Thursday, 12 March 2009

Detective Story

The story of how Scandinavian crime novels became the leading literary export of the Nordic countries, and the mainstay of Anglo-American Nordic literary translators, is a fairly lengthy one. In some ways it's rather a sad story - as though modern English literature had suddenly become known to the world not through the books of D.H. Lawrence, Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf, Aldous Huxley, George Orwell, Graham Greene and the rest, but rather through the novels of Agatha Christie.

In the 1960s and 70s, Scandinavian crime fiction was mainly familiar to the world's reading public in the form of the Martin Beck novels of the Swedish husband and wife team of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö. In the late 1970s, some Nordic countries, notably Norway, began to make a serious push for recogition and acceptance of their literature and culture in the outside world. The push was government-subsidized, and in Norway, at any rate, considerable effort was invested in drawing the attention of overseas translators and publishers to the extremely active, though somewhat introverted, Norwegian literary scene. Elaborate seminars and conferences were held, and although these involved representatives from several European countries, it was contacts with British and American publishers and translators that were given special priority. In the early 1980s, much of the Norwegian fiction published in English translation was of the "serious" kind, with a special focus on contemporary women's writing: the work of Herbjørg Wassmo,Cecilie Løveid and Bjørg Vik began to be translated and published in Britain and the U.S. at this time. In particular, the smaller U.K. publishers, like Virago, the Women's Press and Quartet Books played a central role in this process, and it was thought that books which focused on women's issues stood the greatest chance of being sold.

In the mid-1980s the attention of some British publishers, including Allison & Busby, Quartet and the newly formed Serpent's Tail, began to drift towards the possibility that Scandinavian crime fiction might offer a saleable alternative or adjunct to Nordic women's writing. In 1986 I translated for the Quartet Qrime series Gunnar Staalesen's bleak Varg Veum thriller I mørket er alle ulver grå (1983), which is set in Bergen and is built around the ramifications of the post-Nazi era in Norway. As At Night All Wolves Are Grey (1986) it was favourably reviewed, and began to sell a reasonable number of copies. Word of this got out onto the grapevine, and other UK publishers began to show an interest in Nordic crime writing. It was, however, the advent of the Danish writer Peter Høeg's Frøken Smillas fornemmelse for sne (1992), published in the US by Farrar Straus as Smilla's Sense of Snow (1993) and in the UK by Harvill Press as Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow (1993), which really projected Nordic crime fiction into the realm of international bestsellers.

From then on, the world's English-language publishers began to view Scandinavia as the home of crime fiction, in the sense that Britain once was. Interest in the work of Nordic writers who did not adopt the genre began to fall, and among writers of fiction in the Nordic countries themselves there was a growing tendency to to employ the techniques of crime writing in novels and narratives that were not really detective stories at all, in the hope that this might increase the likelihood that their books would receive attention abroad.

It's in contemporary Swedish fiction that the results of this trend have been most marked. In the crime novels of authors like Henning Mankell - whose Wallander series is now a BBC television show - "serious" concerns are blended with entertainment in a formula that is now almost standard for Swedish authors who want to be taken seriously at an international level. As John Crace noted recently about the novels of Mankell and others,

Their leading characters tend to be depressed melancholics with or without a drinking problem, while having a strong sense of Guardianista political correctness.
This combination of crime plots and "leftish" sermonizing appears to be the new orthodoxy on the Nordic literary scene. And it's the one that translators are liable to become involved in, willingly or not, as - to put it crudely - that is where the jobs are. It seems a pity that so much interesting and experimental writing from Sweden and the other Nordic countries is going relatively unnoticed as a result (the work of the iconoclastic Swedish novelist Sara Stridsberg is one prominent example). Meanwhile, as Håkan Nesser prepares to address the spring meeting of SELTA in London next week, one must hope that the present developments are merely a passing fad or fashion, and that in time the balance in translated Nordic fiction between entertainment and the vital concerns of new writing will be restored to something of the status it enjoyed in the early 1980s once again.


Eric Dickens said...

I had a look at the John Crace article, which contains a list of leading Scandinavian crime authors, and then typed "Scandinavian literature" in the Guardian search facility. I thought that it was rather sad that three of the articles in that category stored in the Guardian archive were the obituaries of James McFarlane (August 1999), Joan Tate (July 2000) and Elias Bredsdorff (August 2002). Translators and scholars.

Thanks presumably to his winning the Dublin, the Norwegian author Per Petterson was highlighted in a longish article in the Guardian on 3rd January 2009. Let's hope they keep up an interest in serious Scandinavian literature.

Eric Dickens said...

In the Swedish Book Review (London), 2004:2, Tom Geddes published a bibliography of books translated into English from Swedish since early 2002 in a number of categories. In the category "Fiction, Poetry, Drama", there were 64 entries, allowing for various British and American editions of the four crime novels by Henning Mankell, bringing the total down to 60. There were 21 books of crime fiction (again taking into account this reduplication).

Whether this statistic, i.e. approximately one third of translations here being crime fiction, is high or low I do not know, but there it is for the record.

The crime writers were Karin Alvtegen, Jan Guillou, Henning Mankell, Liza Marklund, Sjöwall & Wahlöö and Helene Tursten.

David McDuff said...

I think one third is rather a high proportion - particularly when one bears in mind the phenomenon I've pointed out in my post, where some non-crime-writing Nordic authors have even taken the step of introducing elements of crime plot into the structure of their novels (Monika Fagerholm's Den Amerikanska Flickan is a notable example, but there are many others). The "crime-suspense" fashion is currently everywhere in Nordic fiction, as far as I can see.

It would be interesting to hear the views of others on this issue.