Reading Social Democracy in Translation

It wasn’t so long ago that Scandinavia seemed very far away from London and New York. But steady doses of Dogme films and Ikea furniture over the last decades have prepared the way for a swell in the ...

It wasn’t so long ago that Scandinavia seemed very far away from London and New York. But steady doses of Dogme films and Ikea furniture over the last decades have prepared the way for a swell in the Anglo-American uptake of Danish television, Nordic noir, high-end Scandinavian design, and more. Such is the increased traffic in objects, bodies, and ideas between Scandinavia and the rest of the world that Icelandair’s recent advertising campaign, which redraws the map so as to make Reykjavik appear an obvious stopping point between the US and Europe, doesn’t seem as preposterous as it might have a decade ago. If you haven’t yet been to the region, you probably want to go; or at least to own an Egg Chair, or a sweater like Sarah Lund’s. And the struggles of Birgitte Nyborg or Karl Ove Knausgaard, which would once have registered as exotic reports from a place where prime ministers ride bikes to work and men worry about the dynamics of co-parenting, now seem written almost expressly for us.

Not all such moments of cross-cultural admiration extend this far. A generation or two back, Londoners were learning to eat pasta, holiday in Tuscany, and appreciate Italian lighting design while showing a fairly fleeting interest in Italian literature and film. But there is every indication that the translation of television and fiction out of the Nordic languages into English will over the next years continue to accompany the sales of plane tickets and designer goods. Their Anglo-American reception is, however, complicated. On the one hand, it is attractive that Norwegian and Danish and Swedish narratives not only depict social democracy but also show it working in support of a collectively owned cultural scene a little independent of the market. On the other, the narratives being most successfully exported feature highly professional and well-defined individuals. While Nordic countries struggle at home with the incompatibility of state sponsorship and exceptionalism, and of cultural normativity and pluralism, international audiences of late seem more willing to overlook such tensions.

In different ways, both the publicly produced television shows that have helped put the Danish Broadcasting Corporation and Sveriges Television on the international map, The Killing, Borgen, and The Bridge, and the work of authors like the two Norwegians under review here, Gaute Heivoll and Merethe Lindstrøm, can be understood as products of the Nordic economies’ ongoing support for the arts. Careers such as Heivoll’s and Lindstrøm’s attest to a state of affairs of which cultural producers around the world have good reason to be envious, one in which widespread participation in the arts reflects taxes spilling more or less reliably back into the institutions of public broadcasting, reading, writing, theater, music. State funding to the arts has in real terms actually stagnated or even slightly declined across Scandinavia in recent decades. Nonetheless, free tertiary education, the provision of state stipends for students and writers, legal and cultural limits to the working week, and strong support for arts education for children continue to provide a setting that is distinctive on a world scale—and one in which Norway is currently outperforming its neighbors.

Lindstrøm’s Days in the History of Silence is unlikely to be read as a testament to the charms of this setting, and yet formally it has much to say about the place of the creative writer in Norway. Eva, Lindstrøm’s narrator, is a retired teacher of literature, her whole way of being interwoven with a national literary curriculum into which her tale now inserts itself. Officially, her guarded but confidently narrated account of the days she spends with her husband as he slides into a speechless old age testifies to the failure of Norway’s official language to accommodate other stories. The Latvian immigrant, the Jewish holocaust survivor, and the teenage mother who has given her child up for adoption are all possible victims of the singular silence to which the novel’s original title—Dager i stillhetens historie (literally, “Days in the Silence’s History”)—refers.

Most obviously, Days in the History of Silence indicts the integration process that leaves Eva and her husband Simon unable to speak, even to their own grown children, of Simon’s German-Jewish origins. It reflects a quiet but subtly oppressive form of nationalism that has made Norwegian newspapers and history books Simon’s preferred reading material and left him without a language in which to reclaim his Jewish identity. Read in this key, Lindstrøm’s novel contributes little to a much richer and older chorus of narratives around the world protesting the repression of difference in the name of national and cultural homogeneity.

But Days in the History of Silence comes more interestingly into focus as a Norwegian novel if we think of Eva’s voice—one that is unhurried, self-reflective, a little regretful—as ultimately successful in telling a national story even as it draws attention to the silencing of at least some of Norway’s minorities. We learn early on that Eva’s central drive is not the desire to speak up or to speak out, but to be part of a state from which she has risked becoming unmoored at the point of her retirement. Of her past life as a teacher she says: “I do not know if I miss the work, but I wish to be part of something.” Later, she seeks out her local priest and wonders: “If I wished to be closer to the church. Can’t it simply have been a desire to be part of something, a context, or at least some kind of contact?”

Lindstrøm’s narrator is ultimately successful in telling a national story even as it draws attention to the silencing of at least some of Norway’s minorities.

Eva’s longing to be part of “something” informs Days in the History of Silence as a novel in which church, school, and literature remain powerfully normalizing entities. Her regret over untold individual stories pales into insignificance alongside her determination to reinsert herself into a collective mediated so strongly by the state and its institutions. Although this element of Eva is difficult to identify with, or even identify, for the cosmopolitan reader, her narrative reproduces quite well the textures that 21st-century reading and writing maintain as practices sponsored by a prosperous Norwegian state.

