The Whispering Muse: A Novel Hardcover – Apr 30 2013
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“The Whispering Muse is a quirky, melodic, ticklish, seamlessly translated, lovingly polished gem of a novel.” ―David Mitchell
“An extraordinary, powerful fable--a marvel.” ―Alberto Manguel
“Sjón is the trickster that makes the world, and he is achingly brilliant.” ―Junot Díaz
“When I need something epic and lyrical I call upon Sjón.” ―Björk
“Sjón's writing [is] full of brilliant details, surprises and delights . . . [He is] an extraordinary and original writer.” ―A. S. Byatt, The Guardian
About the Author
Sjón is the author of, among other works, The Blue Fox and From the Mouth of the Whale. Born in Reykjavík in 1962, he is an awardwinning novelist, poet, and playwright, and his novels have been translated into twenty-five languages. He is the president of the Icelandic PEN Centre and chairman of the board of Reykjavík UNESCO City of Literature. Also a lyricist, he has written songs for Björk, including for her most recent project, Biophilia, and was nominated for an Oscar for the lyrics he cowrote (with Lars von Trier) for Dancer in the Dark. He lives in Reykjavík.See all Product Description
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First, it's a very funny satire about a stuffy, bigoted, socially inept nincompoop of an elderly scholar named Valdimar Haraldsson. It is Haraldsson who narrates the book and serves as its antihero. At the beginning of the book, we find this academic numbskull embarking as a guest on a merchant ship owned by the father of a friend. The friend is an ardent admirer of the dolt's thesis that a diet high in seafood is the reason for the unquestionable superiority of the Nordic race. Haraldsson has published this thesis through a series of seventeen volumes of a periodical called "Fish and Culture." He has devoted twenty years of his life to this endeavor. Mr. Haraldsson is obsessed by fish, his opinion concerning fish and Nordic culture, and all things pertaining to the sea. Naturally, he wants to share his obsession with everyone on board. He is totally unaware of his social shortcomings and absolutely blind to the pleasures of everyday life. Numbers, machines, mechanical processes--these are the things that command his attention.
So, how do you create an interesting story with an antihero narrator like that? Well, Sjón demonstrates that it is no problem at all.
The author deftly embeds in this tale another character who is a mythical heroic storyteller. He is Caeneus...yes, the very same Caeneus who was once an Argonaut accompanying Jason on his quest for the Golden Fleece! Still alive and working the sea some thousands of years later, he is a titan of a man with a divine gift for the verbal tradition of storytelling. Every night after dinner, Caeneus holds a small piece of wood to his ear and listens intently. Once he has the rapt attention of his audience, he recounts--in lavish, lyrical, mesmerizing fashion--the story of Jason and the Argonauts and their journey to the island of Lemnos, a bewitched island populated solely by women. His storytelling skill appears to derive from the piece of wood he holds to his ear. He says it's a relic from the bow of the Jason's ship, the Argo, and that it holds divine powers straight from Zeus' sacred grove of whispering oaks.
Caeneus is not the book's only fascinating storyteller. The purser also tells an entertaining story that helps the plot along. And in the end, well...something very odd and mysterious happens that causes our otherwise boring narrator to tell us a spellbinding tale what happens to him on the last night aboard ship. Is it a dream, or has our trickster of an author taken all of us through-the-looking-glass into the very heart of the fable itself?
I had no idea how this wondrous book would end, but I was extremely satisfied with how it turned out--the end was unexpected and brilliant, perfect and fitting.
The literary counterpoint between the humorous satire and the lyrical myth is magnificent. It is certainly one of the finest examples I've seen of synergism derived from a plotting element.
"The Whispering Muse" won the Nordic Council Literary Prize, the equivalent of the Man Booker Prize, and "Best Icelandic Novel" in 2005. This is important, because in Iceland, reading and literature are more important than in just about any other place on Earth; no other country has a larger proportion of writers and readers.
And that gets me to the last point. Recently, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux released into the U. S. market a trilogy of Sjón books, each one translated by Victoria Cribb. "The Whispering Muse" is the first book in this trilogy. The other two are "The Blue Fox" and "From the Mouth of the Whale." What higher praise can I communicate about this work than to tell you that I've just downloaded the other two books and I will be taking them with me on vacation later this summer?
I was drawn to this author and this new English translation of his 2005 novel because of the comparisons of Sjon with the undisputed master of contemporary Icelandic literature and 1955 winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, Halldor Laxness. Laxness is one of my favorite storytellers of all time, so I expected some masterful storytelling from Sjon as well. And I was not disappointed with THE WHISPERING MUSE - a little bit flummoxed perhaps but not disappointed.
