Review published on September 23, 2015.
From a land that has brought us the Vikings, trolls, and Edvard Munch’s painting The Scream and has amongst its townships a little old place called Hell, Norway’s most famous literary offering – Nordic Noir – seems somewhat inevitable. But there’s more to Norway and Norwegian literature than Harry Hole et al. After all, this is the home of the annual Nobel Peace Prize ceremony, as well as being the land of the midnight sun and the annual benefactor of the Christmas Tree in Trafalgar Square. More importantly, on a literary front, Evan Hughes has described the country as ‘one of the most enviable places in the world to be a writer or publisher’, citing amongst his arguments the fact that the Norwegian government provides substantial funding for culture, university education is free and the Arts Council purchases 1000 copies of a published book to distribute to libraries, or 1550 copies if it’s a children’s book. And it’s surely paying off when we consider the rise of the Norwegian literary scene on our shores in recent years and not only Nordic Noir.
Norway has to its name two Nobel Literature Prize winners in Knut Hamsum and Sigrid Undset (although Undset was born in Denmark and moved to Norway when she was two), as well as one of the leading and most celebrated playwrights of the nineteenth century, Henrik Ibsen. And whilst we are keen to claim Roald Dahl as our own, he was born of Norwegian parents (but I won’t tell anyone if you don’t). Yet it is admittedly in the crime genre that Norway has really emerged in recent years and at its spearhead is the prolific writing machine that is Jo Nesbo, the creator of detective Harry Hole, whom has featured in ten books so far, the first being The Bat and the tenth Police. This year sees the release of a third standalone title from the crime king, following on from earlier releases The Son and Headhunters, he’s back with Blood on Snow. Nordic queens of crime fiction Karin Fossum and Anne Holt also return this year with additions to their respective Inspector Sejer and Hanne Wilhelmsen series, with Fossum’s eleventh book in the series, The Drowned Boy released in June, and Holt’s fifth book in the series, Dead Joker, forthcoming in October. Described as Norway’s answer to Agatha Christie, Hans Olav Lahlum offers something a bit different in his K2 and Patricia series, of which the first title The Human Flies was released here last year, with the second and third titles, Satellite People and The Catalyst Killing, released in February and August of this year respectively. Other notable names in the genre include Thomas Enger, author of the Henning Juul series; Jorn Lier Horst, author of the William Wisting Mysteries, the fourth of which, The Caveman, was released in February; Gunnar Staalesen, winner of three Golden Pistols, whose latest title We Shall Inherit the Wind was released in June; Jorgen Brekke author of Where Monsters Dwell and; Vidar Sundstol. Two Norwegian new kids on the block will be hitting our shores later in the year, debut authors Samuel Bjork with his title I’m Travelling Alone and Torkil Damhaug with Medusa, both emerging talents in the genre.
Moving away from Nordic Noir, Gaute Heivoll’s Before I Burn is described as ‘a glowing depiction of the darkness in an isolated human being’s mind’, Tom Egeland’s Relic is ‘the Norwegian Da Vinci Code’, whilst Tarjei Vesaas’s The Ice Palace has been described as a classic. Many readers will already be familiar with Asne Seierstad’s The Bookseller of Kabul and Per Pettersen, winner of the Nordic Council Prize for his novel I Curse the River of Time and last year’s TLS and Guardian Book of the Year, I Refuse. Karl Ove Knausgaard has also become something of a familiar name with his six-volume autobiographical novel My Struggle, of which the fourth part, Dancing in the Dark, was released in March, and his second novel, A Time for Everything, in May. Jostein Gaarder has made a reputation for himself with his ground-breaking stories such as Sophie’s World and Through a Glass Darkly and looks set to deliver once more with his latest title, The World According to Anna, which is being described as ‘a fable for our time’. The release of Minus Me in July saw the first English translation of one of Norway’s leading YA authors, Ingelin Rossland. Amongst other Norwegian writers reaching out to our shores are Johan Harstad, author of sci-fi/horror offering, 172 hours on the moon, Thorvald Steen author of The Little Horse, Frode Grytten author of The Shadow in the River, Kari Hesthamer, author of So Long, Marianne, and Kjersti Skomsvold, The faster I walk, the smaller I am. Dag Solstad’s Professor Andersen’s Night offers a critique of contemporary society mixed with an existential murder story, whilst Ingvar Ambjornsen’s Beyond the Great Indoors is described as ‘a touching comedy of anxiety, everyday neurosis, cat rearing and male bonding’. Herbjorg Wassmo’s Dina’s Book is a sweeping romantic novel set in Norway in the mid-nineteenth century, whilst Roy Jacobsen Child Wonder is a stirring coming-of-age novel, whilst his war novel Borders was released in March this year. New arrival Tore Renberg’s See You Tomorrow was released in May and he’s amongst several award-winning Norwegian authors who’ve seen their works cross the North Sea. Jan Kjaerstad (The Discoverer from his Jonas Wegerland Trilogy), Lars Saabye Christensen (The Half Brother) and Merethe Lindstrom (Days in the History of Silence) have all won the Nordic Council Prize, whilst Hanne Ostravik, author of The Blue Room, has won both the Dobloug Prize, for her entire literary output, and the Brage Prize. Carl Frode Tiller’s novel Encircling which was released in May was the winner of the European Prize for Literature, the Brage Prize and the Norwegian Critics’ Prize and Beate Grimsrud’s first novel to be published in English, A Fool, Free, also won the latter of these titles in 2013. Anne Ragde’s Berlin Poplars was the winner of the Riskmal Prize and Lina Ullmann’s The Cold Song was one of the New York Times Book Review’s 100 Notable Books of 2014. And there definitely seem to be some literary gems in there.
My own choice for Norway was Erlend Loe’s Naïve. Super, not normally something that I’d particularly read but one whose premise about a twenty-five-year-old having something of a quarter-life-crisis and heading to New York interested me and whose popularity preceded it. Unfortunately on reading the novel, I soon discovered that this was one that was absolutely not for me. Navel-gazing and introspective, the narrative lacks any real direction or action. We watch as the unnamed narrator sits in his brother’s apartment whiling away his time, waiting on faxes, throwing a ball against a wall and knocking pegs into a plank with a hammer and really that’s it for the first half of the novel. There’s also some meanderings into physics and metaphysics as the narrator tries to get his head around matters of time and the universe but really these just felt unwieldy. It’s about halfway through that the prospect of an adventure in New York finally emerges but by this point you realise that this isn’t going to be the adventure you expect. The narrator is too caught up in his own musings to really reflect on the world around him, let alone have an adventure. And indeed although he declares that New York has in fact had a positive effect on him, we are shown virtually nothing of this. I hate to be so downbeat about a book, especially when I was hoping to find something noteworthy at each port of call, but really I found this book hard-going, self-indulgent, lethargic and too meditative. And stylistically it was a bit unconventional too, with a very simplistic, almost childlike narration, dotted with lists and later pages of unnecessary internet searches. What I can say is that the novel very much re-enacts the narrator’s ennui and introspectiveness, the tedium and futility of his life, but unfortunately I found nothing super about this one. Although being only Erlend Loe’s second novel, and his first translated into English (Doppler and Lazy Days have since followed), it may be that the later novels offer something more; I certainly wouldn’t want to put other readers off and personally I’d be interested to see what these other two novels are like. And whilst this book didn’t perhaps do Norway justice for me, I’ve already added Carl Frode Tiller’s Encircling, Merethe Lindstrom’s Days in the History of Silence and Anne Ragde’s Berlin Poplars to my to-read list.
Naïve. Super by Erlend Loe is published by Canongate