Off the Beaten Track: Norwegian Classics in Translation

As Kjell Askildsen, the godfather of the Norwegian short story, joins the prestigious list at Penguin Modern Classics, Boyd Tonkin explores the legacy of Norwegian classic authors and discovers a wild and wonderful landscape of frozen fjords, feminism and folk tales.


Reading classic Norwegian authors in English translation can sometimes feel like travelling in Norway itself. You need to move long distances and leave the beaten track to reach some of the most beautiful places. English-language readers who want to discover the historic literary landscape behind today’s globally-renowned authors – the likes of Karl Ove Knausgaard, Jon Fosse, Vigdis Hjorth, Linn Ullmann and Dag Solstad – can follow several promising paths. But it takes a little patience to locate some of them.

Everything Like Before by Kjell Askildsen (Penguin Modern Classics)

That’s not the case, of course, with the familiar Penguin Classics and Modern Classics lists. Over the post-war decades, they have served as a kind of one-stop shop for readers curious about the best literature from other lands and times. Now, the Norwegian short-story writer Kjell Askildsen has joined Penguin’s catalogue of giants with a selection of work harvested from a career that spans almost 70 years: he was born in 1929, and first published in 1953. Everything Like Before (translated by Seán Kinsella) gathers 37 separate pieces, from one-page miniatures to family dramas – such as ‘Mardon’s Night’ – that read like compacted novels. Lonely and angry children, resentful husbands, time-stranded senior citizens who lament that “He who has nothing to live for has nothing to die for”: Askildsen’s protagonists often stand at a disgruntled distance from events. But the hackneyed “Nordic gloom” stereotype – yes, one reviewer did use that phrase – tells only a fraction of the truth. A bleak, black humour threads through these tales in a style that can recall the chiselled, poetic desolation of Samuel Beckett’s plays, or Philip Larkin’s verse.

Kjell Askildsen (Photo: Finn Ståle Felberg)

Admirers of (for example) Dag Solstad’s mercilessly bleak but droll fiction will meet a kindred spirit here. Askildsen’s isolated figures, “completely at the mercy of our pasts”, still harbour a thwarted tenderness for the parents, partners, siblings or offspring with whom they bicker and feud. “Bringing a son into the world does not go unpunished,” runs one typically deadpan line. Above all, the guilt, regret and melancholy (“If only we could stop hoping, just think of the many disappointments we’d be spared”) comes embedded in finely-crafted prose with an intense local flavour, whether it summons Norwegian lakes on endless summer days, rain-swept Oslo suburbs, or sultry Greek holiday islands. That laconic mastery of mood becomes a source of joy and uplift in itself.

The Ice Palace by Tarjei Vesaas (Penguin Modern Classics)

Askildsen joins another Norwegian modern great, Tarjei Vesaas, on the Penguin Modern Classics list. The Telemark-born author’s much-loved 1963 novel The Ice Palace (trans. Elizabeth Rokkan) evokes the wonder and terror of childhood in its story of two girls spellbound by the frozen fjords, and the tragedy that divides them. In The Birds (trans. Torbjørn Støverud and Michael Barnes), Vesaas powerfully inhabits both the simple, sensitive mind of the child-like Mattis, and the bird-filled woodlands of his and his sister’s country home. Vesaas’s mystical yet scrupulous attention to the natural world found a late flowering in his final work, The Hills Reply, translated by Elizabeth Rokkan in 2019 for Archipelago Books.

The Birds by Tarjei Vesaas (Penguin Modern Classics)

If Vesaas’s symbolic wildfowl can bring Henrik Ibsen to mind, that’s hardly a surprise. The supreme dramatist threw an immensely long shadow over his Norwegian peers and heirs in every genre. Starting in 2014, Penguin Classics refreshed its Ibsen offer with four volumes of translations based on the ground-breaking critical edition supervised by Tore Rem at the University of Oslo. First-rate translators, who include Barbara Haveland and Deborah Dawkin, have brought English readers closer to the original texture of Ibsen’s dramatic prose than ever before in three volumes (A Doll’s House and Other PlaysHedda Gabler and Other PlaysThe Master Builder and Other Plays), while the poet Geoffrey Hill crafted exhilarating versions of the verse dramas, Peer Gynt and Brand.

A Doll’s House and Other Plays by Henrik Ibsen (Penguin Classics)

Ibsen is often bracketed with Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson, Jonas Lie and Alexander Kielland as one of the “Four Greats” who renewed Norwegian literature in the late 19th century. Alas, you’ll have to delve deep into the terrain of online-only reprint publishing to find much of the other trio’s work in English. If you do, it might take the form of a simple digital reproduction of the original translations, made when Ibsen’s worldwide acclaim first began to stir an interest in his compatriots’ work. However, Norvik Press – an offshoot of the Scandinavian Studies department at University College London – does have a fine 2012 translation, by Marie Wells, of Jonas Lie’s The Family at Gilje: his landmark novel about women’s destinies, choices and burdens in mid-19th-century Norway.

