Nordic Obsessions

4 Oct

The Nobel Prize in Literature originates from Sweden (as regular readers will know, I’m lined up as a future recipient of the Prize – in an alternative universe, at least). Many of the early laureates were from the Scandinavian countries – Bjørnson, Hamsun and a whole host of others of whom I’m ignorant. Even the paper upon which their masterpieces were printed was probably made using wood pulp from Swedish sawmills…

At the start of this year, I boldly proclaimed that it was to be my year of reading Japanese writing. And so it has been, in a minor way. I’ve read The Master of Go by Yasunari Kawabata and Haruki Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore. And then I read a brace of novels by Anglo-Japanese writer Kazuo Ishiguro. It’s been hijacked, though, once again by my obsession with all things Nordic. One Roy Jacobsen novel, two by Per Peterson, two Moomin books read to my children, an Icelandic saga and Bodil Malmstem’s The Price of Water in Finistère. Malmstem is a new discovery for me. Her work is poetic and funny at the same time. And I’m beginning to see why so much fuss was made about Peterson’s Out Stealing Horses. It’s a beautifully crafted book full of haunting descriptions and fully-drawn characters.

So what is the origin of this obsession? All of those Scandinavian authors sitting on my Ikea bookshelves. The four Saabs of which I’ve been the owner… I met some great people from that part of the world at university, including my late, great friend Dyre. But I think that the seeds of it were sown in childhood, in my reading of Tove Janssons’s Moomin books. She brought alive for me the vast, depopulated landscapes and fuelled my curiosity. Later, I encountered Strindberg and Ibsen and was drawn to their psychological dramas (the former is the only playwright whose work I’ve directed). And then when I visited and saw those places at first hand, the obsession became incurable. I love my country – are you listening Daily Mail? – but find deeply distasteful the way English society has evolved during my lifetime. I feel much more in tune with Scandinavian social values.

15-08-2013 15;32;12

A grainy old photo that I took of a fjord

It gets worse, though. I wrote in my last post about the use of setting in my writing. I confessed to having placed a novella in a Norwegian lighthouse. One of my two works-in-progress concerns a country that sees itself as Nordic and another project that I may write begins in a fictional Scandinavian country. Oh dear! Among my raft of anagrammatic aliases are E Tovesen Laustrup (son of Tove, naturally) and Olav Peettrusens (putative author of my WIP). Help… Since there seems to be no cure, here’s a short extract from my lighthouse idea.

Maroon corduroy or black velvet?  That was the question.  It was Saturday night and perhaps the town might come to life at last.  He gazed at his image in the bathroom mirror.  The maroon corduroy jacket and dark brown shirt… they were perfect.  And surely there’d be some beautiful Scandinavian women out on the town.  He ran a handful of styling mousse through those dark curls as a signal of intent.

Placing a thermal jacket over the corduroy one, he plunged into the cold night air.  It was just a short walk from his duplex to the bar.  As he approached he could hear loud music mingling with raucous laughter.  Signs of life, at last…  So it was something of a let-down when he walked into the bar and found the same old herd wallowing in their beer and self-pity.  All the noise was coming from a band of young bloods in the corner.  They were clunking their glasses together and letting out hearty roars.

There being nowhere else to go, he sat on a stool at the far end of the bar and ordered a beer.  He watched his fellow drinkers getting steadily drunk and soon he was feeling pretty squiffy himself.  And all the while, the young rowdies in the corner were growing louder.  He slouched there on his stool, wondering how on earth he’d ended up in such a place.

Things were turning ugly in the corner.  The young bloods had begun shouting at each other, shoving one another around.  Now glasses and bottles were being thrown and punches exchanged.  Those customers still capable of thought and movement started making for the street.  He crouched behind his barstool at the far end of the bar and looked on in amazement.  Eventually, the young men spilled out into the street, and there was silence.

Up-turned chairs and tables were scattered across the room.  The floor was strewn with broken glass.  The walls were spattered with beer and blood.  It looked more than ever like a saloon in a Wild West movie.  The bar owner must have been devastated.  He had emerged from his hiding place behind the bar.  Their gazes met.  The owner shrugged his shoulders:

“It is just a typical Saturday night.”

He placed a thumb on either side of his head and pointed upward with his index fingers, denoting a pair of horns.

“Nothing changes, you know.”

“But they’ve trashed your bar,” the Englishman objected.

“Yes, but in the morning, when they have sobered up, they will come to apologise and pay for the damage they have caused.  Calvinist guilt, the Nordic social conscience…  Some things are inescapable.  These will combine with the alcohol in their troubled Northern souls and compel them toward my door.  Then I shall drive to Ikea in Tromsø and buy some new furniture and glassware.  It is just the way of things here in Norway…”

So much for the sophisticated coastal metropolis…  The bar owner was right.  Little had changed since the time of Harald Hardrada.  He decided that he’d be stopping in at night with a mug of cocoa for the foreseeable future.

All text and image © PSR 2013

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4 Responses to “Nordic Obsessions”

  1. www.laurensapala.com October 4, 2013 at 4:21 pm #

    Every time I visit your blog, I end up with more excellent recommendations for my to-read list. It’s so wonderful!

  2. Paul Sutton Reeves October 4, 2013 at 4:44 pm #

    Well, thanks and hi to you, Lauren! Reading and writing are equal pleasures for me so I’m always happy to pass on tips.

  3. Mari Biella October 5, 2013 at 9:52 am #

    I agree with Lauren – yet more authors and books for me to explore! I wish there were some way I could do without sleep…

    The photograph of the Fjord is beautiful. Scandinavia isn’t a part of the world with which I’m familiar, but scenes like that remind me of why I’d like to visit. Scandinavian literature is also an area of which I’m woefully ignorant, sadly, but I often think that foreign language authors rarely get the attention they deserve in the English-speaking world. I’ve only really begun to get a sense of the breadth of modern Italian literature since I moved to Italy, for example.

  4. Paul Sutton Reeves October 5, 2013 at 2:49 pm #

    Hi Mari and thanks for commenting.

    I don’t know if I mentioned before, a morbid thought that I had a few years back. Taking into account how much longer I might reasonably live – if nothing horrible befalls me – and the number of books I typically read in a year, I realised that I would read at most a few hundred books more. Viewed in that way, one’s reading time becomes all the more precious. Twelve of the books that I’ve read so far this year have been in translation and year in, year out, more than half of them are. I find much of the English literary scene moribund and uninspiring.

    I’ve travelled quite extensively in Norway and the landscape is awe-inspiring – definitely worth exploring, again and again.

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