Vol 55 No 2, 2016
(University College of Southeast Norway (Hyvik), University of Aberdeen (Millar), University of Helsinki (Newby))
Analyses of nationalism in nineteenth-century Europe have demonstrated the importance of language in crystallising group identity. The century witnessed a continent-wide growth in the idea that language – especially regional linguistic differences from a hegemonic or imperial state language – could form the basis of a strong regional, or, latterly, national identity. This article explores the divergent trajectories which the language question took in Norway and Scotland during this period, and argues that differences in national identity, caused partly by the two nations’ different constitutional histories, had a considerable impact on the development of Scots and Nynorsk in their respective national contexts.
(James Cook University)
This article examines the contentious conclusion to Ibsen’s late drama, Lille Eyolf (Little Eyolf) in terms of Ibsen’s deep mistrust of humanist and idealist ethics. In the wake of their son’s death and their shared guilt, the hero and heroine abruptly but bleakly commit themselves to a life of philanthropic altruism: a project that we cannot regard without scepticism. But when humanist idealism has consumed every other moral crutch in modern people like the Allmers, where else can they – or indeed we – turn?
(University of Oregon)
The article is a study of twentieth-century poetics and the movement in Danish literature called ‘The Poetry of the 80’s’ and examines the poems that were written in the wake of the suicide of one of the movement’s founders, Michael Strunge (1958-1986). This article argues that the tropological nature of these death poems constitutes a genre in and of itself and shows a break from the tradition of Danish commemorative poetry going back to the seventeenth century and the Baroque poet Thomas Kingo. What is so alluring about the death-poems written for Strunge is that the focus shifts from a static portrait of the individual to a personal individualizing of the poet and his fate. Another shift crystallized by this phenomenon is that many of the poems for Strunge were by writers who had never met the poet yet were still able to instill a deep sense of intimacy in their verse. By reading themselves into the fabric of Strunge’s own verse, these death-poems changed the fabric of commemorative poetry in the Danish language. The article also pays attention to Strunge’s fascination with David Bowie and marks an interesting analogy in the very recent phenomenon of ‘Bowietry,’ cut-up poetry written for the death of David Bowie and constructed from his own words.
(University of Wisconsin-Madison)
This article conceptualizes Kjartan Fløgstad’s novel Grense Jakobselv as a literary site in the public process of collective remembering. Fløgstad’s stated intention for this novel was to challenge the received Norwegian memory of Nazism as an ‘unrefined’ mass phenomenon and to emphasize instead its basis in the cultured and educated elite. Drawing on James W. Wertsch’s work on the term ‘collective memory’ in the humanities and social sciences, the article explains the novel’s memory project and its contemporary political significance. After critically examining the novel’s portrayal of a connection between Nazism and bourgeois humanist culture, I look into aspects of its controversial reception. While acknowledging the flaws identified by some critics, I propose that Fløgstad’s ultimate aim is to promote a more self-critical use of political memory and history in the public sphere.
Oxford University Press, Oxford 2015. Pp. 194.
Reviewed by Carl Phelpstead
As its subtitle indicates, this study of commemorative skaldic verse in Norse-speaking royal and comital courts of the Viking Age is framed in terms of a ‘conception of memory as a social process, and of literary texts as expressions of that process’ (p. 3). The Introduction provides helpful orientation in scholarship on social or collective memory since the idea was developed by the French sociologist Maurice Halbwachs. ‘The importance of the skald’s role as the articulator of social memory is nowhere more evident than in commemorative verse’ (p. 11), and throughout the book stress is placed on the way in which collective memory of the past functions to explain and support present identity. Goeres argues, moreover, that skalds are aware of the role that they play, so that their verse articulates not only social memory but also the process of social memory-making. The five central chapters of the book present a series of case studies. In each of the lucidly written chapters Goeres pays careful attention to the textual sources for the poems under discussion and the prose narrative contexts in which the verses are preserved. Although the book is primarily a study of skaldic poems, rather than of the later prosimetric texts in which alone they survive (in often incomplete form), Goeres recognises that it is not possible (or at least not sensible) simply to reconstruct the skaldic poems and ignore the prose in which they are embedded. Each chapter is characterized, too, by very careful close reading of the verse, with detailed analysis of diction and figurative language. Throughout the book previous scholarship is given its due without allowing the text to become weighed down by fussy footnoting.
