The latest addition to my website is Sigurd Hoel‘s Møte ved Milepelen (Meeting at the Milestone). Published only two years after World War II, this book had considerable impact in Norway, as it deals with the issue of Norwegian collaboration with the Nazis. Our unnamed narrator has provided a safe house for the Resistance and learns from one man he is sheltering that a man he had known as a student is now living in a rural village and is unhappy in his life but has joined the Nazi party. Our narrator will later examine why several people he knew had become collaborators with the Nazis but he is also sent to the village to find out why the Nazis seem to know what the Resistance is up to. Is there a spy? If so, who and why? He gets involved with various people from his past but, at the same time, ends up not really knowing why these people collaborated and, as he says, not finding the pattern in my own life. The book deservedly had considerable success both in Norway and abroad when published.
The latest addition to my website is Axel Jensen‘s Ikaros – ung mann i Sahara (Icarus – A Young Man in Sahara). Our unnamed narrator, a young Norwegian, heads for Algeria but finds Algiers too noisy so goes off to the remote town of Tamanrasset, where the sensible doctor tells him everything is going to hell. No one will survive the next war. He learns of a Frenchman, Nerval, who had been in a concentration camp in the war and now is now out in the desert, sitting on a rock and living off goats’ milk. Our hero sets out on a temperamental donkey to join him and finds him playing with a horned snake and with a Tuareg family living nearby. It is Nerval who tells him it is just as though I were the only normal person in the whole world, only the lunatic can be quite normal in our time. Our hero is looking for himself and for meaning in this troubled world but it does not work out.
Latest on my website: Jens Bjørneboe‘s Frihetens øyeblikk (Moment of Freedom) This is a thoroughly grim account by a forty-six year old Norwegian, living in a remote Alpine part of Germany called Heiligenberg, who cannot remember his own name. He works in a menial position for a court and is writing a History of Bestiality while studying the court and the people of the region. He recounts some of the horrors of the past – the Nazis, the Soviets, the Belgian Congo. The people in Heiligenberg seem, on the face of it, to be ordinary decent bourgeois but are anything but. Mass murders are routine and our hero uncovers a guilty secret which shows that most of the town people are depraved. We also learn of his travels and early life, which have given him material for his History. From my life I can hardly remember anything but murder, war, concentration camps, torture, slavery, executions, bombed-out cities, and the half-burned bodies of children he tells us and all that feeds into his book.
The latest addition to my website is Lars Saabye Christensen‘s . The novel tells the stories of four Norwegian boys/young men from 1965 (when they are fourteen) to 1972. Initially, they are fairly conventional – they like pop music (and, obviously, the Beatles in particular, each one adopting the name of one of the Fab Four) and football, clash with their parents and often misbehave. As they grow older, girls, drugs and politics enter their lives. They are anti-the Vietnam War and US imperialism and opposed to Norway joining the EEC. They all have girlfriend problems and all struggle with where they are going in life. The book gradually gets darker as drugs and mental health issues come into the picture. The book gives a picture of Norway when, as elsewhere, things were changing, and our four heroes – and other characters – cannot always cope with this new world,
The latest addition to my website is Johan Bojer‘s Den store hunger (The Great Hunger). Bojer write about the poor and downtrodden. This book is about Peer Holm, the illegitimate son (as was Bojer himself) of a well-to-do army officer). He was farmed out to poor foster-parents in the Lofoten Islands, where the main activity was fishing. He hoped to inherit from his father when he died but only received a measly sum but managed to get work in a smithy and then studied engineering and had a successful career abroad before returning to Norway where he married and had children. However, he was soon bored and invested a lot of money in an engineering project which went wrong, leaving him back where he had been – flat broke. The moral of the story, clearly outlined by Bojer, is that money and wordly success are not the true path to happiness but, rather, it is a strong spirit, a belief in God and devotion to what the Germans call Kinder und Kirche – children and church, family and religion.
Every year around this time, I read only books from one country. As we are hoping to visit Norway for the first time later this year, I have selected this country.
