Britain’s obsession with Scandinavian crime fiction shows no signs of stopping. On television, “The Killing” and “The Bridge” have rapidly gained an ever-growing number of viewers. When did this all begin? Perhaps we can trace it back to the best-selling release of Stieg Larsson’s “The Dragon with the Girl Tattoo” as a book and later on as a movie directed by David Fincher.
If one wants to discover bits and pieces of Scandinavian literature in history, there are plenty of amazing authors to choose from. August Strindberg is ona of the major names to stand out: his novel “The Red Room” is in fact considered as the first modern novel in Sweden. The plot mainly centers around the actions of Arvid Falk, a man who encounters the worst side of society as he tries to pursue a career in journalism and writing. His critical analysis of Swedish society is delivered with sarcasm and wit, something which shows us how Swedish literature was in sync with the rest of Europe in terms of themes and styles (Dickens’s novels were published around the same time in the United Kingdom). Henrik Ibsen‘s 1879 play “A Doll’s House” is a perfect example of how this Norwegian dramatist highlighted the limits a male centered society could create to the modern woman, whereas in the 1920s Norwegian novelist Sigrid Undset masters the craft of historical novels by creating a trilogy dedicated to the fictional medieval lady Kristin Lavransdatter and her struggles in life. Karen Blixen is another great name in Scandinavian literature, writing masterpieces such as “Out of Africa” (1937) and “Babette’s Feast” (1958): not only were these works translated into English, but movie adaptations were given the green light in the 1980s.
Yet today we tend to associate Scandinavian literature with noir, crime fiction. How is that? There is not a great tradition of translating works into English in general, and perhaps a competition with neighbouring cultures has often halted or slowed any possible process of expansion and popularity for Scandinavian works in the UK or elsewhere in Europe.
Should we give up and accept that Scandinavian literature can only be paired with the crime fiction label because of how it got to our shelves? No way! But looking for a brighter, almost comedic side of it is a hard task. However, although it takes a while, new and exciting works worthy of being considered and read (or translated, as this is another big hurdle for foreign readers aswell) appear as results of our searches. Inspired by children’s literature, Icelandic author Gyrðir Elíasson‘s best work to date has to be “The Wandering Squirrel“: published in 1987, it is now being translated in other languages and finding space on foreign shelves aswell. In this novel, humour and fantasy mix as we are told of a boy who ends up in a world of squirrels. Unsurprisingly, Elíasson’s other major work “The Book of Sandá River” deals with the relationship between man and nature and how materialism really challenges the modern man. Here are five picks for Scandinavian works that do not belong to the crime fiction genre and are definitely worthy of being read! However, some are not available in English but hopefully you could be interested in finding out more anyway.
- Merethe Lindstrøm – “Dager i stillhetens historie” (“Days in the History of Silence“): The story of Eva and Simon, two elderly people who reminisce about their past. The female voice is the one revisiting the facts and the couple’s mistakes and secrets. The Norwegian novel was awarded the Nordic Council Literary Prize last year; [available in English].
- Helle Helle – “Dette burde skrives i nutid” (“This Should Be Written in Present Tense“): The main character of this novel is Dorte. The story is told retrospectively, 25 years after these events. The young student Dorte studies at the University of Copenhagen but dreams about becoming a writer, without really succeeding; [not available in English].
- Jonas Jonasson – “Hundraåringen som klev ut genom fönstret och försvann” (“The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared“): On the day of his Hundredth birthday, Allan Karlsson escapes the retirement home where he lives and embarks on a grotesque journey, meeting questionable people and revisiting the past through flashbacks. A best-seller in Sweden in 2009 and translated into many languages; [available in English].
- Philip Tier – “Vinterkriget” (“The Winter War“): A family centered Swedish novel which revolves around professor Max Paul’s 60th birthday and his family members. Narration is presented with satire and humour and deals with topics such as sex and love; [not available in English].
- Björg Magnúsdóttur – “Ekki þessi týpa eftir” (“Not That Type“): Icelandic novel about four 26-year old girls who have been friends for a long time and share happy and bitter times in the dating world. Filled with humour and dealing with relationships in the age of tweets and social networking. Perhaps a sort of updated version of “Sex & The City“? [not available in English].