When people in the UK look towards the Nordic countries, what do they really see? On the map they will surely notice the Scandinavian peninsula, which contains two countries: Norway and Sweden. South and west of this they will see Denmark, which looks like an upper extension of Germany. In the east they will find Finland, which has a border with Russia (Norway has a small one too, far to the north). And to the west, in the sea, they will discover Iceland, in some ways – mainly due to its language – the most Nordic country of them all.
Some of our countries are closer to one another than others; we share some of our history. For 400 years Norway was a part of Denmark, with the king and power situated in Copenhagen. From 1814 to 1905 we Norwegians were in union with Sweden, with the king living in Stockholm but with our own parliament in Oslo. It was not until 1905 that Norway was again a “free” country, after 500 years subordinate to, or in union with, other countries.
We are close in terms of language too. Swedes, Danes and people from Norway can, if they do not speak too fast or in a local dialect, understand each other. We can chat together without needing interpreters. We can, without any major problems, read each other’s books in the original language. In fact, we share a common Nordic language, Old Norse, which today is spoken – in a modernised version – only in Iceland. Icelandic is almost impossible to understand for people from the so-called Scandinavian countries (Denmark among them). The same is true of Finnish, but it is more closely related to Hungarian than to the Nordic languages.
From this complex part of the world comes what is often called by a single name: “Nordic literature”, part of which has, in recent years, been specified as “Nordic Noir”.
So, are there definable differences between these countries and their literatures, or are the similarities easier to see? In my opinion there is one word that defines much of the literature from the Nordic countries: “nature”.
Compared to most other European countries we Nordics all live in fairly small cities, and even our capitals are not very big. From the centre of Oslo you can take a local train or your car and, after twenty to thirty minutes, you can put on your skis and start skiing in winter, or walk for hours in the forest in the summertime. In most Nordic novels, plays or films nature is always present, either as the backdrop to the story or as a dominant part of it. You will find this in classic literature, such as Ibsen and Hamsun, all the way back to the Icelandic Sagas; and you will find it in modern-day fiction, crime included.
What of the various Nordic peoples? When trying to characterise people from neighbouring countries, it is difficult not to use clichés. People from Denmark are continental, with liberal views about alcohol, smoking and sex. Swedes are looked upon as more formal, standing at some distance to their neighbour nations – the “big brother” of the company. The Finns are dark, brooding and drink too much. The Norwegians are puritanical, with strict laws against drinking and smoking, and with a lust for independence (from the EU, for instance). The Icelanders are the wild ones, having originated from Norwegian outlaws in the ninth century. As I said, all these are clichés, but the question remains: can you see them in Nordic literature?
As a Norwegian I am not so sure. The Molière of Nordic literature, Ludvig Holberg, is called by the Danes a “Danish writer, born in Bergen”, and Bergen (where I live), as you know, is in Norway. The Swedish playwright August Strindberg was much more radical, in some ways, than the Norwegian Henrik Ibsen, and the work of both is performed today, more than 150 years after they were born. A foreigner would not be sure if Jo Nesbø was from Norway, Denmark or Sweden, if they did not read it on a cover, and there have been Danish writers who have created modern sagas almost in the Icelandic style. I think, perhaps, that the Icelanders are the ones most similar to their image, being isolated out there in the ocean for so many years, and remaining the marvellous storytellers they have always been.
Ultimately, we have to accept that our origins are the same: we all descend from people who settled up here in the north when the ice left, 11–12,000 years ago. And we have the same stories to tell as all human kind; stories about where we came from and where we are going, of love and hate, and of the lust for wealth – stories told by everyone who comes from the north, the west or from any other direction, Nordic or non-Nordic.
By Gunnar Staalesen
Gunnar Staalesen was born in Bergen, Norway in 1947. He is the author of more than twenty titles, which have been published in twenty-four countries and have sold over four million copies. Twelve film adaptations of his Varg Veum crime novels have appeared since 2007. Staalesen has won three Golden Pistols (including the Prize of Honour) and most recently the Petrona Award for the international bestseller Where Roses Never Die.