Norwegian literature is too vast to give anything more than a relatively brief summary, which I shall do, focussing on authors and works available in English. For English-speaking people, I suspect that Norwegian literature may be most familiar from three authors, none of whom I shall reading here. The first is Henrik Ibsen, the famous playwright. I read several of his major plays many years ago and have seen a production of A Doll’s House. James Joyce’s first published work was a review of Ibsen’s play When We Dead Awaken . Joyce studied Norwegian to be able to read Ibsen in the original.
Scandi noir is many people’s introduction to Norwegian literature . There are several Norwegian Scandi noir writers but the best-known is probably Jo Nesbø.
Karl Ove Knausgård, known as Karl Ove Knausgaard in English, is the best-known living non-Scandi noir writer and I have not the faintest idea why. I have tried reading him and find his work stunningly boring but then, I must admit, the navel-gazing school of literature, also known as autofiction, does nothing for me. I accept that this is a matter of taste.
Before getting on to recent literature, there are a couple of key issues. For a long time Norway was under Danish control so, to all intentes and purposes there was no Norwegian literature. Ibsen called it the Four Hundred Years of Darkness. It lasted from 1387 to 1814. Before that there had been the the Eddic poems and Old Norse literature, which I shall not discuss.
The other key issue is that the Norwegian language has two forms. Bokmål is the language used by the majority of Norwegians, while far fewer speak/write in Nynorsk. As with most languages both have their regional variations. English-speaking readers do not need to overly concern themselves with this but it is well to be aware of it.
Moving on to the nineteenth century, the stand-out writer, as mentioned is Henrik Ibsen. However, though not well known outside Norway Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson won the Nobel Prize for literature and also wrote the lyrics for the Norwegian national anthem. For Norwegians he is their national poet.
Alexander Kielland was a succesful realist novelist. Some of his work is available in English. Jonas Lie was a novelist but also a poet and playwright and some of his work is readily available in English.
Another Norwegian novelist to win the Nobel Prize for literature was Knut Hamsun. His earliest works appeared in the nineteenth century but he was also writing in the early part of the twentieth century. His novels had considerable influence on a host of other writers. Most of his novels are readily available in English and he is perhaps best-known for Hunger. He is also known for being very anti-English and pro-Hitler during World War II. He was tried for treason after the war but was not convicted due to his age and mental health issues.
Moving on to the twentieth century, the first book I shall be reading is by Johan Bojer who wrote about the poor and the Norwegians who emigrated to the United States. Several of his works are available in English.
Olav Duun only missed the Nobel Prize by one vote. His six volume historical The People of Juvik was translated into English but is long since out of print and difficult to obtain.
Gabriel Scott was born in Scotland of Norwegian parents and is best known for his Markus theFisherman of which I have a copy but will not be reading this time. Like other Norwegian writers, he wrote about the simple people.
Cora Sandel, the first woman in this summary, is famous for her semi-autobiographical Alberta trilogy and I shall be reading the first one. All three are readily available in English.
The second woman is Sigrid Undset who is already on my site though not for her most famous work Kristin Lavransdatter but for her Olav Audunssøn trilogy, which is being retranslated and of which I have read the first two.
I read Sigurd’s Hoel‘s Meeting at the Milestone many years ago, before I started this site and I shall be rereading it this time.
I have read and reviewed five of Tarjei Vesaas‘ novels and though I am not planning to read any more now, I may do so in the future.
I shall be reading a Jens Bjørneboe novel. Several of his novels have been translated into English but, not surprisingly, a few are out of print. He was a painter and a writer, described himself as an anarcho-nihilist and was highly critical of Norwegian and Western society.
Terje Stigen was a very prolific author of novels and short stories though only one novel and one collection of short stories have been translated into English. I have a copy of the novel but shall not be reading it this time.
I have read two of Finn Carling‘s novels, both of which are well worth reading and are readily available in English.
I shall be reading Axel Jensen this time, a man a critic described as Axel Jensen does not write for a popular audience, and his mystical language will probably not be understood or appreciated by many. A few of his books have been translated into English but all seem to be out of print.
Gerd Brantenberg is a feminist writer and I shall be reading her Egalia’s Daughters. In this book, The female is defined as the normal and the male as the abnormal, subjugated sex. All words that are normally in masculine form are given in a feminine form, and vice versa.
