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The Whispering Muse by Sjon
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The Whispering Muse (2005)

by Sjon

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English (8)  Dutch (1)  Icelandic (1)  Danish (1)  All (11)
Showing 1-5 of 8 (next | show all)
a short novel its most intriguing aspect being the protagonist's theory that Nordic culture had succeeded because of its higher consumption of fish. Additionally, the tale takes place on a small merchant ship with excellent guest quarters and its luminaries are entertained nightly at the Captain's table by a ship's mate who tells tales of Jason and the Argonauts.

an entertaining novella that falls short of the writer's masterpiece, From The Mouth of the Whale.
Sjon is a magical writer. ( )
  berthirsch | Feb 28, 2017 |
Because I started learning Icelandic this year, I decided it would be a good time to check out some Icelandic literature in translation. Most people are familiar with the Icelandic sagas, but there is a lot of modern literature coming out of Iceland too. I realized I could be reading Icelandic literature in a roundabout way. I had been reading David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks. The book mentions Halldór Laxness, an Icelandic author who received the Nobel Prize for literature. I know, this isn’t a review about Laxness, as you’re undoubtedly thinking. Well, I did get a Laxness novel from the library but I read The Whispering Muse first because it is much shorter and I practice library triage. So, here we go.

The Whispering Muse takes the form of a memoir of an older Icelandic gentleman named Valdimar Haraldsson. Haraldsson fills his time with running a journal about the connection between fish and culture–specifically that fish is the secret to Nordic superiority. Haraldsson’s memoir details the events aboard the merchant ship MS Elizabeth Jung-Olsen, where Haraldsson stays as a ‘supernumary’ thanks to the largess of Norwegian shipping magnate Magnus Jung-Olsen. The story takes place in the late 1940s.

Each night while onboard the ship, Haraldsson dines at the captain’s table with several of the crew and the paramour of one of the crew members. Haraldsson becomes increasingly horrified each night because fish, nor seafood of any kind, does not appear on the dinner menu. Several days in, Haraldsson takes it upon himself to go fishing (the ship spends most of the story docked at a paper mill in a Norwegian fjord). His catch is made into several meals, to Haraldsson’s delight and to everyone else’s skepticism.

After the evening’s repast, the second mate, Caeneus, recounts a part of the saga of Jason and the Argonauts. To tell the story, Caeneus holds a woodchip up to his ear. Caeneus receives the tale from the woodchip and relays it to the group.

Haraldsson assumes that the business with the woodchip is some sort of conceit, but everyone else takes it seriously. Caeneus later reveals that the chip is a piece of the Argo itself, which is why it can tell him the story.

I’m not sure The Whispering Muse was really the right entree into Icelandic literature. I don’t really feel like I “got” the book, but I’m going to give it my best interpretation anyway because it’s just the internet, not a peer-reviewed literary journal.

The Whispering Muse is apparently a satirical take on a milquetoast Icelander who, preoccupied with the inherent superiority of his own people, cannot recognize true excellence when he sees it. Caeneus’ tales of the Argonauts feature excitement and heroics. In contrast, when Haraldsson has the opportunity to speak, he presents a rambling lecture on his fish and culture thesis. It is not well-received.

At the end of the story, Haraldsson, confronted by someone truly superior, only f lees. An epilogue explains that he loosened up on his view about fish and Nordic supremacy after his stint on the Elizabeth Jung-Olsen. I also suspect it is intentional that Haraldsson is dwelling on Nordic superiority so shortly after World War II. The Germans adopted the Nordic myths and used them as part of their claim for racial superiority. It would be a little awkward to walk around talking about how great the Nordic people are so soon after the same myths were unfortunately used (in part) to justify atrocity.

It was interesting to read a novel translated from Icelandic because it offered some different word use than what we normally get in English literature. I have to thank both the author and translator for this one, since literature in translation is so influenced by the translator. This translation had some gems, like the phrase higgledy-piggledy. You have to wonder how that appears in Icelandic (This just in: Google Translate says it’s the same in both languages. What a buzzkill).

What to read next:

I think I have to recommend Halldór Laxness as a next read. Independent People seems to be his most famous work, but there are certainly quite a few options.
I guess I’m cheating a bit for both of these recommendations, but I’m going to recommend The Bone Clocks as well. I just finished it about a week ago. It was definitely worth reading. It’s a kind of speculative fiction that is so close to reality that you forget you’re reading something that is arguably magical realism.

Review also available at: http://digitalmanticore.com/?p=277 ( )
1 vote Lin-Z | Jan 19, 2015 |
A combination of post modern storytelling with Greek and Nordic mythology tied up in a Melleville-esque framework. This isn't a typical re-telling of classic mythology, but it clearly uses the elements while embedding them into a story with some interesting characters. The main character is an intellectual who studies the impact of fish consumption on the Nordic race. This droll main character is contrasted by the earthier characters of the ship's crew. The mixture of players works well in creating tension and adding interest to the story.

