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Heaven and Hell by Jon K Stefansson

Heaven and Hell (original 2007; edition 2010)

by Jon K Stefansson

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2071556,585 (4.01)6
Title:Heaven and Hell
Authors:Jon K Stefansson
Info:Quercus (2010), Hardcover, 240 pages
Collections:Your library
Tags:"read 2012", sea, iceland, words

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Heaven and Hell by Jón Kalman Stefánsson (2007)

  1. 10
    Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín (anglemark)
    anglemark: There's something about the laconic prose and the description of a young person's plight that made me associate these two books with each other.

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French (7)  English (5)  Dutch (3)  All (15)
Showing 5 of 5
The words have grabbed hold of me from page one, and I wanted the prose to flow on forever. I read in circles, rereading the same passages, retracing my steps, and advancing over the previous endpoint, and so until the end. As in a Greek tragedy, there is a chorus, a chorus of long-departed voices that murmurs like a subterranean river of memory, "Our words are a kind of rescue team on a relentless mission to save past events and extinguished lives from the black hole of oblivion, and that is no easy task." The story is simple, because, in the end, life, too, is simple: life, love, death, there is little else: "People are alive, have their moments, their kisses, laughter, their embraces, words of endearment, their joys and sorrows, each life is a universe that then collapses and leaves nothing behind but a few objects that acquire attractive power through the deaths of their owners, become important, sometimes sacred...". Life unfolds in the grip of the elements, between the sea and the mountains, between the black earth and the distant sky, everything connected in a web of emotions, hopes, uncertainties. "... the body's blood vessels, the arteries, the veins, and capillaries that are nearly four hundred thousand kilometers long, reach the moon and just touch out into the black space beyond it ... Andrea stands between the boat and the hut ... her veins reach to the moon." Life unfolds between heaven and earth. Heaven is "having something to eat, to have escaped the storm, come through the breakers that roar just beyond the land, to hit them at precisely the right second required to sail through them...". "Hell is having arms and no one to embrace."

Stefansson's slim volume is thick with immemorial wisdom, words that will touch you and remain with you for a long time; a wisdom that has nothing in common with the trivialities dispensed by self-help books or "inspirational" drivel that people reach for in moments of desperation, or because they don't know any better. It is as distant from these things as the verses sung by a skipper in the midst of a storm at sea, words that rip deeper and deeper into the soul, to keep the crew warm, are distant from pedestrian rhymes that pass for poetry.

To be able to read, is not as great a skill as knowing how to read, say the voices. To those who know how to read, this book will be most rewarding.

( )
  aileverte | Jan 17, 2016 |
This book is the first of three which will encompass the whole story, but it can be read alone. On it's own it's a coming-of-age story about an orphan who loses his only friend as a result of the friend's tragic moment of distraction over the beauty of a book. As a big reader I understand and relate to his distraction, while mourning his death.

Our protagonist is unnamed, a literary choice I applauded because it made him an 'everyman' so that each of us stepped into his shoes. We walked the streets, rode the waves, experienced the cold, were covered by the snow, and lost our friend to the freezing weather.

Stefansson does a wonderful job of bringing Iceland of the mid-1800s to us and shows us, in just a few words, what the world and its people are like and how they suffer and endure. I look foward to the next installment of this triology. ( )
  whymaggiemay | Sep 16, 2014 |
Recensione su: http://wp.me/p3X6aw-nn ( )
  Saretta.L | Jun 3, 2014 |
How to describe Jon Kalman Stefansson’s novel of early 20th century Iceland, HEAVEN AND HELL? I will characterize it as an odd and mournful mix of Icelandic Saga-story, with nods to Paradise Lost, The Old Man and the Sea and, in general, lost innocence, all loosely organized and written in the manner of Cormac McCarthy, and narrated by a Greek chorus of Dead Souls, who “intend to tell of those who lived in our days, more than a hundred years ago, and are little more to you than names on leaning crosses and cracked headstones ... Our words are a kind of rescue team on a relentless mission to save past events and extinguished lives from the black hole of oblivion ... bewildered, scattered rescue teams, unsure of their task, all compasses broken, maps torn or out of date, yet you should welcome them.”

It’s the “unsure of their task” part that stands out here, because, although the protagonist of this jumbled tale is quite obviously “the boy,” there are perhaps a score of other characters here whose points of view and inner thoughts intrude at seemingly random intervals as we follow ”the boy” after he loses Bardur, his best and dearest friend, on an ill-fated fishing voyage on the Polar Sea, and then journeys through a threatening snowstorm over the mountains to the valley where Bardur was born, to tell what happened and to return a book, Milton’s PARADISE LOST, to a blind sea captain Bardur had borrowed it from. (How’s that for a long run-on?) There in the Village he is taken in by a wealthy widow, part of a “trinity” that includes the blind man and another alcoholic ship’s captain. The Village is never identified beyond mentioning that it lies on a remote spit of land in a fjord below the “Eyrarfjall peak.”

The connections between the blind captain, Kolbeinn, regarded with suspicion by the locals because he loved books, and the blind poet Milton, are many. The captain had amassed a library of over four hundred books - an enormous collection for the time and place - but went gradually and inexplicably blind. The boy, an orphan, who can read - a rarity - considers possessing a library such as this, and then going blind, a kind of hell in itself. Hell too, “is a dead person,” he thinks, as he remembers his friend. “Is it a loss of Paradise to die?” And “Hell is having arms but no one to embrace.”

Heaven, on the other hand, seems inconceivable. ”The heavens have never needed to explain anything, they arch high over our heads, over our lives, and are always as distant, we never come close to them ...” And indeed, God Himself seems all but absent in this brooding tale, or, at the very least, indifferent to the petty doings of men. (The village priest is a sad drunkard.)

I suspect, that to fully appreciated Stefansson’s story, one should be more knowledgeable about Icelandic story traditions, and certainly Paradise Lost, than I am. Because I found HEAVEN AND HELL to be something of a slog, albeit with flashes of brilliance. The narrative moves sideways as often as it does forward, and the ending seems inconclusive, with yet another look at the ubiquitous falling snow, “large hovering snowflakes shaped like angels’ wings.” But perhaps more will be explained, will become clear in THE SORROW OF ANGELS, the sequel, which rests now in my to-read pile. Recommended, but with reservations. ( )
  TimBazzett | Mar 6, 2014 |
One of the best books I have ever read. This book is heart-wrenching, awesomely beautiful and deeply literary. It is a book for book-lovers, about book lovers, about lovers, about books, about the sea and its depths, about loss and the despair of youth, about everything. it was recommended to me by a woman I met in a cafe in Reykjavik. Thank you, the secret writer somewhere in a Belgian government legal HRs Dept. ( )
  Mijk | Oct 5, 2012 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Stefánsson, Jón Kalmanprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Myklebost, ToneTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Questa storia è dedicata alle sorelle Bergljiót K. Þráinsdóttir (1938-1969) e Jóhanna Þráinsdóttir (1940-2005)
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I monti incombono sulla vita e sulla morte e su queste case che si stringono una all'altra sulla lingua di terra.
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In a remote part of Iceland, a boy and his friend Barour join a boat to fish for cod. A winter storm suprises them out at sea and Barour, who has forgotten his waterproof succumbs to the ferocious cold and dies. Appalled by the death and by the fisherman's callous ability to set about gutting the catch, the boy leaves the village.… (more)

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