“I stroked her cheek and whispered that what we had was amazing, but that it was impossible to describe with words. She turned to me and replied: and yet, now that you’ve said it, it’s gone. During the course of the night I tried to take it back, but it was too late. In the morning we shared out our things between us.”
(From: You can’t betray your best friend and learn to sing at the same time, by Kim Hiorthøy, Translated by Duncan J. Lewis & Kim Hiorthøy)
When I first created Nordisk Books, the idea was to publish the very best of modern and contemporary Scandinavian fiction, impeccably translated and in handsomely designed, affordable editions. I knew nothing about publishing and relied on lots of support from a few patient souls in getting the books pulled together. But the idea was clear enough – that the Nordic countries are incredibly well represented on the blood spattered crime thriller shelves of bookshops across the globe but, for English speakers at least, the volume of more literary titles that make it into translation is mainly notable by its paucity.
By the end of this year, we will have published nine books, covering an array of important and at times confrontational subject matter (mental health, alcoholism, loneliness, cancer, obsession). Six of those books are by début authors. Only one had been translated into English previously (out of print). The books are also diverse stylistically; from Kim Hiorthøy’s flash fiction quoted above, to the paving slab of 1930s modernism that is Tom Kristensen’s Havoc (translated by Carl Malmberg), but also genre-defying poetic prose (Love/War, by Ebba Witt-Brattström, translated by Kate Lambert), writing freed of punctuation (Gine Cornelia Pedersen’s Zero translated by Rosie Hedger) and a novella that almost reads like a medical report (Termin, by Henrik Nor-Hansen, translated by Matt Bagguley).
So why bother assembling this cabinet of curiosities? It doesn’t take long to realise that books without celebrity endorsements, magicians, chapters or recipes – let alone ones that, heaven forbid, were not even originally written in English – are unlikely to trouble the more altitudinous end of the bestseller charts. And whilst Nordisk Book is something of a passion project, it is also intended to be a viable business.
The point is that there is enormous artistic merit in these works. For a variety of reasons, the major publishers rarely devote resources to young authors writing in languages other than English. Most of our authors have won and been nominated for prestigious literary awards in their home countries and most if not all of these books have received luminous reviews in their domestic press. Not everyone will love every book we have published. When we discussed Restless (by Kenneth Moe, translated by Alison McCullough) at the oh-so 2020 Zoom-based Borderless Book Club, it attracted a number of unapologetically critical remarks. But what is the value of literature if it does not create debate?
I have been a fan of punk rock music since I was a teenager and these books often share in the qualities that are that genre’s driving force – the courage to ignore contemporary mainstream trends, an ability to convey a message quickly and with urgency, raw emotion and a conviction in the ability to effect change or, at the very least, to make the listener/reader think a little. And if our authors can do all that? Then surely it’s worth fighting another day.
(Duncan J. Lewis is Director of Nordisk Books, an independent publishing house in Whitstable, founded in 2016 and with a focus on modern and contemporary Scandinavian literature.)