12/28/11

Tristan Garcia uses sex, friendships, and love affairs to show what happens to people when political ideals—Marxism, gay rights, sexual liberation, nationalism—come to an end



Tristan Garcia, Hate: A Romance: A Novel, Trans. by Marion Duvert and Lorin Stein. Faber & Faber, 2010.


"Paris in the eighties. Four friends. Three men and one woman. Two affairs that destroy a life.
In a controversial first novel that took the French literary world by storm and won the Prix de Flore, Tristan Garcia uses sex, friendships, and love affairs to show what happens to people when political ideals—Marxism, gay rights, sexual liberation, nationalism—come to an end. As Elizabeth Levallois, a cultural journalist, looks back on this decade and on the ravages of the AIDS epidemic in Paris, a drama unfolds—one in which love turns to hate and fidelity turns to betrayal, in both affairs of the heart and politics.
With great verve and ingenuity, Garcia lays claim to an era that promised freedom as never before, and he paints an indelible, sharp, but sympathetic portrait of intellectuals lost in the age of MTV."

“Among the first novels we read this season, the most mind-blowing is by twenty-seven-year-old Tristan Garcia: Hate: A Romance, a morality tale that grapples with the political and intellectual battles of the last two decades of French life and how those are caught up in the sex lives of the protagonists. A novel we’re still reeling from, and which we’ve chosen to put at the very top of our honor roll.”—Les Inrockuptibles

“One of the revelations of the literary season . . . An intimate, romantic, political, and cultural fresco [of the 1980s], a portrait startling in its accuracy.” —Christine Rousseau

“The real eye-opener of the season . . . A novel that made me reassess a decade that I’d lived through with my eyes closed. It took an upstart philosopher . . . to make me understand what was going on when I was twenty years old, when the Left became the Right.” —Frédéric Beigbeder

"Tristan Garcia's La meilleure part des hommes gained both fame and notoriety in France when it won the Prix de Flore in 2008. The prize often validates narcissism: past winners have included titles like Rapport sur moi and Autobiographie érotique. But Garcia’s novel inverts this paradigm by using an intensely personal topic—unprotected anal sex, or "barebacking"—to illustrate a dramatically larger one—the political transformation of France in the eighties. Duvert and Stein’s translation of the title, Hate: A Romance, captures the relationship at the heart of the novel: Willie Miller, a bohemian writer, and Dominique Rossi, a militant Corsican, fall in love. After both are infected with HIV (who infected whom becomes, later, a point of contention), their relationship devolves into a public squabble that veers between obsession and revulsion. Doum soon starts Stand-UP, an organization advocating personal protection and safety, while Willie writes diatribes reclaiming homosexuality—“AIDS saves, condoms kill.” All this is narrated by Elizabeth Levallois, a journalist and friend who describes their love and their hate with attempted indifference. Her narrative switches from extended biographical sketches to long-form reportage and finally reminiscences. The book gradually takes on a somber tone as the two men find themselves increasingly irrelevant in a country that has turned its sights from gay rights and MTV to anti-immigration sentiments and the Internet. Ultimately, Tristan Garcia’s explorations of the shifting philosophies of the eighties pale in comparison to the deeply human relationships in his roman à clef. The men flare in and out of public consciousness, but derive their fame and their passion from each other. The book’s final revelation—“As for the best part of men . . . [which is kept] within their hearts, for lack of any outlet, to the final hour, it lives and dies with them”—grows all the more poignant when contrasted with the dense analysis of French politics and culture in the preceding pages." - Jeffrey Zuckerman

"It's Paris in the late 1980s and Aids is "the new look". Freshly assembled gay activist groups are staging a "die-in" with their mouths gaffer-taped shut, "because the dead don't speak". The personal relationships of the early 1980s have suddenly become political.
Tristan Garcia's compelling first novel, Hate: A Romance, which won the Prix de Flore (previous winners include Virginie Despentes, Florian Zeller and Michel Houellebecq), follows four lives, public and private, from the rise of the Marais gay scene to the Sarkozy era. An intellectual describes his best friend's lover as an example of the "emptiness of contemporary thought"; ex-partners denounce each other on radio; no one can bring themselves to say anything nice about anyone else's hair. "Hate's important. It's the most important thing … Hate brings you to life," as one of the characters, Will, puts it.
Will has come to Paris from dull Amiens to live in squats and work on arty "projects", and is profiled by Liz, an arts journalist starting her career on an underground magazine she describes as "a pretentious piece of shit". Liz is having an affair with Jean-Michel Leibowitz, who was her philosophy professor at Sciences Po. He's a public intellectual – he never finished his thesis but is always on telly – and is now courting the establishment. Leibo's best friend is Doumé, a journalist and the founder of Stand Up, the protesting gay activist group. He's one of the last to have experienced the joie de vivre of the early 1980s as well as its fatal consequences. Liz introduces her new find, Will, to Doumé; they become inseparable. For Doumé, their relationship is a way of forgetting what's happening to his friends but Will is jealous: "he would have liked to live through what they lived through".
In France, Garcia's book cover announced it as a novel about "Paris, the Aids years", but it isn't just about being gay and having Aids. It tries to capture a moment in recent history. So while Will and Doumé are establishing Stand Up, Leibo is diagnosing the ills of the age – a too unquestioning acceptance of the latest right-thinking trend – and Liz has got a job on Libération, a proper paper, writing about the "latest thing. It leaves a funny taste in your mouth. You smell death in the life all around you, and all the while you keep waiting for something new."
Hate becomes the story once Will and Doumé break up. Leibo tells Doumé he thought Will was a "bum" and attacks him in his book; Will rebels against Doumé by advocating unprotected sex and breaking away from Stand Up; Doumé accuses his former lover of "crimes against humanity" for infecting people with HIV. They are characters not just in love with hating each other, but also with speaking up, causing trouble and making the media agree with their way of thinking.
Liz tells the story in short, spoken-seeming sentences that give Hate: A Romance a purposefully documentary feel. Garcia, who studied philosophy at the École Normale Supérieure, has said that his novel was written against the trend for "autofiction": novels that are based on something its writer has lived through. So Garcia, born in 1981, chose to write about documented things he couldn't have experienced. Hate: A Romance has been called a roman à clef: Will is clearly based on Guillaume Dustan, the novelist (winner of the Prix de Flore) and advocate of barebacking; Doumé resembles Didier Lestrade, founder of Act Up Paris and the gay magazine Têtu. Could Leibo be based on Alain Finkielkraut, the right-leaning TV philosopher? But Garcia is more interested in imagining other people's lives than in revealing secrets. In fact he's at his best when he makes things up. There is a very funny episode when Will is called into the jobcentre to try and get him off benefits; he camply taunts the well-meaning civil servant until he resigns to get away from him.
Garcia's clever narration moves between private and public spheres: between the cosy lunch in the Bouillon Racine and the public debate at the Théâtre du Rond-Point; between Friday night at Bar Thermik and the cherry red sofa in Liz's flat, where she watches her friends insult each other on TV. The reader becomes as addicted to the unfolding drama as the narrator is. The private people behind the public personas can still just be glimpsed; Liz's way of telling the story has caused us to "know better", as she puts it – to know that the political can be more personal than it seems." - Joanna Biggs

"You know those delicate debut novels, the ones that take place in coastal Maine, in which, if the author is searching for any truth at all, it’s only for a small, particular one? Well, “Hate: A Romance,” Tristan Garcia’s first effort, is not among them. It’s frenetic and French, for a reader who knows Deleuze from Derrida, who will chuckle when Garcia refers to the “domestic troubles” of Althusser. (That’s a joke, by the way, but you may need Wikipedia to figure it out. I did.)
Despite its cultured Gallic sensibilities, “Hate,” as translated by Marion Duvert and Lorin Stein, is surprisingly taut and readable. Garcia, a trained philosopher, has managed to write — in fewer than 300 pages, no less — the kind of social novel his American counterparts too often avoid in favor of solipsistic musings.
He certainly doesn’t write what he knows: born in 1981, Garcia was a toddler when the Marais became the epicenter of gay life in Paris. But through his narrator, the journalist Elizabeth Lavallois, he credibly describes (at least to this outsider) that world as AIDS encroaches.
The plot is a neat trajectory of three lives — too neat at times. On the left is William Miller, an awkward kid from Amiens who becomes the darling of Paris’s clubland as he seeks ever greater fame. His lover is Dominique Rossi, or Doum, an elegant Corsican who dabbles in journalism and befriends Liz, who in turn introduces him to Will. At the same time, Liz begins an affair with Jean-Michel Leibowitz, a hawkish Jewish intellectual.
Garcia gives Liz a staccato, culturally omniscient voice. She recalls the ’80s as a “wasteland except when it came to TV, free-market economics and Western homosexuality,” and summarizes AIDS with quintessential French cynicism: “People died, people protested, people protected themselves, people gave money.” If Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America” became a classic for the compassion with which it treated victims of AIDS, “Hate” is noteworthy for its cool analysis of both the disease and la condition humaine.
Both Doum and Will have H.I.V., and it leads to an irreparable rift between them. While some on the left dismiss the disease initially as a “protofascist creation of the hospital state,” Doum presciently founds an advocacy organization, Stand, that endows him with mainstream respectability.
Will celebrates the virus as a mark of outré status: “AIDS belonged to us queers, it was our treasure,” he announces. He blithely advocates unprotected sex in books that have chapter titles like “AIDS Saves, Condoms Kill.” The American press (but of course) calls him “the new Michel Foucault.”
Drug-addled and increasingly unstable, Will veers into self-caricature, joking to Liz that Jews invented AIDS. But his loathing is primarily reserved for Dominique, whom he mocks as an outdated leader trying to remake the gay community in the vanilla image of straight society. Doum’s effort to distribute condoms is branded as sedition. “Prevention = Repression,” reads the T-shirt of a clueless Will acolyte.
Garcia is fluent in the currents of thought that have animated recent French history, and he has the dexterity to be flippant and morbid within a single paragraph. But he has more digging to do in the human heart. The novel is hermetic in its singular occupation with the disastrous relationship between Doum and Will and the corollary romance between Liz and the married Leibowitz. Though all four have plausibly prominent roles in French culture, at times it appears as if no other figures of consequence exist, with secondary characters strutting too quickly across the stage.
Garcia’s fullest character is the tragic Will, whom Liz describes in his final days as a “cracked jar of T4 cells.” She claims from the beginning that her project is to rehabilitate the troubled party boy turned philosopher, to show that his irresponsible behaviors were caused by a glimpse of some deep, unsettling truth. It was that truth, perhaps, that made him embrace AIDS. For as he tells her, “There’s no condom against death.” - Alexander Nazaryan

"Who doesn't appreciate a good controversy? And what book lover can resist when the controversy surrounds a breakout new author -- especially when that author is French? Francophile or not, it's easy to ascribe an ascendance to the French literary arts -- belle lettres, anyone? -- and it was very much by the allure of that sentiment that I pursued Tristan Garcia's Hate: A Romance.
Garcia, a philosopher by training, won the the Prix de Flore for young authors in 2008 for Hate, and no doubt it was both the prize and the book's notoriety that won it translation into English. As it goes. (No doubt there's plenty of French drivel that stays in the country, which should dispel any illusions I maintain regarding the magic of the French novel.) And who knows? Had the book come out under a more literal casting of its original title, La meilleure part des hommes ("The Best of Men"), I might not have given it a first thought.
Regardless, I read it, and it wasn't hard to understand the controversy it caused. The book has all the easy makings of a sensational debut: radical politics, sex (gay sex in particular), betrayal (political, sexual and on the grounds of sexual politics) -- even (mon dieu!) a questioning of the fundamental integrity of the Republic -- all of it told on account of a ruined love affair. With Hate, Garcia delivers an utterly human take on the novel of ideas, a book about the often ugly personal motivations that underpin our most high-minded and heavy-handed intellectual convictions.
The story of Hate is the story of four lives and their intersections over the course of the last two decades of the twentieth century and the early years of the twenty-first. William Miller, the youngest and the first to be introduced, is the product of a solitary childhood in the provinces who, after a stint in sales training, makes his Paris debut in 1989 as a derelict, pontificating street kid. Dominique Rossi, a fixture of the Communist party in the seventies, trades politics for the flourishing gay nightlife of Paris in the late seventies and early eighties, during which time he falls victim to HIV and emerges as a major AIDS activist. Jean-Michel Leibowitz is a professor, philosopher and lapsed champion of the left, who finds himself constantly torn between the worlds of academia and action. Our narrator, Elizabeth Levallois, is a journalist. In her own words, she’s “Willie’s friend, Doumé’s colleague, Leibo’s lover,” and from that privileged personal and professional vantage she gives us their stories -- and her own.
Leibo and Dominique know each other from academic circles, a shared history on the left. Dominique and Elizabeth work together as writers for a magazine called Libération (a fictive extension, I assume, of the monthly New Left magazine that ended its run in 1977). Elizabeth takes Willie in from off the streets after meeting him at a party. She helps him publish some articles on culture. Willie meets Dominique. They love and fuck for five years in the early nineties. Then it ends. Paris takes sides. Willie is infected. Elizabeth sleeps with Leibo, whom she's known since her days as his student. Leibo also sleeps with Sara, his wife. And Leibo, in and out of league with Dominique and Elizabeth's constant cultural foil, is an essential contrarian (a flip-flopper in modern American parlance), or, "in other words," as Elizabeth puts it, "he was an intellectual."
The central action of Hate surrounds the falling out of Willie and Dominique, after which Dominique, leader of the gay rights and prevention organization Stand, fights Willie, the upstart novelist and prevention opponent (in Willie's casting, the condom is a normalizing tool of the hetero-normative state), both in public and in the press. Leibo rails against whatever and whomever as suits him. His enemy is whatever happens to be the prevailing zeitgeist of the moment.
The intellectual scope of Hate is impressively wide, and, as a result, it's impossible to treat it successfully in description with any brevity. But to be necessarily brief (everyone in Hate gets the benefit of contradiction, why shouldn't I?), I suspect that Garcia himself supports the right of Muslim women to wear the headscarf in schools, is on the fence about Israel and Palestine (it's an intellectual exercise more than an issue) and considers Spinoza adolescent but remains enamored of Derrida and Deleuze (really, this book is all over the place). I look through my haphazard notes and read an "urge to write my review in the polemics of the articles in the text." Consider yourselves spared.
Surely there are recent historical persons from which the personalities of the characters in Hate were collected. The political and ideological conflicts described in the book are real. Thankfully, Garcia exonerates readers of having to investigate analogs between his characters and any real life persons in a short introductory disclaimer. If we might happen to see in Willie, Dominique, Leibo or Elizabeth similarities with anyone real or imagined from the last half century, it's "simply because other persons or characters would behave no differently under similar circumstances."
And that's the point. Hate is a gripping narrative of ideas in the early information age and, in particular, of sexual liberation and the AIDS crisis. This was the exciting age of cultural freedom and ironic for-the-record redactions that somehow saw the old left brought into the fold of a new conservatism. American readers will inevitably draw comparisons with the neoliberalism that consumed our intellectual and political discourse during that same time. But ultimately, Hate is a personal novel. It's hate after all, and love and sex; and by extension, in Garcia's telling, that's politics. As Spinoza wrote, hate is nothing but sadness with the accompanying idea of an external cause. And so Garcia's characters move, and the success of his novel is in its deft inquiry into whether our commitments to ideas and their associated public causes aren't just the result of circumstance, nurture and the vendettas of lost love.
To his credit, Garcia chose to narrate his novel in a female voice. Elizabeth is smart, aware and convincing. Her voice (and the novel as a result) is sympathetic and compelling. As narrative structure goes, Garcia's effort is impressive. Elizabeth tells nothing more than she could know, and refrains from speculation on the motivations of her friend, her colleague and her lover. She is, however, in an unfortunate irony, the only (permit me) intellectually castrated character, as Garcia allows her only the role of the stereotypical nurturer, the only of the four principles who isn't permitted the dubiously arrived at convictions that she investigates in her intimates. In all of his incisive insights into his other characters, Garcia relegates Elizabeth to a passive role. Despite her admirable sympathy and equanimity -- believe me, she's a comforting companion when the novel gets heavy, Elizabeth is wanting as a woman in a novel about the tumult of the socially and politically dispossessed.
Still, Garcia deserves his notoriety, and not just for his controversial themes. Hate succeeds not just for his deep and studied familiarity with his subjects, but also because of his keen understanding of the human conditions that drive our conflicts of ideas. Hate is a sad romance, and maybe the ability to step back from ourselves and admit that uncomplimentary truth is really the best of man. Or maybe I'm just incredibly uninformed; maybe I missed something essential. But, as Elizabeth, resigned, says at one point: "I'm the one telling this story, so I get to have the last word." Get it?" - Christopher Merkel

