Friday, 31 July 2009

The missing midfield

Writing in Sydsvenska Dagbladet (thanks for the link, SCF), journalist and author Per Svensson claims to see a major difference between the literary scenes in Sweden and Denmark respectively. In the preamble to an interesting but somewhat inconclusive interview with Danish poet and literary critic Lars Bukdahl, Svensson says that literature in Denmark plays a more central role than it does in Sweden. Presenting Bukdahl as "one of Denmark's most powerful and controversial literary critics", he styles this description as "an expression of differences between the Danish literary landscape and the Swedish one":

In Sweden, there is hardly a literary critic who could claim to be either influential or controversial... It's often said that soccer matches are decided in midfield. In Sweden, the literary midfield has gradually grown weaker and weaker. Audience-centred quality literature has been forced back. Instead we have a polarization - with on the one flank, an ever more dominant and confident bestseller culture, and on the other a marginalized, closed-off and self-sufficient avant-garde literature.

Both get along very well without the literary reviewers of the daily newspapers.

In Denmark, things appear to be different. There the expansive novel with artistic ambitions is still perceived as so important that it can spark magnificent quarrels.

To back up his assertion, Svensson points to a poll that was organized last autumn by Denmark's Jyllands-Posten newspaper. In this, readers were asked to name "the Danish novel of our time" and a panel of experts chose its favourite novels of the past 25 years. The book that came top of the readers' list was Carsten Jensen's We, the Drowned (Vi, de druknede, a book about seafarers, variously described as an "ocean adventure", a "family saga", and "a chronicle about the birth of modern Denmark").

While one might reasonably question the "novel of our time" label, at least Jensen's book is a genuine historical novel, which doesn't rely on a crime plot or the devices of an entertainment genre for its success. In some ways it can be compared to another Nordic historical prose work which was mentioned here in an earlier post. Svensson's characterization of the Swedish literary scene as one in which bestsellerdom has taken over to the point where it's now probably more or less out of control is a though-provoking one. Together with his reflections on the absence of a "middle ground", it adds a further dimension to our ongoing discussion about the decline of mainstream quality writing in Sweden (as evidenced by the "crime wave"), and the negative effect this is having on the general availability in the English-speaking world of new, non-bestseller translated titles by Scandinavian authors in general.

Detective Story - 3

Our analysis of the present situation surrounding the over-large representation of crime fiction among published English translations of new Nordic writing appears to have ruffled some feathers over at Scandinavian Crime Fiction. An anonymous blogger there, who confesses to "not reading any Nordic languages", says that it's "taking me a while to figure out how to respond," and after attempting one or two objections, more or less concedes that the translation of crime writing may not be the ideal field of work for professionally committed translators:

Luckily, I have a day job doing something I love, so I don’t have to read or write anything I don’t want to because my life depends upon it.I imagine full-time translators feel a bit more at the mercy of the marketplace, and it must be dispiriting to find the work on offer trending toward a type of book you don’t like much. But is this really a tragedy? And is genre fiction to blame? I don’t buy it.
The argument sounds a tad cynical, no?

No doubt there will be further responses of this kind in SCF's comments section - but I'd recommend anyone who wants to argue the toss to come over here and continue the debate.

Detective Story
Detective Story - 2

Divided or united?

Swedish Book Review now remains the only English-language periodical that's focused exclusively on translations and reviews of Swedish literature. Books from Finland, with its coverage of Finnish and Finland-Swedish writing in English translation, is a close rival, but earlier this year discontinued print publication, and now concentrates all its energies on a WordPress-engined website. After a promising start, the site has recently shown some signs of uncertainty, with updates becoming less frequent (the last new item appeared on July 16), and it's to be hoped that the demise of the magazine's print version won't lead to a dissipation of the Web effort, too.

One big difference between the SBR and BfF sites is that the Finnish site offers some interactivity to its readers, with online comments boxes and the possibility of discussion. SBR's site, by contrast, is of the old-fashioned static kind, with plenty of text and information, but not much in the way of feedback and debate.

In some ways it seems a pity that Books from Finland has had to give up its print version entirely. If run concurrently with the online version, the magazine in its old paper format, even if it only appeared once or twice a year, would probably have a greater impact, and reach more readers.

Or is there perhaps an argument for thinking about the merging of both journals - SBR and BfF - into a single Nordic literature magazine project? This has been tried before, but didn't work out for various reasons. Maybe it's time to try again.

Norvik Press website down?

We've recently noticed that the website of Norvik Press is apparently inaccessible (the site has been replaced by a spam page). We trust that this situation is only temporary, and look forward to a resumption of normal service by our colleagues in due course.

The SELTA site, which was down for a couple of days, now seems to be working normally again.

Thursday, 30 July 2009

Detective Story - 2

Some more reflections on the vexed issue of Scandinavian crime novels (See Crime Does Pay, At Least for Nordic Authors, Detective Story ):

At Three Percent, Chad Post recently published a useful roundup of attitudes to the genre found among fiction critics in the U.S. online media. In particular, he highlighted the interesting debate between novelist Nathaniel Rich (writing in Slate) and Larissa Kyzer (in L Magazine), which exposed the author-reader dynamic that underlies the whole question. Wondering about the reasons for the extensive adoption of the crime genre by contemporary Nordic writers, Rich saw some fairly predictable factors at work:

the best explanation is the most mundane: Crime novels sell. Most of the Scandinavian crime novelists began their careers in other genres. Mankell, for instance, wrote seven well-received but unlucrative novels, and more than a dozen plays, before turning to a life of crime; Karin Fossum was a prize-winning poet; Maj Sjöwall was an editor and translator. Before the current explosion of crime novels, the only contemporary Scandinavian novelist to enjoy major international success was Peter Høeg. Høeg may be a "literary" novelist, but his breakout Smilla's Sense of Snow is about the investigation of a suspected homicide. The lesson is clear: If you want your novel to be read abroad, particularly in the English-speaking world, you'd better include a murder. Even if you've never heard of a murder actually being committed in your country.

Wondering again why readers across the world have found the Scandinavian books written in this genre so compelling - they are not particularly innovative, after all, and are for the most part "straightforward whodunnits"- Rich suggested that

What distinguishes these books is not some element of Nordic grimness but their evocation of an almost sublime tranquility. When a crime occurs, it is shocking exactly because it disrupts a world that, at least to an American reader, seems utopian in its peacefulness, happiness, and orderliness. There is a good reason why Mankell's corpses tend to turn up in serene, bucolic settings—on a country farm, on a bobbing raft, in a secluded meadow, or in the middle of a snow-covered field: A dark bloodstain in a field of pure, white snow is far creepier than a body ditched in a trash-littered alley.

Kyzer challenged this view, seeing it as patronizing and playing to stereotypes:

One need only skim recent headlines from mainland Scandinavia (Denmark, Norway, and Sweden) to ascertain that the famed tranquility of the Nordic welfare state has begun to face some dramatic challenges. For instance: each of these countries has seen a marked increase in immigration in the last few decades, an influx which has challenged the homogeneity of the local populations, and more often than not, created quite an existential crisis for societies which have for so long been able to claim a fundamental sameness in traditions, language, and cultural outlook.

The most striking feature of the whole debate, however, is that it reveals an essential characteristic of the kind of writing that's involved: ultimately the main concern of the Nordic authors who produce these books is not with writing itself, with the creation of literary art, but is focused instead on a form of fictionalized sociology. It's really a continuation of the "radical" movement that produced the socially-committed novels and poetry of the 1970s, and it shows that this tendency has not died out in Nordic fiction, but is being reinforced and re-tuned to suit the trends and exigencies of the new century.

This is a pity, for it seemed for a time during the 1980s and 1990s that writers in Scandinavia were once again, as they did in the 1940s and early 1950s, beginning to question the society-based values and assumptions that had dominated fiction during the two earlier decades, and were finding their way towards a renewal of the universalist, formally innovative and metaphysical tradition that had characterized the writing of the immediate post-war period, with its roots in the writing of authors like Joyce, Kafka, Borges and Camus, the long legacy of Kierkegaard and the myth-oriented humanism of Karen Blixen. While authors and critics like Jan Kjærstad and Mikael Enckell continued in their different ways to uphold those values, and Inger Christensen, Tomas Tranströmer and Pia Tafdrup wrote their poems in a conscious emergence from the traditions of pre-and postwar modernism, there was a sense that in the Nordic literary world as a whole another kind of value was gaining ascendancy, in just the way that Nathaniel Rich describes above, and for the same translation-related "reasons".

