Tag Archives: Norwegian fiction in translation

Love by Hanne Ørstavik (transl. Martin Aitken): In the deep midwinter

Cover imageAlthough I’ve yet to read Hanne Ørstavik’s The Blue Room reviews of it by bloggers whose opinions I trust were enough to convince me that Love was likely to be something special. This spare novella tells the story of Vibeke and her son, Jon, on the eve of his ninth birthday, each, unbeknownst to the other, out and about on a frigid Norwegian winter’s night.

Vibeke and Jon have recently moved from the south to a village close to where she works as the arts and culture officer for the local authority. Vibeke spends most of her time reading when she’s not working, barely registering her imaginative, curious son although tender towards him when she does. Jon is sure that Vibeke has plans to bake him a birthday cake, considerately taking himself off to the visiting fair so that she can surprise him with it the next day. Vibeke, however, has not a thought for Jon’s birthday, caught up in fantasies of the brown-eyed colleague for whom she preens in the mirror before setting off for the local library in the hope of bumping into him. When Jon returns, he finds he’s locked out, convincing himself that his mother has gone to the convenience store for cake ingredients. Off he goes again, taken home by a young girl who spots he has no mittens. Meanwhile, finding the library closed, Vibeke has switched the focus of her fancy to a friendly worker at the fair. Over a single, chilly night Jon and Vibeke’s paths will almost cross, both of them returning home during the long winter’s night. The next day will be far from what either of them might have expected.

Written in clean, bright prose, Ørstavik’s intense novella packs quite a punch. Her narrative slips back and forth between Jon and Vibeke, smoothly at times, at others shifting disconcertingly, disorienting the reader and ratcheting up the tension as we wonder what will happen to each of them. Both characters are vividly drawn, their voices clear and distinct. Jon is an endearing little boy, sensitive and curious, given to catastrophist thinking about his mother who he calls ‘Vibeke’ rather than ‘Mum’. Vibeke is a naive young mother, married far too young, her head full of romantic fantasies and willing to take risks to fulfil them. While it’s clear she loves her son – there’s a tenderness in the few exchanges between them – she hardly notices he’s there most of the time, a carelessness that will cost them both dear. The stories of the fair workers with whom each of them becomes involved are left untold but we can guess that for them Jon and Vibeke are mere bit-players or perhaps even pawns. Altogether a very polished, powerful piece of writing, beautifully expressed. Time to order a copy of The Blue Room, I think.

And Other Stories: London 2019 9781911508724 128 pages Paperback

Echoes of the City by Lars Saabye Christensen (transl. Don Bartlett): ‘This is a city so small everyone has the same shadow’

Cover imageNorway is the one Scandinavian country I’ve yet to visit, slightly put off by reports of ruinous expense and rain, although I’m sure I’ll go at some stage. It’s part of the reason I was attracted to Lars Saabye Christensen’s first instalment of a planned trilogy, Echoes of the City, set in post-war Oslo where he was born. Opening in 1947, Christensen’s novel takes us to the Fagerborg district where the Red Cross have established a department, telling the story of the city’s emergence from war time austerity through the Kristoffersen family and their neighbours.

Ewald Kristoffersen works for an advertising agency while his wife Maj looks after their seven-year-old son. Jesper’s a little difficult. Restless and given to sudden inexplicable tantrums, he’s a year late starting school. Ewald tends to avoid spending time alone with him if he can, preferring to call in at the Hotel Bristol with his colleagues where the melancholy Enzo plays piano, but when Maj volunteers for the local Red Cross he has no choice. Maj has a talent for accounts and is soon elected treasurer raising hopes that the family might be shunted up the telephone waiting list so that they are no longer summoned upstairs to Fru Vik’s. Maj and Fru Vik have a slightly uneasy relationship. Fru Vik is a little withdrawn, still mourning her husband, but Maj needs her to look after Jesper now and again. When Jesper starts school, he finds it hard to make friends until Jostein, the butcher’s son, deaf thanks to a trolley-bus accident, sits next to him. Jesper begins to ‘hear’ for Jostein and a friendship begins. Over the next few years Jesper will display a talent for the piano, fostered by Enzo, Fru Vik will find a companion despite a good deal of opposition and uneasiness, Maj will shine as the Red Cross treasurer and Ewald will discover just how much he loves his family.

