Earlier this week I wandered over to Bloomsbury from Holburn, weaving the opposite way through the crowds of hunched and trenchcoated commuters who were finding their separate ways home. It was an intensely grey evening. Sometimes I think that each subsequent day in London without direct sunlight simply adds a darkening filter upon the last, making it increasingly harder to see every time I leave the house. The London Review Bookshop, one of my favorite bookstores in this city, was cozy, however—filled with people, the comfortable intimacy of millions of white cotton pages pressed closely together, and a warm tan light, one that can only come from the reflection of worn wooden floors.
That evening, Booker-prize winning English novelist A.S. Byatt read and spoke for a bit with Icelandic poet Sjón on the subject of mythology in their respective recent works; Byatt’s latest novel is Ragnarok: The End of the Gods, and an English translation of Sjón’s The Whispering Muse came out this month from Telegram Books. Not having read either of the works yet, I was there more for the conversation and the company. It was oddly inspiring. Byatt was calm and self-possessed, with a thick mop of unruly white hair. She sat with her lips pursed and her hands in her lap, occasionally nodding and thoughtfully commenting on the conversation. Sjón was quite restrained, and sleekly professorial. He crossed his legs when making a point, when reading, knocking the unsteady table in front of him that held books and glasses of water, carefully placing both hands palm down on the surface of the table to steady it.
Both writers spoke passionately about their love of Norse, Greek, and Icelandic myths. They pointed to the fact that myth is a tool for a writer, for using the pre-existing narratives, characters, and concepts of myth gives the reader a place to begin before opening the book. Sjón noted his struggle when confronted with writing about a rape myth involving Poseidon, and revealed that in order to find the voice of Poseidon’s victims, he sought out the language that tsunami survivors used to describe being overwhelmed by the all-encompassing force of the sea. Byatt addressed issues of intertwining personal biography and mythology. She said she always carried a book of Norse mythology in her bag. She argued that mythological characters should remain as non-human as possible, even within realist writing, to maintain a narrative layer of otherness, distance, and mystery. She told a story of an ash tree that had freely grown in her backyard, untouched, survived the war, but was too wild for the city—her father cut it down.
When asked how she dealt with working with stories that have been retold countless times, Byatt chuckled and said that for her, writing was a way of “undoing the mindless bellowing.”