I see the increasing dominance of crime fiction and its related genres in Scandinavian writing today as a problem that has the potential to become a tragedy whose consequences it will take several generations to overcome. For some of the best Nordic writing talent is being diverted into these sub- and semi-literary channels, from which it may never return.

Note: although this and other related posts are now being discussed on FriendFeed and elsewhere, I'd like to repeat my invitation to those who want to debate the issue to come here and write in the comments boxes. David McDuff.

See also: Detective Story

Detective Story - 3

The missing midfield

Wednesday, 29 July 2009

Pia Tafdrup: Over the Water I Walk (IV) - 8


To leave one’s trace in language is to make use of what renders one different from others. Poetry is born by discovering its own figure. In the same way that pollen has a pattern of its own, or a finger leaves its specific imprint. Each poem is neither more nor less than an isolated phenomenon.


Originality is a danger that should not be avoided. Originality means that one is authentic, distinctive and completely oneself. Originality is not a guarantee of quality. But the courage to go one’s own way is an essential condition for growth.


It is self-evident that, in a sense, poetry is untranslatable. While music, dance and pictorial art can be transported across borders, poetry is subject to different conditions. Poetry is also in a different position from the other literary genres, which can usually be translated into other languages without too much damage. But even though language most frequently attains its most extreme sensitivity and refinement of structure in poetry, one should aim not for real translations, but for re-creations.

If poetry is to be presented to a foreign public, it must of course be defensible in semantic terms. This can usually be managed, but it must also be poetry that has a strength of sound and expression in the other language – and that may prove to be more problematic. Good poems can turn out awkwardly in a foreign language, while less successful poems sometimes gain in strength. A volume of selected poems in the original language will therefore not always be identical with a selection that has been translated into another language.

So re-creation is possible, but these are different poems, and they remain so. The ideal solution would be for the reader of the foreign language to be dissatisfied with this echo of the real thing, and instead to learn the poet’s language so as to be able to read his work in the original.

translated from Danish by David McDuff

Over the Water I Walk (IV) - 1
Over the Water I Walk (IV) - 2
Over the Water I Walk (IV) - 3
Over the Water I Walk (IV) - 4
Over the Water I Walk (IV) - 5
Over the Water I Walk (IV) - 6
Over the Water I Walk (IV) - 7

Note: the posts with the translated text of Chapters I, II and III can be accessed here, here, and here.

Tuesday, 28 July 2009

Translation competition

The Finnish Institute in London, U.K. is running a translation competition
to source new talent in translating fiction from Finnish to English. You do not have to be a language professional; eligible participants include everyone from novices to experienced translators. What you do need is a passion for language, a good understanding of Finnish and a talent for writing in English.
Entrants must translate a 2,000 word short story by Maritta Lintunen (the text is posted on the Institute's website, together with an entry form), and the final date for submissions is August 31.

At present the rules don't make it clear whether entrants need to be resident in the U.K., and this is a point to which the organizers might possibly want to give some attention.

Update: Sara Rauma of the Finnish Institute writes:
We have a line in the Competition Rules and Submission Guidelines (Entry Form) that says: "There are no restrictions on entrants with respect to age, nationality, or professional status". Although not specifically stated in that connection, there are no restrictions on entrants' country of residence, either. We welcome any and all entries. The competition announcement itself, however, has been circulated mainly in the UK and Ireland.

Monday, 27 July 2009


By Catharina Gripenberg

Someone in my novel must die, reasoned Virginia Woolf.
So the minor character died in one line, and Virginia Woolf had to go out and drown herself.
V.W. in the flow of water.
She doesn’t manage to get up to the land, to the acid on the paper,
where her voice in the third person cries Virginia Woolf.

In the garden there are rosehips and poplars.
On the veranda stand the novel’s other characters
wondering where in their thoughts they should now put a comma.

Her central character survived.
She sits dry-shod on the steps, shakes the water from the sheets of paper
and tries to consider the view in the first person.


You mustn’t die, my central character
Don’t die on me in the first person
You shall have coffee, cigarettes, and a suit
For all the funerals.


In order to write one needs money and a room of one’s own, said Virginia Woolf.


I have your room. I sit at your table.
The chair at your writing desk creaks.
In the window a bee that says
“It’s August and I don’t want to die.”
Little bee, someone must die in this poem.


Virginia W.,
here you are only a character in a poem.
You are spared from slicing the day into paper, tearing the shore up after you
as you walk in your thoughts, seaweed.
You say “I have what I need: a death of my own, a room of my own.”

But in my poem you wouldn’t die.
I don’t have very much money. We would be poor.
It would be an adventure. You would gather pine cones,
stick them out through the bars and say “I’m wasting away.”
And a minor character would fill her pockets full of stones so as to find the way back
but the road would go over the river.
And who is it sitting here and smoking and drinking coffee?
Yes, I, my central character, am of course also here
though I can’t really afford it. Here you’ll get a little money
for more coffee and cigarettes, to keep you alive.
Behind us stand surviving characters from the novel. It’s September,
they’re lifting branches, picking apples in pails, and saying
that according to them, if we were to ask them, they would think
it’s September, and that the thoughts –, the hours –,
the pails –, the thoughts –

Virginia, come up out of the water
it will be the sort of ordinary day you never had: Living characters,
some dead ones, a room and meal breaks, a council pension.

translated from Finland-Swedish by David McDuff

Sunday, 26 July 2009

Radio world

For those who like to like to keep in touch with life and culture in the Nordic countries via Internet radio, maintains a comprehensive library of links to radio stations in Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden. And Estonia.

Saturday, 25 July 2009

The first 20 years are the worst

Henrik Jansson reviews Swedish author Pia Hintze's new novel Älskling in Hbl, and although he has some reservations about what he calls the occasional "chattiness" of the style, he points to Hintze's ability to uncover and portray the reality of relationships and new parenthood in a way that's unusual, as it tears away the layers of social convention and secrecy that still surround many of the issues involved. Hintze has a special knack for revealing the unpleasant physical details, the inter-generational conflicts and the fragile nature of each individual's inner picture of reality, yet she does so with a sense of humour and a commitment to exploring the psychology of her characters to the limit. This is a relatively new kind of Nordic fiction, and in this her third novel Hintze is following a path that's also being trodden by other writers, including Finland's Kreetta Onkeli.

Friday, 24 July 2009

F.E. Sillanpää: Silja - 11


Hilma was to him, after all, the very essence of what a wife, good or bad, is to a man, but even so the old, unmarried woman's words made on him the impression they were meant to make… For Hilma could do nothing about the fact that she was unable to draw any closer to her fiancé in this present situation than she was; that she had to content herself with keeping quiet and pretending to reflect. And in this she was obedient. While it was true that she was now Kustaa’s fiancée, in other respects she was simply Hilma, a young and childish village girl who had worked as a maid at Salmelus Manor — and who in her own way had been able to do more than anyone else. She had been able to look into her man’s eyes that summer evening long ago and to sit there calmly as he put the reins behind her on the porch railing. With this action she had come to Kustaa’s side, and remained there. She had reinforced her action even further by the way she had received Kustaa, when after the wedding journey he had arrived in her room. All that happened during that long evening and that was a rising and a strengthening, sufficient to prolong forever what had already begun.

So that to kill what was conceived that night was more than any poison could accomplish.

Hilma did not come to Salmelus for as long as the old master still lay unburied. Not until the third day after the funeral, when the last guests had already left, did she arrive, a little shy but both entirely sure of herself and not at all afraid of old Martta. A young maiden, who was also already secretly his wife — that was how Kustaa now saw her, here in his old family manor, which again at that moment began to live in the radiance of a powerful, mutual love. Kustaa had not told Hilma to come, she had done so of her own accord, guided by her own sure instinct. This in itself was more precious than the most precious of assurances.

translated from Finnish by David McDuff

Silja - 2
Silja - 3
Silja - 4
Silja - 5
Silja - 6
Silja - 7
Silja - 8
Silja - 9
Silja - 10

Thursday, 23 July 2009

More on Kierkegaard

In the last post, I mentioned the unclear situation that still exists with regard to the English translation of Kierkegaard's writings. There appear to be two concurrent projects, one of which, by now virtually complete, is the 26-volume Princeton University Press series of translations by Howard and Edna Hong. The other, which is advertised as a complete edition of all the philosopher's writings, to be completed (published?) this year initially in the Danish original only by the Søren Kierkegaard Research Centre (SKC) at the University of Copenhagen, will comprise 55 volumes: 28 text volumes and 27 commentary volumes. The Centre's website states that

With its 55 volumes, to be completed by 2009, this is the largest comprehensive edition of Danish literature in a century, if not in all of Danish history.

