The Whispering Muse

The Whispering Muse

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Overview

"Sublime . . . A work of coy humor and shape-shifting magic ." —The Wall Street Journal

Sjón's novels have been championed by a veritable pantheon of literary luminaries: Junot Díaz, David Mitchell, A. S. Byatt, Hari Kunzru, and Alberto Manguel, who calls The Whispering Muse "an extraordinary, powerful fable—a marvel." The Whispering Muse is Sjón's masterpiece so far.

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 extraordinary good fortune to be invited to join a Danish merchant ship on its way to the Black Sea. Among the crew is the mythical hero Caeneus, disguised as the second mate. Every evening after dinner he entrances his fellow travelers with the tale of how he sailed with the fabled vessel the Argo on the Argonauts' quest to retrieve the Golden Fleece.

What unfolds is a slender, brilliant, always entertaining novel that evokes Borges and Calvino as it weaves together tales of myth and antiquity with the modern world in a literary voice so singular as to seem possessed.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780374534769
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: 05/06/2014
Pages: 160
Sales rank: 279,213
Product dimensions: 4.70(w) x 7.30(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author

Sjón was born in Reykjavik in 1962. He is an award-winning novelist, poet, and playwright, and his novels have been translated into twenty-five languages. He is the president of the Icelandic PEN Centre and the chairman of the board of Reykjavik 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 Reykjavik.

Read an Excerpt

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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. It was written in Danish, under the title Fisk og Kultur, and came out in seventeen volumes over the space of twenty years. During the First World War, publication was suspended for two years—and the sixth and seventh volumes were only half complete, i.e., only two issues each, as fate decreed that following the death of my first wife I was confined to my bed for eight months, from late August 1910 until spring 1911. Then the extent of the readers’ loyalty to the periodical was revealed, as I see from my records that the only parties who canceled their subscriptions were the University of Kraków and the Kjós Parish Reading Society. I won’t go further into the reasons here but will refer anyone who may be interested to my book Memoirs of a Herring Inspector (pub. Fisk og Kultur, Copenhagen, 1933).

The content of the journal was written primarily in foreign tongues, as I knew that the majority of my ideas would be far too newfangled for my countrymen, indeed would pass way over their heads. For they hadn’t even heard of the recent scientific advances on which I based my theory, which was reiterated on the title page of every issue:

It is our belief that the Nordic race, which has fished off the maritime coast for countless generations and thus enjoyed a staple diet of seafood, owes its physical and intellectual prowess above all to this type of nutrition, and that the Nordic race is for this reason superior in vigor and attainments to other races that have not enjoyed such ease of access to the riches of the ocean.

The final issue of each volume included a summary of the year’s best articles and essays, translated into Hungarian by my brother-in-law, the psychiatrist Dr. György Pázmány. Every issue also included bits and bobs to fill up the pages, chiefly droll stories and occasional verses from my childhood home in the county of Kjós, all in Icelandic, which I left untranslated.

As one might expect, I was for a long time the sole author of the scientific articles in Fisk og Kultur, but as the journal gained a wider circulation I received ever greater numbers of letters and contributions from foreign enthusiasts on these topics. While most were interested in fish consumption, there were also quite a few devotees of Nordic racial history. However, it was a rare man who perceived—as I, the editor, did—how inextricably these two factors were linked. Primus inter pares among the latter group was the Danish ship broker Hermann Jung-Olsen, then hardly out of his teenage years yet already showing an unusual brilliance of mind. He was one of those individuals who inspire benevolence and sympathy from the very first encounter, deepening on more intimate acquaintance into respect and trust. For Hermann Jung-Olsen was a fine figure of a man, a firebrand with an insatiable appetite for work. He was born with a silver spoon in his mouth, yet although his childhood home was one of the most elegant in Copenhagen, there was fish on the table at least four times a week, not only on weekdays but on high days and holidays too. This was mainly because his father, Magnus Jung-Olsen, was of the old school when it came to money—a strict man who never rushed into anything or did a precipitate deed in his life, a great man indeed.

