This week we continue our celebration of the publication of Chitambo by Hagar Olsson, translated by Sarah Death, with the second extract in our series of lockdown reading – read taster two.
Looking for some reading to make lockdown life a little more bearable? We have just published Hagar Olsson’s Chitambo, translated by Sarah Death – and you can read taster one today!
From birth, Vega Maria Dreary is caught in a vice of conflicting parental expectations. Her father brings her up to admire history’s heroic male adventurers, while her mother channels her towards housework and conformity. But when puberty comes, paternal half-promises evaporate and Vega has to fight her own way out of the domestic cage. In a time of revolution and civil war in early twentieth-century Finland, she finds it hard to identify her own calling, alighting first on the cause of feminism but feeling her way towards a wider humanitarian mission.
The adult Vega looks back on her younger self with ironic humour, but is in despair about the end of a rocky relationship with her beloved Ta, now transformed by his wartime experiences. She recovers and opts to emulate her childhood hero Livingstone, beating new paths through her own psychological jungle.
A kaleidoscope of changing roles for Vega whirls us through this compelling modernist novel, multi-layered but eminently accessible, with a wonderful feel for language, and vibrant evocations of an era and a place. Considered by many to be Hagar Olsson’s best novel, Chitambo is now available in English for the first time.
Literary translation, not unlike Boye’s literary production, can be a personal, creative endeavor with political implications. Translating and publishing this novel marks a concerted attempt to broaden a canon of modernist literature still dominated by white, straight, male Anglophone writers. But as a translator working in the academy, I am equally excited about the ways that translating a book like Crisis might open up the possibility for new forms of literary scholarship that draw no significant distinction between emotion and intellect, or between translation and the scholarly practice of literary criticism. This is a decidedly political proposition. Crisis is a book that screams out for the personal to be acknowledged and attended to rather than ignored or subdued in the name of objectivity or equivalence, and I have tried to hear that.
This novel, with all of its elegance and awkward peculiarities, has compelled me for half of my life — unlike any other book I’ve encountered. I was an awkward nineteen-year-old when I first read it in a course on Swedish women’s literature at the University of Washington — an initial exposure that coincided with my first taste of Nietzsche, Freud, and Marx, all of whom Boye had engaged with to write it. Undaunted by the fact that Boye’s prose would stretch my undergraduate Swedish skills to their utmost limits, I set out (pencil to paper, with a heavy, bound dictionary) to bring it into English. It was an automatic reflex. I was self-aware enough to know that it was a naïve undertaking, but I was convinced that being so close in age to Malin would afford me insight into her experience that would compensate for my deficiencies. Thinking back, I would like to believe that my decision to translate Crisis went something like the moment when Malin first glimpses Siv sitting in front of her and is both struck and soothed by the beauty of her gently-sloping shoulders. As it did with Malin, the vision of Siv also offered me a reprieve of sorts after having made my way through a significant portion of a book that I still find largely perplexing (if wondrous). The scene sparked desire, and translation was the most appropriate way for me to express it. If undertaking the labor of translation began with a flush of infatuation, it eventually transformed into a project of admiration and even a kind of love. Crisis became the center of my own intellectual Bildungsroman. I returned to it as an MA student and wrote my thesis on the novel, comparing Malin to Diva, the protagonist in Monika Fagerholm’s postmodern novel by the same name. The two protagonists had too many compelling similarities, I argued, to allow us to draw a sharp distinction between modernism and postmodernism. During this period, I had the fortunate opportunity to workshop a section of my draft in a translation seminar with the amazing translator, Tiina Nunnally. I finished my thesis, but set the translation aside for more than a decade.
Malin Forst is a precocious, devout twenty-year-old woman attending a Stockholm teachers’ college in the 1930s. Confounded by a sudden crisis of faith, Malin plunges into a depression and a paralysis of will. Oscillating between poetic prose, social realism, fragments of correspondence, and imagined dialogues between the forces of nature, Crisis telescopes Malin’s distress out into metaphysical planes and back, as her mind stages struggles between black and white, Dionysian and Apollonian, and with an everyday existence that has become unbearably arduous.
And then an intense infatuation with a classmate reorients everything.
First published in Swedish as Kris in 1934, Boye’s meditation on a crisis of faith and queer desire is recognised as a modernist classic for its stylistic and literary experimentation. Now, in January 2020, the full text is available in English for the first time, translated by Amanda Doxtater. You can find it in all good bookstores, or via norvikpress.com.