This Danish edition will subsequently be translated into English, German, French, Spanish, and Chinese.

An electronic version will also be established, containing not only the full printed version, but also the collected drafts for published and unpublished works, as well as the second edition of works, which were published by Kierkegaard himself. The first electronic version was published on the web in 2007.
The site does not give a list of translators, however, and although there is copious information on scholars, researchers and other academic Kierkegaard specialists, there does not appear to be much regarding the principles underlying the translations themselves, or on how these new versions differ from those of the Hongs and earlier Kierkegaard translators.

Wednesday, 22 July 2009

Kierkegaard resources on the Web

Two websites give extensive access to works by Kierkegaard and secondary literature about him. SKS.DK has a large collection of the printed writings in Danish, including all of the major classics such as Enten Eller, Begrebet Angest and Opbyggelige Taler, while Kierkegaard Resources World Wide, though in need of updating (the site was established back in 2004 by Dr. Julia Watkin of the Howard and Edward Hong Kierkegaard Library at St. Olaf's College, Minnesota), has links to many monographs, research papers and other documents, including keys to the philosopher's Gothic handwriting, and to his abbreviations (pdf) and spelling (pdf).

Freely accessible online English translations of Kierkegaard are rather harder to find, though the Internet Archive has a copy of the Alexander Dru translation of the Journals, and also of L.M. Hollander's translation of several works, including Fear and Trembling, Preparation for a Christian Life and The Present Moment.

The English translation of Kierkegaard still seems to be something of a controversial area, and it may be for this reason that most of the out-of-copyright translations still apparently remain undigitized in Project Gutenberg and other online libraries. It would be interesting to know more about this, if anyone has details.

See also in this blog: Herder and Hegel

Tuesday, 21 July 2009

Call for Papers

Swansea University put out a Call for Papers (see below) for a translation conference next summer. I wonder if any of you would be interested in putting together a proposal on Nordic author-translators. If so, contact me privately via my website (see


Call for Papers

The Author-Translator in the European Literary Tradition
Swansea University, 28 June – 1 July 2010

Confirmed keynote speakers include:

Susan Bassnett, David Constantine, Lawrence Venuti

The recent ‘creative turn’ in translation studies has challenged notions of translation as a derivative and uncreative activity which is inferior to ‘original’ writing. Commentators have drawn attention to the creative processes involved in the translation of texts, and suggested a rethinking of translation as a form of creative writing. Hence there is growing critical and theoretical interest in translations undertaken by literary authors.

This conference focuses on acts of translation by creative writers. Literary scholarship has tended to overlook this aspect of an author’s output, yet since the time of Cicero, authors across Europe have been engaged not only in composing their own works but in rendering texts from one language into another. Indeed, many of Europe’s greatest writers have devoted time to translation – from Chaucer to Heaney, from Diderot and Goethe to Seferis and Pasternak – and have produced some remarkable texts. Others (Beckett, Joyce, Nabokov) have translated their own work from one language into another. As attentive readers and skilful word­smiths, writers may be particularly well equipped to meet the creative demands of literary translation; many trans­lations of poetry are, after all, undertaken by poets themselves. Moreover, translation can have a major impact on an author’s own writing and on the development of native literary traditions.

The conference seeks to reassess the importance of translation for European writers – both well-known and less familiar – from antiquity to the present day. It will explore why authors translate, what they translate, and how they translate, as well as the links between an author’s translation work and his or her own writing. It will bring together scholars in English studies and modern languages, classics and medieval studies, comparative literature and translation studies. Possible topics include:

· individual author-translators: motivations, career trajectories, comparative thematics and stylistics

· the author-translator in context: literary societies, movements, national traditions

· the problematic creativity of the author-translator

· self-reflective pronouncements and manifestos

· the author-translator as critic of others’ translations

· self-translation: strengths and weaknesses

· authors, adaptations, re-translation and relay translation

· the reception and influence of the work of author-translators

· theoretical interfaces

Proposals are invited for individual papers (max. 20 minutes) or panels (of 3 speakers). The conference language is English. It is anticipated that selected papers from the conference will be published. Please send a 250-word abstract by 30 September 2009 to the organisers, Hilary Brown and Duncan Large (

Author-Translator Conference
Department of Modern Languages
Swansea University
GB-Swansea SA2 8PP

Monday, 20 July 2009


At Absinthe Minded, Thomas Kennedy shouts about Lars von Trier's Antichrist:
The dozen or so ticks or chiggers that affix themselves to the Willem Dafoe character’s hand as he sleeps with his arm dangling out the window say it all. They are tiny vampires sucking his blood in a "crime” of opportunity – but no, they are as natural as we are. No, in fact, we are more despicable than those little bloodsuckers – we heartlessly, rationally organize nature for our pleasure and convenience.

Sunday, 19 July 2009

Laus Strandby Nielsen: Prose Poem

When you have understood the map, you have lost your way.

When you stick your head in the Mouth of Truth and sing in the mouth the song that has swallowed you, only then do you realize where you are.

Where the roads continue after they've found one another. Where time stands still when nothing ends. Where the road disappears until you have reached your destination. Where the roads divide after they've disappeared.

When you stick your head in the Mouth of Truth and sing in the mouth the song that has swallowed you, you realize once more where you are.

When you have understood the map, you have lost your way.

Den Fynske Forårsudstilling 2009. Catalogue. Prose Poems by Laus Strandby Nielsen.

Poem translated from Danish by David McDuff

Prose Poem
Prose Poem
Prose Poem
Prose Poem

Funds of knowledge

Brave New Words has a post about a new Swedish Encyclopedia of Translators. From the description, it sounds more like a database than an encyclopedia, but if databases are your thing...

Meet the Germans - 2

An editorial in Books from Finland notes that Finland is to be the "theme country" at the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2014.

...a troupe of Finnish writers will go to Germany to meet not just publishers at the Fair in October but the general public and new readers (as well as old, in many cases, as a fair number of Finnish books have been translated into German during the past few years) at readings and lectures: they and their books will get plenty of international attention all year, as literary publicity at Frankfurt is centred round the chosen country.

Another group of Finnish writers will visit Germany next year (2010) as part of a Festival of Finnish Literature organized by Germany's Literaturhaus network in 2010, preparations for which have already begun (see in this blog Meet the Germans).

Finland and Germany (both East and West) have long had close cultural relations, and during the 1930s Finnish authors like Olavi Paavolainen spent a good deal of time in the country - without, however, succumbing to the national mystique.

As we've already observed, Iceland (also a country with long-standing links to Germany) will be Frankfurt's Guest of Honour in 2011.

Saturday, 18 July 2009

Pia Tafdrup: Over the Water I Walk (IV) - 7


Syntactical accretions can give words unusual weight, but the image is the place where all the original meaning disappears and a new concretion emerges. What is often overlooked is the fact that image-like effects are also attained through devices like sound, rhythm, displacement, crossing and synchronization. All the devices in poetry are more or less image-creating.

Images are not merely thoughts, but summings-up of a different kind: associative leaps. In images elements from widely different spheres are brought together, values that are apparently contrary to one another. Here we meet the impossible, yet it seems obvious. The images in a poem have such a disturbing effect precisely because of their special intensity and sensuous quality.


It is not only the individual image that is decisive: much depends on how the images appear within the poem. They must balance, sometimes in a soft and delicate dance. If the images fall too closely they lose weight, and if they point in different directions they cancel themselves out instead of throwing light on one another. They are like spotlights, all of which must be trained on the poem’s idea. Does it sound like a search for harmony? No matter how experimental the work, it is of the essence of art that the work should “open”. In one sense or another, striving is always beauty. The images can form complex inner relationships, but they must speak inwardly, it is in their combination that the leap takes place and a new meaning is created.


