Where does the popularity of Stieg Larsson’s sadistic Salander series leave the rest of Scandinavian literature in translation? In his shadow, it seems, or branded as a Crime Wave thriller—one can imagine a classic such as Isak Dinesen’s Out of Africa marketed as The Girl with the Coffee Plantation. Meanwhile, a smorgasbord of literary fiction from Norway, Sweden, and Denmark is available or forthcoming in English, providing readers with a look beyond Larsson’s gloomy world of torture chambers and heartless bureaucrats. The following novels make up a kind of anti-genre to the dominance of Larsson and company.
Norwegian novelist Stig Sætterbakken’s story of Edward Mortens, a man who decides to stay in his bathroom indefinitely as a hapless attempt to separate his mind from his body, is a masterpiece of contemporary Scandinavian literature, a darkly comic—and often scatological—tale worthy of Beckett or Bernhard. From the vantage point of his bathroom, the decaying, gum-chewing Mortens entertains cruel fantasies of power, believing himself to be “like God,” capable of making his wife’s life so miserable “that she’d finally be willing to do just about anything to in order to end the nightmare.” When the building’s young superintendent comes to change a light bulb, however, Mortens’s power is weakened, and a hilarious and shocking struggle ensues.
In 2009 a jury of Denmark’s leading critics and professors voted this book as the most important Danish novel of our time, ahead of competing favorites The Exception by Christian Jungersen and Smilla’s Sense of Snow by Peter Høeg. Told from the first-person-plural (“Soon war broke out in earnest and we were called up for the navy”) perspective of a small fishing community in Marstal, Jensen’s novel is an epic seafaring tale of modern Denmark, and the historical events that shaped it, from the invasion of Bismarck’s troops in 1864 to the invasion of Hitler’s troops in 1940.
American scholar Harold Bloom included some of Swedish author Lars Gustafsson’s poems in Bloom’s anthology The Western Canon, but Gustafsson has also written some of the most original and playful novels of any modern Scandinavian writer. This volume, one of the many of his books published in English by New Directions, is made up of short, vignette-like chapters, all of them narrated by a Texas-based Jewish bankruptcy lawyer named Erwin Caldwell. Amid domestic and civic turmoil, Caldwell is deeply troubled by the revelation that Jan van der Rouwers, a celebrated university professor, was not a Dutch resistance fighter during the Second World War, but in fact a Nazi collaborator. Oh yeah: There’s something about a dog in it, too
This fall, the first installment of Ejersbo’s posthumous African trilogy, which encompasses the novels Exile and Liberty and the story collection Revolution, will be published in English. Exile is a devastatingly candid portrayal of an international school in Tanzania, told from the perspective of Samantha, a troubled teenager awash in parental neglect and emotional despair. The brutal economy of Ejersbo’s prose accumulates with an intensity that unravels in the final pages, which features some of the most breathtaking and harrowing Danish writing in recent history. Ejersbo died in 2007 at age forty and is widely considered by readers and critics alike to be one of the greatest Danish novelists. He wrote at length about his “lost generation” of outcasts, losers, and drug-abusers struggling to conform to the helter-skelter pace of late capitalist society.
Until Min Kamp (My Struggle), Knausgaard’s multi-volume autobiographical opus—currently polarizing critics and readers across Scandinavia with its provocative, faux-Hitlerian title and frank self-examination—is finally translated into English, readers should pick up Knausgaard’s biblical fantasy A Time for Everything, which explores the stories of Noah, and Cain and Abel. Opening in a quiet Italian landscape in 1562, a young boy, Antinous Bellori, loses his way in the forest and finds a pair of fallen angels devouring a raw fish. The novel is animated not only by Bellori’s ensuing theological inquiry, but also by the gradual revelation of the mysterious narrator’s guilt-ridden past.
Grøndahl has long been among the literary heavyweights of Danish literature, and this nominee for the 2006 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award demonstrates why. Fifty six-year old Irene Beckman’s husband leaves her for a younger woman and the smooth surface of domestic life is disrupted. As Irene thinks to herself, “What was unimaginable has become real.” As Irene’s mother lays dying, Irene is given an envelope that puts her on a journey of radical self-discovery that will lead her as far back as the Second World War and Europe’s darkest hour. Anne Born’s sure hand deftly captures and transmits Grøndahl’s meticulous, lyrical prose.
Poet Inger Christensen died in 2009 without having gained the following among English-language audiences that formed her reputation in Europe as one of the leading poets of her time. (She was frequently cited as a top contender for the Nobel Prize for Literature.) Azorno, the second of Christensen’s novels, is as radical and formally playful as her poetry, dabbling in the same games with language, perception, and reality. From the first sentence, “I’ve learned that I’m the woman he first meets on page eight,”onwards, this mystery involving two men and five women, all of them pregnant by the writer, Sampel, is a reading experience as entertaining and unconventional as anything by Perec or Beckett.
Petterson’s sixth book was published in English translation in 2005 (it did not appear in the US until 2007) to unanimous acclaim from writers and critics like John Banville, Tim Parks, and Thomas McGuane. The novel, narrated by the recently widowed Trond Sander, is spare and quiet in both prose and plot, but stealthily profound in its precise recollection of an old man’s life, and the devastating revelation of a tragedy that takes place in the summer of 1948, when Trond and a friend stay with Trond’s father on the Norwegian-Swedish border. In its lyrical restraint and underlying emotional intensity, Out Stealing Horses is in some sense the pinnacle of a certain kind of novel—lyrical, economical, realist—being written in Scandinavia today.
Morten Høi Jensen was born in Copenhagen, Denmark. His essays and reviews have appeared in Open Letters Monthly, The Quarterly Conversation, and Words Without Borders. He writes a literary blog for the Danish newspaper Jyllandsposten.