- Jostein Gaarder? Is he Norwegian? Yes, indeed. And he is not alone. Norwegian authors have stepped out onto the world literature stage.
Norway is famous for its writers, especially when it comes to drama. Henrik Ibsen (1828-1906) is often called the father of the modern drama, and his works revolutionised the development of dramatic technique in Europe and the USA. His plays remain popular today, and are said to be the second most performed in the world, after Shakespeare’s. Ibsen’s dramas offer social analysis and critique, and the masterful portrayal of existential and psychological conflict.
Norway has three Nobel laureates. Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1903, as “a tribute to his magnificent and versatile poetry” (1). Knut Hamsun received the Nobel Prize in 1920 for Growth of the Soil, and his earlier breakthrough novel Hunger remains one of the most important classics in Norwegian literature to date. Sigrid Undset was awarded the prize in 1928, for her compelling description of life in the Middle Ages. Her trilogy Kristin Lavransdatter has become an international classic, and her books have been translated into a large number of languages.
Modern Norwegian literature continues to receive a lot of attention abroad. Jon Fosse is the most frequently performed and most debated Norwegian dramatist after Henrik Ibsen, and has achieved great international recognition for his dramas which are characterised by a literary minimalism.
Norwegian contemporary literature has in the course of recent decades entered into a new golden age, and a number of fiction authors are making their mark internationally.
Erik Fosnes Hansen was one of the first Norwegian authors to make an international breakthrough. His novel Psalm at Journey’s End (1990), which tells the story of fictive ship musicians on the RMS Titanic, was an enormous success and has been on a victory lap around the world.
Per Petterson has been translated into 50 languages. Out Stealing Horses has received a number of prizes in Norway, and abroad. Petterson was the first Norwegian author ever to be awarded the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize and The International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, for precisely this novel.
Another well-established Norwegian author with a huge foreign readership is Herbjørg Wassmo. Wassmo has earned her position and popularity in Norway and abroad through her abilities as a powerful storyteller and her fondness for exposed and vulnerable characters. Her breakthrough came with her first novel about Tora, The House with the Blind Glass Windows (1981), followed by two volumes to create the Tora Trilogy. These books contribute to a Norwegian tradition of realism about the coming of age of an unusual and artistic child.
Linn Ullmann is one of the Norwegian authors who have sold the most abroad, with five publications translated into a total of 34 languages. Her novel The Cold Song was hugely successful when it was published in English in the USA in 2014, and was included on several prestigious lists of the best books of the year, including in The New York Times. In his review in The New Yorker, literature critic James Wood describes the book as “an excellent, formidable novel”, concluding that Ullmann herself “is a very exact writer, who is unsparing of her characters: a tonic, sharp, lyrical, intelligent novelist who deserves to be better-known in English”(2).
Anne B. Ragde has a large readership both in Norway and worldwide. She debuted in 1990, and has written close to 50 books for both children and adults. Her great international breakthrough came with her book Berlin Poplars (2004), which is the first book in a trilogy about the Neshov family. The trilogy was a sales success, and was subsequently adapted for the screen, reaching a large audience as a television series.
Norway’s most recent shining star in the fiction heavens is Karl Ove Knausgård. The publication of his series My Struggle I-VI created waves. Knausgård’s project is highly representative of one of the strongest trends in modern Norwegian literature: the dividing line between fantasy and reality, fiction and non-fiction is erased. Paul Binding wrote in the Times Literary Supplement that “Knausgård belongs to an identifiable Norwegian tradition – Ibsen, Knut Hamsun, Edvard Munch, Tarjei Vesaas, Per Petterson – in his ability to achieve the frank, unfettered concentration on naked personal experience”(3). With Knausgård’s success, Norwegian literature has secured its position as a visible and prominent force in the literary landscape and Norwegian authors are considered an important part of world literature.
The world’s first crime fiction novel is probably the Norwegian The Murder of Engine Maker Roolfsen, written by Mauritz Hansen in 1839-40, the year before Edgar Allan Poe wrote Murder in the Rue Morgue. Now, some 175 years later, Norwegian crime fiction is conquering the world!
Norwegian crime fiction has a long standing tradition of high quality. Among Norway’s foremost crime classics, André Bjerke’s psychoanalytical crime novel The Lake of the Dead from 1942 stands out (written under the pseudonym Bernhard Borge), as does Gerd Nyquist’s The Deceased did not want Flowers (1960).
