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from the September 2019 issue

Writing Dreams: New Norwegian Literature

This Norwegian edition of Words Without Borders has been put together to coincide with Norway being Guest of Honor at the Frankfurt Book Fair 2019. And that honor could not have come at a better time for Norway, when there are so many good books being published and more translation rights being sold than ever before. Norwegian literature just seems to go from strength to strength.

And what an honor to be asked to make this selection. And what good fortune to be offered a place in the translator hotel program of Norwegian Literature Abroad (NORLA) last autumn, giving me two weeks in Oslo to read and read my way to this selection. The hotel lay within spitting distance of some of the main publishers, so I could dash out and get more books when my pile was running low, and it was easy to meet and talk with the agents without losing too much precious reading time. Work doesn’t get much better than that.

NORLA’s slogan for Frankfurt 2019, “The Dream We Carry,” comes from “It Is That Dream” by poet and translator Olav Hauge. In 2016, it was voted the greatest Norwegian poem of all time by readers and viewers of the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation (NRK). And while it may not be immediately apparent, the idea of the dream we carry is a red thread running through the selected texts. However, most of the dreams in the chosen texts are either unfulfilled or broken.

Norway is in many ways living the dream; one of the poorest countries in Europe at the start of the last century, it is now one of the richest in the world. It frequently tops surveys and indexes for quality of life, equality, and happiness. And the Nordic model is an oft-heralded counterweight to hard free-market capitalism. Norway is a dream that many people carry. When something shines so bright, it is often easy to forget the tarnished edges, the less desirable places and dusty, forgotten corners.

Many of the pieces I have chosen are from such places, both physical and psychological. I have tried to make the selection as representative as possible of contemporary Norwegian literature in terms of content, gender, and style. To my disappointment, limitations on the number of pieces and the availability of rights prevented a fuller representation of Norway’s many voices, including those of second-generation immigrants.

Strikingly, five of the six fiction pieces have a first-person narrator. There is a long tradition of first-person narration in Norway; Knut Hamsun in his day said it was the future of literature, and his first novel, Hunger, was written in the first person, with shifting tenses, also preempting a preference for a present tense narrative. Shortly before then, in 1886, Hans Jæger published From the Christiania Bohemians, an autobiographical story. So, the literary phenomenon Karl Ove Knausgaard did not come out of nowhere, but autofiction has become a dominant trend in the past decade since the first volume of My Struggle was published. It has even spilled over to popular science, where some of the greatest nonfiction successes to come out of Norway in recent years mix fact and science with personal anecdote.

In January this year, the literary critic Marta Norheim published an article looking at the main trends in Norwegian literature in 2018. While the overarching characteristic was crisis, she identified historical fiction, the future, birth, and old age and death as the four main trends. I was delighted that I had picked up on these, and managed to represent at least two: birth/motherhood (Rage by Monica Isakstuen) and aging/death (All the Way Home by Levi Henriksen). Another voice that I would like to mention is that from less desirable suburbs, where there are multiple social issues, some of which come to the fore in Linn Strømsborg’s Suburbia.

Of the authors, Anders Tjernshaugen, Roskva Koritzinsky, Monica Isakstuen, Linn Strømsborg, and Jan Kristoffer Dale have all been included in the New Voices program, which started in 2017. This development program is run by NORLA, Talent Norway, and the Norwegian Publishers Association and was designed to highlight new literary voices from Norway and focus on the international dimension of being a writer in the run-up to Frankfurt 2019. Twenty-five authors have participated in the program. The two remaining authors, Levi Henriksen and Mona Høvring, are both well-established authors who have been translated into a number of languages, though Høvring has not, to my knowledge, appeared in English.

From the moment I started to read A Whale Tale by Anders Tjernshaugen, I wanted to include it. Whaling is a controversial issue and some of the descriptions are brutal, but the fact remains that whaling played such an important role in Norwegian history that the possibility of some upset should not be allowed to disqualify the book. This is a beautifully written account of the development of the whaling industry, which gave the possibility of a better life to many families. And while it is clear to us now that the hunting of the blue whale drove it to near extinction, we also see the dreams and aspirations. I would also like to add that Tjernshaugen bucks the current trend in Norwegian popular nonfiction, where fact is interwoven with personal reflection.

