Nordic novels

Nordic novels

Bawer, Bruce

When we first meet Constance Ring, the eponymous heroine of the newly reissued 1885 classic by the Norwegian writer Amalie Skram (1846-1905), she’s a beautiful young woman of twenty-one who’s been married for two years to a successful broker in Kristiania (now Oslo), where they share a sumptuous apartment and a diverting circle of friends.1 Yet something’s wrong. Constance, who back home in Molde (we’re told) was the life of the party, now stares morosely out the window and gives her husband the cold shoulder. She’s won’t explain, and he, though frustrated, doesn’t seem to have a clue how to talk to her. A year passes. Then, one day, she sees him kissing the maid. She runs to her cousin Marie, expecting sympathy; instead Marie blames Ring’s infidelity on Constance’s “cold and disdainful” treatment of him. Constance returns home-only to flee again when she learns the maid is pregnant.

This time she consults a pastor. Yet he too fails her, counseling forgiveness. (He changes his tune, though, when asked about female adulterers: “That’s a different matter. When a woman falls into that path it is a sign of such degradation, such moral depravity, that we must view her presence in the home as a contamination.”) Constance then tries her aunt, the personification of respectable piety, only to be told that men are men and adultery is a fact of life that must be accepted: “If they marry when they’re young, they haven’t sown their wild oats; if they wait until they’re older, their habits have become too much for them.” Constance is flabbergasted: “Why didn’t you say anything before? Why were you so eager for me to marry?” Because, her aunt explains, “the world is arranged so that women must marry.” Constance moves on to a second husband, and a lover too, only to grow more and more disillusioned: not only does she “loathe the filthy institution” (marriage); she sees life itself as “completely empty . . . astonishingly brutal.”

One is tempted to call Constance Ring a novel about chronic depression-or Scandinavian malaise?-that thinks it’s a novel of feminist social criticism. Yet there is legitimate social criticism here. Skram portrays a society in which radicals and reactionaries tussle over such issues as Norway’s union with Sweden, but in which men of every political stripe are hypocrites about love and marriage. Husbands sleep with servant girls and cover up for one another; wives know what’s going on but look the other way; both spouses, in public, maintain a factitious image of mutual trust and devotion. Hypocrisy also suffuses religious life. When Charlotte’s aunt, lamenting her niece’s newfound cynicism about religion, fondly recalls that she “was so devout when she was confirmed,” Constance’s mother replies tartly: “Well, that was too much of a good thing. . . . Imagine, she was running to Bible readings and services, and even to the most ordinary prayer meetings.” To a proper Norwegian lady, fervent faith and sincere disbelief are equally scandalous, since both are equally deficient in hypocrisy.

Though Skram wasn’t the first writer from her country to take on the double standard (Constance Ring followed A Doll’s House by six years), her dissection of Victorian mores, Norwegian style, is witty and incisive. But what, in the final analysis, does it have to do with her heroine’s wall-to-wall gloom? Constance’s melancholy, after all, sets in long before she discovers Ring’s infidelity and begins to see her society as it really is. What, one feels compelled to ask, is the real cause of her despair? Is she simply repulsed by Ring? If so, why did she marry him? Alas, Skram never gives us a hint of an answer to this last question (and, of course, she shows us absolutely nothing of the prenuptial Constance, which might have illuminated a thing or two).

For all this, it’s not hard to understand Constance Rings canonical status in Norway. Manifestly influenced by Maupassant, Tolstoy, and (especially) Flaubert, it has a classic novel’s authority, balance, and sense of inevitability. It convincingly captures the flavor of upper-class life in the Kristiania of Skram’s day, with its distinctive (and in some ways surprising) combination of conventionality and modernity. Yes, its heroine is foolish and in many ways unlikable, but so, too, after all, is Emma Bovary (about whom, incidentally, Constance comments: “I’m so sick of these immoral women”); like Emma, Constance comes across as a fleshand-blood woman, springing vibrantly off the page, and even, at last, taking on true tragic dimension.

