The creature must take care not to forget that the man is a hunter.

The Blue Fox, by Sjón and translated by Victoria Cribb

Most literature, for me, works as well as an ebook as it does as a paperback. Sometimes better, particularly if the book’s on the bulky side.

Not all literature though, and particularly I increasingly find not poetry. Poetry depends not just on words but also on placement on the page, on the sea of white around the little islands of black text. Layout, in poetry, is critical.

The Blue Fox isn’t poetry, but it’s close. In a fascinating interview with The White Review Sjón talks about how the book was structured almost as if it were music:

Sjón — I think the fact that I can take the form of the string quartet and use it as the basis of a novel is another proof of how dynamic the novel is. I’m sure that a composer writing a string quartet can learn something from a movie or the structure of film. It was music that gave me the idea of constantly breaking up the narrative. THE BLUE FOX would be a completely different novel if it were chronological. In it, there are constant cliff-hangers and repeated refrains – I’m playing with the element of two melodies that come together but never fully, only in the end finding a solution. It was very interesting that the first people who commented on the book were composers. They said it was very clear to them that I was always playing with volume of information versus text, which is the same thing they do – volume of tones versus time. You can take a melody and stretch it over five minutes, or compress it down to three seconds. They were very much aware of how I was playing with text versus information.

Information versus text. Text versus information. The Blue Fox is a tone poem in book form, a 112 page crystallisation of music on a page. I’m getting ahead of myself though, because I still haven’t said what it’s actually about.

BlueFox

The Blue Fox consists of two different, but connected, narrative strands. In the first a hunter pursues a blue fox, a rare and valuable prey. Their contest, his for a valuable pelt, hers for her life, takes on a mythic air as Sjón fills each page with just a few lines of text letting space and silence surround the sparse words.

Here’s how it opens:

Blue foxes are so curiously like stones that it is a matter for wonder. When they lie beside them in winter there is no hope of telling them apart from the rocks themselves; indeed, they’re far trickier than white foxes, which always cast a shadow or look yellow against the snow.

A blue vixen lies tight against her stone, letting the snow drift over her on the windward side. She turns her rump to the weather, curls up and pokes her snout under her thigh, lowering her eyelids till there’s the merest hint of a pupil. And so she keeps an eye on the man who has not shifted since he took cover under an overhanging drift, here on the upper slopes of Asheimar, some eighteen hours ago. The snow has drifted and fallen over him until he resembles nothing so much as a hump of ruined wall.

The creature must take care not to forget that the man is a hunter.

Each section of the book comes with dates attached, the first being three days from 9 to 11 January 1883. It’s rooted therefore in the actual: an actual hunter; an actual fox; a particular place and day with particular weather. It couldn’t be more specific.

At the same time though, the sense is of a more timeless encounter. Man and fox both seem archetypal: at this point he is simply “the man”; she “the vixen”. They appear to have emerged from a folktale or saga.

His guts rumbled and the man discovered that he was hungry; he hadn’t tasted a bite since gorging himself on boiled fish before he set off, but that was more than twenty hours ago.

He had eaten a bit of ice since then, truth be told, but that was dull and insubstantial fare. He opened the bag:

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.

Yes, all this was in his mess-bag.

As you read there’s a sense of themes emerging not in the familiar literary sense, but in a musical one. Phrases recur, such as the title of this review, and that entire first quoted passage above is used twice, verbatim. It’s prose as melody, repeated refrains.

The second narrative strand features a biologist, Fridrik Fridjonsson, who has to bury a young woman named Abba that he took in some years before as his maid. Abba was destitute when he first met her, an outcast from the local community. Fridrik had only briefly returned to Iceland to settle some family affairs, but recognised that Abba had Down’s Syndrome and from compassion decided to stay and to protect her. The parish then was served by a Reverend Jakob:

This incompetent minister was so used to his parishioners’ boorishness – scuffles, belches, farts and heckling – that he affected not to hear when Abba chimed in with his altar service, which she did both loud and clear and never in tune. He was more worried that the precentor would drown in his neighbours’ spittle. This fellow, a farmer by the name of Gilli Sigurgillason from Barnahamrar, possessed a powerful voice and sang in fits and starts, gaping so wide at the high notes that you could see right down his gullet, and the congregation used to amuse themselves by lobbing wet plugs of tobacco into his mouth – many of them had become quite good shots.

