The latest addition to my website is Erlend O. Nødtvedt‘s Vestlandet [Westland]. This is about a road trip made by the author and his friend the painter Ingve Pedersen. In a battered Ford Camry, they set out from Bergen to the Westland region of Norway (the rainiest region of Europe) carrying the skull of Anders Lysne, a man executed some two hundred years ago by the Danes who were then occupying Norway. Our heroes plan to return it to Lysne’s home town of Lærdal. En route they meet various famous artists, writers and musicians, including Jon Fosse but also deceased ones. They get involved in the Westland Liberation Front (which may or may not exist), get stuck in a tunnel, encounter various animals, drink, break down, try to get in touch with the spirit of Westland, oppose Eastern Man, the symbol of authority and government, meet a survivalist, paint and write, listen to music and finally get to Lærdal, more or less in one piece. It is very humorous, though there is very much a serious intent behind it. Sadly, at the time of writing there is no plan to translate it into English.
I have now read twenty Norwegian novels in a row. To sum up a national literature, let alone an entire nation on the basis of reading twenty arbitrarily selected novels may seem foolhardy but nothing ventured….
The first point to make about these novels (and other Norwegian novels I have read) is that many of the main characters have what we might call dark souls, by which I mean they have mental health issues, do not fit in and/or tend to see the dark side of life. Now it may well be that you could take twenty arbitrarily selected novels from any other country and you would get a similar perception. Certainly twenty arbitrarily selected novels from many Eastern Europe countries would give you a similar outcome. And if you were to take twenty Swedish novels and films, I am sure the result would be similar. Doubtless there are comic Norwegian novels. Maybe they have just not been translated into English, with publishers feeling that doom and gloom sells better or is more serious, with comic novels often being considered frivolous. In short I did not laugh too much (though occasionally) when reading these novels. Of course, that does not mean that I did not enjoy them. Frankly I tend to prefer doom-and-gloom novels which says far more about me than about Norwegian novels.
When I started reading these novels, it seemed that in almost every novel someone visited a brothel but that turned out to be chance and there were definitely fewer brothels in the ones I read later. Similarly in the earlier novels, fathers had a propensity to beat their sons but that also disappeared later on.
One thing that did continue is that in most of the books one or more characters left Norway (and in some cases were never in it – four of the novels were set entirely out of Norway and three of those did not have any Norwegian characters.) Quite a few of the characters wanted to travel away from Norway, though Paris was quite popular, neighbouring Sweden and Denmark featured heavily, though some went further afield. In two of the novels, one of the characters meets a Tuareg, with not always satisfactory consequences. I am sure you could easily find twenty random novels from other countries where the characters rarely if ever leave their home country. Norway, as we know from this novel, is the sixtieth largest country by landmass, therefore, while not big it is not small either and is a very beautiful country, so why are they leaving?
World War II, not surprisingly, featured in a few novels. Norway was occupied by the Germans and this clearly had a profound effect on the country.
One other thing that I noticed is that many of the main characters were not motivated by money, status and conventional success but by other things, such as finding who they were and where they were going or just trying to make a life for themselves. Again, this is certainly not unique to Norwegian novels.
Yes, this novel is about borders, particularly national ones but also borders between people. Apart from a very large section involving the Battle of Stalingrad, much of this novel is set around the Luxembourg-Belgum-German border. We start with the Ardennes Offensive (aka the Battle of the Bulge) when a soldier serving in the US army (though he may be Canadian) is rescued by a local woman. They hide out but he goes to look for his regiment and never returns, leaving her pregnant. Robert, the son, and Maria , the mother, are close to various people whose stories we hear, including, in particular, Léon, who ends up fighting (unwillingly) for the Germans in the Battle of the Bulge and Markus, who ends up fighting for the Germans at the Battle of Stalingrad and seemingly has a key influence on the course of the battle. He is blinded but when he recovers, tells no-one, not even his wife, except for Robert.
In both battles, borders are crossed though the key border we are concerned with is on the River Our between Germany and Luxembourg and this small and insignificant crossing will play a certain role well before the war, during the war and after the war. We follow several other stories, the issue of people fighting for the wrong side, the military mistakes made by generals and by Hitler and even the story of a knife thrower and William of Orange. Jacobsen tells a wonderful set of stories but it all comes down to borders – between people and between countries.
The latest addition to my website is Gerd Brantenberg‘s Egalias døtre (UK: The Daughters of Egalia; US: Egalia’s Daughters). This novel is set in Egalia, a fictitious country which does not seem to resemble (as regards its geography and history) any country I know of. The key issue is that the traditional roles and stereotypes of male and female are completely reversed. Those men lucky enough to get a wife stay at home looking after the children and the house, while all the important work is done by woman, with unmarried men only doing unskilled labouring jobs. Men take their wife’s surname. When not looking after the children, men try to make themselves look beautiful for their wife. They wear blouses, skirts, and dresses, carry fancy handbags and also wear a peho (= penis holder), a fancy codpiece that draws attention to the genitals and is presumably the male equivalent in this book of the bra. In this society women are called wom (plural: wim) and men menwom (plural: menwim). Female is fele, while male is mafele. There are other similar changes.
We follow the story of Ruth Bram, who has an important, well-paid job, her husband (called housebound) Christopher and their children Petronius and Ba. After a third child is born Christopher is castrated. Petronius, aged sixteen, with a few friends and his unmarried male teacher, start a masculist movement , i.e. the equivalent of a feminist movement, for male liberation, to the disgust of his mother.
