New voices in Nordic literature

book cover for Fatso by Lars Ramslie

Christine Foster Meloni
Washington, D.C.

Two up and coming Scandinavian novelists, Norwegian Lars Ramslie and Danish Christian Jungersen, were the featured speakers at “Out of Denmark and Norway,” an event held at the Bethesda Writing Center in Maryland on March 12.

Stewart Moss, the Center’s Executive Director, extended a warm welcome and expressed his pleasure at hosting this literary event. Kåre R. Aas, the Norwegian Ambassador, acknowledged his love of literature and its importance in his life. “Life without literature is hell,” he said, quoting the American writer Charles Bukowski.

The moderator was Katrine Øgaard Jensen, Danish journalist, writer, and translator. She is the Editor-in-Chief of Columbia: A Journal of Literature and Art and Editor-at-Large for the international literary journal Asymptote. She is currently a judge for the prestigious Best Translated Book Award and a consultant on Danish literature for various publishers and journals.

Jensen presented an overview of trends in contemporary Nordic literature. She began by pointing out that foreign literature does not fare well in the U.S., where only 3% of published books are translations. Fiction makes up less than 1% of this percentage.

But since the publication of the English translation of Stieg Larsson’s trilogy, American readers have become curious about Scandinavia. Many Nordic crime novels are being translated into English and selling well.

Jensen said that she was not going to discuss Nordic Noir, however. She would focus on other trends and highlight the most promising young Nordic writers.

Jensen began with a discussion of Minimalism, which has long been a popular tradition in Scandinavia. She cited three contemporary works in particular: Norwegian Kjell Askildsen’s Selected Stories, Danish Helle Helle’s This Should Be Written in the Present Tense, and Danish Dorthe Nors’s Karate Chop. These novels are written very simply and describe everyday situations.

Auto Fiction
The towering figure in the tradition of Scandinavian Auto Fiction is Norwegian Karl Ove Knausgaard. His six-volume autobiographical novel My Struggle has been hugely successful in Norway. Four volumes have been translated into English and they have been very popular in the U.S., much to the amazement of critics.

Auto Fiction is literary fiction in which the borders between life and literature begin to blur. The reader remains uncertain about what is true and what is not. The author’s focus is not on plot but rather on language.

Fabulism & the Fairy Tale Tradition
Fabulism is in the dark fairy tale tradition. It is short fiction that is dark and weird. Jensen referred to two writers, Icelandic Sjón (Sigurjón Birgir Sigurðsson) and Swedish Karin Tidbeck. A critic in the Paris Review praised Sjón’s Whispering Muse and issued a warning: “Move over, Blue Lagoon” because from now on Sjón’s novel and not the lagoon will come to mind when Americans talk about Iceland. Reviewer Sofia Samatar calls the stories in Tidbeck’s Jagannath: Stories “fascinating, frightening, and above all, tender.”

Historical Fiction
Finally, Jensen cited two historical novels. The first was The Little Horse by Thorvald Steen about Snorri Sturluson, the well-known Icelandic politician, writer, and historian who lived during the twelfth century. The second was Everything under the Moon, which tells the story of an astronomer.

Lars Ramslie
Jensen then presented Lars Ramslie. He made his literary debut in 1994 with Biopsi, for which he received the Tarjei Vesaas’ debutantpris, awarded annually to the best Norwegian writer under the age of 35. He has since written five more novels. Fatso, published in 2003, was made into a film in 2008.

Ramslie told the audience that he tries to make his novels universal by scraping off exterior things such as clothing and surroundings. He locates his stories outside of place and time.

He noted that his novels are intertwined, his fifth being a reaction to the previous four. He read a passage from his book Ugly Bugly about Siamese twins, one male, the other female, who wander about until they end up with Uncle Rust and his city of fleas.

Christian Jungersen
Jensen then introduced Christian Jungersen, the author of three novels. He made his debut in 1999 with his novel Undergrowth. It won the Best First Novel award in Denmark and became a best seller. (It has not yet been published in English.)

Before reading from his latest book, You Disappear, Jungersen gave some background on its medical foundation. The main character, Frederik, develops a brain tumor behind the center of his forehead. Tumors in this part of the brain drastically change the personality of the afflicted individual. Frederik is suddenly unable to feel empathy, and his behavior bewilders and angers those around him until his cancer is finally diagnosed.

The passage Jungersen read recounts an incident in which Frederik drives his car at breakneck speed while his terrified wife and son desperately try to make him slow down but to no avail.

Q & A
A lively Q & A Session followed the readings. Both writers emphasized the desire of all writers to be experimental, to write something new.

Jungersen said that he explores how complicated we are as people. His goal is to present a new view of what it is to be a person. What does it mean to be human? What makes a personality? What makes a soul?

According to Ramslie, plot should not win. A novel’s focus should be on the individual. He too wants to offer a new view of the self in society. He wants to show the person as a pluralistic radical, similar to a symphony.

Both authors were asked about their experiences with translations. Jungersen said that his first experience was horrific. It is not easy when someone takes your words and replaces them with different ones. The experience, however, has improved, and now he works well with his translators. Ramslie was more accepting of the process and said that one needs to empathize with people who are translating from different cultures.

This stimulating literary event was sponsored by the Royal Embassies of Norway and Denmark and NORLA (Norwegian Literature Abroad, Fiction and Non-Fiction), a government-funded foundation promoting Norwegian literature to other countries.

The Bethesda Writing Center has a long and distinguished history. In addition to hosting discussions and workshops, it has published the literary journal Poet Lore since 1889. In three issues published in 1892 you will find ads placed by Walt Whitman for his newly-published Leaves of Grass!

This article originally appeared in the April 24, 2015, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly.

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Christine Foster Meloni

Christine Foster Meloni is professor emerita at The George Washington University. She has degrees in Italian literature, linguistics, and international education. She was born in Minneapolis and currently lives in Washington, D.C. She values her Norwegian heritage.