Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Norwegian Literature (Almost)

A Brief History of the "Guest of Honor" at This Year's Frankfurt Bookfair

Norwegian literature—one could argue—begins with a shield.

Not really a shield, but a poem about a shield given to the 9th century skald, or bard of sorts, Bragi Boddasson, by Ragnar Lothbrok, the Swedish king (whose name means “hairy breeches”). 

Bragi loved this shield, so he sang its praises, and in turn gives us—12 centuries later—a glimpse of the myths that 9th century readers would have known. 

The god Odin makes an appearance, as does Thor, hammer swinging. In this case Thor goes to war with a sea-snake, as they scythe through the water:

And the ugly ring of the side-oared ship’s road stared up
spightfully at Hrungnir’s skull-splitter. 

It’s sort of an action film in verse, as many of the Norse myths are, and you can find this particular one in the Prose Edda, the lake from which most of what we know about all the Norse myths flows. It was written down by Snorri Sturluson, the 13th century Icelandic politician, author and historian who rose from being the son of an upstart chieftain to the richest man in all of Iceland. 

A poem, a piece of text, or a Sapphic-sized sliver is far more durable than any kingdom.

And quite a writer, too. The Prose Edda is a 3D blockbuster full of dwarves, kings, battles, and some serious supernatural weaponry. If you’re sad Game of Thrones is over, this book is for you. Borges fell so in love with it that he wanted to translate it and did, his last major translation. 

*

What survives from twelve centuries and the five-card shuffle of Nordic wars? Apparently, a poem, a piece of text, or a Sapphic-sized sliver is far more durable than any kingdom, let alone the shield that occasioned these utterances. 

Harald Fairhair knew this. As the first Norwegian king, he’s given credit for uniting Norway as one kingdom around 870 AD, though he probably only ruled the western coast. Fairhair was the longest reigning monarch in Norwegian history, though he was also at home on a ship, which we know because the Sagas recorded it. And it’s memorialized because:

Of all his warriors Harald Fairhair treasured his skalds the most: They were seated opposite him in the high seat.

The work of all these court poets was collected by Snorri Sturlason in King Harald’s Sagas, comprising a piece of the much larger Heimskringla, which covers all the tales beyond the battle highlights—the ones where Harald’s hair flowed like silk. 

And then, for 400 years—or “twice two-hundred,” as Ibsen put it, a little pedantically—there was darkness, as Denmark ruled Norway. Very little survives and what does isn’t worth printing. Then, in 1814, thanks to the Napoleonic Wars, Norway was finally ceded to Sweden; Norwegian nationalism flowered immediately in resistance, fueling the creation and adoption of the Norwegian constitution. While this nationalist itch was pushed down, it never went away.

And it was led by writers.

Henrik Wergeland was key among them. His father, a pastor, had been at Norway’s constitutional assembly, which was not unlike the Constitutional Congress of 1776. Henrik grew up patriotic, God-fearing, and a bit of a wild child, in spite of some seriously unironic lamb chops. Wergeland rocketed to early fame as a new college graduate in 1829 by leading the fight —as an orator and poet—to celebrate the creation of the constitution on May 17th in a so-called “battle of the square.” Since then, May 17 has been Norwegian Constitution Day.

He wasn’t the only writer in the family, though, his younger sister Camilla Collett was a diarist and later a novelist, one of the country’s first social realists. Today, she’s often called the first Norwegian feminist writer. She came to Christiana, now Oslo, and fell in love with Henrik’s literary nemesis, Johan Sebastian Welhaven, causing tension in the family. In 1854, she anonymously published the first of a two-part novel

The District Governor’s Daughter, a tale about the hardships of being a woman in society, particularly in regards to forced marriage. 

She wanted to keep her identity so badly that she took out an ad in the newspaper Morgenbladet, declaiming the “false rumor” that she had written the book. Fake news!

Towards the end of Collett’s life, her views became increasingly polemic, and she was often alone. But she made a later generation of feminists possible. Meanwhile, students decorate the grave and statues of her brother every May, as do Jewish residents, in recognition of Wergeland’s work to undo a constitutional clause—one written by his own father, no less—barring Jews from “access to the kingdom.” It was finally removed in 1851, six years after Wergeland died.

