Dorthe Nors on the best Contemporary Scandinavian Literature
Minimalism is big with the Danes while Icelanders favour magical realism; the Swedes keep it classical while the Norwegians get emotional. Man Booker International shortlistee Dorthe Nors takes us on a tour of the most exciting voices in contemporary Scandinavian literature.
What assumptions do you think foreign readers might make about Scandinavian literature? I wonder if people, in general, tend to picture it along the same aesthetic lines as other exports from the region, be it the dogma films or modernist furniture: well-made, pared back—sometimes stark—realist, understated, muted tones, contrast between darkness and light, shaped by natural landscape, and so, predictably, on….
Well, I think you just listed all the assumptions for me right there! I guess all those things are what people might think Scandinavian literature is. Our languages are of course very related, so is our history, but the landscapes aren’t the same, they vary, and so do the traditions within the different nations.
Minimalism is big in Denmark, in Iceland there’s a stronger tradition for magical realism, in Sweden you find philosophers of life and existence—and in Norway it’s like a Golden Age for literature right now.
How do you feel about the “Scandi Noir” phenomenon—do you welcome it because it draws attention to Scandinavian literature more generally? Or do you regret it because it distorts the scene so much?
A big part of my novel Mirror Shoulder Signal kind of makes fun of the Scandi Noir phenomenon. My protagonist Sonja translates Swedish crime fiction to Danish and is, to put it mildly, a bit fed up with it. That said I think the Scandi Noir tsunami that was unleashed upon the world some years back did pave the way for literary fiction and I’m very grateful for that.
As you said, in a category that covers so many different territories there is a huge amount of variation—Denmark’s writers are inspired by very different things to Iceland’s writers, for example, and the literary traditions they work in vary considerably, too. Can you give us a sense of that range?
It does vary from nation to nation and yet there’s a sort of kinship between the countries since history and language have tied us together. Personally, I studied Swedish language at university and took huge inspiration from their modernist traditions. On one hand, there’s August Strindberg and those who followed him—Ingmar Bergman for instance; and then on the other hand, there’s the tradition that was more rooted in the landscape, the mythology of the woods etc.—the Selma Lagerlöf tradition, you could say.
“In Norway there’s a tendency to allow more emotional writing than Danes can usually get away with”
There’s a strong emphasis on the investigation of existential structures in Swedish literature, I feel. I try to pursue that in my own writing. But using the Danish language to do so I’ve had to find a less Bergmanian way of doing it. The Danish language is very playful and anarchic: it’s a fun language to work with, where Swedish is more classical. In Iceland—the oldest of all the Scandinavian languages—the connection to the vastness, the landscape and the folklore embedded in it, is very strong. In Norway there’s a tendency to allow more emotional writing than Danes can usually get away with. There’s more pathos in the Norwegians, I think. But all in all we’re very related: language, history, geography.
Let’s start with Har døden taget noget fra dig så giv det tilbage, Carls Bog by Naja Marie Aidt. The rough translation of the title is “If Death Has Taken Something From You, Give It Back, Carl’s Book”. What’s the story?
In 2015, Naja Marie Aidt, one of Denmark’s finest writers, lost her son Carl in a horrible accident. For a while Naja thought she’d never be able to write again. Literature seemed pointless, but slowly the attempt to describe the extreme sorrow and trauma that she and her family were living through called for literature. Language came to the rescue.
The result is one of the best books ever written about sorrow in Danish literary history, if you ask me. It’s heartbreaking in its description of horror, trauma and loss, but it’s also beautiful, courageous, poetic, and unforgettable. It kept me awake for a couple of nights, made me think of the ones I love, and made me think of survival and of literature as a temple where we try to heal our hurt.
I read an interview with her in the LA Times in which she said: “I get absorbed by the now-and-when in the stories. My hope is that it leads to great intensity. I think literature should always be intense”—does that match your impression of her work? Can you tell us a bit about her style and what it is like to read?
Naja Marie Aidt’s writing is very intense, persistent and vocal. It’s dark and fluid, it’s repetitive and daring. She gets under your skin, into your thoughts. She’s a damn good writer.
