Monthly Archives: December 2010
Jón Kalman Stefánsson’s English-language début, Heaven and Hell, is one of the most poetic and beguiling novels to have been published in this – or any other – year. It has also been translated to widespread acclaim into French and German. Stefánsson won the Icelandic Literature Prize in 2005 for Sumarljós og svo kemur nóttin (Summer Light and Along Comes the Night) and he has thrice been nominated for the Nordic Literature Prize. Heaven and Hell is now being developed into a trilogy, the second novel of which, The Sorrow of Angels, was published in Iceland in 2009.
Paul Engles: Where did you first get the idea for the story of Heaven and Hell?
Jón Kalman Stefánsson: I could say; from a radio program fifteen years ago. There was 30 minute program about a woman who lived in north Iceland around 1860. She was a very rich widow (rich, in an Icelandic sense…) who got into conflict with her surroundings, being powerful a woman living under a dictatorship of men. In the end they broke her. The moment I heard the program, I knew that was something to write about. But I was not ready at that time. It’s a tricky thing, writing a historical novel, one could go so far as to say that the historical novel is dangerous for authors. And that’s because of the form. Those who write historical novels tend to, well, lose their character, their style. The narrative and the plot are so strong in this genre, the authors are so eager to capture the time they are writing about, are so immersed, that their style almost seems to vanish.
Anyway, I knew that if I should write that kind of novel my way, I had to have good experience in fiction; had to collect some weapons before I attacked the historical genre. That to say, if I wanted to survive that war.
Paul Engles: What next for the boy? Does his story continue in your next book, The Sorrow of Angels? Will he ever be named?
Jón Kalman Stefánsson: Yes, his story will continue. He is, for my part, the main character. And he will surely get the name every reader will give him…
Paul Engles: Throughout the novel there are short commentaries by spirits, perhaps,who call themselves (in English translation) “Nearly Darkness”. Can you tell us a little more about them?
Jón Kalman Stefánsson: Well, they seem to be a small group of dead people, stuck somewhere between life and death. They are dead, but are, for some reason, stuck. Dead, though they feel life, feel the heartbeat, and have been like that for many, many years. They despair, longing for something, God, maybe forgetfulness, or just a way out. And therefore they tell this story, almost as if the story were their atonement.
Paul Engles: The first part of Heaven and Hell is set amongst fishermen at the turn of the century. In general, do you think Icelandic people still feel close to and identify with their seafaring heritage?
Jón Kalman Stefánsson: The sea, or rather the fishing, has always been strong part of the everyday live in Iceland, and played a huge part in our economy. But strange as it seems there are not so many novels or short stories,about that life, the life of a seaman, the struggle, the hardship. But for some time, say between 1950 and 1970, we had a great number of popular songs (pop songs) about the lives of seamen – most of them extremely silly; the sailors were all heroes, never afraid, drank a lot, were surrounded by women . . .
Paul Engles: You published poetry before making your fiction début. How do you think your early career as a poet has affected your prose?
Jón Kalman Stefánsson: I sometimes think that I’m a poet writing prose, novels. I like telling stories in my writing, but the poetry must be there too. The technique of poetry, the irrational way of thinking; that’s important in prose. As one sees in novels written by authors like Javier Marias, Jose Saramago, Herta Müller, or, to name some classics, Melville and Knut Hamsun.
Paul Engles: You are also a writer of short stories. Do you consider novels and short stories as very distinct, separate forms, or do you think there is overlap between their techniques and possibilities?
Jón Kalman Stefánsson: Short stories, well, people tell me that my first prose book, Ditches in Rain, is a collection of short stories. That may be right, but I didn’t think of it like that, in my mind I was writing a novel. I can’t write short stories, at least not good ones. Short stories and novels are separate forms, and I sometimes think that it’s much more difficult to write a good short story than to write a good novel, whether we are talking about stories in the classic tradition, like Carver, or the “new” way, such as we see in Brautigan’s stories. Sadly people don’t read enough short stories today – we live in the time of the novel, best-selling novels and crime novels.
Paul Engles: When you write, do you have a clear idea of where the story is going, or does it tend to carry you away with it?