Chapter 1 is concerned with Þjóðólfr ór Hvini’s Ynglingatal and its commemoration of the earliest Scandinavian kings. Goeres offers a convincing reading of the poem (which she accepts as early) as ‘playful, sardonic, and at times grotesque’ (p. 19). This poem is preserved only in Snorri Sturluson’s Heimskringla and Goeres pays particular attention to the ways in which Snorri conditions subsequent readings of the poem and to the ‘unresolved tensions between the ways in which the poetic and the prose texts engage with the problems of commemoration and the construction of social memory’ (p. 24). Ynglingatal emerges as revealing the poet’s self-awareness of his role as articulator of social memory.
Chapter 2 moves on to consider poems that reflect on the afterlives of three Norwegian kings: Eiríkr blóðøx in the anonymous Eiríksmál, Hákon inn góði in Hákonarmál, and Óláfr Tryggvason in the memorial composed by Hallfreðr vandræðaskáld. The first two depict their (more or less pagan) subjects’ entry into Valhalla; the last focuses on the anxiety and despair of Óláfr’s followers after the Christian king’s death. Unlike Ynglingatal, these poems were all composed soon after the death of the ruler concerned by a poet with first-hand knowledge of the king. The poets share with Þjóðólfr, however, an awareness of their role as creators of memory as they ‘self-consciously examine the role of language and poetic discourse in their construction of a collective memory of the absent lord’ (p. 84).
In Chapter 3 Goeres turns her attention to memorial poems in which the skalds react to the enforced change of allegiance occasioned by the deaths of their patrons, Kings Haraldr gráfeldr and Hákon inn góði. A poetic exchange between Glúmr Geirason and Eyvindr skáldaspillir is preserved embedded in very different prose narratives in Fagrskinna and Heimskringla, leading Goeres to note that ‘Although the modern reconstruction of long poems encourages the reading of texts that no longer exist in that exact form, the saga authors too engage in a process of literary reconstruction in their preservation of these verses’ (p. 97). The different ways in which these skalds work through the transition from one ruler to another emphasises that however important it may be to commemorate a dead patron, ‘Poets and warriors rely on the patronage of living kings’ (p. 110).
Quoting Jacques Le Goff on Christianity being a ‘religion of remembrance’, Goeres argues that Scandinavia’s conversion radically altered the process of collective or social memory (p. 112). When the dead ruler becomes venerated as a saint, as was the case with King Óláfr Haraldsson, the generic conventions of hagiography influence memorial poetry and the dead king lives on as a patron and a power among the living. Because many of Óláfr’s miracles are granted to people from the lower classes, his skalds draw on new materials from beyond the ambit of the warrior elite who occupied the attention of earlier court poets. The political situation in Norway following Óláfr’s death meant that poets commemorating him were also impelled to offer advice to the rulers who succeeded him. The chapter looks in detail at Þórarinn loftunga’s Glælognskviða and poetry by Sigvatr Þórðarson, in whose verse ‘the role of the court poet merges with that of hagiographer’ (p. 145).
The final main chapter widens the book’s scope to include poetry commemorating earls (or jarls) of Orkney as well as Norwegian kings. A compelling contrast is made between the comparatively detached verse by Arnórr jarlaskáld Þórðarson commemorating kings of Norway and the much more personal poetry in which he praises and remembers earls of Orkney who were not only his patrons but also his kinsmen and friends. Arnórr wrestles with the difficulty encapsulated in the plural of his nickname jarlaskáld: poet of earls. He celebrates rival earls, to both of whom he was close, and thus grapples with the ‘divided loyalties’ of this chapter’s title.
As its conclusion claims, this book powerfully conveys a sense of the wide variety of different kinds (and different aims) of commemorative skaldic verse. Such verse is not only a memorial but also a legitimation of the political situation in the present and so is responsive to changes in royal ideology. In enriching the reader’s sense of the variety of Old Norse memorial verse and the uses to which it was put this judicious and scholarly book makes a valuable contribution to skaldic studies and offers a model for further research.