Let us continue, not that there is any rush; on the contrary, we have plenty of time. But to those who wish to accompany us, please adjust to our pace

Echoes of the City begins with a prologue which sees Jesper about to set off to sea on September 22nd, 1957, the day after Norway’s King Hakkon died, then winds back to 1947 as Christensen takes up the Kristoffersens’ story, appending Red Cross meeting minutes to the end of each chapter. It’s a structure that works better than I thought it might at first, providing a backdrop of social history to the lives of Fagerborg’s inhabitants. Christensen’s narrative slips from character to character with ease, while keeping its focus on the Kristoffersens. It’s infused with a gentle, affectionate humour – the Red Cross ladies are a wee bit put out when gratitude for their help is unforthcoming, Jesper is utterly horrified at finding his father naked in all his fatness – coupled with poignancy as the characters’ stories unfold.

As promised in the prologue, this is slow storytelling, carefully constructed, and all the better for it. These are people we come to know and want to meet again. It’s a novel that reads like a love letter both to Oslo and the Red Cross whose role was so important in helping the city pick itself back up again. I’m already looking forward eagerly to the second instalment but in the meantime Grant at 1streading’s blog has recommended The Half-Brother to bridge the gap.

Maclehose Press: London 2019 9780857059154 464 pages Paperback

The Gradual Disappearance of Jane Ashland by Nicolai Houm (transl. Anna Paterson): Enduring love

Cover imageI seem to have read more novellas than usual this year. Not entirely a conscious decision – I love that feeling of sinking into a doorstopper, particularly in winter – but several of the shorter novels I’ve reviewed have packed much more of a punch than a luxuriously fat, piece of storytelling often does. Nicolai Houm’s The Gradual Disappearance of Jane Ashland is a case in point: a slim yet powerful book which explores love, loss and the meaning of life all within fewer than 200 pages.

The eponymous Jane is zipped up in a fogbound bright orange tent, alone in the middle of the Norwegian wilderness and contemplating what has brought her to this state. Jane is Canadian, a successful novelist and teacher. Blocked in her writing, she’s immersed herself in tracing her Norwegian family history, contacting Lars Christian who has invited her to his home. On the flight from New York, she meets Ulf who suggests she accompany him on a field trip researching musk oxen. When things go horribly wrong at the Askeland-Nilsens’, Jane turns to Ulf, taking up his invitation despite neither of them having much in common with the other. Jane is given to apparently capricious rages, often drinking far too much and taking too many of the diazepam pills she uses to control her epilepsy. As her story unfolds, flashing back and forth, we understand that something dreadful has happened to Jane, untethering her and shattering the wholeness she thought she’d achieved.

Houm’s novel is expertly constructed. Written from Jane’s perspective, the slightly fragmented narrative circles the chance event which has blown apart her happy, successful life exposing its fragility. Small details are slipped in so that we piece together a picture of Jane’s troubled mental state and what has provoked it. This slow unfolding of her story makes the revelation – told in much longer passages than those which led up to it – all the more powerful. Beautifully translated by Anna Paterson, Houm’s writing is often striking: a therapist’s office smelt of tear-stained paper hankies; only torn-off rags of the fog hang on the slope, the rest is gone the morning after Ulf leaves Jane in her tent. The characterisation is sharp and perceptive; Houm’s description of the first proper row in a relationship painfully recognisable. There’s a little quiet humour sprinkled here and there but somehow this only emphasizes Jane’s plight. A thoroughly accomplished piece of writing, this is the first book by Houm to be translated into English. Let’s hope there are plans for more.