Northern Europe

The Encyclopedia of the Novel - Peter Melville Logan 2014

Northern Europe

Jan SjÅvik

The novel of the Nordic countries has its roots in the medieval Icelandic sagas, the oral narrative tradition of the Scandinavian countries, and the continental European literary tradition. As modern Scandinavian literary culture gradually developed under the influence of such forces as the Lutheran reformation and the Humanist tradition, texts written in the vernacular languages gradually replaced the Latin writings of medieval priests and monks. The antiquarian concerns of some of the major Scandinavian humanists, few though they were, led to a renewed interest in the literary monuments of the high Middle Ages that were preserved primarily in Icelandic manuscripts, and the works of Snorri Sturluson and other medieval saga writers began to be studied and translated into the modern Scandinavian languages. The oral literature of the Nordic countries later became the object of similarly enthusiastic attention.

It may seem paradoxical, however, that one of the earliest Scandinavian fictional narratives of any length was not written in the vernacular. Ludvig Holberg wrote his novel Nicolai Klimii Iter Subterraneum (1741, Journey to the World Underground) in Latin in order to escape possible legal consequences, for his narrative is highly critical of contemporary European political institutions, including the Danish absolute monarchy, whose subject he was. It tells the story of one Niels Klim, who enters a cave near the city of Bergen, Norway, and discovers a new and different world hidden inside the earth. Niels travels extensively in this world, encountering a variety of peoples and countries that together offer a kind of fun-house reflection of Holberg's contemporaries.

Scandinavia had only the rudiments of literary and cultural institutions prior to 1850, and only a limited number of novels were produced. Under the influence of German gothic fiction, the Norwegian Maurits Hansen published a number of rather hastily written tales full of villains, ruins, supernatural occurrences, and strange coincidences, but also governed by an idealist worldview. His Swedish contemporary Carl Jonas Love Almqvist shared a similar attraction to Romanticism's dark side, but his best work is marked by early literary realism, as in his short novel Det går an (1839, Why Not?). This work also has a strong feminist slant, as its protagonist, Sara Videbeck, is a glazier who privileges economic independence over conventional marriage. A certain realism coupled with Romantic idealism is also found in the novels of the Dane Hans Christian Andersen, most of them written in the 1830s and 1840s, before he became famous for his shorter fiction. The Swede Fredrika Bremer wrote a number of novels dealing with middle- and upper-class life; one of them, Hertha, eller en själs historia (1856, Hertha), points forward to the feminist concerns of the second half of the century.

The Golden Age, 1850—1900

The second half of the nineteenth century is the Golden Age of the literature of the Nordic countries, when a substantial cohort of writers created works that stood at the forefront of European writing. While the dramatic work of such writers as Henrik Ibsen (1828—1906) and August Strindberg has withstood the test of time better than that of the Nordic novel of the period, many more novels than plays were written, and the audience of fiction was generally larger than that of drama. Gradually a class of professional novelists—both men and women—arose. Most of these writers were on the left in both politics and the cultural debate and subscribed to a view strongly advocated by the Danish critic Georg Brandes (1842—1927), that the primary mission of contemporary literature was to debate current issues. The most important such issue in the Scandinavian novel of this period was the proper place of women both in the home and in society, but this body of literature also debates other matters, including religion, a favorite target of Scandinavian realists and naturalists (see NATURALISM). In tandem with the emphasis on depicting modern life there was also a modernization of style and narrative technique.

Throughout the 1850s the idealism of the Romantic era was clearly on the wane in the novels of Northern Europe. Camilla Collett wrote about the plight of upper-class daughters in Norway's first truly modern novel, Amtmandens DImagettre (1854—55, The District Governor's Daughters). While critical of contemporary society, Collett uses a fairly traditional narrative technique and speaks in a genteel tone. Her fellow Norwegian Amalie Skram, who wrote about women of all social classes, is, by comparison, both bitter and angry, and is motivated by a naturalistic worldview. The Swede Victoria Benedictsson was particularly clear-sighted with regard to women's economic position, as demonstrated by her novel Pengar (1885, Money). Several works by the Norwegian Jonas Lie dealt with women's issues, e.g., Familjen paa Gilje (1883, The Family at Gilje), in which a talented young woman rejects marriage in favor of economic independence, and KommandImagerens DImagetre (1886, The Commodore's Daughters), the title of which evokes that of Collett's earlier book.

