Living in the Time of Being

Sjón and Laurie Anderson

In Conversation

Barnes and Noble

Spanning eras, continents, and genres, CoDex 1962—twenty years in the making—is Icelandic author Sjón’s epic three-part masterpiece. Josef Löwe, the narrator, was born in 1962—the same year, the same moment, even, as Sjón. Josef’s story, however, stretches back decades in the form of Leo Löwe—a Jewish fugitive during World War II who has an affair with a maid in a German inn; together, they form a baby from a piece of clay. The first volume is a love story; the second a crime story; and the third, set in present-day Reykjavík, a science fiction story following Josef as he crosses paths with the outlandish CEO of a biotech company—a coda that brings the tale of genetics and genesis full circle. Sjón weaves ancient and modern material, folklore, and cosmic myths into a singular masterpiece that honors the rich tradition of Icelandic storytelling. He joined artist, author, and composer Laurie Anderson at LIVE from the NYPL for a conversation.

Laurie Anderson: Could I just ask a question? I’m really bent out of shape about this: how many got the presidential alert on your phone today?

Sjón: Do you think they’re going to use that channel for distributing poetry?

Anderson: It depends on your definition of poetry. A tweet could be a kind of poem. I think the shorter the better, in terms of poems. Haiku for me are so beautiful. Now, the last time we were talking we were in the Black Diamond Library in Copenhagen—a special thanks to the people who organized that; it’s the contact between libraries, and cities, that I think now is so crucial now—and at the time I was really obsessed with the fact that a Syrian musician I was supposed to work with couldn’t come to the U.S. So, I thought, what if cities could cooperate more and have more contact? Now that borders are closing, the silk roads of culture are urban. We communicate through cities in terms of art, and dance, and music, and books. And if I’m going to Europe, I don’t say I’m going to Spain, I say I’m going to Madrid. I’m not going to Germany, I’m going to Berlin. I believe it’s important to keep those networks between cities really powerful. And I think that conversation we had in Copenhagen was part of it—that sort of cooperation between libraries.

Sjón: Yes, I think you’re right that culture is a dialogue between places—places where people like you and I have our origins, where we have the community that created us. But I don’t think it needs to be cities. In Iceland, we have this place called Reykjavik, and we call it a city, but it’s a place of 150,000 people. And Halldór Laxness, our Nobel Prize winner, was born there. So, I think we are talking about communication between places, between communities, sometimes really small communities. What happens when you go on the silk road of culture is that artists meet, they start sharing, and they always do it at eye level. You can only do it at eye level in the arts. For example, I once witnessed drummers meeting other drummers, from different cultures, who spoke different languages, and they immediately started communicating about drumming just by doing the things that drummers do. I stood there and watched this amazing thing happen. They recognized the expertise of the other at eye level, and on the level of the fingertips.

Anderson: I definitely think of beats as a language; it has syntax and it has a lot of things that words do.

Sjón: In Copenhagen, you and I were asked to talk about the arctic, because of the collection of the royal library of arctic documents and because of the expeditions to the arctic; and, of course, because we are in the days of climate change and global warming. And we talked about endings. The arctic used to be the end of the world and now it’s disappearing. And maybe the world will end with it. So, I thought we should we continue to talk about endings.

Anderson: Everyone is struggling now to tell the story of what is going on. Is it this big slide we’re experiencing, or is it . . . what kind of thing is this? For us Americans, the bottom keeps dropping out of the plausibility of events. We think “He can’t do that and go on. He can’t say that and go on.” But he can say anything and it will go on. So, we were thinking what if this carbon event, which has happened before happens again? What does that do to stories? What if there is no one left to tell stories to? That is something that no human has had to contemplate before. And it’s a very awesome way to think of what a story is, if you’re telling it and there’s no one listening, no one there.

Sjón: Yes, I think one of the discoveries we made in Copenhagen was that when we are gone there will be no one left to miss us. Because the animals will hardly miss us.

Anderson: My dog would miss me. I know he would.

Sjón: Of course, certain individual animals will certainly miss certain individuals, yes, but as a species I’m not sure we will be missed.

Anderson: I’m not sure, do you really think we won’t be missed?