Working Hands is Jan Kristoffer Dale’s first short story collection and first full publication, for which he won the Tarjei Vesaas Author’s Debut Prize in 2016. And as the title suggests, the stories are about workers, unskilled workers, who have often not finished school and have no training. They come from a small rural community where opportunities are already limited. “In a Ditch” observes a much-anticipated weekend at a cabin which is ruined when one of three old friends brings along a new colleague from Oslo who has very different values and aspirations. The main character, Kenneth, does have his own dreams, but lacks the courage and conviction to follow them through. The story is as deeply Norwegian as it is universal.

 Which is also true of “All the Way Home, from Levi Henriksen’s eighth collection of short stories, Iron & Metal, published last year. His stories share a similar social demographic as those of Dale. Here a man whose life is no longer what it used to be goes the extra mile to make sure that others can enjoy theirs. Why did I choose it? Quite simply because it made me cry.

Roskva Koritzinsky’s third publication, the 2017 short story collection, I Have Not Yet Seen the World, was nominated for the Nordic Council Literature Award. There are some excellent stories in the collection, and I could happily have used two or three of them, but in “From the Other Side, about a young ballerina, I found a personal connection. The events of the story run parallel with the fate of Sture Bergwall, who was also known for a period as Thomas Quick. While in a psychiatric hospital for the criminally insane in the 1990s, he confessed to more than thirty murders in the Nordic countries and was eventually convicted for eight of them. One of these was that of nine-year-old Terese Johannessen, who had disappeared in 1988 from the street outside her home in Drammen, a couple of streets away from where my grandparents lived. The Sture leitmotif adds a sense of lurking menace to the events of this story.

Monica Isakstuen has published three novels, all three of which have received critical acclaim. Her previous novel, Be Kind to the Animals, won the Norwegian Book Award for Fiction in 2016. In Rage, a woman with a daughter from a previous marriage gives birth to twins, and is horrified and frightened by the anger this unleashes. Desperate to be a good mother and to be loved, she cannot control her rage. The book is structured in a series of episodes or sections that range from one line to several pages, from present to past to present; both effective and disturbing, it makes for uncomfortable reading at times.

Mona Høvring has previously published both poetry and a number of novels. Her third novel, Camilla’s Long Nights, was nominated for the Nordic Council Literature Prize, and Because Venus Passed a Cyclamen on the Day I Was Born, which was published last year, won the Norwegian Critics’ Prize and was shortlisted for the Norwegian Booksellers’ Prize. The title—evidence of her lyrical style—could be the answer to the question: why did this happen, why did things turn out the way they did? Well, because Venus . . . . Ella has accompanied her sister Martha to a hotel in the mountains, to help her recover from a breakdown. Ella also nurtures the hope that they might recover the trust and devotion they shared when they were children. “It is a story about the many distractions of the heart,” as Høvring’s literary agency put it, and there is a dreamlike quality to the book. I am so delighted that the book was published last year and I can include her beautiful, poetic writing.

Finally, Suburbia by Linn Strømsborg is a gem of a book. Published in 2013, it follows the life of Eva in the months after she has completed her master’s degree. This is when the life she has anticipated would start—her dream certainly did not include moving back in with her parents in the oft-vilified suburb where she grew up. This quiet, uneventful novel about a suburb and a group of friends is at the same time joyous and life-affirming. A second novel about Eva, You’re Not Gonna Die, appeared in 2016.

For a comparatively small nation, Norway offers an incredible wealth of literature. The reality of daily life there is more complex today than ever before and this is reflected in contemporary Norwegian writing. Given the quality of this writing and the energy and drive of the publishers and literary agencies, I think there will continue to be a buzz around Norwegian literature for a long time to come, well beyond the Frankfurt effect. My personal dream, the dream that I carry, is that in these turbulent times with so much division and hate, translated literature can help us to understand each other better and to see what we share, so that we remain positive and resilient, and never give up on our dreams.

© 2019 by Kari Dickson. All rights reserved.

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