Thursday, January 2, 2014

Reading Scandinavian literature - Iceland and Finland - Gapes the grisly earth-girdling serpent / when strides forth Thor to slay the worm.

While concentrating on Austrian literature last year, I concluded that I needed to know the work of Henrik Ibsen and August Strindberg better.  Then I started to think of other Norwegian and Swedish books I would like to read, then on to Denmark, and on like that, until I concluded that this would be the year of Scandinavian literature.

My Austrian project was a bit more thesis-driven, while this time I am more of a blank slate.  Just reading some books.

As usual, anyone who for some reason would like to read along on a particular book should speak up.  It can probably be done.  Scandinavian books are short.  I still want to stay close to my nineteenth century home, so nothing after World War I, please, although I have some arbitrary exceptions in mind and always make an exception for good poetry.

What has caught my eye?  I will tell you.  This will be in no way comprehensive, or even comprehensive-in-translation.  How could it be?  Please peruse the offerings of Norvik Press, publishers of Runar Schildt (1888-1925), “one of Finland's finest short-story writers” and “an observer of decadence in Helsinki,” or Elin Wägner, author of the “disrespectful and witty” Penwoman (1910), “the classic novel about the Swedish women's suffrage movement,” or Arne Garborg (1851-1924), “a writer who was left rootless and in conflict with himself, always searching.”  Who on earth are these people, and what is in their books?  Some interesting things, I suspect.  Maybe some of you already know.

I will proceed geographically.


Medieval Icelandic literature is like nothing else.  The sagas are a mix of history and fiction, public and domestic life, violent yet often quite subtle, that is unique, or that was once unique, since they have had so many popular offshoots, most prominently The Lord of the Rings.  I am surprised I do not come across book bloggers reading them more often, but I am sure the Tolkien fans have good excuses and will get to them soon.

I have not read Njál’s Saga (late 13th century), so that one is most tempting, but I urge anyone curious to try Egil’s Saga, the life of a sociopathic poet, or Grettir’s Saga (c. 1320), the sad tale of the last of the monster-killers.  What strange books.  Or of course the Saga of the Völsungs, the source for Richard Wagner’s Ring operas.

The collection of ballads known as the Poetic Edda (12th century) and Snorri Sturluson’s Prose Edda (13th) are the primary sources for the Norse myths (Snorri may well have written Egil’s Saga too).  Fans of the recent movies featuring Thor will certainly want to read these (see post subtitle).

I have always loved mythological tales and have been reading versions of these stories since I was a child.  The Norse myths do not form as rich a literature as does Greek and Roman mythology – there is nothing as sophisticated as Homer or Ovid – but I have always found the stories to be as imaginatively rich.  Their use over the last 150 years or so tells me I am not alone.


The great Finnish mythological collection is a difficult case.  The Kalevala (1849) is the result of the efforts of  Elias Lönnrot, a country doctor who like the Grimm brothers collected folk songs and stories.  Rather than publish an anthology, though, he edited his collection into a coherent poetic epic, meaning that he wrote quite a bit of it and that the book is a hybrid of original and folk material.

Then again, so is The Prose Edda; so is The Odyssey; so is Genesis.  The difference is that The Kalevala is a recent hybrid.  I read a version of it many years ago, and would probably enjoy it a lot now.  My understanding is that the old public domain translations stink.

The one old Finnish novel I have in mind is Aleksis Kivi’s Seven Brothers (1870), about irresponsible agricultural practices, or something like that.  Again, the newer translation sounds necessary.

I have been enjoying Tove Jansson’s books a lot, but I want to save comment on her.  I guess I should save Norwegian, Swedish, and Danish literature, too, until tomorrow.  I hardly got anywhere today.  What did I miss or forget?  What obscure sagas should I read?  Runar Schildt, yes or no?


  1. I'll read Selma Lagerlöf's The Miracles of the Antichrist in your honour.

  2. I'll be re-reading Hans Andersen and Kierkegaard this year. Does that count? No? How about The Apothecary’s Daughters by Henrik Pontoppidan? If I can find a copy.

  3. Iceland's always good (I want to try more by Halldór Laxness, for one).

  4. A Norwegian book I'm dying to read, although it is not from your favored nineteenth century, is My Struggle by Karl Ove Knausgaard.

    Description: "My Struggle: Book One introduces American readers to the audacious, addictive, and profoundly surprising international literary sensation that is the provocative and brilliant six-volume autobiographical novel by Karl Ove Knausgaard. It has already been anointed a Proustian masterpiece and is the rare work of dazzling literary originality that is intensely, irresistibly readable. Unafraid of the big issues—death, love, art, fear—and yet committed to the intimate details of life as it is lived, My Struggle is an essential work of contemporary literature."