University of Toronto Press, Toronto, Buffalo, London 2015. Pp. 242.
Reviewed by Erin Michelle Goeres
Egils saga defies categorisation. One of the most well-known of the Íslendingasögur (sagas of Icelanders), it is both the story of a multigenerational Icelandic family and a biography of their most irascible son. It is a political narrative, peopled by the kings, queens and noblemen one might expect to encounter in the konungasögur (sagas of the kings), with an Odinic, giant-like protagonist who would not be out of place in the fornaldarsögur (sagas of olden times). This protagonist is a poet, but unlike the heroes of the skáldasögur (sagas of poets), he is only briefly involved in a love-triangle. Although his verses pepper the saga narrative, few dwell on the miseries of love or the charms of his lady; the corpus of Egill’s poetry is as varied as the saga itself, incorporating youthful boasts, exultant descriptions of war, eulogies, elegies and wryly comic descriptions of the poet’s ageing body. Egils saga is one of the most complex and engaging works of Old Norse-Icelandic literature, and a book-length study that aims to further research into that text is certainly to be welcomed.
Russell Poole opens the collection with an introduction to the character of Egill, detailing the most notable events in the life of the so-called ‘Viking poet’. As Poole observes, so many of the qualities exemplified by Egill – his inventiveness, tenacity and audacity – must have been recognised by the medieval audience as forming part of their own history: these were the character traits that drove the early exploration and settlement of Iceland. A similarly bold approach is taken by the editors of the book, who seek to represent the multitude of different approaches such a text invites.
The book is divided into four sections. In the first, ‘Composition’, Torfi Tulinius and Guðrún Nordal demonstrate the importance of skaldic verse as an ordering principle of the saga. Torfi points to the repetition of names, episodes and multiples of three to argue for the structural coherence of the text; he observes that the saga author had a sense of form that seems surprisingly similar to that of the skaldic poets. Guðrún, on the other hand, situates the saga within the context of medieval poetic theory. Through the close analysis of non-standard verse forms, she demonstrates the surprising sophistication of the saga author’s use of poetry, and argues for an equally sophisticated audience. ‘Identity’ is the theme of the second section. Laurence de Looze offers a stimulating analysis of Egill’s ‘self’ and its construction in the narrative; drawing on the theories of Ricoeur and Vernat, the article demonstrates the exciting possibilities of a modern, theoretical approach to the medieval text. Margaret Clunies Ross’ article offers a useful complement to that of de Looze: she analyses instances of self-description in Egill’s stanzas, noting the close association between descriptions of the poet’s body and the recurring themes of animals, drunkenness, craftsmanship and paranormal mental states.
The third section, ‘Emotions and Affiliations’, is the longest of the volume, comprising four articles. In the first, Ármann Jakobsson focuses on chapter 40 to examine the emotional and psychological background of Egill’s youth. Alison Finlay then considers the saga’s representation of old age; she argues that the episodic nature of the latter part of the text suggests it may have been constructed around the poetic sequences Sonatorrek and Arinbjarnarkviða, as well as single stanzas attributed to Egill. This section’s focus on elegy, the Icelandic landscape, the poet’s decline and his fraught relationship with his descendants seems to ground the text in the traditions of western Iceland. Taking further the subject of elegy, Oren Falk asks why there is no record of a poem composed by Egill on the death of his wife; he uses this as a starting point to examine the representation of widowers in the sagas and the often destabilising influence they had on kinship bonds, inheritance rights and social order. Timothy R. Tangherlini’s article likewise examines friend and kinship networks; he argues for the use of social network analysis as an interpretative approach to saga studies, particularly as a way of understanding the many complex relationships between characters.
The fourth and final section is entitled ‘Reception’, although it encompasses a great deal more, from manuscript studies and rímur, to Freudian analysis and allusions to Pushkin. Svanhildur Óskarsdóttir’s article picks up many of the themes discussed elsewhere in the book, including the structure of the saga, the characterisation of its protagonist and old age. She examines texts produced during the seventeenth century in the Breiðafjörður region of Iceland, in particular a series of rímur that retell the story of Egill, as well as the under-studied Vitlausa Egla (‘Silly Saga of Egill’, re-christened by Svanhildur as ‘New Egil’s saga’). Jón Karl Helgason’s article on the transgressive poetics of Egils saga investigates the mentally and physically disturbing aspects of the text; Jón draws on concepts such as Freud’s uncanny and Kristeva’s theory of the abject to consider the violence, horror and erotic aspects of poetic composition in the Old Norse world. As with Svanhildur’s article, this piece reprises many of the themes discussed elsewhere in the book and offers a thought-provoking conclusion to them.