Poetry’s image-language is not necessarily a two-dimensional value. It is precisely when the metaphor becomes sculpture that a higher degree of sensuous reality is attained. The plasticity of poetry should be a simultaneous expression of thought and feeling, and also contain a philosophical, existential dimension.

translated from Danish by David McDuff

Over the Water I Walk (IV) - 1
Over the Water I Walk (IV) - 2
Over the Water I Walk (IV) - 3
Over the Water I Walk (IV) - 4
Over the Water I Walk (IV) - 5
Over the Water I Walk (IV) - 6

Note: the posts with the translated text of Chapters I, II and III can be accessed here, here, and here.

Can't pay, won't pay

A sad story in Sweden's Dagens Nyheter about a Swedish literary agent who is alleged to have withheld years of royalty payments to international publishers and authors, and now has 500 contracts to back process. The authors involved have included well-known names like Joyce Carol Oates and Paul Auster, though apparently they have now been paid. It seems to be the first time that anything of this kind has happened in the Swedish publishing world, and no one is quite sure how to deal with it.

Friday, 17 July 2009

Iceland to apply for EU membership

Carl Bildt responds positively to the news that Iceland is to start negotiations for entry to the European Union.

Bucking the trend

Despite the recent vogue, Scandinavian crime writing isn't having it all its own way, the Guardian notes:
French writer Fred Vargas has seen off competition from a cluster of Nordic authors to take the Crime Writers' Association's International Dagger award.

Thursday, 16 July 2009

F.E. Sillanpää: Silja - 10


Thus did that day progress from morning on, and during its course it seemed to thicken towards evening. When an aged person dies, it is often linked to a sense of liberation, but that was not the case here. Kustaa had not really talked with his father since he was a child — and his childhood had continued until his mother’s death. Now his father had silently withdrawn, leaving unsaid what he might perhaps have said to a grown man. And he that departs in silence departs as a victor.

That evening Kustaa set off quite early for the forest.

‘What kind of man are you? Your father’s corpse is still warm, and you are off in pursuit of women. Do you know, boy, what killed your father?’

‘I think that Hilma should know what has happened,’ Kusta replied to his aunt.

‘Are you going to bring that person here now, when...’

‘I do not know — after all, it was you who drove her from here.’

‘It was not I who drove her out, but I do not think she should come here until the man who drove her out is buried.’

Even though Kustaa knew exactly how things stood on the matter, this conversation made an unpleasant impression on him. Where his father’s silence had been effective, his father's sister’s words were not without effect, either. Kustaa lacked one ability: he could not be ruthless in the face of evil. This was also the key to his destiny later, when the real, substantial ordeals came. He was susceptible to poison…

translated from Finnish by David McDuff

Silja - 2
Silja - 3
Silja - 4
Silja - 5
Silja - 6
Silja - 7
Silja - 8
Silja - 9

Wednesday, 15 July 2009

Tarkovsky's Horses

Neil Astley writes from a tour of the U.K. poetry festivals that Bloodaxe's application for ACE funding for Tarkovsky's Horses and Other Poems has been successful, which is welcome news. The volume, which will contain David's translations of Pia Tafdrup's Tarkovskijs heste and Hvalerne i Paris is now scheduled for publication in early 2010.

Tuesday, 14 July 2009

Who decides what Finland reads?

Apparently it's the Finnish Bookstore - Suomalainen Kirjakauppa, which according to this article in the business-oriented newspaper Taloussanomat occupies such a powerful and central position in Finland's book world that it virtually dictates Finns' reading habits to them. One concerned observer remarks that something needs to be done so that "the whole of Finland reads nothing but Stieg Larsson and Sofi Oksanen." "We sell what people buy," says Suomalainen Kirjakauppa....

(via Parnasso)

Monday, 13 July 2009

Inger Edelfeldt: "An Uninhabitable House" - 8

After the meal, Sofia asked whether I couldn't get out the Tarot pack. Telling fortunes with Tarot cards is a pastime of mine for the simple reason that I am fascinated by the beautiful designs, plus the power I feel which is without obligation. I have to admit that I make rather loose associations around the cards in order to awaken admiration, fear or hope in those whose fortunes I'm telling, especially if the person in question is new to the game.

It goes without saying that Andreas only agreed in order to be polite. Words such as "superstition", "mustiness" and "old hat" swelled up in his indignant mind. But present too was a tiny particle of nervous curiosity. Perhaps I should have mentioned to him that Alexander the Great had his fortune told from goats' livers. But it is always easier to laugh at the eminently human hope that good fortune may follow a plan, rather than laugh at our contemporary hopes on the same theme.

I spread the cards out across the table and let him pick three; one for the past, one for the present and one for the future. He picked three cards from the Major Arcana: the Hermit, the Sun, and the Tower. The fact he got the Sun for the present was a great relief to me, since a pair of twins are depicted there, standing under the shining orb of the sun. I saw him start inwardly at the sight of the man falling from the lightning-struck tower, amidst flames and rubble.

Before I said anything, I indulged in that moment of unease deep inside him.

"The past," I whispered, "was a time of ripening, spiritual clarity and wisdom. That is good; there is a time for wisdom. But to be true, wisdom must constantly be crumbling away, its place taken by something new. Uncertainty is the only certainty. The only truth lies embedded in those steps taken from one place to the next. The staff you lean on is that of questioning, the lantern sheds the light of hope; and you must light it yourself."

I knew he was thinking: Do I really want to become an architect? This exhilarated me. But the question which most preoccupied him was: How will me and Sofia get along?

"The Sun," I said, "is a card representing power, but the twins are there to add: duality must be acknowledged. You cannot have the one without embracing the other. Power is only self-evident at source. Human feeling, however, must live in a force-field between two poles, otherwise it cannot flourish."

He was now wondering what all of this implied, but was too proud to ask. He sat there, smiling politely. "Aha," was all he said.

"Finally, the Tower," I whispered ominously, "need not be such a negative card." I looked him straight in the eye. "Within us we have many unnecessary bulwarks constructed as protection against an enemy that perhaps no longer exists. A fall is necessary before we can rise again and see the world through new eyes. Strength can be a weakness, and weakness a strength. There is a law which states that all shall fall."

Here, I could see that I was having an influence on him. For the first time the forbidden desire to yield to me awoke in him. It amazed and disconcerted him. Immediately, he covered it up with contempt. But Sofia had already picked this up and grown afraid.

I withdrew immediately, sat alone and enjoyed my progress, letting him and Sofia go for an evening walk and kindle romantic feelings, while I sat and listened in on them. As they were sitting in each others' arms down by the the sea shore, he came with the suggestion that they could go on a trip the next day. Just him and her. Poor old Sofia didn't have an easy time of it.

"You know how difficult it is to be parted from Carmilla," was what she said. "It can have dreadful consequences."

"You mean she might go and drown herself, or something?" he muttered.

"No, no, not at all. Carmilla is obsessed with staying alive. That's what makes everything so impossible. She feels she ought to get everything, and be everywhere, and live everybody's lives for them. She has no humility. Sometimes I even begin to wonder if she doesn't think she's God," sighed my poor sister. That vexed me a little. Humility is a fine word to bandy about, but what does it really mean? Has it maybe something to do with sour grapes?

"But surely you can't go on living together all your lives?" he asked. "You can't simply go and give up normal life for her sake." And he put his arm around her.

At this point Sofia went quiet and looked out over the dark sea. Poor Sofia became so uncomfortable that she didn't even enjoy the kiss he gave her. I could just imagine her disappointment at the fact that this appeared to be no more than a thorough examination of her oral cavity. My dear little sister Sofia, give your twin sister an answer in her thirst for knowledge: what is normal life?

This morning, as soon as I was awake, I knew what had gone and happened. Sofia was up and the bedroom door was shut. I knew she had locked it while I was asleep. On the floor lay my paints and brushes and on the bedside table the Tarot pack, so I'd have something to occupy myself with. There is only one little skylight into the bedroom to let the light in. I called out to her as best I could with my hoarse voice. She came and stood outside the door.

"Andreas and me are going on a trip," she said. "I don't care what happens. I must be able to have a bit of fun now and again."

"Love is not 'fun'" I hissed, pressed against the door. "Use any other word you like!"

"You know we don't agree about that," she said. "What if everyone were like you?"

And with those well-thought-out and highly original words, she left me. Rage was pounding inside me, but with the years I have learnt to control myself a little. The best I could do in my captivity was to home in on them so as to at least be able to share him; even if their tLte-B-tLte would hardly be any more exciting than an American love story.