    Of course, this was no where near your list and probably not something you'd wish to embark upon at all, I'm just saying what's caught my eye. And interest. And plan for 2014.

    Although those are always subject to change and could well include something you've introduced me to here.

  5. I went to school in Norway, and will recommend some favorites
    if you omit them from tomorrow's post. For Iceland, the one irreplaceable book is Laxness' Independent People.

    1. I was looking directly at your name, Jeffry, thinking "spell his name right," and look (below) where that got me.

    2. I think you did spell it right, but my parents spelled it wrong.

  6. Henrik Pontoppidan, huh? Seriously, how did you come up with that one? If you can find a copy, maybe you can sell it to the Harvard library, since they don't have one.

    Andersen and Kierkegaard will certainly be mentioned tomorrow, but since I read a chunky collection of Andersen a few - well, seven or eight - years ago, I am not so tempted now. And K. is of course one of those dreaded philosophers. I should try again, I guess. The first section of Fear and Loathing, the part about storytelling, that I could understand.

    Laxness - Independent People specifically- is a possibility because it is set early enough, before the war. I think it also ties back to some of the sagas. We'll see. Then there is this contemporary writer with one name, Sjón, who is promising, in part because one of his novels has a specific link back to William Morris that would be fun to pursue.

    That Knausgaard description is - no, I will just say that I hope you read it and help suppress the idea that the book is "Proustian."

    No, I will say one more thing. Nora Roberts novels - and I mean no disparagement whatsoever of Roberts - are also unafraid of big issues and committed to the intimate etc.

    And the claim that it is "rare" that works that are original are also readable!

    Sorry, I should not argue with the publisher, who means well, even if he appears, with that last bit, to actively dislike literature. I have been tempted by Knausgaard as well, but I think it is too distant from my purpose for now. My purpose of reading Ibsen and Strindberg, which has exactly what to do with Icelandic sagas or the Kalevala. There has been some leakage of purpose, yes.

    Jeffrey, thanks in advance - there is no "if"!

    So, in general, the more of this reading done "in my honor," the better. Miguel, how did you pick that one?

    1. Miguel, how did you pick that one?

      A few years there was a surge of translations here in Portugal, and this was one of them. I was immediately attracted to the story - a 19th century Swedish novel about the Antichrist? Sounds like a dozy!

  7. Oh good! I almost suggested something like this last year. I don't have a blog, so I won't exactly join you, but I might read a few books along and try to comment a bit. I'll keep an eye on the "Currently Reading" section. It certainly is time I get around to _Seven Brothers_. Not to mention all those Norwegian writers I learned about in school but never read properly (Garborg, certainly! Every Norwegian is fed a bit of _Haugtussa_ at school, but don't ask me what it's like.)
    I'm going to stick with Dickens this month, however.

    I started writing a bit about Norwegian literature, but I'll hold on to it till tomorrow and see what you're planning to cover.
    You might want to take a look at the Finnish (but Swedish-writing) poets Johan Ludvig Runeberg and Edith Södergran, if they've been translated.

  8. Henrik Pontoppidan? I work with a Dane; I asked her what great 19th-century Danish novel I should read. I am unlikely to find a copy, which is a shame, because the book sounds pretty good.

    But no, what I really mean is that this year is supposed to be my year for The Long Ships. Have you read that one?

  9. There is a recent English translation of Pontoppidan's major novel Lykke-Per. It's expensive, but there are always libraries.
    Here's Frederic Jameson's review in the London Review of Books: Cosmic Neutrality

  10. I did not know that about the Kalevala. I own an Oxford World's Classics edition, but the gigantic size scares me.

  11. Interesting approach this year. I wish I could join you. May be I would be looking for free ebooks on my phone. I hate that form of reading, always in favour of hard copies. However, such books are difficult to come by. It's sad. I intend to read the French this year, thanks to the Penguin Popular Classics. They are cheap and available here.

  12. Øystein, thanks so much. Both of the poets you mention have been translated into English - Södergran has been translated a lot. Now that really makes me curious. The poets have an additional path to us because of their use by the great Scandinavian composers - maybe that explains the interest.

    But I do not blame you for sticking to Dickens and treading lightly. I hope to do the same. No big plunge.

