The Best Fiction Books

Essential Norwegian Fiction

recommended by Roy Jacobsen

The Unseen by Roy Jacobsen and Don Bartlett and Don Shaw (translators)

The Unseen
by Roy Jacobsen and Don Bartlett and Don Shaw (translators)


Sagas old and new, from Gisli Sursson’s trials to Knausgård’s struggle, form the backbone of Roy Jacobsen’s selection of essential fiction from Norway, a country that is like ‘a black and not very polished diamond’, and where writers and readers seek out the human, ‘no matter how awkward, grandiose, sentimental, nostalgic, embarrassing, hyperbolic, stupid, hilarious or dangerous it may be’

Interview by Thea Lenarduzzi

The Unseen by Roy Jacobsen and Don Bartlett and Don Shaw (translators)

The Unseen
by Roy Jacobsen and Don Bartlett and Don Shaw (translators)

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I was talking to Dorthe Nors about contemporary Scandinavian literature the other day and she said that Norwegian literature is having something of a new golden age. Do you think this is true? In what way? 

I guess she has a point, at least we have a lot of contemporary authors who are quite successful both at home and abroad. These are also very different voices, not one of them can easily be put in a category with the other. We also have an interested and well-informed readership, as well as good and organised systems for supporting and spreading literature.

But I am not sure there is a simple reason for this contemporary wellbeing—I have always been a little bit sceptical towards sociological or historical explanations for this or that in such an individual profession as ours.

She said the Norwegians are able to get away with a lot more emotion in their writing than the Danes, which I found an interesting observation. She said “There’s more pathos in the Norwegians”. Would you agree?

Yeah, she is right, we tend not to stay away from anything human, no matter how awkward, grandiose, sentimental, nostalgic, embarrassing, hyperbolic, stupid, hilarious or dangerous it may be. If Denmark is a bright and shining diamond, Norway is a black and not very polished one.

Before we talk about your first book, Gisli Sursson’s Saga, a general question: how important are the Icelandic sagas to Norwegian literature and our understanding of it? Do Norwegian schools spend a lot of time on them, as, in the UK, we do on, say, Chaucer and Shakespeare?

I am afraid not too many of my colleagues share my fascination for the old sagas. They are still—to a certain extent—taught in school, but I wish I could say that of all the things that were bad when I grew up, the knowledge of the saga tradition was not one of them.

That does not mean, however, that contemporary Norwegian literature is not influenced by the sagas, when it comes to style, wit, irony, the soft spot for realism—and especially the main subject of the sagas. It is at least not easy to pick one modern Norwegian writer who—sooner or later in his or her career—does not elaborate on the twin questions, Who am I? And where do I come from? A perhaps more frequently asked question in young nations than in older ones. Norway is still quite young and unshapen as was Iceland in the 12th century. Just look at our love for childhood and coming-of-age stories.

In Gisli Sursson’s Saga, the characters and the action move between Norway and Iceland in a chain of dark and fateful events. What is the story?

Too complicated to be retold, so take my word for it: it is a flawless, beautifully written and complex mix of family saga, love story and crime novel with an unknown culprit. It is helpful to know the values of the society the story is set in, its social, political and anthropological context, but a modern middlebrow should be more than capable of pointing out the villain—this is realism. It is a masterpiece that can be measured against almost anything in the literary canon.

And all the criminal events are set in motion by two wives gossiping?!

Not quite—it is set in motion by the reality behind the gossip, the true minds of the characters whom the women are gossiping about. Fate is at work, i.e., both man and woman are to take their part of the blame.

It’s also an exploration of masculinity and brotherhood, isn’t it? 

Absolutely. It’s a novel about a wonderful brotherhood that no sane person would dream of breaking up—apart from through love and death. And it is an even more beautiful love story: between man and woman.

The central message seems to be that vengeance begets vengeance, violence begets violence.

As you said—vengeance begets vengeance, violence begets violence—that is the backbone of fate, but it is also important to remember that in no saga does it go on forever, till the last man standing so to speak.

“Norway is still quite young and unshapen as was Iceland in the 12th century—just look at our love for childhood and coming-of-age stories”

There are lots of remedies to break the spiral of violence and vengeance, and that’s where the saga ceases to be just a retelling of fate—to be an exemplum—and turns into pragmatism and realism, stories of real men and women.

After all the bloodshed and multiple deaths, it ends neatly with one of the wives caught gossiping at the beginning—Aud, who was admittedly very loyal to her now dead husband—converting to Christianity and making a pilgrimage to Rome, leaving Iceland behind forever. Is this a typical ending? There is this idea of being between two different worlds, two different ages, which comes up again and again in the books you’ve chosen.

Aud leaves for Rome after she (unsuccessfully) has tried to avenge her murdered husband.