A few of Knut Faldbakken‘s works have been translated into English – I shall be reading one – though most seem out of print. His son Matias Faldbakken is also a succesful author, including of the interestingly named The Cocka Hola Company which, despite the title being in English, has not been translated into English, though I have a copy in German.
I have read and reviewed three of Dag Solstad‘s novels, which I can highly recommend.
I have a couple of Herbjørg Wassmo books, which I shall not be reading this time. Three have been translated into English and two seem to be readily available.
Only one of Kjartan Fløgstad‘s novels has been translated into English and I shall be reading that. Dollar Road follows the development of Norwegian industrial society through two generations in the post-war period.
I have one of Edvard Hoem‘s novels but I shall not be reading it this time. He is described as a novelist, dramatist, lyricist, psalmist and government scholar. Three of his novels have been translated into English, including one being published around now.
Cecilie Løveid has written plays, children’s books and poetry as well as adult books , one of which I shall be reading.
Several of Per Petterson‘s have been translated into English and I shall be reading one.
Lars Saabye Christensen is half Danish, half Norwegian. Several of his works have been translated into English, most of which are readily available, and I shall be reading one.
Three of Jan Kjærstad‘s novels – a trilogy – have been translated into English and are readily available. I shall be reading one.
Several of Roy Jacobsen‘s novels have also been translated into English and are readily available. I shall be reading one.
Ingvar Ambjornsen has been extensively translated into German but only once into English (albeit under two different titles, one in the US and one in the UK, which I shall be reading.) His works tend to be about outsiders.
Anne B. Ragde is best-known for her novel Berlin Poplars which has been translated into several languages, including English. I have a copy but shall not be reading it this time.
Izzet Celasin is a Turkish immigrant who has Norwegian nationality and writes in Norwegian. His Black Sky, Black Sea won a prize for best political novel.
I have read and reviewed five of Jon Fosse‘s novels , which I can highly recommend.
I have read and reviewed one of Vigdis Hjorth‘s novels. One other one has been translated into English.
Five of Tomas Espedal‘s novels have been translated into English and I shall be reading one this time.
Only one of Merethe Lindstrøm‘s novels has been translated into English. I have a copy but shall not be reading it this time.
Three of Nikolaj Frobenius‘s novels have been translated into English and I shall be reading one of them about the Marquis de Sade.
Two of Erik Fosnes Hansen‘s books have been translated into English. I do not have either of them. His best known novel is about the musicians on the Titanic.
I actually have four of Linn Ulmann‘s novels, though I won’t be reading them this time. She is an accomplished novelist but also known as the daughter of film director Ingrid Berman and actress Liv Ullmann.
I have two of Erlend Loe‘s novels though I won’t be reading them this time. Wikipedia says of him that He has gained popularity in Scandinavia with his humorous and sometimes naïve novels, although his stories have become darker in tone, moving towards a more satirical criticism of modern Norwegian society.
Gine Cornelia Pedersen is the youngest writer on my website. Her Null (Zero had considerable success in Norway and shows the darker side of contemporary Norway.
Leif Høghaug has not been translated into English but his novel Kælven has been translated into German. A summary of the book says nothing makes sense, a raven-black comedy about crime and punishment and that it is about toxic masculinity, guilt and access. Its casts consists of cowboys and angels and it mixes in Western sci-fi and mystery. I can’t wait for it to appear in English. Høghaug is also a poet and translator, who has translated The Communist Manifesto into Norwegian.
Helga Flatland writes both children’s and adult books. Her A Modern Family has been translated into English and is about a couple in their 70s who decide to divorce and the effect this has on their adult children.
Gøhril Gabrielsen‘s The Looking-Glass Sisters, a tragic love story about two sisters who cannot live with or without each other, has been translated into English as has her Ankomst.
Geir Gulliksen‘s The Story of a Marriage has been translated into English and is the story of a marriage breakdown.
Jenny Hval is nest-known in Norway as a singer but she is also a writer. Two of her novels have been translated into English wth the interesting titles Paradise Rot and Girls Against God.