*

Simultaneously, all kinds of literary forms of nationalism were merging into what has been called Norwegian romantic nationalism, which attempted to coalesce and spread the aesthetics of Norwegian national identity. 

Folklore was being rounded up and traded; poems about the pure peasant life were being written; and folk songs were being sought out and written down. Two people doing this work were Magnus Brostrup Landstad

and Olea Crøger, the latter of whom was the daughter of a preacher a music teacher in upper Telemark and fanatical, diligent collector of folk ballads. Together they published the first collection of Norwegian folk ballads, though only Landstand’s name appeared on the original printing. 

Another person doing gathering and sifting on the level of language was Ivar Aasen, a farm boy so bright he opened his own school at age 18. He picked up Latin like it was a hat someone had left on a couch, and in his thirties he began a comprehensive study of dialect spoken in Sunmore, his home district. The result was a collection of folk songs, his first book.

It’s worth pausing here to point out that across Norway there are hundreds of dialects—one for every 20 kilometers, someone joked to me once. So amid the flowering of nationalism, Norwegian culture faced two tasks: to figure out which language to use to speak to each other, and which artifacts of culture, which myths, to call their own. 

On that front, at the same time as Aasen had begun his linguistic work, another enterprising, God-fearing soul named Jørgen Moe began to travel through the south of Norway, collecting folk tales and fairy tales from people living in the mountains. Together with an old school friend, Peter Asbjørnsen, they began to assemble Norway’s rich and varied folklore, eventually compiling them into a compendium that had as enormous an impact on Norway as the Brothers Grimm did in Germany.  

Meantime, Aasen caught the traveling bug, too—he left Sunmore behind and crossed all of Norway, talking and listening to the people he met, not unlike the way Alan Lomax criss-crossed America in the 1930s. This was Norway in the 1840s, not easy terrain, and Aasen made it all over the developing nation, emerging with

Grammar of the Norwegian Dialects (1843). By 1850 he had a Dictionary of the Norwegian Dialects. Aasen wasn’t just listening, though—he was constructing a whole new popular language, a kind of folk language. He even wrote plays to show how it would be used. (None of them are any good.) This language eventually, through additions, norms, and policy, became what is now called Nynorsk. 

One quarter of Norwegian municipalities have Nynorsk as their official language, all of them in the west of the country. While radio and newspapers outside of the west tend to use what is called bokmål (or “book language”)—and NRK tries to show 25 percent of its programs in Nynorsk—Nynorsk is used many other places, in schools, and of course some writing. 

Most of the rest of the country speaks and uses bokmål, which the linguist called Knut Knudsen helped to develop, essentially Norwegianizing and formalizing the version of Danish that was being spoken in the country. So here’s one curious contradiction of Norwegian literature, among many: that two of its best known writers, Henrik Ibsen and Knut Hamsun, wrote in Danish, not Norwegian. 

It was all they had available to them. 

The first writer to use Nynorsk in a book of high quality was Aasmund Olavsson Vinje, who essentially invented the Norwegian essay. His first book—called basically Travel Stories—also channels (and makes fun of) some romantic feelings that attended these incipient national urges in Emersonian fashion, such as oneness with nature and the purity of peasant life. Out of his work a thread of irony about this national idea flowed, and it appeared to in the pages of his newspaper, Dølen.

The best known of the Nynorsk writers is the 20th-century novelist Tarjei Vesaas, the son of a farmer from the Telemark region and who never quite got over his guilt over not taking over the family farm. Vesaas’ novels are told in a stripped down, sober, symbolic style, and his best known novel might be

The Ice Palace, a tragic tale of friendship between two young girls in a rural village, which won the Nordic Prize. It has been translated by Peter Owen and is available in French, Spanish and many other languages. Spring Night, a tale of two siblings who spend the night alone without their parents for the first time, is also notable, as well as The Birds, which orbits the inner world of a man with mental disability living with his sister. Vesaas was nominated numerous times for the Nobel. 

He never got the big prize, but now there’s a debut prize with his name, the Tarjei Vesaas Debutante Prize, which Kjersti Annesdatter Skomsvold has won. She incidentally has an intimate new book, The Child, a lyrical, powerful tale told to her second baby, which has already sold in eight languages. 