Jón Kalman Stefánsson: I sometimes think that I have a pretty clear idea, but almost all my plans go up in smoke when I start to write. The original idea for Heaven and Hell, for example, was with me when I was preparing the work (which took me about a year). I just movec it around a bit in time and place, but then changed it almost completely as soon as I started to write. And I’m never sure where the story is going as I write it. I have some idea, of course, but I’m always pleased when something quite unexpected pops up. There should always be some kind of adventure in fiction, something we don’t understand completely. I doubt that the author can think of everything, that he can draw the novel up in detail before he writes it, because fiction is, or should be, something that comes from the depths, something we can’t predict, something that comes from author’s feelings, dreams, half-forgotten or forgotten memories, from something he has heard or experienced either without noticing, or has forgotten all about it. In other words, I don’t believe that one can write a novel without something unexpected coming up, a lot of unexpected elements – and that something is, of course, the fiction.
Paul Engles: One of the characters in Heaven and Hell forgets to prepare for a fishing trip because he is too engrossed in Paradise Lost. Are there any books or authors that draw you in and make you forget the world around you?
Jón Kalman Stefánsson: Forget the world? Well, it did happen, often, say twenty, twenty five years ago. In those days some books, some poems, took me away. Authors like Steinbeck, Mikhail Bulgakov with his Master and Margarita, the Danish Martin A. Hansen, of course Knut Hamsun, Halldór Laxness, Dostoevsky, and then the poets . . . I’m afraid that it doesn’t happen as often now, but it does sometimes, happily. I totally forgot myself when I read the first book by Jose Saramago ten years ago, and a good poem always takes me away, whether by poets like Adam Zagajewski, Szymborska, Pessoa, or lines from a story by Herta Müller.
Paul Engles: Can you think of an Icelandic writer who really should be translated into English, but hasn’t yet been?
Jón Kalman Stefánsson: There are a few writers who have been translated but are rather unknown, older authors (classics) like Gunnar Gunnarsson; his book The Good Shepherd, came out in English in1940, sold 250,000 copies in the USA, and influenced Hemingway in The Old Man and the Sea – and myself in Heaven and Hell. You can find authors like Bragi Olafsson and Gyrdir Eliasson, my contemporaries, in fine translation, they are very good. But you don’t have our classic authors like Thorbergur Thordarsson, from almost the same period as Halldor Laxness, he is extremely original. And you don’t have our great poets, such as Hannes Pétursonn (born 1931), who would be world famous if he wrote in one of the “bigger” languages.
Paul Engles: Heaven and Hell is interesting because, on the one hand, the way the story is told feels quite unique and innovative, but on the other hand, it is such a poetic, beautiful novel. How would you describe your style as a novelist?
Jón Kalman Stefánsson: That’s something that I don’t think about, how to describe my style, but I try to use the poetry, a rhythm of the breath, heartbeat, the music I hear deep in the language, to enlarge or expand the words, so they can stimulate both the wits and the senses of the reader.
Paul Engles: How do you write? On paper first, or directly onto a screen?
Jón Kalman Stefánsson: I always write the first draft with pencil, let it rest for some time, maybe three or four months, and then start to type it onto the computer. Then I read it, re-read it, change a little here, a lot there, etc.
Paul Engles: Have you always felt destined to be a writer, or did you have other ambitions?
Jón Kalman Stefánsson: When I was ten I wanted to reunite The Beatles – much later I wrote a novel about it. I also wanted to be best friend of the goalkeeper Pat Jennings, and even more so the best friend of Tarzan – together we would save the world. At eighteen years old I dreamed of becoming an astronomer – after I had watched T.V. programmes where Carl Sagan talked about the universe. I was completely overwhelmed by the richness and the mysteries of the universe – later I understood that this richness and mystery are in some way essence of fiction.
Paul Engles: One of your Icelandic readers complained on Twitter that the characters in the final story of the book Sumarljós og svo kemur nóttin didn’t get the happy ending they deserved. What happened to them?
Jón Kalman Stefánsson: Sumarljós, og svo kemur nóttin (Summer Light and Along Comes the Night), is a novel, but with many combined stories, stories about people in a small village and the country around it, in our time. And, as it happens in life, some stories end in sorrow, others don’t. Someone dies much too quickly, and maybe in the midst of happiness, and that’s a blow. In short: a woman dies, the man does not, and the only thing he has left is his sorrow, his dog, and a great stone, a rock, to smash. And when the rock is smashed – what’s then left?