Four years later Reverend Jakob died, greatly regretted by his flock; he was remembered as ugly and tedious, but good with children.

His successor was Reverend Baldur Skuggason, who introduced a new era in church manners to the Dale. Men sat quietly on the benches, holding their tongues while the parson preached the sermon, having learnt how he dealt with rowdies: he summoned them to meet him after the service, took them round the back of the church and beat the living daylights out of them. The women, meanwhile, turned holy from the first day and behaved as if they had never taken part in teasing ‘the reverend with the pupil’. They said it served the louts to whom they were married or betrothed right, they should have been thrashed long ago; for the new parson was a childless widower.

Reverend Skuggason swiftly banned Abba from the church, seeing no place there for what he termed “‘the ravings of an idiot'”. Although Abba “knew no greater happiness than to dress up in her Sunday best and attend church with other people”, Reverend Skuggason would not tolerate her and none of his flock cared enough to speak on her behalf.

Reverend Skuggason is the hunter, bringing the two strands together in one man. He denies Abba; he pursues the fox; he is a priest but he knows no pity.

The Blue Fox builds its mood slowly, and its few revelations come all the more powerfully for that. Sjón brings the harsh landscape and the harsh people it breeds both to freezing life. It’s notable that the only one of them to show any mercy is Fredrik, who left for Copenhagen and never meant to return.

Two narrative strands then, and two tonal strands too. The utter factuality of dates, lists of packed provisions, medical diagnoses; but simultaneously a changeling woman come in from the woods and befriended by a traveller, a huntsman and a fox of unsurpassed rarity, beauty, cruelty, hypocrisy, innocence, kindness.  History and fairy tale, intertwined and inseparable.

Other reviews

The Blue Fox has been generally pretty well received (though many reviews contain some fairly hefty spoilers so it’s worth being a bit careful which you read, you should particularly avoid the one in the Independent which in a fairly short piece still somehow manages to give away every story development in the book). Two reviews I was particularly impressed by are Scott Pack’s here at his Me and My Big Mouth blog, and Sarah Hesketh’s here for ReadySteadyBook.

I’d also recommend this interview with Sjón by Stu at his Winstonsdad’s blog. Sjón explains among other things that The Blue Fox is in part inspired by Schubert’s string quartets, and describes the music that inspired his other books.

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13 Comments

Filed under Icelandic fiction, Novellas, Sjón

13 responses to “The creature must take care not to forget that the man is a hunter.

  1. Just had to re-edit the entire piece after WordPress with its new editing update took out all the line breaks. The WordPress upgrade is not all it could be…

  2. I hear you on the edit function. I create my posts on the old style page and return to the same page to do any fine tuning. I think all the upgrades are designed solely for those who do everything on their phones!

    With respect to The Blue Fox, your review brought back just how lovely this book is (and yes hard copy is essential). I knew nothing of the musical aspect at the time though I did know he was a librettist. I first heard of him when he was interviewed on a great literary radio program here in Canada. This was long before my book blogging days but I still have one of his books left to read. There are still many more to be translated. A talented and fascinating writer.

    On a side note, I had the opportunity to meet Sjón when he was here at our Writer’s Festival last fall. He has a wonderfully dry, dry sense of humour. We’re close in age and talked about having the same experience growing up in isolated places: when you first discover popular music you think that it all comes from your home town, then you get a little wiser and then all of a sudden you realize the world is bigger and think that NOTHING comes from your home town. In both of our cities, bands were brewing away in garages and those garage doors opened in the early 1980’s and bands started to emerge. In Iceland, of course, being a tiny country, he was in the perfect position to connect with the best of that fresh new talent.