One observation: to read this book in today’s Norway is to be awed by the stark class differences, strict sex roles, and Dickensian poverty that defined Norwegian society only a little over a century ago. What, one wonders, would Skram have made of today’s rich, classless welfare state, where most women enjoy rights she never dreamed of? Then again, what would she have made of the refusal of today’s Norwegian feminists to address the oppression of Muslim women in Norway by their husbands, fathers, and community leaders? (But then, perhaps those feminists’ attitude would not shock Skram overmuch-for the social-democratic piety that compels them to ignore certain uncomfortable realities is simply a modern-day version of the anxious conventionality personified by Constance’s mother.)

From Mme. Ring’s Woolfian woes we proceed to another Norwegian classic-Sigurd Hoel’s Meeting at the Milestone (1947), which, one is tempted to say, is about people with real problems.2 Hoel (1890-1960), who was active in the World War II underground, serves up the first-person narrative of an Occupation-era Resistance member who is dispatched to an unnamed town to figure out which of his contacts there is secretly collaborating with the Germans. As it happens, people from his own past live in that town, and, although he’s now on the side of the angels, he learns that his long-ago moral lapses played a key role in shaping the evil he encounters there.

“I’m looking for something,” says the narrator (whom one can’t help identifying with the author). “Groping my way and looking for the roots of something, the roots of what I myself and others have later become.” And in fact, the novel does feel unpremeditated-one senses throughout that the narrator is feeling his way, struggling to fit pieces together. Often, to be sure, one suspects he’s wandered into a recollection that’s irrelevant to his story; even he suggests he’s “getting sidetracked.” But he adds, presciently: “I have a strange feeling that all this is important.” And in fact, seemingly throwaway observations-about the smallness of Norway (“Everyone knew everybody else”), moral justice (“When one has behaved like a bastard, one has to take the consequences”) and, in particular, human incomprehensibility (“It was impossible to understand every Tom, Dick and Harry. Not even one’s friends. Not even oneself-no, that least of all . . . It’s incredible to what extent a human being can deceive himself”)-prove to be clues to climactic revelations.

So does a point that’s made emphatically in the novel’s opening pages: that evil doesn’t need to be imported from another country but can be found easily enough in one’s own backyard. This the narrator has learned by watching old friends-most of them not conspicuously wicked-become Nazi collaborators. What made them do it? “One went to hell driven by a fixed idea, another by a self-delusion that shattered him, a third by instincts gone astray, a fourth by a stupidity passing all understanding.” Might he, too, under other circumstances, have gone bad? Who knows? Life, after all, is a long road and “a person can lose his way many times on that road.” Indeed, the narrator can seem to have more empathy for traitors than for Norway’s next-door neighbors, who have refused to take skies altogether:

. . . those Swedes! Who were so neutral that it had pierced them to the marrow. Who believed, most of them-well, many of them!-well, some of them anyway!!-that since the country was neutral, it was the duty of each and every citizen to think neutrally, that is, not think at all. Who believed they occupied a morally elevated space because they sat safe on their little mound, while the rest of the world was drowning in the surrounding swamp.

This passage-which, come to think of it, might well have been written about either Norway or Sweden during the Iraq War-is followed by an episode set in Stockholm on D-day. The narrator overhears “some Swedish petit-bourgeois women . . . talking about the great event of the day.” “Magnificent!” they exclaim. “Unforgettable!” But it turns out they’re not discussing the Normandy invasion; they’re talking about the Flag Day parade in downtown Stockholm. He’s outraged: “On this day, the greatest day in world history, a parade in the street was the big event for these-these-neutrals!”

Here and elsewhere, Meeting at the Milestone feels utterly autobiographical. Indeed, one of the novel’s chief assets is its air of immediacy and moral authenticity. Yet Sverre Lyngstad’s energetic translation is at times perhaps a bit too colloquial-within the space of a few pages one runs across “blab,” “kicked the bucket,” “to boot,” and even “ditto heels” (a term unfamiliar to me). Awkward choices and even outright errors occur rather more frequently than they should: “he apologized very much”; “an insurance” (repeatedly) for “an insurance policy”; the pronoun “it” referring back to the antecedent “the people” (which is correct in Norwegian, but not in English). One also regrets the absence of footnotes, which in several instances would have been helpful. (When the narrator describes one traitor as a “fanatic New Norwegian fan,” it took me a moment to realize that the reference is to nynorsk, the alternate written dialect of Norwegian.)

