Three Nations at Unbound
Iceland is of course a small nation, which has produced one Nobel Prize Winner to date, in the form of Halldór Laxness, who won the Literature prize in 1955. Technically this means that Iceland has more Nobel winners per head than any other country, although how much credence you want to put in that fact is purely up to you. Nowadays Iceland is probably best known here for volcanoes which delay planes, and Björk. If that sounds trite, it’s because our general knowledge of the country is lacking, not because Iceland isn’t culturally rich. As this event will hopefully prove.
The primary performer at this event will be Sjón. Sjón is something of a jack of all trades, having written poetry, novels, children’s books and even songs. Some of the songs were with Björk, yes, get over it. He helped establish a music label and publisher called Smekkleysa, which translates as ‘Bad Taste’. His first collection of poetry was published in 1978, when he was just 16, so he has a lot of experience. Which brings us to…
Sjón has said that “I don't know if it's a specifically Icelandic thing, but when you're writing in a language that hasn't changed very much for a thousand years, and in which much has already been written, it's very difficult to put down more than one sentence without entering into a dialogue with that literary heritage.” His work has generally been about the past, but in a way that has great resonance with the present. His best known work is The Blue Fox, a work Sjón has said is inspired by “Icelandic folk stories, my fellow Icelanders’ unshakeable and misguided admiration of brutes, the plight of children with Down’s syndrome in modern-day Iceland, the Romantic poets of the mid-nineteenth century, my belief that our society being humane isn’t something we should take for granted...”
Moving on from this, Sjón has said that “telling stories through lyrics was definitely a good exercise before sitting down to write The Blue Fox. Another thing that informed the writing was my collaboration with the Brodsky Quartet as I discovered the novel’s form in the romantic string quartet, the four movements, the recurring themes, etc. My willingness to work in different fields of writing (opera, film, theatre) and to collaborate with people between books is something that has constantly provided me with new tools for my novels...” This is an author for whom writing and music are closely linked. As far as pure performance goes, he’s sung on a Sugarcubes record called Air Guitar, as well as playing air guitar. That surely can’t be that difficult, but shows an agreeable element of flair. We’ll see how he does on Tues 14 Aug.
The Netherlands has a rich literary heritage, and one that is strangely neglected in our country, as translated work often is. A 2007 poll of the best Dutch novels was topped by Harry Mulisch’s The Discovery of Heaven, a highly acclaimed work which has received little attention in the English speaking world, even if the film version did star Stephen Fry. The so-called ‘Great Three’ of post-war Dutch Literature were Mulisch, Willem Frederik Hermans and Gerard Reve, none of whom are at all well known here. This indicates a need for knowledge about this subject, and this is all the more reason to have an event for Dutch authors.
The primary performer at this event will be Christine Otten. Christine Otten is a novelist, but also a music journalist, currently with the Dutch paper NRC Handelsblad. Her books have mainly revolved around music in some way. Which brings us to…
Otten’s debut novel, Blue Metal, is somewhat autobiographical, in that it looks at the influence of music on a young girl. “I've grown up with a lot of music.” Otten has said “My brother played in a band, his guitar was always there. I remember being four years old and singing along with the Beatles – phonetically of course; I learned from the single my mother gave to my brother for his seventh birthday, with a record player. Pretty cool present now I think about it. I can still sing it that way...” Her second book was more directly about music. “Lente van Glas [Spring of Glass] is all about music, and has John Cale in it as a fictional character,” Otten has said. “It has some autobiographical elements like my obsession for music and the search for the stories behind it. I had the same kind of feeling, like I could find out more about myself through his music.” She also became friends with John Cale. Her third book was a collection of short stories called Angel, and Other Music Stories. Can you spot a theme here?
Otten is maybe best known for a book called The Last Poets, a fictional account of the real group of that name, an African-American poetry and rap group from the sixties and seventies. The book is about things other than music of course – the general situation for black men in America at that time being an obvious thread. Nonetheless, for our purposes it’s useful to know that The Last Poets’ spoken word work was groundbreaking, which should augur well for this event.
Who will be the final nation?
To fill this cross-cultural creation?
Ireland is planned,
The story is on hand,
So here is the revelation.
First is Kevin Barry from Limerick
Who fits with this lyrical gimmer(er)ick
Julie Feeney will follow
Maeve Higgins – we've borrowed
For a great night of Irishy schtick
Three Nobellists, Heaney, Beckett and Yeats,
And they’re only some of the greats
Joyce didn’t quite make it,
But sure, he could take it,
As they gave them to two of his mates.
The Irish have legendary wit,
Always coming up with a bit,
Innovation’s the norm,
They invented this form,
So you know that they’ll be a good fit.