Tag Archives: Literature

Read Jón Kalman Stefánsson without any hesitation

I have already written in a recent post all the happiness that the discovery of Jón Kalman Stefánsson and in particular his Romanesque Trilogy had brought me.

  • Himnaríki og helvíti (2007) / Heaven and Hell (MacLehose Press, 2010)
  • Harmur englanna (2009) / The Sorrow of Angels (MacLehose Press, 2013)
  • Hjarta mannsins (2011) / The Heart of Man (MacLehose Press, 2015)

I am lucky to have enjoyed the same happiness with the equally magnificent Family Chronicle:

It’s difficult for me to talk about literature. A friend recently asked me what “explaining” meant, and after some exchanges, we arrived at “giving to see”, “making luminous”, “giving a particular perspective”, and obviously there can be an infinity of perspectives. We were talking about science and mathematics. Literature, novels, poetry explain often and much better than the human or even exact sciences… Stefánsson does.

So here are two short extracts:

Why do you call me Pluto? And what will happen next?
I will win this game of small horses, then disappear into the moonlight, you will continue to live, you will be a planet surrounded by the darkness of the universe. Later, it will appear that it does not deserve the name of planet; and that we should rather say of you that you are a dwarf planet. You are devoid of orbit, you do not dare to dive deep enough within yourself, perhaps for fear of not being able to get up and lift the weight of your discoveries. You will eventually convince yourself that life is a horse that can be trained, then you will kiss someone and destiny will send a comet in your direction, the horse will get scared, you will no longer be able to control it, you will get lost in the middle of the journey that is your life.
And then, will I find my way back?

This reminds me of a beautiful and terrible quote by Wilhelm Reich in Listen Little Man. Then there is this feminine side of the author. Not only in his themes, but also in his way of writing. There is no better argument, no better response to this hatred against the woke movement or of the loss of the masculinist power. It is by loving what is not like us that we love better and that we can lose or abandon our part of darkness, by developing or seeing better what is luminous.

By the way, Þorkell announces, I am writing an article about a remarkable woman, Marie Curie, one of the greatest scientists of our time, if not all time. Oh good, Margrét replies in a neutral tone, as if out of simple politeness, then she turns slightly to look at him again. He nods, she has just died, he adds, she received the Nobel Prize twice, first in physics, then in chemistry. She is an immense scientist, a figure, and I would like to broaden the horizon of our lives a little; here in the East, talking about her. Is it a woman, Margrét is surprised. Yes, he confirms.
And maybe a mother?
She has two daughters.

And as I finished my other post with Cynthia Fleury, I will end this one with another discovery, that of the filmmaker Terence Davies, author among others Of Time and the City, Benediction and the very beautiful short film Passing Time.

Dare to read Jón Kalman Stefánsson

I rarely write about literature, about subjects that have nothing to do with the world of startups. But sometimes, necessity and happiness prevail. In 2023, I discovered an admirable novelist: Jón Kalman Stefánsson.

His novel trilogy requires slow and attentive reading as the language is deep and poetic. Here are some examples through the chapter titles:

Heaven and Hell

We are nearly darkness
The Boy, the Sea, and the Loss of Paradise
Hell is not knowing if we are alive or dead
The Boy, The Village and the Profane trinity

The Sorrow of Angels

Our eyes are like raindrops
Some Words Are Shells in Time, And Within Them Are Perhaps Memories of You
Death brings no contentment

The Heart of Man

These are the stories we ought to tell
An old Arabic medical text says that the human heart is divided into two chambers, one called happiness, the other despair. What are we to believe?
Man’s heavenly string?
Life, that great musical, is neither sonorous nor fine-tuned by the Lord
That open wound in existence
This godforsaken world is habitable so long as you love me
What we miss most in existence
Where does death stop but in a kiss?

And here is a longer extract

There is nothing to add except that you have to dare to delve into a magnificent writing style. In fact Yes ! Stefansson is Iceland. And my last crush of this magnitude dates from around ten years ago, I had similarly immersed myself in three works by the philosopher Cynthia Fleury.
(with here a long interview translated in English)

Cormac McCarthy – the Reality and Life of Imaginary Things

I seldom talk about litterature on this blog. It happened a couple of times when there were some links to startups, entrepreneurship, innovation or even science and mathematics. It happened with my beloved Hopeful Monsters and it has some similarities with Cormac McCarthy’s The Passenger.