"A fair warning to contemporary novelists: Reading Tristan Garcia’s debut novel may cause you to hate the 29-year-old French author. It’ll be a hate born of sincere admiration and maybe a little jealousy, but you just might feel it all the same. Some of it might stem from the economical way he covers a large chunk of time in the lives of his four protagonists—an intellectual, a queer activist, a comet of a party boy, and the culture journalist who knows them all. Some of it might come from his nimble control of tone, which can swerve from heady discussion of the intersection between contemporary politics and moral philosophy to the intentionally glib name-dropping of Foucault. More than anything else, though, that feeling may brew in your belly because Hate: A Romance is one of the more movingly recognizable accounts of the fickle ways that love and sex and joy and friendship can so easily decompose into their opposites.
Published in France in 2008 and translated by Marion Duvert and Lorin Stein for this American paperback, Hate stretches from the 1980s—a “cultural and intellectual wasteland except when it came to TV, free-market economics, and Western homosexuality”—to the 2000s, as experienced-qua-endured by two interconnected couples. Occasional journalist Dominque Rossi, whom everybody calls Doumé, is a gay Corsican who comes from a line of political outsiders and emerges as the de facto spokesperson for the queer activist organization Stand as AIDS meanders through the gay community. He falls in love with the younger William Miller, the son of an Ashkenazi Jew, from a small town north of Paris, who slowly becomes an underground gay celebrity during his relationship with Doumé—who met Jean-Michel Leibowitz through some political organization, before his study of eastern European dissidents, The Hydra of Power, made him a public leftist intellectual. Journalist Elizabeth Lavellois, the novel’s narrator, works with Doumé, introduces him to her friend William, and carries on an affair with the married Jean-Michel, whom she calls Leibo, about 10 years her elder.
And for 300 pages spanning nearly 20 years, Garcia follows Doumé and William, Liz and Leibo as they fall in and out of bed, talk about and organize around the rise of AIDS, fret over the changes in Paris and France, worry about how the Left is becoming the Right, split hairs over anti-Semitism and homophobia. There are plenty of ebullient, ribald moments, to be sure—a section detailing the unemployed William’s trips to the employment placement office are laugh-out-loud hilarious—but Hate is a document of relationships and romances becoming torn and frayed.
What gives the novel such force is Garcia’s recognition that both love and hate are intensely powerful emotions, fires that demand constant kindling. And Garcia is unabashedly willing to present the ways in which his characters supply fuel for love/hate’s roaring inferno. William even provides a formula for the feeling—“hate = (love+death) - lies”—and reveals himself as a man who has spent considerable time on the subject:
Because hate’s important. It’s the most important thing. We live in a society where hate is incredibly underrated. Hate brings you to life. It’s everything. Real hate—like Spinoza said, hate is where it’s at.
And Garcia lets his characters act petty, malicious, and hurtful to one another. By the mid-’90s when a different generation of queer men are making the party scene and the dangerous thrill of bug chasing and barebacking has entered the discussion, the internet is also this new thing. And William, with some old photos and the single-minded focus of the cast-off, hurts Doumé in a way that only somebody who has shared a life with him can. It’s brutal, and it’s entirely believable.
This empathy is what makes Hate so impressive. Born in 1981, Garcia was a child during the decade he recreates with such a vivid understanding. But his talent for recreating this period culturally and intellectually and imagining characters, their histories and personalities, and their unsavory weaknesses and impulses, turns his fictional world into something recognizably flesh and blood." - Bret McCabe

"Elizabeth Levallois is a “cultural journalist,” as she glibly puts it in the first few pages of Tristan García’s debut French novel Hate: A Romance. A chic Parisian intellectual and arbiter of the fashionable, Elizabeth believes in pills, has been called “pretty” enough to believe it, is a self-professed bitch, and has terrible taste in men. Of all of these qualities, the last is the most important for us, as it is Elizabeth’s willingness to surround herself with destructive personalities—and then meticulously recreate them in print—that drives Hate’s central narrative. “I’m Willie’s friend, Doumé’s colleague, Leibo’s lover,” Elizabeth flatly explains early on, naming the main characters of the book. The three men and one woman began as friends and lovers in the elite cultural circles of Paris in the ’80s only to emerge from the tumult of the ’90s as culturally iconic enemies, trying with varying levels of success to destroy one another’s lives.
Hate: A Romance is a bold, ambitious, provocative novel told in the mode of long-form narrative journalism, and it’s to García’s credit that we soon forget about him entirely. As the narrator Elizabeth explains to us early on, Hate comprises her reportage—pieced together from her interviews and memories, from transcripts and excerpts. The book serves partially to critique the cultural battles of the ’80s and ’90s in Paris, revealing the sex and personal disputes that lurked behind public politics and nasty, contrived intellectual debates. But the book’s primary objective, Elizabeth says, is to restore the biography of her dear friend William Miller. The prevailing public image of William, we’re told quickly, is a grisly one—a shallow, volatile “public intellectual” with a known history of purposefully infecting partners with HIV.
When Elizabeth meets Willie, she’s already a fixture in Parisian intellectual society, along with her colleague Dominique (or “Doumé). The two journalists write about parties, music, art openings, literature, and high society for a handful of small, hip Parisian magazines. In short, they’re snobs who write about that catchall “culture”—a role that Elizabeth clearly both loves and abhors.
Elizabeth first encounters Willie with the intention of writing about him for a magazine. A teenager from the countryside, Willie comes to Paris with passionate ideas on literature, music, philosophy. (He adores Spinoza, for instance, and namedrops him constantly.) But by the time Elizabeth meets him, he’s homeless, drug-addled, and rambling to anyone who will listen. Their meeting does not go well: Willie smells and looks terrible, is basically a junkie, speaks incoherently. And yet, she finds something beautiful and alluring about him; he possesses a kind of punk charm, an attractive recklessness (perhaps psychosis). It’s that rough, naïve beauty that convinces Elizabeth to bring him into her life, to clean the boy up.
Dominique, too, is drawn to Willie, who is several years younger than him. Like Elizabeth, he takes Willie under his wing, brings him into their elite circles. Practically overnight, the odd pairing becomes a devoted couple, and for the only time in the book—practically a blip in the narrative—they have a surprisingly content relationship, lasting five years.
Then the AIDS epidemic hits. It’s not entirely clear who is first infected—and the question becomes a key point of contention in the novel—but both Doumé and Will are diagnosed with HIV just as the outbreak hits the cultural fore. For a number of reasons—including how the HIV diagnosis affects them—they break up, or, more accurately, declare war.
“The eighties were a cultural and intellectual wasteland except when it came to TV, free-market economics, and Western homosexuality.” Elizabeth is making fun, a bit, but it’s all too serious to Doumé and Will. Doumé starts an organization to raise awareness about safe sex in the gay community and distribute condoms. Will, outraged for reasons that don’t entirely make sense, decides Doumé must be stopped—and he founds his own counter movement, built on promoting unsafe sex. To Will’s faction—whether or not he believes his own rhetoric is unclear—safe-sex campaigns deny gays the right to express the part of themselves that makes them unique, that makes them important and culturally significant. It’s as provocative as it is intellectually suspect, and it propels the volatile, bipolar Will onto the national stage. He becomes a media phenomenon.
Much of this exposition, might I add, is revealed fairly early in the book—and Hate, then, charts the duo’s slow, public, political escalation of hostility. As this feud plays out, Elizabeth maintains her reportorial detachment, even when she’s caught in the crossfire. But she’s not without opinions; much of the book reads as elaborate deadpan, and Hate’s characters can be comically earnest. There’s the sense that, while intensely serious, Elizabeth also realizes that they’re completely ridiculous. But the detachment can also be frustrating; why does she indulge, for instance, in exposition about specific superfluous political debates if she does find them ridiculous? Why not just say so, and move on?
One explanation, perhaps, is that Elizabeth does not want to adulterate her elaborate piece of journalism by inserting too much of her life, or her opinions, into the story. But she does run the risk of alienating her reader. At times the very human figures of Doumé and Will even become obscured by the political debates that roil around them. They’re powerful political icons, and yet they stop existing as people.
Ultimately, though, the story is a human one. Elizabeth—or should I say García—reminds us that the politics of sex, no matter what the intellectual foundation, are still about the physical human body, about individual people at their most private and primal. By inserting themselves into a public debate about sexual politics, Willie and Doumé give over their personal lives to become political fodder.
Late in the book, with the Internet in full-swing, Willie asks for Elizabeth’s help in creating a webpage. It appears, like many things with Willie, at first like a harmless request. At this point, Will and Doumé are both known figures in French intellectual society, their bylines appearing in alternative weeklies, their books on store shelves, their faces on talk shows and news programs. On a low-tech Web site, Will posts thirteen photos of Doumé. The photos are utterly private, most of them nude or during sex, all taken during their relationship many years earlier. The captions William provides are, somehow, as malicious as they are clearly nostalgic: “This was before Dominique got in bed with the government,” he writes of a Polaroid of the two men engaging in oral sex.
“Everyone in Paris had seen it,” Elizabeth says. “I couldn’t imagine how [Doumé] must have felt when someone told him to take a look at what was on the Web.” And Elizabeth, ever the journalist, presses Will, asking him if he understands what he’s doing, if he feels some remorse as he destroys what’s left of Doumé’s life:
I said, “Do you realize, Will, that since it’s on the Web everybody’s going to see it?”
“Oh, Liz, the Internet is so over. It’s done. You have to keep up. It’s ancient history.”
And then, “There’s no joy to the past, it’s always sad, even when it used to be joyful. It only proves that the past is shit. The best you can do is forget.”
This short chapter—which could stand on its own from the rest of the book—is succinctly devastating, an example of the book at its most successful. The passage reminds us (or, in the fictional world of the novel, reminds those who remember Will and Dominique) that before they gave up their personal lives to political movements, they were normal people. The photos Will posts are all personal, even domestic, and have no political meaning until Will reinterprets them for his political purposes. To everyone else, the Web site is simply the gossip of Parisian intellectuals; but Elizabeth shows that the feud between the two has nothing to do with politics at all. For a moment, from the commotion of the political and cultural movements that had been waging war on their behalves for a decade, William and Dominique emerge again as human beings; as to two lovers absorbed with jealousy, nostalgia, and anger; as two people that never quite got over one another." - Adam Eaglin

"Fiction often trails some distance behind the traumatic events of the present. It took a decade before there was a substantial fictional response to the slaughter of the first world war, while the narrative of the Holocaust is still being explored. Responses to the Aids epidemic of the 1980s were, however, rapid. In 1982, a complex series of illnesses were first identified as Aids and "Silence equals Death" soon became a popular slogan for gay activists campaigning for better recognition and treatment for Aids. Gay writers in the 80s felt a moral and political imperative to respond quickly to the crisis.
Fiction of the past 20 years has dealt less confidently with the aftermath of Aids in the west. The contemporary issues are more subtle and complex: we have had the arrival of an effective combination therapy, the continuing lives of a generation who (like me) had assumed they faced certain death, and the "bug chasers" who actively look to be infected with the HIV virus and "barebackers" who enjoy the thrill of unprotected sex.
So Tristan Garcia's Hate: A Romance (first published in France in 2008 as La meilleure part des hommes) is a welcome and a rare novel. Its ambitious narrative begins in the 80s. The story – four young characters coming of age as a city embraces a thriving gay culture which is also starting to recognise the threat of Aids – is familiar territory from 80s fiction. But while the first wave of Aids fiction was overwhelmingly American, Hate: A Romance is a very French story. Garcia's characters are university-educated Parisians, the direct descendants of Jean-Luc Godard's "children of Karl Marx and Coca Cola". The reader senses that Garcia, like Godard, shares a complex relationship with his characters: he is sympathetic to young people who are guided more by their reading of Foucault and Spinoza than they are by common sense (this is Garcia's first novel, but he is a published philosopher), while laughing with us at their more pretentious thoughts and poses.
Something of the freshness of Garcia's perspective can also be explained by his age. Born in 1981, he is writing a historical novel, a vivid imagining of the Paris gay scene of the 80s and 90s and of the feuds conducted by gay activists in the French media of the period. This can sometimes make for disconcerting reading if – as I was – you were there at the time. Garcia's imagined past doesn't always quite match up with my remembered one. But the opening chapters of the book capture a mood that I found instantly recognisable: the excitement of being young, intellectually arrogant, sexually adventurous and bewildered by the arrival of the Aids epidemic.
As his narrative charts events leading up to the present day, Garcia is able to explore new territory for Aids fiction. His characters barely acknowledge the arrival of combination therapy in 1996 and the promise that it brings of turning Aids from a terminal disease into a chronic condition. By then they are too consumed by the feud that provides the central thread of the novel, that between the gay activist Dominique Rossi, who moves ever closer to the centre of the French political establishment, and the radical William Miller, who rejects safer sex as a heterosexual constraint and promotes barebacking as a political act of defiance. There's also an equally bitter rift between Miller and the media philosopher Leibowitz, as Miller moves from a pro-Palestinian stance to a paranoid antisemitism.
Garcia – and his narrator, the journalist Elizabeth Levallois, who is Leibowitz's lover – seem increasingly drawn to Miller, the most obviously colourful character in the novel. But as the pettiness of Miller's feuding becomes reductive and repetitious, the novel threatens to grind to a halt. Perhaps French readers, aware of the similar and very public real-life feud between gay activists Didier Lestrade and Guillame Dustan, would have been carried through some of these duller passages by the jeu d'esprit of a roman à clef.
But just when it seems that the novel has got itself trapped in a corner, Garcia steers the narrative forward: the last hundred pages achieve a depth of insight and compassion that is previously lacking. In this final section, he captures brilliantly the impossible choice facing the radical intellectual in an unsympathetic society: between becoming marginalised to the point of self-destruction and moving into the safer ground of the mainstream. It's ironic that Garcia, who is just 30 himself, only really seems able to look his characters fully in the eye once they are in their 40s and making the sad, sober choices of middle age.
Mark Ravenhill's version of Monteverdi's The Coronation of Poppea opens at the King's Head, Islington in April." - Mark Ravenhill