The book reminded me a lot of Michael Ayrton's work (The Maze Maker). If you're a fan of Ayrton's work, you will love this. ( )
1 vote Neftzger | Dec 2, 2014 |
Short and interesting, it intermixes a classic greek myth with a modern story, creating some strange (but appealing) resonance. ( )
  ivan.frade | May 18, 2014 |
Sjon is an Icelandic novelist, poet, lyricist and playwright. AS Byatt recently had a glowing review of his work as a novelist in the NY Review of Books, saying that he has changed the way she thinks about reading and writing.

Borges, according to AS Byatt, said, "realist fiction was a betrayal of literature at its core, that you are abusing story telling and literature by not employing the elements of the sublime or fantastic or mythical or folkloric. Because that's what we are keeping alive." The Whispering Muse certainly includes all these elements.

It is 1949 and Valdimar Haraldsson, an eccentric with strange views on how consumption of fish has determined the pre-eminence of the Nordic race, joins a Danish merchant ship on its way to the Black Sea. Among the crew is the mythical hero Caeneus, one of the sailors with Jason on the Argo in search of the Golden Fleece; Caeneus entertains the crew most evenings with stories of the adventures of the Argonauts, inspired by him ‘listening’ to a piece of the Argo that he carries with him for inspiration. Haraldsson is not as impressed and thinks the crew should benefit more from his scientific notions on fish consumption. In the end, the ship is not what it seems, though what it is, is not exactly clear because then we are into the world of the fantastic. The experience does not change Haraldsson in his theories, but does make him sexually more potent thanks to the stimulation of smelling the Argo splinter. It sounds a bit goofy when you lay it out like this, but it reads better than it might seem, even if I don’t think it really hangs together as a ‘novel’. But perhaps that is the point. At one point, Haraldsson asks what is the point of travelling if it does not broaden the mind; the same can be said about reading.

One element I do think important in considering the book is that it entails a high degree of farce. The examples are legion: the whole theory about the link between consumption of fish and culture beginning with the assertion that a "fish evolved into a higher life-form that resembled man, which subsequently continued its development to become human"; the assertion that the Nordic race's "astonishing prowess in every field" (which includes the invention of the steam engine, discovery of electricity, invention of the airplane and wireless: none of which were discovered or invented in the Nordic countries) is due to the consumption of fish; the great lines about how the physical development of the European races diminishes as one moves south from the Nordic ideal into countries that consume less fish, with the argument that the "yellow peril" from the East is due to the "energy and industriousness of the fish-eating nation of Japan", conveniently ignoring the fact that, particularly in 1949, the Japanese were considerably shorter and swarthier than even the benighted southern Italians. These racial comments and sterotypes are hardly surprising in our protagonist because we learn, almost as a throw-away line, that he spent the war in Berlin broadcasting news in his native tongue; not quite Lord Haw Haw perhaps, but at best a collaborator, at worst, a war criminal, and one with the Nazis who spent so much intellectual energy building philosophical and social reasonings to buttress their putrid theories about race; and then, he describes his work on Berlin radio as Gesamtkunstwerk which means "total artwork; an artistic creation such as an operatic performance that encompasses music, theatre and the visual arts"--a modest assertion; also interesting to note that the word was, apparently, coined by Richard Wagner, that well-known anti-Semite, in his theoretical essays about opera. And how about the story of the Argonaut who had to "poleax" the monkey every time he wanted to have sex with his woman; not to mention Haraldsson himself discovering the aphrodisiac qualities of the smell of the splinter of wood which had, perhaps, "been split off a female tree" such that his "old chap" was, "perhaps not quite as sprightly as the last time this fit was upon him---but he was lively enough." And the story of the purser's wife who was held responsible for the death of a child in her care and was "handed over" to a Soviet tank platoon for raping and subsequently rescued by the purser from a whorehouse in exchange for a leg of dried ham. It goes on and on. And then there is the weird stuff at the end where the ships changes into something else and a ceremony in the hold that reminded me of nothing more than scenes from the early Indiana Jones movies.

What does this mean in terms of trying to come to grips with this book? I'm not sure. Maybe it goes back to that quote from Borges. Maybe it's part of the Byatt's view that Sjon represents a whole new way of thinking about writing. I found these aspects at least entertaining as they grew more and more outlandish and maybe it is only through the fantastic that we illuminate our ‘reality’ which, from a neutral distant observer, would certainly have its own fantastic elements.
2 vote John | Nov 12, 2013 |
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I, Valdimar Haraldsson, was in my twenty-seventh year when I embarked on the publication of a small journal devoted to my chief preoccupation, the link between fish consumption and the superiority of the Nordic race.
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The year is 1949 and Valdimar Haraldsson, an eccentric Icelander with elevated ideas about the influence of fish consumption on Nordic civilization, has had the singular good fortune to be invited to join a Danish merchant ship on its was to the Black Sea.

Among the crew is the mythical hero Caeaeus, disguised as the second mate. Every evening after dinner he entrances his fellow travellers with the tale of how he sailed with the fabled vessel the Argo on the Argonauts' quest to retrieve the Golden Fleece.

A master storyteller, Sjon seamlessly blends seafaring yarns of the ancient world with the manners of the modern age.
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Invited to sail on a Danish merchant ship in 1949, eccentric Icelander Valdimar Haraldsson discovers the second mate on the ship is none other than Caeneus, the hero of Greek mythology, who regales his fellow shipmates with tales of the Golden Fleece.… (more)

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