The final article, by Álfdís Þorleifsdóttir, Katelin Parsons and Jane Appleton, details the history and aims of the online bibliography of Egils saga. Given the amount of critical attention the saga has received over the years, this is a valuable resource, although there is some overlap between the selected bibliography offered in this section and those included with the individual articles. Another complaint might be that not all of the articles are in fact new, as the title of the book suggests: Ármann’s contribution is a revised version of an article first published in Scandinavian Studies in 2008; Torfi’s piece is expanded from a chapter in his 2004 book, Skáldið í skriftinni; and Jón’s work first appeared in Skáldskaparmál in 1992. It is useful, however, to have a volume that collects these works together, and in particular one that makes Icelandic-language work accessible to a non-Icelandic audience. An English-speaking readership is clearly envisioned from the beginning, with translations taken from Bernard Scudder’s widely available text. This does make for some unsettlingly anglicised names, but is perhaps to be forgiven in a volume that aims to open up the saga to new and different audiences. As Russell Poole writes in the introduction, ‘Ultimately our hope in compiling this volume of essays is to contribute to the recognition of Egil’s saga as one of the great works of world literature’ (p. 17). This is an aim worthy of the saga itself, and one which the volume will undoubtedly help to further.
Edizioni Nuova Cultura, Rome 2016. Pp. 432.
Reviewed by Peter Stadius
The journey from north to south is a classic in European cultural and literary history. The recent two decades have focussed new attention on the Grand Tour and in general on the production and reproduction of the South, and especially Italy, in the northern and western mindscape. Elettra Carbone’s dissertation on the representation and textual images of the Nordic countries in Italy 1830-1910 can be situated in this context, but also in a far longer context of comparative literature that reaches back to the last years of the time-frame studied by Carbone herself.
Carbone’s study is based on a representative selection of poetic works, plays and prose, analysed separately in the three main chapters. The focus is on texts by canonized Nordic authors, such as Atterbom, Almqvist, Kivi, Strindberg, Ibsen, Lagerlöf, von Heidenstam and Undset. However, also authors of lesser international fame, most notably the Finnish Wendla Randelin (1823-1906), complete the selection. The focus is on textual representation and the creation of Nordic discourses on Italy. Fiction is the base for analysing factual image production, and the source texts are analysed as much as products of their time and social-spatial context, as they are as works of an author’s genius. Carbone uses Michel Foucault’s concept heterotopia to pinpoint the multi-faceted dimension of Italy ‘Made in Norden’, expressed through the plural form in the main title of the thesis, ‘Nordic Italies’.
The common denominator of the texts is that they all contain direct references to Italy. Otherwise, Carbone distances herself clearly from the reality of travel, by including authors who never visited Italy. Instead, the texts are placed in their cultural and literary context, dealing on the one hand with the motifs of Arcadia and classical Italian heritage, and on the other hand with the key works setting the trend in European images of Italy. Lord Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage and Mme de Staël’s Corinne, ou l’Italie, stand out here as key works which introduce a new paradigm of Italy, and Carbone undertakes an ambitious study of the inter-textual features in the Nordic texts analysed. International as well as national development is included in sufficient detail to give the literary works a broader context. The Scandinavian Circle of artists and scientists and the domestic circumstances are both covered. A special bonus is the inclusion of Finland in the study, a dimension often lacking in works concerning the Nordic nineteenth century. Minor Finnish language mistakes and the lack of some relevant Finnish research literature (e.g. Suvikumpu 2009) do not detract from the merit.