Modern Norwegian crime fiction is to a large extent inspired by the Swedish author-duo Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, who from 1965 to 1975 wrote ten novels about the police investigator Martin Beck. Typical for this type of crime literature is a socially critical perspective.
There are a number of strong contemporary authors writing within the crime fiction genre of Norwegian literature. Gunnar Staalesen has achieved great international recognition for his crime fiction novels about the private investigator Varg Veum – a Raymond Chandler-inspired hero with a social democratic heart.
Another internationally recognised crime fiction author is Karin Fossum, who writes literary, psychological crime fiction, with detective Konrad Sejer as the protagonist. Ten books have been published in the series so far, and her work has been translated into a number of languages.
Anne Holt has won huge international success with her two series, one a realistic police novel series about the dysfunctional, lesbian police officer Hanne Wilhelmsen, and the other about the happy couple Vik and Stubø. Holt’s books have reached a big audience worldwide.
Norway’s hands down, best selling author worldwide is Jo Nesbø, who has become world famous for his crime fiction novels about the anti-hero police inspector Harry Hole. His novels have been translated into no less than 50 languages. He has been praised for having expanded the genre through his strong, literary qualities, his psychological insight and his depictions of life in a modern, globalised world.
Other authors who have had great success with police crime fiction are Jørn Lier Horst and Unni Lindell. Horst’s books excel through the extreme realism of both the plots and the descriptions of police work – not surprisingly, since he has a background as a policeman. Lindell also puts a strong emphasis on realism in her successful books about the policeman Cato Isaksen.
Norwegian crime fiction literature is characterised by its large breadth. Author and journalist Tom Egeland is best known for his books about the archaeologist Bjørn Beltø, the main character in a series of action and adventure oriented books that often have a story connected to mysteries from the past. Egeland is often compared to the American author Dan Brown.
Non-fiction genres have for centuries been an expression of identity and mindset in Norway.
The first Norwegian non-fiction authors to become known abroad were explorers and adventurers. Fridtjof Nansen (1861-1930) and Roald Amundsen (1872-1928) are still remembered for their incredible polar expeditions. The written accounts of their adventures and expeditions remain popular to this day.
Thor Heyerdahl followed in the footsteps of this tradition. He became world-famous when in 1947 he led the revolutionary and bold Kon-Tiki expedition, sailing a raft across the Pacific Ocean. The fantastic story of the journey, The Kon-Tiki Expedition (1948), became one of the 20th century’s great international best-sellers and has been translated into more than 70 languages. Today another generation of adventure-loving authors have taken the helm, among them Cecilie Skog, Børge Ousland, Erling Kagge and Liv Arnestad.
However, not all Norwegian non-fiction authors are explorers and adventurers. Philosopher and author Arne Næss is known as the founder of the philosophical school of deep ecology. He was one of the important minds of the environmental movement from the 1970s and onward.
Another Norwegian author whose work has been translated into many languages is the criminologist Nils Christie, who has written about prison, conflict and crime control. Nils Christie is part of a long standing Norwegian tradition of communicating complex subject matter to a general public in comprehensible language.
Author and social anthropologist Thomas Hylland Eriksen is a part of the same tradition. His works include both academic textbooks and books for the general public.
Another non-fiction author with a solid position in this tradition is the philosopher Lars Fredrik H. Svendsen. He is a professor at the University of Bergen, and has published a number of books about philosophy, all of which are characterised by an outstanding narrative voice. His breakthrough work was A Philosophy of Boredom (1999).
Today Norwegian non-fiction is characterised first and foremost by a breadth and variation in genres and themes. The books that are sold abroad can be about everything from philosophy and psychology, to knitting and handicrafts.
Of particular interest is the emergence of strong literary voices within journalistic and documentary books. In recent years, it is Åsne Seierstad who has reached the most readers in Norway and worldwide. Her documentary book The Bookseller of Kabul (2002) remained on the New York Times’ bestseller list for 40 weeks, and has been sold to 38 languages.
The social anthropologist Erika Fatland is another Norwegian author who has travelled out into the world. Her first non-fiction publication was the book City of Angels, a gripping documentary about the Beslan school hostage crisis in 2004. In 2012 the book The Year without a Summer was published, about the 22 July tragedy in Norway. She is now current again with the book Sovietistan: A Journey through Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan (2014). Here she takes the reader along on a journey to countries that few have visited – that now have greater current relevance than ever before.