One of the most significant stylistic innovators in the 1850s was the Norwegian BjImagernstjerne BjImagernson, who drew on both the oral style of the medieval sagas and such oral literature as legends and folktales in several peasant tales, SynnImageve Solbakken (1857), Arne (1859) and En glad Gut (1860, A Happy Boy). These works eschew such traditional narrative devices as long declarative sentences, the use of fictional diary entries, and apostrophes to the reader, and BjImagernson's narrative style became widely imitated across the region. His concern with rural life found a parallel in the best-known novel written in Finnish, Seitsemän veljestä (1870, Seven Brothers), by Aleksis Kivi, which tells the story of a group of young men who leave civilization behind and take refuge in the woods for several years.

Religion is a major theme in the work of the Dane Jens Peter Jacobsen, who in Niels Lyhne (1880) examines the power of inherited religion over the mind of an avowed atheist. The book's eponymous protagonist sacrifices greatly for his unbelief but finally turns to God in prayer, receiving no answer. The Norwegian Alexander L. Kielland mercilessly satirizes both the established state-church and low-church pietistic religion in several works, among them Garman & Worse (1880) and Skipper Worse (1882), a prequel to the former. Arne Garborg, another Norwegian, attacked the use of religion in the education of children and youth in his novel Hjaa ho Mor (1890, Living with Mama), in which he touched on the connection between religion and the physical abuse of children. His later novel Trætte Mænd (1891, Weary Men) offers an ironic depiction of the relationship between religion and sexuality, a theme that had also been discussed in Hjaa ho Mor.

Around 1890 the foremost novelists of Northern Europe abandoned their focus on social themes and centered their attention on the interior life of human beings (see NOVEL THEORY, 19TH C). Strindberg, the Swedish dramatist who also wrote a number of important novels, anatomized his first marriage in Le plaiyoyer d'un fou (1888, The Confessions of a Fool), which was originally written in French. I havsbandet (1890, By the Open Sea), which extolled the qualities of a Nietzschean superman, also showed, however, that the mind's irrational forces are an ever-present danger. The Dane Herman Bang offered portraits of both personal and familial decline, while in Sweden Selma Lagerlöf memorialized the past of her home district—including some of its distinctive inhabitants—in Gösta Berlings saga (1891, The Story of Gösta Berling).

The most significant novelist of the Scandinavian countries is Knut Hamsun, who almost singlehandedly created the modern psychological novel through the publication of four works that probe the human subconscious, Sult (1890, Hunger), Mysterier (1892, Mysteries), Pan (1894), and Victoria (1898). Hamsun's early protagonists are troubled individuals whose actions are motivated by irrational forces which they do not themselves fully comprehend, but which the author tries to allow the reader to decode. Hamsun's approach to psychology was intriguing to many of his contemporaries, and he became a significant early contributor to the movement later to be known as modernism.

Neorealism and Modernism

The dominant style in the twentieth-century Nordic novel is psychological realism, coupled with modernist themes and motifs. Echoes of the great nineteenth-century realists are also to be found, particularly in a pervasive concern with social and historical developments. For example, Hamsun turned away from the experimental psychology of his earliest novels in such works as BImagern av tiden (1913, Children of the Age), Segelfoss by (1915, Segelfoss Town), and Markens grImagede (1917, Growth of the Soil), in which he offered a historically based—and utterly scathing—critique of modernity. The Danes Johannes V. Jensen and Hans Kirk also exemplify this turn, the former in the psychological study Kongens Fald (1900—1901, The Fall of the King), as well as in a six-volume cycle entitled Den lange Rejse (1908—22, The Long Journey), which tells a Darwinian story of life from before the Ice Age to the height of the industrial period. Kirk interrogated the nature of religious life in Fiskerne (1928, The Fishermen, 1999), a collective novel that was influenced by both Marxism and Freudianism as it portrayed a group of fishermen and their families (see MARXIST). The Swede Selma Lagerlöf memorialized the past of her home district in the aforementioned Gösta Berlings saga. Psychological realism was an important feature of many historical novels as well, as, for example, the Kristin Lavransdatter trilogy by Sigrid Undset, which consists of the volumes Kransen (1920, The Bridal Wreath), Husfrue (1922, The Mistress of Husaby), and Korset (1922, The Cross), and has been translated into over seventy languages.

