminates abruptly, the boy’s “father stood up and ran a careful hand over the piano” before settling down to watch TV as if he had quite forgotten about his son. The boy takes this as his cue and gets ready for bed.
While he is sitting on his bed looking through “a big picture book about Harley Davidsons” his mother comes to the door and tries to reassure him:
‘It’ll be fun to learn the piano, don’t you think? Your father can teach you a little to start with, because he once had lessons himself, then you can go to the music school.’
So this is a story about the father living out his dreams vicariously through his son and also, at the same time, it would appear to be thwarting his son’s dreams. But how to respond? The boy cannot sleep:
He descended the dark stairs in his pyjamas. The steps were carpeted and did not creak. A peculiar silence reigned in the house; to him it felt deeper than ever before. Perhaps it had deepened since the instrument entered the house.
He walked barefoot into the laundry, feeling the cold stone of the floor by the drain under his soles. His father’s toolbox stood on a shelf in the corner. Opening the box, he rummaged in it quietly until he found what he was looking for. After that, he went into the living room where the black colossus stood. The only light was the faint illumination from a streetlight outside the window.
He sat down at the piano, lifted the lid and aimed the chisel, peering with intense concentration at the keyboard, then began nimbly to score scratches and grooves in the keys. He pressed the keys down with exaggerated care before scratching them, in an effort to ensure that they did not sound. Yet every now and then a low note rang out, like a muffled cry of pain.
His eyes became accustomed to the gloom. The chisel was as incisive as the human mind. He was just starting to carve out the lid when the light came on. Looking up, he dropped the chisel and it fell on the carpet with a dull thud.
End of story. Okay, we don’t particularly need to know what his punishment was – that’s why we have imaginations – but it’s still an uncomfortable feeling being left hanging there. All the core storytelling basics are there, a beginning (the arrival of the piano), the middle (his first lesson) and an end (his attack on the instrument). A dénouement would have been nice but unnecessary.
This is a cold story. The storytelling is bare; the characters passionless even in their passions. Is there a point to it? Yes, but it’s not stated explicitly. At its core there is a poem. The language is not especially poetic, not in any of the stories, but many of the images are quite mesmerising. Take the story ‘Book after Book’ as an example. What happens in this story? A man wanders round his house picking up books and reading bits at random from them, the phone rings and he has a conversation with a friend who wants to enthuse about a book of poems he’s just read; the man lies down on the bed whilst trying to convince his friend that the book “was not so very remarkable after all” and tries to sleep once the call is over but he can’t; eventually he starts reading only to be disturbed by the doorbell but he takes so long answering the door that when he gets there no one’s there; now that he's there he puts on his raincoat and decides to go out for a walk in the rain; after a bit he pulls a book from his pocket and begins to read taking care, as the pages grew more and more damp, to turn them with care.
It’s not much of a story until you realise where the books are. They’re everywhere in his house. Not confined to bookshelves, they’re to be found in cupboards, the fridge, the oven, the bathroom cabinet, on windowsills, beside his bed and, of course, in coat pockets. As with the last story we learn very little about the protagonist apart from what he likes and does not like to read. The only suggestion that he might be old is when he goes to the bathroom and urinates “with low moans” but there could well be another reason for that entirely. It’s a slice of life, a character study, a vignette. Visually though it’s a poem, a man living in a house of books.
It begins with this opening line:
He stood by the window, staring out into the drizzle.
‘The Silver Nose’ begins with a similar line:
He sat by the window, gazing up at the starry sky.
And you remember the line I highlighted in ‘The Piano’, just three examples of boundaries in this collection. I talked about ‘props’ being shifted from tale to tale, well the starry sky reappears in ‘The Stargazer is Always Alone’ as does a room full, though perhaps not as full, of books; the stargazer is a collector of rare books but he is not alone because one of his neighbours also collects rare books and, when not peering heavenward, our collector’s telescope is fixed – covetously – on his neighbour’s collection. Which brings us to the pair observed by the narrator in ‘A House of Two Stories’ where two men – a vicar and a teacher, who, “long ago [had been] drinking partners in Reykjavík” – now occupy the top and bottom flats of the same building and are each engaged in translating one of Steinbeck’s novels into Icelandic:
One was working on his longest work, the other on his shortest. The vicar sat in the upstairs flat, toiling away every day on his translation of East of Eden. The teacher, meanwhile, sat in his den in the evenings, translating The Pearl. As a matter of fact, he had already translated it once before but perhaps he was dissatisfied with his earlier attempt.