Kim Leine was born in Norway but spent most of his adult life in Denmark and Greenland. His The Prophets of Eternal Fjord has been translated into English.
Maja Lunde is a children’s writer as well as writing for adults. She is also a keen climate change campaigner. Her The History of Bees has been translated into English.
Mona Høvring is a poet and a novelist. Her Because Venus Crossed an Alpine Violet on the Day that I Was Born certainly has an interesting title.
Agnes Ravatn is a journalist. Her novel The Bird Tribunal has been translated into English and several other languages.
Five of Stig Sæterbakken‘s novels have been published in English. As well as novels, he wrote poetry and essays. He sadly took his own life in 2012.
Yor Ulven was initially a poet but then turned to prose. His Replacement has been published in English. He, too, took his own life – in 1995. Knausgård was a fan.
Alfred Hauge is best-known for his fictionalised story of Cleng Peerson, an eager Norwegian immigrant to the United States. It has been translated into English, under the title of The True Saga of Cleng Peerson.
Svein Jarvoll, poet, essayist and novelist, has not been translated into English but his novel En australiareise [An Australian Journey] has been translated into German. It nearly made the cut this time but not quite. This book and Leif Høghaug’s Kælven, mentioned above, were translated by the wonderful Matthias Friedrich who has translated a few interesting novels into German from Norwegian.
Agnar Mykle started life as a teacher before becoming a writer. His The Song of the Red Ruby, translated into English, was highly controversial and initially banned for obscenity though that was overturned. The case had a profound effect on him and he became a recluse.
Henrik Nor-Hansen spends much of his time sailing round the world but his novel Termin has been translated into English.
Gunnar Staalesen is best-known for his Nordic noir novels but his mammoth historical Bergen trilogy nearly made the cut this time. It has not, however, been translated into English but has been translated into French. A thousand pages in French will have to wait for a future date.
Laila Stien did make the cut. Her Antiphony is about the Sami people and she has written other books about them.
Cecilie Løveid is a playwright, poet and novelist. One of her novels – Sea Swell – nd one of her plays have been translated into English.
Only one of Sigbjørn Hølmebakk‘s novels – The Carriage Stone – has been translated into English. He was active in the movement to keep atomic weapons off Norwegian soil.
Another interesting Norwegian novelist who has also not been translated into English but has been translated into German is Erlend O. Nødtvedt. His novel Vestlandet has been described as a superb ode to western Norway and a pure celebration and relief for the soul.
Klara Hveberg is a mathematician by profession but her one novel – Lean Your Loneliness Slowly Against Mine – has been translated into English.
This should give you an idea of what twentieth and twenty-first century novels are available in English, though I am sure there are many more I have missed.
The latest addition to my website is Fiona Snyckers‘ Lacuna. J M Coetzee‘s Booker Prize-winning novel Disgrace was controversial, particularly for the scene where Lucy Lurie is raped by three black men. The book was criticised for being racist, showing black men as violent, but also for sexism as Lucy is seen as passive, refusing to divulge the names of her assailants and keeping the resultant child. This book is a feminist response to Coetzee and his novel. It is told by Lucy, who is shown as a real person and a former (very junior) colleague of Coetzee when he was a university professor. It is a complex novel, discussing the issues of victim shaming, the right to appropriate the stories of others, including those still living, the link between literature and real life, the twists and turns of the legal system and how South Africa is and is not adapting to the post-apartheid era. It also tells a very good story and offers an effective challenge to Coetzee’s novel. Snyckers does an excellent job in challenging Coetzee and his point of view.
The latest addition to my website is Karen Duve‘s Regenroman (Rain). Leon Ulbricht is an unsuccessful writer when his friend Harry Klaamt gets him the job of writing a biography of Harry’s boss, Benno Pfitzner, a former boxer and current pimp and thug. With the advance, Leon, with his docile but attractive wife Martina, buys a rundown house by a marsh in a small village in the former East Germany. It rains all the time, the house is in very poor condition and, because of the water, getting worse, there is a plague of slugs and Leon has to spend his time doing repairs, though he injures himself doing so. The neighbouring sisters, one a predatory lesbian, the other a predatory man-chaser, do help a bit. However Benno wants his book and he wants it now and he is not used to not getting what he wants and becomes increasingly menacing. It all ends very badly for all concerned but it is still raining.