The reason for my bringing up the publishing history of Fisk og Kultur here is that a whole eight years after the appearance of the final issue I received a letter from the great ship operator, the aforementioned Magnus Jung-Olsen, father of my late young friend Hermann, in which he invited me on a cruise with the MS Elizabet Jung-Olsen, a merchant vessel of the Kronos line, the Jung-Olsen family firm. Recently launched, she was due to embark on her maiden voyage, conveying raw paper from Norway to Izmit in Turkey and continuing from there to Poti in Soviet Georgia to pick up a cargo of tea that the locals cultivate on the Kolkheti coastal plain and prepare for export in the exemplary tea factories provided for them by Stalin.

Mr. Jung-Olsen says in his letter that his son long dreamed of doing me some sort of favor—as he had mentioned more than once—and that the old shipping magnate had been reminded of this fact when he received my telegram of condolence on the anniversary of Hermann’s death, nearly four years after his untimely end (he was murdered on the day peace was declared, in a Bierkeller brawl in Vienna).

The letter reached me at the end of March, at a time when I had long been in low spirits (my second wife having passed away that very month the previous year), but now my heart was filled with unfeigned joy: joy at being invited on such an adventure; joy that one could still meet with such charity from one man to another; 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, although the poor neglected creatures had suffered cruelly in the February storms. Yes, such was my joy when I read Mr. Magnus Jung-Olsen’s letter.

And I read it often.

In 1908 I published a witty anecdote in the spring issue of Fisk og Kultur. For some reason it popped into my mind as I stood there at the kitchen window in Copenhagen, the letter still clutched in my hand:

Once there were two gentlemen who met in a park while out walking their dogs. The younger instantly doffed his hat to the elder, who nodded in acknowledgment. Then, as chance would have it, the younger man’s dog tore itself loose and raced off after a squirrel. The young man was embarrassed and started apologizing to the elder, saying that his dog had never done this sort of thing before; he had no business frightening squirrels; this was a one-off; it wouldn’t happen again, he could promise that.

The elder gentleman listened patiently to his apologies, then putting his head on one side, said with a twinkle in his eye:

“Young man, is it possible that you are confusing me with little Mr. Esquirol?”

Dr. Pázmány and I were so tickled by this story that we added it to the Hungarian summary that year.

But I doubt my countrymen would have made head or tail of it.

 

Copyright © 2005, 2012 by Sjón

Translation copyright © 2012 by Victoria Cribb

Reading Group Guide

Already celebrated far beyond his native Iceland, the novels of Sjón arrive on waves of praise from writers, critics, and readers worldwide. Sjón has won countless international awards and earned ringing comparisons to Borges, Calvino, and Iceland's other literary superstar, the Nobel Prize winner Halldór Laxness. He possesses a singular literary voice that captivates through evocative images and startling turns of fate. Sjón's storytelling, which is as inventive as the sagas of his home country, takes us to mythical worlds interwoven with the history of humanity: In The Whispering Muse, readers board a sailing vessel in the aftermath of World War II but find themselves transported to ancient Greece. In The Blue Fox, a hunter's determination raises questions about his approach to life and the survival of the most vulnerable members of his community. And From the Mouth of the Whale takes us to seventeenth-century Iceland, where persecution and superstition obscure the truths revealed by a compassionate healer.

The questions and topics that follow are designed to enhance your experience of these three unique novels. We hope they enrich your reading group's journeys of mystery and adventure.

1. How do Valdimar Haraldsson's recollections of post–World War I Berlin compare to Caeneus's recollections of the ancient Greek island of Lemnos? What do both story lines tell us about heroism?

2. How was Haraldsson able to fill the pages of Fisk og Kultur, his journal devoted to "the link between fish consumption and the superiority of the Nordic race," for more than twenty years? What aspects of his culture—culinary and otherwise—are captured in the world of seafaring?

3. As a storytelling device, does the stench of Queen Hypsipyle and the other women of Lemnos affect the male and female audience members differently?

4. Discuss the purser's sensitive lady friend. How did your opinion of her shift throughout the book? What does her history teach us about Europe's history?

5. Chapter IV frames the Nordic legend of Sigurd and Gudrun within Greek mythology. What conflicts emerge within both cultures? What does this passage say about universal experiences between lovers?

6. On page 75, in his shipboard lecture, Haraldsson proposes teaming up with Japan. To what extent does this predict the global fish trade of the twenty-first century?

7. What realities are revealed in the novel's myths? What truths survive across centuries of retelling?

8. If you were able to take a modern-day voyage with a mythical Greek hero, which one would you choose?

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