Carl Jóhan Jensen: Eg síggi teg betur í myrkri

Carl Jóhan Jensen
Novel, Sprotin, 2014

The title of Carl Jóhan Jensen’s novel Eg síggi teg betur í myrkri is a quote from Emily Dickinson’s poem I see thee better – in the Dark. The paradox of this line points to the novel’s dual levels in both plot and concept.

The inspiration for the novel’s protagonist is the Icelandic poet Einar Benediktsson (1864-1940), who not only was a poet but also had a great national vision of what he could accomplish for the modernisation of Iceland. His plans for the development of Icelandic industry may have met with a sorry fate, but they arose from a commendable will. And given the novel’s repeated references to the philosophy of Schopenhauer, the notions of will and representationform an underlying narrative. Einar Benediktsson also translated literature from other languages into Icelandic. It is worth mentioning in connection with this novel that he translated Henrik Ibsen’s Peer Gynt, entitled Petur Gautur in Icelandic.

In this fictional treatment the protagonist is called Benedikt Einarsson, and the story begins on 25 August 1939 aboard the S/S Lyra, which is on its way north from Bergen. The novel is fragmentary in composition and jumps between time periods, sometimes by way of realistic flashbacks, sometimes by way of more dreamlike descriptions. Yet the central anchoring point is a moment on the Lyra’s deck.

Just as in a Bildungsroman, this novel puts emphasis on explaining ancestral origins. In the first part, we get a description of Benedikt's father, Einar Thorsteinsson – a sheriff and a member of the Althing – and his wife Ása – Benedikt's mother – and their lives and relationship with each other.

Inflamed by national feeling and inspired by the industrial revolution’s ideas about modern society, the novel’s protagonist, Benedikt, has big plans for building ports, power plants, and factories in order to awaken Iceland’s desire and ability to become independent. He takes these plans and he travels throughout Europe to generate interest and funding for them. He visits cities such as London, Paris, and Berlin, and the account of his experiences in these places includes a number of stories, some dark and violent, others funny and ironic, yet all quite amazing and told with a tremendous sense of detail and drama. The story plays on the grotesque as well as the delicate poetic moments.

Like the real-life Einar Benediktsson, Benedikt has translated Peer Gynt into Icelandic, and the well-known play serves as a kind of archetype in the novel. Benedikt and Peer are similar in many ways and share a common destiny. They both find themselves within the conflicting currents of the time – of dwindling romance versus modernity and industrialised society. Romanticism is the current that drives them along, but the world they face along the way is completely at odds with the world of romanticism. The novel’s underlying story of will and suffering, for example, is reflected in painful encounters with an unavoidable reality. Benedikt travels through time and history. He is ultimately a man so exhausted that he is near death. On a sun lounger on the deck of the Lyra, he relives everything that life has put him through, and when Helga goes out to end his life, there is a purposeful calm in this deed, as well a sense of compassion and loving kindness. The moment of his death is poetically magnificent.

The language of the novel is a poetic language entirely the author’s own. A work of art in itself. Poetic language is a language that opens doors to a world that is much more than and very different to a simple account of events. Each word is coaxed into evoking light and shadow, angels and devils, which are nowhere near as apparent in the well-rehearsed language of everyday. The novel gets its linguistic character from the fact that the author is perhaps first and foremost a poet. The boundaries between poem and novel do not seem particularly important to him when it comes to the linguistic expression of the work.