But that is not the finale—in the ending we see the two sons of the third brother (whom they left behind in Norway in the beginning of the book), tying up the loose ends by killing off the last living killer of their uncle—they are, so to speak, fulfilling the wish of their aunt Aud, who has now (unknowingly to them) turned herself into a nun in Rome. I guess you could call that neat, or maybe more of a holy merger of irony and realism.

Tell us about your next book, Growth of the Soil (1917) by Knut Hamsun.

Well—Hamsun is here because there is no way around him. He tore apart both the grammar and the lexicon of our language, mixed high and low, dialect and aristocratic speech, and put all the pieces beautifully together again—in the totally new fashion we call contemporary Norwegian literature. As every Russian writer is rolled out of Gogol’s coat, every Norwegian one is an offspring of Hamsun, admittedly or otherwise.

It is a novel full of contrasts—most obviously between the remote, traditional agrarian life and the rapidly encroaching modern world. Your own novel is set around the same time and tackles similar themes. Why is this such an interesting period for Norwegian history and its literature?

This is a very typical Norwegian subject—and typical for many small countries, I guess, that have gone through such dramatic changes in just a generation or three. Nostalgia looms large.

The art is, of course, not to be nostalgic yourself, in your writing head, but to handle it as a literary concept, something that comes naturally to human kind, so that it can be X-rayed from every angle.

“We have made a taciturn deal—to punish him postmortem for his political ideas, and simultaneously, and reluctantly, praise him for his contribution to literature”

Then you will be able to see also the problematic and reactionary aspect of nostalgia, and I am not sure Hamsun quite managed to do that…—he was, after all, a committed and incurable Nazi. So we (at least most of us) have made a taciturn deal—to punish him postmortem for his deeds and political ideas, and simultaneously (and reluctantly) praise him for his contribution to the Norwegian language and literature. We simply have no choice, he is our Luther, our King James Bible. As a result of this attempted pragmatism, we still read and cherish his work, but we do not name streets and oil platforms after him (they are left to more palatable creatures, such as Henrik Ibsen, Alexander Kielland, etc…)

Introduce us to your next book, Sjenanse og Verdighet (1994; Shyness and Dignity, 2006) by Dag Solstad. 

Dag holds in his generation (born in 1941) both a very similar and a totally different position than that Hamsun did in his. Dag is and has been the uncrowned and undisputed leader of the ivory tower since his debut in the late 1960s, whereas Hamsun was always a loner. Dag is the sole contemporary writer that we all (nearly, I know of two who don’t comply) must read when he publishes a new book. Mainly because he has turned the language around again, given it the first new twist since Hamsun left us.

This book, too, appears to be a kind of lament, by the novel’s protagonist, the teacher Elias, for a previous world, one which he perceives to be disappearing rapidly. Is it a satire?

Yes, it’s a lament. Everything Dag puts his hands on turns out in some way or another to be a lament. You see—as a devoted communist—history isn’t developing to his liking.

And you are absolutely right to ask if it is satire. Because it is actually both—both satire and not. Dag can make that possible. He denies categorically (in interviews) the fact (my view) that he is ironic, and is thereby creating a third layer in his writing—from irony back to truth. And I mean—if you constantly create main characters that are lamenting that most people around them are idiots, the project could easily turn into an elitist nightmare. But with self-loathing and self-irony you can get away with everything. He does it in the most beautiful fashion possible. And after all, who doesn’t—at least once in a while—think of themselves as smarter than the others?

It’s interesting that the height of Elias’s crisis comes when he gives a passionate lecture on Ibsen’s The Wild Duck—the most celebrated play by the Father of Modern Drama and one of Norway’s biggest cultural figures—and realises that none of his students give a damn.

Dag is a true intellectual, and has a lot of references to previous heroes, and he has probably spent more time with Ibsen then with anyone else—both in this novel and in four others, as I recall. Ibsen is even more important to him than Hamsun (whom he also appreciates), and in a quite complex way—Ibsen bothers him, like every father figure and national icon should. He is struggling with Ibsen, moving about like a roller coaster between respect and criticism, admiration and irritation.

How central are his politics to his work? 

In spite of his really strong political opinions he rather seems to avoid making too direct references to them in his literature. He is no propagandist, it’s more like he’s dancing around his own views, pulling them into a tango, or—more bluntly—taking a negative stance, that is, mocking the opposite views and especially the lifestyle and habits that he does not share himself. A satirist, but also, to a certain degree, a thinker undermining and ridiculing his leftist opinions. He is always an interesting and complex writer.

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Does he address the country’s past or is he focused on the present?

He is mostly working with contemporary stuff, but he has a keen eye for history, has written a bunch of articles about a lot of historical subjects, and has also published a trilogy set in World War II, during the occupation of Norway.

Your next book is Beatles by Lars Saabye Christensen (1984; translated by Don Bartlett in 2001). Why do you think this is an important one?

