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Posts Tagged ‘Norway’

The Law of Jante

February 11, 2015 | by

How an irritable Danish author left an enduring mark on the national character.

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Aksel Sandemose in 1963. Photo: Leif Ørnelund

Your modern-day Dane is not what you would call a God-fearing creature. The Danish church, though never formally separated from the state (as happened in Sweden), plays an ever-diminishing role in the lives of the vast majority of Danes, with Sunday attendance experiencing an apparently inexorable decline, divorce increasing, and church leaders gently shunted into the margins of the popular discourse. You would imagine, then, that the teachings of Martin Luther would hold little currency in Danish society today, yet many of the core principles of Lutheranism—parsimony, modesty, disapproval of individualism or elitism—still define the manner in which the Danes behave toward one another and view the rest of the world, thanks in part to the enduring influence of an improbable literary figure.

Aksel Nielsen was a sensitive and sickly child who grew into a weak and stunted young adult. The son of a smith, he was born in 1899 in the somnolent North Jutland town of Nykøbing on the island of Mors. He received a rudimentary education at the local school until 1916, when, at the age of seventeen, he went to sea on a schooner bound for Newfoundland.

This was the first of many flights from reality upon which the bookish Aksel would embark during his life: the next came just a few weeks later on the other side of the Atlantic, where he jumped ship. But, with the world now at war, Nielsen’s habit of scribbling secretively in his notebooks late at night in his bunk bed, combined with his strange accent, aroused suspicion in Canada. His workmates began to think he might be a German spy. Once again he fled, this time back to Denmark, via Spain, working to pay his passage on a ship. Read More »

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Context

November 6, 2014 | by

A daguerreotype of Emily Dickinson from Mount Holyoke Seminary, ca. 1847.

I’ve always loved this line of Emily Dickinson’s: “November always seemed to me the Norway of the year.” Where did I first encounter it? Who knows—maybe a kid’s book of quotations or a calendar or something else. I know the context was cheerful rather than melancholy, although on a day like this one—gray, rainy, fall shading into winter—it felt apt, in its gnomic way.

What did Norway convey to Dickinson, who had never left New England? A bleaker, more romantic version of the same? A place of Norse legends and epics? Perhaps she’d met Scandinavian immigrants and this informed her remark. But however she intended it, it’s so evocative. It was not until very recently that I read the fuller context, from an 1864 letter to her frequent correspondent Elizabeth Holland:

It is also November. The noons are more laconic and the sunsets sterner, and Gibraltar lights make the village foreign. November always seemed to me the Norway of the year. ------ is still with the sister who put her child in an ice nest last Monday forenoon. The redoubtable God! I notice where Death has been introduced, he frequently calls, making it desirable to forestall his advances.

In the same letter, she mentions the recent death of the family’s maid, Margaret O’Brien—“I winced at her loss, because I was in the habit of her, and even a new rolling-pin has an embarrassing element, but to all except anguish, the mind soon adjusts.” Another friend is ill. And, of course, there would have been the background of the Civil War, felt even from within her home. The letter ends, “Sharper than dying is the death for the dying’s sake.” 

The first English translation of Asbjørnsen and Moe’s landmark Popular Tales from the Norse appeared in 1859. It’s filled with trolls, enchanted animals, captive princesses held under spells. One of the best known is “East of the Sun, West of the Moon,” a Cupid-Psyche story in which a maiden is only allowed to interact with her husband by darkness. Others feature mountain people, envious of those who get to live by daylight. Did it make its way to Amherst? I have never read of it in Dickinson’s letters, but perhaps a scholar can tell me otherwise. 

Above the Ice

October 23, 2014 | by

Grief and adventure on the path to the North Pole.

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François-Auguste Biard, Magdalenefjorden, 1840.