An ideological struggle is also at the center of The Fishermen. In his richly informative introduction to this 1928 novel by Hans Kirk (1898-1962), Mark Linder calls it “the best-selling Danish book of all time-apart from the Bible and hymnbook, which play such an important part in it.” The introduction’s first few pages, however, are almost enough to make you toss out the book.3 For Kirk, we learn, was a lifelong Communist who adored Das Kapital and defended Stalin fervently even after Khrushchev’s “secret speech” of 1956; when Linder mentions the “solid theoretical foundation” of The Fishermen and starts quoting from one of Kirk’s tracts, one’s heart sinks: great, a dreary piece of socialist realism by a Danish Stalinist!

But The Fishermen surprises. Kirk paints a vivid, nuanced, and empathie portrait of a tightly knit Danish fishing community whose members belong to the Inner Mission, a puritanical movement within the Church of Denmark. They call themselves “de hellige,” which, as Linder notes, might be translated as “the Holy” or “the Saintly”; Linder chooses “the Pious.” As the novel opens, they’ve left their parish on the North Sea for what they hope will be better fishing on the Limfjord, where another church movement predominates-Grundtvigianism, whose members’ worldliness, sophistication, and tolerance places them at the opposite end of the theological spectrum from “the Pious.”

No sooner have the Pious moved in than they start trying to force their own rules on their neighbors (such as a baker who has the audacity to stay open on Sundays). The conflict between the newcomers, led by the blunt, no-nonsense Thomas Jensen, and the Grundtvigians, led by a well-meaning but lackluster pastor named Henrik Brink, intensifies steadily. (One finds oneself wondering whether Kirk was an influence on such fundamentalist novelists of our own time as Frank Peretti, whose zealous, upright “true Christian”-i.e., premillennialist-heroes clash with mainstream Protestants whose liberality and open-mindedness are meant to be understood as signs of apostasy.)

Where does Kirk stand on the dissension between the Inner Mission and Grundtvigianism (which, Linder notes, “was reproduced in North America,” where Danish immigrants were either “Happy Danes” or “Holy Danes”)? At times Kirk seems to celebrate the Pious for their firm beliefs, forthright preaching, and refusal to compromise. (Often, indeed, they remind one of Stalinists.) Yet Kirk also sees the humor in their rigidity. After Anton Knopper is shown a book of dirty pictures, he’s “in a dark mood for several days” and has to get up two nights in a row to “read strong words in the Scriptures.” When Brink visits Tea and Jens Ron, Tea chides herself for being polite to the “nonbelieving” pastor, for in doing so “she had forsaken her savior the way Simon Peter had while the cock crowed . . . she would have to expiate it ever after.” Habitually, the Pious respond to news of ungodly behavior by saying, “We probably shouldn’t judge”-after which, needless to say, they dig in their heels and get down to the business of judging.

Linder’s translation is for the most part very admirable, though there are some lapses. Brink tells Jensen: “You people are sowing wind and you’ll come to harvest adverse wind.” Of course, the last three words of this Biblical reference (Hosea 8:7) are usually rendered as “reap the whirlwind.” There are slip-ups (“alright,” “alot”) and anachronisms (“tell it like it is”), as well as instances of over-literal translation (words stand on a sign instead of being written on it; a visiting friend lives with a family instead of staying with them). These minor cavils notwithstanding, Linder deserves considerable credit for resurrecting this important work and rendering it into such lucid, vigorous English.

Could there be a greater distance between the world of The Fishermen and that of Hallgrimur Helgason’s 101 Reykjavik?4 Like Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity, this brisk, snappy, and diaristic first-person narrative introduces us to a thirtysomething who still hasn’t grown up. Stuck in remote Reykjavik, where he lives (in postal code 101) with his ever-indulgent mother, Hlynur Bjorn feels an isolation that’s only reinforced by his round-the-clock access to worldwide TV. Tuning into the Pakistani news “to see if they’ve included Iceland on their world map,” he discovers they haven’t: “Invisible. We’re not there. We’re just watching, but no one can see us.” Watching is this slacker’s strong suit. He conceives of everything in TV terms: an unmanned NASA spacecraft that’s “still floating out there somewhere” with a recorded message from Ronald Reagan is, in Hlynur’s idiom, “an earth promo.” When he’s not glued to the TV, he’s staring at his computer screen or ogling girls in bars. The novel’s running gag is that every female mentioned in the book is awarded a number, appearing in parentheses after her name, indicating how many Icelandic kroner he’d pay to have sex with her. (Mother Teresa: 1,700. Cameron Diaz: 3,900,000.)

