Trends in contemporary
Norwegian literature

By Janneken Øverland



-The eternal life
  of the narrative

-And there is!


Ole from Norway had lived in New York so long that he had to have an American driving licence. He found himself a driving instructor and learned all the rather complicated rules for driving in Manhattan. The driving instructor found teaching this exotic foreign pupil exciting but kept forgetting that Ole had actually had a licence for twenty years in another country, and he usually forgot which country it was. Every driving lesson began with the same question: "Do they have cars in Sweden, Ole?"

Of course Norway is a small country, and perhaps it is a miracle that we have both cars and books. In contrast with Sweden we shall never export cars, but we do actually send many books abroad each year because somebody wants to translate them into a foreign language. The exciting thing is that it is no longer only Ibsen and Hamsun who are translated, but also many younger contemporary authors.

What is more, Norwegian children's writers like Jostein Gaarder, Tormod Haugen and Torill Thorstad Hauger are successful more or less all over the world. Jostein Gaarder's Sofies verden ( Sophie's World, 1991), an introduction to the history of philosophy for young people, has achieved a success unparalleled in modern times.

Interest in contemporary Norwegian literature has been growing in the last decade. This may have to do with the fact that the 1980s have been called everything from the decade of openness and the decade of chaos to the decade of imagination in Norwegian literature. All these descriptions, in the best sense, are indications that our literature is restless and alive, although it may be more talented than perfect. Compared with the foregoing decades, it is more correct to say that Norwegian literature is on its way towards something than that it has finally settled down.

It is also true to say that while Norwegian literature has a highly respected past, from the point of view of the mid-1990s our literature and authors also appear to have a promising future.

In recent years there has been some very practical evidence that the past, and the authors of the past, are still with us, in the form of a series of biographies by contemporary writers: Kjartan Fløgstad has written on the poet and the man Claes Gill (1910-73) in Portrett av eit magisk liv (1988) (Portrait of a Magic Life), Espen Haavardsholm has published a portrait of Aksel Sandemose (1899-1965), Mannen fra Jante (1988) (The Man from Jante) and Klaus Hagerup has written about his mother, poet Inger Hagerup (1905-85) in Alt er så nær meg (1988) (Everything is so close to me). We have subsequently seen biographies of Nordahl Grieg, Arne and Hulda Garborg, Amalie Skram and Sigrid Undset, and books about Tarjei Vesaas, Camilla Collett and Cora Sandel are due to be published soon.

The intense interest aroused by these biographies, both in writing circles and among the general public, says something about readers' concern for the past.

However, considerable attention is paid to the most recent literature too, both by the media and by the general public.

Although it is more or less impossible to see contemporary literature clearly from the perspective of the present, some patterns are emerging in the immediate landscape. And it is, after all, rather promising that the view is both colourful and varied.

Literature in the 1990s naturally has its origins in the whole of Norwegian literary history, but it is perhaps particularly clearly influenced by literature from the previous two decades.

Some people would say that there was a sharp break in Norwegian literature between the "dogmatic, political, radical" literature of the 1970s and the far more varied, but less striking, literature of the 1980s.

Others would say that there was no break but a natural development and continuation of what was most viable in Norwegian literature from one decade to the next.

Whatever the case, it is a minor paradox that both the literary scene and the annual book harvests in the 1990s are to a large extent still dominated by authors who were active in the 1970s and the 1980s.

Literary historians often look for breaks with tradition in the form of new trends or new ten-year lines, or they look for new generations, new philosophies that may affect groups of new authors. Almost as assiduously as journalists, they search for "cases", concepts or factors that they can use to separate one period from another. Sometimes they search in vain.

Prior to the 1980s, one influential Norwegian publisher stated that the coming decade would return to "the sea, death and love". At the time it might have seemed like a final farewell to the so-called "militant" seventies. It was at least an expression that sounded good and was sufficiently superficial to be used as a label. To be sure the 1980s, far more than the 1970s, allowed room for descriptions of love and death and other human situations, but the decade was not characterised by these concepts alone.

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The new popularity of poetry

Poetry, for example, moved on and developed in the modernistic style that emerged during the first decades after the war. Although a relatively large number of poetry collections appeared each year, partly due to the admirable government purchasing scheme for new Norwegian literature, for a long time only a few reached the general public.