For a taster of a key scene, download an extract here.
Monday November 11th
1-19 Torrington Place
WC1E 7HB, London
Join us for the Norvik Press book launch of Erik Fosnes Hansen’s Lobster Life. This captivating and affectionate coming-of-age tale is narrated by Sedd, who as a high school student has decided to write his memoirs. He lives an isolated childhood in a grand Norwegian mountain hotel. Life at the hotel is not what it used to be; Norwegians have deserted the traditions of their native land, with its invigorating ski trips and lake-fresh trout, for charter tours to ‘the infernal south’. Sedd’s grandparents are fighting a losing battle to maintain standards at Fåvnesheim hotel, which has been in the family for generations, whilst the young Sedd observes developments with a keen eye for the absurd and a growing sense of unease that all is not well. He has his own demons too, as he tries to unearth the truth about his father, an Indian doctor who died as Sedd was conceived, and his mother, who was ‘taken by Time’ when he was a toddler and whom he remembers only as a foxy-red sheen in the air.
The event will feature a discussion with author Erik Fosnes Hansen and translator Janet Garton. This is followed by drinks and light refreshments.
Come join us for an evening of lively discussion on literature, translation and a bout of nostalgia for Norwegian mountain holidays.
As the weather turns chillier, we’re delighted to bring you not one but two contemporary Norwegian novels. Curl up in your favourite chair and enjoy two of Norway’s most acclaimed authors, both translated into English by Janet Garton.
Heading for all good bookstores this October, Jan Kjærstad’s thought-provoking and subtle Berge weaves together the voices of three citizens, each affected in their own way by a heinous crime in the forest outside Oslo. Read a preview here.
Erik Fosnes Hansen’s Lobster Life captures the absurdities and tragedies of life in a country hotel on the brink of ruin. Like a latter-day Holden Caulfield, the orphaned Sedd reminds us that humans are a lot like lobsters: their vulnerable innards are not reliably protected by their hard shells. But struggle on we must, even if we lose a claw or two along the way. Click here to read a preview, or find Lobster Life in all good bookstores, or via norvikpress.com.
Find more information on both novels in our Norwegian Autumn leaflet:
When are we alive? Which lives are worth living? What constitutes a real life? And how should we treat lives that are not human? I was left with a number of existential questions after reading A Living Soul. At first I thought a story about a brain in an aquarium would be quite a tedious affair, but I was very wrong.
Not only is A Living Soul philosophical and thought provoking, but it is also exciting, nerve- wracking and tragically romantic (how can a story with a brain as a protagonist be romantic? Well, hence the tragic bit). The disembodied brain Ypsilon is living in a world which is similar to our own but slightly more scientifically advanced. First of all, in this world we can keep a brain with no body alive in a water tank in a science lab. This brain is perfectly able to think and feel like any other human being, but it is of course not able to live a full life. The only other inhabitants of the lab are a dog and some rats. And like the dog and the rats, Ypsilon is a disposable part of a project; a guinea pig. But what happens when this guinea pig is perfectly able to understand what is going on, perfectly able to envision a life outside the prison walls of the water tank, and demands to know the truth of its existence?
P. C. Jersild is, to coin a phrase, the brain behind it all. He wrote his first novel at the age of fifteen, but he thought a writing career would be an insecure path to take and decided to study medicine to give him the prospect of a real job. Luckily, he continued writing, and after a while he realised he could live by his pen. However, the medical world proved to be very fruitful for his authorship, and nearly all his works have featured experiences from life as a doctor and a psychiatrist. This is especially apparent in A Living Soul. It was originally published in Swedish in 1980 and has become the quintessential Swedish sci-fi classic. Jersild has since said that it is one of his favourite works, and one of his more recent novels, Ypsilon, is named after the main character in A Living Soul.
The novel was first published in English by Norvik Press in 1988, translated by Rika Lesser, an award-winning American poet. It is one of those timeless stories that stick with us and keep us posing the important questions. To bring this memorable novel to new, English-reading audiences, we are now issuing a reprint with a stunning new cover.
By Kristin Lorentsen, production assistant
Scandinavia – a cold, bleak place with cold, bleak weather and cold, bleak people. A place to escape from. As well as the perfect setting for gruesome crimes. And where better to capture this foul ambience than in a hair-raising page-turner? Nordic noir has been a welcome escape route for many Scandinavians over the decades. Crime fiction makes up a large percentage of the total sales in Scandinavia and often tops the best-seller lists.