Cormac McCarthy is a great and rather famous author, you may have read or heard of The Road, No Country for Old Men or even lesser known, but still masterpiece Suttree.

I do not know if The Passenger is a masterpiece, and I have not begun its sister novel Stella Maris. But I love the story, its depth and beauty. At nearly 90-year old, McCarthy is just impressive again. Here is an excerpt that hopefully may push you to read further:

I work all the time. I just dont write that much of it down.

So what do you do? Just loll around and mull over the problems?

Yeah. Lolland mull. That’s me.

Dreaming of equations to come. So why dont you write it down?

You really want to talk about this?


All right. It’s not just that I dont have to write things down. There’s more to it than that. What you write down becomes fixed. It takes on the constraints of any tangible entity. It collapses into a reality estranged from the realm of its creation. It’s a marker. A roadsign. You have stopped to get your bearings, but at a price. You’ll never know where it might have gone if you’d left it alone to go there. In any conjecture you’re always looking for weaknesses. But sometimes you have the sense that you should hold off. Be patient. Have a little faith. You really want to see what the conjecture itself is going to drag up out of the murk. I dont know how one does mathematics. I dont know that there is a way. The idea is always struggling against its own realization. Ideas come with an innate skepticism, they dont just go barreling ahead. And these doubts have their origin in the same world as the idea itself. And that’s not something you really have access to. So the reservations that you yourself in your world of struggle bring to the table may actually be alien to the path of these emerging structures. Their own intrinsic doubts are steering-mechanisms while yours are more like brakes. Of course the idea is going to come to an end anyway. Once a mathematical conjecture is formalized into a theory it may have a certain luster to it but with rare exceptions you can no longer entertain the illusion that it holds some deep, insight into the core of reality. It has in fact begun to look like a tool.


Yeah, well.

You talk about your arithmetic exercises as if they had minds of their own.

I know.

Is that what you think?

No. It’s just hard not to.

Why arent you going back to school?

I told you. I dont have time to. l’ve got too much to do. I’ve applied for a fellowship in France. I’m waiting to hear.

Crikey. For real?

I dont know what’s going to happen. l’m not sure that I want to. Know. If I could plan my life I wouldnt want to live it. I probably dont want to live it anyway. I know that the characters in the story can be either real or imaginary and that after they are all dead it wont make any difference. If imaginary beings die an imaginary death they will be dead nonetheless. You think that you can create a history of what has been. Present artifacts. A clutch of letters. A sachet in a dressingtable drawer. But that’s not what’s at the heart of the tale. The problem is that what drives the tale will not survive the tale. As the room dims and the sound of voices fades you understand that the world and all in it will soon cease to be. You believe that it will begin again. You point to other lives. But their world was never yours.

Ifyou are still non convinced, here is an analyis from the New Yorker, dated December 2022 : Cormac McCarthy Peers Into the Abyss. The eighty-nine-year-old novelist has long dealt with apocalyptic themes. But a pair of novels about ill-starred mathematicians takes him down a different road.

Hopeful Monsters

‘What are hopeful monsters?’ I said ‘They are things born perhaps slightly before their time; when it’s not known if the environment is quite ready for them.’
Hopeful Monsters, by Nicholas Mosley [P. 71]

Hopeful Monsters could have been startups, but it is a novel, a marvelous novel written in 1990 and that I am reading again these days. I had read it in another century, when there were only books in paper and independent bookstores still existed. I had bought it in the late Black Oak Books in Berkeley, California.

Bruno held out his hands to the flames and talked to them in an unintelligible language. Minna said ‘What do you say to the fire?’
Bruno said ‘I say “Come on up! Do as I say or I’ll punish you!” ’
Minna said ‘And does it?’
Bruno said ‘If it wants to.’

The first 3 chapters begin this way:
Chapter I – if we are to survive in the environment we have made for ourselves, may we have to be monstrous enough to greet our predicament?
Chapter II – if we are talking about an environment in which the acceptance of paradoxes might breed, then this can happen in an English hot-house, I suppose, as well as in a melting-pot of Berlin streets.
Chapter III – if, for the sake of change, old ground has to be broken up, one or two seeds lie secret – what terrible opportunities there were during those years!

I had never read a novel which mixes philosophy and science with beautiful story-telling. Not an easy read. Not sure it is a masterpiece either, though…