Old masters, such as Olav H. Hauge (1908-94) did it with the new Dikt i samling (Collected Poems). Rolf Jacobsen (1907-94), one of Norway's first modernists between the wars, did it with the collection Nattåpent (1985) (Night Open, 1994). The poems written to the woman in his life after her death made a strong impression on readers of all generations. Both Hauge and Jacobsen managed to more or less become living "prophets" in their own country, and few achieve those heights. Paal-Helge Haugen belongs to the younger generation of poets that are both read and honoured. Jan Erik Vold's poetry, both the more lyrical and the more politically involved, reached mass audiences several times in the 1980s.

These few, and a few others, achieved the status awarded to poets of earlier generations. Lars Saabye-Christensen did it, both with individual collections and with the anthology Hvor er det blitt av alle gutta (1991) (What has become of all the lads?), and with other poems that were subsequently set to music. Just as Arild Nyquist did. Both of them - and Jan Erik Vold - are multimedia artists. All three have contributed towards a new, exciting trend in the Norwegian public's relationship with poetry: people turn up in droves when the authors read their poems. And new poets are emerging too: in 1993, young Bertrand Besigye made his début with the collection Og du dør så langsomt at du tror du lever (And you die so slowly that you think you are alive), which are poems in the oral tradition, a tradition that connects this young novice with a Jan Erik Vold, an Allen Ginsberg. Cathrine Grøndahl's collection Riv ruskende rytmer (1994) (Crazy Rhythms) have this new, rhythmic energy, and all the poems are borne aloft by the voice of a new generation.


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A few veterans

The 1970s were not a uniform period, any more than the 1980s were. In addition to the dominant realistic trend, we saw traditional psychological realism, experimental forms and more clearly modernistic writing styles.

The 1980s were a continuation of all this and a distillation of some clearer, new characteristics.

In the 1970s, authors such as Knut Faldbakken, Karsten Alnæs and Ketil Bjørnstad wrote modern psychological novels that addressed and discussed contemporary conflicts. They all continued to improve and modernise their style and language within more or less the same genre in the 1980s.

In the same way, women writers like Bjørg Vik and Gerd Brantenberg continued to produce realistic, psychologically credible descriptions of women and society.

Bjørg Vik, a highly popular author, wrote new short stories that contained less rebellion than before but far more understanding of humanity, and three novels about the childhood and adolescence of the Oslo girl Elsie Lund. In this case, she reached into the apron pocket of reminiscence and developed former short story themes into complete novels. Gerd Brantenberg has at least one clear message; the right of homosexuals to be loved and respected, a theme she has pursued since the satirical best-selling novel Egalias døtre (1977) (Egalia's daughters, 1985). More literary, rabulistic, modernist authors like Cecilie Løveid and Kjartan Fløgstad carried on their social criticism and modernistic projects. In both the latter cases, it is far more fruitful to seek connections and trends through three decades than to look for breaks with the past.

Cecilie Løveid is one of very few Norwegian authors to have chosen to write drama. But she has been compared with Botho Strauss and her plays have aroused attention abroad and been performed in Europe and the USA. The radio play Måkespisere (1984) (Seagull Eaters, 1989) won the Prix Italia. In 1994, the Norwegian National Theatre produced Maria Q, where the documentary foundation and the poetic design of the story of Quisling's wife, Maria, aroused much debate. The play is both a revised version of historical events and a supplement to them.

Kjartan Fløgstad made his poetic début in the 1960s and wrote social criticism in the 1970s, but was never a social realist. The special characteristics of his prose style are his joy in playing with words, finding the double meanings and playing on language to such an extent that the game becomes part of the action itself. In Det 7. klima (1986) (The 7th. climate), he wrote a fictitious biography of the writer Salim Mahmood and periods of his life in Norway, Ultima Thule. Here, a series of real and nearly-real historical characters appear as almost recognisable figures. The book is a satire on Norway and the world of the Norwegian media in particular and revels in biting descriptions and poking fun at people and customs. For a long time, Fløgstad had a critical project of writing a book that contravened popular taste. With this book he more or less achieved it, and aroused considerable debate. But in Norway a book like this is published by the biggest book club! In the same way as in his earlier books, including the prize-winning Dalen Portland (1977) (Dollar Road, 1989), in this case he also juggled with descriptions of the Norwegian way of life and Norwegian social democratic man. His two most recent books, Kniven på strupen (1991) (Knife at my throat) and Fimbul (1994) borrow the structures of crime novels and thrillers for the same purpose.

Many of the authors who were most active in the 1970s wrote their best books in the 80s and 90s. This may be interpreted as a sign that, at least for most of us, it takes several books and several years - perhaps even several decades - to become a good writer.

