Posts in Category: Scandinavian literature

A circular motion towards memory

A mind and a memory
Did I already read this passage? He used that same sentence before didn’t he? What? Is there a code in this text?
I’ve been reading Bjørn Rasmussen’s ‘Huden er det elastiske hylster der omgiver hele kroppen’ (‘The skin is the elastic holster that enshrouds the entire body’ – although in effect, due to the massive connotation linked to every word, the translation is open-ended) and in its best postmodern fashion it resists me and my desire to immerse myself in its story. Not to say it is a closed off piece of literature, on the contrary, it lays it all out there in rich condensed prose. However, it does what it can to resist me by saying “hey! I’m a text! I’m a text and I’m a person! I am a narrator and a text and a person! Only, there is no I, I is just a figment in a circular motion towards memory!”
And so it goes on, until I let go of my desire to establish a communication with it and just let it tell me its story. ‘Cause we really like that, and especially when we lose it; we like to communicate with texts and talk back, in essence often just to test out our own identity, mirror our own desires and fears. But this work, and others like it, just wants to tell its story, constantly trying to counteract what you think you already know about it, how it’s going to play out, what it wants. How? By saying it, and by borrowing others’ I’s and texts, and by negating your knowledge because it is not a You and even you don’t know You. The text, the I, can only present itself to a you and that’s that. What you do is either constantly trying to figure the It out, or just leave. No harm, no foul.

Tro intet af, hvad jeg fortæller om følelser. Jeg har kun tilnærmelsesvis ansatser mod at føle noget ægte. Så snart dette ægte indtræder, vil det nødvendigvis opløses, fortæl mig om implosion, om atomer. Når man jagter en frø i timevis, når man endelig lukker hænderne omkring den, dør den af chok. Og hvis jeg virkelig får dig en dag. Så vil jeg ikke have dig længere. Så vil jeg have noget andet. Hvad. Fortæl mig om forskellen på want og need, jeg tror ikke på, at der er nogen. Hvad er der så, kapitalismen, fortæl mig om kapitalismen, nej, den menneskelige natur, åh, hør her: Oppe i mit røvhul er der sort som kul, oppe i mit røvhul, ca. 6 cm. oppe, findes et punkt, en erogen zone, der svarer til klitorissen eller pikhovedet. Det er fakta. Når dette punkt berøres, forplanter vibrationerne sig til rygraden, hammeren, stigbøjlen og hør her: Røvhullet er dialektisk, røvhullet er en død mands blomst, død kvindes blomst, røvhullet er en fuga, et tema med variationer; følelser derimod; frøer, mødre, ridelærere og følelser, de er den samme gamle historie, sut mit plot.

(Roughly translated)
Don’t believe anything I say about feelings. Far from it, I only have beginnings of feeling something real. As soon as this real comes around it inevitably dissolves, talk to me about implosion, about atoms. When you chase a frog for hours, when you finally wrap your hands around it, it will die of shock. And if I really get you one day. Then I don’t want you anymore. Then I’ll want something else. What. Talk to me about the difference between want and need, I don’t think there is any. What’s next, capitalism, tell me about capitalism, no, human nature, ah listen: It is pitch-black up my asshole, up my asshole, about 6 cm. up, there is a point, an erogenous zone, comparable to the clitoris or the penis head. That’s a fact. When you touch this point the vibrations transmit to the spine, the malleus, the stirrups and listen: The asshole is dialectical, the asshole is a dead man’s flower, a dead woman’s flower, the asshole is a fugue, a theme with variations; feelings, on the other hand; frogs, mothers, riding instructors and feelings, they are the same old story, suck my plot.

