Trauma, trolls and tragedies

When Norway gained its independence, 100 years ago this week, the titans Munch, Grieg and Ibsen were still alive. Paul Binding uncovers a literary scene that is still vibrant
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The new extension to Oslo's National Library has just been named: "It's Halvbroren (The Half-Brother)," I'm informed. "Everyone was very pleased with the decision." So already the title and hero of Lars Saabye Christensen's best-selling novel of 2001 are common currency. It's somehow fitting I learn this here at the Ibsen Centre, because such too has been the fate of many Ibsen characters. "We tend to speak of them - Peer Gynt, Hedda Gabler and others - as if they were real Norwegians," says the novelist Merete Morken Andersen. "Just mention their names, and everybody knows at once the situations they were in, and how they dealt with them."

The new extension to Oslo's National Library has just been named: "It's Halvbroren (The Half-Brother)," I'm informed. "Everyone was very pleased with the decision." So already the title and hero of Lars Saabye Christensen's best-selling novel of 2001 are common currency. It's somehow fitting I learn this here at the Ibsen Centre, because such too has been the fate of many Ibsen characters. "We tend to speak of them - Peer Gynt, Hedda Gabler and others - as if they were real Norwegians," says the novelist Merete Morken Andersen. "Just mention their names, and everybody knows at once the situations they were in, and how they dealt with them."

The central character of the phenomenally successful The Half-Brother is hardly an obvious role-model for patrons of a cultural institution. Barnum (called after the circus) is a maverick individual, small in stature, a drunk, a failure as both husband and writer. Anyway, is he really the half-brother of the title, or does that honour go to his mother's even more wayward older son, Fred the boxer? Yet the name for the library extension meets with general approval, and one thinks of what Norway has done with Peer Gynt. Peer boasts, tells preposterous tall stories, abducts a bride, deserts his sweetheart and wanders the world over, wasting time and energy. But for his creator, and for successive generations of readers and theatre-goers, he embodies the very soul of his country. Every summer the production of Peer Gynt by locals up in Peer's own Gudbrandsdal attracts audiences of 10,000; it's advisable to book your tickets for it in October the year before. Strip Peer of his faults, and his representative stature would contract.

Perhaps Norwegians' ability to take into their daily lives the creations of their significant artists connects with the fact that when, on 7 June 1905, their country won its final independence from Sweden, their three artistic titans - one per art - were all living: Ibsen, Grieg, Munch (though Ibsen was incapacitated by stroke). During their lives and ever since, this trio has helped define Norwegian-ness both for compatriots and outsiders, yet above everything else they were adventurous progressives, and have proved trail-blazers in the arts they served. Ibsen's radical views on women, on the dynamics of the family, on the relationship of society to nature, caused him to implode the "well-made" play of his times; Grieg's most characteristic work was done outside the accepted forms, in lyric pieces distilling the essence of his holistic vision; Munch's wish to make his paintings and lithographs express conventionally ignored emotional conditions and states of mind led him to anticipate the techniques of the Expressionists. The artists' lives reflected their intransigence. Ibsen sustained a long quarrel with Norway, living out of the country for almost 30 years, and writing his masterpieces in Italy and Germany. Munch also spent important years away, only settling back when he was 45; his art only too clearly showed his belief in authenticity of experience over moral orthodoxy. A leading contemporary novelist, Ketil Bjørnstad, brings this home to us in the angst-ridden The Story of Edvard Munch (1993).

The translation into societal terms of what these titans stood for - respect for human complexity - has been a key feature of Norwegian nationhood. In the century since independence Norway has distinguished itself in social justice, in gender parity, in ecological concerns and in the promotion of international peace (it is the Norwegian Parliament, and not the Swedish Academy, that awards the Nobel Prize for Peace).

Much that is now inseparable from the development of Norwegian life could not have been foreseen back in 1905. Norway's occupation by Nazi Germany, for instance, with the Gestapo conducting interrogations right in central Oslo. This trauma and its bitter aftermath stalk its literature to this day. The Half-Brother demonstrates this ("I wanted my novel to be about Norway, and that being the case, it meant my starting with the war," says Lars), and so does another major recent novel of international stature, Per Petterson's prize-winning Out Stealing Horses, out in the UK this autumn.

Equally unforeseen would have been the discovery and realisation of North Sea oil as a result of which Norway, with its population of only 4.5 million, is now one of the world's richest countries; the judicious husbanding of its oil revenue is said to ensure economic security for 200 years. Norway said no to EU membership, but even so isn't proof against issues affecting other European societies, not least immigration. Oslo becomes every year more visibly a multi-ethnic city. And while this has resulted in a certain disturbing degree of hostile reaction, it has also been welcomed - not least by the intelligentsia. One of the most durable legacies of that trio of titans alive in 1905 is a widespread belief that the arts, indeed cultural activities in general, are vital to the nation's health, and there are expectations that the literary scene will soon be enriched by major work from writers of immigrant origin.