Dag Solstad was a controversial, respected author in the 1970s. He was also one of the most discussed authors of the 1980s. Since he also received the Nordic Council Prize for Literature for Roman 1987 (Novel 1987) in 1989 it must only be a question of time before foreign publishers become aware of his special talent. With Genanse og verdighet (1994) (Shyness and dignity), he showed that he is the best author in Norway at describing the contemporary consciousness. No-one is as good as he at providing razor-sharp images of the intellectual's feeling of being outside events. For his main characters - a cashier or a school teacher - society becomes increasingly superficial and increasingly incomprehensible. His stories of melancholy middle-aged men contain elements of everyday tragedy. At the same time, his books are full of devious humour that releases and liberates.


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Crime and literature

The question of whether a period affects authors or some authors affect a period is debatable. From about 1980 onwards, a large number of younger authors have been experimenting with adaptations of the criminal genre. The 1990s seem to really be the decade of female crime writers.

Perhaps this is more important than we realise today. Perhaps it will colour our opinions of the 80s and 90s. The political crime novel was introduced around the mid-70s by Jon Michelet and others. Michelet's hero, the Oslo cop Vilhelm Thygesen who gradually became a private investigator and anti-hero, took up the fight against the worst excesses of political and economic crime. Kjartan Fløgstad's two crime novels from the 70s also found their inspiration in American detective fiction. And Gunnar Staalesen allows his private detective from Bergen, Varg Veum, to be rather more sentimental than his American counterparts as he drinks aquavit instead of whisky and waits for new clients in the pouring Bergen rain.

During the 1980s, crime literature began to be accepted by the more exclusive literary circles and the serious book clubs. Several younger authors established themselves as both crime writers and authors of "ordinary" novels. They include Ingvar Ambjørnsen, Lars Saabye Christensen and Roy Jacobsen. There are clear similarities between the crime novels of these authors and several of Jan Kjærstad's Oslo books, e.g. Homo Falsus (1984) and Rand (1990).

The only woman to join this company was Kim Småge, who made her debut in 1993 with Nattdykk (Night dive) and a consciously feminist angle on content and style. Only in the 1990s have women followed along in full force. Now, however, we see several women authors (Anne Holt, Kjersti Scheen) expertly utilising a phenomenon that has become highly modern in foreign crime writing; a female investigator heroine.

It has been said that recent Norwegian crime novels can be read as "modern regional literature" because they are so localised, particularly to the large cities of Oslo, Bergen and Trondheim. Local colour helps to make this imported genre so very, very Norwegian. And the actual economic conditions of the 80s provide a basis for credible, highly dramatic intrigues. All the same, it is clear that most authors are trying to include a more ambitious literary project within this "borrowed" context. In the ongoing discussion of modernist or traditional genres, the crime novel has provided a breathing space.

So far in the 1990s, this trend appears to be strengthening; crime writing is receiving more attention, not least because serious authors are using the genre as a formula, whether they are addressing it seriously or, like Torgeir Schjerven in the much-praised Omvei til Venus (1994) (Diversion to Venus), are indulging in poking fun and pastiche à la Paul Auster and Twin Peaks.

On the other hand, it is surprising how many writers, particularly women, have moved away from the traditional Norwegian epic, realistic, psychological novel and turned towards the more fantastic and non-realistic.


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Fantasy and literature

For two literary trends in the 1980s are clear: firstly, the imaginative narrative has more spacious conditions and more contributors and, secondly, far more authors are what we might call "language conscious".

To name a couple of the imaginative type, we might mention Tor Åge Bringsværd and Mari Osmundsen.

Many others come to mind - a veteran like Arild Nyquist or one of the writers who established themselves in the 1980s like Ragnar Hovland. The latter conjures up the most surrealistic events in both West Norwegian and international contexts, as in Professor Moreaus løyndom (1985) (Professor Moreau's secret) or, for older children, the prize-winning Ein motorsykkel i natta (1992) (A motorbike in the night).

We might also mention a fairly new name like Lisbet Hiide. With the books Alices særegne opplevelse av natt (1985) (Alice's strange experience of night) and Dame med nebb (1988) (Lady with beak), she takes yet another step in the direction of putting words to fantasies and dreams, in her most recent book in the form of grotesque fairy tale figures where the female characters in particular have the bodies of birds and bizarre needs. Or I might mention Marianne Fastvold. The short stories in Dame i svev (1991) (Lady in orbit) are both cheeky and clinging, some of them both sensual and modern. In the novel Død som en dronte (1994) (Dead as a dodo), she follows up with an equally non-realistic story of a luscious woman who, in a life crisis and lacking money, settles in a modern supermarket and lives on borrowed time and dud credit cards.