A body
‘Huden…’ presents this figure named Bjørn, this persona who experiences in reality an array of confusing ‘realities’, that of a sexual being, a victim (of himself), an offender, an identity(?), where the language and the narration join in in a mix of stream-of-consciousness, repetitions, fragmented sentences and scattered punctuation to convey a sense of loss and confusion, shifting the mood and POV’s every which way. There is ample reference to the corporeity of existence, the anatomy, bodily functions, and how emotions and sensations affect the body. The body has long held a strange position; it is both the most real and physical we can think of, and at the same time because/in spite of its obvious and common everyday functions it is constantly embellished, observed and scrutinized from a distance or functioning as a satirical/comical input to check our masked appearance. But in a lot of more recent works, the body is incorporated at a very hands-on level – the shit, pee and puke, reactions to external and internal factors that set off a chain effect that, although it is a very felt thing, we take for granted and with it the emotions, the mind that belongs to it. When you eat, you shit, and sometimes it hurts (depending on how much chili you had the day before).  When you cry nonstop for 45 minutes, you get dehydrated and a headache to boot. And the works I am referring to – ‘Huden…’ being an example – don’t necessarily incorporate the body because of fascination of the grotesque or comical input, but because it IS, and when it is, what and how do you do with it? In stead of spending time distancing ourselves from our skin, our blood and teeth, these works spend time incorporate it in the gorges of fiction. A very complex process because both the body and mind seem to constantly resist the being, moving forward and regressing all at the same time.

Of course, I could choose to focus on the massive amount of sexuality, sex (actions and thoughts) and what that means to societal evolution. I could also focus on the character and his relation/resemblance to the Author, is the author dead or very much alive? I could even focus on the symbolic effect of putting pictures, and at that in the dead center of the book, possibly as a form of legitimizing the linkage to reality or precisely to fuck with the whole notion that a photo would legitimize anything as real. All those aspects are fascinating for its own chain of thought. But when it comes down to it I keep coming back to the circular motion of mind and body towards memory and reality.


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Anders Bentsen-Bøhm

The Flat Bunny

Bárður Oskarsson, Faroese children’s book author and illustrator, has just published his fourth picture book in Faroese titled “Flata kaninin” (The Flat Bunny). It will be published in Danish later this year, but I do not know the specific date. The Flat Bunny is, to put it bluntly, hilarious and does its genre honour.

The Flat Bunny - Bárður Oskarsson

A dog, a Cat and a Mouse
Oskarsson’s most famous book called “Ein hundur, ein ketta og ein mús” (A dog, a cat, and a mouse) was published in 2004 and quickly became very popular. The trio have declared a cease-fire in the beginning and as a result are driven up the wall of boredom. Tensions escalate until the dog can’t take it anymore and lets loose on the cat which sets off a spiral of mayhem. So now the question is, how do they restore the peace?

A Dog, a Cat and a Mouse - Oskarsson

It was awarded the West Nordic Children’s Literature Prize and a White Raven Special Mention in 2006 and is translated into Danish, Icelandic and French. It has been a part of Internationale Jugendbibliothek München’s travelling exhibition, Guten Tag, lieber Feind!, showcasing picture books that promote peace and tolerance. Furthermore, because of Iceland’s position as honorary guest at Frankfurter Buchmesse in October 2011, they have offered the Faroe Islands part of their space and Oskarsson’s picture book will be one of the Faroese contributions.

Picture book with a twist
Enough with the prize name dropping. The new book is a humorous story about a dog and a rat who come across a flattened bunny on the road and team up to get her off the road. There is no explanation as to why or how the bunny came to be flattened, it just is. They discuss the options amongst themselves, one of which would be to place her in front of no. 34, which they reckon is her domicile. But this is quickly discarded because, “what would the people in the house think if they saw a dog and a rat bring home their bunny, and flattened at that? It could end up a right mess!”

The Flat Bunny

So the deliberations continue, until the dog comes up with the perfect plan and the dog and rat scrape the bunny off the road. It is a story of how you apply creativity to, and make the best out of an apparently unlucky situation, and doing so with great empathy and style. The ending is anything but predictable and puts a twist on the story leaving further contemplation up to the reader.
The interplay between text and pictures in this book – implementing subtle minimalist technique in both – is beautiful and I seriously haven’t been able to stop laughing every time I open the book. I know the target group is children, but I would not hesitate to recommend it to adults as well – you are never to old to laugh and contemplate life from a different perspective. There is innocence and playfulness abound and I think it would be really interesting to see how children react to/read the story.
If you know Faroese or Danish, you can read more about Oskarsson and his books here and here.
Oskarsson’s Faroese publishing house, BFL, also has a catalogue in English with a selection of their published material, including the books of Bárður Oskarsson – you can find it here.

