Into the Woods

“I have gone to the forest.” —Knut Hamsun

“Many people think they can take the welfare state with them in the suitcase when they leave home. … We are not a travel agency or an insurance company.” 
—Jonas Gahr Støre, Norway’s Foreign Minister

Norwegians are said to be born with skis on their feet—ready from birth for a life in harmony with the inhospitable Nordic nature.

Maybe my mother was lacking some important vitamin during the pregnancy. No skis accompanied me into this world. Instead of seeking the woods and mountains like a true Norwegian—”There is no bad weather, only poor clothing!” as we say—I came to prefer asphalt under my feet, the safety of skyscrapers, and the soft breeze from passing subway cars, deep underground. I am allergic to trees.

But I didn’t miss out on the other thing Norwegians are born with: citizenship in the world’s most generous and equitable welfare state.

This is about what happens when rich, well-traveled, and well-educated children from a tiny Viking country covered in forest grow up and try to write fiction.

Norway is still a little piece of secluded coastal land with forests and mountains and a weather-beaten fisherman or farmer hidden here and there. Modesty, hard work, and egalitarian values are held high. We have a highly functional social democracy (a prime minister who loves to ski) and boast about literary heroes such as Ibsen and Hamsun. It’s a country with a proud tradition of social realism, often characterized by stories about people’s close relationship to nature.

In 1962, the American Phillips Petroleum Company started looking into the possibility of drilling for oil under the Norwegian Sea. The decision was up to the King (no, really) and I can only assume that he gave his silent nod; a few years later the first big reserves were found.

“The Oil Adventure” changed everything. Norway now has one of the world’s most advanced social welfare systems, and the population of 4.8 million enjoys higher living standards than ever. A semester at university costs about $100. There are state-subsidized scholarships for everyone, so students take out only small loans to cover their living expenses. Working parents receive a year’s paid maternity or paternity leave and universal health care assures that no one pays more than around $400 per year in medical expenses. The United Nations keep placing us at the top of their Human Development Index. When the Labor Party’s ski-loving Jens Stoltenberg was reelected prime minister last September, Norway’s stock market was rising and the unemployment rate hovered at 3 percent.

Younger Norwegians have unprecedented opportunities to study and travel without subjecting themselves to significant risks, financial or otherwise. Exploring the world is regarded as almost mandatory for the young and the restless. So we head off with our Purell bottles, portable health insurance, and multilingual skills; we want to study in Jerusalem, do photography in New York, pick fruit in Argentina. We want mosquito bites and abrasions and then to return home. Always to return home.

We have been told that we can do anything, be anything. This is a cliché young people are fed in most Western countries. Norway’s wealth, and its equitable distribution of that wealth, just makes it a little more true here. This puts us in a curious position that one would think would be reflected in the books being written by young writers. But many choose to return to safer, more traditional themes.

The Norwegian publishing world is not big but we have a few of what we consider to be large houses and several small ones. Together they offer a wide range of fiction, some of it quite good for a country with a population the size of Alabama’s. It’s difficult to say what kind of books are predominant at the moment without resorting to generalizations.

I will therefore resort to generalizations. One character keeps showing up in our books: the young man having a breakdown in the woods. The plot goes something like this: the young man has never left his hometown, or has returned (because of the death of a parent) after an unsuccessful attempt at life in the big, unruly world. He has some problems communicating. Sometimes the reader is left to wonder if he might be mentally retarded.

He might meet a traditional animal, like a dog or an elk, that plays a significant role in the novel.

He listens to the silence, falls apart. The story mostly stays within the tradition of realism, though it sometimes flirts with surrealist tendencies. How crazy is he really? Would he ever hurt himself—or someone else? Toward the end, he might seem about to regain his composure. He will probably decide to remain in the countryside. Norwegians resemble Americans in this respect: we know that truth is something people find while walking in golden fields of wheat, that small-town life is more real than city life, and that real people are those who grow up with dirt under their fingernails.

Here, for example, are excerpts from the jacket copy of novels published by young(ish) writers in recent years:

A young woman returns to her childhood home, an island up north, fifteen years after his father killed her mother and himself. (Gøhril Gabrielsen, Unevnelige hendelser)

Finn travels back to the little village where he grew up. His brother has found their mother dead. (Joachim Førsund, Jeg kunne funnet veien hjem i søvne)

Fjodor grows up in Aabothnes. Most of the time the farm lies in the shade. He works on a locomotive in the barn. … Little Brother is deaf, but he has a magical way with birds. (Geir Olav Jørgensen, Mono)

Doppler has just lost his father. One day when he is out cycling in the woods, he falls off his bike. Semi-conscious, he notices that his head has been emptied … and filled with the silence of the forest. … He moves to the woods and lives in a tent. Doppler … kills a she-elk—but that leaves him with a calf. … Gradually they become friends. (Erlend Loe, Doppler)

Marius and Marcus are the same age, and have grown up in a little village. At a party, Marcus shoots himself in the head. Marius is the only person to hear the shot. He has a strong feeling that their lives are falling apart. The book describes a little society in a village … (Heine T. Bakkeid, Uten puls)

Some of these books are good. Doppler, in particular, presents a critique of modern society, set in the woods. But you see my point: a lot of men, villages, dogs. This is known territory, mental and geographical landscapes that are well-established in our literary tradition. But between the trees, some stories are missing: stories of a modern, urban, globally connected Norway. Novels that draw on contemporary experience and make you think—that’s exactly how it is now.