And once a year crime fiction turns into an elevated form of its own – påskekrim. It is something particularly Norwegian and a very specific type of crime fiction, namely the crime fiction read during Easter – påske – holidays. These crime novels are often published in order to reach the shelves just before the holidays, and they often tell stories set at Easter time. Påskekrim is a long-standing tradition for Norwegians when they head for their mountain cabins. Then they pack their little ryggsekks full of påske essentials, such as oranges, kvikk lunsjes, skis and ski poles, traditional board games and – most importantly – crime novels. Why? In order to scare themselves properly up there in the lonely mountains? The wind howls through the cracks of their old-style, wooden cabins which are only dimly lit by candlelight and an open fire, and each time any of them need to use the loo they have to risk death (by nature or at the hands of the violent murderers they have just read about) by staggering out into the nothingness to try to feel their way to the utedo. This life is highly appealing to Norwegians. They think it is the quintessential representation of hygge, and påskekrim plays a crucial part.
The reason why the term påskekrim exists is because of a specific crime novel published in 1923: Bergenstoget plyndret i natt! The translation of the title reads ‘The Train to Bergen robbed last night’. It takes place around Easter time and was published at Easter. It was written by two young, aspiring authors who were later to become some of Norway’s best known writers, Nordahl Grieg and Nils Lie. Grieg’s brother, Harald Grieg, was the head of Norway’s biggest publishing house, Gyldendal. He decided to run a campaign to promote the novel on the front pages of all the important newspapers in the country. So the public got quite a shock when they woke up to the alarming headline of the book title – with only a small, almost invisible indication underneath that it was an advert!
So whether you are going all-out Scandi and heading for the mountains, or prefer to stay at home tucked underneath a blanket, Easter time is the perfect time to escape into the mysterious bleak world of crime fiction.
Norvik Press crime novels
Murder in the Dark sports a winning combination of engaging crime narrative and cool, unsentimental appraisal of Scandinavian society (as seen through the eyes of its shabby, unconventional anti-hero). There are elements of the book which now seem quite as relevant as when they were written, and like all the most accomplished writing in the Nordic Noir field, there is an acute and well-observed sense of place throughout the novel. The descriptions of Copenhagen channel the poetic sensibility which is the author’s own: “Copenhagen is at its most beautiful when seen out of a taxi at midnight, right at that magical moment when one day dies and another is born, and the printing presses are buzzing with the morning newspapers”.
Two British environmental activists are discovered dead amongst the whale corpses after a whale-kill in Tórshavn. The detective Hannis Martinsson is asked to investigate by a representative of the organisation Guardians of the Sea – who shortly afterwards is killed when his private plane crashes. Suspicion falls on Faroese hunters, angry at persistent interference in their traditional whale hunt; but the investigation leads Martinsson to a much larger group of international vested interests, and the discovery of a plot which could devastate the whole country.
And for a different kind of whodunnit, why not try
The Löwensköld Ring is the first volume of a trilogy originally published between 1925 and 1928. In addition to being a disturbing saga of revenge from beyond the grave, it is a tale of courageous, persistent women, with interesting narrative twists and a permeating sense of ambiguity. The potent ring of the title brings suffering and violent death in its wake and its spell continues from one generation to the next, as well as into the two subsequent novels in the trilogy: Charlotte Löwensköld and Anna Swärd. The Löwensköld trilogy was her last work of pure fiction, and is now considered a masterpiece.
Lastly, a future translation to look forward to
Written by Kristin Lorentsen
Hans Børli is a Norwegian national treasure. Often pictured in his lumberjack gear or knitwear, he radiates comfort and warmth and is an image of the ultimate man of nature. His poems are still widely read and often quoted. He was born on the 8th of December 1918 to a poor family. They lived on a remote farm deep in the Norwegian forests of Eidskog. He was a bright young man, but his education was cut short because of the war. Børli took part in the fighting against the Germans but was captured. Luckily, he was not deported to the work camps, but was released and worked as a teacher and a lumberjack for the remaining war years. And at the same time, he also wrote poetry. His first collection, Tyrielden, was published in 1945 to great acclaim and good sales. And he kept on writing, publishing works almost every year from then on. However, his popularity as a writer did not stop him from continuing his forest work; rather it was reinforced by it. Nature was his muse, and he was inspired when he spent time surrounded by the tranquil greenery. However, his poems are not merely romantic tributes to the beauty of the forest, but the forest rather serves as an animated allegory to illustrate the complexity and fragility of life. Børli’s works are filled with wise words about what it is to be a human being in this world.