An interesting tendency in Norwegian non-fiction is that of compelling personal stories, a parallel to the trend of autobiographic novels. An example here is the author Arnhild Lauveng. She writes with exceptional intensity about psychological illness in her autobiography A Road Back from Schizophrenia: A Memoir (2006). In the course of a ten-year period she was admitted to a psychiatric ward several times with the diagnosis of schizophrenia. Today Lauveng works as a psychologist. In this book the reader is taken on a journey into a world of voices and hallucinations, and given unique insight into Lauveng’s struggle to overcome this illness. This is powerful reading, about a victory few would have believed possible.
Nature has experienced a renaissance in Norwegian film, literature, visual arts and journalism, something which finds expression in a wave of books about nature and life in the outdoors. The books encompass a range of genres and perspectives on the relation between human beings and nature. Some write in an extension of the adventurer tradition in Norway, such as Lars Monsen, a Sámi-Norwegian adventurer and journalist, famous for his explorations and expeditions into the harsh wilderness. Others write about nature’s cultural history, such as Henrik Svensen who in the book Captivated (2011) writes about the mountains’ history and our fascination with great heights.
But it is not solely nature that captivates. Many wish to return to the roots of a simpler time and learn how to make things by hand, such as by knitting and crocheting. Norwegian hobby books are a large export item and some books sell by the tens of thousands, both in Norway and abroad. Among the most well-known authors are Arne & Carlos, who knit everything from clothing to toys to Christmas tree decorations.
A book that combines the “do-it-yourself” approach with the strong sense for nature is Solid Wood (2011) by Lars Mytting, a book about wood chopping. The book was a bestseller both in Norway and in Germany.
Norwegian children’s literature is diverse, and characterised by imagination, independence and autonomy.
The first Norwegian books for children were written in the late 18th century.
Norwegian children’s literature entered a golden age in the post-war period. Thorbjørn Egner, Anne Cath. Vestly and Alf Prøysen wrote books for children that are monoliths in Norwegian children’s literature to this day. The books When the Robbers Came to Cardamom Town (1955), the novels about Twigson (1962) and Mrs. Pepperpot (from 1957) are traditional stories for children, where the child’s security is of a central importance, while it remains clear that the little ones are also capable for accomplishing great feats.
During the last few decades Norwegian children’s literature has been flourishing as never before. In 2013, 401 new Norwegian books for children and young people were published, and more authors are being translated into different languages than ever before.
Best known among internationally renowned Norwegian authors of books for children and young adults is Jostein Gaarder. His novel Sophie’s World (1992) was the most sold fiction title in the world in 1995. The novel has been translated into 60 different languages, and has sold over 40 million copies worldwide. With the success of Sophie’s World, Norwegian literature made its international breakthrough.
Since the turn of the new millennium, Maria Parr has taken both Norway and the world by storm with her two books Waffle Hearts (2005) and Tonje Glimmerdal (2009). What these books share is a large portion of humour, main characters who are children with a lot of gumption, serious themes and not least, stable adult characters. Parr is often compared to the Swedes’ Astrid Lindgren.
Another Norwegian author who has had great success with novels for children is the world-famous crime fiction author Jo Nesbø, with his books about Doctor Proctor, Lise and Bulle.
With the recently established prize for children and young people’s literature, the Nordic Council aspires to promote literature for children and young people in the Nordic region. In 2014, the prize went to the duo Håkon Øvreås and Øyvind Torseter for Brown (2013). By day, Rune is an ordinary boy, but by night Rune becomes a super hero who is not afraid of anything. Armed with a brush and brown paint, he sneaks out and paints the bicycles of the older boys, who have been bullying him. Brown is a book about friendship, courage and standing up for oneself.
Øyvind Torseter, who has illustrated Brown, is an important figure in the field of Norwegian picture books. The picture book genre is undergoing continuous development and Torseter is responsible for a number of prize-winning picture book publications. The most recent release was The Hole (2012). For the book Detours (2007) in 2008 he was awarded the prestigious Bologna Ragazzi prize in the category of fiction.
The previous year another significant Norwegian picture book artist won this prize, none other than Stian Hole, for his book Garmann’s Summer (2006). A patent feature of Hole’s books is a gripping poetic lightness that communicates life’s big questions with a profound creativity. He is responsible for critically acclaimed publications such as The Old Man and the Whale (2005), the series about Garmann (2006-2010), Anna’s Heaven (2013), and in 2015 is making headlines again with the book Morkel’s Alphabet.