Paul Engles: I have a bottle of Brennivín, an Icelandic Schnapps, on my desk that was given to us at Frankfurt. The characters drink it in Heaven and Hell. What’s it like? How should I drink it? Is there particular dish from Iceland it goes well with?
Jón Kalman Stefánsson: Brennivín is an ideal shot. Very good and “clean”. But best to drink it ice cold, keep it in the freezer, and then you have a good snaps! Usually we don’t eat with it, but if we do, then it is shark – rotten shark. Some hate it, others love it . . . (Rotten shark: a shark which has been cured with a particular fermentation process and hung to dry for four to five months.)
Anuradha Roy’s debut novel, An Atlas of Impossible Longing, was one of the first MacLehose Press titles to be published in 2008. It went on to receive lavish praise from reviewers and has been translated into thirteen languages to date.
Roy lives between Rankihet, a town in the Himalaya mountains, and New Delhi, where she works for the independent academic publisher Permanent Black. Her second novel, The Folded Earth, will be published by MacLehose Press in January.
Paul Engles: Where did the idea for the story of The Folded Earth first spring from?
Anuradha Roy: It was when I saw a photograph of Roopkund, a lake in the Himalaya at an altitude of over 16,000 feet. About 500 skeletons were discovered in that lake in 1942 and parts of those skeletons are still there – it is informally called the Skeleton Lake. The skeletons have been carbon dated to about the sixth century but the reason for the death of so many people in that uninhabited area – as well as the reason for their journey – are still matters of conjecture.
My friends had gone there for a trek, some of them had made it, some didn’t manage to climb the final distance, but I knew from the moment I saw their photos that this lake would not stop knocking about inside me until I found room for it in a novel.
Paul Engles: The references in the novel to the relationship between Edwina Mountbatten, who was the last Vicerene of India, and Jawaharlal Nehru, her first Prime Minister, are intriguing. Can you tell me a little about it?
Anuradha Roy: Many of Edwina’s letters to Nehru and snippets from his letters to her are in Janet Morgan’s biography of Edwina Mountbatten. It is clear from those letters as well as from the events in their lives that the relationship was a deep and emotional one. Morgan’s biography tells us how both the families – Edwina’s husband and children as well as Nehru’s family (he was a widower when he met her) — discreetly arranged things so that they had time alone with each other while maintaining the sorts of proprieties their public roles demanded.
Nehru’s letters to her have never been published because his descendants, still India’s most powerful political family, have not allowed it; their relationship however is common knowledge.
As for the letters in the novel: those are all made up, but drawing from the style and content of their own letters.
Paul Engles: Another real-life figure you bring into the novel is Jim Corbett, the legendary hunter of man-eating big cats. Living in Ranikhet, have you ever had an encounter with a tiger or leopard?
Anuradha Roy: Ranikhet no longer has tigers. It’s astonishingly lucky for us to have even leopards around because this is a town, not a national park. Ranikhet is surrounded by forest, and those forests have wild boar, deer, martens, many kinds of animals and birds.
Leopards are hard to spot because they are so secretive. We hear them calling often enough but over eleven years of living here I’ve seen them only six times; years can pass between one glimpse and the next. Once it was a full moon night and a leopard crossed the road just ahead of us when it saw our car and strolled off into the forest.
Then it came back, perhaps attracted by the scent of our dog, and stood in the headlight beam staring straight at us with a still, pale-eyed gaze, incisors on display. When it dropped into the forest again, I could see it in the moonlight for quite long, moving around among the trees. It combines beauty with unhurried menace so powerfully that our hearts were exploding though we were safe in the car.
A few yards ahead, we came upon three men warming themselves on the roadside around a small fire made up from dry leaves. They were quite unaware that there was a full grown leopard within sniffing distance of them.
This unawareness is a scenario very common in Corbett’s stories. The leopards he killed were man-eaters. He was enormously brave and charged off alone into deep forests pursuing tigers and leopards that had killed dozens, and were lethal. His books are read everywhere in India, even in translation. When we are in certain places such as Rudraprayag, Ramnagar, or Mohan, which are nearby hamlets, we get that “Corbett was here!” feeling, because he has written about the place and its wildlife so wonderfully. Our Ranikhet leopards have fortunately never been man-eaters but their version of a hot dog is the real thing, so we are very careful to bring our dog indoors after dusk.
Paul Engles: The Folded Earth is partially concerned with the divisive effects of Hindu nationalism in India. Do you think that this is a growing problem?