Tor Åge Bringsværd is a master of this type of imaginative narrative. Since his debut in 1967, he has unbelievably produced more than 70 books. He really reached a large public with the four novels in the Gobi series: Barndommens måne (1985) (Gobi. Childhood's moon, 1990) about the children's crusades, Djengis Khan (1987) (Gengis Khan) about the Mongolian conqueror and Djevelens skinn og ben (1989) (Skin and bone of the Devil), which is a mixture of the European Middle Ages, Nordic mythology and the Arabian Nights. The last book in the series is Min prins (1994) (My Prince).

These books are in every sense fabulous literature for adults, related to the classical myths, the classical epics, stories from the migrations, European and Arabic fairy tales. It is tempting to say that Bringsværd is typical of a large number of new authors when he simply tells stories, not necessarily from A to Z and not necessarily a story. But the basic idea of the books, and the thing that sometimes keeps the main character alive, is the fact that the stories are worth telling. Bringsværd uses the novel to ask questions about life, love and mortality, and his style is a new creation in more recent Norwegian literature, at the same time imaginative and informed. Bringsværd is also a kind of amateur literary researcher and has written some very original, aesthetic-philosophical books about A. A. Milne's Winnie the Pooh. They led to a renaissance for the authentic Winnie the Pooh stories, which were finally published in Norwegian in 1993, an event similar to the original translations of James Joyce and Franz Kafka in 1994.

Mari Osmundsen describes what we might call "everyday superstition". In her writing we suddenly find supernatural elements side by side with sharp, angry accounts of abuse, repression and violence against women. Her achievement through this mixture of elements is to cast light on the underlying forces that make us do what we do. In the exotic collection of short stories Drageegget (1986) (The Dragon's Egg), she uses the basic elements of the imaginative tale, starts from scratch and creates a whole new universe with a country called Ulmaria, a river called Cletra and a town called Durior. Into this landscape wander a camel and a person - and then the whole thing begins.


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Language-conscious literature

Other authors move in other directions in their break with realism.

Jan Kjærstad made his debut with the collection of short stories Kloden dreier stille rundt (1979) (The globe revolves silently). In many ways, he has to be a prototype of the 1980s author - the knowledgeable man, turning to new media, language-conscious.

In his case too, we see the desire to give an overall presentation of the "Norwegian" and of ways of life and customs. In the novels Speil (1982) (Mirror) and Det store eventyret (1987) (The great adventure), there are signs of this total vision of both our entire century and the European life style. Fløgstad and Kjærstad have both written kaleidoscopic novels that break with realistic conventions. In Det store eventyret, Kjærstad nevertheless makes a concession to the necessity of telling a story. The novel includes the love story between Peter Beauvoir, a famous Norwegian author, and the beautiful TV star Shoshana, and this story is again woven into a long serious of stories reminiscent of the Arabian Nights. The story of Norway as a country is turned on its head. Norway is a tropical island and the majority of Norwegians are black... From this mixture of fairy tale and contortion arises an unbelievable story that stirs the imagination. Kjærstad's most recent book, Forføreren (1993) (The Seducer) has something of the same. In this case, the media perspective is conserved through the hero and TV star Jonas Wergeland, and all the fantastic stories are set in a global framework.

Jon Fosse, who is from Western Norway, comes so close to reality and everyday life in his novels that he creates a kind of super-realism. In musical, insistent language, he copies the repetitive, insistent functions of the human consciousness. In Bly og vatn (1992) (Lead and Water), the word pair "tenkjer han" (he thinks) turns up more than ten times on each page! Kjell Akildsen and Øystein Lønn have each developed a sober, almost minimalist short story style. Askildsen's old men are described with black humour and absolute seriousness, for example in En plutselig frigjørende tanke (1989) (A sudden liberating thought, 1994) and Et stort øde landskap (1991) (A big deserted landscape). Øystein Lønn received the Nordic Council Prize for Literature for the short stories in Thranes metode (1993) (Thrane's Method).

Of the younger women writers, it may be worth looking out for Vigdis Hjorth, who writes for both children and adults and has already had several works published by the book clubs. In Fransk åpning (1992) (French opening), which provoked so many people for both moral and ethical reasons, lies an intentional desire to say something about the lack of contact between men and women and about sexuality gone wrong.