Family? Hlynur’s father is an alcoholic whom he keeps running into when he’s out on the town; Mom is a government bureaucrat who may or may not be romantically involved with Lolla, a woman who’s moved in with them. Meanwhile, one of Hlynur’s own casual bedmates might be pregnant. Hlynur has plenty of time to dwell on these matters (amidst idle reflections on pop culture, the repulsiveness of Iceland, and other topics), since he doesn’t work. Why should he? “What’s the point?” he asks. He says he’s “been looking for a reason to live” since birth, but hasn’t found one yet. You’d expect that such a character might be hard to sympathize with; yet one’s heart goes out to this strangely touching, solitary soul as he seeks to get through another long, cold, dark arctic winter. Although the plotlessness and incessant flippancy do come close to wearing one down, 101 Reykjavik is ultimately redeemed not only by Helgason’s unsparing wit and energy (I don’t remember the last time a novel made me laugh out loud so many times) but also by Hlynur’s humanity-all of which, moreover, are wonderfully served by Brian FitzGibbon’s bravura, note-perfect translation.

Lucca, by the Danish novelist Jens Christian Grondahl, is every bit as quiet as 101 Reykjavik is noisy.5 Robert, a physician, is on duty one night at a rural hospital when Lucca, thirty-two, is brought into the E.R. after having driven head-on into a truck. Her life, but not her eyesight, is saved. It soon emerges that on the night of the accident, her husband, Andreas, had asked for a divorce. Robert-himself recently divorced, with a young daughter-comes to know both spouses, who begin, haltingly, to tell him about their lives. And then, about a quarter of the way through the novel, Grondahl shifts gears, and proceeds to serve up flashbacks of all three characters’ romantic histories, recounting each long-dead love from its enchanted birth to its bitter end. It all adds up to a portrait of life as an unending cycle of devotion and disillusion, intimacy and estrangement.

Grondahl is splendid at capturing the emotional texture of relationships at different stages. One might think there’s nothing new to be said about l’amour, but at several points Grondahl articulates lovers’ thoughts and feelings in a way that feels remarkably fresh and true. The premise here is that all relationships eventually fail: Lucca says that at the outset of each affair she could see “the end of the story that was just beginning.” Yet if this is how the world works, Grondahl wants to know, what does it all mean? When love dies, what’s left? Without it, what matters? (As Hlynur would say, what’s the point?) Lucca ponders her mother’s assertion that there’s “more to life than love,” but notes ruefully that Mom “did not start to question what counted until love came to an end. That something more in life, was it merely a substitute?”

Lucca probes these questions with delicacy and intelligence, in prose that is at once heartfelt and elegantly composed. Yet the novel, alas, just doesn’t build. Eventually, indeed, all the wistful stories of long-evaporated loves seem almost to blend together. Presumably this is intentional: part of Grondahl’s message would appear to be that human beings are more alike than different in their need for intimacy and their pain at separation, and that a life made up of a series of relationships doesn’t build-it does just. repeat itself. Alas, this grim (if characteristically Scandinavian) view of life and love makes for a novel that, despite its very considerable merits, is ultimately a tad monotonous.

A fascination with the parallels among disparate lives also animates Tales of Protection, an unusual work by the Norwegian writer Erik Fosnes Hansen.6 As it opens, an eccentric millionaire has died, leaving his papers to his niece Lea. Reading them, she discovers his preoccupation with coincidences and with the mysterious communicative powers of bees, both of which, he proposed, suggest the existence of some profound but as yet unrecognized “underlying something, an active universal principle.” How, for example, do bees know their queen is dead? How does an accumulation of supposedly random events (such as coin tosses) always end up following a certain mathematical pattern?