Norway’s perennial leading candidate for the Nobel, the pioneering playwright, novelist and poet Jon Fosse, writes in Nynorsk, as does Gunnhild Øyehaug, whose Knots, was published in English in 2016 with an introduction by Lydia Davis, a writer to whom James Wood compared her. “Like Davis,” he wrote, “she can produce stabs of emotion, unexpected ghost notes of feeling, from pieces so short and offbeat that they seem at first like aborted arias.” Her novel

Wait, Blink, was made into a film and her latest, Present Tense Machine, is wild and fantastic.

Most books translated into Norwegian are translated into bokmål, though, with the exception of Elena Ferrante, herself a heavy user of Neapolitan dialect. She is translated into Nynorsk, as is also Anna Gavalda. They’re both huge successes for Norwegian publisher Det Norske Samlaget, which only publishes books in Nynorsk.

*

All societies enter modernity at different times. Foucault’s defines this evolution as rejecting tradition, embracing rationalization, and moving away from feudalism and agrarianism and toward the nation state. This happened in Norway with a group of writers who have since been called the great four: Henrik Ibsen, who brought realism to Norwegian theatre; Jonas Lie, the novelist and playwright who conjured the folk life of the new nation; Alexander Kielland, the novelist, short story writer and satirist; and Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson, a novelist and playwright, as well as Norway’s first Nobel laureate.

In Dag Solstad’s hilarious novel Shyness and Dignity, a dutiful school teacher has a meltdown trying to teach his insights in Ibsen’s play The Wild Duck to largely indifferent teenagers and winds up beating his umbrella to death in front of his pupils. Ibsen was from Skien, a port town in the Telemark region known for timber shipping. He would later describe its people thusly:

[People in Skien] appear sanguine but are often melancholic. They analyse and pass judgement on themselves…proud and stiff, combative when anyone threatens their interest; they dislike being told. They are reserved and cautious, do not easily accept their friendship, and are not very forthcoming to their own kin…afraid openly to surrender to a mood, or to let themselves be carried away; they suffer from shyness of the soul.

You can see why this would give a writer much material, but also why he or she would have to get the hell away.

Ibsen was equally influenced by Wergeland (and Camille Collett) as well as the folk tales collected by Asbjørsen and Moe. He was a prolific playwright, but a successful one not until he was in his thirties. In his twenties, he moved to Bergen, where he put on dozens of performances and watched play after play tank. Finally in 1865, two plays about will and consequence, both pointing a finger at clergy à la Wergeland, received rave critical support. And Ibsen promptly moved to Sorrento, Italy.

He didn’t return for 27 years, living for some of that period in Dresden and Munich, unleashing a three-decade assault on the role of mores and social control. In Ghosts, a woman’s pastor convinces her to return to her philandering husband; she does and winds up passing syphilis on to their son. In The Wild Duck, a family marriage is ripped open to reveal all its dirty secrets. 

You can see how Skien fed him.

Ibsen’s effect on theatre is enormous—putting issues of societal discourse into drama, in fact making that a key part of the dramatic experience, had not quite happened in a realistic way, let alone a modernist way. He made Chekhov possible.

Even while he was living abroad, Ibsen’s plays had an immediate impact upon Norwegian culture. When Ghosts was published on Dec. 13, 1881, one person remembers:

The play was distributed to the booksellers in the evening. The keenest buyers ran out in the dark to get it… the debate had already started by next morning. An extraordinary number of people seemed to read the play that night.

One of the explosive elements of Ibsen’s play was that it landed around the time that it was still presumed that syphilis could only be inherited from a mother, not from a father. The 1875 census showed 30,000 men in Christiana above the ages of 15, 14,000 of them married, and there were nearly 3,000 cases of venereal disease. One of the people who almost certainly read the play that night was a young Edvard Munch, who had fallen in with an absinthe-drinking Karl Johan Gate crowd of bohemians in Oslo who were discussing such things. 

In the midst of this period was a large and growing Norwegian feminism. Munch, who was not well-off, hung out with a libertine crowd of men and women who discussed Darwin and dandy politics. He had powerful mentors, including the libertine Hans Jæger, who wrote up all the true stories of what was unfolding among their in Oslo as a roman à clef, From the

Christiana Bohemians. Most copies were confiscated and Jæger was fined for offending public morals and he lost his job as stenographer of the Parliament.

