How an irritable Danish author left an enduring mark on the national character.
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.
Back home in Nykøbing, few were pleased to see Aksel. His parents had not been happy about him leaving in the first place, and his jumping ship had compounded their disapproval. But in fact, his North American escapades were to prove his making. At the age of twenty-four, following numerous rejections, Nielsen’s fictionalized version of his Newfoundland adventures was finally published as Stories from Labrador, under a newly acquired surname, Sandemose, taken from a place close to his Norwegian mother’s hometown. More books followed, blending fiction and fact in a style critics have likened to Joseph Conrad’s, albeit interspersed with long, rather worthy essays.
There would be yet more flights in Sandemose’s life. The next was to Norway, where he fled in 1930 with his wife and three children following various financial misadventures, including selling the rights to his next book to two different publishers (I did kick myself when I heard about this). During World War II he ran away again, this time to Sweden, following a peripheral involvement in the Norwegian resistance movement. This amounted to little more than sharing a beer or two with actual resistance members, but they grew fearful that Sandemose wouldn’t be able to keep his mouth shut and so persuaded him to cross the border to their neutral neighbor. In 1945, back in Norway, having left his wife and three kids, he fathered twins with another woman.
By all accounts, Sandemose was a deeply unpleasant man, an untrustworthy, amoral fantasist. One of his sons would later accuse his father, variously, of pedophilia, incest, cruelty to animals, and bigamy, while the alleged murder of a Norwegian man has also been added to the charge sheet against him. I recently noticed Sandemose’s portrait on a Norwegian Air 737, one of a series of “Norwegian” heroes featured on the tails of the company’s planes. He makes for an unlikely corporate icon, it has to be said.
Sandemose on a Norwegian Air Shuttle. Photo: SliverFoxNL, via DeviantArt
Sandemose’s works are little read these days, except, that is, for a small fragment of one novel, A Fugitive Crosses His Tracks, published in 1933. The book is a thinly veiled roman à clef about the people of Nykøbing, which in the book is renamed “Jante.” It caused a storm of controversy, satirizing life in small-town Denmark as being ruled by pettiness, envy, backbiting, gossip, inverted snobbery, and small-mindedness. Naturally, the book generated some especially indignant spluttering in Nykøbing, exposing as it did the mean-spirited behavior of its residents, many of whom were easily identifiable.
The fragment of A Fugitive that has come both to define and to torment the Danes is a list of rules by which the residents of the fictional town of Jante were said to abide. These rules set out the Law of Jante (Janteloven), a kind of Danish Ten Commandments, the influence and infamy of which have spread beyond their home country throughout the Nordic region.
These are the rules of Jante Law, the social norms one should apparently be aware of if one is planning a move to the north:
Knowing even just a little of their author’s biography, one would think it easy to dismiss these rules as the products of a somewhat unbalanced mind, an irrelevance, but the truth is, Sandemose really nailed the Danes. And not just the Danes: Jante Law sent ripples of recognition beyond Denmark—the Norwegians are all too familiar with them, and they act as an even more powerful normalizing force in Sweden. Yet raise the subject of Jante Law with Danes today and there will likely be some eye-rolling and a deep sigh or two. You will be told that the phenomenon has died out, that Sandemose’s satire is no longer relevant, a throwback to a time when most Danes were peasants. Even Queen Margaret condemned it in a New Year’s speech back in the eighties, they’ll say. These days, Danes are proud of their achievements, happy on behalf of others who enjoy success in life, and do not themselves hold back on exhibiting their success. Wait awhile, though, and the examples of “friends” or “relatives” who have suffered from the tyranny of Jante Law “out in the provinces” will be shared. This kind of suffocating social conformity might still exist somewhere out there in darker Denmark, they will eventually concede, but not in Copenhagen. The Danish capital is far too globalized and its citizens far too individualistic, what with their social media, reality TV, and rampant US-style consumerism.
My experience has been that Jante Law operates everywhere in Denmark on some level or another, but it is true that it is harder to spot amid the cosmopolitan whirl of the capital. Certainly, I know from speaking to people who have moved away from Jutland that Jante Law still underscores attitudes and behavior to a greater extent on the Danish peninsula, and along the yet more insular, traditional west coast in particular. Sitting next to a woman at a dinner party recently, she had explained how stifling she found the attitude in her hometown. “On the west coast, anyone who even slightly broke with convention, or showed that they had any ambition, was frowned upon,” she told me. “People really didn’t like it. Everyone knew your business, everyone had an opinion about what you should be doing. I had to get away. I came to Copenhagen as soon as I could, and don’t often go back.” It is common to have such feelings about one’s hometown, I suppose, but they do often seem to be particularly keenly felt by people from Jutland.
