A Brief Introduction to the History of Norwegian Literature

Jo Nesbø is probably the one you’ve heard about…here are some more authors to check out!

We are, as I often say, the stories we tell about ourselves and each other. They form the foundation for how we see and understand the world, for how we relate to others and think about our surroundings. Literature formalizes these stories and thus forms the pillars and structure of our culture. As such literature lies at the foundation of any society.

This much was clear through the 1800s as the Norwegian nation-state was built after the establishment of the constitution and parliament in 1814, and later as Norway gained independence from Sweden in 1905. The history of Norwegian literature is thus largely one of nation-building, as the history is a result of thoughts explored in literature, and the literature a reflection of how society eventually evolved.

During the time of Danish rule, from 1537 to 1814 all literature in Norway was written in Danish. This era of literature is known as the “Danish-Norwegian common-literature”. To this day the most common ways of writing Norwegian (Riksmål which evolved into the more current Bokmål) closely resembles Danish (and is also close to Swedish). On the other hand, you also have the written language of Landsmål which later became known as Nynorsk.

The term “Landsmål” loosely translates to country-side language, while “Riksmål” means “national language” and largely has been a norm. The fact that Landsmål was seen as the language of the country-side is still apparent in Norwegian linguistic policy today where Nynorsk, Landsmål’s linguistic descendent, currently is losing ground in the cities and no longer will be a graded subject in most schools in the latest national curriculum that will begin next year.

Nynorsk means new-Norwegian, a result of the fact that the language largely was constructed in the 1840s by a man named Ivar Aasen who travelled the countryside and collected words for a new dictionary for the newly established country as part of the national effort of nation-building.

A topic worthy of a post of its own is that of the Sami language and literary tradition. As with so many native populations across the world, the Sami literature has largely been verbal, and due to language policies and conscious efforts by Norwegian society at large the Sami literature has up until fairly recently suffered. We will get back to it, and cover it in greater detail – I promise.

At approximately the same time as Aasen’s work the Norwegian literary scene started growing, primarily with the poet Henrik Wergeland and later his opponent Welhaven – both of whom were central to the national narrative and attempts at building an independent culture after the establishment of the constitution and parliament in which among others Wergeland’s father had played a central role.

More central to the building of a nation was however perhaps the work of Asbjørnsen and Moe whom much like Aasen travelled the countryside in the 1840ies to collect fairytales in a volume that resembles a Norwegian version of the Brothers Grimm collection. To this day children are raised on the stuff…

In the 1850s the literary scene really started taking off and integrating more with the political public discourse – among other’s through the work of Camilla Collet, the sister of Wergeland and first Norwegian feminist who published the first novel posing a critique of Norwegian society. Central to the era was also Bjørnson and Ibsen who we will be exploring further throughout this month and who to this day stand as some of the most central figures of the Norwegian oeuvre, as well as Assmund Olavsson Vinje, who was the first poet to start writing in the new language constructed by Ivar Aasen.

From national romanticism the Norwegian scene moved into naturalism with figures such as Amalie Skram and Knut Hamsun towards the end of the century, paving the path into the early 1900s and the era surrounding the eventual independence of the country in 1905. Around this time great Norwegian explorers such as Amundsen and Nansen became central both as explorers and as writers publishing about their adventures and exploits.

On the more literary side Hamsund evolved and was joined by Sigrid Undset, Cora Sandel and Olav Duun as central figures within psychological and social realism leading up to the eventual occupation of Norway by Nazi Germany in 1940.

After the second world war the trends were less unified, yet moved towards modernism with the prose of Tarjei Vesaas, Johan Borgen and Aksel Sandemose.

In the 1970s Norway – like so much of the world – came into an era of more politically critical realism where the author Dag Solstad would become a central voice. At the same time crime-literature and other more “popular” genres became more culturally acceptable and the divisions between “high literature” and “low literature” slowly started vanishing.

Floating on the wave of Solstad bridging into the more naive and ironic ‘90s of Erlend Loe was a personal favourite of mine, Lars Saabye Christensen, whose bibliography makes up a stunning portrait of Oslo, especially in the decades after the Second World War – I remember spending summers as a child reading his work while staying with my grandfather who spent those decades growing up and living in the city. The books of Christensen had the power of bringing his obscure, odd and old world much closer to mine, and with it he deepened my appreciation both for my grandfather and our city.

Authenticity has possibly been the most central trend in the latest chapter of the Norwegian waves of literature, with authors focusing more on the intimate realism of the lives of individuals, often bridging the divide into the autobiographical. Karl Ove Knausgård is perhaps the best known internationally with the series “My Struggle”.

In parallel, Norwegians along with the rest of the Nordics have created a wave of international crime fiction resulting in internationally acclaimed TV shows, as well as the books of author Jo Nesbø.

There is of course much more depths to go into, and over the next month I will, but for now, this in an introduction, and a fairly comprehensive list of authors to check out if you want to delve into the fairly official literary history of Norway. As I hope will become more apparent over the month there are, however, nuanced, interesting details, new and emerging authors, and less well-known authors doing fascinating things across this weird and very long country of vastly diverse people writing and reading about a wide range of experiences and life.

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