Norwegian writers at Cheltenham Literature Festival

Suzi Feay takes a slalom ride through the thrilling and dramatic, funny and snowy Norwegian books presented at this year’s Cheltenham Literature Festival.


If I had to choose only one writer to go and see out of the sizable Norwegian contingent at the forthcoming Cheltenham Literature Festival, it would be Vigdis Hjorth. It’s not just because, to judge from her appearances at this summer’s Norwegian Festival of Literature in Lillehammer, she is a mesmerising speaker. Her latest novel to be translated in the UK, Is Mother Dead (published by Verso), doubles down on the theme of family dysfunction that rendered her previous, the bestselling Will and Testament, so gripping and controversial; it even caused a rift in Hjorth’s family due to its perceived autobiographical elements.

Is Mother Dead by Vigdis Hjorth (Verso)

The new novel is narrated by a troubled artist, a widow who has returned to Oslo after many years in the US. Ostracised by her sister and mother, Johanna alternates brisk walks in nature – beautifully described – with an increasingly desperate need to stalk them and to imagine every detail of their lives. The plight of a female artist whose creativity alienates her own family is painfully explored in a narrative voice both funny and sad. At Cheltenham, Hjorth is paired with a Canadian novelist, Anslie Hogarth, for what will no doubt be an intense, but lively talk on fictional mothers (15 October, 7pm, in the Pillar Room, Town Hall).

Thankfully, there’s no need to limit yourself to just one event. This year Cheltenham, the oldest UK literary festival, has joined forces with its counterpart in Lillehammer to bring a squadron of Norwegian writers as part of their ‘Read the World’ initiative. It promotes a mix of fiction and non-fiction, where bestsellers and superstars rub shoulders with up-and-coming authors. And tickets are already in high demand.

For example, the talk by anthropologist Erika Fatland on her book High, chronicling her travels in the Himalayas, is already sold out, but you can still catch explorer and philosopher Erling Kagge, whose travels to both poles, as well as the summit of Everest, filled him with an appreciation of the silent places of the earth as well as those of the soul. In his books Philosophy for Polar Explorers, Walking: One Step at a Time and Silence in the Age of Noise, he translates his extreme feats of endurance into tips, hints and hacks appropriate for even the most sedentary. One of a new breed of non-macho explorers, as interested in grappling with the human spirit as braving the elements, he’ll be in conversation with the thoughtful and intrepid British explorer Benedict Allen on October 12 at 6.30pm in the Town Hall.

Who knew building an outside loo could provide life-lessons that resonate far beyond the Norwegian woods? Siri Helle learnt carpentry skills the hard way when she began upgrading facilities at the remote cabin she inherited from her father. As a result of all the chopping, planing and whittling this project entailed, she developed the “chainsaw mindfulness” she describes in her book, Handmade. It’s not just an account of the charmingly crooked outbuilding she created using only materials found on site, but a persuasive argument for the need to incorporate manual skills in the school curriculum.

Sitting quietly and learning by rote doesn’t suit all children, as her own experience shows. Her message is that we can all be more practical in everyday life; to do so might even save the planet. Helle appears alongside Ben Short, who abandoned the rat race to become a charcoal burner in Dorset. They’ll be talking to John Tucker of the Woodland Trust (13 October, 11.30am, Town Hall).

Siri Helle, author of Handmade (Photo: David Zadig)

The extraordinary Ingrid Christophersen will talk about her eventful sporting life over cakes and refreshments at an ‘Apres-Tea’ (12 October, 3.30pm, Daffodil Restaurant). Growing up in Norway and skiing from the time she could toddle, she became a member of the British Women’s Alpine Ski Team and was awarded an MBE in 2007 for services to skiing. Her own daring exploits on the slopes match anything in her sparkling anthology of skiing literature, To Heaven’s Heights, which she’ll also be discussing.