One thing that did begin to become just a little interesting was the fact that it was now easy for me to tune in on him, even at a distance. In this fashion, I already knew that he had begun to grow a little irritated with her. A little frustrated, a little desperate. Everything had begun to feel less sacred. He no longer felt himself to be quite the instrument of God and Love. They were just two people now: a man and a woman. And as a tribute to Man and Woman, he had packed a picnic hamper, since the Man had intended to have a little trip to a deserted beach along with the Woman.

But when Sofia came up to him in her childish flowery dress, she wanted to go in to Visby instead. She wanted to eat saffron pancakes at a pavement café in the sun, and she wanted to look round the shops.

[to be continued]

Translated from Swedish by Eric Dickens

Translation funding - push and pull

As a literary translator, I receive a significant proportion of my income from translating novels. Time is money, although you cannot translate too many works at once. If you take on too much work, you run the risk of slipshod translation.

One major source of income in this context are the funds set up in the source-language country to promote the national literature. That is what I call the "push" side of things: the country is pushing its literature onto the rest of the world, and is prepared to pay out money to do so. But there is a "pull" dimension, e.g. when the UK pulls in literature from abroad. This too is promotion, but this time of other countries' literature. Again, money could be paid to the translator, this time by funds in the target-language country, in this instance the UK. I fear that this side of funding is somewhat neglected.

The core Scandinavian countries have solid translation funds which pay not only for complete, book-length translations, but nowadays also for excerpts that a translator may use when promoting a particular book with a publishing house, alongside the synopsis. This money is most welcome. But cannot British funds, state-run or private, do more to promote translations by way of a supplement to what the Scandinavians offer? Cannot the Arts Council or England and private funds ensure a regular supply of money so that serious Nordic literature, poetry and prose, is translated?

I read in the Standpoint magazine that it could be time to abolish the Arts Council. While this may be throwing out the baby with the bathwater, it is true that from a literary translator's point of view there appear to be precious few British sources of state translation funding. While literally millions of pounds is spend on regional art galleries and museums that sometimes prove to be white elephants, Arts Council funding of the translation of, for instance, European literature as a whole is negligible. Maybe a British National Translation Fund could be set up, working alongside similar private sources of funding. This would ensure that literary translators are not galloping from one Scandinavian crime novel to the next, in order to make ends meet, but may have time to translate poetry collections and general novels.

If money comes to the translator from various sources, at home and abroad, this would also ensure that neither the vested interests of source-language country nor of the target-language one narrow down the choice of works to be translated too severely. Promoting a more varied flora of literary works appearing in English seems to me to be a good thing.

Eric Dickens

Pia Tafdrup: Over the Water I Walk (IV) - 6


The essence of language is also music, phonetics, metrics, atmosphere, mood. Poesie ist ein Zustand der Sprache, Helmut Heissenbüttel has said. Poetry is only one way of using language, but is characterized by a nuancing of expression. Poetry is a question of concentration, a language inside a language, where the crystals are packed closely together.

Poetry is not a mystical act, but taking Helmut Heissenbüttel’s idea further: An anti-grammar, an anti-syntax, a strange passion, a phonetic, acoustic and rhythmic possibility, which plays a part in determining linguistic expression. Poetry is an acrobatics of sound, an orientation in the world. Poetry is a life-form. Poetry is.

As Helmut Heissenbüttel emphasizes, poetry builds on the visual power of language, its musicality and ability to suggest, but also just as much on the area of meaning, of semantics. Poetry’s density of meaning is not a wish to block interpretation, but an attempt to open the way to multiplicity.


All creation also contains elements of destruction. Even though words cannot be cleared out of the way, the everyday use of language must be broken down for poetry to come out of it. Rather than something being destroyed, it is more correct to say that elements are separated from one another so that something can be built. The old meanings are what fall apart. Deconstruction in language is therefore not a purely disintegrative movement, but is equally a constructive device.

At some stage in their work all poets will experience phases of linguistic scepticism:

Language that cries so loudly
that there is only One leaf
to all the forests in the mountains around
One drop of the lake
whose shiny calm the body at any moment
may plough into furrows of silver.

If I want to travel beyond this experience of the limitations or inadequacy of linguistic expression, I must discover language’s liberating potential. Language is the prison in which I have complete freedom to tear down walls. Linguistic scepticism is a continuous and at times cynical insistence, not a stage that is prematurely “overcome”. The line between imprisonment and dignity is sometimes a surprisingly fine one.


Poetry is not a refuge for emotions. Every conception in language is hard work. This aspect of the poetic is developed in Rilke’s ‘Requiem für Wolf Graf von Kalckreuth’:

- O alter Fluch der Dichter,
die sich beklagen, wo sie sagen sollten,
die immer urteiln über ihr Gefühl
statt es zu bilden; die noch immer meinen,
was traurig ist in ihnen oder froh,
das wussten sie und dürftens im Gedicht
bedauern oder rühmen. Wie die Kranken
gebrauchen sie die Sprache voller Wehleid,
um zu beschreiben, wo es ihnen wehtut,
statt hart sich in die Worte zu verwandeln,
wie sich der Steinmetz einer Kathedrale
verbissen umsetzt in des Steines Gleichmut.

If the poet is to transform himself into words, language must be taken beyond the place where it is used every day. The language of art is therefore different from the one in which we communicate. In poetry the words must have an existence beyond their ordinary meaning, and, like the logic in a bird’s wing, enter into complex relations where musical and acoustic phenomena have precise equivalents with semantic values.

translated from Danish by David McDuff

Over the Water I Walk (IV) - 1
Over the Water I Walk (IV) - 2
Over the Water I Walk (IV) - 3
Over the Water I Walk (IV) - 4
Over the Water I Walk (IV) - 5

Note: the posts with the translated text of Chapters I, II and III can be accessed here, here, and here.

Sunday, 12 July 2009

E-books in Scandinavia - 3

In its blog, Publit, the Swedish print-on-demand publisher we mentioned in an earlier post, refers to an interesting survey of e-book use among unversity students that was carried out recently by the UK's JISC (Join Information Systems Committee). Although the findings relate to e-books in the academic world, they may have some relevance to the field of electronic publishing in general. Print sales, the survey suggests,
indicated that making course text e-books freely available through the library is not a threat to print sales revenue. Many of the print versions of the e-books made available through the Observatory project actually increased their sales against what was expected. So just as the librarians say, students are using e-books in addition to the print they have bought or borrowed; they co-exist.

Friday, 10 July 2009

Inger Edelfeldt: "An Uninhabitable House" - 7

He was quite visibly startled when I returned. He said he had to go home and make a few phone calls.

"See you this evening," he said and gave Sofia a quick, hungry hug. She pressed herself against him. I could really feel how my eyes were staring now. He could see it too. He could see that I was lusting after him. His eyes avoided mine and I watched him disappear down the hill almost jogging pace.

I was holding the hat full of cherries; the fruit had already stained the light-coloured straw. If she were to put it on, she would get a row of red stains across her forehead, like a crown of thorns. It would not become her.

She sighed deeply and looked at me in despair. Sometimes she would like to kill me, but she doesn't realise it herself, she thinks it is a sign of her approaching period or something else beyond your control. Personally, I feel it quite normal for her to feel in that way, and I don't really care. The urge to kill is something you have to live with. Most of the time, it comes to nothing anyway, since such an act would confront you with a painful dilemma. But fantasies have never hurt anyone.


That evening, I stood in the garden and looked out over the sea, which had a darkly shadowed golden colour like an old icon. To my left towered the high cliffs, orangey brown in the subdued light and crowned with scraggy trees.

Provoked by a light breeze, the garden sent its tongues of fragrance wafting over me. Still gasping after the heat of the day it conveyed messages from honeysuckle, rose and the ancient fertile god of the garden who, of an evening, lives in every nook.

But when Andreas arrived, he didn't even bother to stop to sniff the air, simply greeted me hurriedly and rushed on into the house with his bouquet, a house which is made of stone and painted pink, half-covered with ivy and a white climbing rose. All because he could see Sofia through the window. She was inside putting the final touches to the dinner which I happened to have made in passing. I like making food, something which no one would actually believe.

I went in to them with a heavy heart; maybe I should have curled up behind a bush and gone to sleep, right there in the garden. But I was so eager to be in there, now that the candles were lit. Sofia showed him the house before dinner.

I always take some of my paintings with me to hang up in those impersonal places we go to; here too. I had an inkling that they would appeal to Andreas. Besides, most of them were self-portraits of one kind or another. What he did say was: "You're really good!"

