Norse Code

Norse Code: The Rise of Nordic Literature

Nordisk Books, a small, UK-based press, is behind the push of a Nordic literature revival. Duncan Lewis talks about taking the genre beyond the usual crime novels.

An unfolding nightmare of addiction and infidelity, Havoc is the story of one man’s descent into a personal hell, relayed with slow, knife-twisting detail. It’s not an uncommon story, but it’s one that’s presented with a decidedly Scandinavian outlook on the grim realities of life.

Considered one of Denmark’s finest contributions to literature, Havoc received high praise in its home country but only a smattering of attention on American shores when it was finally translated many decades back. Tom Kristensen’s existential novel of a decaying and coldly decadent life is, perhaps, the sourest offering on what the literati once termed “Angry Young Man” novels; sombre meditations on the debauched life of single men, which became literary fixations for authors like John Braine in the ’50s.

Kristensen’s narrative pointedly references a Scandinavian way of being; getting on for getting on’s sake, no matter the hardship. In Havoc, Ole Jastran, a jaded book reviewer who lives a comfortable life with his young son and wife, is slowly pulled into the turnings of an alcoholic whirlpool. Engaging in activities that test his philosophical theories of life, Ole finds himself without family or any true friends as he sinks deeper into the existential quagmire of Copenhagen’s nightlife. Kristensen’s simple, precise and economical prose hides a wealth of ideas that suggest a nature versus nurture torment of esoteric musings.

The novel may have remained in the shadows of obscurity, but Duncan Lewis has since reissued the long-lost Nordic classic with his small press, Nordisk Books. “My original connection to the region and its literature is from a period of six years (2005 – 2011) where I lived in Denmark, first in Aarhus and later in Copenhagen and Helsingør,” Lewis says. “The original idea for Nordisk Books was really inspired by two things. Firstly, Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgård’s description in the (I think) sixth tome of Min Kamp (his bestselling series of autobiographical novels) of how he came to set up the press that he runs with his brother and friends, Pelikanen. One of the main goals of this was to publish exciting foreign fiction which had not found a home in Norway (for example, they have put out books by authors such as Ben Marcus).

Secondly, I felt that there was – and is – a huge interest in Nordic culture in the UK, but that from a literary perspective, not much was making its way into the bookshops outside of the crime thriller genre. I thought it would be interesting to try and redress the balance a little. The UK public has recently shown itself to be more open to translated culture – think of the success of Les Revenants and Broen on television — and sales of translated fiction are on the rise.”

Indeed, “Nordic Noir”, as it has come to be affectionately called, represents but one facet of the multifarious literature from Northern Europe. With crime novels, there’s the understandable crossover appeal in television and film, which, in turn, helps support the genre’s literary counterparts. The far less glamorized narratives deal with the ordinary circumstances of everyday living and are seemingly overlooked. Names like Johan Borgen are next to unknown outside of their Scandinavian homelands, but Lewis is particularly interested in reviving these kinds of writers.

“To be honest, the choice of books has been very personal so far, entirely based on works that I have seen value in and wanted to put out in the UK,” Lewis says. “That’s one of the pleasures of running your own publishing company! I started with Havoc, as I thought it was important to start with a strong work to establish the label. Havoc was written in 1930 and is one of the most widely read and recognised works in modern Danish literature, and I feel incredibly proud to have brought it to an English-speaking audience. The second title was You Can’t Betray Your Best Friend and Learn to Sing at the Same Time, by the Norwegian, Kim Hiorthøy. Hiorthøy’s book is a compact volume of 40-odd flash fiction-type short stories as well as drawings, which together form a wonderful reflection of the absurdity of everyday life.”

The monopoly of popular fiction suggests that the market for modernist European fiction may be comparatively slim to what is being stocked on the bestsellers list in North America. But such works that are in the process of being reissued by Nordisk Books are a lit major’s dream. If you’ve ever loved world cinema with a passion and spent time seeking out specific labels that distribute foreign-language films, this is the literary equivalent. These novels are like windows into a certain consciousness that is at once familiar and yet unlike those that exist outside the Scandinavian Peninsula.

“The next book, to be published later this year, is Love/War, by Swede Ebba Witt-Brattström,” Lewis promises. “The novel was heavily inspired by a 1970s work by a Swedish-speaking Finn, Märta Tikkanen, telling the tale of the breakdown of the author’s marriage with her abusive husband. Like Tikkanen’s earlier work, Love/War is told in a semi-verse-like form and has been hugely successful in Sweden, having been made into both a play and an opera, not least due to the public interest in the real life couple behind the fictional narrative.

“Following this will be Gine Cornelia Pedersen’s phenomenal, prize-winning debut novel, Zero. Pedersen is mainly known in Norway for her starring role in the TV series Young and Promising, soon to be aired on Channel 4’s Walter Presents in the UK. The book tells the story of a girl growing into adulthood, at the same time as her mental state deteriorates.”

If anything is keeping Lewis from expanding beyond a London home base, it’s the issues with distribution, which, sadly, have prohibited Nordisk Books from selling stock to anyone in the US, at least for the time being. Though the books are made available through Amazon for worldwide distribution, you won’t be seeing them on the shelves of your bookstores if you happen to live outside of Europe.

“This is purely a matter of rights and logistics,” reasons Lewis. “There’s generally a higher cost to obtain global rights to distribute any given a book and as a one-man-band, I’d rather focus on doing things well in the UK (and to some extent in Europe) for the moment. Having made this decision, even if there are US citizens keen on buying the books, I’m afraid I don’t have the rights to sell them in the US. Of course, anyone visiting the UK is welcome to pick up a copy of Nordisk Books’ titles over here!”