Anuradha Roy: I think the divisiveness of Hindu nationalism is one of the strands of the book – the vanishing of the wilderness is an equally important theme, as are other less large things. In India religion, caste, etc. are used for political gain with absolute cynicism, and Hindu nationalism is feared for its potential for brutality. We’ve experienced it often in this country and it’s a landmine; you don’t know when someone will step on something and set off full-scale horror again. The lumpen sections among Hindu nationalists also have no qualms burning libraries/books/ pictures and threatening artists and writers with violence, thereby setting up a bullying, hooliganish censorship state of their own.
Paul Engles: There are so many fantastic characters in The Folded Earth – Ama, the infinitely wise village woman; Mr Chauhan, the officious administrator and frustrated writer; Diwan Sihab, the curmudgeonly academic; Puran the bumbling cowherd – which was the most fun to write and create?
I loved writing Mr Chauhan and his signs. I still have fun thinking up other little literary gems by him that could have gone into the book. But I think I enjoyed Ama the most. From the moment she parked herself on the page, she sort of took over. She is as resourceful, wise, strong and energetic as she is snide, gossipy, infuriating. Despite the poverty and drudgery in her daily life, she has a lip-smacking enjoyment of it. Writing her dialogue was difficult though; it is when you want the flavour of slang or proverbs that you really wish—when you come from a country like India—that you could write one novel in three or four languages.
Paul Engles: Your first novel, An Atlas of Impossible Longing has been translated (or is in the process of being translated) into thirteen languages. How closely do you work with your translators?
Anuradha Roy: Strangely enough, I know only three of my translators. The happiest translation story for me is how Myriam Bellehigue became my French translator. We have been close friends ever since we found ourselves living on the same staircase at university in Britain. She now teaches English literature at the Sorbonne. When she read the first draft of Atlas she made detailed suggestions for improving it and also said she wanted to translate it if that opportunity ever came up. The book was taken by Actes Sud, they gave her a trial, and then the book to translate! I hear her work is exquisite, wish I could read it. It’s being published in April 2011.
Paul Engles: As well as writing novels, you are publisher of Permanent Black, an independent academic publisher. How do you find the roles of novelist and publisher dovetail?
Anurahda Roy: They don’t really, not for me. My main work was to acquire and edit books, but now I find it very hard to carry my own book plus someone else’s in my head while writing, because editing is hard, intensive, involving work, just as writing is. So I now do the other stuff: I do all our cover designs, look after our blogs, make coffee for authors when they visit, design ads and stationary and so on. I am a sort of publishing dogsbody. The actual publishing is done by my husband, who acquires mss, edits them, sells and buys rights, does our finances: everything but the distribution, proof-reading and selling.
Paul Engles: What do you think about e-books and digital publishing? Are they big in India?
Anuradha Roy: They are just about being introduced. Most people here are not affluent enough to invest thousands of rupees in a device that will enable just one person to read. Books are lent and borrowed a lot here - even a single copy of a newspaper might be shared by five people - while the whole concept of an e-reader is that it is a personal device that contains all your reading and travels with you. If it ever becomes as cheap as a mobile phone and combines books with music, DVDs, and games it might just gain popularity.
I made an honest attempt to read on an E-reader and just hated it. Fiddling with wires and chargers and tiny buttons and magnification percentages when I could just have opened a book and read!
Paul Engles: Are there any writers – of fiction or non-fiction – in India that English readers may not know about, but certainly should?
Anuradha Roy: There are too many to mention because of the richness of the literature in languages such as Bengali, Urdu, Malayalam, Hindi, Tamil. If I make a few suggestions they’re only from what’s in translation and all governed by my own taste: in poetry, the translations of classical Tamil poetry by A. K. Ramanujan; in fiction, the work of the Bengali writer Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay, such as Song of the Road on which Satyajit Ray based his Apu trilogy. In theatre, the disturbing, brilliant plays of Vijay Tendulkar and Girish Karnad; epics: the Mahabharata (John D. Smith’s translation) is really worth dipping into even if you can’t last the distance.
I’m not well-read enough to make a sensible list actually. I’ve just been reading Ahmed Ali’s Twilight in Delhi (first published by the Hogarth Press in 1940) which I found remarkable for its depiction of the tragedy of losing your history in the process of being colonised, the rich randomness with which characters come and go, and its gritty, detail-soaked picture of urban life in Delhi in the early twentieth century.
