Book review - Norwegian fiction

When considering contemporary Norwegian writers published in English translation, Karl Ove Knausgaard and his six-volume autobiographical novel, My Struggle, will probably come to mind first. Jon Fosse is renowned worldwide for his plays and Fitzcarraldo Editions have recently brought out in English his loosely autobiographical works, Scenes from a Childhood and The Other Name: Septology I-II. Åsne Seierstad is known for her hard-hitting journalism; her books include The Bookseller of Kabul and Two Sisters: A Father, His Daughters, and Their Journey into the Syrian Jihad. Crime from Karin Fossum, Jo Nesbø, and Anne Holt and coming of age stories remain popular imports. The authors currently being translated into English cover several genres, have diverse writing styles, explore a wide array of subjects and are notoriously difficult to pigeonhole.

Lars Saabye Christensen, a prolific author, and one of Norway’s best loved novelists has had several works translated into English. The two I’ve read are sprawling family sagas that unfold against a changing social landscape. Christensen is half-Danish but his novels are predominantly set in the Norwegian neighbourhoods where he has lived. The Half Brother (translated by Kenneth Steven and published by Arcadia Books in 2003), focuses on the rites of passage of two half-brothers who forge separate paths – Fred, a mute, becomes a boxer while Barnum stops growing and becomes a screenwriter. Like his earlier novel, Echoes of the City (the first in a planned trilogy) is set at the end of the second world war, a period of austerity, and features another troubled young boy, Jesper Kristoffersen. He is deemed stubborn and angry by some (including his own mother) but is diagnosed as ‘sensitive’ by the local doctor. He lives with his parents on Kirkeveien – in the same apartment Christensen used in The Half Brother. Oslo is once again the backdrop, but here the city is described in such loving detail that it feels more like a character in the novel.

Everyone pulls together and neighbours support one another. Christensen captures a time defined by kindness and decency. ‘Most things are national in this post-war period, before affluence grows too much and everyone has to look after themselves and not others.’ This is exemplified in the work of the local Red Cross, the inspiration for his novel. The minutes of their meetings (based on actual records) conclude each chapter and illustrate a people recovering from and coming to terms with the brutalities of war. Jesper’s mother Maj, treasurer of her local group, is married to Ewald who works for the Dek-Rek advertising and design company. Ewald, a portly, plain-speaking, good-natured man, enjoys drinking in the bar of the Bristol Hotel with his work colleagues most evenings. They have been tasked with organising the displays to celebrate the city’s 900-year jubilee. After observing his wife’s dedication, Ewald suggests highlighting the resilience of Oslo’s women.

Christensen explores the family’s relationship with other locals and interweaves their various stories. Their upstairs neighbour, a widow, Fru Vik, begins a tentative relationship with antiquarian bookseller Olaf Hall whose actress wife has recently committed suicide. Jesper’s’ best friend is the butcher’s son, Jostein, who is severely deaf after suffering a near fatal accident with one of Oslo’s ubiquitous trams. Jesper resolves to become his ears on the world. Eventually, Jesper funnels some of his restlessness into learning to play the piano with Italian Enzo Zanetti, the former lounge pianist at the Bristol. Christensen’s characters are driven, variously, by love, loneliness and guilt and sometimes a mixture of all three.

It is a beautiful rendition of time and place and there is a filmic quality to the novel. Often we follow one character through the city, they come to a stop or reach their destination, and another person will emerge though a doorway who we will then accompany onward; like actors walking in and out of frame. As fellow Norwegian, Roy Jacobsen, has observed, Christensen is memorable for his: ‘details, impressions, time-markers, time-shifts, smells and sounds and fury—often melancholic, but with hilarious episodes, shocking understatements, silent cunning and even big tragedy.’

Echoes of the City is a poignant meditation on memory, on finding one’s place in the world, on family ties, loss and heartbreak. Perhaps because their anxieties are steeped in such recognisable, everyday concerns, we are easily drawn into their lives and by the end it is hard to part with these characters who we have come to know so well. The ordinary is often invested with a mystical quality. One highpoint comes when the Kristoffersen family acquire a telephone. It is an event so momentous that Ewald takes a day off work and Jesper does not have to go to school. Christensen recognises the drama of the moment and plays it for all its worth.

‘The telephone rings. They both jump. Ewald steps forward, hesitates, carefully lifts the receiver from the cradle and says in a tremulous voice:
“This is the Kristoffersen household, hello.”
He hears a woman speaking fast.
“Ewald Kristoffersen, date of birth September 4th 1911?”
“That is indeed the person you are talking to at this moment.”
“This is the telephone switchboard. You’re registered. Thank you.”
The conversation is broken and Ewald carefully replaces the receiver.
He thinks: I exist. They exist. We exist.’