Heivoll, on the other hand, seems more concerned than Lindstrøm with the possibility that regional and national belonging might be at odds with the craft of the writer. Toward the end of Before I Burn, his autobiographical narrator drives away from his dying father, spontaneously boards a ferry bound for Denmark, gets drunk, and publicly fills his mouth with broken glass, chewing on the shards until his mouth fills with blood. The scene functions as reassurance that the story he now tells has as its precondition a certain deformation of the native tongue. When he leaves the ferry, he will begin to write. And now, here he is back for a summer in Finsland, the area of Southern Norway where he grew up, describing the winter he was born and several properties in the area were set ablaze. There is some mild intrigue about how this happened, but the arsonist is quickly identified as a neighbor, Dag, still living in the area. The novel’s real mystery is the link between Heivoll and Dag, the twin genesis of arsonist and writer. This link is spelled out with Heivoll’s discovery of a picture of himself as a child at Christmas:

It is difficult to explain why, but the experience had such an impact on me. It was as though I understood yet didn’t understand that it was me. And that it made no difference. Why I don’t know. But that was when the story of the fires made its re-appearance, as a kind of extension of this discovery. It was this picture of me, with a thin, steady flame rising from my hand, as it were, that led, a few weeks later, to my realization one evening at the beginning of June that I would attempt to write the story of the fires.

Punctuating the story that is being told, intensely reflexive autobiographical moments like these connect Heivoll’s work not only to that of his contemporary Knausgaard but also to a tradition of literary giants including Wordsworth, Joyce, and Proust who approach the autobiographical mode as an account of the writer’s exile. The photo of Heivoll connects the artist’s toolkit and the arsonist’s, suggesting that both must become outsiders to the community that supplies their materials.

It is worth pausing here to consider how it is generally the Nordic narratives foregrounding social outsiders—Danish and Swedish television series in which politicians and detectives work at the expense of their families; novels in which writers struggle with the demands of national and domestic citizenship in favor of creative exceptionalism—that have found an enthusiastic Anglo-American audience.

In their home setting, Heivoll reminds us, such trajectories can become incendiary. Stories about individual transcendence, intense reflections on the individual life, are as atypical of Nordic culture—and as unlikely to be subsidized by it in their production—as those reflecting the state and the collective voice are of the American literary tradition. This is as true now as it was in 1796, when Mary Wollstonecraft reported on the condition of Norway, praising its civility, cleanliness, and system of state justice, but decrying the absence of the culture that she, fresh from post-Revolutionary Paris and the radical circles of the London literary scene, longed for: lyrical, expressive, revolutionary, individual. For Wollstonecraft, even as an outsider, it was clear that the success of the state stifled the creative and rebellious individual.

If we have found a way of thinking of Sarah Lund and Karl Ove Knausgaard as characters who represent both cosmopolitan, Romantic individuality and a strong state economy, it is because we don’t experience this as a contradiction. We rightly hope for a future that would pull in both directions, pegging some of our damaged belief on this being possible in Scandinavia. In their domestic setting, however, Scandinavian fictions speak directly to the difficult relationship between a strong, normative state and individual creativity. They present this as an unresolved tension even as they show it to be more productive to write about than Wollstonecraft could have foreseen.

Heivoll’s novel allows us to see the writer, the violent delinquent, and the novel’s Norwegian reader as part of the same collective.

Before I Burn, for example, emphasizes the role of the state even in its lyrical register. The novel insists on the writer and arsonist as strongly bound, not just to each other but to a collective that reclaims them as its own. Here we can think about the difference between Heivoll’s version of Norway (which includes a town called Kleveland) and its American equivalent. They resemble each other in their spread-out communities, barns, roads, understated relationships. But there is also a difference between the story Heivoll tells of two men leaving and coming back to their community and the one his Midwestern counterpart would tell. This has to do with a practical sense of belonging that the writer and criminal experience despite their divergent fates. Dag and Heivoll, separated by a narrow generation, have each been precociously literate children at the same school, students of the same local piano teacher. Both have experimented with being public servants, Dag when called up to military service, Heivoll by studying law; and both have returned to Finsland as part of their re-education. Dag has spent several years in a psychiatric institution, Heivoll in a state-run creative writing course. While Dag is now a trash collector in his 50s and Heivoll a writer in his 30s (presumably on a stipend), we are given permission to see them as picking up pieces in the service of the same collective—one that includes writer, violent delinquent, and the novel’s Norwegian reader.

Like Borgen, The Killing, My Struggle, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo—that unlikely assortment of Scandinavian narratives to have become international hits in the last years—Before I Burn celebrates a professional who does his work better than others, a writer who transcends his past by becoming more, rather than less, alone. But it also suggests what it would mean to read the writer’s voice as indebted to something greater than the individual, to think of the writer, the time to write, and training in writing as having their roots in a community that oversees failure and success with some equanimity.