The passages in which these questions are contemplated are long and dramatically static, but also extremely absorbing, and their cumulative effect is to establish a perspective that strongly shapes one’s response to the “tales” that follow. Those tales feature such characters as Josefa, the daughter of a nineteenth-century Swedish lighthouse keeper; Bernhard Enberg, a choirboy with a promising singing voice who grows up to be a sailor; and Fiorello, servant to a Renaissance Italian nobleman. One finds oneself viewing these people, great and lowly alike, as if from on high, recognizing all of them as poignantly tiny and terribly vulnerable creatures whose survival, in a world rife with wars, accidents, and the unpremeditated butchery of innocents, seems scarcely comprehensible except as the result of some grand cosmic act of protection.

Fosnes Hansen conveys an overwhelming sense of the world’s fragility and of the extraordinary significance of every human act. Yet the action here is less interesting than the reflections to which it gives rise. The highlight of the section about Fiorello, for example, is a lengthy conversation between his master, Lorenzo del Vetro, and a painter about the theoretical foundations of visual art and the nature of aesthetic experience. Enberg, for his part, ponders what he calls the “Separation Problem”-by which he means, quite simply, his inability to understand “the meaning in the fact that one can so easily lose something,” whether it be a loved one (paging Jens Christian Grondahl!) or a set of keys. One thing that makes this book so special is Fosnes Hansen’s readiness to raise questions that may seem elementary, even foolish. He doesn’t try to impress readers, or mistake obfuscation for profundity; he knows, on the contrary, that profundity and simplicity go hand in hand. Granted, Tales of Protection might justifiably be criticized as drawn-out and meandering; but what matters is that one comes away from it feeling that along the way one has meandered, at least once or twice, into profundity’s backyard.

If Fosnes Hansen is near one end of the spectrum between pure art and pure entertainment, the Swedish writer Henning Mankell, who writes “police-procedure” yarns about a detective named Kurt Wallender, is close to the other. Two of Mankell’s books have now appeared in English translation.7 In One Step Beyond, a serial killer stalks Ystad, the coastal town where Wallender lives and works; in The Dogs of Riga, a murder investigation leads Wallender to Latvia, where the scale of police corruption makes his law-abiding Scandinavian head spin. Like John Le Carre’s George Smiley, he’s a weary loner (he’s constantly on the verge of quitting the force for a less stressful job in company security); like the narrator of Meeting at the Milestone, he’s done heroic work but derives little happiness from it.

This last is no surprise, since both happiness and heroism rub uncomfortably against Scandinavian culture’s highest values: security, conformity, and the suppression of individualism and personal ambition in the name of teamwork and the good of the whole. For American readers, indeed, what may be most interesting about Mankell is the window he offers on Nordic sensibilities. “I’ve never believed in pure evil,” Wallender muses in One Step Beyond. “There are no evil people, no one with brutality hardwired in their genes. There are evil circumstances and environments, not evil per se.” Where but in Hans Blix country could a veteran cop think this way? In The Dogs of Riga a brutal murderer is let out of prison to attend his mother’s funeral, but the funeral proves to be a ruse, and the murderer escapes. Some Swedes, Wallender observes, are still “naive enough to believe that no one would forge a funeral invitation.” Mankell’s not exaggerating.8

Meanwhile, in Studio Sex, Liza Marklund shows us a homicide investigation not from the perspective of a middle-aged cop but through the eyes of Annika Bengtzon, a cub reporter in Stockholm who’s facing her first big professional challenge: a young woman’s murder.9 Like Mankell’s books, this is a page-turner with a Scandinavian flavor; yet if Mankell’s got this genre down to a science, Studio Sex feels cruder, clunkier. Reading episodes involving Annika’s boyfriend and her cat, we have a good idea of what we’re being set up for. (The would-be surprise ending isn’t a surprise at all.) Marklund-who in her dust jacket photo is clad in black leather coat and black boots and stares at us boldly, arms defiantly crossed, a take-no-bull look on her face-plainly wants to give Studio Sex a hip, sexy edge. The title itself, after all, is a come-on, a tease. But she also wishes to be politically correct and make a feminist statement-the result of which is that when she finally takes us inside the sex club that gives the novel its name, she’s so wary of writing anything that might titillate anybody that there’s zero atmosphere and zero payoff. None of which, however, has prevented this and other Annika Bengtzon mysteries (of which Studio Sex is the second to appear in English) from becoming huge international bestsellers.

Copyright Hudson Review Autumn 2003

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