En septembre 2015, je rencontrai Jón Kalman Stefánsson en tête à tête à l’hôtel du bar Montalembert, à Paris, pour parler de son roman D’ailleurs, les poissons n’ont pas de pieds. Nous eûmes dans ce cadre cosy une discussion amicale dont je vous livre ici, bien des mois après (mea culpa !), une partie, entre rires (ils furent nombreux) et gravité, vie et littérature. Un entretien à l’image de cet immense auteur, qui est aussi une personne remarquable.
(L’entretien fut mené en anglais, car je n’ai hélas pas le bonheur de comprendre l’islandais. Qu’on me pardonne les éventuelles fautes ou incorrections : ni l’auteur ni moi ne sommes parfaitement bilingues !)
Chryseia : This novel is your 10th work, but it’s only the 4th translated into French. There are many things we already saw with the 3 previous books, but what is really new is that you deal with contemporaneous stuff as well this time. Was it important for you to depict Iceland as it is today, especially with all the problems the country, as many others, had to face? Do you consider yourself as an impartial witness, or did you want to give your point of view too?
Jón Kalman Stefánsson : After I wrote the trilogy, which took me 5 or 6 years, I wanted to deal with my present time, although in those books, the trilogy, I was also dealing with my present time. In my point of view, if you’re a writer, you’re always writing about your own time, it doesn’t matter if you’re writing about something which happened a thousand years ago or about today. But still, I wanted to deal directly with our time, it was just an urge for me. I had some ideas about another novel which took place five hundred years ago, but I couldn’t start it. It was just, you know, screaming in my blood. Because there are so many things in our present time that I want to deal with, or to describe. I write to find out how the world is, and how life is. And there were also many things both in Iceland and in the whole world that I wanted to look into, and maybe to put some new light on. The world has changed so rapidly during the last ten years, or twenty years, and I think that we are going too fast all the time, so that we almost forget to live. Of course, often we don’t think about it, but still, there is this longing deep inside us, this crying for things to go slower. And therefore, things like slow food is so popular. You know this slowfood thing? It’s really strange in a way that we have to have this concept, « slow food », that we have to remind ourselves to eat slowly and to think about what we are eating. You probably don’t have this problem in Paris! In France, you take 2 hours to eat, so maybe that’s not something you understand. But for the rest of the world…
C. No, in France too, things change. The meal as a moment of pleasure and sharing is somehow disappearing too, at least in everyday life.
J.K.S. Yes. In a way, the modern time is forcing us to do everything fast. Twenty years ago, you wrote a letter, and you were very happy if you had an answer three days later; now you write an e-mail, and you’re very mad if you don’t have the answer right away. That’s just an example of how things have changed. And this lack of patience has grown into our blood. So we are ‒most of us are‒ going way to fast in life, and I fear that it will affect the way we think as well. It will create a lot of stress. I mean, one of the most serious problems in most westen society is stress. An incredible number of people are fighting to get a good night sleep. The most popular books are, well, books about cooking –nobody has time to cook, but they buy the books, read them and never do the actual cooking because they don’t have the time– and books about how to get a better sleep. And that shows how far away we are from ourselves. I mean, I have a dog: If the dog is tired, he lies down and sleeps ; if we are tired, we get coffee and start to work harder. So we are going to a strange place. And if you do that year after year after year, it will end in some… not in a good place.
C. The first person narrator of the novel is quite mysterious. He seems to be part of the family, maybe a cousin of Ari or something like that (they have the same grandmother), but we also have the feeling he’s omniscient, that he speaks for the dead –like in the trilogy. Is this ambiguity something you did deliberately, or did it just happen? How did you conceive this narrator?
J.K.S. Well, you can say it’s both something that I thought of, and prepared, but it also just happened. It’s a mixture of both. As I often say, the most important decision you make when you start writing a novel is how you’re going to tell the story. Everything depends on the decision you make. I mean, you can have a great story and ruin it if you don’t chose the right place to tell it, and you can have a really trivial story, and tell it in a great way if you have the right narrator. So it all depends on who is telling the story. And when I write a novel, I’m always trying to find a new way, or a way that gives me new possibilities. I wanted to use the first person. But the problem is the first person narrator is closer to the writer, but he’s also limited, as we are limited in our own lives. So this mysterious character came almost without thinking, as an urge, to give me the possibility to see deeper and farer away than Ari, the main character. I wasn’t sure myself, at the beginning, who this narrator was, but I liked him, we were friends immediately. And then, slowly, I understood who he was, but not what he was.
C. There are elements in the book which may appear as linked to your own life, for instance the fact that the young narrator and Ari work in the fish business, the fact Ari has lived abroad in Copenhagen [J.K.S y a vécu, mais n’y a pas travaillé], and of course, the love of books, and words, and poetry. Did you wilfully put some parts of yourself in those characters? Was it a way to give them more reality?