"Tristan Garcia’s debut novel La meilleure part des hommes won the Prix De Flore in 2008. According to the blurb on the back cover of its re-titled English translation by Marion Duvert and Paris Review editor Lorin Stein, it’s “a controversial first novel that took the French literary world by storm.” Marketing hype aside, it seems totally fitting if that’s the case, since controversy and the French literary world are two things that Garcia’s novel certainly doesn’t lack. Set in the heady and glamorous world of Parisian cultural circles, and spanning over twenty years from the 80s to the 00s, Garcia’s novel explores the impact of AIDS through the entangled emotional, political and philosophical fall-out from the messily intertwined personal and professional lives of four intellectuals.
Narrated through the voice of Elizabeth Levallois, a journalist covering culture and fashion, Hate: A Romance convincingly sustains a tone that wavers from objectively journalistic to affectionately (for the most part) intimate with the characters depicted. Elizabeth briefly introduces the other three protagonists: William Miller, invariably referred to as ‘Willie’, “a butterfly coming out of his cocoon” who starts the book arriving in Paris with “no job, no nothing. Less than nothing;” Dominique Rossi, ‘Doume’, a journalistic colleague of Elizabeth’s covering music and nightlife, and also a socialist activist, who is introduced to Willie by Elizabeth and the two embark on an intense five-year relationship that ends bitterly; and Jean-Michel Leibovitz, ‘Leibo’, a philosopher who met Dominique through leftist organizations, and who has written a philosophical treatise on fidelity, with whom Elizabeth is having an affair. The character of Elizabeth herself is deprecatingly self-portrayed:
“high cheekbones, difficult wiry hair, legs a tiny bit soft in the calves. I work out. I diet, sort of. What will become of me? In this world some people are distinct individuals while others are no more than paths of transmission. At my age, the signs are unmistakable: I belong in category two.”
As the AIDS epidemic hits Paris, with Willie and Doume both positive, they rawly and painfully clatter against each other and ping off fanatically in opposing high-profile directions, with Doume heading up STAND, an organization advocating protective sex, and Willie finding cult fame as a wild writer of fragmentary, undisciplined often scurrilous books, an outrageously unpredictable chat-show guest, an icon among young gay men and a vocal opponent of everything STAND and Doume believe in. With Doume and Willie bent on destroying the other’s reputation, their personal ‘hate’ spreads like a virus into a philosophical, social and political battle. With death a seeming inevitability, ‘hate’ becomes the main source of energy for Doume and Willie, it’s their mutual hate that provides the spirit and fuel behind their separate, and in some sense mutually-cancelling endeavours. Willie embodies and articulates a perhaps muddled but passionate and angrily convinced philosophical and emotional position of ‘hate’.
"Because hate’s important. It’s the most important thing. We live in a society where hate is incredibly underrated. Hate brings you to life. It’s everything. Real hate - like Spinoza said, hate is where it’s at.”
He was windmilling his arms in the air.
“See I’m going to be famous for that, and if they hate you, even if you die, still it means you’re somebody. And that beats love in a way…”
He thought about it for two seconds.
Because love, you know, love is conquered by death, because of course you don’t want what you love to die, but the thing is, you do want what you hate to die, and in the end, even death isn’t enough, because the thing you hate did exist and you can’t do anything about that. It’s better than death. Love isn’t even in the running.”
Meanwhile, Doume first falls from favour, then through his newspaper, leftist and publishing contacts, he releases a carefully stage-managed book of conversations with Leibovitz that re-establishes both of their careers by setting out their version of events. Incidentally, Leibo ends up adopting a related, if much less heartfelt, position to Willie, of “always fighting the current,… you know, of the times you live in” while moving surprisingly in-step with the establishment of the day, supporting Chirac early in his campaign and accordingly somewhat emptily ending up offered the position of Minister for Culture.
One of the most remarkable aspects of Garcia’s extremely impressive novel is how he collapses the barrier between emotional lives and the public philosophical positions of the characters. Garcia (who has himself written a book of philosophy) is equally adept at sketching intimate moments, such as the heartbreaking depiction of Willie, publicly out-of-favour having been defamed by Leibo and Doume, abandoned by friends, dying from AIDS at a hospital, visited only by Elizabeth and occasionally his mother who has shut her eyes to his homosexuality. Willie’s convinced and railing that he’s the only one without AIDS, that AIDS is a health-board plot transmitted via meds to contain the ‘threat’ of homosexuality. Since he doesn’t take the meds he can’t have AIDS. Elizabeth can’t bare to dispel his delusion. Her intimate tone, and her obvious affection for the wild and at times unbearable Willie helps add to the sensation of familiarity throughout, the feeling that the characters and the positions of Doume, Willie and Leibo match up to existing real-life characters. In short, this novel is convincing. This is in part because the characters are to some extent based on real writers. It’s hard not to see a resemblance in Willie of the writer Guillaume Dustan (whose real name, in fact, was William Baranes) and in Douminique, of the journalist Didier Lestrade who founded ACT UP in France (an organization fairly analogous to Doume’s STAND). Nevertheless, it’s a great testament to Garcia’s skill as a novelist that he is able so fully and fascinatingly to immerse his novel in the anxieties, fears and obsessions of the time and place, a frightening, confusing and turbulently shifting landscape of middle-eastern tension, AIDS, techno, MTV, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Internet." - Colin Herd

"For contemporary French writers, a willingness to shock seems the only route to find an anglophone audience. In recent years, authors such as Michel Houellebecq, Frédéric Beigbeder and Marie Darrieussecq have played on sexual, political and religious themes, aiming to scandalise their readership.
Tristan Garcia’s first novel tucks comfortably into this Gallic subgenre: yet his precision, intelligence and acute understanding of the complexities of desire mark his debut as much more than that.
In unadorned, clipped prose, Garcia pitches back and forth over the past three decades, illuminating the uneasy relationship between four characters: William Miller, a maddening and flamboyant agitator; Doume Rossi, an Aids campaigner; Jean-Michel Leibowitz, a popular intellectual of the kind found only in France; and Liz Lavallois, Garcia’s narrator and Leibowitz’s mistress.
In an episodic narrative of verve and invention, Garcia explores two generations coming to terms with the crumbling of old orthodoxies and the confused political landscape that it created. All four appear numb, only alive when living in the hedonism of the past, or escaping the present with sex or drugs. It’s only William’s late-flowering political activism that hauls them from their slumber.
While Doume is on television advocating HIV-prevention and safe sex, William – his former lover – is beginning a campaign to overthrow the tyranny of conventional wisdom.
His self-styled movement is against condoms, against prevention: pro-HIV. Doume and his contemporaries are horrified; but William’s cause becomes an underground phenomenon. Soon William is setting up infection parties and describing in public the giving of the disease as “impregnation”. It’s the start of a vendetta that will consume all four characters for the rest of the novel.
If this sounds unsubtle, sensational even, the reading experience is quite the opposite. While there are uncomfortable moments – the scene where Liz is told of a man being “converted” is hauntingly described in the manner of a loving act – these are refracted brilliantly through the chilly, static eyes of Liz. Her withdrawn persona acts as ballast against William’s self-delusion and Doume’s nostalgia and venom.
Early in the novel, Liz describes her life as a journalist as constantly chasing after the next new thing. It’s a sentiment that underpins the book: how can we exist in a world where there might not be another new thing? And what happens if we were happy with what we had in the first place? It’s this tension that makes for a ferocious, sad and moving novel – and a performance of rare originality." - Stuart Evers

"Garcia is hot property in France where this, his debut novel, won the Prix De Flore. A philosophy graduate, he has previously published a book of philosophy and this is reflected in this novel which is one of ideas and politics more than action.
The story, set during the ‘80s and ‘90s, is narrated by Elizabeth, a journalist on the left-leaning paper Liberation, and revolves around her and three friends. Doum is a fellow journalist on her paper. Brought up in a left wing home in Corsica where his intellectual doctor father had links to separatists, he is deeply political, although with the advent of AIDS his left leanings have crystallised into concentration on gay politics, in particular that of prevention.
Will is an inarticulate and cerebrally slow but beautiful young man who has an ill-fated relationship with Doum. And Leibo is a married Jewish intellectual with whom Liz has a long affair. Much of the story is narrated via conversations recorded or remembered by Liz. The novel is a Hadron Collider where these four atoms move at great speed and collide in explosions which leave a mass of destruction. The ‘hate’ of the title refers to the dramatic switch from love to hate that occurs when one relationship here sours.
Garcia inhabits his female narrator well, creating a woman who is inexorably drawn to the wrong men: ‘I seem to have a weakness for the forty-something routine…Midlife crisis as come-on. Perhaps it’s…maternal instinct.’ This thwarted protectiveness finds an outlet in her devotion to the initially vulnerable Will. At many times during the book her acceptance of Will’s egregious behaviour towards her and others without censure borders on implausible, and only the indulgence of a blindly committed parent renders it credible.
As you would expect from a philosopher, the core of the novel is intellectual dialectic. The inherent conflict between contrasting viewpoints provides insurmountable barriers off which characters bounce. Doum is passionate about reducing HIV transmission among the gay community while Will believes – perhaps just to be contrary – that gays should be free to choose whether to toy with death or not. Leibo pours vitriol on the political victim culture whereby any minority can claim it is oppressed and so be automatically embraced by the left; he rails against ‘cowardly totalitarian political correctness’. He clashes with Will’s new lover Ali (who is staunchly pro-Palestinian), and argues the Zionist cause.
Garcia’s background is evident in the many philosophers and writers who are referenced by the characters – Montaigne, Spinoza, Foucault, Kant, Pascal, Tocqueville. There are also knowing nudges – Leibo surprises the intellectual world by writing a book about love; an arch reference to Barthes’s A Lover’s Discourse – although Leibo’s is – hypocritically – a rhetoric on the importance on commitment.
As an illustration of the devastating consequences of clashing ideologies, especially those fuelled by personal feelings, Garcia’s novel is powerful and surprisingly accessible. It’s just a shame it’s so theoretical as opposed to human. We are told what characters feel about each other by Liz rather than seeing this for ourselves: despite the five year relationship between Will and Doum, we only glimpse one domestic scene, towards the end of the relationship, and this seems to be there as a cursory explanation for its demise. There are similarly few illustrations of the relationship between Liz and Leibo – it’s all very cerebral. The saving grace is that since Liz is narrating in the first person, this may be construed as her choice rather than the author’s. Still, the book could have been improved by expansion in the human arena. Garcia offers us fascinating flashes of peripheral relationships which we crave to hear more of: Leibo’s attempt to culture his much-loved but happily working-class parents, for example, or his connection to his children, who must have been one reason why he remained married (although we also know, almost without Liz acknowledging it, that Leibo truly loved his wife as well as Liz.) Another minor problem is occasional lapses of Will’s voice into that of an intellectual: it is clear that he is irrational, illogical, has a low IQ and that he spouts nonsense or incendiary diatribes much of the time, so the occasion where he uses the word ‘paradigm’ jars.
Despite these shortcomings there is something about the novel that ensnares. Many of the short chapters end with the promise of secrets and excitement to come: ‘that’s what touched Doume’ and did him in.’; ‘Six months later they’d broken up.’; ‘…that was the day it began.’; ‘That’s how it all got started. That was all it took. That, and of course all the history there was between them…’
At one point Liz tells us of Will ‘for him, falling out was a form of love.’ It’s Garcia’s skill in making us believe in such strange characters as well as the flawless translation that render this novel tight and readable despite its esotericism." - Leyla Sanai

"Winner of the 2008 Prix de Flore, Hate announced the novelistic arrival in France of young philosopher Tristan Garcia, then aged 27. Except that it didn't, strictly speaking, do any such thing. The original title of Garcia's novel was La meillure part des hommes, or the best part of men. Figuring out the gulf in suggestiveness between these two is only the beginning, however. While there are things to admire in Hate, this reader found much more to question.
Garcia earns plaudits for disobeying the advice to young novelists to keep to what they know. In focusing on 15 years in which Aids laid waste a generation of Paris's cultural elite, Garcia took on a period he can hardly have remembered. Inadvertently, too he took up an extremely hard sell. For if there are many reasons for the disappearance of Aids from contemporary fiction, among them is one unavoidable truth. With the odd exception (Alan Hollinghurst's The Line of Beauty), readers weren't buying.
Hate ingeniously deploys a female narrator, Elizabeth, to recount the decimation of gay Paris from the outsider's perspective. Within pages we are introduced to "Hervé" (novelist Hervé Guibert) and Michel Foucault – just as Guibert himself fictionalised his mentor in To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life. So far, so familiar. As the Guibert/Foucault nexus continues to receive attention in France - take Mathieu Lindon's recent memoir, Ce qu'aimer veut dire - we might wonder how Garcia aims to say anything new, compared to those who witnessed the French epidemic's darkest years.
The answer, surprisingly, comes in the form of leading protagonist William, a gay activist who comes to disavow health campaigning, instead embracing drug-fuelled, unprotected sex, which he promotes through journalism and scandalous novels. In France, this character's closeness to real-life author Guillaume Dustan, who died in 2005, was immediately understood, though Garcia expressly rejects any linkage. Nevertheless, "William's" auto-fictional novel dovetails closely with Dustan's Dans ma chambre (1996; translated as In My Room). There's "this confused guy who keeps getting carried away, who says one thing and then the opposite, and who holds forth on genius, dildos, community, condoms... there are no chapters, just 'fragments'."
Bret Easton Ellis is name-checked in Hate. Certainly his Generation X nihilism might have informed the texture of Dustan's books, and the world-view of Garcia's own characters, including William. Oddly, then, Hate inclines conversely towards a Balzac-like comprehensiveness, layering plots and subplots judiciously, whilst shaping itself carefully towards the foreseen conclusion: the HIV-sponsored demise of the hospitalised, unrepentant William. Elizabeth then abruptly resigns from her tale.
Despite memorable touches – the Aids prevention posters framed in bars "like souvenirs in a museum" – Hate lacks both the bite and conviction implied by its English title. Its acclaim elsewhere, moreover, I suspect stems from a widespread need to historicise this epidemic, rather than from any conviction that Hate revitalises its subject." - Richard Canning

