Young Men in the Woods: On Norwegian Literature

Earlier this year (March, to be exact) the journal N+1 published an article by Silje Bekeng entitled “Into the Woods,” which explored “what happens when rich, well-traveled, and well-educated children from a tiny Viking country covered in forest grow up and try to write fiction.”

Intrigued, I printed out a copy of the essay to read on the train, but life being rather hectic at that time, the article got lost in the shuffle and I only recently found it in a pile of papers on my desk. And although I’m months behind the news cycle (again), this particular delay seems fortuitous, as Bekeng’s examination seems to quite nicely dovetail with the reading–and reviewing–of Norwegian literature that I’ve been doing lately: namely, Per Petterson’s I Curse the River of Time.

After admitting that she will “resort to generalizations” about the state of literature in Norway today, Bekeng makes a few amusing observations about recently published novels:

“One character keeps showing up in our books: the young man having a breakdown in the woods.

he plot goes something like this: the young man has never left his hometown, or has returned (because of the death of a parent) after an unsuccessful attempt at life in the big, unruly world. He has some problems communicating. Sometimes the reader is left to wonder if he might be mentally retarded.He might meet a traditional animal, like a dog or an elk, that plays a significant role in the novel.

He listens to the silence, falls apart. The story mostly stays within the tradition of realism, though it sometimes flirts with surrealist tendencies. How crazy is he really? Would he ever hurt himself—or someone else? Toward the end, he might seem about to regain his composure. He will probably decide to remain in the countryside. Norwegians resemble Americans in this respect: we know that truth is something people find while walking in golden fields of wheat, that small-town life is more real than city life, and that real people are those who grow up with dirt under their fingernails.”

Although I’ll admit that I’m not incredibly well versed in Norwegian literature–I was only familiar with a few of the novels that Bekeng mentions (such as A Fugitive Crosses His Tracks, by the Norwegian-Danish author Aksel Sandemose, which coins the infamous “Jante Law“)–the above descriptions did rather quickly bring Out Stealing Horses to mind, as well as the Petterson novel I just finished, I Curse the River of Time. This is not to say that there isn’t more going on in both novels–and Bekeng does an admirable job of exploring the both limitations and accuracies of this trend–but it did get me thinking.

At any rate, it’s a fun article, with some interesting insights on Norwegian culture and literature, and it will bulk up your book list. So hop on over to the N+1 website and check it out:


2 thoughts on “Young Men in the Woods: On Norwegian Literature

  1. Pingback: Young Men in the Woods: On Norwegian Literature « The Afterword | Today Headlines

  2. Pingback: Literature » Young Men in the Woods: On Norwegian Literature « The Afterword

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