But what of Nykøbing itself? What signs of Jante Law’s existence would I find if I were to visit its birthplace, I wondered? Was Nykøbing Mors, to give it its full name, as small-minded and mean-spirited as Sandemose had made it out to be? Did its people suppress their hopes and dreams, hold each other back, not allow themselves to “think they were anything”? And if so, would I be able to see any evidence of this?
A map of Thisted County in Denmark, ca. 1900
Nykøbing’s high street looked much like every other provincial Danish high street, at least at first glance. There was a book/gift store with birthday cards on a revolving stand outside, some midrange men’s clothes shops sel ling the usual dark jeans, polo shirts, and three-buttoned jackets that Danish men favor for just about every occasion, a hairdresser’s, tobacconist’s and wine store, pub, and pharmacy. All typical small-town stuff. It was only as I walked back down the street and looked again at the names of the shops that I noticed something curious. My heart sang! The shop names! They were quite extraordinarily prosaic, almost aggressively mundane or, as the Danes would say, tilbageholdende (back-holding, or “reserved”), devoid of even the slightest suggestion of promotion or branding.
The hairdresser’s was called, baldly, “Hair.” The pub was called “The Pub.” The shop that sold clothes and shoes ventured to grab the attention of passersby with the razzle-dazzle name “Clothes and Shoes”; the bookshop was Bog Handler or “Book Dealer.” Clearly affronted by its neighbors’ shameless self-promotion, one retailer had simply taken to naming itself “No. 16”; another, wary of accusations of hubris, had plumped simply for Shoppen, or “The Shop.” These retailers were not merely lacking in marketing skills, they defiantly renounced all conventional notions of salesmanship.
Only one shop dared to break free from the herd and boldly proclaim the eponymity of its owner and risk standing out from the Nykøbing retail crowd: “Bettina’s Shoes.”
Watch out, Bettina, I thought to myself, as I carried on down the high street. They aren’t much for that kind of showboating in these parts. At the library I asked Bent Dupont, chairman of the Aksel Sandemose Society, whether he felt Jante Law was still evident in Nykøbing or Danish society (all the while stroking my camera, knowingly).
“No, no, it was relevant in those days when Sandemose wrote it, but not today,” Dupont, a kindly retired teacher-type with round glasses, told me. “The Jante Law he wrote about, where everyone holds everyone else down, and each believes the other is in cahoots with the rest of the people around them, the ‘You shall not think you are anything’ attitude, is dead. The only place it still exists is in the Danish media. It’s used by celebrities, writers, filmmakers, sports stars. Take Bille August [the Danish Oscar-winning director]. When he directs a bad film and then gets bad reviews, he always says, Oh, that’s Jante Law. If anything, these days we have positive Jante Law—‘You shall think you are something.’ ” Silently, I turned on my camera and cued up the photos I had taken of Nykøbing’s high street. Dupont flicked through them, a smile slowly spreading across his face, until by the end he was—to my great relief—laughing. “I get your point. I can see there is an element of people holding back there,” he said.
To be fair to Dupont, most Danes would claim that the Jante Law attitude is in decline. I did sense its influence more when I first started to visit Denmark a decade and a half ago, probably because I was young, ambitious, and somewhat arrogant. I hadn’t yet learned the mysterious code of the Danes, whose superficial similarities to Brits and Americans, I soon discovered, masked far deeper differences. Over time I have probably also gravitated away from Danes with Jante tendencies—as one does from people with whom one has little in common—but I do still sometimes come up against traces of it when I venture outside my social circle, where it typically manifests itself in a form of confusion verging on mild scorn when I try to explain what I do, or have done, for a living. From time to time I have been lucky enough to travel with my work, to stay in extravagant places, eat indulgent meals, and drive expensive cars, but I tend to tone down recollections of those elements of my life when talking to Danes I don’t know very well.
Some recent examples I have encountered of Jante Law at large: there was the friend who bought a new Mercedes and was forced to endure “Did anyone order a cab?” jokes from his brother for some time afterward (the same model was used by Copenhagen’s taxi companies); another friend whose wife ruled out a house purchase because the house in question, though in fact a little cheaper than the others they had viewed, had a modest swimming pool, and a swimming pool was deemed de trop. “We don’t need a swimming pool,” she had said. “What would we need a swimming pool for?”
One friend of mine, the newspaper columnist Annegrethe Rasmussen, sparked a recent Jante Law debate when she wrote about her experiences of coming home from Washington, D.C., where she lives, and telling her friends about her son’s performance at school. “As a kind of quick way into the subject,” Annegrethe told me shortly after the column was published, “I said, ‘He’s doing really well, he is number one in his class.’ And the table went silent.” Though she is Danish, and so should have known better, she realized immediately that she had breached the code. “If I had said he was great at role-playing or drawing it would have been fine, but it was totally wrong to boast about academic achievement.”