The two seemingly have nothing to do with one another. They don’t interact, not with each other and barely with the story’s narrator. Eventually both men finish their tasks and move on. Even the narrator moves. They feel like actors who have come together to go through a scene and, once played out, they can go back to their normal lives. If I can go back to the blurb on the book’s cover:
Elíasson’s images are always unresolved, but are also somehow complete; like the dreams he shares with us, that lead us, through their own solitude, into other people’s.
Dreams are another recurrent theme in these twenty-five stories, in fact, in one of the most magical stories, a man realises...
...that he must have strayed into his wife’s dream, though she was still lying on the sofa in the sitting room. He realised for the first time that no one is truly separate from other people, not even a couple who have lived together for a long time. All dreams join up at the edges, like squares in a patchwork quilt.
This is a man who, by the way, goes to an optician because “[h]is sight had become so poor that he couldn’t even see properly in his dreams anymore.” Unexpectedly the optician has a solution. This brings me neatly to the magical realist elements in some of his stories; there are even elements resembling fairytales in some of them, most notably ‘The Lost Grimms’ Fairytale’ but it’s not the only one. In ‘The Silver Nose’, Tycho Brahe, one of the few characters in the collection to be graced with an actual name, opens the door to a stranger seeking lodging for the night:
‘I’m afraid you’ll have to look elsewhere,’ he said.
The stranger straightened up, pushing the cowl back on his head, and stared into Tycho’s face with the piercing, yellow-grey eyes of a lizard. His lips were pursed; implacable hatred informed every feature. Tycho looked away, brushing a flustered hand over his face. He felt the dip where his nose should have been.
‘This will cost you dear,’ the cowled man said, flinging the hood over his face again and turning his back on Tycho. It was as if the darkness had assumed human form.
Do you get the feeling this was the same caller in ‘Book after Book’, the one who left because no one appeared to be in?
Tycho goes back to his seat, takes a sip of wine and “then carefully [sticks] on his silver nose with yellow gum before reaching for his book and leaning towards the candle to see better.” Was his nose missing beforehand? Why would he open the door sans silver nose? Has the stranger changed reality? It’s only a page and half long that one and I’m still not sure.
This collection will not be to everyone’s taste but I’d like to find any collection that will not have its detractors. I’ve certainly not found any online. But you will only really love this book if you can come to terms with his unusual style. The only collection I own that is in any way comparable is Thomas Bernhard’s The Voice Imitator, a collection of 104 less-that-a-page-length pieces but Elíasson is no satirist. He is, however, very interested in the human condition. I personally liked the book, not every story, but there were only a couple where I felt cheated on the storytelling front but not of the atmosphere front. No.
I think my favourite story was ‘A World Alone’ when our narrator wanders around a ghost town only to realise he’s not there alone. A wonderfully evocative little piece – the preposterous idea of tucking a “dog-eared copy of Fahrenheit 451” at the bottom of a pile of books “so that the whole thing would burn more easily” quite tickled me – and it almost had a punch line. Almost.
Gyrðir Elíasson has been a full time writer almost all his adult life, well known in Iceland for his poetry and novels as well as his short stories. His collection The Yellow House was awarded the Icelandic Literature Prize and the Halldór Laxness Prize for Literature in 2000, and he has received numerous other nominations since. He is also a prolific translator of American literature into Icelandic, having translated four of Richard Brautigan’s novels.
Victoria Cribb, the translator, works as a freelance translator from Icelandic to English. She has an MA in Icelandic and Scandinavian Studies from UCL, a BPhil in Icelandic from the University of Iceland, and lived and worked in Iceland for a number of years as a publisher, journalist and translator.