"Hate: A Romance is told from the perspective of a journalist named Elizabeth who spends the best years of her life writing pieces for magazines in Paris. This is how she describes it early in the book:
“I covered ‘culture,’ that is, everything and nothing. I had my little supplement. I went out, I kept up with the scene. Television was my first beat. It’s how everyone starts out. I’d go hear shows, indie rock shows, to compensate for the shit I watched on TV. I did trend pieces, I wrote up the latest thing. It leaves a funny taste in your mouth. You smell death in the life all around you, and all the while you keep waiting for something new. I did ‘fashion,’ too, naturally, and ‘books’ every now and then. If we were sitting across a dinner table and you asked me, I could tell you what people were talking about; I couldn’t tell you how much else, but I knew what was current.”
Holy moly. At the end of the chapter she drops this:
In this world some people are distinct individuals while others are no more than paths of transmission. At my age, the signs are unmistakable: I belong in category two. I have my work cut out for me.”
Hate: A Romance, which Farrar, Straus and Giroux is publishing in translation this fall, is by Tristan Garcia, but you’re meant to regard it as having been written by Elizabeth. That’s the frame: Elizabeth has written a historical account of what was happening in Paris during the 1990s and early 2000s and that is the book we’re reading. It’s to Garcia’s credit that one barely thinks about him — or the translators, for that matter — while reading it.
The book is Elizabeth’s memoir, sort of, except that it’s not really about her, but three of her friends— the dangerously charming punk William Miller, the conservative intellectual Jean-Michel Liebowitz, and the AIDS prevention activist Dominique Rossi — and how they destroyed each other’s lives. These three guys, in Elizabeth’s telling, are historical figures: separately and together, they were responsible for shaping their era. They captured people’s attention. People cared what they thought.
William is the magical genius in Elizabeth’s universe, her favorite by far. They meet when they’re about 20 years old because she wants to do a story on him. At this early stage, he is an inarticulate, shy gutter punk who wanders around muttering about all the projects he is planning. Elizabeth befriends him and stands by his side as he transforms — unconsciously, of course — into an icon worshipped by “somewhat marginal people.” William turns himself into a careening spectacle: a glamorous, inscrutable figure who rails against AIDS prevention activists for trying to talk him and all other young men into giving up their freedom, a.k.a. using condoms. When William, a master bullshit artist, writes a book and achieves a new level of fame, “Technikart and most of the magazines and ‘avant-garde’ fanzines hailed the emergence of a new voice.”
Dominique is one of Elizabeth’s colleagues early in life — the two of them covered nightlife together and interviewed famous people. At the beginning of the book, she introduces him to William, thus setting off the pair’s five year turn as an “old-fashioned couple.” During this time, more and more people start dying of AIDS, and Dominique, who is HIV positive, gradually trades in his glamorous, old life as a club kid for a consuming role as a community organizer who promotes safe sex. After he and William break up, they become bitter enemies, both obsessed with making sure the other one and everything he stands for is forgotten by history.
There is a third friend, Jean-Michel Liebowitz, whom Elizabeth dates on and off for about a decade while William and Dominique carry on their war. Liebowitz is a professor of strong convictions who begins his life on the left but finds himself, as he gets older, taking unmistakably conservative positions. He rails against cultural relativism, pop music, promiscuity, and what he perceives as the left’s knee-jerk affection for any and all minorities. He is a public intellectual; he writes books for the popular press and appears on television. But he considers himself a philosopher, and as we learn early on, he has contempt for Elizabeth’s line of work. “He was always going on about the unfashionable, the ‘nonmodern,’ the old days,” Elizabeth recalls. She stands for the opposite of all those things, she knows: “each new fad supplanting the last.” Liebowitz makes fun of her sometimes, saying that when finally his books became fashionable, she’ll have no choice but to embrace his views because it’s all she is “programmed” to do.
Elizabeth has her own disdain for journalists. At one point she makes fun of the credulity with which feature writers and critics respond to William’s unserious, self-promotional book. Elsewhere she laments not being able to talk to Liebowitz because she is “not an intellectual.” Still, you never get the sense that she ever takes any of that stuff much to heart. She knows from the beginning how Liebowitz feels about her work, but it doesn’t make her want to do it any less. This is significant insofar as her book — again, we are pretending Hate is her book — amounts to a long, expertly paced magazine piece, one written by an attentive, well-sourced journalist who has great affection for her subjects. Though there’s plenty of first person in the book, it’s essentially a reported history, complete with interviews and scenes and props and anecdotes — killer devices, all, which come from a playbook that you don’t often see being used in novels. Tristan Garcia has applied the storytelling techniques native to fun, middlebrow journalism and used them to tell a fictional story. The framing device — ”this is a book written by a journalist” — is not just an excuse; it actually informs the book’s style.
In the introduction, Elizabeth says she has written the book for William — to rescue him from obscurity and to correct the conventional wisdom that he was never anything but a vapid, reckless buffoon who deliberately gave people AIDS in order to get attention. But William’s memory is not the only thing being rescued in Hate. The other is journalism: Elizabeth, for all her cynicism about the profession, has written an immersive and deeply felt piece of magazine writing. It is a story about ideas told through the people who had them, and the emotions, grudges, and ambitions that informed the things they believed and wrote. Typical gossip for intellectuals, in other words. Also, a decisive defense of the form.
The book is about death, too, and what happens to people who spend their lives trying to be influential when they’re no longer able to make noise — how their mark on the world is registered, remembered, and above all forgotten. William cuts right to the heart of it when his book of nonsense is published to rave reviews and Elizabeth says to him, “Not bad, Will, you’re a writer now.” “No, Liz,” Will answers. “You don’t get it at all. I’m a motherfucking text.”
Elizabeth does get it though, and she knows what she’s doing when, barely 30 pages into the book, she quotes an aging Dominique looking back on the “joie-de-vivre” of gay life before AIDS. “When you’re defining your own era, you’re not aware of it, you think you’re building a future,” Dominique says. “Then one day you realize that this future you’re building is just something that people will look back on one day as the past, as something past and gone. That’s what it means to live out an era, a time, a moment. All of a sudden — yes — it ends.” - Leon Neyfakh

"I just saw in the Times' Book Review that Tristan Garcia's debut novel has been translated under the title Hate (the original is La Meilleure part des hommes, ie The Best Side of Men). I happened to read the book when it came out a couple of years ago, and was a bit startled by Alexander Nazaryan's take.
Well, by one thing mainly: He doesn't mention that the novel, set in the Parisian gay milieu of the 1980s, is a roman à clef. The lead characters are inspired by easily recognizable people, with just enough changes to prevent lawsuits (or so I assume).
Wild boy William Miller, for instance, looks very much like novelist Guillaume Dustan, who made a name for himself by advocating bareback sex. His nemesis, journalist-turned-AIDS-advocate Dominique Rossi, shares quite a few traits with journalist-turned-AIDS-advocate Didier Lestrade. Rossi cofounds an activist group called Stand; Lestrade cofounded the Parisian branch of Act Up. And so on.
Meanwhile, real-life Jewish philosopher and public intellectual Alain Finkielkraut seems to be the model for the novel's Jewish philosopher and public intellectual, Jean-Michel Leibowitz. At least Finkielkraut thought so: When the book came out, he publicly protested "the way I was transparently used," adding, "It's depressing but what can I do? Duels are now illegal."
Come on, this is good stuff!
The novel is so poorly written that trying to figure out who is who and who really did what is the best part. Not mentioning that aspect in a review is like talking about The Devil Wears Prada without mentioning Anna Wintour." - Elisabeth Vincentelli

"If they review this imported, translated paperback original at all, critics are likely to reduce its power to "The first great novel of barebacking." Although the core two (Will, Doum) of the four main characters (also Elizabeth, who narrates; and her married longtime paramour Jean-Michel Leibowitz) are ex-lovers who become public adversaries famous for promoting unprotected or safe sex, barebacking is but one aspect of the book's larger considerations of love, death, power, politics, aids, family, intergenererational dynamics, the rise of gay culture, the Jewish question, and how since the late 80s in France "the Left became the Right." Vital and provocative, the book covers its topics in a fast 273 pages, so deft in its scope and impressive in its empathy that you wouldn't guess Tristan Garcia wrote it before he was 27. Two years ago it won the Prix de Flore.
In France, it was called La meilleure part des hommes but the American title Hate: A Romance [Kindle] also fits. After they've broken up and begin to plot each other's downfall (including posting 13 very private photos on the internet showing the safe sex advocate not using a condom), Will says:
"...hate's important. It's the most important thing. We live in a society where hate is incredibly underrated. Hate brings you to life. It's everything... It's better than death. Love isn't even in the running."
Leib complains to Elizabeth:
"...We can't point out that shit is different from art. We're supposed to tolerate everything. Look at how the homosexual community -- for good reason, it's their right -- look at how they impose their norms on everyone else, by default. Look at the way men are pictured in advertisements, the muscles, the fitness, and that music, everywhere, look at how they've changed the connection that we have to our own sexuality. Even women..."
"it started as a statement. But it's become mainstream. We're all supposed to conform to homosexual standards of beauty, the biceps, the tight t-shirts, putting on makeup, wearing tank tops, and all this sex machine music..."
Doum says:
"Those were the years when cash took on social democratic value, when the stock market, appearances, surface, cheap crap, bad taste all stuck their tongue out and made a great big face at the planet."
Inflammatory Will states, in print:
"Today we know that AIDS is above all the name, you know, of a moral argument that's trying to police our sexuality. All this sex panic, now that AIDS is more or less curable - we can see that it's been co-opted to make the queer community normal, acceptable. That they've assimilated us in order to castrate us. And now when you see a man like Doum, a counterrevolutionary of the right, collaborating with the French Ministry of Health, which dates from Vichy, to advocate a universal ban on free sex - well, what are you supposed to think?"
Much later, this passage:
"Using barebacking as an example, Doum denounced the vice inherent in the dream of freedom, the denial of reality, and the childish titillation with death. Later on these guys understand how stupid they've been and come crying to the organizations, but it's too late, and the ones who'd held out the prospect of an absurd pleasure are no longer around, they've dropped them and gone off in search of fresh blood."
The intellectual big ideas are balanced with domestic scenes of tenderness and, often, regret. A handsome young doctor's exhaustion from caretaking is plausibly conveyed as is his momentary decision that he wants to become infected with HIV. The author gives a quick but unflinching look at him years later, and he details many more scenes with one of the destroyed protagonists, the man who inseminated the doctor, now returned to his grim boyhood town to die in the local hospital shunned by his family and forgotten by his lovers and all but one of his former friends. Nonetheless, the novel is not unhopeful. And it has much more to say than some of this year's higher-profile mopey, middle-aged gay books." - Band of Thhebes

"Tristan Garcia, the author of this striking and slightly dazing first novel, starts on the back foot, protesting that he has not written a roman à clef before anyone has had the chance to make the accusation. If readers are reminded of real people they know or know of - well, "that is simply because other persons or characters would have behaved no differently under similar conditions". Garcia demands that we find the novel universal and truth-bearing rather than parochial and referential, which is odd, given that he is almost exclusively preoccupied with dovetailing his characters with French political history, staging intellectual slanging matches and indulging in cultural trainspotting - a taster menu offered as a three-course meal.
One person who behaved similarly under similar conditions is Bernard-Henri Lévy, the dashing French-Jewish intellectual whose perceived rightward shift seems to be reflected in the perceived rightward shift of Garcia's dashing French-Jewish intellectual Jean-Michel Leibowitz. He is called "Leibo" in the first section, which also introduces "Willie" (William Miller), an uneducated Jew who becomes a star of the gay scene in Nineties Paris, and the Corsican cultural journalist "Doumé" (Dominique Rossi), who has a five-year relationship with Willie. The two eventually fall out, violently and publicly, over Aids, which Willie comes to see as "a moral argument that's trying to police our sexuality", just as Doumé and Leibo fall out over the latter's alleged "heterofascism".
The tale is told, or rather reconstructed, by the Libération reporter Élizabeth Levallois, "Willie's friend, Doumé's colleague, Leibo's lover", who describes herself, in the closest we get to introspection, as "the kind of person one comes across in Paris". Élizabeth is a blank, little more than a pair of eyes and a voice - a Nick Carraway with three Gatsbys to commemorate, an Ishmael surrounded by Ahabs. It is Willie, she says, who most deserves "his due", because he kept his best part - the French title of the novel is La meilleure part des hommes - to himself, whereas the others lived through words and actions and "will live on beyond themselves".
Any novel that long-windedly describes the contents of invented books and identifies Jean-Jacques Rousseau as "JJR" is in danger of seeming flip and nothing more. In Saul Bellow's Humboldt's Gift, which has a better balance of ideas and those who spout them, the title character invokes Spinoza to reflect on "how the mind was fed with joy by things eternal and infinite". Willie, who loves Spinoza even more than he does Morrissey and Bret Easton Ellis, uses his thinking - or his name - to explain the beauty of the internet, the value of his hate for Doumé and his own spreading of Aids, though not with the greatest eloquence: "It's a mystical thing. Spinoza. I fertilise them."
Hate: a Romance gets off to such a swift and evocative start that the rest of the book, which follows its characters faithfully without really developing them, is doomed to feel repetitious and even redundant. Doumé and Leibo were students at the École Normale Supérieure when "Althusser's influence was on the wane" and "the men of the hour" were Deleuze, Lévi-Strauss and Vidal-Naquet. Bliss was it in that dawn, and so on, yet it remained difficult to stake out a coherent philosophy or political position when ideas were indistinguishable from fads, and when collective action was so much discussed that there was little time left over for it. Leibo, who describes himself as "a man of the left" but not "a leftist" and who says that his first pamphlet was "wrong in the right way", discusses the predicament of finding one's true position in terms of the penalty-taker's fear of the penalty kick: "If he thought I was going to shoot to the other side, then I'd have to shoot to the other side of the other side."
The bulk of the novel takes place during a 17-year period in which Mitterrand gave way to Chirac and Chirac to Sarkozy, when the forces of relativism and toleration - what Leibo calls "la pensée unique" - pitted those who believe in secularism, the State of Israel and a hierarchy of values against Muslims, homosexuals and the anti-American left, in a depressing replay of Raymond Aron ("our forefather") v Jean-Paul Sartre ("over and done with"). At one point Leibo is caught out by what his enemies see as a "chiasmus", in which "a suggestive ellipsis" equates Jews with Nazis; he insists that it was intended as an "asymmetrical chiasmus". But the complications visited on the old divisions between left and right by the fall of the Berlin Wall, the emergence of two opposing forms of gay activism and finally the 11 September attacks have been too well prepared by the juicy dialectical ironies of the first 20 pages. The fun that Garcia has in the age of Foucault steals the thunder he needs for the age of Fukuyama." - Leo Robson

Interview by Sandra Laugier

Interview at The Varsity

12/23/11

Stamp Stories Anthology - Texts of 50 words or less, printed on 1×1 cardstock, & shipped free from participating presses


[ C. ] An MLP Stamp Stories Anthology, Mud Luscious Press, 2011.

