Wish you were here
“We really do think with our hearts,” says Bergsveinn Birgisson, whose third novel, the epistolary Svar við bréfi Helgu (Reply to Helga's Letter) has proved a surprise hit this season, receiving a nomination for the 2010 Icelandic Literary Prize.
Bergsveinn's debut novel, Landslag er aldrei asnalegt (Landscape is Never Schmalzy), received a nomination for the same prize in 2003. He followed it up with the well-received Handbók um hugarfar kúa (Manual on the Mentality of Cows) in 2009.
Reply to Helga's Letter is an epistolary love story, told in lucid, unaffected prose that belies the churning emotions lurking beneath its surface. It's the story of a life that never came to pass: An old farmer writes a long letter to his old flame, relating how they met, fell in love and ultimately parted ways.
“The old farmer writes a number of letters,” Bergsveinn says, “but they all end up in the same pile. He never sends them. The original letter from Helga, the one he is replying to, must be ancient. But just as cognitive psychology has revealed to us, emotions – or emotionally charged perceptions and thoughts – are what sticks most tenaciously in our memories. Over time, all other abstractions fade from us. That's why I think they were right back in medieval times – we really do think with our hearts.
What does framing the story in this very old form – the epistolary novel – achieve?
“Every day, we are inundated with Hollywood love stories that leave everything visible on the surface. I think that in real life, the “repressed” love story, the love story that is never allowed to breach the surface, is just as common. However, it's more of an untilled field, and it makes us wonder if the actual urge to love isn't mixed with wishful thinking or self-flagellation. A love story told from within required a first-person, subjective narrative, and the epistolary form was a good way to represent the closeness between the lovers.”
The book contains an abundance of old and exotic vocabulary, especially as related to sheep farming. Did this require a lot of research?
“I was lucky enough to be acquainted early with one particular farm – a full-fledged cultural institution – and its residents. So you might say I've been gathering material for the book my entire life, although I began the actual writing in 2003. I did have to hunt down the specific terminology on the old practice of sheep palpating, because that vocabulary vanished when sonar inspections of sheep became customary after 1950. We are talking about very beautiful Icelandic, here, richly descriptive and precise, but apparently not deemed worthy of treasuring. So finding the proper terms took a bit of doing. Those who palpate sheep are inherently more erotic than the those operating a sonar, because the former are forcing their consciousness onto the material world. This has a bearing on the general gist of what thinkers like Slavoj Žižek argue: that we so-called “materialists” of the technological culture are in reality losing our connection with the material world.”
What of the book's eroticism? Does it stand in opposition to farm life?
“No, it doesn't. The erotic belongs to all people of all eras. The reason we think of the countryside as inherently un-erotic is that we don't think of the “polite” anecdotes often associated with farm-types as sensual. However, I noticed early on that a a farmer in print is very different from a farmer in person. I often refer to the story of the pagan love poet Kormákur. He composed a poem about glimpsing the bare ankle of the woman he loved. In the poem, he declares that because of this, he'll burn with desire for the rest of life. To me, that's real eroticism right there; powerful emotions and urges!”