Sjón: I think we will not be missed. Nobody missed the Neanderthals. They just disappeared and they were not missed. Only now are we are slowly rediscovering them. There is actually hope in some of the latest discoveries—some of the earliest cave paintings were made by the Neanderthals. And that tells us that maybe species other than human beings can take over the art of creating and continuing culture. I don’t know what the cats are doing but they are definitely watching us. Maybe they are just waiting until we are gone to start their own cultural revolution.

Anderson: I don’t know how much you can do sitting on top of a refrigerator. They don’t seem to be plotting. I’m not sure, but I’m not a cat fan.

All the universal stories that come to us down through the ages start with the beginning of the world. Maybe the stories of our time start with the destruction of the world.

Sjón: I think they’re learning things and are just keeping to themselves. But this talk about endings . . . maybe it’s possible that the new format of the universal story will be reversed. All the universal stories that come to us down through the ages start with the beginning of the world. Maybe the stories of our time start with the destruction of the world.

Anderson: The key word is time. All the stories of religion, they’re only incidentally about whether it’s good to be good to people. Really, they explain time. How the world is created, what’s going to happen after you die . . . the biggest mysteries are those, really. The stories of religion are all ways to try to figure out time, I think.

Sjón: Yes, and in the old days they seemed to have understood in a different way than we do that time and matter are siblings. The Old Icelandic word for world, which is very similar to world, is verald and it means “the time of being.”

Anderson: Oh, that’s colossal.

Sjón: It’s a term that relates to time, not material.

Anderson: And not place.

Sjón: Not a place, but the time of being. That is where we are. We’re in the time of being.

Anderson: Wow. Now, do we have any questions? There’s nothing more to say after that, really.

Sjón: Maybe it wasn’t such a good idea to begin with the end. We’re already there.

Anderson: Did you see the end in the beginning of that book when you were writing? Did you have a thing you were going towards at all? In CoDex 1962.

Sjón: I think I only manage to begin to write a particular book when I realize what kind of a book it is—what kind of an object it’s going to become. It’s not only about what’s in it—the story, and the characters, and all the words I have to put in there—I try to imagine a thing in the world. In this case, I knew I was going to write a big, complicated, experimental book that tried to do everything and would probably fail in doing it. CoDex 1962 deals with time in a way that only leads to failure. The first part of the trilogy takes place over a few days, the second part takes place over eighteen years, and the third part takes place over fifty years. Then you have the epilogue, which extends to the whenever. I realized early on that the structure of the book would somehow make it impossible to tell the whole story. Because with this volume there is more time to be explored and you can’t just tell the story of everything. That’s why the narrator starts with telling the story of his mother and how his mother met his father in the north of Germany at the end of the Second World War. His father is a Jew on the run from the Holocaust and his mother is a chambermaid in a guesthouse in this small town called Kükenstadt, or chicken town, and she is asked to take care of him while he’s sheltered there on his way out of the dark times of the continent. Leo comes from Prague and he brings with him in a hatbox a lump of clay, and together they create the narrator, and that’s how it starts. In the second volume he tells the story of his father coming to Iceland and how his father has to retrieve a ring of gold that was stolen from him by Icelandic Nazi twins with werewolf genes to be able to bring life to this boy. Then, in the third volume he pretends that he’s going to finish this story but he runs out of time, like we all do. Nobody will be able to finish their story and somebody else will have to take over to finish our stories one day.

Anderson: I got lost in so many of those places, especially with Marie-Sophie. What a fantastic character she is. Can you just say a word about who she’s based on?

Sjón: Yes. We were taken on a tour here in the library of all the amazing collections. And there was a beautiful thing which we came across, a green umbrella with a handle of wood carved in the shape of a parrot. This umbrella belonged to the author of Mary Poppins. And it so happens that Mary Poppins is one of my favorite literary works and films. I saw it at age of four, and when the parrot handle of Mary Poppins’s umbrella in that film speaks, there was a shift in reality for me. I didn’t find it so strange that people were flying around and entering drawings and paintings and floating up to the ceiling of laughter and all that, but the speaking parrot, this wooden handle in the shape of a parrot head that spoke—that, for me, was like “Oh no, what just happened here?’ And I’ve never recovered. When I started writing CoDex 1962, which became my first big important book, a book with which I felt I was really achieving something, I started working on this character Marie-Sophie, the lovely chambermaid, who is the main character’s mother. I gave her the name Marie-Sophie which is a variation on Mary Poppins. You can twist “Poppins” around so you, more or less, get “Sophie.” So, Marie-Sophie has a relationship with the great Mary Poppins. And, of course, it also relates to Sophia, the creator of the world according to the Gnostic beliefs. I actually think Mary Poppins is one of the key works of Gnostic literature.