Baboon came out over here in 2014 (in a translation by Denise Newman) and was well received. A few critics pointed to a tragic strand that continues the classical Greek tradition. Do you see that?
To me she’s just a dark, edgy and intense writer. If anything I see more of a Nordic vølve in her—a ‘vølve’ is a female poet, a seer and witch, i.e. the intense teller of truths.
Her stories are very personal. Parents and children, husbands and wives, domesticity and gender are themes she plays with again and again. ‘A Car Trip,’ a short story in Baboon, about a family that sets off on holiday in the driving rain, is memorable. It’s subtle and intense—stifling but with sudden glimpses of possibility… of something new. It reminds me a little of your own writing—perhaps especially the short stories in Karate Chop.
I hadn’t read Baboon when I wrote Karate Chop so if there’s a resemblance it must come from the language we share, Danish.
“She gets under your skin, into your thoughts. She’s a damn good writer”
I think they both circle around the darker sides of relationships, but most good fiction does that, doesn’t it? I think we’re both very much our own writers with mutual respect for each other’s instrumentation of the narrative and the language.
You’d always written novels before Karate Chop—Mirror Shoulder Signal is the first of those novels to appear in English. What do you feel the different forms offer you?
In short: a novel is like an opera—many scenes, many characters, a lot of words. A short story is more like a lied—one strong voice, one theme, carried out as intense and targeted as possible to the very end. I like both forms.
Your next writer is Yahya Hassan, a fellow Dane. He’s a controversial figure after exploding onto the scene in 2013 at just 18 years old. Can you give us an overview?
He came from the ghetto in Aarhus and had spent most of his childhood and youth in and out of institutions. He had a criminal background, he also had a background of writing rap lyrics and more than anything what is important for us: he was—and is—extremely talented as a poet. He was 18 when his poems were published and they blew us away.
His first volume of poetry Et godt sted at dø [‘A Good Place to Die’] was published in 2011, but he became famous for the book you have chosen, his second collection Yahya Hassan: Digte (Poems; as yet unpublished in English, but available on iTunes and Spotify). In 2013, it sold 11,000 copies in the first 24 hours, and went on to become the most popular Danish poetry publication of all time. What is the fuss about?
The fuss is about him being the most original, talented, vocal poet we have seen for decades. He came from a place nobody expected, he mixed other traditions in his language, he gave voice to a generation and a population that was never heard. There was no compromise in his poetry, there was no sense of future, and thinking back it was the lack of future that made Yahya Hassan’s poetry burn from the pages like something we hadn’t seen burn in Danish literature for a long while back then.
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And then of course it became political, because Yahya Hassan was attacking his own background as well as the ethnic Danes, the hypocrites on all sides were getting beaten up by this young desperado. It was quite a debut!
He’s vocal, he sometimes chants his poetry; a trend that is a little too used in Danish literature, if you ask me, and that he was of course inspired by, but he chants in a way that almost sounds like the imam of the local mosque. But there the resemblance stopped because he was not chanting what imam’s might be chanting. Far off. There’s also some rap tradition in his voice and he writes in capitals. LIKE THIS! AS IF HE’S SCREAMING! IN YOUR FACE!
Let’s move to Sweden. You’ve chosen Karolina Ramqvist’s Det är natten (‘It is the Night’). What struck you about it?
It’s an essay about the double nature of writing. That the writer has a persona that is pushed in front of him or her, a persona that faces the world; and then there’s the person who writes the books in seclusion. How do these two characters work together? How does the surrounding world perceive them?
The amazing thing about this book-length essay is that she manages to describe this so it becomes a description of the dual faces of all people. At the same time she unfolds her own reality up against the fiction she writes and she tries to describe the creative process. I enjoyed it very much. I actually enjoyed reading it more than the texts Margarite Duras has written on the same themes.
Det är natten was on the Swedish bestseller lists for quite a while which is pretty impressive for a book-length essay. I hope it will be translated someday.
Ramqvist is best known for fiction, isn’t she? She’s a bestselling novelist back in Sweden but is only now making her English debut with The White City (translated by Saskia Vogel). While we’re on the subject, can you tell us a bit about that book, too?