    There is expensive, and there is insane - $76.90 says Amazon. Nevertheless, Lykke-Per sounds - well, complex, Danish naturalism disguising other things. That translation has the same publisher as Stifter's Indian Summer, and Pontoppidan's novel sounds similarly tricky. It is a long novel. Some planning would be required. Jameson's review is useful.

    The length of The Kalevala is an issue for me as well. I say this as I cruise to the end of an 850 page Trollope novel.

    The Long Ships is very appealing (Howling Frog just read it!). An entire project of Viking reading would be great fun.

    Hard copies, Nana, me too, me too. And to make it worse, some of the old, free translations of these books are quite bad. I would not even consider a project like this without access to good libraries, which I am lucky enough to have.

    I hope to get some good French reading done, too. More Flaubert, more Zola, maybe finish Proust, maybe.

    1. "The length of The Kalevala is an issue for me as well. I say this as I cruise to the end of an 850 page Trollope novel."
      There's length and there's length. I think Trollope expected people to gallop through his novels at a speed comparable with the speed at which he wrote them, whereas a hundred pages of The Great Gatsby or a Samuel Beckett novel are meant to be taken much more slowly.

    2. Trollope may have expected a gallop (with one month intervals - this one is serialized) but that just ain't the way I read. I'm paying attention.

  13. A Swedish poet you could try is Harry Martinson, if you're not against 20th century poetry.

  14. Poetry seems to run on a different gauge of track than fiction, so I find it easier to hop around in time.

    So Harry Martinson is an interesting suggestion. I wonder if I should try his science fiction epic in verse? How strange.

    1. If you could track it down, I'd love to read your thoughts. I myself had to make do with a selection of his poetry.

  15. Nice plan! I'd be happy to meet you on your 19th century turf for a joint reading of Knut Hamsun's Mysteries if you haven't already read it yet & if it's an otherwise acceptable choice for you. One of the last books I bought during my end of the year splurge. Sorry I couldn't wait till tomorrow's Norwegian post, but I wanted to beat all the Scandinavian rabble to the punch so to speak.

  16. Henrik Pontoppidan's books in translation are available by Print-on-Demand from the British Library's collection- oddly enough, the one place where you don't seem to be able to get them is the BL's own shop.
    A sidelight on Iceland is Letters from Iceland by W. H. Auden and Louis MacNeice. It includes Auden's wonderful Letter to Lord Byron, which doesn't say much about Iceland though...

  17. I'm in, as usual expecting special treatment (you pick the book that I will likely enjoy [prose fiction, not to long, in form I can hold in bed], give me the book and I'll read it) and looking forward to it. Children's lit? Garden lit?

  18. I saw that POD Pontoppidan, too. I believe I will wait for the NYRB treatment. I am patient.

    Mysteries, absolutely. At some point, several months from now, we should think about when.

    SpSq - forget all this stuff. You want Tove Jansson. Simultaneously children's and garden lit. Then the question for me to ponder is, which book? Moomin or non?

    1. Tom, any month but July should be fine (doing Spanish Lit Month with Stu again this year). Your call.

    2. Woohoo! A book (or at least an author) has been selected for me. I'm looking forward to it.

    3. I'm less patient. I purchased the BL POD of The Apothecary's Daughters last night. Fingers crossed.

    4. If it's a dud - if it's merely a passable period piece - send the bill to your co-worker.

    5. Either way, satisfying my curiosity is worth $20. And at parties I'll be able to say, "I can't believe you haven't read Pontoppidan. Do you live under a rock, or what?"

    6. I should ask for a ranking of each recommended writer or book, not just that it exists. The Maias, to reach back to the Portuguese year, is actually As Good As Flaubert. Which Norwegian or Swedish or Danish book in these comments is AGAF?

    7. As good as Flaubert? Flaubert being among the top 20 of modern Western fiction, there can only be about 20 matches. From my very ignorant point of view (limited to the handful of writers I like):
      Eca de Queiroz
      Machado de Assis
      Henry James

    8. Exactly what I mean, exactly. I have doubts that Herman Bang or Selma Lagerlöf will displace anyone on your list. No offense meant to them or anyone who recommended them - it is more a matter of prioritization.

      "Don't miss X, a book as good as Flaubert. If you like that, try Y, who is as good as prime Balzac. And if you are still happy, try Z, which is as good as second-tier Balzac."

      Something like that. Admittedly unwieldy.

  19. All of this sounds so intriguing.

    The medieval Icelandic stuff particularly so. Up until now I have only been vaguely aware of its existence.