Anderson: It amazed you more that a bird could talk than that people could fly?

Sjón: Yes, that this piece of wood could talk. Coming from Iceland, I shouldn’t be surprised that wood might speak—we have that in our stories as well. But that’s how she got her name. And the book is made up of other books, other stories. The main character, Josef Löwe, uses almost every trick known to storytellers to keep the story going and to keep his audience listening.

Anderson: What are some of those tricks?

I think that is what storytelling is—a tool to talk about the things that are too difficult to say straight out.

Sjón: Well, he slides into a tragic poem, if he feels that is necessary. And he uses stories to reflect on the things he can’t say, because there are so many things he can’t say. There are so many things that are too hurtful or too horrible. Those things make him realize the importance of the tactic of replacing reality with a reflection of reality. I think that is what storytelling is—a tool to talk about the things that are too difficult to say straight out.

Anderson: Or to refer to them somehow.

Sjón: Yes. So he uses everything—the horror story, the biblical style, he steals from everywhere. He’s very busy stealing from everything but it shows us that he’s a very well-read man.

Anderson: In some of your other books, the interspecies telepathic relationship is so fantastic. Could you talk a bit about that? I’m thinking of The Blue Fox. The way you describe the ability to jump not only into to another human being’s mind but into the mind of an animal was really convincing.

Sjón: It’s one of those things that define us, I think, as what we are. That we really look at animals and hope for contact. We are looking for ourselves in those animals a lot of the time. We really are looking for contact. We don’t want to just be left with each other and our own species. And that’s another thing we are learning more about—the intelligence and the emotional life of animals, and that there should be a possibility of a link, of communication between us. At the end of the book I go into that field where one of the characters, an Icelandic scientist, starts a project where they are hoping to, through artificial intelligence, create a common language between the human beings and the animals, or for human beings to be able to decode the language of the animals. It’s very interesting that we are always waiting for animals to speak back. Why do we do that? At the same time we don’t allot them the same intelligence as we have. We look at the cat and just wait for the cat to say a human word. And we have all these clips on YouTube of cats saying “mama” and dogs saying “mama.”

Anderson: You can look at those all day, I’ll tell you.

Sjón: Maybe we should learn their language, you know what I mean?

Anderson: We do have a common language in joking . . . a lot of dogs are goofballs and they just tell jokes all the time. I mean physical jokes. They also express themselves in their work, and how they feel about their work. A lot of that is, of course, what they’re trained to do, but they communicate that very well. I live with a dog who’s basically a cop. He’s a border terrier and he takes his job very seriously. He’s always looking at the door and he really wants to know who you are and what the hell you’re doing here, see your papers. They express themselves very well without articulating and it’s so emotional. That really struck me in The Blue Fox, that you were really able to focus on that and see what that was like.

Sjón: Another thing we saw here on our tour of the library was Melville’s manuscripts. I think they brought it out especially for you, because you created a work based on the great Moby Dick.

Anderson: What a mistake that was.

Sjón: I read somewhere that you think it was a mistake, but it was a very good mistake. What I’d like to address is that we keep recreating, regenerating the material that is handed down to us. In my book, Josef is appropriating all the literary heritages, all the means of narration known to him to be able to tell his own story. And I think so much of what we do is keeping culture alive, and we do that by retelling stories. And we take care of the stories by retelling them. I was thinking, while we were preparing for our talk, about your opera, the work you’d based on Moby Dick. It came to mind that we could come into a situation where all the copies of Moby Dick were lost and the only thing left of Moby Dick was your opera.

I think so much of what we do is keeping culture alive, and we do that by retelling stories. And we take care of the stories by retelling them.

Anderson: You’re dark.