While words came into his mind such as: over-wrought, claustrophobic, fuzzy, melodramatic, pathos-ridden. I was beginning to be able to tune in to him quite nicely now. I was standing there behind him and could see his sunburned neck which caused my blood to zing in my tongue, my lips, while he said: "They have an intensity of expression," at the same time thinking: Why does she only paint herself, when the whole world's out there just waiting to be looked at?
Sofia had put away my portrait of him. But I wonder whether he would have recognised himself.
And so came the time to go to table and eat.

On the table stood the bouquet which Andreas had brought.

"Look how funny!" I happened to say, "exactly the same flowers as we've got here in the garden!"

Which was, of course, a daft thing to say, but it just slipped out. Sofia gave me a tired and sad look, the sort you give a troublesome pet. Andreas simply said sourly that I myself had been witness to the fact that it wasn't our flowerbeds he had pillaged.

And so the strained atmosphere returned, but as luck would have it we served the wine. From that point on, I could enter Andreas' thoughts whenever I wished and could know what he was thinking about me: if I remain polite and kind to that hopeless person, then I can perhaps get her to relax and regard me as a friend.

Smiling gallantly, her showered me with questions. Looking back on it, I don't think he remembered any of my replies since all his energy was absorbed by being lovable and interested.

Sofia began to look a little more cheerful. She knew that a continued relationship was out of the question unless he accepted me too. The only way to do this was for him to pretend he liked me and for me to pretend I believed him. And keep myself under control. I can be quite co-operative if I really must. As long as my natural temperament doesn't get the better of me.

[to be continued]

Translated from Swedish by Eric Dickens

The scope of this blog

Responding to my view of how I see this blog, Eric wrote:
My only plaint so far is that Latvia and Lithuania are not included. Estonia is certainly tied in with Finland. But the Baltic countries do have many aspects of recent history in common. Their literature is fascinating. If we can embrace the whole of Scandinavia, disregarding language background (e.g. with Finnish, Lappish and Greenlandic), we could perhaps take on board the other two Baltic countries. If we have visitors from the Baltic states, maybe we could take on board all three.
I think that to include Latvia and Lithuania would be stretching the frame of reference a bit too far. Greenlandic literature was discussed because there is a genuine possibility that Greenland might become a sixth Nordic state. As far as I'm aware, there's no such possibility at present for Latvia and Lithuania. Also, as anyone who has visited them knows, those countries (especially Lithuania) are culturally distinct from the Nordic states, and while Estonia can be given guest status here because of its close ties with Finland and Sweden, I don't really see how the other two can fit the frame.

A similar problem occurred in the life of Usenet back in the early 1990s, when the newsgroup soc.culture.baltics was formed as a breakaway from groups like soc.culture.soviet and soc.culture.nordic. I think a separate Baltic literature blog might be a more interesting avenue to explore, and maybe you could think about setting one up, Eric? It would certainly be the first of its kind.

My feeling is that there's a lot of Nordic writing, especially in Finnish and Danish, that isn't familiar to readers from outside the region, and I would rather concentrate on exploring those literary areas, rather than widening the focus outside the Nordic region in the way you suggest.

Thursday, 9 July 2009

Caulfield Redux

Though it's old news by now, we may as well note that Fredrik Colting lost the first round in his battle to publish 60 Years Later: Coming Through the Rye in the United States (the book is available in the U.K.) However, there is still the appeal, which may overturn the court's decision. And in the WSJ, Julie Steinberg wonders about some of the same issues we discussed here:
That Tom Stoppard was able to borrow Rosencrantz and Guildenstern from "Hamlet" without penalty speaks more to Shakespeare's inability to protest than to the cultural acceptance of character appropriation.

Wednesday, 8 July 2009

Pia Tafdrup: Over the Water I Walk (IV) - 5


Many things have never been given a name, because they are intangible. The depths of the sky and the beating of waves cannot be easily made precise, and yet the sense of infinity can be written as a network of distinctive images.

My poems attempt to give linguistic form to psychological and existential states, or to metaphysical dimensions for which I had no words before. Each word has its own sound and its own meaning, it points to something, but when the word is freed from its referential context it becomes capable of entering into a new totality – and re-emerges in another sphere.


Language contains large, abstract words which are particularly difficult to use in a poem: yearning, lack, pain, soul, and so on. Words of that kind cannot support a poem, even though they are deeply felt – or precisely because of that. Instead, it is the poem’s task to support them, in a dialectical tension.


When one considers that the material is language and the body is the instrument, the writing of poems is a strangely silent activity.


Only when language attains the character of material can it be shaped.


To see language solely as a material is too reductive. The words are an independent world freed from the rest of the world. A kind of realm of freedom, a realm of sounds from which the “I” discovers itself as an existing being. Language is a possibility that is one of the most exalted.


An animal can produce sounds that signal hunger, or that call to its mate, but it can never name the specific. All we know is that whales sing, or dolphins communicate over long distances. Animals probably have a form of consciousness which human beings have so far managed to suppress, but it is not language in the sense in which human beings develop it. The nuances in our language are unique, and we are equipped with a very impatient instinct to make use of its many functions. Creating, dreaming and remembering.

translated from Danish by David McDuff

Over the Water I Walk (IV) - 1
Over the Water I Walk (IV) - 2
Over the Water I Walk (IV) - 3
Over the Water I Walk (IV) - 4

Note: the posts with the translated text of Chapters I, II and III can be accessed here, here, and here.

Tuesday, 7 July 2009

Individual concerns

This blog has now been running for all of four months. It evidently has a readership - 2,384 unique visits in that space of time is not bad for a minority interest blog, and Sitemeter shows that the visitors come not only from Scandinavia but also from locations in Australia, Malaysia, the U.S., Canada, Eastern Europe and the Baltic States, among others. But I can't help noticing that it's also almost alone in covering the field of Nordic writing in English translation. Apart from Scandinavian Books/Nordic Bookblog, who seem to concentrate most of their attention on the increasingly predictable area of Nordic crime writing, it doesn't look as though there may be many other English-language sites or blogs devoted to the subject. There are sites like Swedish Book Review, Books from Finland, and FILI, of course - but these mainly represent organizations of various kinds, either state-run or promoting professional interests.

When some of us left the SELTA Google Group discussions back in February and started Nordic Voices, I recall that Tom Geddes suggested that we should set up an alternative association for translators of Nordic - not just Swedish - literature. Yet with several months' experience of the blog now behind us, I can see that this is precisely what I don't want to do. In my opinion, approaching Nordic writing and its translation from an individual viewpoint, rather than as a member of a group or organization, is a more challenging and potentially more creative path to take.

In part I think this is because I feel that what we are trying to do here is detach the field of Nordic literature from the narrow circle of specialists, academics and translators where it normally ends up, and bring it to the attention of a wider public that may have little knowledge of Nordic life and language, or may view the subject of "Scandinavia" through preconceptions. Those preconceptions are often widespread, and mostly have the effect of blocking the realization that Nordic culture and literature are just as diverse and mixed as the rest of the world.

While "Nordic" writers tend to be based in the "North", they may also hail from a whole host of other geographic and cultural reference points, whether it's Hallgrímur Helgason writing about Stalinism from Manhattan, Siri Hustvedt describing life in Brooklyn, or Karmela Belinki, who says:
Karmela is Hebrew, OT, means "God's fruitful vineyard" (Mount Carmel in Israel). Belinki is Russian-Jewish and means "little white", probably from a river, which runs i.a. through Lithuania and parts of Belarus, where my paternal family stems from. I pronounce it Karméla Bélinki I consider myself mainly a Finland-Swedish writer, but I was brought up with multiple languages, Yiddish being one of them. I have also written and broadcast in Finnish, I was partly educated in the United Kingdom, and I am fluent in several other languages as well.
I think in the end this brings me back to the thought I was trying to express in an earlier post, where I said that I saw two strands in Nordic literature, and that for me the important one was the universal - or universalist - one.

We've chosen a particular cultural area (the Nordic one) as the focus for the blog - but the aim is probably a wider one: to present and consider literary work that may be new and unfamiliar to the English-speaking world, and to track the movement of its local essence out into a wider space where it speaks to everyone. I believe that can best be done on a one-to-one basis, through individual efforts rather than as the activity of a special interest group.