The distinction of three different literary genres leads to a combination of a thematic and chronological disposition. The starting point of the mainly Romantic poetry and its dominating Arcadian idyll is succeeded by the emergence of the dramatic play by the mid-nineteenth century. This coincides with the introduction of clearly more contemporaneous allusions to the Risorgimento and hints of possible parallel developments in the Nordic Region. The plasticity and versatility of the Italian images are analysed in both their temporal and spatial aspects. Finally, the third section presenting six novels – from H.C. Andersen’s Improvisatoren (1835) to Sigrid Undset’s Jenny (1911), brings in the analytic tool of focalization. Fictive characters of Italian origin experience a different Italy from that of the Nordics.
This brief description of the content does not give adequate credit to all the dimensions of this work. As a contribution to northern images of Italy, it adds to previous work. The question it provokes is, to what extent does this work bring new insights to this field of research? Firstly, the inclusion of texts from four different Nordic Countries is unusual. Secondly, even if the work does not introduce any bold theoretical novelties or new material, the creative combinations, the well-argued choices of theoretical perspective and background make the study both relevant and intelligent. Studies within this thematic field have a tradition that goes back for at least a century, and some quite old key studies are still relevant for current research. Elettra Carbone’s rigorous study displays a clarity and quality which should make it relevant for both literary studies and area and cultural studies for years to come.
Svenska litteratursällskapet i Finland, Helsingfors 2014. Pp. 269.
Reviewed by Sylvester Mazzarella
Over the years persistent myths have grown up round the poet Edith Södergran (1892-1923). In this book, based on a doctoral thesis, Agneta Rahikainen has set out to explore these myths, making particular use of two books written in English: Michael Benton’s Literary Biography. An Introduction (2009) which considers similar myths relating to the Bronte sisters and others; and Hayden White’s Metahistory. The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe (1973), which has helped in classifying mainly Scandinavian published attitudes to Södergran’s life and work.
Rahikainen begins by reminding us of the facts. Edith Södergran was born in St Petersburg, the only child of well-off middle-class Swedish-speaking parents originally from western Finland, and sent to a local school where German was the main language. When she was still a child, the family moved to Raivola (in Russian Roshchino), a largely Finnish-speaking village on the Karelian isthmus some sixty kilometres north-west of Petersburg. Finland at that time was still politically part of Russia. When she was fifteen her father died of tuberculosis in a Helsinki clinic, and less than two years later Edith herself was admitted to the same clinic with the same disease. In 1912 and 1913 she and her mother spent eighteen months in Switzerland at Davos, where she was treated at a sanatorium and had the opportunity to read widely in a variety of languages. Back in Raivola and with her illness to some extent in remission, she was able to have a first collection of poems published in Helsinki in 1916 and reviewed in the local press. In autumn 1917 she spent several weeks in Helsinki, where she met a number of literary figures. After this her health and previously comfortable economic circumstances took a turn for the worse as war carried Russia towards revolution. Meanwhile she continued to publish Swedish-language poetry in Finland, though her later collections were not always as well received as her first had been. At this difficult time (1918) Edith got to know Hagar Olsson, an ambitious writer near to herself in age, who was to figure prominently in Edith’s few remaining years. Hagar’s father was pastor of a Karelian parish not far from Raivola, and Raivola was where the two women first met, though Hagar was otherwise working full-time as a journalist in Helsinki. The two friends, never emotionally easy together, communicated mainly by post for the rest of Edith’s life.
Rahikainen defines the classic myth of Södergran’s life as that of misunderstood, highly strung female poet, a child of nature deeply anchored in the primeval forests of rural Karelia with few contacts elsewhere and dominated by her losing battle against terminal illness. Some (male) writers considered Edith mentally unbalanced even to imagine that, being a woman, she could ever expect to be taken seriously as a writer. Neither Hagar Olsson nor Elmer Diktonius, the other modernist writer who befriended Edith towards the end of her life, had known her before declining health and the economic and political upheavals of war (including Finland’s declaration of independence in December 1917) had severely affected her circumstances.