Whie Brantenberg makes some sensible and serious points about the respective role of the sexes, some of the book is quite amusing from womo sapiens to Ruth giving birth publicly , from Bloody Maurice forBloody Mary to men foolishly spending all their time gossiping, but it all shows how sexist we are.
The latest addition to my website is Berit Ellingsen‘s The Empty City. Ellingsen is of South Korean origin and writes in English. This novel tells the story of Brandon Minamato, of mixed origin living in a tower block in an unnamed city. He has a boring office job and tries to distract himself, first by extreme activities and then by urban exploration – the depths of the underground railway system, an abandoned psychiatric facility, where is attacked and elsewhere but, gradually, moves to living more and more in an imaginary world, a dream world, where he visits imaginary, fantastic places and has lucid dreams, ones where is able to change the dream even as he is dreaming it. Eventually, he imagines the city is empty and quits his boring office job. Clearly, Ellingsen is telling us, we need to move more and more away from our dull, routine life in the physical world and explore our inner consciousness.
The latest addition to my website is Kjersti Skomsvold‘s Jo fortere jeg går, jo mindre er jeg (The Faster I Walk, The Smaller I Am). Mathea Martisen, who is elderly but we are not sure how elderly, lives in a flat with her husband Epsilon. He is a professional statistician. She has never worked (except for one day). She is a loner. She has no friends, her relatives are all dead and she is pathologically shy. She spends much of the day watching TV but ruminates on life and on death. I’m just as afraid of living life as I am of dying. she says. She has no children (one false alarm) and her dog died because of her foolishness. When there are events she can attend, she either declines to do so or it does not work out well. Epsilon is something of a loner too though presumably has work colleagues and he does interact with people. Both seem to be obsessed with death – her favourite reading is the obituaries in the newspaper – and she in particular thinks about it often, including imagining that she might die alone in the flat with nobody discovering her body. The one major event in her life was being struck by lightning at school but she recovered. This is when she met Epsilon who asked her about the experience. There are certainly elements of humour in this story but, on the whole, we can only feel sorry for Mathea as she just cannot cope with life.
Trond Sander is sixty-seven. Within the space of a month , his second wife is killed in a car crash, in which he is injured, and his sister dies of cancer. He decides that it is time to retire and buys a rundown house in the north of Norway, not far from the Swedish border. He meets his neighbour, Lars, and both men soon realise they knew each other as children. When Trond was fifteen, in 1948, he and his father would come to a remote cabin and do man things while his mother and sister stayed at home in Oslo. He had a friend Jon, a local boy of his age and one day the two boys go out stealing horses, in fact just riding the horses of the local landowner. Only later does he learn that the day before, his younger brother, Lars, had taken Jon’s loaded rifle and shot and killed Odd, his twin brother. Lars is, of course, the the Lars that the older Trond meets.
We learn more about what happened then but also what happened before. It seems Trond’s unnamed father, was active in the resistance during the war, though his family knew little about it, and became close to the mother of Jon and Lars. Trond gradually learns more from his father’s friend Franz. However that holiday was the last time he saw either Jon or his father, who disappeared, leaving only a few krone for his family. Much of the book is Trond’s relationship with his father that summer and how he struggles to cope in his old age, trying to put his life back together. There are few fireworks but it is a beautifully told tale.
The latest addition to my website is Johan Harstad‘s Buzz Aldrin, hvor ble det av deg i alt mylderet? (‘Buzz Aldrin, What Happened to You in All the Confusion?) Our hero Matthias does not want to stand out in the crowd. He wants to be second best, which is why his hero is Buzz Aldrin, the second man on the moon, the one people forget. Matthias manages to get his life going. He works as a gardener for a nursery and has a live-in girlfriend, whom he met at school, though she will not agree to marry him. He is going to the Faroe Islands with his friends Jørn and Roar whose band is playing at a festival, with Matthias as the sound man. And then it suddenly all falls apart. For much of the book he is in a halfway house in a remote part of the Faroe Islands, where people with mental issues live and try to get their life back together. All of them (there are four plus the person in charge who has his own issues) struggle to get their lives back together, not helped when the government closes their facility down. Harstad goes deep into the souls of Matthias and the others and shows how, with a lot of effort, there is perhaps a way.
The latest addition to my website is Laila Stien‘s Vekselsang (Antiphony)/ The novel tells the story of a Norwegian journalist who quits her job when she is accused of lacking initiative and heads off to the North, to write a book about the Sami. There are three chapters and in each chapter she spends time with a woman, each one younger than the previous one. The two older ones bemoan the changes to their culture, the influence of modern, Western culture and how their children, particularly their sons, move down South to find work. The youngest says the Sami, with all their many faults, have been studied to death, while she herself wants to go off to university. While the book is about the huge changes to the Sami culture it is also about fitting in as the narrator, we find, does not fit in with her family, any more than many of the Sami are drifting away from their culture and families.
The latest addition to my website is Cecilie Løveid‘s Sug (Sea Swell). While this novel has a plot, it is decidedly modernistic, using poetic collages, fragments and images, rather than telling us the story in a conventional way. Our heroine is Kjersti Gilje and we see her imaginary, and semi-erotic relationship with her sea captain father but also her not very successful relationship with Matt, married and father of two, who cannot really tear himself away from his wife and children. She ends up living with Monica, a ceramic artist, and also single, which may the best bet for her but it is the imagery and her mining of her subconscious that makes this book different.
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