It’s a story about a young woman whose lover—and the father of her infant girl Dream—has gone to prison, and now she’s left alone with the responsibility of parenting and cleaning up after the criminal mess her partner has left her in. It’s a book about loneliness, about survival and the ambivalent feelings we have for those we love; our friends, our children, our partners. It’s a dark novel with a very sensual and sharp eye.
Another Swede comes next: Lena Andersson and her immensely successful Egenmäktigt förfarande: en roman om kärlek, published in English in 2015 as Wilful Disregard: A Novel About Love (translated by Sarah Death). It’s a pretty painful read—a woman failing, at length, to get the message that the man she loves doesn’t feel the same…
I personally didn’t find the read painful at all. I just love this book and the smartness of it so much, and I laughed out loud many times while reading it. It makes you feel a bit awkward as Lena Andersson, in a sublime and phenomenological way, investigates and portrays the nature of being in love.
“Love is a sort of illness that only the absolute loss of hope will cure you of”
What she finds is that it can be described in other ways than we’re used to, and yes, it is a sort of illness, a character disorder, a kind of insanity that only the absolute loss of hope will cure you of. Any person who’s been hopelessly in love during their lifetime will read this and recognize themselves, feeling a bit ashamed but also incredibly relieved to find that love is a condition that can be described through philosophy, humour and literature.
Her prose is minimalist but you feel the weight of every single word—which sort of mirrors the way the protagonist Ester scrutinises each word said to her, or texted to her, by the man she’s fallen hopelessly in love with.
Lena Andersson is a literary philosopher. She investigates, researches, contemplates, twists and turns and tries to see stuff from new angles. In the process she sheds a light on things you’d never thought about before. She’s minimalist, she’s smart and funny and should be read slowly and with delight.
For your final book we’re crossing all the way over to Iceland. Sjón—a novelist, poet, playwright – is something of a literary superstar over there, almost as famous as Björk, with whom he has collaborated, and the country’s many volcanoes. He’s pretty famous over here too.
Well, I got to know Sjón through his literature first. Or at least I thought so. But then it turned out that he was a member of a band that I listened to quite a lot when I was a teenager, The Sugarcubes. It didn’t make him less interesting, I agree! But I did fall for Sjón’s talent through his written art more than anything—and I’d haven’t listened to his music for decades, since I turned 22.
He is rooted in an Icelandic tradition where magical realism is strong, but he’s also a minimalist and a poet. He’s quite enigmatic, strange and playful and very musical, of course. There’s a strong sense of timing in his writing. I feel he’s breaking literary ground every time he writes something and I enjoy reading his literature very much.
You’ve chosen his novel Månesten (translated and published as Moonstone: The Boy Who Never Was, 2016). It’s an intriguing title.
It takes place in Reykjavik during the Spanish flu. The pandemic swipes through the Icelandic capital and we follow a young call boy, Mani, who’s drifting in and out of sexual encounters, and who’s balancing on a feverishly thin line between life and death.
The narrative felt fluid to me, and yet graphic. It was like it was written in black chalk, dusty, transparent, and very graphic. It’s like an artwork while also being a really good story about sexuality, ecstasy, illness—and death.
The sixteen-year-old Máni Steinn has something in common with the protagonist in Ramqvist’s The White City, and perhaps with some of the other people—writers or their characters—in the books we’ve discussed. Máni too is on the margins of society, an outsider.
He’s very much an outsider, and like Ramquist’s character left on his own fighting for survival under difficult circumstances. I agree that in their loneliness and the way they’re dealing with a life in the shadows, in the back alleys and in the underbelly of the city, they resemble each other.
“I feel Sjón is breaking literary ground every time he writes something”
Sjón is just less of a realist than Ramquist. He takes his writing to the surreal instead. It’s the Icelandic tradition, I guess. Things are dwelling in volcanoes, in glaciers, in the tundra, under the stones.
You told me earlier that it has ‘the bravest and coolest ending [you’d] ever seen in a novel.’ Without giving too much away, can you tell us what impressed you so much?
You’ll have to read it for yourself. He takes the narrative to a completely surprising place, and he does it with such coolness and precision. You should not try to write such and ending at home. You will injure yourself. Just don’t do it. But, please, read Sjón.
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