It was a moment for freedom of speech, and Jæger lived for it. He had, with his friends, come up with a nine-point credo of freedom and bohemianism, the first of which stated, Thou shalt write thy life. The others included:

2) Thou shalt sever family roots.
3) There is no limit to how badly thou shalt treat thy family and all elders and betters.
4) Never borrow less than five kronor.
5) Thou shalt hate and despise all peasants such as Bjornstjerne Bjørnson, Kristofer Kristofersen, and Kolbenveldt.
6) Thou shalt never wear celluloid cuffs.
7) Thou shalt never fail to make a scandal in the Kristiana Theatre.
8) Thou shalt never show remorse.
9) Thou shalt kill thyself.

This is how Jaeger’s novel ended: with a suicide.

*

One writer whose life and work spans these periods—of nationalization, of re-exploring folk lore and sagas, and of the discovery of modernism—is Knut Hamsun. 

Norway’s second winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature was born Knud Pedersen, the fourth of seven sons in Lom. They were so poor Knut was sent to an uncle who beat and starved him. Hamsun escaped at age 15 and returned to Lom, where he was everything from a peddler and shoemaker’s assistant to an elementary schoolteacher. He never entirely recovered from the trauma of his upbringing. 

He wrote these experiences into his first novel, Enigmatic Man (1877), and took inspiration from Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson for his second, trying to imitate a saga of Icelandic proportions. He didn’t achieve the style for which he is known until 1890 when he published Hunger, a short Kafkaesque novel about a writer’s descent into madness from starvation and poverty in Christiania. 

His finest books aside from Hunger—like Pan, Mysteries, and his late auto fiction On Overgrown Paths, which he wrote to prove he was still sane when he was tried for treason in 1948 for Nazi sympathies—are about wanderers and outsiders, using the modernist technique of stream of consciousness to highlight the juxtaposition of mind and society. 

In the 1880s he moved to America at the encouragement of Bjørnson and wrote a book about it, largely critically. He had a terrible time. In Chicago, where he had a job operating a street car, it was so cold he stuffed his pants with newsprint; in Minnesota, he tended to pigs. When he could, he gave lectures on European literature. 

Bjørnson had thought Hamsun could become the voice of the active Norwegian-American community. Indeed, between 1825 and 1925, 800,000 Norwegians, one-third of the population, left the country, and most of them went to America. According to the 2000 US Census, there were as many people of Norwegian descent in America at that point—about 4.5 million—as there were people in Norway.

Aside from economic migration, this was also a period when Norwegian explorers were everywhere. Not long after Hamsun’s trip to America, a Norwegian descended from ship captains named Roald Amundsen signed on to a Belgian exploration Antarctic exploration as first mate. He was inspired by another Norwegian explorer, Fridtjof Nansen, who led the first interior crossing of Greenland—on skis. 

In time, Amundsen would surpass his hero, leading the first successful expedition to traverse the Canadian northwest passage. He was also the first to reach the South Pole in 1911, a journey he immortalized in his book, The South Pole, and later, My Life as an Explorer, giving birth to a kind of wilderness writing that persists today. That literary legacy extends in spirit to Norway’s reporters Åsne Seierstad—who has reported from Iraq, Chechnya, and Afghanistan—and Erika Fatland, who traveled all over the former USSR to write Sovietstan, which was just published in English by MacLehose. 

By contrast, Hamsun was far less hardy, and his reputation as a writer must always be balanced with our knowledge of his political activities. He wrote a eulogy for Hitler. He sent his Nobel Prize to Nazi leader Joseph Goebbels in 1943 out of appreciation for his work. But he did do one tremendous thing: in 1925, with his financial backing, he helped Norway bring back the rights to his own work and that of Ibsen’s, essentially starting Norway’s publishing culture, and the house Gyldendal, one of the most powerful in the nation today.

*

Norway’s last Nobel winner, Sigrid Undset, who died in Lillehammer, was far less ethically compromised. Born in Denmark in 1882, around the time Munch was drinking his absinthe, she grew up in Oslo, one of the first major writers to do so. Her father died young and so she gave up her education and worked as a secretary, for 10 years studying at night. After a failed start, she began her literary career at the age of 25 with a then-shocking sentence, “I have been unfaithful to my husband.” Thus begins

Fru Marta Oulie, which caused a stir and made it possible to write several more novels about life in contemporary Oslo, largely from women’s perspectives. This novel has not been translated into English. 

