The Bohemians of Oslo

Portrait of Hans Jæger by Sven Jørgensen

Once upon a time, there was a doctor who came to a village that’s primary industry was tourism to its famed hot springs. The doctor came to understand that the springs did in fact not have the health benefits the citizens of the little town had been promoting – rather the opposite happened to the people coming to the village – they got sick from dangerous chemicals in the water.

The doctor warned the villagers who would hear nothing of it, for speaking the dangerous truth he was declared a public enemy. And some things that should not have been forgotten were lost. History became legend. Legend became myth. And the play “An Enemy of the People” (En Folkefiende) by Henrik Ibsen became a source of inspiration for the Spielberg movie Jaws.

It’s difficult to explain the disappointment when I, as a teenager discovered that while the Norwegian novel Beatles was named after the band the Beatles song Norwegian Wood was in fact not named after the time Lennon went to spend some time meditating in the Norwegian forests, but rather disappointingly after bad pinewood panelling that was popular in London back in the days. To add insult to injury the book Norwegian Wood by Murakami was named after the song – again not after the author discovering the deep wilderness of my homeland and finding the inspiration to create a powerful piece of art.

We do however have our moments, we have our Ibsen, our Grieg and Munch – world-class Norwegian artists who lived and died long, long ago, yet they are still national heroes, reminiscent of a time when Norwegian culture thrived both at home and on the international stage. Norway is, after all, a tiny country in the corner of the world, consisting of a tiny population, writing and speaking in a few languages few people understand. When living in Norway is hard to realize that we’re not the centre of the world, when leaving Norway it becomes immediately apparent.

Part of what’s shaping the relationship between the Norwegian cultural and intellectual sphere and that of Europe and the world is that we’re weird and abide by strange rules. In his book “How to Understand and Use a Norwegian: A User’s Manual and Troubleshooter’s Guide” Norwegian poet, author and musician Odd Børretzen touches on this – as he puts it the oddities of Norwegians stems from us living for too long in valleys far away from each other, giving us limited experience and culture for interacting with other human beings.

In fact, I do however believe the Danish-Norwegian author Aksel Sandemose was somewhat closer to cracking the code of the awkward social interactions and inability to really breaking through when he in 1933 formalized Janteloven – an up until then informal code of conduct in the Nordics portraying conformity and rejection of ambition.

The ten commandments of the Jantelov goes as follows:

  1. You’re not to think you are anything special.
  2. You’re not to think you are as good as we are.
  3. You’re not to think you are smarter than we are.
  4. You’re not to imagine yourself better than we are.
  5. You’re not to think you know more than we do.
  6. You’re not to think you are more important than we are.
  7. You’re not to think you are good at anything.
  8. You’re not to laugh at us.
  9. You’re not to think anyone cares about you.
  10. You’re not to think you can teach us anything.

Our artists, authors and poets – especially those who make a mark beyond our borders, including Ibsen and Grieg do often not abide by these rules and spend significant periods of their lives abroad. The same is true for the characters depicted in their works, be that Peer Gynth or Dr. Stockmann from An Enemy of the People.

Another set of rules was however developed decades before the Jantelov, by the Kristiania Bohemian movement in Oslo in the 1880’s – a movement that strived to stand up against the conformity of society at the time as youthful and urban bohemians with an eye to the world, consisting of important authors and artists including Hans Jæger, Gunnar Heiberg, Ludvig Meyer, Arne Garborg, Johan Collett Michelsen and Oda and Christian Krogh.

The bohemians were named by the book Fra Kristiania-Bohêmen which immediately was banned by the Ministry of Justice upon publication. Most copies of the book in circulation were confiscated by the police, and the author, Hans Jæger spent sixty days in jail and had to pay a fine of 80 kr for blasphemy and infringement of modesty and public morals.

Albertine in the Police Doctor’s Waiting Room – as painted by Christian Krogh

Another famous novel of the era, Albertine, was written by Christian Krogh, another bohemian touching upon issues of rape, poverty, humiliation and prostitution. This novel was also promptly banned and confiscated by the Minister of Justice, a decision that was upheld both in the City Court and the Supreme Cort leading to protests of 5000 workers and students outside of the office of Prime Minister Johan Sverdrup who stood by his fellow minister and the censorship but promised to address the social issues discussed in the book.

Anyways, I digress – the rules of the Bohemians goes as follows:

  1. Thou shalt write thine own life.
  2. Thou shalt sever thy family roots.
  3. Man kann seine Eltern nie slecht genug behandeln (Thou can not treat thy parents badly enough.)
  4. Thou shalt never smite thy neighbour for less than five crowns.
  5. Thou shalt hate and despise all farmers, such as Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson.
  6. Thou shalt never wear celluloid cuffs.
  7. Neglect not to make a scandal in the Christiania Theater.
  8. Thou shalt never repent.
  9. Thou shalt take thine own life.

These rules reflect, as I mentioned, disdain for the conformity enforced by the unspoken rules of society that later were captured by Sandemose, and an eye to the international and European world of artists and intellectuals. They are of course reflective of their era, but much of the conservative, unspoken culture of conformity remains to this day.

While some Norwegian authors and artists create notable works, and gain followings internationally these days too I miss some of this rebellious spirit, a willingness to stick it to society, to break with conformity, to look to the world and expand the horizon of artistic, intellectual and political discourse and creation to build a new movement of bohemians from Oslo. I’m game for that and would love for others to join.

2 thoughts on “The Bohemians of Oslo

  1. These rules forming a national code of conduct are both amusing and sad. I doubt that Norwegians are or were uniquely conformist, but setting the rules down in a formal way to make them more powerful might be unique,
    I don’t read crime fiction, so the whole Scandi Noir thing has passed me by, but I have read some Norwegian authors including Sigrid Undset, Mars Mytting, Dag Solstad, Johan Harstad, and of course Per Petterson who is well-known even here in Australia. I have read just one of the Knausgaard epics, that was enough for me! (see
    So I am looking forward to some interesting recommendations from this GLLI focus on Norway…
    Thanks for a most interesting post:)


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