The Whispering Muse by Sjón (trans. by Victoria Cribb). Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 160pp, $22.00.
There is something immediately seductive about Sjón’s The Whispering Muse. The narrator, a peculiar old Icelander named Valdimar Haraldsson, receives a letter from an old acquaintance, inviting him on a sea voyage aboard the newly launched merchant ship, the MS Elizabet Jung-Olsen. Haraldsson, who has long been cooped up in his shabby Copenhagen apartment, reacts emotionally to the unexpected gesture: “my heart was filled with unfeigned joy, joy at being invited on such an adventure . . . joy that the buds looked promising on the boughs of the apple trees in the tiny patch of garden that belonged to my foolish neighbor Widow Lauritzen.” Something about this abrupt transition from a generous, lively description of apple boughs to a petty observation about a vexing neighbor is at once funny and provocative. This is not only characteristic of the novel’s voice; it is a subtle premonition of the narrative dynamic structuring The Whispering Muse.
One of Iceland’s most prominent contemporary writers, Sjón has set himself apart through his remarkable ability to weave together myth and modern life, allowing them enigmatically to echo one another. The Whispering Muse, beautifully translated by Victoria Cribb, is also based on this juxtaposition. Once on board the MS Elizabet Jung-Olsen, Haraldsson finds that the crew is entertained each evening by the stories of Caeneus, currently second mate but once a member of the legendary crew of the Argo, the magnificent vessel used in Jason’s quest for the golden fleece. Night after night, Caeneus holds to his ear a splinter of wood and listens intently while the muse within whispers to him, before embarking on another episode of his tale. The stories, as well as the words he chooses to tell them, are intensely beautiful and grave, filled with urgency and pathos. The narrator, however, is not impressed, and upon the tales’ conclusion is invariably found yawning, grumbling, and professing his disbelief about how long a fellow can “drone on” about his life. In fact, next to propagating his crackpot racial theories, pointing out the apparent faults of others seems to be one of Haraldsson’s chief preoccupations. In this manner The Whispering Muse veers vertiginously between the largely silly, mundane preoccupations of the narrator and Caeneus’s bold and shimmering visions of Antiquity.
The result is a unique hybrid: a novel fundamentally interested in the phenomenon of storytelling, but set in the mind of someone whose concept of a story is very narrow and conventional, and who views Caeneus’s surrealistic reveries as little more than self-indulgent oddities. (I will not go so far as to say that Haraldsson is not a storyteller at all, for I am convinced that nobody is entirely bereft of the storyteller’s impulse.) The presence of this seemingly incongruous narrator, however, in no way diminishes the emotional force of Caeneus’s myths; rather, it adds the tension essential to Sjón’s intellectual experiment. The Argonauts’ tale is embedded in an old coot’s memoirs because, preposterous as it may seem, much of what makes up the ancient heroes’ lives is also what makes up ours. There is the eternal conflict between desire and duty. There is the pressure to adapt to changing circumstances. There is also boredom, and getting sidetracked by illusions and fleeting passions. And even in this story within a story, there are more mises en abîme, more stories that the Argonauts encounter, react to, recoil from, or rejoice in.
And then there is the sea. In so many ways, this is the only suitable location for this tale, as well as, it seems to me, the natural companion of Sjón’s style. At sea, a different logic takes hold. The minds of men, as Ariel sings in The Tempest, “suffer a sea-change/Into something rich and strange” and the stories they produce become haunted by mirages and monsters. To match this setting, the scale of Sjón’s writing is grand, his words voluptuous and evocative of the sea’s dreadful power. Its power is not only to wreck ships and drive men mad; no, in the world of myth, Poseidon can descend on a beach and rape a maiden, let “[t]he briny sea flood every inch of [her] body . . . and wherever it went it felt like molten iron poured into the outstretched hand of a child.” The ships that move on this capricious surface, too, are often described like lovers. They rise and fall on the waves like “the rolling hips of Aphrodite,” and sometimes speak in passionate groans, as does the Argo when she encounters her old captain Jason on an abandoned beach: “Take me away. Sail me out to sea, the blue sea . . . Oh, how I have missed the feel of your strong feet walking my decks . . .”
The Whispering Muse is an intensely poetic work, not only because it vividly recalls the great epic poems, from drawn-out feasts to hyphenated epithets, but because it is confident in its rich and dramatic vocabulary. It is a poetry of abundance and profusion, like coral encrusting a submerged galleon. But there is nothing frivolous in this glut of detail and metaphor—not least because in a work so conscious of its own textuality, so deeply concerned with the act of creating art, no stylistic choice can be the result of pure whim.
And what about the secret of the muse? One late evening, over a bottomless carafe of brandy, Caeneus gives an account of his creative process. It goes like this: he listens to his gnarled piece of wood—taken from the bow of the Argo—until from the initial soft static there emerges a clear note: “as if a single grain of golden sand had slipped through the mesh of the sieve and, borne on the tip of the eardrum’s tongue, passed through the horn and ivory-inlaid gates that divide the tangible from the invisible world.” Of course, this is nothing Haraldsson can make head or tail of, but here is a powerful commentary on the making of art: the artist must undertake a journey, must dare to step from familiar, reliable ground into the formless, shape-shifting world of the unknown. It is much like stepping from land to sea. There is risk involved, and, unlike Haraldsson hopes, you can’t merely take a holiday over there: any journey, whether on a ship or a page, will transform you on the inside.
Tone-deaf as he is, perhaps Haraldsson has an inkling of this when he eventually steals Caeneus’s little wooden muse. Once you have visited the invisible world, you know you have to keep going back, because as any artist or reader knows, to be transformed, time and again, is to remain in motion, and to avoid a stagnant life.
The Whispering Muse, a marine fable of rare beauty and originality, is sure to inspire the urge to return to Sjón’s writing for the verve, humor, and verbal artistry one is sure to find in it.
Mona Gainer-Salim is a student of literature and illustrator. She lives in Vienna.
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