Sjón: Wouldn’t that be amazing? Because so much of our culture has been things that have been handed down to us this way. Like Shakespeare’s Hamlet was originally the Nordic tale of Hamleth, which has completely disappeared into the shadow of the great work that Shakespeare wrote from it. We might get to the point where your Moby Dick is the only Moby Dick. That wouldn’t be bad because it would mean that Moby Dick has survived somehow, wouldn’t it?

Anderson: What I was thinking of when I saw those things upstairs was that it’s not so much the survival of the works that matters. We keep asking the same questions about what is rage, or what is it to embody evil into a creature like a whale, then go hunt it, then have it eat you. Those huge stories, those basic stories—we keep telling them. I just did a virtual reality work that used the story of the astronaut—it’s in every space movie: he crawls out of the spacecraft, and his cable gets cut, and he tumbles into outer space—just telling that in another way. It doesn’t matter that the story has been told a million times. I just wanted to show it in a different way. I was thinking of Bartleby, the Scrivener, and it struck me—Bartleby’s “I prefer not to,” the guy who’s copying all the legal documents in his binder—finally one day, says, “I’d rather not.” What does that mean that you’d rather not? That book was published in 1853. Five years before that, another book was published, also about work, that was looking at work from a different perspective. It begins with the sentence “There’s a specter haunting Europe”—The Communist Manifesto. It asks why do we work and who do we work for? It asks big questions like that and ends with, “Workers of the world, unite!” And “nothing to lose but your chains.” Such an incredible thing, hearing it now. It almost tears your heart out. Work and how we do work is another of the big questions that keeps moving through books. It just struck me—to have those two polar opposites that were written at a time when you didn’t have to work to eat—that work would become a different thing. I was thinking about that, looking at those pages. They have the original first draft of Typee . . . hair-raising that it’s in this library.

Sjón: Absolutely. And they also have the original tale of the shipwrecked crew, the whalers—the book that inspired Moby Dick. And that was also a reminder of how art is created from slices of reality and how we rely on those slices of reality to tell our stories. But in order to get to those stories, we have to use more words, if we are writing novels. It’s amazing to see this slim little volume that turned into the great work Moby Dick. But I think he could have only done it by writing that big book. By taking space, taking time, going into every nook and corner of that world, the world of the whalers.

Anderson: And then jumping out of it too, of course. It’s about angels and all sorts of other things.

Sjón: Oh, yes I’ve learned from that. And in my book I do that constantly. So, I have a good excuse: if Melville was allowed to do it, I am too.

Anderson: Can you say a word about the angels in your book?

Sjón: We have the archangel Gabriel going through some personal crisis, not finding the moment to blow the trumpet of the apocalypse, actually losing the moment. And therefore the world is denied the apocalypse and the war continues and misery continues.

Anderson: It’s like he’s doing improv and freezes, he just can’t do it.

Sjón: He just can’t do it.

Anderson: And I wanted to talk about the clay figure. Why did you create that little homunculus of clay that is breathed into life? What was the engine behind that?

Sjón: Well, Josef Löwe, the narrator of the book, is trying to find a unique place for himself in the world. His world begins with himself. And his birthday is the 27th of August 1962, but somehow, it isn’t enough. It isn’t enough for his story to start there with his own birth, so he has to reach back. And he’s dealing with something that my generation had to deal with—not only in Iceland but everywhere—how do you relate to the world if you were born after the great events? You know, my mother was born in 1936, she was a child in the Second World War. You are born into a community where there is the collective trauma or the collective experience of having gone through the great events, your parents, they were there, and even though they were children they were alive. Where does it place you? Born 1962, when everything was going in the right direction more or less. We believed that the world was going to become better after the horrors of the Second World War. I remember that this thought came to me while I was at a play by Tadeusz Kantor, the Polish director and visual artist. This was one of his last plays, maybe his second to last play. He’d come to Iceland with it and, as I’m sure many here know, he was very much present in his work. In this play, he’s onstage with the actors, he’s correcting them, he’s repeating scenes to get a better understanding of them, and those characters and events that are taking place are something from his childhood and the reality of the Jewish population of Poland before and during the horrors of the Holocaust. I remember when he was sitting there after the play talking about his work. I thought, what have I to offer? Where is my starting point in this world, being born in 1962? So the character is somehow dealing with that and I’m dealing with that through this character. He finds a way of placing his creation in the Second World War, and I think that is actually the truth because the world I was born into in 1962 was actually a world created of that horror.