Monday, 6 July 2009

F.E. Sillanpää: Silja - 9


Late that evening in Hilma’s room he caught the girl’s attention by his eager caresses and his silence. ‘What’s wrong?’ Hilma asked. The man merely looked straight ahead, and his chin trembled. ‘Tell me what it is, it will be easier,’ the girl said again. ‘Father’s so ill now.’ These were Kustaa’s words, and the girl could think of no reply to them except to fall silent and remain immersed in desolate thoughts. Kustaa put his head on the girl’s breast like a weary child leaning against his mother. There he liked to remain, in the place where a child’s repose and a man’s oblivion are at their most profound.

The master’s room was in Salmelus Manor, and Hilma’s was in the cottage. They marked the limits of Kustaa’s life, and now he moved between them with a vague and desolate sense of expectancy. When he arrived at the one, he forgot that the other existed. At home he sometimes noticed that he missed his deceased mother. Then a gentle sadness weighed down the mind of the man into the safe condition of childhood.

Thus the fine days of the Indian summer moved towards their end. The air grew misty, and fires were lit in the drying barns. One morning the master of Salmelus was seen going to one of the barns as usual. He took some logs of firewood from the pile, threw them in at the barn door, took a deep breath and went inside himself. When Martta, his sister, saw Vihtori going into the barn, she continued to stare, in spite of herself. The morning was grey and raw; it was one of those chance moments in life when an energetic but elderly person may suddenly detect with a start the dreadful weight of time. So it was with Martta, and she realized that she had been staring at the barn for a long time, with wide-open eyes. But no smoke was rising from the chimney, nor had Vihtori come out again. There was not a sound or a stirring in the whole of the house. Martta got up and looked around her, the time on the clock seemed oddly late. Where was everyone?

She went outside and stood on the kitchen steps. The open doorway of the barn gazed at her, black and immovable, as though it were trying to prolong this strange moment in time. What in the world? It was silly to go into the barn, but she did so anyway. ‘I came to see what was keeping you here,’ she planned to tell Vihtori. Nothing could be heard from the barn, even close to. And when she peeped through the doorway, she saw Vihtori, her brother, lying on his back on the floor, his arms stiff at his sides.

translated from Finnish by David McDuff

Silja - 2
Silja - 3
Silja - 4
Silja - 5
Silja - 6
Silja - 7
Silja - 8

Friday, 3 July 2009

Out in the world

Writing in Hbl, Philip Teir observes that it's now 20 years since Ulla-Lena Lundberg published the first part of her powerful trilogy of novels set in the Åland Islands and based on the story of the shipping industry there. The three novels make up a kind of Nordic "Forsyte Saga", and although from a conceptual and stylistic point of view they might be seen as something of an anachronism, the books are extremely readable and engrossing. And interestingly, Teir sees in them similarities to the sea- and travel-inspired writing of Vilhelm Moberg and Tove Jansson. As historical fact-fiction these novels offer a welcome alternative to the steady flow of Nordic crime writing that now seems to be never-ending and unstoppable, obscuring the rest of contemporary Nordic writing for readers outside the region. Sadly, Lundberg's trilogy still awaits a complete English translation, though Neil Smith has published some excerpts in Swedish Book Review.

Inger Edelfeldt: "An Uninhabitable House" - 6

I borrowed Sofia's hat to put the cherries in, as I had thought we should have a bowlful of them to take home with us. I often want things. It's a kind of instinct. If I really had power, I would conquer whole countries and heedlessly colonise islands where there were spices and gold and precious stones. As it is now, I limited myself during our holiday to collecting fossils warmed in the sun, and just now, borrowing Sofia's hat for the sweet, round drops of blood with which Nature has decorated a mysterious tree whose sight made my body surge with the thrill of childhood.

Andreas didn't like the fact I'd borrowed her hat, perhaps he was afraid she'd get sunstroke without it. Or maybe he saw from my expression and my movements that I was thinking about something else while I plucked the ripe berries from the branches.

We returned, conversing politely. I had begun listening in on him a little. His head was, unfortunately, brim full of one wish alone, and that was to get rid of me. Nonetheless, he smiled courteously in my direction and put polite and insipid questions which I answered in a whisper.

What would be their next move? Sofia had no other choice but to take me into account.

I went to the toilet to give them a chance to talk. I looked at my eyes in the mirror. It always surprises me how staring they are, as if wanting to see everything.

I once heard the story of a German Jewess and an SS soldier. It was a woman I knew; she's old now, but has very open eyes giving you the feeling you are being confronted with something to do with the sea, if you can imagine the sea as a thinking being. Even then, as a young woman, she had these open eyes. And the SS soldier had told her: "You mustn't stare at me like that."

She had said: "I'm not staring, that's the way my eyes are."

Then he went up to her and cuffed her twice, once for each eye. That was his way of saying that there's a solution to everything.

I wondered whether it was my staring eyes that frightened Andreas so. He perhaps wondered what I could see. He perhaps wondered what those eyes had seen in their day. Or what they wanted to see.

Sofia, of course, has quite normal eyes, sparkling and, in a way, soothing. A gaze you can rest under without feeling challenged. They are holiday eyes, oasis eyes. A kind of infinite acceptance can be found in them, placid, safe indulgence: you carry on playing, children, I'll just sit here and be myself.

I tuned in again on her and Andreas. "Shall we meet up this evening?" he asked, meaning the two of them, Romeo and Juliet, Tristan and Isolde, Donald and Daffy Duck. Sorry.

But Sofia knew what she had to take into account.

"You are welcome to come and eat dinner with us," she said and described how to get to the house we are renting.

What huge disappointment was seething within him; but what else could he do but accept? He was bemused, frustrated and almost becoming angry. Feeling guilty about his bad feelings, since Sofia and him hardly knew one another and of course she had her responsibilities towards her travelling companion.

[to be continued]

Translated from Swedish by Eric Dickens

Google Books antitrust probe to go ahead

Google's $125,000,000 book-scanning settlement is to be investigated by U.S. antitrust legislators, according to Bloomberg. The Register reports that
deputy attorney general William F. Cavanaugh sent a letter to the federal judge overseeing the proposed settlement, saying that the deal may run afoul of US antitrust laws. "The United States has reviewed public comments expressing concern that aspects of the settlement agreement may violate the Sherman Act," Cavanaugh wrote.
At the centre of the probe will be the issue of the so-called "orphan works" - books whose rights are controlled by authors and publishers who have ceased to exist or cannot otherwise be located.

Herder and Hegel

Readers may like to note that 19th century German editions of the works of both Herder and Hegel can be accessed online - here and here. Of particular interest in relation to Nordic literature and its ideological antecedents, perhaps, are Herder's Treatise on the Origin of Language (1772), Selection from correspondence on Ossian and the songs of ancient peoples (1773), Of German Character and Art (with Goethe, 1773), Folk Songs (1778-79), and the dialogue Iduna (1796), in which the philosopher suggests that the Nordic gods may serve as the foundation of a new national German literature, replacing the myths and deities of Greek and Oriental antiquity.

Thursday, 2 July 2009

Two strands in Nordic literature

Still following the thread that was prompted by the discussion of Greenlandic literature, and particularly by the examples and reflections contained in Karen Langgård's essay, I wonder whether the questions connected with the aspiration towards nationhood may not lie at the centre of the debate on Nordic literature itself.

The uncertainty about national role and identity has had a twofold effect on Nordic consciousness and culture. On the one hand, it has led to a preoccupation among Nordic authors and thinkers with issues of identity, society and community, sometimes expressed in religious terms, but more rooted in the ideas of Hegel, Marx and nineteenth century German sociology. On the other hand, much as in Russia, it has often inspired a reaction against those essentially collectivist concerns, leading to the birth of a kind of ethical universalism that derives from the ideals of the German enlightenment, in particular those expressed in the philosophy of Kant.

Just as the Russian classic authors - Gogol, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Turgenev - go beyond the limitations of the social and historical confusion of their age to create an essentially moral universe in which time and matter play a secondary though none the less vivid role, so the work of the great names of Nordic literature - Kierkegaard, Claussen, Blixen, Ibsen, Strindberg - inhabits a realm in which the ethical and existential concerns of the individual are transformed into a portrayal of all human life, perceived in the eye of the absolute. Perhaps this is the other side of the "religious" coin.

