Friday, June 10, 2005

Norwegian Literary Giants

May 31, 2005

It takes a good storyteller and brave teacher to present the opening lecture to a group of jetlagged Study Travelers on the day they arrive. Solveig Zempel, professor of Norwegian, was up to the task, and the Viking Study Travelers were remarkably alert.

Except for Norwegian language classes, I rarely see my colleagues teach. It was a treat to hear Solveig’s tale of Norwegian writers who have had — and are having — an effect outside Norway.

She summarized a core objective of this Study Travel program: to challenge some of the preconceived notions from the Norwegian Diaspora and to fill in details of our knowledge about Norway.

Three Norwegian writers who have stood the test of time are Henrik Ibsen, Knut Hamsen and Sigrid Undset. Solveig said it takes two things for a writer to make it big outside Norway: a good translation and getting noticed.

Henrik Ibsen (1828 Skeien-1906 Oslo) scored on both counts. He is considered the father of modern drama, and the frequency of his works being performed is second only to those of Shakespeare. He developed the retrospective technique, and his work often focused on outward reality – with celebrated attention to staging detail, visuals and atmosphere.

Estranged from Norway, Ibsen lived much of his life in Italy and Germany. He continued to write about Norway, and he returned late in life. George Bernard Shaw made him known to English audiences. James Joyce was a fan, and Wittgenstein learned Norwegian just so he could read Ibsen.

Knut Hamsen’s breakthrough novel Hunger, which literally saved the author from hunger, is considered one of the 20th century’s most influential novels. Pre-Kafke, Hamsen reflected inner reality and wrote of angst and madness. Bertholt Brecht and Thomas Mann were among his admirers. Because he supported the Nazis, Norwegians don’t recognize him as they otherwise would. He won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1920.

Sigrid Undset is best known for Kristin Lavransdatter — modern writing about medieval times. Solveig recommends the translation by Tina Noneley (Penguin Classics). The recipient of the Nobel Prize in literature in 1928, Undset wrote 36 books. Her subjects include dualities such as men and women, guilt and responsibility, duty and love.

Her mother was Danish. Her Norwegian father died when she was 11. Undset married a divorced man from whom she separated when she converted to Catholicism.

An outspoken opponent of the Nazis, she fled to live to the United States when the Nazis occupied Norway in 1940. Her home in Lillehammer was a stop on the city tour for the Viking and Valhalla Study Travel groups. From guide Mia Langemyr we learned that Germans occupied Undset’s house in Lillehammer and destroyed part of the interior.

In 1945, she returned to Norway, disillusioned. Her son had died in 1940, and she’d lost her daughter and mother.

Since the recent death of her daughter-in-law, a newly found manuscript has been published. Twelve Years stops in mid-sentence, where Undset left off.

Hot Writers Today
Solveig alerted us to today’s hot writers who might stand the test of time. My apologies for misspelled names; I was taking notes as fast as I could.

Jostein Gårder (1952), a high school philosophy teacher, took the literary (and film) world by storm with Sofies verden (Sofie’s World), which traces a young woman’s thoughts about philosophers. Twenty-six million books are in print in 53 languages. Gårder also writes novels (including Solitary Mystery), short stories and children’s books.

Lynn Ullmann is a journalist who has written three novels about families, death and redemption.

Erlend Loe is a young author well known to students of Norwegian at St. Olaf. His use of everyday language, subject matter of personal struggle, and wry humor connect well with college students. It’s a great learning tool and confidence booster for foreign language students to be able to comprehend and discuss contemporary literature. Look for his works in translation, too. A few of his works: Fakta om Finnland, Tatt av kvinnen, Naiv.Super and Kurt Quo Vadis.

More Glimpses of Contemporary Norway
Reading the literature of a country is a great way to gain insight into a culture. Here are more authors Solveig recommends to give you access to the voices of contemporary Norway:

Joen Foss, a literary heir to Samuel Beckett and Harold Printer. His works have been translated in to 35 languages.

Jan Shasta, author of novels and short stories about modern life and interdependency
Lars Sovik Kristiansen, author of The Half Brother, a generational novel

Erik Fosness Hansen

Mette-Louise (yes, the Norwegian princess), whose book Why the Royals Don’t Wear Crowns is beautifully illustrated by Sven Nyhus. It's available from the St. Olaf Bookstore. as are many of the other books listed here.

Tatt av kvinnen by Erlend Loe is in my book bag on this trip. If you’re reading this blog, I think you, too, will enjoy some of the Norwegian writers Solveig introduced or re-introduced to Study Travelers.


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