J.K.S. The first five novels I wrote were mostly first person narratives, and the characters there had many things in common with me, in their lives, etc. And many people wanted to believe that these characters were me; people like to think that… It’s a strange thing: people often read novels to escape the real life, but still they want to believe that the novel is part of real life, that the characters the author describes exist in real life. It’s strange, how we look at fiction. With this character, I wanted to describe his place, Keflavik, that was my call, to write a novel about Keflavik. But often, I make a choice without thinking, I just know that the character moved to Keflavik when he was 12 years old, and lived there for ten years. Those were the things I knew I would have to have. I’m not the kind of writer who sits down and decides to put himself in his book, to deal with his own life. It’s just that I knew it was better for me and better for the book if I described places or times which I knew. I could go deeper into the matter. So maybe I’m describing things which were almost the same as I lived, but they are not exactly the same. For example, the character of the step-mother: I had a step-mother, I lost my mother as the character, but I take maybe 5 or 10% from life, and the rest is fiction. But you see, people in Iceland, they only see those 5 to 10%, and that’s because you want to believe that fiction is the real life. People forget that the importance of fiction is that it’s not the real life, but that it expands the real life, it makes –it should make– life bigger, add something to our existences. So I use my experience, my memories and feelings as a trampoline, so I can jump higher.
C. Tryggvi is a kind of a dreamer, a poet; he has the wish to put the world in words. Is this also what drives you to write? An urge to put the world in words and fight against forgetfulness?
J.K.S. Yes, it’s all this in fact. When you’re a child, there’s a time when you start to notice that people die, disappear, and I saw, as a child, that for the first days, weeks, months after their deaths, there was a great miss after them, and sadness, and then everything got back to normal. You remember persons who die for maybe… I don’t know, it depends on how close they were to you… but usually, after one year, it’s almost gone from your daily life, memories fade, and twenty years later, almost nobody remembers that the persons existed, except those who were very close to them. And sometimes, when I walk into a graveyard and see all those names on the grave stones, I know that behind every name is a lifestory, and countless things of happiness, sorrow, great things, sad things, ugly things, whatever, and nobody remembers. So my writing has to do with that. In a way, I fight against the forgetfulness of time. I’m at war against the time. And I want to win. I know I can’t, but if you manage to save… I mean, it’s like you’re going into a burning house, and you manage to save at least one thing, it’s better to save something than nothing. So I write to make us remember people who passed away, so their lives will be remembered, and… It’s both for them, for their personal stories, but also because if we forget the people who lived, we lose threads, contacts with the past, and if you lose contact with the past, you slowly lose contact with yourself, with the human soul, and if you lose contact with yourself, then you lose contact with your environment, nature, the world. It’s all combined, for me, it’s all the same. And I think there has never been so much danger as now of forgetting, because of all this technique and of everything going so fast. It’s like forgetfulness is in our footsteps, and when we look back, there is nothing. This makes me sad, and I’m afraid that things are disappearing. For exemple, in fifty years, perhaps no pictures will be left of me and you, because all the pictures of me and you now are digital.
C. I print most of them…
J.K.S. You are one of the few! And that’s fantastic. We should put more pictures in the newspapers and have them printed, a good quality printing, because digital pictures will disappear. But the newspapers too are going digital… You know, we don’t write letters anymore, at least few people write letters. If you’re writing about the past, as an author or an historian, you can go to libraries and have countless letters and diaries, etc., for hundreds of years ago, but the historians who will want to look into our time, 2015, they will find almost nothing. Never in history of mankind have people taken so many pictures of themselves, but still perhaps the next generations will have no picture of them in the future.
C. In the novel, there is a final coup de théâtre. Ari realizes he has been wrong all this time, and made a false judgement that may have changed the course of his existence. As a reader, I understood it immediately, I knew –maybe you wanted the reader to know– what Ari and the narrator couldn’t perceive. Was it a way for you to show our tragic inability to understand the things that happen to us, the events in our lives?
J.K.S. You’re mainly refering to the rape?
J.K.S. Well, that’s one of the few facts that happened in my life. I didn’t realize what happened until thirty years later. I think mainly because the discussion about rape wasn’t on the surface at that time. People were ignorant about that. When people were reading my manuscript –they were six or seven– half of them didn’t realize what was happening, so it was a choc to them at the end. So it depends on who reads.
