The 2020 Dublin Literary Award would have announced its shortlist on 2 April, but has since been postponed due to the outbreak of COVID-19. Among the many big names on the extensive long-list was Story of a Marriage by Geir Gulliksen, which caused a stir in Norway upon publication in 2015. Many viewed it as the latest example of so-called virkelighetslitteratur – reality literature – a strand of life writing that seemed to expose the private lives of real people under the guise of fiction.
Kim Jiyoung Born 1982 by Cho Nam-Joo shook South-Korea to the core when it was published there a few years ago, unleashing a fierce #MeToo debate. It chronicles the life of Kim Jiyoung from birth to motherhood to mental breakdown and is written in the form of a psychiatrist report. The cold clinical way her case is described is, of course, a reflection of the way she, as a girl and a woman, is treated. That South Korea lags behind in women’s lib possibly doesn’t come as news but this little book still had the power to surprise and move.
Truly original novels are few and far between. All the more reason to hail the wonderfully quirky Summer Light and Then Comes the Night by Jon Kalman Stefansson. It’s the portrait of a remote Icelandic town set in the 1990s and if that fails to excite you, I promise that this unexpected, humorous, warm story is worth reading. Stefansson describes dreams and aspirations, crushed or fulfilled; love and desire, unrequited or reciprocated. Life, basically. His tone in playful, conversational and above all, funny. A breath of literary fresh air.
Adelmo Farandola lives by himself as far up a rocky Alpine valley as possible. He hasn’t showered or changed clothes for as long as he can remember and he’ll do anything to avoid people. When a stray dog starts following him, Adelmo reluctantly takes it in and a strange relationship develops as they struggle to survive the brutal winter. Anyone with a soft spot for books set in wild mountains will love Snow, Dog, Foot by Claudio Morandini. A bestseller in Italy, this quirky, darkly comic book about a grumpy loner losing his mind is a surreal little gem.
Poems from the Edge of Extinction edited by Chris McCabe is a small cross-section of world poetry with a difference; every poem in this collection is written in a language that is endangered, at risk of extinction. It began with the idea to collect poetry written in the world’s dying languages and became an exhibition at the National Poetry Library in 2017, The Endangered Languages Project.
To say that Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk, last year’s Nobel Prize winner (awarded this year) is a murder mystery would be misleading, but there’s definitely murder – several, in fact, – of both people and animals. Our charming, eccentric, (slightly mad?) heroine Janina Duszejko is caught up in the middle. I adored the warm humanity of this novel and the Nobel Prize worthy writing – there’s a quotable sentence on every page. Expect no hair-raising thriller, but a tender book that will stay with you for a long time.
It is always strange when a foreign book published more than 20 years ago is suddenly picked up by an English-language publisher and goes on to receive rave reviews. This recently happened with the book Love by Hanne Ørstavik, an author who, with numerous novels, essays and short stories under her belt, has long been one of Norway’s most respected writers. Her 1997 breakthrough novel Kjærlighet was translated as Love by Martin Aitken last year and published in America, where it was shortlisted for the National Book Award. Now, Ørstavik’s strongest work has finally been published in the UK by And Other Stories.
After Knausgaard’s My Struggle series of books, Norwegian readers thought we were used to the dramatic repercussions brought on by the thinly veiled autobiographical novel. Then, in 2016, Will and Testament by Vigdis Hjorth’s detonated like a bomb. Critics claimed to find many similarities between real people and the characters portrayed in the novel, too many for there to be a coincidence. It was clear: Vigdis Hjorth was writing about her own life and her own family. This led to much debate and even sparked a new genre – the ‘revenge-novel’ – when Hjorth’s sister wrote a novel of her own about what it was like to be made into a character in her sister’s book.
Few things could hold me off from starting Margaret Atwood’s latest book, but The World of Yesterday by Stefan Zweig actually has. Zweig, an Austrian Jew whose wonderful novellas (The Royal Game, Amok, Letter from an Unknown Woman, Twenty-four Hours in the Life of a Woman) many of you will know, was the world’s most popular author in the 1920s and 30s, until Hitler banned his books. The World of Yesterday is his autobiography, finished two days before his and his second wife’s joint suicide. It’s a lament for a lost world, a love letter to creativity and artists and an eloquent analysis of events that led up to both the first and the second world wars. The parallels with aspects of our own turbulent times are hard to ignore. Highly recommended.
None other than Karl Ove Knausgaard, Norway’s greatest literary export since Ibsen, has provided the endorsement quote on the reissued English edition of The Birds by Tarjei Vesaas, stating that it is ‘the best Norwegian novel ever.’ Vesaas (1897-1970) is still considered one of the country’s most important writers, and is now deservedly being published in English as part of Penguin Modern Classics. (PS never mind the hipster on the cover. I’m certain this is not how Vesaas envisioned Mattis). Read full Review