"Stamp Stories are texts of 50 words or less, printed on 1×1 cardstock, & shipped free from participating presses. We wanted to tie together the indie press community in a vibrant yet viable way, & so this venture was born. Through 2010, we solicited stamp-sized texts from 100 authors & distributed the physical Stamp Stories through more than 40 participating presses. [ C. ] collects all of these texts into one perfect-bound edition."


Participating Authors
James Tadd Adcox, Jesse Ball, Ken Baumann, Lauren Becker, Matt Bell, Kate Bernheimer, Michael Bible, Jack Boettcher, Harold Bowes, Jesse Bradley, Donald Breckenridge, Melissa Broder, Blake Butler, James Chapman, Jimmy Chen, Joshua Cohen, Peter Conners, Shome Dasgupta, Andy Devine, Giancarlo DiTrapano, Claire Donato, Elizabeth Ellen, Raymond Federman, Kathy Fish, Scott Garson, Molly Gaudry, Roxane Gay, Steven Gillis, Rachel B. Glaser, Amanda Goldblatt, Barry Graham, Amelia Gray, Sara Greenslit, Tina May Hall, Christopher Higgs, Lily Hoang, Tim Horvath, Joanna Howard, Laird Hunt, Jamie Iredell, Harold Jaffe, A D Jameson, Jac Jemc, Stephanie Johnson, Shane Jones, Drew Kalbach, Roy Kesey, Sean Kilpatrick, Michael Kimball, M. Kitchell, Robert Kloss, Darby Larson, Charles Lennox, Eugene Lim, Matthew Lippman, Norman Lock, Robert Lopez, Sean Lovelace, Josh Maday, Dave Madden, John Madera, Kendra Grant Malone, Tony Mancus, Peter Markus, Chelsea Martin, Zachary Mason, Hosho McCreesh, Alissa Nutting, Riley Michael Parker, Aimee Parkison, David Peak, Ted Pelton, Adam Peterson, Ryan Ridge, Joseph Riippi, Adam Robinson, Ethel Rohan, Joanna Ruocco, Kevin Sampsell, Selah Saterstrom, Davis Schneiderman, Zachary Schomburg, Todd Seabrook, Ben Segal, Gregory Sherl, Lydia Ship, Matthew Simmons, Justin Sirois, Amber Sparks, Ken Sparling, Ben Spivey, Michael Stewart, Terese Svoboda, Sean Ulman, Deb Olin Unferth, Timmy Waldron, William Walsh, Rupert Wondolowski, James Yeh, Desmond Kon Zhicheng-Mingdé.

Sjón - Light, humorous, a mix of culture, myth and literature. Man and bird, man with a bird’s heart, bird with a man’s brain, bird with a man’s heart, bird with bird brain. We are alike in most things. And why should we not be?



Sjón, From the Mouth of the Whale, Trans. by Victoria Cribb, Telegram Books, 2011.



"Men of science marvel over a unicorn's horn, poor folk worship the Virgin in secret and both books and men are burnt.
Jonas Palmason, a poet and self-taught healer, has been condemned to exile for heretical conduct, having fallen foul of the local magistrate. Banished to a barren island, Jonas recalls his exorcism of a walking corpse on the remote Snjafjoll coast, the frenzied massacre of innocent Basque whalers at the hands of local villagers, and the deaths of three of his children.
From the Mouth of the Whale is a magical evocation of an enlightened mind and a vanished age."

"Sjón is the trickster that makes the world; and he is achingly brilliant.From the Mouth of the Whale is strange and wonderful, an epic made mad, made extraordinary."—Junot Díaz

"Hallucinatory, lyrical, by turns comic and tragic, this extraordinary novel should make Sjón an international name. His evocation of seventeenth century Iceland through the eyes of a man born before his time has stuck in my mind like nothing else I’ve read in the last year." —Hari Kunzru

"The narrative is kaleidoscopic and mesmerizing, comic and poignant by turns. Victoria Cribb’s translation brilliantly captures these multiple changes in tone and scene. From the Mouth of the Whale should open up a world of Icelandic writing, ...a world of nature and of ideas, which stands comparison with the Iceland of the Nobel Prize laureate Halldór Laxness." —Carolyne Larrington

"Quixotic adventures of a 17th-century naturalist and physician banished to a remote northern island make up this antiquated novel by the prolific Icelandic author of The Blue Fox (and Oscar-nominated songwriter, for the film Dancer in the Dark). Having come afoul of the Inquisition for his alchemical and exorcist practices, Jónas the Learned is stranded with his wife, Sigga, on Gullbjörn Island and unravels the dreamlike narrative of his life: having learned to read in the care of his sage grandfather Hákon Thormódsson, as a young man he acquires the art of healing by treating women and gains a reputation that carries him westward along the Snjáfjöll coast. Jonas finds work in towns like Litla-Vík, where harpooning stations are established in the summer of 1613 by Basque whalers, at first welcomed, then reviled. By 1635 Jónas is languishing in his island exile; despite being rescued and delivered to Copenhagen, where the charges against him are dismissed, Jónas is reimprisoned on the island, this time utterly alone. His fate “forever turning with the wheel of fortune,” Jónas is not unhappy living in harmony with all God’s creatures, and indeed this blithe, rhapsodic novel moves backward from the Book of Jonah in the Hebrew Bible to create a work charged with lyrical energy and metaphysical purpose. Agent: Licht & Burr Literary Agency." - Publishers Weekly

"Part of the pleasure of reading literary fiction in translation is that it enriches our understanding of other cultures.
In his second book to appear in English, From the Mouth of the Whale, the acclaimed Icelandic novelist and poet Sjón transports the reader to a different world and time. The tale of his supremely odd protagonist, who is based on a historical figure, makes for a terrific read.
In 17th-century Iceland, Jónas Pálmason the Learned, a self-taught naturalist, poet and healer, is sentenced to internal exile, on charges of sorcery. Astrology is still used in medicine and talismans are believed to promote healing. It is also the aftermath of the Lutheran Reformation, a transition from Catholicism marred by violence. As Jónas sees out his punishment on a deserted island, he ruminates on his misfortunes. He recalls his childhood, witnessing the secret folk-worship of the Virgin, and, later, describes his downfall as a "Schoolmaster of Necromancy". Sjón's prose is deliberately untamed, reflecting the wanderings of Jónas's mind, a stream of consciousness that is lyrical and hallucinatory.
There is humour in Jónas's recollections, such as his reverence for the dead who "generally possess more fortitude than the living, as is clear by the way they still lie in their grave while man scurries around like a frightened field mouse". In a light-hearted touch, Sjón takes on a minor role as a sailor who rescues Jónas. The clue is in his appearance: bespectacled and clad in a grey-brown homespun coat and hat, his middle finger "sported a silver ring engraved with an inscription".
Subtly, Sjón draws out the contemporary resonances. Jónas's condemnation of the massacre of Basque whalers (based on a real event in 1615) results in his politically-motivated persecution and his banishment for compiling a book chimes with the experience of oppressed writers today: "I felt the heat of the animosity they bear towards me, the vindictive nature that drives a man to destroy the neighbour in a fire as if he were a banned book... For what is the difference? Every book is imbued with the human spirit."
This is an extraordinarily accomplished novel that challenges and informs the reader in equal measure. Victoria Cribb's superb translation conveys the intricacies of Sjón's language, Jonas's strange turns of phrase, and the novel's meandering narrative." - Lucy Popescu

"It is not easy to work out what From the Mouth of the Whale is about at first. It seems to be a book of 17th century Icelandic myths, based on the life of the fictional Jónas Pálmason, “a poet and self-taught healer” who has been exiled to a barren island for his heretical conduct. But who is the author, Sjon and what is he aiming at by creating these imaginary myths? What sort of book is it? What is its purpose?
From Wikipedia I discovered that “Sjon” is Sigurjón Birgir Sigurðsson, is a much acclaimed Icelandic poet and writer of children’s books, who wrote songs for Bjork, and a clue to the meaning of From the Mouth of the Whale is perhaps found in the book, A History of Icelandic Literature which refers to him thus:
the way in which Sjon employs international culture, myth, literature, and popular culture is unique, as is the breadth of his scope of reference. The narratives are enriched by light and humorous touches, which allow him to work pliably with what would otherwise seem obscure matters.
And that seems to be a pretty perfect assessment of From the Mouth of a Whale – light, humorous, a mix of culture, myth and literature. The book is certainly deftly written: The prose flows along in an easy, stylish way, describing the natural world with the eye of a poet/scientist and occasionally bringing you up short with some dark passages dealing with mayhem and death.
Jónas Pálmason seems to have been a natural healer. As a young boy he would explore the corpse of a brd, probing into the internal organs and learning similarities between bird and human – “man and bird, man with a bird’s heart, bird with a man’s brain, bird with a man’s heart, bird with bird brain . . . We are alike in most things . . . And why should we not be?”. Before long he had developed healing gifts and by reading the works of Paracelsus had “acquired so great a knowledge of the abdomen that there was scarcely a female malady in existence that I did not have a nodding acquaintance with”.
But 17th century healing was not merely an analytical science. A knowledge of the world of the spirit was a vital part of understanding the causes of illness and deliverance from it. The borderline between Orthodox belief and magic was a thin one and there were those in the community skilled in seeking out those who trod close to witch-craft and sorcery. After experimenting with a “walking corpse” Jónas Pálmason went through a trial for running a school of necromancy and was banished to the barren island from where he writes his stories.
Perhaps the most alarming of the tales concerns the Basque whalers who revive the Icelanders interest in whaling, a skill they had lost over the years. The Basques set up a trading station and developed an amicable relationship with the local community, bringing a new prosperity to the little villages as whale meat was exchanged for farm produce and wool.
But inevitably perhaps, a bitter rivalry develops between the locals and the incomers, with accusations of theft and bad-dealing. One winter, when the Baques are departing for home, a terrible storm blows up in the harbour and the boats begin to break up as they collide with ice-flows. The Icelanders see their chance to rob the ships of their cargo and gather on the shore. They conduct a terrible massacre of the surviving Spaniards, an all too likely history taking into account the brutal times in which poor Jónas lives.
Despite the harshness of the era, Jónas is a poet and lover of the natural world -
Dazzling light: when the day is such a brilliant blue-white that the firmament is no longer a frame for the burning sun, rather the sun has become the kindling for a brilliant silver curtain that rises at the horizon and is drawn across the entire visible world, while the mountain ranges to the north, west and south shimmer as if in a strange mirage, sometimes in shadow, sometimes in sunlight, but never still; and the sea is a sheet of billowing velvet...
I know little of 17th century Iceland, but it all sounds very plausible. A land of mountains, icy seas and ancient stories. Jónas Pálmason is a believable character, reflecting on his troubled life from his remote island fastness and sustained by Christian imagery mingled with a belief in the mysterious powers of birds, plants and fishes.
As to my questions at the start of this review, What is it about? what is the purpose of it?, I think I saw it as entertainment - a quirky story of times past in a strange culture. It works on the level of “story-telling” and it would be a great book to read aloud. I suspect its in some sort of Icelandic tradition but I don’t know much about that. I enjoyed reading From the Mouth of the Whale – Sjon’s stories had me in their grip for a couple of days and planted images in my mind which will I will probably recall when next I hear of the that northern land, more in the news these days for banking disasters than adventures with whales and walking corpses." - Tom Cunliffe

"Sjón’s last novel translated into English (and indeed his first novel translated into English), The Blue Fox, was Scott Pack’s favourite book of 2009. I read it on his recommendation, and liked it, but somehow it slipped through the review net and I never wrote about it here. I wonder now if that ‘somehow’ might have included a frustration at working out how to represent the strange story. It’s a feeling that recurred when approaching this review.
From the Mouth of the Whale (2008, tr. 2011 by Victoria Cribb) is Sjón’s most recent novel, and the English title varies significantly from the original, Rökkurbýsnir (Marvels of Twilight). It is a delight and a wonder, a barking mad story which detached me from my expectations and entwined me in the narrator’s ridiculous charm.
As the book begins all we know is that we are in Iceland (“this unlovely splat of lava in the far north of the globe”) in the 1630s, listening to the – what? narrative? ramblings? – of Jónas Pálmason, who likens himself to a sandpiper as he lies in exile on an island, slandered and attacked by “villains” and “tyrants”. “Jónas is a rogue, Jónas is a sly, disreputable fellow, Jónas is a braggart, Jónas is a liar, Jónas is a foolish dreamer…” There might be some truth to these charges. As he languishes on “this bird-fouled rock, this dance-floor of seals”, Jónas lets us into his thoughts. Are they eccentric, or just ahead of their time? He collects birds’ skulls, seeking a stone he calls bezoar, “that could heal all human ailments.” He recalls his time as a child healer, laying hands on female private parts to diagnose conditions (“…thus I read together book and woman…”). He steps, sideways and surreptitiously, toward the whole of his story.
Frankly the eccentric and piecemeal way of telling which Sjón – or Jónas – adopts, makes it a challenge both to unravel the truth of his story, and to represent it here. “When a thing is classified correctly,” Jónas says when cataloguing elements of natural history, “it is tamed.” This book is unclassifiable and untamed, wild and joyful in its telling, and in its bonkers cobbling together of myths, cultural history, science and religion to make a dazzling literary patchwork quilt. Meaning seems less important than feeling, and Jónas’s love of knowledge and intellectual investigation drives his story and his way of telling. He is writing before the Enlightenment, and his ideas challenge the status quo and anger the authorities: “sorcery” and “necromancy,” they call it. His style has a joyous physicality, throwing the reader into the vivid life in the pages, such as a description of a ‘walking’ corpse, or the aforementioned ‘reading’ of women’s lower abdomens. Inevitably these do not bear extraction, because the cumulative effect of J#ónas’s voice is what makes it so remarkable.
In the middle of the book is a section called ‘Kidney Stone’, which gives us a calmer, third person narrative and offers hope for Jónas, as he travels from his exile to Denmark, and is taken under the wing of a scholar known as Ole Worm. This gives us more evidence of Jónas as the seeker after truth, as he investigates the local trade in unicorn horns, but finds that his enemies have not forgotten him. Later, the narrative returns to his own rolling, tumbling voice, and he tells us more (though not as much as we might expect from the cover blurb) about the deaths of his children (“one never becomes used to it”) and his wife’s love (“the terrible thing is that her loyalty is misplaced. I have done this woman nothing but harm”). The lively nature of Jónas’s narrative sacrifices emotional involvement.
“Every book is imbued with the human spirit,” he tells us, when speaking of how burning a book is as bad as burning a man. There is more spirit than most in From the Mouth of the Whale, and I can only emphasise that you should not be put off by my difficulty in conveying its mad charm. I did wonder at a few of the choices near the end, such as on the last page of his narrative, naming Jónas’s place as somewhere calculated to bring forward connections in the reader’s mind with another famous island exile. And the epilogue, from which the English language edition takes its variant name, seemed to subtract rather than add. Nonetheless, the sheer fizzy delight – a new type of literary pleasure! – in reading this book made me curious to know why none of Sjón’s other five novels has been translated into English. What riches await us?" - John Self