The latest addition to my website is Andrey Kurkov‘s Смерть постороннего (Death and the Penguin). Yes, it is about a penguin but the penguin is both Viktor’s quirky pet but also a symbol for someone struggling to cope in an alien environment. Viktor is a writer who gets a job writing obituaries in advance of celebrities’ deaths, all the while living alone with a king penguin, Misha, whom he adopted when the zoo could no longer feed him, after the fall of the Soviet Union. We and Viktor soon find out that there is a connection between Viktor’s obituaries and the death of the subjects of the obituaries which is not simply coincidental. Gradually, he, Misha, Sonya, a young girl, daughter of an acquaintance who suddenly disappears, and Nina whom Viktor hires to look after Sonya, get caught up up in a dastardly and violent plot. Kurkov cleverly mixes in the serious issue of corruption and violence in post-Soviet Ukraine with the story of a not entirely happy penguin.
A second covid year, and undoubtedly not the last has meant, for me, much less travel and none abroad and much less going out – I cannot remember the last time I went to the cinema, theatre or a pub and while I can remember the last time I went to a football match, it was well before lockdown. This has meant more time for reading as well as more time for walking and doing stuff around the house but also more of the covid lethargy which seems to affect people.
As in most years, there were some books I read that I had not heard of by December last year and even some authors I had not heard of. Indeed, there were even a few publishers I had not heard of. The publishers I read most from were Columbia University Press (five), Dedalus (five), New Directions (five), Deep Vellum (five), Archipelago (four), Fitzcarraldo (four), Istros (four), Two Lines Press (four), Europa (three) Fum d’Estampa (three), Hoopoe (three), Open Letter (three) and World Editions (three).
In terms or nationalities, the main ones were Romanian (twenty-one) Catalan (six), German (six), Japanese (six), Norwegian (six), English (five), Spanish (five), French (five), Italian (four) and US (four). Romania was the country selected for my annual reading marathon.
Less well-represented nationalities included Albania, Belarus, Bosnia, Central African Republic, Chicano, Republic of Congo, Denmark, Georgia, Guadeloupe, Iran, Latvia, Libya, Lithuania, Namibia, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Senegal, Slovakia, Slovenia, Syria, Taiwan, Tanzania, Uruguay, Uzbekistan and Wales.
In terms of the language the books were originally written in, the order was Romanian (nineteen), English (fifteen), French (fifteen), Spanish (twelve), Arabic (eleven), German (seven), Russian (seven), Catalan (six), Japanese (six), and Norwegian (six). Less commonly represented languages included Albanian, Bosnian, Croatian, Danish, Farsi, Latvian, Slovak, Slovenian, Ukrainain, Uzbek and Welsh.
I read forty-six books by women, almost a third of the total, much higher than in recent years.
Early in the year, my annual country marathon focussed on Romania and my conclusion was that I was glad I did not live in twentieth century Romania, for which I was mildly and rightly berated. This was not a criticism of the Romanian people but partially of their various governments and partially because of the unfortunate circumstances they were exposed to, including both German and Russian occupation and being involved in both world wars. I certainly read some interesting books which, I think, were not generally well-known in the English-speaking world and I hope that I showed that Romanian literature has a lot to offer and that there are quite a few available in English.
One other interesting literary thing I would mention is that African writers won four of the major literary prizes this year and I read them all. Abdulrazak Gurnah won the Nobel Prize for literature. I had already read and reviewed three of this books but I added his most recent book- Afterlives. David Diop won the International Booker Prize for his Frère d’âme (At Night All Blood Is Black), translated by Anna Moschovakis, published by Pushkin, about Senegalese soldiers in World War I. Damon Galgut won the Booker Prize for his The Promise about a dysfunctional and racist South African family.
I do not do a best of list, not least because I know that there are a lot of fine books that came out this year that I did not have a chance to read and also my view today may not be the same as my view tomorrow. However, here are some of the books I particularly enjoyed. However, I would add that I enjoyed virtually every book I read this year and, unlike, last year, did not abandon any book before finishing it.
