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The City and the Writer: In Reykjavik, Iceland with Sjón

By Nathalie Handal

Special Series / Iceland 2014

If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.

Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities


Can you describe the mood of Reykjavik as you feel/see it?

It seesaws between being as cool and bright as Catherine Deneuve and as warm and dark as Joan Crawford.

What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

The loss of my cat Helga when I was thirteen.

What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most, of the city?

The wooden falcons that sit on the roof of the old falconer’s house, patiently watching the flesh and blood of pigeons in the square.

What writer(s) from here should we read?

Halldór Laxness, Thorbergur Thordarson, Elías Mar, Ásta Sigurðardóttir, and myself.

Is there a place here you return to often?

The grave of Ingimundur the Fiddler Sveinsson in the old cemetery.

Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

The statue of the romantic poet Jónas Hallgrímsson, hidden in a clearing in the city park. It is like a three-dimensional paper doll made of bronze, dressed in snow in winter, dressed in the cool breeze from the pond in the summer.

Are their hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?

The city itself is a miniature city with a population of 120,000 people. But within each and every person there is another city, sometimes bigger, sometimes smaller, sometimes sunnier, sometimes colder. And these interior cities are, of course, also populated by people with their own interior cities.

Where does passion live here?

In the red berries of the rowan trees, in the songs of the birds when they get drunk on the red berries of the rowan trees, in the flutter of the human heart when that song is heard on a bright September day.

What is the title of one of your works about Reykjavik and what inspired it exactly?

Moonstone—The Boy Who Never Was (Mánasteinn—drengurinn sem aldrei var til)—the untold stories of my gay friends and the shadowy existence they were forced to live until recently.

Inspired by Levi, “Outside Reykjavik does an outside exist?”

Inspired by Eliphas Levi: “Reykjavik is as above as below.”


Sjón was born in Reykjavik in 1962, and is one of the most established contemporary Icelandic authors. He is the author of eight novels, which have been translated into twenty-nine languages. The Blue Fox (Skugga-Baldur, 2005) was published in 30 countries, won the prestigious Nordic Council’s Literary Prize and was nominated for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2009. His novel Rökkurbýsnir (From the Mouth of the Whale in English / Gleißen der Nacht in German, 2008) was nominated for the Icelandic Literary Prize, shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2012, and for The International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award 2013, and was published to much acclaim in German by S. Fischer, in Spanish by Nordica Libros, in English by Telegram Books, among others. His latest novel Moonstone—The Boy Who Never Was (Mánasteinn—Drengurinn sem aldrei var til, 2013) was selected as the Novel Of The Year by the Icelandic Bookseller's Association and is forthcoming in 8 languages including English from Farrar, Straus & Giroux. He has published numerous poetry collections, which have been translated into more than twenty languages including, French, figures obscures (Cahiers de Nuit), German, Gesang des Steinesammlers (Kleinheinrich), and Macedonian, Anatomija na gladniot (SPV). His latest collection of poems söngur steinasafnarans (the song of the stone collector) was nominated for the Icelandic Literary Prize in 2007.

Sjón has also written plays, librettos, and picture books for children, and his work has been featured in a wide range of art exhibitions and music events. His long-time collaboration with the Icelandic singer Björk led to an Oscar nomination for his lyrics for the Lars von Trier movie Dancer in the Dark.

He was one of the founding members of the neo-surrealist group Medúsa and early on acquired a high profile on the Reykjavik cultural scene. He held the Samuel Fischer Guest Professorship at the Freie Universität in Berlin (2007-2008), and was a guest of the DAAD Berliner Künstlerprogramme (2010-11). Sjón is the president of the Icelandic PEN Centre and the chairman of the board of Reykjavik, UNESCO city of Literature.

Published Apr 28, 2014   Copyright 2014 Nathalie Handal

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