"John Self’s fascinating review of From the Mouth of the Whale intrigued me when I read it, and had it in the back of my mind that I should find this book at some stage. And then, by chance, I found it browsing at a rather wonderful independent Canberra bookstore the other day. So, of course, I had to buy it – I mean, who doesn’t love slightly obscure modern Icelandic fiction?
Iceland of 1635 is very different to that of today. Religion – Christianity in particular – rules the world, and any word spoken against the King, or God, will not be looked upon kindly. Jónas Pálmason, though, has done just that, and has been exiled to an island in the ocean. As he lives out his last days, he relieves how he came to find himself on a barren rock – the people he met, the places he went, and the mistakes he made.
For a modern atheist, it’s difficult to imagine a world where Christianity rules the world, and where daring to say you don’t believe is a corporal offence. But this is the world Sjón gives us. Religion pervades every part of life here, though not perhaps in the most recognisable form. This is a time where Christianity is still violent and naturalistic, where dead bodies can be taken over by souls who have not yet crossed over to heaven come back to haunt. Jónas is a believer, but he is not an idiot, and is deeply interested in the natural sciences, such as they are the 17th century. He knows that unicorns probably don’t exist, even though people try to palm off narwhal horns as unicorn horns to turn a profit.
It gets to the point of almost being magical realism, at times. Jónas has conversations throughout the novel with several birds, a zombie, and a skeleton stuck on the sea bed. Whether this is thorugh divine intervention, or simply a symptom of the wild world in which he lives, we can never be sure. In fact, Jónas’ own sanity is probably questionable – he is an old man living on a barren rock in the middle of nowhere, with no one to talk to save for the occasional errant sandpiper. His unreliability, though, is a gift – seeing the world through his eyes is rather special.
There’s a beautiful passage about a third of the way through the novel where Sjón retells the Genesis myth in all its Icelandic, naturalistic beauty. And that’s one of the main selling points of the novel – Sjón gives us an Iceland that is starkly beautiful, particularly in comparison to the Denmark he shows. We get almost no glimpses of Icelandic cities – instead, we see the country as wild frontierland, where people are a little bit mad, and where the harsh realities of a world completely at the mercy of the elements dictates the way people live their lives.
It’s refreshing, and that the same time deeply depressing, to know that the people of the 17th century are just as petty and cruel as those of the 21st. There is a small section in the middle of the novel where Sjón stops dazzling us with beautiful imagery and metaphoric language, and lays out some actual plot. I don’t mean this to sound dismissive, because both parts work perfectly well, but the plot bit made the whole novel hang together a lot more. It’s a brief description of a trip Jónas takes to Denmark (saying anything else would be something of a spoiler), where he tries to have his name cleared, so he can return to Iceland without fear of being chased with pitchforks by an angry mob. He meets a good friend here, eager for help with ancient Icelandic runes, and the two intellects hit it off straight away. More importantly, though, Jónas receives some good news, that is ultimately useless. Because people are crap.
From the Mouth of the Whale is like nothing I’ve ever read before. It is a novel that conjures up a time of history that is savage, brutal, and harsh, though there are clearly people here with which we modern folk can connect. This is a book that demands rereading – the first parts are mysterious and confusing, and will probably make more sense a second time round. Nevertheless, I’m willing, and indeed, looking forward, to doing do." - Matt Todd
"Jónas Pálmason roasts ravens' heads and cracks their skulls in search of the bezoar, a magical stone described by Paracelsus which can heal human ailments and may help in the search for the philosopher's stone. As a small boy he is a healer of women's ailments, and they bring him rotting ravens' heads in their apron pockets. Sjón's new novel opens in Iceland in 1635 at a time when new scientific curiosity was inextricably mixed with magic and mythical marvels. Jónas is in solitary exile on a bare island off the coast of Iceland. He has been found guilty of blasphemy. His only companion is a purple sandpiper, speckled and garrulous, who, he thinks, resembles him.
Much of Jónas's story is grim and horrific, like the unforgiving landscape and harsh Icelanders, but Jónas's mind and Sjón's writing are full of brilliant details, surprises and delights. There is a wild account of the laying of a walking corpse, vanquished by verses. There are tender and tragic episodes of the deaths of children and the fate of Jónas's wife, a woman clever enough to have worked out what caused eclipses of the sun and moon. There is an appalling description of the Icelanders' gruesome treatment of Basque whalers who come to fish from their shores. Jonas thinks about human cruelty. "When did a skilled craftsman first fiddle with a nail between his fingers, then happen to glance at the hammer that hung heavily at his side, and see not the carpentry job in front of him, but his brother nailed to a cross?" He thinks about knives that have been used not to carve wood, slice mutton from the bone or harvest angelica, but to "find an easy path to the jugular vein of one's fellow man".
Jónas is taken from his exile to Denmark, where he works with the scientific scholar, Ole Worm. There is a splendid passage where he explains Worm's treasured unicorn horns as the spikes of narwhals – Worm has already worked out what a monster a horse would be which could support such a protrusion. The book is full of scientific observations of creatures such as the sea speckle, the red poison needle, the oleander, the bluebottle or coral. The red poison needle is "a dangerous creature of the shore, slender as a piece of straw, which often lurks in wet seaweed, wriggling and writhing, with jagged stings which can pierce the flesh like a needle". Coral is described for its magical properties as an amulet and a cure for a gripe in the guts. The sea-speckle is a tiny bird, precisely described, which is believed to have hatched from a kind of seaweed four or five fathoms long . . . The mixture of precision and imagined wonders is very much of its time, and also suits the way Sjón writes. The tale is elegantly crafted, each part revealing another aspect of the lost world.
In one central episode the exile is visited by a strange boatman (a modern figure wearing glass pebbles over his eyes which puzzle and intrigue Jónas). The day begins with dazzling light which is described as "tinkling bright silk thread" and "blazing needlework", where "one line springs from another, like vein branching from vein on a birch leaf, or the back of one's hand, or a precious stone". The man brings a vision to Jónas, of a kind of living encyclopedia of all the creatures and elements of the earth: every species of bird, every animal, all the fish of the sea, ordered from the great whales to the smallest specks of life. It is a vision of fullness. Jónas's Iceland is a bleak and beautiful place, where humans live precariously and are threatened by the wild. Sjón does not hint at what modern humans have done to the huge range of creatures and plants, but the sense of loss is nevertheless present in the book.
Jónas describes the processes of his own thinking. He is interested in watermarks in paper – forms only visible in certain light, concealed meanings. In one marvellous passage he defines the word "grotesque" (from the word grotto, a small cave) and goes on to sing the praises of the "modern master printers who think like the scribes of our old Icelandic languages" and decorate their texts with impossible creatures –"a centaur here, an old woman with birds' feet there, a three-headed dog". He writes of things seen where one form flows into another - lava spreading, clouds of steam or great torrents, a field rippling in the wind - and meditates on how the mind makes things from these shifting forms. Jónas rejects Snorri Sturluson's rules for the making of metaphors, the logic informing the comparison of a sword to a snake, and pleads – in startling prose – for an art that connects everything to everything. "A blue bird's wing extends from a small boy's temple, but by the time one reaches the tip of the wing the feathers have changed into bright green cabbage leaves with foam bubbling over the edges."
Sjón is a poet, and the aesthetic excitement is his own. He is an extraordinary and original writer. And his translator, Victoria Cribb, is also extraordinary in her rendering of the roughness and the elegance, the clarity and the oddity of this splendid book." - AS Byatt

"Icelandic author Sjón’s latest novel, From the Mouth of the Whale (translated by Victoria Cribb), follows the life of Jónas Pálmason, an Icelandic man sentenced to live out his life on a bleak and uninhabited island after being convicted of practicing the arts of sorcery and necromancy. The novel, which is set in the years 1635-1639 when Jónas is in his mid-sixties, is Jónas’s poetic and surreal stream of consciousness touching on the major events of his life, including laying to rest a troublesome ghost who haunts a remote village and meeting and falling in love with his wife.
Aside from a brief trip to Copenhagen to plead his case, the whole of Jónas’s story is confined to his island. After years of solitude, Jónas’s identity has merged with that of his desolate surroundings: “I am the brother of all that divides, all that curls, all that intertwines, all that waves…after the day’s rain showers the web of the world becomes visible…the moment night falls, the beads of moisture glitter on its silver strings…nature is whole in its harmony.”
Jónas’s weighty and formal voice makes his story feel almost Biblical, calling to mind the universal conflict between innovation and repression. And, like that of many visionaries throughout history, Jónas’s tale is filled with loathsome villains “who every day outlive their victims, sprawling in their high seats and thrones, gorging themselves on meat, dripping with grease, from the livestock that grew fat on the green grass in meadows tended with diligence by innocent, God-fearing souls; congratulating themselves on having stripped this man of his livelihood and that woman of her breadwinner.” Victoria Cribb is to be commended for capturing Sjón’s unique voice in her English translation, a difficult task to be sure.
While this is undeniably a fictional account of a man living during the 17th century, it shares few characteristics with those novels described as historical fiction. This is not a realistic rendering of a specific historical time and place so much as it is an exploration into the ravaged mind of a persecuted man. Reading From the Mouth of the Whale is like studying one of those gruesome Goya paintings of the interior of an early 19th-century madhouse: a fascinating, if unsettling, experience." - Gwendolyn Dawson
"Jónas Pálmason the Learned was one of those people whose life is forever turning with the wheel of fortune. He had no sooner reached a safe haven than he was sent straight back out on to the stormy sea, and always in a leakier vessel than the one in which he had arrived.
From the Mouth of the Whale opens with a strange prologue. Lucifer tells us the story of his first encounter with man and the moment that led to his expulsion from Heaven. It is not particularly flattering.
Yes, there you lay in His hand, with your knees tucked under your chin, breathing so fast and so feebly that you quivered like the pectoral fin of a minnow. Our Father rested His fingertip against your spine and tilted His hand carefully so that you uncurled and rolled over on to your back. I stepped forward to take a better look at you. You scratched your nose with your curled fist, sneezed, oh so sweetly, and fixed on me those egotistical eyes – mouth agape. And I saw that this mouth would never be satisfied, that its teeth would never stop grinding, that its tongue would never tire of being bathed in the life-blood of other living creatures. Then your lips moved. You tried to say your first word, and that word was: ‘I’.
See what I mean? And it actually gets worse from there. In case there was ever a doubt, Lucifer is not a fan. But what this passage does is establish that this story is set on the Northern part of the globe. Lucifer has just come back from hunting the bull elk and the shag-haired trout and a monstrous tusked boar. The manner in which he tells his story is reminiscent of Inuit or Norse folklore.
The remainder of the novel (with a few exceptions) is narrated by Jónas Pálmason, called Jónas the Learned. He is the equal of Dostoevsky’s Underground Man and Mark Helprin’s Oscar Progresso from Memoir from Antproof Case, who are (to my mind) two of the most entertaining storytellers in fiction. By turns sardonic and regretful, paranoid and persecuted – Jónas is beset by a torrent of memories. These he relays as quickly as possible, one event transitioning into another. Memories of his past, conversations he would have had with his children, scraps of knowledge pulled from books – all come out in an almost incessant stream of consciousness.
The year is 1635, just two years after Galileo Galilei went before the Spanish Inquisition and was forced to recant that the earth orbited the sun. Our Jónas is a self-taught healer, a runic scholar, a poet, an artist, an observer of the natural world, and a collector of pagan lore. As such, he’s been accused of sorcery by his enemies (much like mid-wives were accused of being witches). Forced to live as an outlaw, the courts decree that no one may give aid to him or his family. Yet, he cannot leave Iceland unless someone provides passage. Caught in this Catch-22, Jónas helplessly watches as his family is made to suffer and all but one of his children die. Despite all that he endures, he cannot stifle his desire for knowledge.
Sjón has convincingly and amusingly rendered the illogicality of a man of science before science existed. Jónas scoffs at the existence of unicorns, but tells us about the exorcism which made him famous.
‘It seems to me that the best way to go about it would be by the sort of exorcism that good priests used to perform in papist times, that is, to tell the ghoul the history of the world, of spirits and men, both evil and benevolent. In that way it will eventually see where it fits into God’s great mechanism and realise that it is in quite the wrong place. For how is a dead man to tell the difference between himself and the living if he is still able to walk around, participate in fights and run errands? For that matter, how is he to know that he is not one of the elves? Both live outside human society? How is he to know that he is not a piece of driftwood? The flesh of both is equally rotten and stinking. Or a stray dog? Both are shooed away. Or merely a rock that rolls down the mountainside, causing men to dodge?
Jónas goes on to conclude that he should berate the ghoul in verse.
Seventeenth Century Iceland appears to have been both cold and brutal. But Sjón immerses his readers in the mind of his hero, which is a foreign and colorful place. The plot of From the Mouth of the Whale closely resembles the Old Testament’s Book of Jonah, but our Jónas is an old man with a tendency to ramble. Despite the hardships, it’s a surprisingly funny tale. Sjón has created a character so quirky, so strange and irreverent that the reader can’t help but be amused. The journey this story takes us on has all the makings of an epic adventure. Just not in the traditional sense." - Book Sexy Review

