The View from Here: Good reads from Denmark
Posted by BookerTalk
Continuing The View from Here series on literature from around the world, we travel to Denmark with the help of Marit, who blogs at boegernekslabyrint and at latinamerikalitteratur (both are in Danish). Until retirement she worked at the central library of Aarhus, the second largest town in Denmark. Six months ago the lucky residents of this town got a completely new library on the waterfront.
Let’s meet Marit
My name is Marit Haugaard, and I am 65 years old. I retired in 2012 after having been a librarian for almost 40 year; the last 20 years in the fiction department of Aarhus Central Library the last 10 years involved in building up the public libraries’ online-magazine, www.litteratursiden.dk, being part of the editorial team.
I started my private blog on books and literature in February 2011, intending it to consist mainly of reviews of books I had read. However, in the summer of 2014, I started making a monthly list of what will be published in the following month, and the number of visitors immediately soared. I see my blogging activities as an extension of my former job; I always enjoyed being in the library with the readers. Working on Litteratursiden taught me that it is possible to communicate the love of literature online.
My literary taste is pretty wide, I read everything from children’s books to crime fiction to prize-winning authors, my only demand is that the books are well written/translated. I don’t often read poetry or drama, but I go a lot to the theatre. I’m not too keen on experimental or weird books, I prefer a good story.
Q. What books are creating a buzz right now in Denmark?
I have just returned from the annual Copenhagen Book Fair. Unlike other years it wasn’t dominated by huge moneymaking writers with egos to match, so it was a rather relaxed affair. The big name was Carsten Jensen, who published his latest novel just before the fair, ‘Den første sten’ [The First Stone]. The author has a long standing in Danish literature, but he is now also a controversial debater being very critical towards Danish foreign politics, specially our engagement in Afghanistan and Iraq. His latest novel is about Danish soldiers in Afghanistan, but he insists that there is a sharp division between his roles as a fiction writer and debater.
Other authors worth mentioning this fall is Ida Jessen, who contrary to her earlier fiction takes us back 100 years to a small provincial town. Her latest novel is a small masterpiece, ‘En ny tid’ [A new Era]. Anna Grue is mostly known as a crime novelist, featuring “the bald detective” Dan Sommerdahl. She, like most Scandinavian crime writers, is extremely popular in Germany, but not translated into English – yet. However, her latest novel ‘Italiensvej’ [Italy Road] is a love story and a wonderful description of life in the late 1950s.
‘Afgrunden’ [The Abyss] by Kim Leine will probably be translated soon, as you already have the first part of his Greenlandic trilogy in English, ‘The Prophets of Eternal Fjord’. ‘Afgrunden’ is, however, a digression as it is about the lives of two Danish twins from their participation in the Finnish civil war (1918) to the Second World War.
On November 2nd, Morten Pape, published his first novel, Planen [The Estate], a week later he received the annual prize for the best first work of fiction of the year. A fast mover, who will be interesting to read.
If I take a general view of the Danish literary scene today, I should say that the women hold a very strong position. There are three generations:
- The young and upcoming: Ina Munch Christensen, Olga Ravn, Amalie Smith, Stine Pilgaard, Pernille Abd-El Dayem, Emma Elisabeth Nielsen – just to mention a few
- The established writers: Ida Jessen*, Pia Juul*, Helle Helle*, Katrine Marie Guldager*, Henriette Rostrup – and many more
- The “oldies”, but still going strong: Kirsten Thorup*, Jette Drewsen, Dorrit Willumsen* – and probably a few more
Crime fiction is a major genre in Danish literature, popular names are Jesper Stein, Elsebeth Egholm*, Sara Blædel*, Anna Grue, Michael Katz Krefeld, Jussi Adler-Olsen* – and more…. Biography is extremely popular, as is narrative non-fiction with top writers Tom Buk-Swienty* and Peter Øvig Knudsen*
Q. Out of the Danish classics what would you say is “required reading”?
There are six titles that spring to my mind, when I think of classics, books that are generally referred to, and people are expected to know.
Herman Bang (1857-1912): Tine, 1889 (Tina, 1984)
Johannes V. Jensen (1873-1950): Kongens fald, 1901 (The Fall of the King, 1933)
Martin Nexø Andersen (1869-1954): Pelle Erobreren, 1906-10 (Pelle the Conqueror, 1913-16)
Tom Kristensen (1893-1974): Hærværk, 1930 (Havoc, 1968)
Martin A. Hansen (1909-1955): Løgneren, 1950 (The Liar, 1954)
Inger Christensen (1935-2009): Alfabet (Alphabet, 2000)
Apart from Hans Christian Andersen* (1805-1875), who in Denmark is known as H.C. Andersen, you are expected to know Adam Oehlenschläger* (1779-1850), Steen Steensen Blicher (1782-1848), J.P. Jacobsen* (1847-1885), Amalie Skram* (1846-1905), Henrik Pontoppidan*(1857-1943) – and many more.
Q. Why is Nordic literature so popular now?
I suppose that the boom of Nordic or Scandinavian literature is partly owed to Nordic Noir, as it is called abroad, and made internationally known through tv-series like The Killing, The Bridge and Borgen. It followed in the wake of the Scandinavian crime fiction-wave, where Sweden is in front with Henning Mankell’s protagonist, Kurt Wallander, as the prototype. A policeman with personal problems and a social conscience. He and other Scandinavian crime writers, including very modern and European Arne Dahl, are heirs to Novel of a Crime, vol 1-10 by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, social realistic novels written as police novels. They were published 1965-75 in Swedish and widely translated.
Scandinavian literature is probably as varied as our seasons (summer nights with no sunset, autumnal melancholy, winter gloom and hopeful spring) and our very different cities and landscapes.
Q. Any authors you think deserve more attention than they’ve had so far?
It is close to a national trauma, that the poet Inger Christensen did not get the Nobel Prize for literature. She had the potential and was far better than many, who received it as a political statement. And now it is too late.
Q. Differences between literature in Denmark, Norway and Sweden?
Whereas Denmark, as I stated, at the moment is very strong in the field of women authors, it is my impression that Norwegian male authors hold the fort north of the Skagerak. Everybody knows Karl Ove Knausgaard, but names like Tomas Espedal, Erlend Loe, Lars Saabye Christensen and Jan Kjærstad spring to my mind, not to forget unforgettable Jon Fosse, who won The Nordic Council Literature Prize 2015.
In Sweden I see two tendencies, one is that they seem to be stronger on immigrant literature, the other a hybrid literary genre that seems weird, but works well: a combination of traditional Swedish social realism combined with the vampire novel, the main author here is John Ajvide Lindqvist, who I believe has been translated into English.
Norwegian and Swedish bloggers may totally disagree, but that is the view from where I stand.
Q. Why don’t we see more Danish fiction available in translation?
The Scandinavian countries are small language areas, so we depend on translations to be able to read literature from other countries. It is therefore of paramount importance that we have good literary translators. Denmark has a number of good ones, but unfortunately also some bad ones, who believe that a dictionary and a six months’ stay as an au-pair abroad is enough to qualify.
To be a literary translator in Denmark, you have to be very enthusiastic, as very few can earn a living wage by translating.
Authors translated into English are marked with an asterisk*, titles with a square brackets [ ] have not been translated, the title in brackets is Marit’s translation of the Danish title.
If this has given you an enthusiasm to discover more about Danish literature, Marit recommends you take a look at Danish Literary Magazine.