With the onset of COVID-19, Norwegians found themselves suffering from a peculiar kind of cabin fever. Cabin-owners across the nation were no longer allowed to stay at holiday houses outside their home municipality, something that led Norwegians closer to civil disobedience than they had ever ventured before. This obsessive attachment to our holiday homes is explained well in The Cabin in the Mountains by Robert Ferguson. Enamoured with Norwegian culture, the English writer has lived in Norway since the 1980s, and is well equipped to present his compatriots with the many curious aspects of his adopted home country.
Ferguson – who also translated Lars Mytting’s surprising non-fiction hit Norwegian Wood – wants to become part of the hytte-culture, and dreams of a simple, authentic life in the Norwegian mountains. The appeal of the Norwegian hytte is inextricably connected with the country’s rural past, but urbanization and the discovery of North Sea oil has redefined what the cabin means to most Norwegians. What was once menial family homes in the pre-industrial era are now items of luxury, but the ‘authentic’ allure of the rural holiday home prevails.
Ferguson is therefore much dismayed when his newly bought finger-jointed timber cottage is described as an ‘IKEA-cabin’. The discrepancy between the ascetic dream-cottage and the insulated, underfloor heated holiday house the author ends up with, is something Ferguson feels guilty about: ‘At times I feel this capitulation to comfort as a shameful and disheartening decadence, a betrayal. But of what?’
This shameful decadence is a recent phenomenon; in the past two decades, the previously so self-reliant Norwegians who took (perhaps too much) pride in being descendants of wholesome farmers and rugged labourers, now outsource all practical tasks, often to underpaid eastern European workers. At most, Ferguson’s work at his own cabin involves ascending and clearing a roof covered in ‘gravity-defying’ quiffs of snow.
Despite his shame, the author very rightly makes the connection between the romantic image of the Norwegian peasant labourer and the rather more sinister notion of the Volk – the people of a particular ethnic group. The Völkisch movement, with its nostalgia for rural farmers and their ‘pure’ genealogy, was adopted by national socialists of the 1930s, including the ‘Dostoevsky of the north’, Ferguson’s idol Hamsun.
Wide-ranging and meandering, the book also explains Norwegian terms such as Norgesvenn, stabbur, and the untranslatable dugnad. It’s also a highly enjoyable study of curious Anglo-Norwegian connections: Ferguson meditates on the English mountaineer William Cecil Slingsby who first explored the Norwegian mountains, he obsesses over the novella Pan by Hamsun, which Graham Greene used as inspiration for his book The End of the Affair, and marvels at the chance encounter between English modernist Malcolm Lowry and Norwegian writer Nordahl Grieg (who was also a friend of Greene).
Occasionally the narrative grinds almost to a halt. Ferguson is no Knausgård, and the many drawn-out party scenes featuring long-winded discussions on lucid dreaming or whether The Beatles or Bob Dylan were the most original, doesn’t always feel germane.
However, any writer describing another culture in such caring detail should be cherished, and not just by native Norwegians. The Cabin in the Mountains is a sweeping exploration of Norwegian culture, and ends up a highly enjoyable study of the paradoxical pull our ‘second homes’ seem to have on us.
The Cabin in the Mountains by Robert Ferguson is published by Head of Zeus, 432 pages.
If you enjoyed this book, perhaps try Norwegian Wood by Lars Mytting?