"Icelandic magic realism, sinister comedy, and dark deeds unfold in a series of vignettes and set pieces in From the Mouth of the Whale. Natural historian, runic scholar, poet, and healer Jónas Pálmason has been exiled to a remote island in 1635 as the Protestant Reformation sweeps Catholicism and pagan superstitions underground. Literally.
In an early tale Jónas, aged five, is swept along with his family and the people of his village to a mound where spirits are said to live. The earth is cleared from the side of the hill to reveal a buried statue of the Virgin Mary, still venerated by the older people who have been forced to abandon their former faith and its icons.
As he grows older Jónas gains a reputation as a healer and a shamanic figure, an animist who seems to share a psychic link with the naked Iceland landscape in which he travels. But from early on he arouses suspicion.
Sjón—deftly translated into English by Victoria Cribb—writes a rich layered prose that, like his protagonist, seems to spring from the extremes of Icelandic dark and light.
Describing Jónas composing a poem on Iceland’s birds with a youthful accomplice Sjón writes: “Láfi had begun the poem, the first three stanzas were his, but had run out of birds and inspiration by the time I turned up. As we walked from farm to farm we took to chanting the poem together. He recited the first verses, which he had knocked together with some skill, and I slid into the metre—slipped into like a tongue into the socket of a well-boiled sheep.”
From early on we know that Jónas has been exiled with just his wife for company. She constantly berates him for “that sort of nonsense that got us here in the first place.”
“That sort of nonsense” is Jónas’s apparent mastery of dark arts, his reputation as an exorcist and healing skills that are rooted in the folklore of his country and pagan rites.
He admits himself that he brought unwelcome attention to himself by “meddling in affairs too deep for a poor poet, by which I had provoked enmity of powerful men with who I could not contend, failing to realize they were jackals, not lions, that they would not be satisfied until they had severed my head from my body.”
Jónas seems at times to live in a hinterland between the harsh reality of his life in 17th century Iceland—the deaths of three of his children and the communal frenzy that resulted in the slaughter of a group of Basque fishermen—and an esoteric hinterland, grounded in nature but which shimmers into other worldliness.
These experiences define him and draw down the antagonism of the puritanical Christians who now control his country, who burn books and execute heretics, and who want to impose their worldview on those who do not share it.
Switching from first to third-person narrative, From the Mouth of the Whale is a story of a man out of sync with the time in which he lives but whose very sense of being is wired into the physical environment into which he was born.
Beautiful prose, sharp observation of nature, folklore, poetry, grotesque violence, human loss, and outright comic chaos weave in and out of this confidently written novel in which the narrative tone is in perfect pitch with the story being told." - Tony Bailie


Sjón, The Blue Fox, Trans. By Victoria Cribb, Telegram Books, 2008.


"The year is 1883. The stark Icelandic winter landscape is the backdrop. We follow the priest, Skugga-Baldur, on his hunt for the enigmatic blue fox. From there we’re then transported to the world of the naturalist Friðrik B. Friðriksson and his charge, Abba, who suffers from Down’s syndrome, and who came to his rescue when he was on the verge of disaster. Then to a shipwreck off the Icelandic coast in the spring of 1868.
The fates of Friðrik, Abba and Baldur are intrinsically bound and unravelled in this spellbinding book that is part thriller, part fairy tale.
Winner of the Nordic Literary Prize and nominated for the Icelandic Literature Prize."

"I shall cut to the chase. This is an exceptional book. Truly stunning. I adored every one of the 112 pages. I strongly suspect I shall spend most of the rest of the year recommending it to anyone who will listen, and probably anyone who won't. Stop reading this review and go and buy it now. You'll thank me later.
The Blue Fox is short, and deceptively simple. On the surface it follows two loosely connected stories set across a few days in Iceland during winter 1883. The priest Baldur Skuggason is on a hunting trip, tracking the elusive titular blue fox through a biting blizzard. The biologist Fridrik Fridriksson is preparing the funeral of his maid, Abba, who had Down's Syndrome.
What makes The Blue Fox so special is both the poetry of the language and the way that the stories build cumulatively, scene by scene. The effect is almost hypnotic. I never wanted it to end, but end it did with a subtle twist that brought the strands together neatly and cleverly.
A great deal is made in literature about the value of a sense of place. I'd take a bloody good story over decriptions of hills and mountains any day but when an author does get it right it can render a novel unforgettable. Sjon does that here. You are not reading about Iceland in the 19th century, you are right there, freezing your tits off.
One fascinating, and haunting, sequence looks back to Fridrik's first meeting with Abba. He finds her tied up in an outbuilding, accused of murdering her newborn child. From his studies in Denmark he recognises her as suffering from Down's Syndrome, a newly discovered condition. For years, doctors had been baffled by white women giving birth to babies with Asian, Mongol-looking, features. They already knew the developmental stages of the foetus: fish-lizard-bird-dog-ape-Negro-yellow man-Indian-white man, but the Mongoloid babies were a mystery until Dr. J. Langdon H. Down discussed them in a paper on the classification of idiots. Fridrik recognises the signs of Down's in Abba, even though babies born with the condition were usually smothered at birth and rarely made it into adulthood. He rescues her and cares for her until her death, which is where we join the story.
Full marks must go to the book's translator Victoria Cribb, from what I can tell she has done a cracking job in retaining the poetry of the original. Sadly we lose some of the inferences to be taken from the character names - the priest's being an important play on words - but there was no getting round that.
The front of the book features a quote from Bjork calling it 'a magical novel'. She is almost certainly biased - Sjon wrote the lyrics to Isobel and others of her songs - but she is absolutely right. And don't just take my word for that. If you would prefer a review from a proper writer then click here to read AS Byatt in the Times. She won the Booker Prize you know. She thinks it's great too.
My only regret upon reading The Blue Fox is that, as my first book of the year, it has set the bar very high indeed. It is going to be difficult for anything else I read during 2009 to be as haunting, beautiful and just plain wonderful as this. I may have scuppered myself.
The Blue Fox is published by Telegram Books who got huge praise in various comments last time I mentioned them on these pages and are quicky becoming a publisher whose books demand attention. I can't wait to read more from them." - Steve Stack

"Rarely does an author come loaded with such impressive indie and establishment credentials. As Björk’s long time collaborator, Sjón was nominated for an Oscar for his lyrics for the film Dancer in the Dark. Renowned throughout Iceland for his numerous plays and poetry collections (the first of which was published when he was just sixteen) in 2005, Skugga-Baldur (The Blue Fox) was awarded the Nordic Council’s Literature Prize – the Nordic equivalent of the Booker. Bile might start to rise in certain quarters at the thought of musical hipsters who think they can pull off a novel. But in this beautiful, tiny book, Sjón has produced the literary equivalent of a snowflake, a hundred page riff on the literature, landscape and history of Iceland which reads more like an epic poem, albeit with one striking piece of modernity thrown in.
Two men dominate the book – local pastor Baldur Skuggason, who is tracking the eponymous fox through glacial fields, and Fridrik B. Fridjonsson, a returning prodigal who has abandoned Iceland for late seventeenth century Copenhagen and the company of a group called the lotus-eaters. Fridrik returns home to settle his deceased parents’ affairs, intending to burn the farm buildings and head back to a life of smoke and pleasure domes, but his discovery of a young girl, Abba, scrabbling for food in the outhouse of an old friend, prompts an act of kindness which forces him to stay, and sets him up in opposition to the reverend hunter.
The fact that Abba has Down’s Syndrome, a fact recognised by the medically well-read Fridrik, is an unsettlingly modern sleight of hand. In a book where everything else is perfectly pitched historically, it rings an odd but important note, forcing the reader to examine things more closely, and thereby realise that what we’re essentially reading is a good old-fashioned fairy tale. This is exactly the kind of Grimm story where people get lost in the woods, animals are liable to start talking, and the peasant girl is bound to turn out to be a princess – if she doesn’t get eaten by the wolf first. The characters are ciphers, the landscape is all consuming and we can probably take a decent guess at the ending. What makes it all so wonderful is the skill with which it is written.
Sjón’s poetic training tells. Most of the pages hold less than a paragraph, the observations are sparse and disconnected, and whilst perhaps it’s an obvious trick to leave so much blank space in a story dominated by snow, the effect of short chapters is a slowing of pace, not a Dan Brown-esque increase. Each word in its scarcity is loaded high with importance, so that your mode of reading changes and like the pastor tracking the fox, you pay close attention to every mark on the page. There are some lovely images too – the sound of snowmelt passes for birdsong, the beard of one character, “tumbles from his chin like an ice-bound cataract,” and the rhythm of each sentence is crafted by someone who is used to measuring syllables. Credit for this last must surely go to Victoria Cribb, the novel’s translator, without whom, “this most Icelandic of novels” as Sjón himself termed it, would not be available for impoverished monoglots like me. I wish I could explain the pun on the pastor’s name and the Icelandic title of the book, I’m sure it’s just one more subtlety in a very subtle book we’re missing." - Sarah Hesketh

"So it was a dog last week, this week it's a fox, a blue one, and I'm just wondering what it might be next week (suggestions?)
But firstly I'm also wondering how a publisher like Telegram Books has passed unnoticed in my reading life to date?
Why hadn't I heard of them?
Should I get out more?
Do the reps get this far because surely I'd notice books like these on the shelves?
The Telegram list is that perfect blend of old and new with plenty of fiction in translation which I always love, writers from Turkey, the Faroe Islands, Lebanon, China and my first Telegram read Iceland.

What with being a snow expert now, Iceland seemed an appropriate place to read after my Alafoss Lopi moment but I have also read a few other Icelandic authors and enjoyed them, though I'll admit I'm building slowly to tackling Halldor Laxness (fortify me someone, tell me I'll be alright)
However to The Blue Fox by Sjón.
That queen of Iceland Bjork thinks this is a 'magical novel' whilst A.S.Byatt finds it 'comic and lyrical' so I must see what it is all about.
The author I discover is actually a poet, lyricist and song writer too, Sigurjón Birgir Sigurðsson and the pen name Sjón means 'sight'.
This all bodes well if he can pull it off.
Well I have to agree The Blue Fox is magical, as events during a week in January 1883 unfold and the Reverend Baldur Skuggason sets off on an ill-fated hunting expedition in the teeth of a howling blizzard. Meanwhile his neighbour Fridrik Fridjonsson is dealing with something else entirely.
Having returned to settle his parents' affairs in the neighbourhood fifteen years earlier and intending just a brief sojourn, Fridrik found himself tied to his home again by an act of kindness with the discovery of Hafdis Jonsdottir. Calling herself Abba, Fridrik finds the young girl with Down's Syndrome manacled and ill-treated in a ship which had run aground.
His life with Abba since has been one of pure revelation and when events with Abba weave inextricably with those surrounding the blue fox and Rev. Skuggason, I realised that I was reading one of those deceptively simple but deeply meaningful fables with a hint of fairy tale and perfect elements of myth and mysticism.
Poets, if they can successfully make the transition to fiction, do it with that special word-gift. That minimalist approach, a paring down to the very essentials and you know every single word holds power and meaning. In The Blue Fox, a single sentence on a page requires careful thought, not a quick flick onto the next page and I was frequently stopping to consider
'The sun warms the white man's body, and the snow melting with a diffident creaking, passes for birdsong.'
Or this beautiful description of the Northern Lights and my apologies, I can't credit this photo, it arrived in one of those e mails that do the rounds but I had to use it, it fits Sjon's words perfectly.
'The rim of daylight was fading.
In the halls of heaven it was now dark enough for the Aurora Borealis sisters to begin their lively dance of the veils. With an enchanted play of colours they flitted light and quick about the great stage of the heavens, in fluttering gold dresses, their tumbling pearl necklaces scattering here and there in their wild caperings.'
The book has its amusing moments too.
Man stalks fox who lures man on deeper and deeper into unknown territory, fortunately man has packed lunch with him,
'Hand thick slabs of lamb, rye cakes with sheep's butter, sour as gall, topped with mutton sausage, a dried cod's head, pickled blood pudding, dried fish, curd porridge and a lump of brown sugar.'
Good, sounds worse than...than...yes, bubble and squeak or heaven forfend...um...tripe and jellied eels (I'll bet someone out there loves tripe as much as all the b&s fans) because even this early on in the book I'm beginning to think this may be just what Reverend Skuggason deserves.
As always hats off to the translator Victoria Cribb. I have always understood that Icelandic is a fiendishly difficult language to grasp, making that capture of the essence of a book like this all the more impressive.
This one would make a splendid book group read because even as I have written this new revelations have come to mind, that fox is still beckoning and I know there is plenty that I have missed in my first reading. All adding to the value of a book like The Blue Fox, it will hold up to many visits and countless interpretations and actually I can't wait to read it again." - dovegreyreader