After Edith’s death, Hagar Olsson came to be known as the principal source of information on her life. The poet’s first biographer, the Uppsala academic Gunnar Tideström, depended heavily on Olsson. His monograph Edith Södergran was published in 1949 (reprinted most recently in 1991), while in 1955 Olsson edited and published the letters Edith had sent her as Ediths brev. Unfortunately, it was now over thirty years since these letters had been written, while Hagar’s side of the correspondence had been destroyed by Edith or her mother together with most of the other papers left by Edith at her death. In an inadequate attempt to compensate for this, Hagar in 1955 added a running commentary. It is obvious that Hagar’s text in Ediths brev is far from objective. Rahikainen quotes from and comments on Hagar’s description of her first visit (February 1919) to Edith at Raivola:
I was able to stay only a few days; naturally I had to get back to my editorial work on the paper, and the long journey from Helsinki almost to the Russian border, involving a change of trains at Viipuri, took time. But it was a rare experience. The word ‘fairytale’ springs to mind when I think of it: the Södergrans’ little home in the little low-roofed wooden cottage where they lived near the Orthodox church with its cheerful bells; the two captivating women in their unfashionable clothes – one with the bold profile of a young hawk, and rosy cheeks giving the other the image of a beaming little mother troll – their playful private speech, their eccentric manners and wonderful capacity to accept whatever Providence might inflict on them quite independently, it seemed, of the material side of an existence over which they had no control; all this contributed to the impression that they were living in a fairytale far from the familiar realities of everyday life. 
Rahikainen draws attention to loaded expressions like ‘Russian border’, ‘little home’, ‘Orthodox church’ and ‘Providence’ (p. 87), all of which help define the Södergrans as poor, isolated and living in abnormal conditions. This fairytale atmosphere is reinforced by diminutives, with a short step from this world to Elsa Beskow’s little old woman. The ‘two captivating women in unfashionable clothes’, are like eccentric and impractical noble savages, in complete contrast to Olsson’s professional career in a Helsinki newspaper office. In fact, those unaware of the local geography would not realise that Olsson’s father’s parish at Räisälä, though in the same part of the world, was even more inaccessible from Helsinki than Raivola, which at least had a station on the important railway from Finland’s second city Viipuri to St Petersburg. In any case, the Raivola district, with its popular nearby seaside resort at Terijoki, had been far from a backwater before the upheaval caused by the First World War. There can be no doubt that Edith Södergran, with her unusually complex background, has been an ideal subject for the tempting simplifications of biographical myth-making.
 Ediths brev has been translated into English by Silvester Mazzarella, together with Edith Södergran’s letters to Elmer Diktonius, in The Poet Who Created Herself, Norvik Press, 2001. This excerpt is from p. 42.
Vidarforlaget, Riga 2015. Pp. 384.
Reviewed by Hans H Skei
The title of Grethe F. Syed’s book translates as ‘Olav Duun. Poet of art, death and love’, and for those who know a little about the tradition of Duun scholarship, this clearly indicates a study with an emphasis on different if not altogether new aspects of Duun’s novels and short stories. The published book is based on the author’s doctoral dissertation from a few years back, and although the revised text claims to be aimed at ordinary readers, it is in fact a hybrid between an academic dissertation and a readable book meant for a general audience, which, I fear, must have a fairly high literary competence. This said, the book’s obvious strength lies in Syed’s enthusiasm, her eagerness to make readers understand the importance in our lives of literature in general and of Olav Duun’s fictional world and characters in particular. At the opening as well as near the end of the book she even explains what must be called her lasting love affair with Duun’s texts, which is fair enough, whereas it might have been better to leave out metatextual comments about her struggle before the happy ending which has brought her a doctorate as well as seeing this book in print. Reviews in scholarly publications have been few so far, but in general the book has been well received, with some criticism of its precarious balance between an academic or scholarly study and a book for nonacademics.
The defining approach and Syed’s ‘method’ may be described as a way of reading in which sensory experience is decisive and is seen as more valuable than theoretical concepts or an intellectual response. Through our senses we have access to the world around us and all it entails. Early on she introduces the Danish theologian K. E. Løgstrup as one of her ‘helpers’; the other central theorist is the French philosopher Georges Bataille. Yet even if these two men are quoted time and again, Syed allows her readers to pay as little attention to them as they like, since Duun and her reading of a surprising selection from his total oeuvre are more important.