Paul Engles: Would you say you have a favourite writer?
Anuradha Roy: No favourite writers, only favourite books, and those keep changing too. There are phases too when I hate almost everything I pick up to read. When that happens I comfort myself with the more reliable pleasures of crime fiction.
Paul Engles: MacLehose Press publishes mainly works in translation. Do you have a favourite translated novel?
Anuradha Roy: I have two absolute favourites: Chekhov’s novella, The Duel, and The Sound of the Mountain by Yasunari Kawabata. They were revelations and I read pages from them at random on and off when I feel dehydrated. Among MacLehose Press’s recent books, I loved Brodeck’s Report.
Paul Engles: When writing, do you have an idea in your mind of your “ideal” reader?
Anuradha Roy: I keep a reader in mind only for matters of narrative clarity, pace, etc. Just a generalized sort of reader who is probably much like me…
Paul Engles: On the photo on your Facebook page you are pictured with your dog. What is his/her name; what breed; how old? Do you have any other pets?
Anuradha Roy: Biscoot is her name and she was tiny, only about 4 few weeks old, with no mother dog to be seen when she was found in a Delhi park. It was a very cold December and I held her inside my coat to keep her warm while my husband drove us home. Heart-rending yowls the whole way and people in neighbouring cars staring as though we were kidnapping someone.
Once home, she looked around, approved, and then took over our lives. And has ruled us ever since – she’s nine now. Once I rescued another puppy and tried making Biscoot see reason, but she insisted we give it away. So there are no other pets.
Paul Engles: Are you already working on a third novel? If so, would you like to share anything with us about it now, or is it top secret?
Anuradha Roy: I said Never Again when finishing this one. But my instinct for self-destruction has always been powerful.
Jakob Ejersbo is a writer who died young. He succumbed to cancer at 40, having published a volume of short stories and a novel, Nordkraft, which won the 2003 Golden Laurel Prize. But more importantly, it was hailed by critics and readers alike as a great new Danish novel, ushering in a new type of fiction that would draw a line under the minimalism and symbolism that had prevailed in Danish literature during the late 1990s.
A gritty, realistic tale about disaffected youth in Aalborg, Denmark’s fourth largest city, it captured the Danes’ imaginations, holding a mirror to their society and rendering them as they saw themselves.
It was the last book Ejersbo would live to publish. He died in July 2008, just 10 months after being diagnosed with cancer. Throughout his illness, Ejersbo strove to complete his latest project, an ambitious trilogy about the relationship between the West and the Third World. Shortly after his death, his publisher, Johannes Riis, literary director at Gyldendal, revealed that he had left behind a manuscript and that it was virtually finished.
At a cumulative 1,600 pages, Ejersbo’s trilogy is a formidable work, and when the first part, Eksil, was released in Denmark in summer 2009 it caused just as much of stir as did Nordkraft. The literary critic Klaus Rothstein wrote in the Danish Literary Magazine that ‘seldom has anyone written anything so insistent and impassioned, so glowing hot and ice-cold, so heartfelt and so cynical’.
The trilogy is primarily set in Eastern Africa and explores the relationships between European ex-pats and the Tanzanians they live amongst. Ejersbo was not a writer for whom easy solutions and happy endings held any interested, and there are none to be found in these bleak but impeccably observed books. The trilogy is also formally inventive: two novels, Exile and Liberty sandwich a collection of stories that returns to the characters introduced in the first part.
In October 2011, MacLehose Press will be publishing Exile in English, translated by Mette Petersen. It is primarily the story of Samantha, the daughter of neglectful, abusive English parents, who takes solace in sex, drugs and lies but cannot control her destiny once the wheel of catastrophe has begun to turn. Revolution will follow in 2012 and Liberty in 2013. I’ll let Klaus Rothstein have the last word, except to say that we haven’t been as excited about a Scandinavian trilogy since . . . the last one we published:
Jakob Ejersbo was a deliberate and original writer, who was not only able to maintain an artistic overview of the antipoetry of existence but was also capable of describing it in finely narrated and captivating language. Exile is an electrifying novel, and its final chapter – which gives the novel its name – shocks the reader as a shattering highpoint of modern Danish literature.
Klaus Rothstein, Danish Literary Magazine