Jenny and Spring are notable novels from this realistic period, the former dealing with a woman who moves to Rome and discovers she has in fact been wasting her life.

Undset’s own travels to Rome were much more fruitful; she met the painter Anders Castus Svarstad, with whom she fell in love, although he had a wife and three children back in Norway. Eventually, the two of them married, had two children, and took on Svarstad’s three, all while she continued to write and participate in the women’s emancipation movement. 

In 1919 she moved back to Lillehammer, and in 1920, around the birth of her third child, her marriage ended. She launched into an ambitious new series of novels set in the Middle Ages about one woman, Kristin Lavransdatter. The three books, comprising 1,400 pages, all written and published in three years, stoked by black coffee and cigarettes—The Wreath, The Wife, The Cross—portray her life and the times of a 14th-century town in the Gudbrand Valley. 

Although set seven centuries ago, the issues the book revolves around—freedom, and sexual safety, agency—feel incredibly modern. In The Wreath, after an attempted rape, Kristin is sent to an Abbey. Later, she falls in love with a man who has been ex-communicated from the church. Hardly the dreary story of rural life, Undset’s trilogy moves from powerful moral drama to drama.

She would go on to write another quartet set in the same period, The Master of Hestviken, but it was on the basis of Kristin Lavransdatter that she won the Nobel in 1928. She donated the money she received to women raising children with disabilities. 

Immediately after the war a golden age of children’s literature started with Thorbjørn Egner, who broke into view with Karius and Bactus.

In the 1930s Undset continued to write fiction, but she also wrote polemical essays about the rise of fascism. When Germany invaded Norway, she fled to Sweden with her son. Her other son was killed in action that same month. Her daughter had died before the war. In 1940, she left Sweden for the United States, settling in Brooklyn Heights. In 1945, after the war, she returned, but she did not write another book.

*

Within days of the end of World War II, 28,750 people were arrested in Norway for collaboration crimes, in part to prevent lynching and other extrajudicial killing, but also to thoroughly prosecute crimes. In the end, some 5,000 people were held for more than a year and in the end, 40 people were executed, including the Vidkun Qusling, the Prime Minister the Nazis had installed during the occupation.

Although this was a brutal period, it was a necessary break with what had come before, and the government began designing a new ethical state from the ground up. Universal access to education was one of the very first policies decided upon in unoccupied Norway. The institution that guarantees this—the State Bank for student loans—was founded in 1947. And you can see the effects of this enlarging on Norwegian culture. 

Immediately after the war a golden age of children’s literature started with Thorbjørn Egner, who broke into view with Karius and Bactus, about a tooth troll living inside the mouth of a boy named Jens. Later on, Anne-Cath. Vestly would twist gender roles with a 12-part series about a family where the mother works as a lawyer and the father stays home and takes care of the kids. More recently, Jostein Gaarder—author of Sophie’s World, a novel about philosophy which sold 40 million copies worldwide—has published numerous successful children’s books.

*

Whereas in 1950s America a whole heyday of boom writers emerged, from Kurt Vonnegut and John Updike to Philip Roth, James Baldwin, Flannery O’Connor and Sylvia Plath, there was no such generation in Norway. By the 1960s, though, a group of writers gathered around the magazine Profile and began to call attention to this fact, criticizing in essence the lack of a post-war literary culture. 

They were a small but diverse group of writers, from the poet, translator and sometime musical performer Jan Erik Vold, who has brought Tomas Tranströmer and Gary Snyder and even Chet Baker into Norwegian, to Dag Solstad. The author of 30 books and a former communist whose oeuvre spans postmodernism and football literature, he’s the only living writer to win the Norwegian Literary Critics Prize three times. 

