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The Whispering Muse: A Novel

The Whispering Muse: A Novel

Por Sjón

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The Whispering Muse: A Novel

Por Sjón

3.5/5 (6 valoraciones)
121 página
1 hora
Apr 30, 2013


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. The Whispering Muse is his 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 its quest to retrieve the Golden Fleece.
What unfolds is a slender but masterful, brilliant, and always entertaining novel that ranges deftly from the comic to the mythic as it weaves together tales of antiquity with the modern world in a voice so singular as to seem possessed.

Apr 30, 2013

Sobre el autor

Born in Reykjavík in 1962, Sjón is the author of the novels The Blue Fox, The Whispering Muse, From the Mouth of the Whale, Moonstone, and CoDex 1962, for which he won several awards, including the Nordic Council’s Literature Prize and the Icelandic Literary Prize. He has also been short-listed for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award and the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, and his work has been translated into thirty-five languages. In addition, Sjón has written more than seven poetry collections, several opera librettos, and lyrics for various artists, including Björk. He was nominated for an Oscar for his lyrics in Dancer in the Dark, and he cowrote the script of the film The Northman with its director, Robert Eggers. In 2017 he became the third writer – following Margaret Atwood and David Mitchell – to contribute to Future Library, a public artwork based in Norway spanning one hundred years. He lives in Reykjavík, Iceland.

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The Whispering Muse - Sjón




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.



At eleven o’clock on the morning of April 10, 1949, the merchant ship MS Elizabet Jung-Olsen departed the free port of Copenhagen en route to Norway, bound for Mold Bay in the county of Vest-Agder. My quarters on board consisted of two spacious cabins amidships on the port side below the bridge, the outer room entered from the saloon. This cabin contained every conceivable comfort: a berth and chairs, desk, cupboards, and bookshelves, all as neatly made as one could wish for. The inner cabin consisted of a bathroom with a china washbasin, a mirror as long as the space permitted, and a deep bathtub on bronze feet shaped like the claws of a dragon or lion (one can’t always tell them apart). Opening off the bathroom was a roomy closet containing a modern WC. I couldn’t help thinking that it would be interesting to see the captain’s quarters, given the comfort of the accommodation afforded to the supernumeraries, as they call those who are over and above the

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  • (4/5)
    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.
  • (3/5)
    A strange look at Jason and the Argonauts from an Icelandic/Norwegian voyage in the 1940s
  • (1/5)
    I wanted to like this book. I tried. I found this so incredibly boring. Exhausting. I skipped whole chunks I'll admit. I just couldn't get into it. I really liked the cover, the premise was different and sounded interesting. Other people's reviews say it's awesome. Hell, even Bjork loves this guy. I really wanted to like it.

    I'm not going to go into great detail about what I don't like, just that I don't like it.

    It's not worth my time. Ugh.

    It makes me tired.
  • (3/5)
    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.
  • (4/5)
    Short and interesting, it intermixes a classic greek myth with a modern story, creating some strange (but appealing) resonance.
  • (5/5)
    The Whispering Muse, by Sjón, is a delightful and totally unique gem of a novella that kept me smiling from beginning to end. It constantly entertained by switching between two types of contrasting pleasures: the pleasure of social satire and the joy of enthralling storytelling in the heroic tradition. 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?