The Flat Bunny

Grimsrudian writings

Beate Grimsrud reading from "En dåre fri"

A friend and I went to yesterday’s International Author’s Stage to experience Beate Grimsrud, the Norwegian, now Swedish-based, author of works like “En dåre fri” (roughly translated to ‘A fool free’) and “At smyge forbi en økse” (again roughly ‘To edge past an axe’).
As far as the Scandinavian literary scene is concerned Grimsrud has been very much talked about – she is one of the, lately many, author’s who have been highlighted for their use of autobiographical material to a level of extremely concreteness.
She has been awarded several prizes for her authorship and recently she was nominated by Norway AND Sweden for the Nordic Council Literature Prize of 2011. Something she noted at the event yesterday was not the advantage some would claim. But, nonetheless, impressive. And in Sweden her style has even become a term in its own: Grimsrudsk (Grimsrudian) – narrative with detours, sudden associations to other subjects etc.
She started by reciting from “At smyge forbi en økse”, which, I’ll admit, was muy impressivo. Either she has done this a lot or her works sit so embedded in her she can just pick pieces to recount in front of an audience.
Even though Anette Dina Sørensen (the interviewer) did most of the talking (she whipped up quite an analysis of Grimsrud’s authorship, kudos, both relating to queer theory, psychiatry, and autobiographical matter) what Grimsrud had to say was very much to the point.
Her project is to open up or break down the barriers and categories we are so quick to set up and upholding – leaving us constrained versions of humanity. Men, women, mentally fit or sick, child, adult.
When she read from “En dåre fri” people in the audience were nodding, laughing, sighing and acknowledging the narrative vivaciously – the experience was fascinating. When she read from her works the atmosphere in the room was like the audience became part of a single entity whose shared reciprocity enlivened the story Grimsrud told. Much in the spirit of what she argued about books: that they don’t really exist before they have an audience/readership.
She told Sørensen how writing for her was like a sprinter at a marathon – she poured all into a book, writing with fervor and when she thought she had given all she could she realized that she had 40 km left to run! OK, she said it much better, with the calm air of a writer, or maybe you should have been there to hear it.
Then they talked about the character of Eli, how Grimsrud used the ambiguous name so it would relate to men and women, and Eli’s schizophrenia that resulted in hearing voices, 4 male voices to be specific.

One little tidbit: did you know that “En dåre fri” in Norwegian is not the same as its Swedish counterpart? And that the Danish translator has meshed these two into the Danish translation? This is fascinating to me.
I have yet to read one of Grimsrud’s works, but I have a feeling that won’t take long – my fingers are already itching to use non-existing moneys on “En dåre fri”. We’ll see how long the struggle will be.

Have you read anything of Grimsrud? I would love to hear what you think about her books, authorship, themes.

The birds

A couple of months ago I went on a walk in my neighborhood at the time people put out their bulk waste. I am continuously amazed at what things people throw away. In my own saving-student-budget way I am glad, since I now have pots and pans and books and furniture, etc., all in perfect or good order. On one of these walks I found three big boxes of books on the pavement (where everything for around 12 hours just sits and waits for destruction or reuse). At first I was chuffed, and then I was five books richer.

Tarjei Vesaas - Fuglene

Yesterday I finished one of these books. It is by Norwegian author Tarjei Vesaas and is titled Fuglene, published in Norway 1957 (my copy is Danish and published 1965). The novel is about Mattis who struggles to fit in society but continuously fails. His mind works on overdrive and he often amazes himself with thoughts of rare genius, but when he opens his mouth to utter these pearls of wisdom (sorry for the imagery) his surroundings respond with shrugs, annoyance, sighs and overbearing attitudes. Instead of connecting with people, Mattis has a strong affinity with nature and especially the snipe (incidentally, a bird whose camouflage and zig-zaggy flight makes it hard for hunters to pinpoint and shoot – but none the less a hunted bird). Mattis is ecstatic when he learns that a flight of snipes fly over his house and ascribes this tremendous meaning. He lives with his sister Hege who nudges at him to get work, to join the community, but due to excuses and lack of knowledge he is always out of work. Secluded from everybody except his sister, he becomes (very fittingly) a boatman, but the only encounter he has on the lake is a lumberjack named Jørgen who, as fate will have it, takes up a relationship with his sister. This does not please Mattis, who is strongly attached to his sister, in reality his only link to his own kind. And so he decides to let a ‘of-it’s-own’ kind of fate decide what the outcome of this should be.