    The The Kalevala sounds like a great read, but I laughed at the Trollope comparison. I too try to pay attention. My guess is that he is still a bit more accessible :)

  20. Great project!
    I know nothing about Icelandic and Finnish literature, I'm going to learn things when I read your posts.

  21. I have the Aleksis Kivi on my list to read soon. It's the old translation, but frankly sounds like fun.

  22. The newer Kivi translation may be a pain to get, actually. Yet I will persevere.

    The Icelandic stuff is wild. It is like reading an alternate history, where there also happen to be ghosts and dragons. And vomiting contests.

    I did not mention the scope of the sagas. They go where the Vikings go - everywhere. America, Constantinople. They upend the map.

  23. I'd love to join in on reading Njal's Saga, and also The Long Ships, if you do take it up -- both have been on my to-read list for centuries (slight exaggeration).

  24. Welcome, Alison! What do you think for Njal's Saga, sooner (say, February) or later?

    1. February would be good for me!

    2. Njal's Saga in February, then! Closer to the end than the beginning of the month is likely, but there is no need to wait for me.

  25. Super. This is going to be one fun year, and I can't wait to follow your northern travels.

    I second Jeffry's recommendation for Independent People, so unlike a 20th century novel that it will nest quite comfortably on the fringe of the Wuthering Expectations preferred date range.

    I should wait until your next post to comment on Norway, but if there is a Knausgaard for Wuthering Expectations, I would wager that it's A Time for Everything, which in addition to being one of the most deeply engaging contemporary novels I've read in recent years, also contains sections that seem steeped in 19th century atmosphere. My Struggle is a different thing altogether.

  26. A Time for Everything sounds much more directly appealing than My Struggle, although I am almost a champion of boredom as an aesthetic choice, so My Struggle has its appeal, too, as you have noted in other comments. I do not hold that publisher's blurb up above against the book itself!

    The seraillon piece on A Time for Everything is here.

  27. This sounds like such an interesting reading plan. I know almost nothing about Scandinavian literature beyond a smattering of Norse mythology. I'm actually interested in the medieval lit--I'd have to look at my shelves to know just what I have, but I believe I have some of the sagas already--but I think that shall have to be a project for a future year. I look forward to your posts!

  28. The saga I am reading now, The Saga of Hrolf Kraki, is a hoot and a scream, and it is not even one of the best. Reading them in bulk would be a great project.

  29. Hi.
    Actually, Scandinavia only means Norway, Denmark and Sweden.
    These 3 countries plus Iceland and Finland and their autonomous regions have a different name: the Nordic countries.

  30. Way to get into the spirit of the thing, Di.

  31. I am a really easy person to convince, but I need some kind of argument. Words are more or less free on the internet.

    When you have convinced me, you can try your argument out on Lonely Planet. And then the Scandinavian Department at UC Berkeley. And then on to U Wisconsin - Madison.

    But start with me.

    1. Most people in the world, that is, people outside East and Southeast Asia, use the term Chinese New Year- that doesn't mean it's correct. The correct term is Lunar New Year. To non-Chinese people from East and Southeast Asia that celebrate Lunar New Year, it matters.
      People often use the word Asians to refer to East and Southeast Asians. That doesn't mean it's correct. People from South Asia, Central Asia and the Middle East would react. It matters.
      People also confuse the terms Great Britain and the UK all the time. Someone like you may not care, but to many people, especially Scottish and Irish people, it matters.
      This case is similar.
      You can look at a few links:
      To the British/ American/ German... mindsets, Scandinavia only includes 3 countries (just think of SAS), mostly because of the Scandinavian languages (Norwegian, Swedish and Danish), which are mutually intelligible. As I live in Norway, I do not regret wasting my time on these comments but wouldn't bother more- whether you are convinced is your own business, but when you travel to a Nordic or Scandinavian country, or talk to somebody from any of these countries, and use the wrong term, well, that's your problem and I've said what needs to be said.
      Still, thanks for those links. I'll see what I can do.
      Have a nice day.

  32. Sorry, mistake. I meant, to the British/ American/ German... mindsets, Scandinavia also includes Finland (sometimes Iceland). But it only includes 3 countries.

  33. Ah ha, you have cleared up the issue. As the link says:

    'Although in the rest of the world the words "Scandinavian" and "Nordic" are happily used in similar manner and are interchangeable, in northern Europe they are not.'

    I live in the rest of the world, not northern Europe, and thus follow the ordinary usage of my language. When I visit Norway, though, I will be sure to adapt to local usage. That is very interesting - thanks for the clarification.