“Jante Law is just as normal as the law of gravity,” newspaper editor and anthropologist Anne Knudsen assured me. “You find it everywhere, especially in peasant societies, and back [in Sandemose’s day] there were peasants peasants peasants all over the place in Denmark. This kind of ideology became the State ideology when democracy was established in the country [in 1849] and it got a second life with Social Democracy, and all of this was transmitted from generation to generation by propaganda and by a unified school system.” She added, “But, you know, the envy part is not the important part. The important part is the inclusiveness: we want to include you, but that is only possible if you are equal. It’s what peasants do.”
I opened a newspaper to see if I could spot signs of Jante Law in action today, and, what do you know, there was a story about the Swedish Tetra Pak packaging heir Hans Rausing’s drug-fueled downfall: the gloating headline reads HIS BILLIONS COULD NOT SAVE HIM. Another concerns the bankruptcy of a flamboyant Danish businessman from a humble background who amassed a collection of snazzy cars and foreign homes and made the mistake of parading them in the media over the years. Again, the article is dripping with Jante revenge, detailing the luxuries he has had to give up: “Three years ago he told this newspaper proudly of his Bugatti, his Lamborghini, and the Porsche he was about to buy,” the article read. “Now he has run dry of cash.” All newspapers, wherever they are in the world, relish a good downfall, but the Danes do seem to love them just that little bit more.
Jante Law moves in mysterious ways. Some Danes are exempt from it: the most glaring anomaly is their royal family (to whom we will return), but successful artists are generally approved of, although it is preferred that they come from a solid middle- or working-class background and consistently demonstrate that their achievements have not changed them in any way. Actors or directors must express their disdain for the hullabaloo of the red carpet, and stress that they shop in budget supermarkets and change diapers like everybody else.
Success in, or the accumulation of wealth from, less obviously artistic fields is harder for the Danes to process. The chef René Redzepi of Noma has told me of being spat at in the street and ordered to “go back home” (his father is Macedonian) by fellow Danes, most notably after a documentary about his restaurant (repeatedly named the best in the world by a British restaurant trade magazine) aired on Danish TV. The Danish media called his team at Noma the “seal fuckers” when they first began to serve their revolutionary New Nordic cuisine. Who did they think they were to be meddling with traditional Danish food? The Danes also seem to begrudge the wealth earned by sports stars (the fact that many become tax exiles doesn’t help, of course), and have mixed feelings about the adulation of pop singers, too.
I have often wondered about the pre-Sandemose roots of Jante Law. After all, Sandemose claimed merely to be observing existing Danish traits, so those tendencies must already have been present. Professor Richard Wilkinson had told me that people from more egalitarian societies have less need to show off, so perhaps that is where Jante Law’s roots lie: the Danes are especially scornful of people who boast because they prize equality so highly. “Hunter-gatherer societies—which are similar to prehistoric societies—are highly egalitarian,” Wilkinson had said. “And if someone starts to take on a more domineering position they get ridiculed or teased or ostracized. These are what’s called counter-dominance strategies, and they maintain the greater equality.”
Perhaps this is why working hard to get rich and then exhibiting your success is still very much disapproved of. Danish tycoons and captains of industry are rarely role models here. The late shipping and oil magnate—and probably the wealthiest non-royal Dane of all time—Mærsk Mc-Kinney Møller was respected but neither loved nor a role model. Møller wisely chose not to display his wealth too gratuitously. According to the Mærsk Corporate Communications department, he also abided by a strict work ethic, attending meetings well into his nineties, bringing a packed lunch with him to work, and climbing several flights of stairs to his office every day. Together with many generous donations to public works—he paid for Copenhagen’s opera house, among other projects—this seemed to help him avoid much of a Jante Law backlash.
What is the foreigner to make of Jante Law? How does one negotiate its booby traps and trip wires? There are two approaches to take: One is to play the stupid foreigner card, proceed as you would at home, and feign obliviousness to the frowns as you sail through Danish society boasting of your successes and acquisitions. Or you can keep your head down, your socks up, and your nose clean. Becoming a teacher would help.
This is an excerpt from The Almost Nearly Perfect People by Michael Booth. The Almost Nearly Perfect People copyright © 2014 by Michael Booth. Originally published in Great Britain by Jonathan Cape, a division of the Random House Group, Ltd. First U.S. hardcover edition published January 27, 2015, by Picador USA. All rights reserved.
Michael Booth is the author of five works of nonfiction. His writing appears regularly in the Guardian, the Independent, the Times, the Telegraph, and Condé Nast Traveler, among others. He is the Copenhagen correspondent for Monocle magazine and Monocle 24 radio.
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