There are a few obvious reasons why rural society (or lack of society) takes up so much space in our literature. The literary magazine Avsagd Hagle once did a tongue-in-cheek analysis of contemporary Norwegian poetry and found a surprisingly high frequency of the words “hand,””bird,” and “tree.” The reason, the editors argued, must be that poets are sitting at their desks, alternately staring at their own hands, the trees outside their windows, and the birds in the trees.

Nature always had a marked influence on Norwegian literature; we have a proud tradition of social realism, characterized by stories about people close to nature and isolated from each other.

One of our literary heroes (as well as a Nazi-supporting national traitor), Knut Hamsun, was one of those who could not stand city life. In Hunger the main character wanders around the grim city, feeling like shit. Hamsun’s work is littered with appeals to nature: “There is nothing like being left alone again, to walk peacefully with oneself in the woods. To boil one’s coffee and fill one’s pipe, and to think idly and slowly as one does it.” And: “You are welcome to your intellectual pastimes and books and art and newspapers; welcome, too, to your bars and your whiskey that only makes me ill. Here am I in the forest, quite content.”

Sigbjørn Obstfelder is another Norwegian who wrote about being angsty in modern society. “I must have come to the wrong planet! Here is so strange …” he wrote in his most famous poem. We all analyzed that poem in school and all came to the same conclusion: city life is alienating. Henrik Ibsen wrote Peer Gynt as a satire of the Norwegian personality. While taking us through the majestic, beautiful, ancient landscapes of the countryside, blending in folkloric elements, Ibsen criticized his countrymen’s “narrowness and self-sufficiency.” Knut Hamsun got the Nobel Prize in Literature for Growth of the Soil, about the importance of man’s close and direct relationship to nature, to dirt and soil.

The self-confined, self-examining tendency in newer fiction might be a global one, but the isolated and awkward countryman is almost a folk hero in Scandinavia. He’s a survivor. He gets the work done and keeps his head down. He follows the unofficial Scandinavian Jante Law. The concept stems from Danish-Norwegian Aksel Sandemose’s novel A Fugitive Crosses His Tracks (1933), and is well known to all Scandinavians. The book is about the typical small town of Jante where no one is anonymous and anyone who violates the law is discredited. The Jante Law consists of ten commandments, all variations on the same rule: One should not think that one is something. Rule 1: Do not think that you are special. Rule 4: Do not fancy yourself better than us. Rule 7: Do not think that you are good at anything. It’s quite the opposite of the thought that we can be anything we want. Somehow these two ideas manage to operate side by side in Norway, not without conflict, but in a relationship of mutual mockery.

The Jante Law is commonly used to describe how provincial and intolerant other Norwegians are. Typically, when a self-assured artist receives criticism, he or she might reject it by saying: “There’s just so much Jante Law in this country.” Meaning: “I’m misunderstood by these narrow-minded, small-town people. You should see how Paris greets me.” The Jante Law isn’t considered a positive standard, yet the ghost of Jante haunts the Scandinavian mind. Any form of bragging or self-congratulation is looked at with suspicion or disregard. The custom of engraving contributors’ names into, say, the front of a museum doesn’t work very well here.

The Jante Law can be used to look down on other people’s work, but it’s also about a lack of belief in one’s own. It encourages you to keep your head down, to be brave only in the quietest way. Maybe it also encourages a literature that’s sometimes too quiet for its own good.

A few young writers have found ways to use classic themes to reflect on the era they’re writing themselves into. The works of widely-hailed talents Johan Harstad and Agnar Lirus (both born in 1978) are heavy with cultural and political references, subplots, and allegories. They’re not afraid of moving the whole plot across decades and international borders. Often using the outsider to look at society, they stress our relationship to the broader world by pointing to our distance from it.

Harstad published his first collection of stories when he was 21. Several books later, he has established himself as one of the most important writers of his generation. His grandest contribution, the 630-page novel Buzz Aldrin, What Happened To You in All the Confusion, has been sold to eleven countries, including the United States. A movie is under production in Norway.

You’ll be surprised to learn this book is also about a man having a breakdown in a rural area.

The modest gardener Mattias goes to the remote Faeroe Islands (between Iceland and the Shetland Islands) and falls apart after a  breakup with his longtime girlfriend. The desolate landscape is the backdrop for his struggles, but the Faeroe Island also becomes a character itself, as lost and detached as the people. Before the breakdown, Mattias was comfortable, jolly, content with his lack of ambition. He has always been fascinated by astronauts and especially Buzz Aldrin—the second man on the moon, consigned to live forever in the shadow of Neil Armstrong. First came the great leap and then came Buzz Aldrin. Leaping along, silently.

