Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Books and Dreams

From the first of November, things will be going all Germanic around these parts with the start of German Literature Month.  However, before that all starts, I just have time to bring you one last taste of Iceland, and a wonderful one it is too :)

Gyrðir Elíasson's Stone Tree, translated by Victoria Cribb, is another short story collection that the wonderful Comma Press were kind enough to send me a copy of.  Unlike the others I've reviewed though, Stone Tree's offerings are more akin to flash fiction - the 116 pages contain 25 different stories.  These vignettes work superbly though, describing slices of life, glimpses of a moment in time like a photograph, or a video lasting but a few brief seconds.

Not a lot happens in some of the stories, but the reader is still intrigued as to why events unfold (and are set up) as they are.  For example, in A House of Two Stories, two men living on different floors in the same house translate different books by the same author - and that's it.  Elíasson's skill lies in sketching this out in a few hundred words in such a way that the reader feels that there is something more to the story than this and is engaged enough to wonder what exactly that could be.

The literary theme is one that runs through the collection (a comforting one for bibliophiles like myself!), but the stories can often contain subtle warnings about the danger of becoming obsessed with literature.  In Book After Book, a story which may hit too close to home for many readers, a man wanders about his house aimlessly, picking up some of the many books he possesses.  Some are in the fridge, some are crammed into boxes, others share the bathroom cabinet with prescription medicine...  While he is certainly not lacking for reading material, the man's world is eerily flat and empty.  Perhaps it's no coincidence that I took sixty books to the local charity shop the day after reading this story...

Readers may get a mention, but one of the central ideas of Stone Tree is the writer, a solitary figure seeking time alone in an attempt (usually a vain one) to squeeze some words out onto the page.  In several of the stories (e.g. The Summerbook, The Flight to Halmstad), this search for necessary tranquillity comes at the cost of relationships, with marriages slowly disintegrating in the absence of human contact.  In others though (e.g. The Writing Room, The Bus), the writer's solitude allows him to connect with something outside his usual world, his dreams bleeding uncannily into his waking existence.

If this all sounds a little dull and arty, rest assured that Elíasson is not without a dry, laconic sense of humour.  There are many gems scattered throughout his stories, such as:
"On the little table beside the bed an ancient coffee maker boiled and bubbled, producing a strange, black viscous fluid that we decided by tacit agreement to refer to simply as coffee, although in reality it was something altogether different."
p.48, The Writing Room (Comma Press, 2008)
Or, perhaps you would prefer the writer's attempt to describe beautiful scenery:
"It was past midday when their car pulled up beside the houses of Saksun.  The sky was overcast but no rain was falling here and the mountains were free from fog.  Saksun is an extraordinary, romantic place.  It would have been the perfect setting if Keats, Shelley and Byron had ever needed a retirement home."
p.81, Watershed
Scattered jokes like these help to prevent the stories falling into a humdrum, predictable pattern - and also keep the reader on their toes :)

With such short, mystery-laden pieces of prose, it will come as little surprise that Elíasson is also a poet, and in an interview published back when Iceland was the guest of honour at the Frankfurt Book Fair last year, he admits his tendency towards 'anorexic prose', an influence of his poetic writing.  This poetic side comes out in a comment a character makes in his story The Carpentry Woodshop, after the death of his sister:
"Later, when things were almost back to normal, Dad said that I should have carried on and joined him in the carpentry business.  I answered that two carpenters in the family were enough, and that I would take up woodwork again if he could build a stairway to heaven.  He said he couldn't do that.  I said in that case I would weave one out of words."
p.78, The Carpentry Woodshop
Of course, even the most poetic and lyrical of writers is nothing in a foreign language without the help of a good translator, and Victoria Cribb is one of the best.  I have praised her work before (she is the translator into English of Sjón's work), and even if Elíasson has a very different style - dare I say it, a little less flamboyant... -, it still comes across well in the foreign language.  I'm not sure if Cribb has translated any other Icelandic authors, but I'm almost inclined to seek them out and read them just on her name alone :)

All in all then, Stone Tree is a wonderful collection of stories, a fitting end to this stage of my journey around Icelandic literature.  Before I finish up though, I just want to look at one more story, one which I came back to time after time.  Chain Reaction is just three pages long, yet it is full of hidden meanings, a puzzle which the reader longs to crack.  It's another of the stories which centre on a writer at a retreat, where the protagonist, hearing the sound of chains in the attic, leaves the house and goes for a walk, ending up sitting by a pool.

So far, so prosaic.  However, it's the detail which fascinates me so much in this story.  The writer flees immediately he hears the sound of chains - does he have a guilty conscience?  In leaving the house, he locks himself out, the keys are still inside - is there a deeper significance to this?  The book he (inevitably) takes with him is a biography of Houdini...  As he approaches the pool, he compares a cave to the one where Merlin was stranded after losing his powers - an allegory for writer's block?  The name of an old girlfriend pops into his head, and a light immediately comes on in a building in the distance.  And I haven't even mentioned his dream yet...

You cannot help but admire the way Elíasson almost casually throws all these elements together in fewer words than it has taken me to review his book.  Despite the brevity of the tales, these are not stories that you speed through; with all the dense imagery, the reader needs to slow down and take heed of what is happening.  Rob, of Rob Around Books, a noted fan of the short story, wrote earlier this year about the way he always reads a short story twice, recommencing immediately after finishing the first read.  At the time I was, to put it mildly, a little dubious about this - however, this is pretty much what I did for the majority of the stories in Stone Tree.  And it works. 

Stone Tree is a great book.  Elíasson is an excellent writer.  This (as far as I am aware) is his only work in English.  More, please :)