Scandinavia's most important theorist of modernism is Pär Lagerkvist, who was active as a poet and dramatist as well as a novelist. In his semi-allegorical novel Dvärgen (1944, The Dwarf), he attempts to explain the rise of evil in twentieth-century Europe. The Norwegian Cora Sandel, on the other hand, focused on such modernist themes as the development of the artist and the role of the city. A trilogy consisting of the volumes Alberte og Jakob (1926, Alberta and Jacob), Alberte og friheten (1931, Alberta and Freedom), and Bare Alberte (1939, Alberta Alone) details her own development, particularly during her life in Paris during the 1920s. The Dane Tom Kristensen interrogated the theme of personal identity in Hærværk (1930, Havoc), which is set in Copenhagen in the 1920s and presents the self-destructive behavior of the author's alter ego.

The Nordic Novel after WWII

WWII was a traumatic experience for all of Scandinavia, but particularly for Denmark and Norway, which were occupied for five years, and also for Finland, which saw much conflict. The events of the war figure in a major way in the postwar novel. In Finland, Väinö Linna wrote the pacifist Tuntematon Sotilas (1954, The Unknown Soldier), which tells the story of a platoon of machine-gunners during the Continuation War (1941—44). In Norway, Jens BjImagerneboe investigated both the war experience as such in the novel Under en hårdere himmel (1957, Under a Harder Sky), in which the treatment of collaborators was discussed, and in a number of novels that dealt with the problem of evil in a more general sense. Sigurd Hoel offered an analysis of the psychological background for collaboration in MImagete ved milepelen (1947, Meeting at the Milestone), while Tarjei Vesaas discussed the war in allegorical terms in Huset i mImagerkret (1945, The House in the Dark, 1976). The Icelander Halldór Laxness detailed some of the war's consequences for his homeland in AtómstöÐin (1948, The Atom Station).

While the Scandinavian novel had generally had a progressive bent, a significant radicalization took place in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when many novelists became strongly interested in Maoism as well as engaged in opposition to the Vietnam War (1955—75) and the increasing power of multinational corporations. The documentary novel became widely used as a means of furthering leftist causes. The Norwegians Edvard Hoem and Tor Obrestad both presented fictionalized attempts to bring about a Marxist—Leninist revolution in Norway, while the Swedes Per Olof Sundman, Per Olov Enquist, and Sara Lidman wrote about various historical persons and topics.

During the last two decades of the twentieth century, the Nordic novel became strongly influenced by postmodernist ideas and techniques. Kjell Westö masterfully mixes elements of high and low culture in Drakarna över Helsingfors (1996, Kites above Helsinki), which traces the development of capitalism in Finland. Kjartan FlImagegstad uses similar narrative devices in his novels, including Dalen Portland (1977, Dollar Road), which details the development of the hydroelectric industry in western Norway. The Dane Peter HImageeg uses elements of the crime novel (see DETECTIVE) in his very successful FrImageken Smillas fornemmelse for sne (1992, Smilla's Sense of Snow) and Kvinden og aben (1996, The Woman and the Ape), a critique of the scientific mindset. In Sweden, P. C. Jersild both reimagines the course of human history and parodies the writing of history in Geniernas återkomst (1987, The return of the geniuses). Elements of metafiction and magical realism remain important in the novel of Northern Europe.

SEE ALSO: Epic, History of the Novel, Mythology, National Literature, Romance.


1. Algulin, I. (1989), Contemporary Swedish Prose.

2. Bisztray, G. (1976), “ Documentarism and the Modern Scandinavian Novel,” Scandinavian Studies 48: 71—83.

3. Gustafson, A. (1940), Six Scandinavian Novelists.

4. Laitinen, K. (1984), “ The Finnish War Novel,” World Literature Today 58: 31—35.

5. Magnusson, S. (1968), “ The Modern Icelandic Novel,” Mosaic 1: 83—93.

6. Mawby, J. (1978), Writers and Politics in Modern Scandinavia.

7. Rees, E. (2005), On the Margins.

8. Schoolfield, G. (1962), “ The Postwar Novel of Swedish Finland,” Scandinavian Studies 34: 85—110.

9. Sjåvik, J. (2004), Reading for the Truth.

10. Sjåvik, J. (2006), Historical Dictionary of Scandinavian Literature and Theater.