Among young and recently established picture book artists one can also highlight successes abroad, such as Åshild Kanstad Johnsen’s series about the character Block. So far three books (and one e-book) have been published about Block – the little block of wood with his many projects. Kanstad Johnsen succeeds through her good natured and detailed drawings in making Norwegian pine forests and school marching bands seem universal. The Block character has attracted broad international attention, also in Japan, where both animation series and countless spin-off products based on the books have been made.
Young adult novels is a genre attracting increased interest from abroad, particularly after Gaarder’s success with Sophie’s World. The author Nina E. Grøntvedt has written bestsellers such as Hey, it’s me! (2010) and Absolutely Unkissed (2012). These are memoirs written and illustrated by 11 year old Oda.
Another young people’s book for readers who are a bit older and that has been sold in many languages is Johan Harstad’s horror tale Darlah: 172 Hours on the Moon (2008). This is a chilling sci-fi tale about three ordinary teens who win a trip to spend 172 hours on the moon. The question soon turns out to be: will they make it back alive? Darlah was in the autumn of 2014 named the best Norwegian book for young people of all time by a professional jury of experts in one of Norway’s largest newspapers.
Crime fiction and thrillers for children is also a popular genre, and Bjørn Sortland has had success with books in this genre.
Literature for children and young people has a high status in Norway and many established authors who write novels, also write for children. This has led to a broad range of books of a high literary quality, and ensures young readers access to many forms of expression in different genres. This is a reflection of the huge breadth found in Norwegian literature, for readers both young and old.
DID YOU KNOW THAT…?
The Norwegian Purchasing Scheme (Innkjøpsordningen)
The Norwegian purchasing scheme is a state funding programme for Norwegian book publications. The scheme is administrated by Arts Council Norway, which purchases new books and distributes them to Norwegian public libraries, school libraries and to some educational institutions, Seamen’s Churches and libraries abroad. The intention of the scheme is to safeguard the publication of new Norwegian books, to secure public access to the books, thereby making it possible for all readers to learn about contemporary literature, and not least, to ensure better revenues for authors (4). This scheme contributes to Norway having an exceptionally rich book flora, characterised by high quality and breadth.
The National Library – digitalisation of books
The National Library of Norway is working on a digitalisation project that is unique in a global context. Everything published in different media is delivered to the National Library and digitalised. The collection is further expanded through acquisitions and donations. The digital collection contains materials from the Middle Ages up to the present day. The material is digitalised for storage and some materials are made available to the public. The digitalisation programme started in 2006, and it is anticipated that it will be 20–30 years before the entire collection is available in digital format (5).
A reading nation
An entire 93% of the Norwegian population reads books other than school books and syllabus literature. The average Norwegian reads 17 books a year. 6 out of 10 Norwegians read up to 10 books a year, while 4 out of 10 read more than 10 books a year. The percentage of the population who read more than 10 books a year is at a solid 40% (6).
The Norwegian “Brothers Grimm”
Asbjørnsen and Moe’s Norwegian Folktales, published as booklets in the late 1840s, have been translated into several languages. Like the German Brothers Grimm, Asbjørnsen & Moe travelled throughout the countryside collecting folktales and folklore for publication. These folktales have become an important part of the Norwegian cultural heritage.
The largest literature festival in the Nordic countries
The Norwegian Festival of Literature is the largest literature festival in the Nordic region based on non-commercial values. Its main focus is Norwegian contemporary literature and the interaction between literature and society. In the past few years it has had an increasingly international profile.
The festival takes place every year in Lillehammer at the end of May/start of June (7)
Crime fiction for Easter
Reading crime and detective novels during Easter is a national custom in Norway. TV and radio stations produce crime series just for Easter and publishers release series of books known as “Easter thrillers” or påskekrim for the Easter holiday season.
It is believed that the tradition of påskekrim began with an ad-stunt on the part of Gyldendal’s publisher Harald Grieg during the Easter of 1923. The advert, printed like a regular news article, appeared on the front page of a Norwegian daily under the headline “Bergen train looted in the night”. The text was actually an advert for a new crime fiction book written by Nordahl Grieg and Nils Lie. The book was a success and it was clear that people liked the idea of crime fiction for Easter. The following year, the publishing house Aschehoug began to focus on crime fiction during Easter time. Since then, Easter has been incorporated as the peak season for the crime fiction genre (8).
NORLA (Norwegian Literature Abroad) is the author of this article. Please consult NORLA’s website for information about its funding schemes (http://norla.no/en/subsidies http://norla.no/en/pages).