THE WHISPERING MUSE is a whimsical, expeditious tale of an aging Icelander named Valdimar Haraldsson who has devoted most of his adult life to writing seventeen volumes of anthropological journals concerning the link between fish consumption and the superiority of the Nordic race. As luck would have it, the well-to-do family of a good but now deceased friend of his invites him to embark on the maiden journey of one of the family's new merchant ships. The year is 1949 and the vessel is on its way from Denmark to the Black Sea. Because of the high esteem of his late friend, Vladimar is treated on board as a "supernumerary," afforded every comfort and accommodation second only to the ship's captain.
Among the ship's crew is a second mate with tremendous oratory skills who interestingly enough is named Caeneus, like one of mythological Argonauts of the Jason and the Golden Fleece myth. Caeneus and Vladimar then become competing storytellers at the Captain's table every evening at dinner - Caeneus for his enthralling but mysterious first-person narratives of Jason and the Argonauts; Vladimar for his theories on the corollary between a fish-based diet and Nordic strength and virility.
In the long history of mankind, mythology has served the essential function of not only to entertain but to instruct, inform, and improve their audiences as well. Myths too have always been highly comparative, following the same underlying pattern and substratum of truth. THE WHISPERING MUSE demonstrates this beautifully by drawing wonderfully entertaining parallels between the Greek mythological tales of Jason and the Argonauts, Medea, Hypsipyle, with the Norse mythological tales of Sigurd, Brynhild and Gudrun. But Sjon takes the basic comparative pattern even further by weaving the fables of antiquity with a modern fable of his own design.
Both worlds of mythological fable, the classic and the contemporary, are brilliantly woven together in THE WHISPERING MUSE. Sjon spins a fable within fable, within yet another fable, to produce a mind-bending yet comical tale that is easily digestible and highly satisfying.
But allow me to cut to the chase here - fables convey morals or hidden meanings to be interpreted through their symbolic figures, events, actions, and metaphors, and frankly, this is where THE WHISPERING MUSE has me stumped! Is there a moral to the story? I'm still trying to suss out what this fable means!
Nevertheless, I enjoyed my reading experience immensely. I may still be scratching my head but hey, I'm still smiling!
At dinner, the crew's primary entertainment is the storytelling of the ship's second mate, Caeneus. Night after night, Caeneus holds a piece of wood to his ear and listens silently before embarking on some classical tale of Jason and the Argonauts. He relates the story as a member of Jason's ill-fated crew. In another instance, he weaves the Norse tale of Sigurd, Gudrun, and Brynhild into the principle tale. He also takes the opportunity to relate his own tragic history. Both before and after his stint aboard the Argo, his life was very different - mythically so.
Haraldsson is no less a storyteller than Caeneus. He relays a tale of man's evolution from the sea which is no less mythical for its reliance on certain scientific facts. Although Haraldsson and Caeneus are the principle storytellers, various other songs, anecdotes, and stories are included throughout the text.
A common characteristic of all the stories, no matter how diverse, is their brilliance. Many share an effortless wry humor. There's also a lyrical beauty and authenticity to the classical tales. The imagery is vivid whether the author references the "many-nailed" ship or the "blue fingers" or beard of Poseidon. Sjón demonstrates a real kindred spirit with the classical writers.
The author is certainly exploring storytelling and its muse. It's intriguing to note the different way the two primary storytellers experiment with the mystical piece of wood and its disparate effects on them. Originally published in Icelandic in 2005, this whimsical and fanciful story is an utter treat. At only 140 pages, it can be quickly devoured. Sjón is such a capable and talented author that I'm eager to experience his other two novels currently available in English.
Is this book about Mr. Haraldsson, an eccentric Icelander with elevated ideas about the Nordic civilization? Well, I think that the author could have developed this character more. Mr. Haraldsson was nothing more than a cartoon struggling to become a real character. This character is funny at times with his observations and quirkiness, but, again, he felt cartoonish to me during the entire novella.
Is this book about Caeneus and his tale about the Argo and the Argonauts' quest for the Golden Fleece? While this was very interesting to read about, there is nothing original, on behalf of the author here, since it is the retelling of a Greek myth. I liked how Sjón inserted a Scandinavian myth into the story, and his description of the infamous rape scene shows what a talented writer he is, but, again, this Greek myth was not created by him.
Considering the premise, I thought I was embarking on a tale of two characters all the way to the Black Sea. However, once the ship arrived in Norway, I felt the author was unable to develop and entwine both stories and that is why the book ends so abrutly, leaving me unsatisfied and wondering about the intention and the meaning of this short novel. Sure, both characters are very different and are both entertaining, but they both come off as underdeveloped and without a common purpose or a real reason to be together within the book.
I gave it three stars because I was never bored, but I was never excited either while I was reading the book. It had potential to be a wonderful read, but the book seems rushed and shallow in its execution. I loved Sjón's book called "The Blue Fox", but this book, "The Whispering Muse", seemed to have been written by a different author.
There was a sly humor in it that I liked and the main character, though unlikable, was an intriguing narrator. He was no one's fool and was not going to be taken in by the tall tales that were told onboard ship even though the rest of the crew hung on every word. It does end with a twist that I liked.