"These last years have been a good time to be a writer in Norway," says one of its most critically acclaimed younger poets, Steinar Opstad (born 1971). He published his first book of poems when he was only 25, and has gone on to produce three other collections, with a new one in hand. He has been enabled to devote himself to refining and deepening his art - moving from a personal/familial mythology to freer spiritual explorations - partly by a three-year state pension given him for outstanding work, but also by a most enviable feature of Norwegian cultural life: innkjøpsordningen, instituted in the late 1960s. This arrangment (ordningen) guarantees the purchase (innkjøp) by the state of 1,000 copies of a book; these are then dispatched to libraries. A committee meets to eliminate the worthless from a form of subsidy quite invaluable to such writers as those, like Steinar, on the list of a small serious publishing house (in his case, Kolon, largely devoted to poetry). And other means of assistance such as the distributive Solidarity Fund of the Writers' Union have helped dedicated writers not just to keep going but to concentrate whole-heartedly on their art.

This in turn has ensured the continuation of good writing in a small nation whose two official languages - the more widely used bokmål and nynorsk, derived from the speech of western Norway - aren't spoken or even much known outside its borders. The reward of such insurance policies is that the merit of all the prose writers I interviewed (poets obviously present problems) has been easily recognised outside Norway; some, like Lars Saabye Christensen and Karin Fossum, enjoy world-wide success. Lars when I saw him had just got back from promoting The Half-Brother in Brazil; this week he is in Bulgaria. Karin Fossum's detective fiction has already earned her a sizeable UK fan club. Both have arrived at their present position through their own persistence but also through a propitious climate. In his youth Lars peddled his poems in downtown Oslo for 3 kroner a sheet; these now turn up in collectors' bookshops at 300 kroner. Karin left the education system early to work in hospitals and social services, as her novels so amply and sympathetically show, and as a result has a huge mail-box from readers Norwegian and foreign who recognise the accuracy of her milieus.

Self-confidence - that is, belief both in the importance of writing and in the interestingness of the life that surrounds the writer - is essential for a lively literary culture. "I want to write about what I know, in fact about what only I know," says Lars Saabye Christensen. "In that sense I'm a local writer; never do I set out to write an international novel." Paradoxically this explains his huge international reception; his work, steeped in his own Majorstuen district of Oslo, is written from a security of identity that lets him empathise with a diversity of human conditions: a renegade boxer's, a hermaphrodite's. Karin Fossum likewise never forsakes her small-town rural Norway. Inspector Sejer and his younger sidekick Jakob Skarre are two ordinary enough men, and virtuous ones too, reflecting Karin's conviction that by and large the Norwegian police do the best they can, with charitable motives. But the people they encounter! What an extraordinary gallery of portraits, including many whom officialdom, in league with conventional fiction, usually refuses properly to look at: a young man with Down's Syndrome passionately fond of small children and animals, an obsessively tidy older woman whose great shame is her colostomy bag, a prim bachelor who has to go as far as India to find a wife.

Per Petterson has turned to his own and his family's life in his intensely articulated work, rendering experience with a sensory and emotional immediacy the more universal in appeal for being so intimately rooted. Of no book is this truer than In the Wake (2000) in which the narrator, Arvid, recounts his painful coming to terms with a family tragedy that was Per's too; both parents and two siblings perished in a fire on a ferry-boat on Oslo-fjord. Yet the terrible feeling of everlasting loss is, if not mitigated, then to a measure offset by Arvid's growing sense that quotidian existence is itself of measureless attention-demanding fascination.

Linn Ullmann and Merete Morken Andersen are two novelists the strength of whose metaphysical interests derives from the firmness of their grasp of - and, for all its terror, trust in - the world about them. In Linn's most recent novel, Grace (2002), the very subject, a courageous one, is a metaphor for this authorial situation. Johan, an unsuccessful journalist, has cancer; death is his only future and perhaps it should come invited and soon. But even in this last phase of life there is beauty and a kind of greatness. In Merete Morken Andersen's Oceans of Time (2002), a former husband and wife try to comprehend their daughter's suicide (which remains largely incomprehensible). As in the fiction of Karin, Lars, Per, Linn, and the poems of Steinar, we are left with renewed awareness of the stubborn dignity of human beings, even in their unhappiest contortions. So it is with the tragedies of Ibsen, the canvases of Munch, the most poignant of Grieg's songs and piano-studies.

Norway's secession from Sweden was seen as a triumph for the labour and agrarian movements responsible since for so much that is distinctively Norwegian. Of course the reality wasn't quite as tidy as is often now presented, and there have been subsequent strains between the two countries, above all during the Second World War. While there are aspects of Norway to cause concern - its obstinacy in continuing whaling against justified international outcry, certain elements in society (as in Britain) determined to use the ubiquitous national pride for purposes of paranoid exclusiveness - on the whole the famous egalitarianism, ethical awareness and passion for freedom are still palpable.

Will the present vitality of Norwegian writing continue? Tore Rem of Oslo University, well-known literary critic and cultural commentator, fears the present obsession with modernisation - ie of commercial success as principal index - will result in significant erosions of the conditions under which serious writers have been so notably flourishing. Shifts in the policy of publishing houses are detectable, paralleling shifts in values for academic institutions. Merete Morken Andersen agrees. Yet both these intellectuals represent a moral integrity it's hard to imagine going under easily, and while the country continues to honour in its public monuments the creations of free-ranging writers such as Lars Saabye Andersen, there are surely grounds for hope.