Or we might stop for a moment to consider Sissel Lie, academically trained and French inspired. Her last two books, Reise gjennom brent sukker (1992) (Journey through burnt sugar) and Rød svane (1994) (Red Swan) are modernistic but at the same time very poetic novels, inspired by fairy tale and myth, where the method of narration is just as important as the story itself. The author manages to make some headway in the difficult area that, for the lack of a more original expression, must be called "the difference between women and men".

Several young authors could be mentioned here because they consciously test the limits of narration and language: Tor Ulven, Karin More, Øyvind Haanes, Gro Dahle. Perhaps some of them will achieve a breakthrough in the near future, perhaps not.


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The eternal life of the narrative

Books by Fløgstad and Kjærstad, Fosse and Lie and a long list of other younger, knowledgeable authors hold out the promise that Norway is in the process of developing a literary tradition that is not characterised by psychological realism.

On the other hand, during the 1980s several established authors have moved away from the more experimental to the broadly epic with considerable success.

An author like Herbjørg Wassmo made her debut with talented poetry in the 1970s but has later made the novel her main genre.

Liv Køltzow, modernistic short story writer, argumentative feminist and nuanced psychological novelist in novels and short stories written in the 1980s, has created her own niche with the relatively few books she has published.

With Den unge Amalie Skram (1992) (The young Amalie Skram), she made her contribution to the renaissance of this important Norwegian naturalist author and reached a large, grateful audience.

The 1970s had their Year of the Woman and their loud, feminist propaganda, and many women authors who added their names to literary history. But the 80s and 90s have become decades of the woman to a far greater extent.

Herbjørg Wassmo has become one of the most read, most liked authors in Norway. She has won prizes and been translated into many languages. The trilogy about Tora, the daughter of a German soldier in the occupying forces, Huset med den blinde glassveranda (1981) (The house with the blind glass windows, 1987), Det stumme rommet (1983) (The dumb room) and Hudløs himmel (1986) (Naked heaven) combine an old-fashioned, solid narrative talent with psychological insight, particularly into the woman's mind. Tora is a step-child of society who has to suffer because those around her have no compassion. Dinas bok (1989) (Dina's book, 1994) and Lykkens sønn (1992) (Son of Joy) are quite different from the Tora books, although they are also about damaged children. Here, however, Wassmo extends the perspective, also in her sources of inspiration: Homer and the Bible, sagas and dynastic novels, historical novels, not least Camilla Collet's Amtmandens døtre (1854) (The District Governor's Daughters, 1992), the very first modern Norwegian novel. She has also used techniques from modern entertainment literature, serial techniques, melodramatic elements, perhaps even elements from soap operas.

Apart from this, there is a broad current of capable narrators, from the younger ones like Erik Fosnes Hansen and Roy Jacobsen to the older ones like Ebba Haslund and Finn Carling.

I therefore uphold my view that the prospects for Norwegian literature in the 90s are promising, and that part of the promise lies in the fact that it is not easy to fit either authors or books into a short formula. It is exciting when, in a number of younger authors who have so far written only a few books, we can discern the outlines of a narrative tradition that is not only based on exploratory Norwegian psychological realism.

Even though I believe it is just as important for some people to continue to use it, and that the genre is by no means "used up".

I believe the unrest in Norwegian literature moves between these two levels: a kind of creative order ("realism") and a kind of creative chaos ("fantasy"). This unrest cannot be formulated only as a choice of literary form. It is also a more existential question. Can the world be understood, in the cruel 1990s? If so, can it be described? What would literature that is best able to capture the world as it was and is be like? What would literature that may change the world and give us new insights be like? On the basis of the wide-open literary situation today, I have the highest hopes. "While there's writing, there's hope," says Jan Kjærstad's black Norwegian in the novel Det siste eventyret (The last adventure).


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And there is!

We must also remember that the modern Norwegian novel is no more than a hundred and fifty years old. Norwegian literature has upheld its Norwegianness through all these years - for good and ill. At the same time, Norway has certainly become a different country than it was a hundred and fifty years ago.

Perhaps we should be pleased about that. Due to the special characteristics of most Norwegian novels, only a few of them are translated into foreign languages. On the other hand, perhaps these special characteristics are the reason why the very best books are so popular in translation.

The author of this article, Janneken Øverland,
was previous Editor-in-Chief at the book club Bokklubben Dagens Bok, Oslo.
She is now working at Gyldendal.

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