The Birds is a child of its time – there is a heavy emphasis on the psychological turmoil of an outsider, and the society that doesn’t include him/her, whether it is intentional or not. Something that set with me was the way in which Vesaas portrays Mattis’ mental constitution and the way his mind worked as opposed to what came out in spoken language. This translates onto the page, as both the dialogue with others and his own thoughts become half phrases and jumbled, cryptic and opaque. As much as Mattis ‘understands’ his own signals, as hard is it for readers and his surroundings to understand him. The tables turn in his universe, where the outsider becomes the insider and the community/the reader becomes the eccentric, ‘not-on-my-level’, misfits. Mattis is a person who talks to birds (not by the use of voice, but a concoction of mental telepathy and signals in nature), he defines himself and his actions by signs he allocates to everything from an expression by a passerby to the way waves form on the lake.

Again as a testament to its time, emphasis is on the tragic note, and in extension fate. There is a sort of implied disconnectedness that is without resolution throughout the novel. And so the outcome, as Mattis says is inevitable. It just is. Whatever happens happens, and for a reason, although he tries his best to postpone and trick fate there is no mercy. When he tells a passerby about the flight of snipes over his house it is this exact cause that effects the death of one of the snipes when the passerby shoots it down. There would or could be no other outcome. The novel is harsh and painful as it drags you through its passages.


All the people

I read in an article recently that it took us several hundred thousand years to go from 0 to 1 billion people, and only 12 years from 6 to 7 billion which is expected to be the count for the world population in 2011. So many people, everywhere, and a number that is growing so rapidly, has gotten many people seriously questioning the prospects of sustainability and life quality. It is estimated that 1 billion people suffer chronic malnutrition and many more are just scraping by, affected by floods and other climate disasters that countries are unable, in one or several ways, to help their citizens survive. At the other end of the line, where the life and death scenario is not an immediate issue but where people are struggling to find meaning of their existence in this big world, you have the misplaced, the in-betweens, and the getting-by’s of Western so-called developed countries. Someone has said that we are losing touch with compassion, empathy and solidarity across the board the last decades, that our trip to individuality has left us so me-me-me fixated that we cannot see past the tip of our noses if it doesn’t apply to us in an immediate fashion.

I got a call from Amnesty yesterday. It was a person on the other end who first thanked me for my contributions in the previous year and then told me that they could use more help if I was up for it. He then went on to talk about a specific place where my contribution (they never say money, maybe it is just to dirty a word, to acknowledge that our society has built itself around currency) could do good, namely Haiti, where women are raped in greater numbers than ever before due to the lack of control and corruption that leave the police at best indifferent (his words) to the women’s suffering. Finally he asked in a meek voice if I thought that I had some way of making room in my budget so I could possibly up my contribution a little bit, so they could do more humanitarian work. When I said yes to his suggestion he sounded so genuinely happy, that I felt really ashamed that I had not suggested a larger amount of money. And then surprised by this. Now why on earth was I not just happy to contribute?