The two strands, the social-communal and the universal, are still present in Nordic literature today, although - just as in Russia during the twentieth century - the former has gained the upper hand. When an author like Pia Tafdrup describes herself not as a Danish poet, but a poet who happens to write in Danish, she is to some extent allying herself with the Nordic universalist tradition, though also with literary universalism everywhere, and with writers who fought the collectivist tyranny (the examples of Mandelstam, Tsvetayeva and Brodsky come to mind). And those Nordic authors who continue to seek their subjects and inspiration in the analysis of social and political issues are harking back to the uncertain murk of Herder, Hegel and nineteenth century nationalism, with its twentieth century consequences.

This is probably a gross oversimplification, but I think it's one that might be worth further inquiry.

Pia Tafdrup: Over the Water I Walk (IV) - 4


Norms are bound up with conventions, with the expected. Art involves the opposite. Here all preconceptions must be got out of the way so that something can begin. The words are already there, but the poetic dimension only reveals itself during the creative act. It is when the elements are put together that the work of art arises. What matters is the way in which I use them. The words derive their value from what I put into them. Each time, a conquest and a new creation takes place.

To be a poet requires a certain amount of defiance. I cannot take everything for granted, cannot assume control of language with its lacunae. My editing and instrumentalization are what decide how successful the poem will be.


“The Plough, how fast does it go?,” my son asks.


Language makes a distinction between the actual world and the world of language, but writing should not be an excuse for avoiding the making of things.


Different languages rarely have the same word for the same object. Apart from a few examples of onomatopoeia, there is no relation that connects the sound with the word’s content. A word is not an adequate expression for reality, it is not identical with the object, is rather a symbol in relation to it. The letters are there, but everything else is missing. Language signals absence, but does not rank any lower on the scale of reality for that reason. Language constitutes a part of reality.


Even though language does not designate a reality, If I say “bird”, a concrete bird is absent, but the image of a bird is summoned forth. The idea of “bird” appears at the arbitrary sound of the word “bird”. If I say ‘knife’, correspondingly a knife appears on the inner video, but two different individuals will not see the same bird or the same knife. In poetry it is not the object but the word that is the centre. Poetry is an end in itself. The referential function is however a constituent feature of language, which not even a poet can escape… The problem with the critique of language is that poetry is considered in its isolated poetic function, where it is insufficient, because it is art. The condition for art is that one should suspend total referentiality. For language contains degrees of referential meaning. There are poems that point very directly, and others where the words have broken free in such a way that they are inwardly connected in an unusual manner. The words must have "five fingers on each hand", as Sophus Claussen says. The words must be valid. They must be able to catch hold of one another. Or they must function like a molecular model, in which each atom has its own value and can connect with the others in widely differing formations.

translated from Danish by David McDuff

Over the Water I Walk (IV) - 1
Over the Water I Walk (IV) - 2
Over the Water I Walk (IV) - 3

Note: the posts with the translated text of Chapters I, II and III can be accessed here, here, and here.

Wednesday, 1 July 2009

Scandinavia, postcolonialism and belles lettres

In the thread entitled Modern Greenlandic writing, David suggests that the postcolonial debate has affected many aspects of culture, mostly negatively. I would like to break a lance for a postcolonial approach when looking at Scandinavia and certainly Estonia, as long as we are clear what a postcolonial approach entails.

I fear that the type of postcolonial studies taught at many universities focusses a great deal on the British Empire, where the Britons are the baddies, robbing the indigenous population of raw materials, and the local people the goodies, seeking liberation. The fact that Britain did bring education, health care, law and order, etc., to the developing world gets conveniently forgotten. A second serious flaw in this type of postcolonialist examination is that the subject often looks at the world through the prism of those who come from, or were educated in, the metropolitan countries. So, subliminally, colonial attitudes are indeed perpetuated.

Postcolonial studies, if expanded to include ethnology, history, geo-politics, psychology, and other subjects beyond literature, could be a fruitful way of looking at Scandinavia and the Baltics. But if postcolonial studies does indeed deteriorate into a crude and uncritical bashing of the colonial power, assuming the indigenous peoples to be angels and the colonists all robbers and power-hungry plotters, then it is a non-starter. Nor would I like to see Scandinavian literature used in the same way as English literature is, as a quarry from which to dig out chunks of one-sided anti-colonialist proof.

Obviously, the big boys in Scandinavia over the centuries were Denmark and Sweden. Equally obviously, Norway, Iceland, the Faroes, Greenland, Finland, Estonia, Livonia, Greifswald, northern Poland, etc., were not always so thrilled at being the underdog. But the dilemma in modern times is whether any given colony can "go it alone" and become a viable economic and political entity if it becomes independent, within or without the framework of the EU. This debate is being held in Scotland right now, as I believe. The same tricky debate envelops the Faroes and Greenland.

Where literature (i.e. belles lettres) can come in is as an indicator of mood, opinion and action - and examine the psychology of key players and minor figures. But on its own, given the subjective attitudes of many writers, literature cannot stand alone as the only subject through which to examine the history of an empire or a specific epoch.

Inger Edelfeldt: "An Uninhabitable House" - 5

I was still trembling as I walked up the gentle rise to the outdoor café. I am so sensitive that I have to be a little nasty at times, otherwise I would wallow in my feelings. Sofia is much more even-tempered, she doesn't even think about death. As for me, I think about death all the time, without a break. The slow fire in our bodies, causing the heat of the skin. Only loathsome, unacceptable Death really loves us. And I can see everything dancing, how life dances amidst all of this, vainly, before it is handed over. Is there any better way of dancing than body to body, flesh to flesh. Then you can almost love death.

They were sitting at one of the first tables. Sofia and the young man.

What were they talking about? Well, that in the olden days, all buttons were made of mother-of-pearl. This was an excuse for Sofia to finger his shirt, which gave him such a feeling a well-being that he shut his eyes quite involuntarily, inhaled sharply and shuddered slightly, right there where he was sitting. I saw this and it felt like a cat's hard but affectionate head were pounding against my sex.

Then he caught sight of me. A look of vexation crossed his face; I saw it. Immediately, instinctively, he had judged me, without even knowing who I was. Despair, rage and hatred were aroused within me; these three marauders of the joys of life, three harpies in my innards, so familiar that I only needed to sense their approach, as when passing someone else's garden you spot three sorts of weeds. That's what keeps you going.

He'll change, given time, I thought to myself. Now Sofia had spotted me too. She had already seen from the look on his face that I had arrived.

"This is my sister, Carmilla," she said in a flat voice. "We're here together."

He looked as if someone had spilt something on his trousers.

"Hello, " he said. "Andreas."

"I know," I said, or whispered, rather.

"Carmilla's got such problems with her voice just now," Sofia explained. "Normally, she's got the voice of an angel."

"I see," said Andreas.

A tense atmosphere already. It was getting worse every minute as we made attempts at polite conversation. But I'm used to that sort of thing by now. To give them a chance to say a few words in private - every one of which I would, of course, pick up - I excused myself in order to go and get something to drink.
I watched them from over by the counter inside. Sofia did, of course, know what was going on, but he was quite innocent of the situation.

"Carmilla is very gifted," Sofia felt herself obliged to say.

"Yes, she does seem rather special," he managed to utter.

"We're very close," said Sofia.

"I don't have any sisters and brothers myself," he said, as if this were something positive.

"We always travel together," said Sofia. "We just can't cope without one other. Especially Carmilla, she becomes so anxious."

Well, that's quite true, actually. She thinks it's only me who has anxieties, she feels a little melancholy at the very most, and even then preferably when thinking about something rather remote; children in other countries and gap in the ozone layer. The fact that we all have gaps in the ozone layers within us, and that life is leaking out without our being able to stop it, is something which doesn't worry Sofia. No, if she worries at all, it's about the fates of others. But she would never go as far as to do anything about it, she just goes on talking. I doubt if she even contributes to the Fund for the Prevention of the Extinction of Whales, something which she gets all worked up about. Sometimes I wish that by some heavenly miracle a dead whale would flop down into our garden and lie there and rot.

But that was by the by. The state of the world is often a mere passage in love stories. If we could choose - purely hypothetically, of course - between saving the world and being totally affirmed in one's love, I wonder how many of us would choose to save the world. We would rather throw ourselves into someone's arms, a warm bosom, and only cast a hasty glance, if at all, at the apocalypse which was taking place outside our window.

The atmosphere at the table was still strained when I returned with some gaudy red soft drinks.

"I've heard," I said, "that there are wild cherries in the woods. What if we were to take a walk over there?"

Translated from Swedish by Eric Dickens