My latest review is of a book about Scandinavia: literaryreview.co.uk/nordic-by-nature. It’s behind a paywall; but here is my original version.
Robert Ferguson, Scandinavians. In Search of the Soul of the North. Blake Books, 455 pp., illustrated, £25. 3 Nov 2016.
This book started out as a quest for the Holy Grail of Scandinavian ‘melancholy’. Robert Ferguson has lived in Norway for thirty years, and published biographies of the pretty gloomy Ibsen and the unrelievedly depressing (and fascist) Knut Hamsun, so he must know something of it. The book is an odd one, jumping around from one country and one historical era to another, interspersed with personal reminiscences and transcriptions of conversations he has had with literary figures, interrupted in medias res with an original three-act playlet featuring Ibsen, his wife, and the mother of the illegitimate child he fathered in his youth, and mentioning melancholia every now and then; but never quite reaching his stated goal. Indeed, we’re left feeling at the end that it has all been something of a wild goose chase, the myth of Scandinavian melancholy being simply that – a myth – spread around Europe by a few well-known artists – Ibsen, Strindberg, Munch, Ingmar Bergman – and latterly by the popularity in Britain of those astonishingly popular ‘Nordic noir’ TV series, themselves rooted in the same fin-de-siècle stereotype. It’s one of Ferguson’s literary friends, the translator Birger Rønning, whose conversation, retailed here, is most persuasive of this, even if we can’t be sure that Ferguson himself has been quite convinced. ‘Scandinavian melancholy is a literary illusion… For a hundred years that’s all the world ever knew about the Scandinavians. We were appointed official purveyors of melancholy to the rest of Europe.’ In fact the gloomy stereotype of the Nordics is no more accurate than their idea of the Brits as tweed-clad pipe-smokers with silly upper-class accents. More generally (though this is my conclusion, not Ferguson’s or Rønning’s) this could be taken as a cautionary lesson for literary scholars who assume they can ever divine the ‘soul’ of any nation from its élite literature. You need to search more widely than that. (If a nation could be said to have a ‘soul’, that is.)
That said, Scandinavians is a terrific read. It has some great descriptions of the Vikings (from the Sagas plus a few stones), Denmark’s and then Sweden’s Stormaktstider (Great Power ages), and later murders, like the infamous Malexander ones in 1999, by a pair of prison inmates paroled in order to perform a play in public as a form of therapy, under Sweden’s proudly progressive penal policy. The mass-murderer Breivik also comes into it, though less prominently. It even has a car-chase. Ordinary democratic life in Scandinavia features far less, making Ferguson’s account less recognizable to someone who lives there more dully; though it is not entirely neglected, its consensual nature being held largely responsible, if not for Scandinavian melancholy, then for the madness and extreme forms of artistic expression (Munch, Strindberg) that it produces, Ferguson claims, as a desperate attempt to escape from it. It’s this that accounts for the otherwise seemingly inexplicable factor, actually measured in a number of recent international surveys, that Scandinavia is the happiest place on earth. How can you be both happy and sad? If there is a key, this is it.
All this looks like a wild guess to me. But literary scholars are good at wild guesses, some of which might be true, and in any case are generally thought-provoking. That’s what makes a book like this worthwhile. It reads like many nineteenth-century travel books, which also combined wonderful narrative description with bright speculation. It’s splendid on the differences between what Ferguson calls the three main Scandinavian ‘tribes’, which are too often lumped together, but which go right back to Viking times; on the age-old competition between them; on the long tradition in Scandinavian history of powerful (as well as beautiful) women, which he attributes to the fact that Viking men were out raiding most of the time, leaving the women to take charge of everything else; on the elevated position of writers in Norwegian society, taking the place of the aristocracy that was formally abolished in 1821; on the serious wars that were fought between Denmark-Norway and Muslim north Africa in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, provoked by the latter’s slave-raiding in the north, which were new to me; on the three countries’ very different experiences of World War II (Ferguson suggests that Sweden’s guilt over her semi-collaboration with Germany then may partly explain her generosity towards Middle Eastern refugees today); on polar explorers, especially the ludicrous and ill-fated effort by the Swede Salomon August Andrée and his crew to beat their more famous Norwegian contemporaries to the North Pole by flying over them in a balloon (too heavy to take off at the start, they jettisoned their furs but kept the crate of champagne – they were later found frozen to death); on the enlightened Danish regent Johann Friedrich Struensee and his ghastly end (in the process of his execution his genitals were cut off and displayed to the watching crowd); on the philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, who turns out to be far more interesting than I, for one, had thought; on Danish football; and quite a bit more.
Not too much more, because Ferguson prefers to elaborate a limited number of themes, characters and events in a novelistic kind of way, rather than to attempt any kind of comprehensiveness, or impose a logical order on his material. But it’s this that makes the book so thoroughly enjoyable – to me at any rate, as a fellow-exile in the not very melancholic North; but I should guess for anyone new to it, too.