C. Maybe it’s because I’m a girl, I had a different approach of this scene?
J.K.S. No, in fact, some men realize it immediately when reading the manuscript. But, as you were saying, it’s a way to show how our lives can change rapidly because we remember something and realize we misdjudged it, or took it wrongly. It happens twice for Ari: when he realizes for the rape, but also when he takes everything down on the breakfast table. And I think that happens because he has been running away from himself all this time. He should be an author, a poet, or something, and deal with that. But if you go deep into poetry and writing, and give yourself fully, wholly to it, you have to be able to look into your own life and not be afraid, not try to hide things. You must look into yourself with no mercy. And Ari’s not able to do that. And that’s too common. People don’t think of their lives so much. When you have a family, or start to work or something, the daily life starts to rise, and it turns with a great weight, so it’s easier just to let yourself go with it. So you forget, or more exactly put aside, your dreams of becoming something, of doing something, great dreams. You just go with the flow of daily life. Instead of focusing more on yourself, What is life? What am I doing here? etc. all those existential questions, you just live. But there are always some things that happen to you, when you’re young and then later in your life, that you should deal with, things that upset you; and yet, instead of dealing with them, you put them aside, inside you, and there are always new things coming, and you put them inside too, because you’re just living your life. You can of course live like that, put everything deep down inside and never deal with yourself, you just take relaxing pills to sleep better –sleeping pills are on the best-seller list, and that’s because you aren’t dealing with yourself, it takes too much energy. It’s the same with Ari: he has been putting down things he should have dealt with, and then, the main questions: Am I happy? Is the place I am in the place I dreamt of? Is this me? He has been putting that down for so many years and suddenly, it bursts out. You can put it down for many many years, but if you’re lucky, you’ll be all filled and explode one day, if you’re unluncky, you’ll put it all inside and die unhappy. That’s what happening at the breakfast table: all the memories, all the things he wasn’t able to deal with just explode. That happens for many people, maybe not in such a dramatic way, but everybody knows those situations when someone behaves rather strangely or reacts excessively to certain situations. That’s because somtehing hidden inside them explodes. The main thing is: we don’t know ourselves. Because we live so fast. And for Ari, it’s not only him: it’s also his father, and his grandmother, and it goes in his blood, in his family. I believe that memories of our parents and grandparents, some part of them at least, go into our blood, so we remember, or more exactly we feel things that affect us. In every family, there are somme difficulties, some problems that go on and on, generation after generation, because we never deal with it. And Ari is fighting with this: he’s fighting with himself, but also with all the things in the past that went wrong. And therefore, in the book, I had to go back into the past, because if you want to find a path for you in the future, you have to go into the past first.
C. That’s one of the things I really loved in your book: you show that people don’t only deal with their lives and problems, but are stuck with their family history, with things never said but still present and effective, like repressed memories you have to build your own existence on. It’s something which resonates strongly in my personal life. Margret, and her son, and Ari, they could be my own family. With their refusal to deal with it, and the final explosion. The inability to go on repressing.
J.K.S. I think there is unhappiness in not being able to deal with it. In the former days, it was considered a proof of strength if you repressed everything down, but that’s because we often think that this cowardly behaviour, not to deal with your feelings, is a proof of strenght. I mean, all the male heros, especially in Icelandic sagas, or in the Hollywood films, the strongest heros are always those who never show their feelings. There’s no problem there, because they are so strong, they don’t have to deal with it. But the truth is it shows how weak and poor they are.
C. Maybe they’re also afraid of facing their own defects and failures. People don’t want to contemplate the truth about themselves.
J.K.S. No, they don’t. Because if you start to look at yourself, or talk about your existence, your character, or whatever, things can be difficult for a while. You have to accept you’ve built your life on lies in a way, or misunderstanding. It’s easier to live without looking into yourself. I mean, it’s easier if you want to find your place in society, have a car, have money… Looking into yourself takes so much energy! But if you do it, and if you manage, your life will be much better. You’ll have a deeper existence. And in a way, you owe it to those who came before you in the family, because maybe they didn’t have the opportunity to do so, or weren’t strong enough. If you can do it, you’re also fighting for them, in a way.
C. One last question: are you working on a new novel? Or something else, short stories or anything?
J.K.S. I’m a very primitive person, I can only do one thing at the time, so I only write novels. I wish I could write short stories, but I can’t. Short stories are supposed to be… short, you have to be able to get to the point, and I’m never able to do that, it takes me at least 300 pages to get to the point! Maybe because the point doesn’t exist, it’s just the universe which exists. I’ll publish a new book, a novel, in three weeks. That’s in fact a follow-up to this novel, so there will be two, not three!
C. Well, you say that, but…
J.K.S. [laughing] No, that’s done! And I’m happy, because I was so afraid when I was in the middle of that book that it would be a trilogy, I didn’t want to write another trilogy! So I was glad I could manage two. And now I’m starting on a new one!
Notre conversation se poursuivit sur un ton amical, et quand je quittais finalement l’écrivain, ma seule pensée fut : vivement la prochaine fois !