In no particular order… Vladimir Sharov is a superb writer. Sadly he died in 2018. Dedalus have published three of his novels in English and all three are well worth reading. This year saw Будьте как дети (Be As Children) (translated by Oliver Ready), another superb book about children and innocence or sin and innocence, but don’t let that put you off, as it is about lots of other things, particularly Russian history from way back up to Lenin. If I were to pick my favourite book of the year, it would probably be this but, as mentioned, I shall not be picking a favourite book.
I have read more books originally written in Arabic than I normally do and would single out a couple. Omaima Al-Khamis‘ رواية مسرى الغرانيق في مدن العقيق (The Book Smuggler)(translated by Sarah Enany) was published by the excellent Hoopoe and did not get as much traction as it should. It is set in the eleventh century, when the Islamic world was far more advanced, e.g. in paper making and book publishing than the Western world and follows Mazid al-Hanafi, around the Islamic world. We get a lot of colourful stories, interesting historical and literary tidbits and a lot about Islamic differences. Moreover, this is a book by a Saudi woman, of which there are not many in English.
Another interesting woman writer from the Arabic-speaking world is the Palestinian Sahar Khalifeh, Several of her works have been published in English. I read her الأول : رواية (My First and Only Love) (translated by Aida Bamia) about a woman artist who returns to Palestine after many years abroad. It is , of course, about her lost love but also about the brutalities of the Israeli occupation and told very well.
While we are in that part of the world… The Iranian writer Iraj Pezeshkzad has had two novels translated into English. I read حافظ ناشنيده پند (Hafez in Love) (translated by Pouneh Shabani-Jadidi and Patricia J. Higgins)about the very real Persian poet Hafez, from Syracuse University Press, who publish some interesting books. Yes, it is about love, politics, Islam and, of course poetry and a very enjoyable read.
What has finally been translated is Mario Levrero‘s La novela luminosa (The Luminous Novel) (translated by Annie McDermott), a very long book from the excellent And Other Stories about, well, virtually nothing. Our hero is trying to write this book, The Luminous Novel and, somehow, cannot get round to doing so. We get all his excuses and how he gets sidetracked but, after 544 pages, he still has not written it. A superb novel.
There are two countries in Latin America at the forefront of producing quality writing. The first is Argentina. One of the best and most intelligent writers from that country is Pola Oloixarac. I read her novel Mona (Mona) (translated by Adam Morris). It is about literary conferences, writers, violence against women, political correctness and the French. It is another superb novel from her.
The other Latin American country whose writing really impresses me is Mexico. Mario Bellatin writes short novels but they are first-class. I read two of his this year. The first was one of the two pandemic novels I read this year (though the pandemic in this one is more AIDS-ike than covid-like) – Salón de belleza (Beauty Salon) (translated by David Shook). However, it is not a straight pandemic novel.
Moving to Spain I really enjoyed Agustín Fernández Mallo‘s Trilogía de la guerra (The Things We’ve Seen) (translated by Thomas Bunstead). The book, as you can see from the Spanish title, was a trilogy. The first book was about a literary conference attended by a writer on the Island of San Simón, an island that has a history, particularly as a prison camp during the Spanish Civil War. The second book is about Kurt Montana who was the fourth astronaut on the first moon landing. The third book is about the writer’s girlfriend’s Sebaldian exploration of Normandy. A brief summary cannot do justice to this complex, superb work.
While we are in Spain, I continue to read works translated from the Catalan. Fum d’Estampa continue to publish excellent works from the Catalan. I enjoyed all of theirs but particularly Raül Garrigasait‘s Els estranys (The Others) (translated by Tiago Miller) about a translator and the subject of the book he is translating, the bumbling Rudolf von Wielemann, a German fighting in the Carlist wars in Catalonia. It is both funny but interesting.
I have always enjoyed Susan Daitch‘s works and her Siege of Comedians did not disappoint. As always it was a complex novel, this one about face modelling, Nazis, terrorism, human trafficking, German cinema and much more.
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