And why mention this in a book blog? Well, I have had these kinds of thoughts with me while I read Harstad’s ‘Buzz Aldrin, hvor ble det av deg i alt mylderet?’ (English title: Buzz Aldrin, what happened to you in all the confusion?). Maybe it’s a bit weird to introduce Harstad’s novel with these two very concrete examples, since it is not a book that deals with natural disasters, famine or (over)population. But it deals with the one in the masses of humanity, and what effect they have on others, what sort of chain reactions lead on lifeline over to another. For me Harstad’s character, Mattias, is a central contemporary voice of those in-between’s. He is also the One in the book – the individual, the center of causality. But even so, it is not an egomaniac who fills the pages. You feel like slapping him for his apathetic and apologetic nature, and yet you sympathize and identify with him. The novel centers around a person who is dislodged and alienated from himself, his family, his girlfriend and society so much, and just wants to fizzle out in the great vast ocean of people, to not attract attention or make a fuzz, that he ‘flees’ from Norway to the Faroe Islands. A place where no one knows him and he knows no one. In this postmodern, fast-paced lifestyle he is one person who does not feel or doesn’t want to feel the drive of a winner, a top-competitor, someone who strives to be the best, at one point it states that he wanted to be the best second-best or runner up. He just wants to get by, to fill some service void, and get on with it. At the same time he is caught between two places, because he is aware of the fact that he doesn’t want to disappoint those who are close to him – he is scared to oblivion of being useless, of being in the way. He creates a buffer around his person and all around him. But on the Faroes he discovers a group of people (or rather they discover him) who take him in – at a psychiatric half-way house – and he connects with them. They are in a way embodiments of his own fears, and at the same time mirrors of his situation. Together they form a society of in-betweens.

Johan Harstad - Buzz Aldrin, hvor ble det av deg i alt mylderet

It’s not very often someone from outside the Faroe Islands sits down with a pen and starts writing a novel using the islands as a backdrop. And in a way it feels very strange reading this without giving way too much attention to the scenery when you know Klaksvík, stood freezing in a bus shelter on Hvítanesvegur and drove too many times around the islands in a car because there is little else to do when you are uninspired. And if I am not much mistaken, the photo on the cover is of the road to Gomlurætt – a symbol of a halfway place between modern city and quiet home town. Always covered in fog – timeless. Very symbolic! But then again, it is not a story of the Faroes but of Mattias and all the people.

The style of narration is exquisite, so vulnerable and rambling at points and concise at others. Some parts of the book have sentences that go on for 2-3 pages without a punctuation, and you find yourself running along with this fast pace, this ‘have-to-get-it-out-no-matter-how-it-sounds’ pace. He describes with fervor the in-the-moment scenery that you make faces and places come alive in your head while you read instantaneously. I think it is also this in-the-moment moments that Mattias lives by and can cope with. The world is so big, there are so many people, all the people everywhere, that he chooses to focus on one person or one feeling at a time.

I will end with a quotation taken from a beautiful funeral scene, where Mattias is to sing (he is previously introduced as a very, very good singer, but rejects it because of the center stage character singing entails). It barely needs more introduction or else I will spoil it for people who would want to read the novel:

And the important thing is not what I sang, but that I did it, and the sound filled the room, it forced its way around the church multiple times and through our heads before it pushed its way through drafty walls and clock towers, half-open doors and the people who stood outside felt warm for a minute, they closed their umbrellas in sync and stood there silently as the sound lifted itself over their heads and  laid down on Saksun like a fog no one had ever seen before and I heard people crying, I heard people who could no longer hold back, and the minister went to his quarters for a minute, Havstein took a hold of Carl and Carl was sitting with his eyes fixed to the ground and did not dare look at the mother and Anna held her arms around Palli and Palli looked straight ahead and Havstein smiled to me, Sofia’s mother closed her eyes and I sang more powerfully than ever before, I tried to lift the roof, I tried to force the beams holding the roof to loosen from their battened places and open the building up, I wanted for the model boat that hung from the ceiling to sail out and the organist was doing his best to keep up, kept the pace with the notes and crawled up the register as I moved further and further in the song and at one point I left the lyrics entirely the way it was supposed to be sung, but the organist followed, we left the music and the lyrics and it just became sound and the sound enfolded everyone of us in warm woolen plaids and got us aboard unsinkable boats and I carried us over the oceans and onto land in another place and held the last notes for as long as I was equal to, and afterwards it was so quiet that you could have heard a bacteria falling from the ceiling and landing on the floor.

Not even God himself could have walked soundless through that room.