The feminist current that runs through Ibsen’s plays, and makes them feel evergreen, also fed the pioneering women writers of his era. Perhaps the greatest of them, the Nobel laureate Sigrid Undset, at long last found an English translator worthy of her stature around 2000. Then, Penguin Classics published the successive volumes (The Wreath; The Wife; The Cross) in Tiina Nunnally’s magnificent rendering of Undset’s early-1920s trilogy, Kristin Lavransdatter. Nunnally’s translation persuaded me that the epic story of Undset’s 14th-century heroine and her convulsive times merits a place, alongside Joyce, Woolf and Kafka, among the foremost literary achievements of its decade.

The Nobel Laureate and author Sigrid Undset at home in Bjerkebæk, Lillehammer (Photo: public domain)

Undset was prolific, and her other works are patchily accessible in English. Mint Editions recently released a translation of her early, Ibsenesque novel, Jenny, set in Rome; University of Minnesota Press publishes her delightful memoir Happy Times in Norway. Best of all, Tiina Nunnally has embarked on a new translation of Undset’s other multi-volume medieval saga, Olav Audunssøn (aka The Master of Hestviken), for University of Minnesota press. Its first volume, Vows, appeared last November.

The trail-blazing fiction of Ibsen and Undset’s female contemporaries is no longer a wholly closed book for English-language readers. Camilla Collett published The District Governor’s Daughter, which observed and exposed the constraints on women’s lives, as early as 1855; Kirsten Seaver’s translation comes from Norvik Press. In 1888, Amalie Skram’s Lucie (Norvik Press; trans. Katharine Hanson and Judith Messick) portrayed a frustrated wife trapped in an empty marriage with a bite and courage to prove that Ibsen did not fight alone. From the same translators, Norvik also hosts Skram’s Fru Ines, which evokes female revolt and resistance not in Norway but faraway Constantinople; and Betrayed, with its unsparing account of sexual double standards and hypocrisy.

Statue of Amalie Skram in Bergen

From the next Norwegian generation of women writers, Peter Owen publishes the Alberta Trilogy (Alberta and JacobAlberta and FreedomAlberta Alone) by Cora Sandel – pen-name of Sara Fabricius – in Elizabeth Rokkan’s translation. In Sandel’s classic sequence of novels about revolt against the prison of gender, and its high cost in an unjust world, the heroine escapes provincial northern Norway for the booby-trapped liberties of 1920s Paris.

Hunger by Knut Hamsun (Canongate Classics)

More familiar to Anglophone readers are the questing, anguished heroes of Knut Hamsun – although here, again, an uneven translation history means that only segments of a versatile author’s output are readily available to them. As with Undset, an outstanding modern translator – in this case, Sverre Lyngstad – has given a august figure a new spring in their step. In the 1990s and 2000s, Penguin Classics released five of Lyngstad’s Hamsun versions – HungerMysteriesPanVictoria and the epic Growth of the Soil – but not all remain easy to access.

Canongate currently has Lyngstad’s Hunger, whose starving misfit in the Kristiania of 1890 gave birth to a century of alienated rebels. Serpent’s Tail has just reissued Gerry Bothmer’s rendering of Mysteries, with its disruptive outsider in a seaside town. Green Integer, meanwhile, publishes Lyngstad’s translation of On Overgrown Paths – the controversial “autofiction” Hamsun wrote after his wartime disgrace as a Nazi sympathiser.

Little Lord by Johan Borgen (Classic Nordic Fiction)

It takes more than the chance enthusiasm of individual editors to keep a broad span of Norwegian classics consistently alive in English. Over recent years, Norvik Press have proved the most resourceful and committed of British champions. Their “Classic Nordic Fiction” list boasts several other gems. Johan Borgen’s memorable Little Lord, for instance, depicts a privileged youngster who runs off the rails in 1900s Kristiania and plunges into a louche underworld that might have been imagined and illustrated by Edvard Munch (trans. Janet Garton).

Devotees of Knausgaard, meanwhile, would be intrigued to discover the fiction of Jens Bjørneboe. A wayward, provoking enfant terrible of Norwegian literature in the 1960s and 1970s, he stirred Knausgaard-like passions among both fans and foes. Norvik has republished his History of Bestiality trilogy (Moment of FreedomPowderhouse and The Silence), with its ideas-rich, free-form exploration of the roots of human evil throughout history (trans. Esther Greenleaf Mürer).

Folktales of Asbjørnsen & Moe, translated by Tiina Nunnally, with a foreword by Neil Gaiman (University of Minnesota Press)

From Ibsen to Knausgaard, Norwegian literature has grappled with the toughest questions of how men and women should live with themselves, with each other, and in a wider society. It would be wrong, however, to close this whirlwind tour of classics in translation without saluting another perennial theme: imaginative wonder and delight in the natural environment and the forces that move through it.

So let’s end near the beginning of the nation’s modern literary tradition, with time-honoured stories that still cast their spell. With a foreword by none other than Neil Gaiman, in 2019 University of Minnesota Press published the Norwegian Folktales of Peter Christen Asbjørnsen and Jørgen Moe. First printed in the 1840s and 1850s, Asbjørnsen and Moe’s collections of traditional tales rounded up a menagerie of gods and monsters, trolls and beasts, that has enchanted writers and readers ever since. This edition owes its life in English to the peerless Tiina Nunnally – a reminder that great translators are the indispensable magicians who make literary marvels, from Norway and elsewhere, leap across space and time.

Everything Like Before by Kjell Askildsen (translated by Seán Kinsella) is published by Penguin Modern Classics