Anderson: I think a lot of the sheer fun of writing is just coming up with characters, don’t you? Like you say, people who are able to say things that they can’t or really don’t want to, in another voice. I mean that’s definitely how I felt about the clay guy.

Sjón: Yes, he in a way gets to create this child of clay that becomes himself in the same way that I got to mold him into a character—that is, of course, made of me and other things. Of course, characters in novels are never made from one thing—no more than bread is made of one thing. You have to knead things together from different elements and bake them in the fire. Most characters in novels are made from many different people. And I think that is a way of bringing more dimensions to a personality on paper than you would if you had only one model for that character. Because there are so many things when we are reading each other that are contradictory. How do we do that in a novel? Well, you put maybe two or three other characters as well so you can get more angles.

Anderson: Most of the people that I know are many different characters already.

Sjón: Yes, it’s just acknowledging that, really.

Anderson: I think the push for consistency seems very strange because a lot of people want you to stay more or less in character and you realize, “What am I doing creating a Facebook profile which has to be consistent?” I think the pressure to be consistent is kind of daunting for people.

Sjón: One of the most horrible things I’ve heard is a saying that goes something like this: people don’t change, they just become more of what they already are. Isn’t that horrible?

Anderson: Yeah that’s pretty hideous. Do you find that that’s true?

Sjón: I think there’s a tendency for that, unfortunately. But we have to fight it by allowing ourselves one strange experience per day.

Anderson: Yeah that’s good. I was trying to figure out these seven words [for Paul Holdengraber’s seven-word autobiography series] and said, “I have more choices than I thought.” I’ve been thinking about those micro-doses of psilocybin that people are doing and I was like, “Why are you doing that?” I mean I do like LSD, I did it once and it was quite wonderful—but in asking people why they do that they said “Because I have a bigger array of options when doing something and I don’t have to do the knee-jerk thing that I always do.” It just increases the number of reactions that you could have, almost as if you’re a novelist going “What should that character do?” There are many more options than you’d normally think because you get really caught in your own personal screenplay of what you’re supposedly doing. And, unbelievably, it’s over, this thing. This talk.

Sjón: We’re already at the end? So we’re at the beginning now?

Born in Reykjavik in 1962, Sjón is a celebrated Icelandic author whose novels have been published in over thirty-five languages. He won the Nordic Council’s Literary Prize for his novel The Blue Fox (the Nordic countries’ equivalent of the Man Booker Prize) and the novel From The Mouth Of The Whale was shortlisted for both the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award and the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. The novel Moonstone–The Boy Who Never Was received every literary prize in Iceland, including the coveted Icelandic Literary Prize. CoDex 1962, a novel in three books written over 25 years, was published in Iceland in 2016 to great acclaim. As a poet, librettist, and lyricist, Sjón has published more than a half dozen poetry collections, written four opera libretti, and lyrics for various artists. In 2001 he was nominated for an Oscar for his lyrics in the film Dancer In The Dark. Sjón is the president of PEN International’s Icelandic Centre and lives in Reykjavik with his wife and two children.

Laurie Anderson is one of America’s most renowned–and daring–creative pioneers. Known primarily for her multimedia presentations, she has cast herself in roles as varied as visual artist, composer, poet, photographer, filmmaker, electronics whiz, vocalist, and instrumentalist. “O Superman” launched Anderson’s recording career in 1980, rising to number two on the British pop charts. Anderson has toured the United States and internationally numerous times with shows ranging from simple spoken word performances to elaborate multimedia events. Major works include United States I-V (1983), Empty Places (1990), The Nerve Bible (1995), and Songs and Stories for Moby Dick, a multimedia stage performance based on the novel by Herman Melville. Recognized worldwide as a groundbreaking leader in the use of technology in the arts, Anderson collaborated with Interval Research Corporation, a research and development laboratory founded by Paul Allen and David Liddle, in the exploration of new creative tools, including the Talking Stick. Anderson has also published six books. She lives in New York City.