While it is ironic that our lapses into enthusiasm for social democracy are being fed by Nordic narratives concerned with lyric individualism and career progress, it is also ironic that the Anglo-American literary scene should have opened up to such narratives at the point in history when Nordic states are themselves struggling with what it means to become more multicultural. Denmark’s biggest literary celebrity this year has been Yahya Hassan, a young poet of Palestinian origin, whose self-titled poetry collection describes his growing up in a migrant ghetto in Aarhus. With over 100,000 copies sold, Yahya Hassan has quickly become the most popular Danish poetry collection of all time. The embrace of this work can be described partly as a reactionary phenomenon: a young Muslim using the Danish language well to condemn Islam and the patriarchal culture of his parents appeals for obvious reasons to those many Danes anxious about immigration. But Hassan, for whom support is politically widespread and whose literary talents are being enthusiastically hailed, also illuminates the search within the Danish literary establishment and a wider public for a new kind of Scandinavian voice.

Yahya Hassan on the Danish news program <i>Deadline</i> in October 2013

Yahya Hassan on the Danish news program Deadline in October 2013

If Days in the History of Silence speaks with any currency to this possibility and its limitations, it is on behalf of people who are more like Hassan than Simon is. The novel has almost certainly been chosen for translation to some extent because of its engagement with Jewishness. Hassan’s work is now being translated into English with a similar sense of its international currency. But neither the angry young man’s lambasting of Palestinian migrant culture nor a celebration of discursive belonging alert to the presence of a tiny Norwegian Jewish community strike an obviously cosmopolitan note. More precisely, Days in the History of Silence, in which an interest in Jewishness veils the more practical problem of Islam as the country’s largest minority religion, feels most Norwegian when it tackles these themes.

Thus, Days in the History of Silence’s subplot, which concerns Simon and Eva’s beloved Latvian housekeeper, Marija, actually speaks well to the mutually defining problems of racism and cultural inclusivity in their specific Norwegian constellation. At first, Marija seems an ideal convert to the Norwegian way of life: she picnics in the mountains, speaks Norwegian, openly admires the cleanliness of Oslo homes, and goes to the opera with her employers. What disqualifies her from being Norwegian is not her foreignness but her apparent anti-Semitism, which comes out one night when she remarks on the conductor at the opera being Jewish. By putting her liberalism into question, she makes her position unspeakable in Eva’s terms, justifying her dismissal without conversation or explanation. This scenario raises the question of just how tolerant this version of liberal secularism is. What are the limits of the collective under these conditions? What are the real exceptions to its rule? For much as Anders Behring Breivik’s murderous racism (directed against the Norwegians he saw as fraternizing with foreigners) and the recent election of the center-right coalition in Norway has brought the reactionary aspect of Norwegian society to light, the unthinkability of Breivik’s own prejudice also reveals the more normative aspect of Norwegian culture. It is the outpouring of national solidarity with Breivik’s politically defined victims that corresponds to Eva’s particular kind of hostility to Marija. Keeping tensions, prejudices, animosities, and racisms unarticulated is all part of the Norwegian commitment to the national collective.

Keeping tensions, prejudices, animosities, and racisms unarticulated is all part of the Norwegian commitment to the national collective.

Lindstrøm offers a sense of what it feels to live and create under such conditions. There are other writers on the Scandinavian scene who address them as a structural problem of statehood and its relation to the individual. One might think, for instance, of Pablo Llambias, director of the state-run creative writing institute in Copenhagen, whose autobiographical persona is as candid about his quotidian existence as Heivoll’s or Knausgaard’s are about theirs, but whose last novels, written in sonnets, suggest the productively constrained conditions under which his voice is crafted. Llambias, like many Scandinavian writers committed to describing the collective, the unemployed, the rise and the failure of the state, and who have had limited commercial success, is unlikely to be translated. And yet it is in such works that we encounter not stories of individual struggle flavored by their social democratic background but an unfamiliar sense of what state belonging allows and excludes as a condition of its creative partisanship.

The Scandinavian novels and television programs leading the current export boom lend themselves to Anglo-American identification by casting worldly, professionally ambitious, slightly lonely protagonists in a strangely pale but tantalizingly Nordic light. But there are other elements of these same narratives more difficult to decipher in translation: allusions to established and exclusionary ways of life, shared fears and phobias, the pleasures and challenges of having a national collective undergird the production and reception of narratives, even those about the lonely and the dispossessed. The tension between expressive individualism and state belonging is palpable in different ways in both Lindstrøm and Heivoll, and reading for it reveals an aspect of social democracy quite different from the one that the popularity of Borgen and My Struggle are helping to promote. While complicating the temptation to read Scandinavian literature as our own, Before I Burn and Days in the History of Silence gently insist on the sense of a writer’s formal, material, and often restrictive belonging to “something” being part of what a good state economy dedicated to the arts can sponsor—and one of things the Anglo-American market makes hardest to translate. icon

Featured image: Sidse Babett Knudsen as Danish politician Birgitte Nyborg in Borgen