To celebrate the centenary of his birth, we would like to pay tribute to him and his beautiful poems by posting some of them here alongside the English translations by Louis A. Muinzer.
Vi sitter i slørblå junikveld
og svaler oss ute på trammen.
Og alt vi ser på har dobbelt liv,
fordi vi sanser det sammen.
Se – skogsjøen ligger og skinner rødt
av sunkne solefalls-riker.
Og blankt som en ting av gammelt sølv
er skriket som lommen skriker.
Og heggen ved grenda brenner så stilt
Av nykveikte blomsterkvaster.
Nå skjelver de kvitt i et pust av vind,
– det er som om noe haster…
Å, flytt deg nærmere inn til meg
her på kjøkkentrammen!
Det er så svinnende kort den stund
vi mennesker er sammen.
On the steps in the mist-blue evening
we sit in the cool June air.
And all that we see is double,
because it is something we share.
Look – the lake’s shining with scarlet
from the land of the sunsetting sky.
And bright as a piece of old silver
Is the diver’s red-throated cry.
And the bird-cherry’s burning in silence,
Its blossoms alight by the gate.
A breeze makes their white clusters tremble
– as if there is something can’t wait…
Oh, move yourself closer against me,
here by the kitchen door!
We are given a short time together,
then given no more.
som kvelden ringer
høyhet fram i alt og alle…
får gylne vinger
når de flyr i solefallet…
So strange to see
how the evening rings
loftiness forth and makes things bright…
Even the crows
have golden wings
when flying in the sunset’s light…
These poems are taken from the volume We Own the Forests and Other Poems, Hans Børli, translated by Louis Muinzer. Browse and buy here.
Norvik Press brought one of Denmark’s greatest writers, Dorrit Willumsen, author of the novel Bang, over the North Sea for a chat with her translator, Professor Marina Allemano, about their love of the nineteenth-century author Herman Bang, and walking over cracks in the ground. The event took place high above the ground on the tenth floor in the Arena Centre in Bloomsbury. With an amazing view of the London skyline, the city itself made a poetic backdrop to the literary conversation.
The idea of the book originated when Willumsen was asked to write about one of her heroes. She had two subjects in mind, one being her grandfather, and the other Herman Bang – her favourite Danish writer. Known for re-imagining historical figures using the first person, Willumsen used the same technique for the protagonist in Bang. The work was originally commissioned by her publisher as a biography. Willumsen, however, discovered this was problematic, as there were so many biographies about Bang already in print. She read them all, and as she progressed in her research, it became increasingly difficult for her to hold her creativeness at bay. Eventually, the book turned out to be a novel about the last days of the eccentric, flamboyant writer and inspiring actor. The story unfolds through a series of flashbacks as we follow Bang on his final book tour through America. He is ill, dependent on help from others and on his morphine to get to sleep. But the reader also gets to know the younger, livelier man through his reminiscing.
A household name in Denmark, Dorrit Willumsen started out as a writer in 1965, although sadly not much of her work is translated into English. This translation of Bang goes some way towards remedying that. And that task was undertaken by Allemano, who has always had a great admiration for Willumsen and published a biography about her in Danish in 2015. When asked where she positions herself as a translator, Allemano humbly defined herself as a servant to the original work, a technician; a problem solver. She described the translating process with an analogy: imagine walking on an Earth full of cracks. When you look down between the cracks, you can vaguely distinguish the real, more beautiful world underneath, but you can never fully get to it. However, this modest depiction of her own efforts was quickly modified by voices in the audience. Translation is also a rewriting of the script and demands a great deal of artistic imagination.
Throughout the evening Willumsen lapsed into several entertaining anecdotes of the writing process and how Bang lived his life. The audience learnt that he was a man with a love of spending money when he had it and reduced to borrowing when he did not. He even went so far as borrowing from his doctor and then from his doctor’s wife, with a plea that she would not tell her husband … Willumsen also described what it was like working on a project like Bang, saying it took her five years to write the book; when she had finally finished, her son was relieved that Bang had moved out after living in their home for so long.
Rounding off the evening, as the darkness had settled – creating the perfect storytelling ambience – Dorrit and Marina delighted the audience with the opening passage of Bang in both Danish and English. Herman Bang’s brusque meeting with the big city of New York made a stark contrast to the romantic twinkling of the skyline in the background.