By Julie Hatfield
In preparing for a cruise along the coast of Norway last summer, I asked the cruise ship staff of the MS Nordlys, part of the venerable Hurtigruten shipping line, for a reading list. I didn’t remember any required reading of Norwegian writers in all my school days, so I didn’t expect much in the way of literary inspiration.
Of course I had heard of Henrik Ibsen, the playwright from Oslo, and Edvard Grieg, the musician from Bergen who put Ibsen’s “Peer Gynt” to music. But Knut Hamsun? Sigrid Undset? Per Petterson? Who were these unknowns?
Surprising to me, both Hamsun and Undset were Nobel laureates, and I began to read as much of their work as I could cram into the few months before my trip.
Norway, I discovered, is a country that produces great writing from its native sons and daughters, and in cruising up the entire coastline, from Bergen to the North Cape, I believe I discovered why the country has produced such wonderful literature.
Norway is Away. It is off the beaten path. Readers have time to read long, slow works of literature, and writers who live there have time to observe, reflect, muse, and ponder without much outside interruption. Intense loneliness pervades the countrypeople, especially along the coast and in the fjords. Each area is so divided by nearly impassable terrain that it has its own dialect, customs, costumes and idiosyncracies. Life here moves more slowly than much of the civilized world because life is, or was, a struggle. As beautiful as this country is, it is a harsh land; spectacularly beautiful, but difficult to traverse. This comes through all of the writers I read.
Henrik Ibsen, for example, who lived in Oslo, spent time in the village of Hellesylt at the head of the Geirangerfjord (considered by many to be the world’s most beautiful fjord). Almost every cruise ship that travels Norway makes a stop in this town, the oldest Viking port in Norway, so tourists can marvel at the mountain-engulfed lakes and the rough, stunning, untamed, lush land above the fjord. But on the way into Hellesylt, despite the gorgeous mountains and waterfalls spilling down from them, we notice very few homes perched along it. Traveling over the mountains to get to any sort of civilization, even in the 21st Century, is an effort.
Ibsen was so enthused about the scenery around Hellesylt that he used it as a backdrop for his play “Brand,” and he wrote “Brand” while staying there. Despite the glory of the surroundings, the severe environment seems to put a writer in a dark mood. Indeed, Hellesylt is the parish featured in the play, which ends when the main character falls out of favor with the village people and is driven from it. Due to his unfamiliarity with the area, he ends his days in the great snowdrift that covers the Steimsnibba mountains every year.
Of course Ibsen was also influenced by the fact that his father fell into financial ruin, and his writing reflects a gloom that came from a life of poverty—a mood that runs through many great Norwegian works of literature.
The scenery is so much a part of life in Norway that no writer could possibly ignore it; in fact, it plays a vital part in most Norwegian folk stories. Nobel Prize winner Knut Hamsun, who lived from 1859 to 1952, described the mountains in his country as “breathing from the granite vaults of their lungs.” When he saw the Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis), which dramatically light up the skies around the North Cape with a spectacular show of colors, he called them “a firmament of wings, a conflagration in the mansions of God.”
Vast amounts of oil were discovered in the waters off Norway in 1969, making the country one of the wealthiest in the world, and making each of its citizens in the socialistic milieu a beneficiary of that wealth. Norway has changed drastically from the hardscrabble days of poverty when most Norwegians had to make a living off the land or the sea. Crusing along, the few homes we saw along the fjords were either red or white. In the past, poor Norwegians painted their houses red by using a combination of animal blood and cod liver oil. Wealthy Norwegians who traveled to other European countries admired houses that were painted white, and those who could, painted their houses white, too.
Author Knut Hamsun’s life began as a struggle for survival, and his novel Hunger is a semi-autobiographical work describing a young writer’s descent into near-madness as a result of the hunger and poverty he experiences in Oslo.
The theme of Hamsun’s work is the perpetual wanderer, an itinerant stranger who shows up and insinuates himself into the life of small rural communities. His monumental story, Growth of the Soil is indeed about soil—and a man in the wilds ever so slowly eking out a living from the land and painstakingly building (with his own hands) a house that starts as a shack. It shows the Norwegian’s stern alliance between Man and Nature, and, in its molasses-pace, mimics the country’s slow pace of life—what some natives call “the neurasthenic North.” Hamsun’s work is determined by a deep aversion to civilization and the belief that man’s only fulfillment lies with the soil.
The slowest paced story I read is the 1400-page trilogy by Sigrid Undset, another Norwegian Nobel laureate for literature. Undset’s historical novel Kristin Lavansdatter, which is about a fictitious Norwegian girl of the Middle Ages, won her the prize in 1928 when she was 46. It traces three generations, from childhood to death, and is as ploddingly as life itself must have been for Undset, who lived in Trondheim, once Norway’s capital city. What makes it a prize winner is its detailed descriptions of Middle Aged Norwegian life and times, the people, the deep connection to religion in those times (for 1000 years, Norway’s state religion was Gospel-centric Evangelical Lutheranism), and what happens to someone who strays from her church and doesn’t follow the rules. Undset lived near the famous Nidaros Cathedral in Trondheim, which played an important part in the lives of Norwegians. The church dominates this town, and she may have felt its influence as she wrote about a woman whose morality did not follow the proscribed dictates of her church in a country that was 90 percent Lutheran. Were she still living, Undset would be interested to know that this all changed in May 2012 when state-sponsored religion was abolished. Interestingly, the royal family of Norway is still required to belong to the Evangelical Lutheran Church.
Nature cannot be ignored in Norway, we discovered as we cruised from the bottom to the top of the country always surrounded by the sea, the mountains, the fjords and the waterfalls. On a pleasant excursion in RIBS (rigid inflatable boats) near the town of Bode, just 40 miles from the Swedish border, we traveled to see one of the strongest fjord riptides on the planet. The air was pure and clean and filled with seemingly excessive oxygen, but it was clear we’re no match for the fjord’s power. In Norway, you can enjoy all this beauty, but you must respect it at all times.
Per Petterson’s Out Stealing Horses evokes the frozen immensity of fjord territory and the loneliness of life in the Norwegian countryside. The book—which won the 2007 Dublin IMPAC Award, one of the richest literary prizes in the world—was written in a genre called “landscape fictions”; in this case, the story is bleakly fixed in the iron-bound rocks of Norway. Out Stealing Horses alludes to atrocities of the Holocaust and heroic resistance to it by Norwegians during World War II. Another World War II book, We Die Alone, by David Howarth, depicts the true story of a Norwegian commando who escaped to Sweden and nearly froze to death in the process. Even when I was at the top of the world, at the North Cape, and even though it was August, it felt barren, cold and lonely.
The well-known writer Roald Dahl, whose parents were Norwegian, was enthralled by hags and witches probably inspired by the gremlins and goblins of Norwegian folklore depicted in wooden sculptures up and down the coast of Norway.
Norwegians have benefited from the discovery of the land’s oil, and each citizen receives a share of it as pension money, which means that most people in that country today own both a second home and a recreational boat. While the bleak and beautiful scenery remains the same, it will be interesting to see if in the future, their newfound economic comfort will change the way Norway’s native sons and daughters write their stories.