Syed presents Olav Duun as an author of contradictions and paradoxes, often in such a way that the effect is subversive. In his work many strong forces work to hinder or destroy people in their struggle to do the best they can. She also finds a very intelligent writer in Duun, even when he transgresses norms and challenges our concepts of sin and salvation, or evil and good. And even if love can be seen as a central theme through all his many books, the pervasive images of death and dying may appear to be more forceful, since death is an integral part of life, and without the sense of an ending even Duun’s books would be ephemeral entertainment and not serious art. Syed does not say this, but she refers to Frank Kermode’s famous book too late in her study and makes too scant use of it. This is part of, or leads up to, the only serious criticism I want to voice against the book as a whole, its structure, and its attempts at theoretical speculation. Far too often theories about reading come after the interpretive work has more or less been carried out, and thus they are of little or no help. This is true for Gadamer’s hermeneutics, discussed on pp. 296-97; it is true for Susan Sontag and her contribution to literary interpretation, but also for a more general discussion of how we read, how we make texts signify, which comes even later when most things Syed has to say have already been said.
Syed has read widely and learnt much while having Duun at the centre of her thoughts and writing. Now and then she is too eager to include anything and everything that comes to mind. Too many names, too many references, too many simple parallels or possible connections, threaten to drown her interpretation of a Duun text. This is a pity, but fortunately it is not a general tendency. Syed is a very competent reader when she gets down to close reading. She selects two short stories for close scrutiny early on, and adds a third short story interpretation later. Apart from this, she moves freely to and fro in all of Duun’s many texts, although she spends most energy and space on a rather special character in Juvikfolke – Ola Håberg. He becomes the central character in her study, and he seems to be the reason why suicide figures so prominently in her book. An image of a pair of shoes, abandoned on the shore before Ola drowned himself, is the basis for her fascination with Duun’s work. The extensive discussion of this image and of death by water could be deemed interpretive overkill, but it is wonderfully executed and quite convincing as it stands. But then, of course, one might question how effective this is if one’s goal is to bring about a better and deeper understanding of a writer who is probably the greatest novelist Norway has ever had. Reading Duun by placing so much emphasis on marginal characters and by sweeping comments on his best novels, without treating them at length or even giving them their due when discussing love and death, art and aesthetics, ethics and morals, has its risks. Yet Grethe Syed’s book is a timely reminder that we should all try to set Olav Duun free from his first interpreters, and do our best to bring new readers to his books.
Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh 2015. Pp. 273.
Reviewed by Pei-Sze Chow
While the ‘Nordic noir’ and so-called ‘art house’ categories continue to dominate contemporary scholarly conversations on Nordic film and television, it is easy to forget that the region’s screen industries actually offer far more diverse genre productions than most expect. As the editors note in their introductory chapter of Nordic Genre Film, since the 1960s the output of genre films in the Nordic countries has always surpassed that of art house films while at the same time performing more successfully at domestic box offices every year. The early 2000s has also seen a flourishing of Nordic genre film production, enabled by shifts in national film politics across the region. Still, many outside the region tend to associate Nordic film with auteur-driven fare.
Gustafsson and Kääpä’s timely volume thus challenges the longstanding tendency in film scholarship to focus only on historical art house or ‘valuable’ films when it comes to Nordic cinema. Nordic Genre Film is a wide-ranging collection of critical essays that shifts the focus to contemporary popular genres, and indeed holds claim to being the first English-language collection to do so.
The book is divided into five parts, each covering a particular genre group. The volume moves from the more familiar narrative genres such as heritage cinema and crime and detective films, to those perhaps less well known by international audiences such as ‘optimistic’ genres (road movies, comedies, and musicals), horror, and what the authors call ‘genre benders’ that include pornography and Nordic-Hollywood crossovers.
The first part addresses heritage and national narratives, including Kimmo Laine’s chapter on a Finnish ‘great man’ biopic (on the composer Jean Sibelius), and Erik Hedling’s analysis of the Swedish reception of Norwegian and Danish ‘occupation dramas’ of the Second World War. Gunnar Iversen rounds off this section with a cogent discussion of the blending of fiction and history in recent Nordic historical films such as Arn: Tempelriddaren (Arn: The Knight Templar, 2008) and En kongelig affære (A Royal Affair, 2012).