He has a new novel out this fall called The third, and final book about Bjørn Hansen. He first appeared in Solstad’s scintillatingly named Novel 11, Book 18, one of about six classics Solstad has written in his lifetime. As the book begins Hansen is now 50, living a quiet life as a town treasurer, the fires of an affair that wrenched open his marriage are behind him. Yet he has the sinking feeling that his entire life has been a giant accident. As the book accelerates, with the help of a drug-addicted doctor, he decides to set out a course of his life and live it to the bitter end. Then his annoying, lecturing son turns up to study optics at a local school, and this plan is briefly scrapped for a sudden burst of unexpected warmth. 

Solstad’s novels all contain this peculiar braiding of existential questioning and bleak humor with a realization that it is in relationships that we are briefly rescued from the darkness of our unknowing. They are never sentimental, which makes the emotional contact they make all the more hard won. No writer alive in Norway interrogates the universe quite so deeply while also, still, making you feel something. 

Reading Solstad can feel not unlike going back in time to a point when modernism loomed nearer, which is not surprising. One of the central tenets of the

Profile group was that modernism had never entirely happened in Norway before, well, themselves. And poets and fiction writers and essayists, they both introduced both modernism and criticized it in one fell swoop, moving forward. They were big supporters of the poet Olav H. Hauge, whose elegant verse represented to them the possibility of modernism. He, too, writes in Nynorsk. 

Vold and Solstad have gone on to become the dominant writers of their time, and the seriousness of their approach—even if didn’t form a unified idea of Norwegian culture—led to a stronger generation behind them, including Jon Fosse, Jan Kjærstad, and Roy Jacobsen.

Fosse developed an entirely new kind of play in Norway—like Beckett or Pinter, but more abstract, filled with dialogue that had been stripped to silences and missed queues. Anyone still hoping for social realism will be deeply allergic to them, but in their best moments they conjure a liturgical mysteriousness and mysticism. 

He’s gone on to write novels—Trilogy won the Nordic Council Prize—and is now writing a seven-book series of slow prose, the Septology not unlike his student, Karl Ove Knausgård, who wrote about him in book four of My Struggle. Books one and two of the Septology were just published as one volume by Fitzcarraldo in English. Fosse is also a rare Christian believer within Norwegian literature, and has described his writing as a religious process. 

Kjærstad was also a theology student, and is best known for his novels about the TV personality Jonas Wergeland—The Seducer, The Discoverer and The Conqueror, the last of which won the Nordic Council Prize.

The nation has come a long way from the deprivations that sent a third of its population fleeing to America.

Roy Jacobsen has traveled one of the farthest journeys by way of class, having grown up in the working class community of Arvoll, and by way of the island of Donna, populated by just 1,200 souls, eventually winding up in one of the finest neighborhoods in Oslo. His short stories won the Tarjei Vesaas prize. One of his best known novels depicts the amazing class journey of one man and his family across 80 years, from agrarian life to today. His novel The Unseen, which takes place a tiny northern island and tells of a family’s life there, was a finalist for the International Man Booker in 2017. 

*

And now we’re zooming to today: shields left far behind, independence, nationalism, the romantic feelings and the consolidation of a language; World War II and its scars, and the creation of one of the most generous nation states, drawn out of idealism, Labor politics, and later expanded with the help of oil and natural gas that was discovered in the North Sea on the continental shelf in 1969. In 1990, Norway established the Government Pension Fund, known as the Oil Fund. Today it has over 1 trillion in assets—or around $190,000 per citizen. Four percent of the fund’s income per year can be withdrawn and used by the government. It is the largest sovereign wealth fund in the world. 

The nation has come a long way from the deprivations that sent a third of its population fleeing to America. In this time, very few of Norway’s best writers were translated. The people I haven’t mentioned include Kjell Askildsen, the minimalist short story writer, and Kjartan Fløgstad, who hails from Sauda and worked for a time as a sailor and industrial worker. He’s translated Neruda, won the Nordic Council Prize for

Dollar Road, and written numerous sweeping books that draw from the Latin American tradition. 

Herbjorg Wassmo emerged in this same period as Fløgstad, publishing numerous bestselling novels, including Dina’s Book, winner of the Nordic Prize and made into a movie with Gerard Depardieu.

Two of the novels of Lars Saabye Christensen have been translated, including The Beatles, a tale of four friends growing up in love with music, and The Half Brother, a brutal novel about a boy conceived through rape growing up as a boxer. The first in a planned trilogy called

Echoes of the City, it was published by MacLehose and in five other countries.

