The First half of the 20th century
- Scandinavian literature in the first half of the 20th century is marked by two names—Karl Marx (1818-1883) and Sigmund Freud (1856-1939)—and two world events: the two world wars. While the Scandinavian countries were neutral during World War I, the war caused tremendous social and economic change as it brought large profits to people who previously had had little economic power, while some families with long-standing wealth were comparatively disadvantaged. The change in the traditional Scandinavian class structure can be observed in the two-volume family saga Jørgen Stein (1932-1933; tr. 1966), by the Danish writer Jacob Paludan (1896-1975); the narrative covers the history of the Stein family, starting before World War I and ending around 1930. A similar social and economic dynamic is present in the novel Lillelord (1955; tr. 1982) by the Norwegian novelist Johan Borgen (1902-1979), the first volume of a trilogy that concludes during World War II. Wartime profiteering—the industry is shipping and the location of the action is Bergen, Norway—is the theme of the play Vår ære og var makt (1935, tr. Our Power and Our Glory, 1971) by the Norwegian poet and dramatist Nordahl Grieg (1902-1943).The political situation in Scandinavia was strongly affected by the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, however, and first and foremost in Finland, which seized the opportunity to declare itself independent of Russia. But the labor movements in the other Scandinavian countries were heartened by the changes seen in Russia, until the abuses of the new Soviet state could no longer be ignored, as when the Stalinist purges and the Moscow trials of the 1930s become known in the West. The Finnish civil war of 1918 left its mark on Finnish literature, but it did not much affect other Scandinavian writers.Marxism left its mark on Scandinavian literature in the interwar period, generally in conjunction with Freudianism. Many progressive writers developed a Freudian anthropology and a Marxian sociology. Hans Kirk (1898-1962) is the most obvious example in Danish literature. In his novel Fiskerne (1928; tr. The Fishermen, 1999), a collective novel set in Jutland, Kirk tells the story of a group of fishermen and their families who relocate from a harsh coastal area to Limfjorden, a relatively sheltered district. Devout Christians of the Danish Inner Mission type, the parental generation watches as their children adopt less restrictive moral views that seem more appropriate to them in their less challenging surroundings. Economic relations are analyzed according to the theories of Marx, including his labor theory of value, while spirituality, in a very Freudian way, is understood as sublimated sexuality.The Danish and Norwegian novelist Aksel Sandemose (1899-1965) is another writer in the interwar period who pursued the relationship between the individual and society. In the novel En flyktning krysser sitt spor (1933; tr. A Fugitive Crosses His Tracks, 1936), Sandemose looks to the childhood of his protagonist and his relationship to his local community for the causes of later action. The Norwegian novelist Sigurd Hoel (1890-1960) likewise pursues Marxian and Freudian themes in several novels from the late 1920s and the 1930s, most prominently in the autobiographical novel Veien til verdens ende (1933; The Road to the End of the World), which draws on his childhood memories. Swedish literature in the 1930s has a number of new writers who came from proletarian backgrounds, and who told about the abuses of the working class from a strongly socialist perspective.The decade of the 1930s was also the time when modernism made its definitive breakthrough in Scandinavian literature. While such poets as the Finland-Swedish writers Edith Sodergran (1892-1923) andElmer Diktonius (1896-1961) had presented modernist poetry in Scandinavia quite early, the Swede Par Lagerkvist (1891-1974) wrote both modernist poetry and prose and became one of modernism's great champions in Scandinavian literature. Modernism is difficult to define, but Susan Brantley has offered a sensible tripartite criterion. First, she asks, does the text represent "a new way of thinking about the world"? Second, is the text "characterized by a system of formal innovations and tendencies"? Third, does the text appear during a specified period of time?3 Modernist poetry became increasingly significant in Scandinavian literature both before and after World War II. A number of modernist prose writers were also active, in addition to Lagerkvist. The Dane Tom Kristensen (1893-1974) published his important modernist novel Hærværk (1930; tr. Havoc, 1968). The Norwegian Cora Sandel (1880-1974) published her Alberte trilogy, consisting of Alberte og Jakob (1926; tr. Alberta and Jacob, 1962), Alberte og friheten (1931; tr. Alberta and Freedom, 1963), and Bare Alberte (1939; tr. Alberta Alone, 1965). The trilogy tells about the childhood, youth, and early womanhood of the title character, who goes from northern Norway to Paris to study art and ends up becoming a writer. Other modernists of the inter-war period are the Finland-Swedish novelist Hagar Olsson (1893-1978) and the Swede Moa Martinson (1890-1964).4World War II left a strong imprint on Scandinavian literature. Denmark and Norway were both attacked by Germany on 9 April 1940 and remained occupied until 8 May 1945. Iceland was used by British and American troops. Sweden managed to remain neutral, and both Danish and Norwegian resistance fighters fled there when the German occupants got too close for comfort. Finland suffered yet another divisive war.Literary life was severely curtailed during the war, especially in the occupied countries. After World War II many Scandinavian writers attempted to come to terms with the phenomenon of Nazism as well as with the war itself. In Sweden Lagerkvist published his novel Dvargen (1944; tr. The Dwarf, 1945), a study in evil set in Renaissance Italy, but which is a thinly veiled exploration of the Nazi personality. Another Swede, Eyvind Johnson (1900-1976), explored the problem of evil in his novel Drommar om rosor och eld (1949; tr. Dreams of Roses and Fire, 1984), which is set in 17th-century France under Cardinal Richelieu. The Norwegian novelist and playwright Jens Bjørneboe (1920-1976) confronted a similar theme in Før hanen galer (1952; Before the Cock Crows), which deals with the medical experiments performed by Nazi doctors on concentration camp prisoners. In the novel Under en hardere himmel (1957; Under a Harder Sky), Bjørneboe criticizes Norway's treatment of Nazi wartime collaborators at the close of the war. The play Fugleelskerne (1966; tr. The Bird Lovers, 1993) is set in an Italian village and dramatizes a confrontation between some former German occupants and the town's population 20 years after the end of the war. Sigurd Hoel dealt with the war and probed the causes of Nazism in his novel Møte ved milepelen (1947; tr. Meeting t the Milestone, 1951), one of Norway's finest novels about the trauma of occupation and the tragedy of collaboration with the enemy.
Historical Dictionary of Scandinavian Literature and Theater. Jan Sjavik. 2006.
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