Part II delves into the crime and detective narratives that are currently en vogue (and show no signs of abating). Accordingly, this is the heftiest part of the book, with five chapters. Björn Ægir Norðfjörð eschews the more dominant Swedish and Danish noir in the opening chapter, focusing instead on crime narratives from Norway, Finland, and Iceland. The manhunt movie, a subgenre of the thriller, is outlined by Rikke Schubart in the next chapter that analyses the Norwegian Headhunters (2011) and Danish The Hunt (2012), amongst others. Anders Wilhelm Åberg discusses how the national and transnational are negotiated in the popular television series Bron/Broen (The Bridge, 2011–), while Michael Tapper follows on with a study on neoliberalism and gangsterism in the Swedish film Easy Money (2010). The next chapter by Anneli Lehtisalo analyses the docudrama and documentary genres via Pääministeri (2009) and Palme (2012), which both represent the figure of the Prime Minister in the Nordic context.
In Part III, the book shifts to somewhat a more uplifting tone as we encounter chapters addressing what the editors call ‘Nordic optimism’. Tommi Römpötti explores generational continuity through the road movie genre. Ellen Rees’ chapter outlines the ‘quirky feel-good’ as a specific Nordic genre, one that has gained some popularity in film studies but remains ambiguous in definition. She argues that its Nordic version has its roots in films from the 1980s such as Babettes gæstebud (Babette’s Feast, 1987) and continuing with Á köldum klaka (Cold Fever, 1995) and Italiensk for begyndere (Italian for Beginners, 2000). Jakko Seppälä presents us with a short analysis of Finnish unromantic comedies (a curious twist on conventional romantic genres) that have emerged in the past decade. Finally, Ann-Kristin Wallengren discusses Nordic music-driven films that, while related to the American forebear, retain a unique emphasis on sociopolitical themes and empowering marginal characters.
Two chapters on the horror genre form Part IV. After pornographic films, horror seems to be ‘the most frowned upon film genre’ as Tommy Gustafsson notes in his chapter on low-budget Nordic slasher films. As it stands today, the genre is slowly emerging from its marginal position in the Nordic region, and as Gustafsson charts, directors’ interpretations of gore and torture porn are increasingly gaining international recognition. Nordic vampires are the focus of the next chapter by Outi Hakola, who links the emergence of the genre with crises in the welfare state. Interestingly, Hakola notes that the figure of the vampire has not been popular in Norway nor in Iceland, perhaps undermining the possibility of claiming the vampire film as a pan-Nordic genre.
The final part explores experimental, genre-bending texts, all of which share the characteristic of transcending aesthetic and national borders. Mariah Larsson discusses (narrative) pornography as a transnational genre, intersecting with tourism and feminism in its circulation amongst domestic and global markets. In ‘Going Hollywood’, an aesthetic and physical journey that Nordic directors have been taking since the 1920s, Arne Lunde explores the historical and contemporary transnational connections between the Nordic region and Hollywood. Readers will be familiar with the likes of Susanne Bier, Nicolas Winding Refn, and Thomas Vinterberg who have established high-profile identities within the Hollywood system while at the same time challenging conventional Hollywood genre constructions. Pietari Kääpä’s chapter on the politics and dynamics of cultural exchange in an age of global cultural flow is the final chapter of the book, featuring interviews with film practitioners whose productions have engaged with the changing landscape of genre film production in the small Nordic countries vis-à-vis concerns about globalisation and the challenges of protecting national cinema.
Precisely because there is such a vast quantity of genre films emerging from the Nordic region, it would not be possible to capture the wide variety of texts within one volume. Most of the texts analysed by the authors would be genuinely ‘new’ (that is, emerging from the periphery of high film scholarship) to readers, yet there still seems to be some attention on films or television series that have already been discussed at length elsewhere – Dancer in the Dark (2000), Bron/Broen, Flammen og citronen (Flame & Citron, 2008) are examples. Nevertheless, the volume stands out in its breadth of critical discussion and detailed examination of contemporary, post-2000 films and television series. What is indeed refreshing is that the chapters in this book pay particular attention to the transnational production, distribution, and reception of contemporary genre films – in part following the ‘institutional turn’ in film studies today, and in part an effort to expand our understanding of genre and its connections to regional and transnational dynamics.