My weekend of reading those short books in translation is going apace, with two and a bit down. I also read possibly my first book by an author with only one name, since I've never read anything by Cher... oh, wait, no, there's Saki too. Anyway. It's definitely the first Icelandic book I've read, The Blue Fox by Sjon. Imagine the accent on the 'o', if you will - apparently this penname means 'sight'.
I'd heard about the novel (novella?) in a few places - first at dovegreyreader, methinks, then later when Scott Pack chose it as his first Blogger's Book of the Month - and Claire at Paperback Reader has also written about it - there you go, three reviews to read before I even get past a weak Cher joke. And they all liked it - you can add me to that pile.
Published in Icelandic in 2004, Victoria Cribb's translation was published by Telegram Books in 2008. I always make sure to credit translators, because it is one of the jobs which impresses me the most, being about as far away as possible from own (incredibly limited) skill set. And, though I cannot compare Cribb's translation with Sjon's original, I'm pretty certain that the atmosphere of the book has been carried across.
The Blue Fox takes place in January 1883, and the first section follows the priest Baldur Skuggason as he is on the trail of the elusive blue fox. Each page has a paragraph or two of text on it, slowing down the reading process and giving the words the form, as well as the language, of poetry. Not that it is overly full of imagery or anything like that - rather, the language is sparse and deceptively simple. And there is a subtle humour throughout. One page reads simply: 'The night was cold and of the longer variety.' We follow the slow and careful hunt, and even if (like me) you're willing the fox to escape, this is still beautiful writing. Completely unlike anything I've read before.
Just as the trigger is pulled on the gun, we jump back a few days, to the world of Fridrik B. Fridiksson and his charge Abba, who has Down's Syndrome. Apparently it was rare, in the mid-19th century in Iceland at least, for babies with Down's Syndrome to be left alive.
No witnesses were needed; before the child could utter its first wail, the midwife would close its nose and mouth, thereby returning its breath to the great cauldron of souls from which all mankind is served.
Once more the structure is strange, as it's going backgrounds. We meet characters before we know their histories; sometimes we are told they are dead before they even appear. It all lends a disorientating feeling, but fairy-tale-like rather than sinister. Perhaps it is the mediation of translation, or perhaps it is in Sjon's writing, but The Blue Fox feels almost mystical, as though it is read through a glass darkly.
I'll be honest - I wasn't *as* bowled over by the novella as Scott Pack was, but I am very glad that I've read it. The sections of the hunt, especially - which continue at the end of the book, increasingly and beautifully surreal - were haunting and mesmeric and so different from anything else I've read. For a taste of Icelandic literature, and a glimpse of a wholly different world and time, I suggest you pick up The Blue Fox - you're unlikely to read anything else similar this year." - Stuck In A Book
"I picked up The Blue Fox on a continuing kick for Icelandic literature having recently finished Bragi Olafsson’s The Pets (published by Open Letter). I was pleased to see a cover-commendation from Icelandic singer Björk, whose association with the author, Sjón, is through several projects including the 2000 film Dancer in the Dark, in which Björk played the lead role, singing lyrics by Sjón, both of whom received Oscar nominations for their involvement. Sjón has also written the lyrics to a number of Björk’s other songs including several from her greatest album (in my opinion), Homogenic.
Needless to say, the decision to put the word of an international pop celebrity on the cover of The Blue Fox may seem to be a mere publicity ploy—and, at least in my case, without shame I admit it succeeded. Unfortunately, my experience of the book does not live up to Björk’s high commendations. She calls it “a magical novel which presents us with some of old Iceland in an incredibly modern shape.” I do not dispute Björk’s analysis, but I assume that she read it in the original Icelandic, which leads me to believe that the translation is less than outstanding. Indeed I often felt while reading the book that the language was vague or marginal, perhaps sidestepping a difficult turn of phrase here and there. Also it tends to use more clichés than seem to fit the idiosyncratic tone of the work, such as “dead as a doornail.”
And yet, there are moments in which the language seems crisply tuned to an surprising level of clarity and emotion, such as
She looked up and met his eyes; she smiled and her smile doubled the happiness of the world. But before he could nod in return, the smile vanished from her face and was at once replaced by a mask so tragic that Fridrik burst into tears.
Because of this difficulty with the language my reaction to the book is quite mixed, but ultimately I can only say that the book is certainly worth reading. The story begins with a hunt for a blue fox by an unnamed man, sparsely narrated in bits of short paragraphs isolated to pages of mostly white space, lending to the sense to the Icelandic-blizzard landscape while maintaining a quietness to the storytelling which allows free reign to the reader’s imagination. It reminds me of The Old Man and the Sea until the hunter’s prey takes on a certain playfully mythic character just before the end of the first part, but before the matter is resolved we are taken back to another character and another narrative. This one is the touching drama of a man grieving the death of his adopted daughter-figure, a girl with Down’s Syndrome. In the third part we return to the hunter, and the story becomes a surreal comedy in the vein of Kafka’s Metamorphosis as he becomes trapped in a cave by a snowdrift. In the end, a not-altogether unpredictable (yet appropriately so) revelation ties the two narratives together.
The Blue Fox is a pretty, touching, funny little book whose translation seems quizzical and maybe a bit frustrating at times, but the story is large enough within its 112 pages that complaints of prosodic trouble-spots would be a poor excuse to pass it over." - Phillip A. Witte

"Different. Very different. Mysterious. I don’t always feel like finding out more about a book but this time I did. The Blue Fox is a haunting story full of ice and snow and darkness. Historical fiction and fairytale. It takes place at the time when Iceland has finally gained independence from Denmark. Fridrik, one of the protagonists, studied in Copenhagen. He is a naturalist and a herbalist. He returns to Iceland to burn down his late parents farm and erase all of his old life. But then he finds Abba, a young woman with Down’s Syndrome, who is kept in captivity. He decides to stay for her sake until the day she dies an early death. The book tells also the story of the priest Baldur Skuggason and the little blue vixen he is hunting. This is a very short novel but it is rich and multi-layered. Compellingly atmospherical and descriptive. What we don’t know unless we do a little bit of research is the fact that Skugga-Baldur, the Icelandic title, refers to a ghost being, part fox, part cat. A mysterious mythological creature. The English translator decided to name one of the forms of Skugga-Baldur. The German opted for the title Schattenfuchs, meaning shadow fox. Even though it has fairytale elements The Blue Fox is also very realistic. The writing is sparse, the information is well-chosen, we get a good impression of life in Iceland at the end of the 19th century. One thing that I found very interesting is the fact that Down’s Syndrome never existed in Iceland. Sjón deliberately chose to write about it as he was shocked when he found out that children showing signs of it in the womb are immediately aborted.
Sjón writes the lyrics for Björk and also wrote the lyrics for the movie Dancer in the Dark. He is a well-known Icelandic poet. His affinity to poetry is very obvious.
I don’t think that I have read a lot of Icelandic literature so far apart from bits from the Edda and I have books by Halldor Laxness on my TBR pile.
Does anyone have recommendations? Any Icelandic writers you like or know of?" - Beauty is a Sleeping Cat

"Written by the Icelandic author and poet Sigurjón Birgir Sigurðsson, or Sjón, The Blue Fox is just one of Sjón's many works amid a respectable repetoire that includes poetry, children's books, novels, and plays. Among his credits is a lyrical collaboration with fellow Icelander, Björk on the song “I've Seen it All.” A beautifully written and simplistically poignant song, “I've Seen it All” reflects the insight of his lyrical voice and the seemingly prophetic power of his first name Sigurjón, meaning “sight” in Icelandic. And, coincidentally, The Blue Fox is one of the most insightful stories I have ever read.
It begins with a spattering of instances from the view of the Priest and the Blue Fox, the hunter and the hunted, amidst the landscape of a harsh Icelandic winter in 1883. So determined to hunt and kill the enigmatic blue fox, Priest Baldur Skuggason battles the elements and risks his life, enduring freezing temperatures, harsh winds and avalanches. The passages alternate between the perspective of the man and the perspective of the Fox, the man determined to have her fur as a trophy and the Fox determined to keep her life. Fridrik B. Fridriksson, a parishioner of the Priest's, and Fridriksson's adopted daughter, Abba, are introduced to us near the middle of the story. Suffering from Down-Syndrome, Abba is banned from the Priest's church due to her disorder. Offering some insight into the Priest's personality, his treatment of Abba makes us a little less likely to wish him out of the hardships he encounters while hunting the Fox. Our sympathy for the Priest is further tested when we find that Abba is actually his daughter and he discarded her long ago because of her mental illness.
We find ourselves identifying the Fox as more human than the man. We are with the Priest through his steady transformation into an animal more animal than the Fox. Left with no sympathy for the Priest, our sympathy lies with her and our sense of fulfilled justice lies in his transformation which, we can only assume, will soon end in his death. The outcome of the Priest’s hunt reflects the inner most self of the man and serves as the culmination of his comeuppance. Ultimately, nature gets the best of him and he is revealed as more beast than man.
The Blue Fox is a novella that transcends its small binding and introduces the reader to a refreshingly new take on the ageless war between man and nature. Interwoven with instances of magical realism, the story of Priest Baldur Skuggason and the Blue Fox seem a dark Icelandic folktale, revolving around the mysteries of nature and the complexities of man." - HubPages

"Sigurjón Birgir Sigurdsson, better known as Sjón, is a postmodern artist in his own right, novelist, poet and lyricist. His persona is connected with the kind of artistic flair that I tend to categorize as pretentious.
Internationally, he is perhaps best known for having written the lyrics to some of Björk’s songs. He even received an Oscar nomination in 2001 for his lyrics to “I’ve Seen it All” from Lars von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark.
I had never read one of his books before, but heard that they were both surreal and complicated, which is why I expected not to like The Blue Fox. I was so afraid that my negative expectations would blur my objective thinking that I was hesitant to even pick it up.
But, as it happens, Sjón is full of surprises.
The book begins inside the mind of a poor scared female fox who is being hunted. Describing her feelings, the surroundings, the weather and the hunter with only a few carefully-chosen words, Sjón brings his readers to the cold snowy mountains of an Icelandic winter. The words flow like a poem and are so realistic that you can almost feel the snow blow down your shirt.
Then the perspective shifts, revealing the hunter’s thoughts, examining the shadows of his mind and his dark intentions. Nothing can keep him away from his prey. After playing this game of hide and seek for some time, I began to wonder for how long this can go on, without getting boring, that is.
Just then the story takes an unexpected turn. Suddenly, readers are taken a few days back in time to the peaceful countryside. Another man is introduced, a farmer and an herbalist, who with stoic calm is making a coffin for a loved one who has passed away, handing it over to the local priest’s mentally-disabled servant.
Little by little, the reader learns more about these two main characters, the hunter, who is also the priest, and the herbalist, and how they’re stories are intertwined. It’s a short book and therefore a simple story, one might think, but there is much more to it.
The Blue Fox recounts beautifully the eternal struggle between human wickedness and compassion. Despite being short there is quite a lot of story between the two covers, because much can be read between the lines.
It contains both realistic and surreal elements—in a way in which the surrealism makes sense in this alternate reality—and references are made to folk-stories and books by authors such as Nobel Prize laureate Halldór Laxness.
The story is set in the late 19th century when Iceland was primarily a nation of poor, uneducated farmers over which preachers had a stronghold through religion. It provides a portal into the Icelandic existence before the nation began its quick-paced journey into modernism.
The book is written in the style of romantic nationalism, which had just awakened among Icelanders at that time, with a new sense of national identity and fight for independence. Similarly, Sjón’s use of language is deliberately dated. But it is also refreshingly original considering that most of today’s authors seem to think originality lies in slang.
Sjón engages in intricate wordplay such that much must be lost in translation. The original title, for example, is Skugga-Baldur, which is a malicious creature from Icelandic folklore, half cat, half fox, but in the story it is also the name of one of the main characters, Rev. Baldur Skuggason, the fox hunter.
Originally published by Bjartur in 2003, The Blue Fox earned Sjón the 2005 Nordic Council’s Literature Prize. This year, after being released in English, the book received a nomination for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. The winner will be announced in May.
Whether The Blue Fox deserves to win, I cannot say, but it certainly deserves to be read. Contrary to my expectations, this is not a work of pretension at all, although I would have preferred if it had delved a bit deeper into the storyline at times and left a little less for the reader to guess. However, because of these gaps, I imagine it could spark quite interesting discussions at book circles." - Eygló Svala

"Sjón is an Icelandic writer, and I bought an English translation of this novel while I was on holiday in Iceland last month. Sjón is first and foremost a poet, and this is a very slim little volume - barely more than 100 pages. But those pages are so full of magic and beauty and harshness and such a vivid sense of place that I could barely believe the author managed to say so much in so few words. In that sense, and in some of its themes, this book reminds me of Alan Garner's brilliant Thursbitch - and coming from me, that is not a comparison to be taken lightly.
The Blue Fox is the story of a huntsman-priest in 19th century Iceland, Baldur Skuggason, obsessed with hunting the mysterious 'blue fox' or 'skugga-baldur' that roams the snow-covered mountain landscape in the dark days of midwinter. It's also the story of the herbalist Fridrik Fridjonsson and Abba, the horribly abused young Down's Syndrome woman he has taken in and loves like a daughter, helping her to compile a collection of carefully-identified feathers from Iceland's rich and varied bird life as he gradually learns the strange language she has created for herself during her years of neglect. It's the story of life, death, shamanism, landscape and metamorphosis, as the hunter becomes the hunted, human beings become puzzles, and the landscape and language become one and the same.
The Blue Fox could only ever have been written in Iceland, in that unique landscape, that odd mixture of beauty and harshness. Like a Nordic fairytale, it combines magic and brutality, gentleness and violence, the metaphysical and the mundane.
As a young man, studying in Denmark, Fridrik tells his opium-smoking companions: "I have seen the universe; it is made of poems." His Danish friends laugh and tell him he is "a true Icelander" - and they are right. I've been to Iceland, and never before have I ever been so convinced that the universe is, without a doubt, made of poems ." - Joanne Sheppard

"The Icelandic writer Sjón, whose international breakthrough came with his novel The Blue Fox, is a renaissance man. Sjón started his career as a poet at age 15, and took part in Reykjavik’s cultural explosion in the 1980s when “there was no hierarchy in the arts.”
He was a member of a neo-surrealist group called Medusa. “We then all became anarcho-surrealists,” he added.
It was during this period that he met singer-songwriter Björk and began his collaboration writing lyrics for her that has lasted until today; Sjón has three songs on Björk’s newly released album Biophilia. In 2000, one of his songs for Björk was used in the Lars von Trier’s film “Dancer in the Dark” and nominated for an Academy Award. Sjón went to Hollywood for the ceremony. “That was one of the experiences in my life that I can truly call surreal,” he said.
Sjón is not foreign to the world of film as he also pens screenplays. He wrote a screenplay for a film that made the rounds of horror film festivals several years ago entitled “Reykjavik Whale Watching Massacre.”
“It’s a nitty-gritty splatter film, a dark comedy about innocent tourists massacred by disgruntled whale hunters,” he commented.
The Blue Fox, a story about a priest hunting for an enigmatic blue fox, won the Nordic Literary Prize and has been translated into 21 languages. Sjón is currently finishing his eighth novel, which is the last volume of a trilogy that he began in 1994. His UK publisher, Telegram Books, has world rights to his works in English. Besides The Blue Fox, Telegram has published From the Mouth of the Whale and next year will bring out The Whispering Muse (working title) that was published in Iceland in 2005 and has already been translated into six languages.
“It’s the story of an 80-year-old guy, a former editor of Fish and Culture magazine that focuses on the Nordic race and its consumption of fish. He is invited on the maiden journey of a ship exporting paper pulp from Norway to Russia. One of the crew members claims to have been on the Argo with Jason. They begin to tell each other tales,” said Sjón.
Sjón’s inspiration has always come from melding ancient Icelandic traditions with the avant-garde. “I go into pockets of Icelandic history . . . I love to bring diverse cosmologies alive on the page. I mix myths and crackpot theories together with my need to tell a story.”
Working with 17th century Icelandic texts is also a motivation for Sjón, who said he enjoys managing “the peculiarities of the Icelandic language and its twists and turns.”
This is not easy for his translators, he acknowledges, but because of his excellent grasp of English, he has been able to work closely with Victoria Cribb, his English translator. In other languages Sjón said, “of course I can’t know if the translation is good but I can tell if the person is a good translator by the questions they ask. I am open to working relationships with translators and always find a way.”
At Frankfurt, Sjón said he was enjoying meeting some of his foreign publishers for the first time from Serbia, Portugal, Lithuania and Turkey, where The Blue Fox was published last week. His experience with foreign publishers has taught him that, “it’s better to go with small publishers who are truly dedicated.”
Sjón is currently working on an adaptation of his novel The Whispering Muse for opera (his wife is a mezzo soprano) and is putting the finishing touches to his eighth novel.
In the end, said Sjón, “Man is a narrative animal.” - Olivia Snaije

An Excerpt from Sjón’s “The Blue Fox”

Interview by Davíð K. Gestsson

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