  3. I enjoyed your review, Max. It’s interesting to read about the musical connection, I don’t believe I was aware of that aspect of the novella’s structure. I had a strange experience with The Blue Fox when I read it 2 or 3 years ago; it was almost as if I were reading it through a hazy fog. I can recall the mythic folktale quality, the hunter and the blue vixen, but very little else (particularly when it comes to the other strand involving the parish). Your review leads me to think I should revisit it at some stage – it’s certainly short enough.

  4. I think this sounds fascinating. I know what you mean about certain books working less well on an ereader (I don’t think I would consider reading poetry on anything but a book). I read The Buddha in the Attic last year and actually wished that I’d been reading the book and not the digital format. Something about being able to flick back and forth and reread sections always seems easier to me with an actual book.

  5. Rough, kindle for this one was a mistake, but so it goes. Lovely anecdote re meeting him. It’s easy to imagine he might have a dry sense of humour.

    Jacqui, I don’t know if I’d have made that connection without it being pointed out to me, but once you see it it’s definitely there. I do think it slips away a bit in memory, I had to refresh myself on it a bit to write this.

    Cathy, flicking back and forth is one of the great advantages of physical books, one can judge where something might be by width which obviously doesn’t work on an ebook. This is quite close to poetry, where layout and the use of space on the page becomes so important. I’m very fond of my kindle, but it doesn’t of course mean it’s suitable for everything.

  6. Ha ha, about half of what I wrote about this book was mock complaining about all of the blank space, like it was a poetry book.

    I hope some more of Sjón’s books will wander into English,

  7. The Blue Fox sounds fascinating, and unlike anything I’ve read before in terms of how you describe it as being connected to music. Will definitely add this to the to-read list 🙂

    On a side note, I’ve had similar problems with WordPress removing all of my formatting on posts…!

  8. Sounds lovely Max. From the Mouth of the Whale is much more substantial, but quite similar now I think of it: strands of narrative, harshness described with much beauty, juxtaposition of the concrete and historical with the abstract and mythical.

    I’m in the market for more Sjon, this sounds like a good place to go next.

  9. Tom, link to your review?

    Gemma, it’s incredibly annoying isn’t it, when WordPress does that? Glad the book sounds interesting. I didn’t think of the music link, but since I was aware of it it seemed worth discussing.

    Ian, it is fairly, though it’s slight too. Perhaps a palate cleanser between denser reads or after something that jarred with you.

    Mouth does sound like a development in terms of complexity and technique.

  10. Lovely review.

    As I was reading, I was wondering how someone could be a Christian pastor and beat people and exclude weaker people. This is the antithesis of Christianism.
    Is it important for the story that the fox is a she, especially with the connotation of vixen in slang?

    I’m really curious about it. Somehow, this reminds me of Encyclopaedia of Snow by Sarah Emily Miano, probably because the layout is important and because of the snow.
    In French, it’s translated as Le moindre des mondes. I don’t even know how to translate this properly. The smallest of all worlds? Has this title anything to do with the book?

    PS : I type my billets on Word and copy them on WP. Most of the formatting remains and I can copy / paste the tables with bilingual quotes.

  11. PS: In the French translation, the animal is a renarde, so it is also a she. It must be in the original text.

  12. Here we have The Blue Fox and here we have the other two novels.

    There is a little battle of the sexes going on between the hunter and the fox. Yes, the fox’s sex is relevant to the fable. Some Christian pastors are not such good Christians, I am afraid. Sad but true.

    That French title is not good, but some of Sjón’s English titles have problems, too. The original for this book is Skugga-Baldur, which is an Icelandic half-fox evil spirit, a reference so specific that something has to change.

  13. As Tom says Emma, not all pastors are good men. He’s just not a very good pastor.

    Not sure about the French title, but possibly I suppose. The world of hunter and fox, the world of the village, seems tenuous though.

    It’s definitely female. In both strands the pastor is hurting a female through his own prejudice or avarice.

    Tom, thanks for the links, will read with interest.

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