For two weeks in the summer of 2013, I traveled around the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard as part of the Arctic Circle Residency, proceeding up the west coast of the main island, Spitsbergen, and making landfall at tiny settlements and untrammeled beaches at the edge of the known world. At one point, our course took us into a small fjord where we sailed past an abandoned mining town called Blomstrandhalvoya; a research station, Ny-Ålesund, on the opposite shore; and, farther in, two massive glaciers, Kongsvegend and Kronebreen, twin ice masses sliding slowly into the fjord.

The glaciers hug a promontory butte that stands in defiance to these ice sheets, though they are both slowly wearing it away. In a struggle imperceptible to human eyes, the glaciers grind relentlessly against the rock face, carving their inexorable history into its striated face. They could win against this rock, wearing it down over eons into a plain or even a valley, but instead they’re ceding the battle, retreating backward. At some point in the future the promontory will be an island, as the glaciers recede and allow water to spill in behind them.

The sound you hear when you put ice cubes into warm (but not hot) water—that subtle but quick crackling—is the sound all around you in the summer fjords near glaciers. There is ice everywhere in the water, the size of your fist and the size of small islands, and because the water is only a few degrees above freezing, the ice cracks slowly, abundantly. It takes a moment to understand what you’re hearing, because it’s so constant and so low in the air—this soft crackle, like static over a radio.

Next to the noise, there is the wind. Strong, persistent, a wall of bitter blue. Constant: no slack, no gusts, as if from an electric fan. It is utterly cold and utterly fierce. You gaze into the white at the edge of the glacier that gives way slowly to its interior blues, blues of a depth for which there is no word, buffeted by the wind, which streams steadily and directly into you. Read More »

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The Norwegian-American Literary Festival Comes to New York

May 13, 2014 | by

NALFFor the last two years, a small group of American writers and critics has convened in Oslo for a series of informal lectures, interviews, and discussions. Dubbed the Norwegian-American Literary Festival, this unlikely gathering has introduced packed houses to the likes of Donald Antrim, Elif Batuman, Lydia Davis, Sam Lipsyte, and John Jeremiah Sullivan, and—on the American side—has helped spread word of contemporary Norwegian masters including Karl Ove Knausgaard, Joachim Trier, and Turbonegro.

Now, for one night only, The Paris Review is proud to welcome the Norwegian-American Literary Festival to New York.

On Wednesday, May 28, join us at Chez André in the East Village to hear Claire Messud and James Wood in conversation with the Norwegian novelist Linn Ullmann, followed by rare musical performances by James Wood and John Jeremiah Sullivan. Liquid refreshments will be served.

Admission is free, but space is limited—reserve tickets for you and one guest now by e-mailing us at rsvpNALF@theparisreview.org.

 

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Printing Wikipedia, and Other News

April 3, 2014 | by

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“Printers,” from the Trousset encyclopedia, Paris, 1886–1891.

 

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Completely Without Dignity: An Interview with Karl Ove Knausgaard

December 26, 2013 | by

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All this week, we are bringing you some of your favorite posts from 2013. Happy holidays!

Of the two people who have written books called My Struggle, Karl Ove Knausgaard is the less notorious. In Scandinavia, where the tradition of memoiristic writing is less prevalent and self-exposing than it is in America, he wrote, for three years, twenty pages a day about himself, his friends, his wife, and his kids. When the first of the six books was published, reporters called everyone he’d ever met. It sold half a million copies.

But unlike most literary controversies, this one’s less interesting than the work that provoked it. Knausgaard has written one of those books so aesthetically forceful as to be revolutionary. Before, there was no My Struggle; now there is, and things are different. The digressiveness of Sebald or Proust is transposed into direct, unmetaphorical language, pushing the novel almost to the edge of unreadability, where it turns out to be addictive and hypnotic. A man has written a book in which a man stays at home with his kids, and his home life isn’t trivialized or diminished but studied and appreciated, resisted and embraced. An almost Christian feeling of spiritual urgency makes even the slowest pages about squeezing lemon on a lobster into a hymn about trying to be good.

Book One ends with that impossible thing: an original metaphor for death. The last sentence of this interview may do the same for writing. Read More »

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