Cover of To Heaven’s Heights: An Anthology of Skiing in Literature by Ingrid Christophersen (Unicorn Press)

Encompassing polar exploration, wartime derring-do, and the high spirits of recreational skiing, the book has Ernest Hemingway crossing skis with Erica Jong, and John Cheever brushing past Leni Riefenstahl. In a passage from The Bell Jar Sylvia Plath’s narrator, Esther Greenwood, sums up the sheer joy of her first headlong descent: “I felt my lungs inflate with the inrush of scenery… I thought, ‘This is what it is to be happy.’” Then, predictably, Esther breaks her leg, just as the poet did in real life. No stranger to either the peril or the exhilaration, Christopherson is a lively and engaging anecdotalist and is not to be missed.

For stories of a darker and less wholesome hue, look no further than the session on Nordic Noir, on 7 October at 8.45pm in the Garden Theatre. Finland and Iceland are represented alongside Norway’s Silje Ulstein, who will discuss her debut thriller Reptile Memoirs, a serpentine tale of murky motives and twisted characters, not to mention a speaking snake. Crime fiction expert Barry Forshaw, author of the essential pocket guide to the genre, will chair the session and explain why crime fiction from Scandinavia has captured readers across the world.

Hanne Ørstavik brought chills of a different sort with her international bestseller Love, published in an English translation by And Other Stories in 2019, in which a disaffected and lonely young mother and her bewildered nine-year-old son Jon criss-cross each other’s paths one long winter night. It’s all the more powerful for being so understated and cryptic. In a session uncompromisingly entitled ‘Facing Loss’, also featuring British author Clover Stroud, she discusses her follow up, Ti Amo, a novella about a writer coming to terms with the imminent death of her beloved husband. (16 October, 4pm, Parabola Arts Centre).

Hanne Ørstavik (Photo: Linda Bournane Engelberth)

The protagonist of Ti Amo has written 14 novels, including one called Love, featuring a boy called Jon. “What I write has to be truthful,” the narrator says. Orstavik also has 14 novels under her belt. Norwegian writers seem to have a special affinity with the growing genre of auto-fiction. We can tentatively place Hjorth in this slippery category too.

“Karl Ole Knausgaard is rather like brunost: distinctively Norwegian, adored by many while others are simply baffled.”

Karl Ole Knausgaard (Photo: Sølve Sundsbo)

But the father of them all is Karl Ove Knausgaard, whose six-volume series My Struggle captivated the literary chattering classes with its intense, brooding focus on the author’s own existence. He’s rather like brunost: distinctively Norwegian, adored by many while others are simply baffled.

In conversation with the acclaimed translator Daniel Hahn, he’ll be talking about his eerie new novel, The Morning Star, which is already garnering awed reviews. (Garden Theatre, 16 October, 4pm)

Finally, lovers of cats and whimsy should head for the Regency Suite at the Queens Hotel on Sunday 16 October at 2pm. Jenny Løvlie is the illustrator for Paula Harrison’s delightful series of Kitty stories, published by Oxford University Press, about a young girl who gains feline superpowers at night when she dons her swirling cape and eye mask. “I grew up in Northern-Norway on Ekkerøy, a tiny peninsula sticking out into the Barents Sea, where I was the first child to be born in 12 years,” says Løvlie, adding that today she draws “inspiration from the wild landscapes of Scandinavia, Nordic folklore and Scandinavian design.”

Kitty, the heroine of Paula Harrison’s stories, as illustrated by Jenny Løvlie (OUP)

Leading her agile troupe of followers, including ginger kitten Pumpkin, over the rooftops, Kitty shows animal malefactors, from naughty foxes to cheeky squirrels and thieving pets, the error of their ways. With her accompanying artworks, Lovlie imbues these gentle adventures with so much charm, they’re irresistible. The latest story, Kitty and the Vanishing Act sees our nimble heroine on the lookout for a missing poodle. Children are promised a “draw-along” with Jenny – during which you craft your own purr-fect cat mask – and who could resist that?

For information on all of these events visit: Cheltenham Literary Festival. The festival’s 10-day programme runs from 7 – 16 October, featuring authors from across the globe.

More Norwegian literary treasures in translation can be found at Books from Norway

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