There is also a timelessness to the descriptions of the changing seasons, occasions to be celebrated or mourned, and rendered in Christensen’s characteristic poetic-prose: ‘Summer here isn’t a season. Summer is a moment in time.’  And ‘The autumn is losing its colour. It is falling with the rain. By October Oslo is already bare and waiting for its winter clothing.’ Winter, when it comes, ‘hems us in between drifting snow, banked-up piles of ice and barren dreams. Winter is the time for serialised fiction, penitence and the radio.’

Less well known, but beginning to forge a loyal following in Norway and abroad, is Hanne Ørstavik. On an initial reading, her tightly coiled, economical novellas couldn’t be more different from Christensen’s epic chronicles. In The Blue Room (translated into English by Deborah Dawkin and published by Peirene Press in 2014), Ørstavik wrote about an overbearing, controlling mother who locked her daughter into her bedroom to stop her leaving home with her boyfriend. It focused on Johanne’s struggle to break free of her mother’s restraints and forge her own identity. By contrast, in Love (translated by Martin Aitken), Ørstavik’s single mother, Vibeke, is criminally neglectful of her eight-year-old son, Jon.

Over the course of one icy night their stories overlap. Jon is looking forward to his ninth birthday and with barely repressed excitement anticipates the cake his mother will bake for him and the presents she might have bought him.  He yearns for a toy train set and is hopeful that she will have found the list he left on his desk. Vibeke’s intentions could not be further from Jon’s fervent imagining. She comes home from her new job as an arts and culture officer and cooks a perfunctory meal. She’s tired but contemplates, with a quiet thrill, the brown eyes of a male colleague. For most of the evening, she has no interest in Jon or his whereabouts.

In simple, stark prose Ørstavik creates an eerily mesmerising narrative, sometimes switching between their inner worlds mid-paragraph. When Jon tells Vibeke that he has seen a picture in a magazine of someone being tortured, and describes ‘a man suspended over the floor with a hood over his head. His arms are tied to a pole with some rope, he’s been hanging there so long his arms feel like they are about to torn from his body,’ his mother does not display alarm or concern. Instead she thinks to herself, ‘Can’t you just go…Find something to do, play or something.’

Vibeke is utterly self-absorbed, uses books to escape her humdrum reality and dreams of romance, of being swept off her feet. The fleeting references to her past suggest a tendency to attract the wrong kind of men. That evening, she luxuriates in a hot bath, shampoos her hair, painstakingly dries it, moisturises her body, applies nail varnish and generally grooms herself. It’s no surprise to learn she has completely forgotten that the following day is her son’s birthday.

Jon, left to his own devices, makes himself scarce. He goes out to sell raffle tickets for their local sports club. Alarmingly, he visits the home of a male neighbour, an old man who invites him in and leads him into his basement with the words ‘you’ll like this.’ Jon notices ‘a daybed …a leather dog collar and a metal chain hang down from a hook on the wall.’ As the hairs on our arms stand on end, full of dread for Jon’s fate so early on in the novella, Vibeke indulges herself at home. Jon is furthest from her mind, while his love for her burns bright. Vibeke fills his every waking thought and haunts his dreams. When she does show him any interest it is to treat him like a lover, rather than a son, asking him to brush her hair or fetch her body lotion.

That evening, while her son haunts the village streets, Vibeke visits the local library. It’s closed so she wanders over to the fair she has earlier denied her son. She spends a long night with a fairground worker, Tom. She yearns for a romantic entanglement, a fleeting love affair: ‘He triggers pleasant images in her mind: the two of them together on an endless beach, it’s winter and they’re the only people there.’ Instead, they share a few drinks and there is some sexual frission which quickly fizzles out.  Meanwhile, her small boy, full of unrequited love for his mother drifts alone, through the darkness. He’s locked out of their house and Vibeke’s heart. Another fairground worker, a white-wigged woman, reminiscent of a fairy tale witch, picks up Jon in her car. We are never quite sure of her deeper motives and whether she is a threat or saviour to Jon.

Love is a dark fairy tale for adults and playing with some of these familiar tropes enables Ørstavik to sustain tension. It was originally published in Norway in 1997 but, apart from the references to tape cassettes, a young girl’s passion for music videos and the incessant smoking, it remains an ominous fable for our times.

What, if anything, unites the two novels? Ørstavik and Christensen have very different writing styles but both favour mood over plot and display a fondness for psychologically complex characters. Their novels pivot on the unease of their central protagonists and their search for what is missing from their lives: be it love, a parent’s attention or a yearning for detachment. Everyday anxieties are elevated into drama and ordinary events teeter on the edge of tragedy. This gives their work an intensity which resonates with you long after the final page. 

Originally published in The London Magazine