In the 1990s a number of Norwegian writers made debuts and burst into literary prominence, including Linn Ullmann, whose noir-like and deeply perceptive novels about family life culminated last year with The Unquiet, which won the National Critic’s Prize. Per Petterson, formerly a book clerk at Oslo’s Tronsmo Bookshop, took a lot of the world by storm with his elegant and mournful masterpiece, Out Stealing Horses, and this fall the English speaking world finally got to more of Vigdis Hjorth, who has been described as the Dorothy Parker of Norway. Her recent novel,

Wills and Testament, caused endless amounts of debate about the ethics of using real people in fiction. It is just out in the UK and US, where it was longlisted for the National Book Award for translated nonfiction. 

Writers who we haven’t seen much outside Norway include Hanne Ørstavik, whose beautiful, short and shard-like novel, Love, has finally been translated into English, as well as Italian and Spanish; Tomas Espedal, who moves seamlessly between fiction and a dreamy kind of psycho-geographist nonfiction, including Bergeners, a book that travels between New York and Berlin via memories of his hometown Bergen; and Merethe Lindstrom, whose

Days in the History of Silence, a novel about an elderly couple trying to unlock the silences of the past, won the Nordic Prize in 2012.

The most consistently published Norwegian writers outside some of the classics I mention are of course the mega-star crime writers Karin Fossum, Jo Nesbø, and Anne Holt. But not all bestselling Norwegian writers are crime writers. Knausgård’s My Struggle, his anti-Proustian exorcism of the past, supercharging the already ongoing conversation about truth in fiction, earned him some of the most rapturous reviews of any writer in years. On a smaller scale, Erland Loe’s

Naive Super was a kind of Nick Hornby moment for Norway, and more recently Maja Lunde, whose cli-fi novel History of Bees has been a phenomenon everywhere, followed it up with The End of the Ocean, coming in January 2020.

*

There are of course many writers beyond these I’ve mentioned here, and they are not just starting, some of them are four, five, six books into notable careers. The maximalist and eminently playful Johan Harstad has the comedic delivery of Stephen Wright and the linguistic dexterity and social novel ambition of David Foster Wallace; Trude Marstein has won the Vesaas Prize for her stories and is widely admired for her novels’ perception and poise; Ingvild Rishøi has written two children’s books and stories of peculiar and eerie power; Helga Flatland—not to be confused with Erika Fatland, a writer of tremendous nonfiction—also writes for children and was admired for her debut novel. 

Zeehan Shakar’s debut novel Our Street has been a big break through, selling over 100,000 copies since 2017 and winning the Tarjei Vesaas Debut Prize. Roskva Koritzinsky has written two collections of sparkling, Chekhovian stories that take the form forward from Askildsen. 

And I haven’t even gotten to nonfiction or poetry. Jan Grue’s I Live a Life Like Yours is the first nonfiction book ever to be nominated for the Nordic Council Award from Norway. It’s a subjective memoir/essay, formally inspired by Maggie Nelson’s

The Argonauts but unique in its deep-rooted existential, political, philosophical, and sociological takes on what it is like to be born with a disabled body. It is a really brilliant subjective essay with a strong personal voice. 

As for poetry, I also recommend checking out Inger Elisabeth Hansen, Tone Hødnebø, Niels Fredrik Dahl, Steinar Opstad, and Gro Dahle.

So there we have it: 12 centuries of this country’s noble but also very, very recent literary history, and why even, if it began on or with a shield, it cannot fit there today.

John Freeman
John Freeman
John Freeman is the editor of Freeman’s, a literary annual of new writing, and executive editor of Literary Hub. His books include How to Read a Novelist and Dictionary of the Undoing, as well as a trilogy of anthologies about inequality, including Tales of Two Americas, about inequity in the US at large, and Tales of Two Planets, which features storytellers from around the globe on the climate crisis. Maps, his debut collection of poems, was published in 2017, followed by The Park in 2020. His work has been translated into more than twenty languages and has appeared in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, and The New York Times. He is the former editor of Granta and teaches writing at NYU.





More Story
The Impossibility of Capturing Truth in a Biography Why does one write at all? After some 60 years spent in this pursuit, I still scarcely know. The first of my writings to be printed...