I could just as well have mentioned his great novel The Half Brother, a magnificent work. Lars is the poet among us, a constantly working metaphor machine. He is a master of poetic prose, constantly posing the everlasting Norwegian double-question: ‘Who are we? And where do we come from?’ Maybe expanding or deepening that too: ‘How the hell did I end up being the person I am?’

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Both Beatles and The Half Brother are coming-of-age stories, speckled with 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.

He should be read by all people who fall into any of the following three categories:

1) Those interested in Norway.

2) Those interested in Norwegian literature.

3) Those interested in literature.

Lars is so typically Norwegian in his settings and so typically human in his thinking that he can be recognised by everyone whoever they think they are.

Karl Ove Knausgård’s My Struggle is your last book—although, really, it’s a series of six books. To anyone who happens to have been on another planet for the past few years, can you introduce us to the books and why they have become such a sensation?

Not an easy task. The amazing Karl Ove Knausgård came to the craft with a programme—to tell the truth, and nothing but the truth. In my opinion that is a dead end, both morally and existentially.

But a programme is—thank God—not necessarily in concert with the end result. Said Clausewitz (among others): the first casualty of war is the truth.

And what miracle hasn’t come out of a misconception—or an accident, as Isaac Newton could have put it?

The Struggle is something as rare as a well-composed, sometimes brilliantly written, and organised stream of consciousness which lasts, as you said, for 3,000 pages.

A well-organised stream of consciousness—isn’t that a contradiction in terms?

It certainly is—but Knausgård manages brilliantly to keep order in chaos, his language is clear, clean and floating like a river in another river’s bed, the one of a tradition that he will not himself always recognise.

“The smaller the time-discrepancy between writing and reading, the more dynamic the reading experience seems to be”

He moves his prose effortlessly between the trivial and the ecclesiastical. Here is everyday life in all its brilliant dreariness combined with learned essays on the most extraordinary philosophical topics. And although I prefer his surgical pen dissecting the triviality of everyday life, the glowing light of it would not be so bright without the more theoretical essays.

He’s been described as a Norwegian Proust. He has said his aim was to “write plainly about his life”. It’s true that he can write about pouring milk on his cereal and make it absorbing.

Let me say something about time, since you mentioned Proust. By being able to write as fast as Knausgård does, without losing the grip and intensity of it, he manages to convey a certain and quite extraordinary flow to the reading process—I am not sure how to put it, but the smaller the time-discrepancy between writing and reading, the more dynamic the reading experience seems to be. It has something to do with freshness, I think, close contact between the writer’s and the reader’s experience. I guess this is at least part of the answer to why so many readers get addicted to his work. In addition to—of course—to being the reason so many people recognise themselves in his work; programme or not, he has managed to paint a highly gripping and provocative picture of our time.

(Working fast is—by the way—not something I would recommend, unless you are Knausgård.)

His writing has also been described as “artless”, and the “struggle” of the title as being a struggle away from art. Does that chime with your impressions? 

The word artless does not immediately ring a bell for me, unless in the sense that he is trying to free himself from the tradition, from the grip of all predecessors—and who doesn’t try to do that? By and large he seems sometimes more arty to me than, for instance, Dag or Lars…—but maybe the people who describe his prose as artless are the people who have subscribed to his programme?

He has said that to be an author you need to have “a capability to fail for years. That is what writing is for me: failing with total dedication.”

He is right of course—without failing you get nowhere. And when you stop failing and think you are finally educated, you are not only no longer a writer, you are no longer alive. That does not mean, though, that you have to publish all your failures and disasters—stealing time from the readers is not a decent line of work.

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You share a translator, Don Bartlett, who is always highly praised for his work. It is important to acknowledge that without such translators we would never get to read books like the ones we have discussed today—indeed, some of them are still waiting for translators…

Don has been my protecting angel for years. He says himself that I am the most challenging one of his Scandinavian clients, but I have, to this day, not read a single review without the critic praising the translation—it looks like the book is written originally in English, they say. And for that I am most grateful.

Can you tell us what it’s like to be translated? A translator friend of mine has said, “A more uncanny experience than that of reading oneself—mediated by another—in a foreign language is hard to imagine.”

Nicely put—I have done some translation work myself, from Old Icelandic. These authors are long dead now, but they are still hanging like Damocles’s swords over my neck, so I will remember that quote.

Interview by Thea Lenarduzzi

June 14, 2017

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Roy Jacobsen

Roy Jacobsen

Roy Jacobsen is a Norwegian novelist and short-story writer, winner of the distinguished Norwegian Critics Prize for Literature, and a member of the Norwegian Academy for Language and Literature. His most recent novel, The Unseen, has been shortlisted for the 2017 Man Booker International Prize

Roy Jacobsen

Roy Jacobsen

Roy Jacobsen is a Norwegian novelist and short-story writer, winner of the distinguished Norwegian Critics Prize for Literature, and a member of the Norwegian Academy for Language and Literature. His most recent novel, The Unseen, has been shortlisted for the 2017 Man Booker International Prize