All Mattias wants is to be “a well-functioning wheel in the world.” He’d like to stick to the static of his own comfort zone. “If I could get a single wish fulfilled,” he says, “I have been thinking that I would prefer nothing to change.”

In Agnar Lirhus’s debut novel The Forest is Green, we meet the young Philip Randén, a man who “could have been anything.” He used to study philosophy—Wittgenstein—at the university in Oslo, but the abstract nature of his studies left him feeling that everything is false and meaningless. Attempting to attack philosophy from another angle, he leaves the university and becomes a bus driver. Self-proletarianization might seem like a radical thing to do but, like Mattias, Philip is reluctant about change: “It wasn’t like he wanted to break with the life he was living. No, most of all, he wanted to get through the problems and resurrect on the other side, the same.”

Harstad and Lirhus’s characters don’t want to be in control, they don’t want choices or power. At the intersection of the internalized and by now kind of comforting mantra of the Jante Law—don’t be anyone—and the contemporary expectation to be everything, they are left with no desires except to be left alone. The only miracle Mattias and Philip could wish for might be to stop time. But in a culture of privilege and excess, to decline the opportunities one is handed, to want less, is considered an insult to the world; it has become synonymous with rejecting society altogether.

One could perhaps call it a national blend of apathy and comfort, of taking things for granted. All the resources that we have been given aren’t encouraging brave, bold writing, but rather inviting us to go back into our cozy cabin, shut the door, and write about trees. What a society tries to avoid should be the subject of its best literature. Hiding is what Harstad and Lirhus’s characters want to do too, but their novels consider this impulse and what it means. Quietly told as these novels might be, they are brazen enough to try to examine a particle of our own condition from more places than the woods and the countryside.

Matias Faldbakken’s novels have been said to capture something vital about contemporary urban Scandinavia. The artist/writer (born in 1973) published his Scandinavian Misanthropy trilogy under the pseudonym Abo Rasul. The three works—The Cocka Hola Company, Macht Und Rebel, Unfun—draw the reader into a dark, twisted Scandinavia. Only sex and violence seem to evoke any pulse in his nihilistic characters. As one of them says in Unfun: “I don’t care about anything, but I don’t express it—I am not the kind that doesn’t care in an eager way.” In his latest book, Cold Product, Faldbakken tells an alternate version of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, in which Nora is the master of the house and also a commercial lawyer. At the end, to keep her freedom, she kills her newborn.

Faldbakken’s Scandinavia is eerie, cruel, and surreal, an alternate version of reality. As the critic Kjetil Strømme has said, Faldbakken’s works “challenge our conception of reality, and our notion of where that something called ‘realism’ in literature starts and stops.” Strømme argues that among writers who pose critiques of contemporary Norwegian society, those “who launch the fiercest attack on the realistic-psychological novel are the most intriguing.” Faldbakken is not the only one. I could mention writers like Anders Bortne, Gunnhild Øyehaug and Jon Øistein Flink, who move toward surrealism in their efforts to paint dark portraits of our lives.

One can ask whether the traditional notion of realism seems outdated and boring because it has yet to be properly applied to new critical conundrums. Everyone is still figuring out how to convey the myriad of new and very tangible predicaments. Several writers are attempting to more thoroughly explore urban settings and themes. One could mention the metropolitan-minded Edy Poppy’s dark, decadent love story Anatomy. Monotony., Gunnhild Øyehaug’s neurotic academics and movie buffs in Wait, Blink, Simon Stranger’s comprehensive masterpiece Mnem, about the decay of a grand city constructed for perfection. Like the writers themselves, the characters in these books are immersed in modern culture and first-world worries. They travel and get lost in foreign cities, construct grand ideas, and sometimes fail miserably.

These books prove that there are more things to write about than hands, birds, trees, and total anarchy, even in Norway. Maybe some young writers live in the countryside and really love their birds, but the fact is eight of ten Norwegians live in what are considered tettbygde strøk—”closely built areas.” Oslo has been called the heroin capital of Europe. We have people here who seriously worry that Muslims are taking over the country, we have teenagers who starve themselves to death, we abort almost every fetus with Down’s syndrome, and 13 percent of our men have had sex with prostitutes. We’re sending soldiers to war.

I hadn’t tried skiing for years until this winter. I choose not only to live in a city, but in a foreign city, and in the most severely metropolitan one I could find. I suppose I am rejecting a part of my national heritage by doing so. But I still believe my mother when she assures me that I’ll develop more enthusiasm for hiking and skiing in the woods as I get older. That’s just how it goes. Two years after I moved to New York, my mother changed her general advice from “Go see the world!” to “Come home!” And I will. I’m Norwegian. We always return home—before our travel insurance expires.

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