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Norwegian Nynorsk fiction 1850–2015 (English)

Since Bernhardine Catharine Brun published the first anthology of poems in Norwegian Nynorsk in 1857, over 1400 have made their debuts publishing fiction in book form written in Norwegian Nynorsk and dialects. With the arrival of the Nynorsk authors, realistic descriptions of rural life, the child’s perspective and irony have found their place in Scandinavian literary history.

Norwegian version

In the beginning was the language

In 1848 Ivar Aasen published Det norske Folkesprogs Grammatik, and in the following decades institutions were established that were to lay the foundations of the Norwegian Nynorsk written culture. Very soon, newspapers and periodicals were founded (Dølen 1858, Fraa By og Bygd 1870, Fedraheimen 1877) and so were interest organisations (Vestmannalaget 1868, Det Norske Samlaget 1868) that promoted the use of Norwegian Nynorsk in Norway. In addition, Nynorsk texts were also printed in periodicals, newspapers and by publishing houses that otherwise only published in Danish, and later Dano-Norwegian and Norwegian Bokmål. 

Even before Norwegian Nynorsk was officially granted equal status with Danish in 1885, thirty authors had made their debuts publishing in book form fiction that was written in Norwegian Nynorsk. This early writing was just as diverse as fiction in the remainder of Europe: poems, songs, hymns, plays and narratives.

Norwegian Nynorsk newspapers, probably on display in the theatre foyer at the Rural Youth Society in Oslo round about 1930. Initially, newspapers were a common medium for making a debut with fictional texts. Photo: Norsk Allkunnebok archive.

Norwegian Nynorsk newspapers, probably on display in the theatre foyer at the Rural Youth Society in Oslo round about 1930. Initially, newspapers were a common medium for making a debut with fictional texts. Photo: Norsk Allkunnebok archive.

Definitions

The term Norwegian Nynorsk is used in these articles on Norwegian Nynorsk fiction to refer to the written language that is based on the spoken Norwegian dialects, and which were recorded by Ivar Aasen. Since 1929 Norwegian Nynorsk has been the official name of this language.

This presentation of Norwegian Nynorsk fiction is generally limited to prose fiction, lyrical poetry and essays for children and adults published in book form, but in some cases plays and song lyrics are also mentioned.

A key factor in understanding Norwegian cultural history, and much of the literature in Norwegian Nynorsk, is the «Norwegianness” movement. This is a joint term used to refer to the language movement and the liberal youth movement. The latter voiced and supported the ideas of Grundtvig: «human being first, Christian next». They created a fellowship through activities like dancing, plays and reading circles. The common aim of this movement was the establishment of a spiritual, national and political awakening in Norway. The movements contributed to this goal by creating environments for reading, writing and discussion of Norwegian history, current affairs and visions of the future.  

Many began to adopt the language

«Brudeferden i Hardanger» (1926) was the first full-length feature film. It was based on the story «Marit Skjølte» by the first great Norwegian Nynorsk prose narrator Kristofer Janson. The silent movie had subtitles in Danish. «Fuglane» (1957) by Tarjei Vesaas became a Polish feature film in 1968, and among other places was shown at a number of cinemas in France. In 2011 the novel «Få meg på for faen» (2005) was directed by Jannicke Systad Jacobsen. All cinemas posters used by agreement with Norwegian Film Institute.

«Brudeferden i Hardanger» (1926) was the first full-length feature film. It was based on the story «Marit Skjølte» by the first great Norwegian Nynorsk prose narrator Kristofer Janson. The silent movie had subtitles in Danish. «Fuglane» (1957) by Tarjei Vesaas became a Polish feature film in 1968, and among other places was shown at a number of cinemas in France. In 2011 the novel «Få meg på for faen» (2005) was directed by Jannicke Systad Jacobsen. All cinemas posters used by agreement with Norwegian Film Institute.

From 1843 until 2017 over 1400 writers had made their debuts with literature in book form written in Norwegian Nynorsk and dialects. This figure does not include translations. The debutants hailed from every county in the country, and the books are published by publishing houses in all the counties. Every genre is represented, and the vast majority of national and international currents of ideas have appeared in this literature.

Lyrical poetry from Ivar Aasen (debut 1843) to Guri Sørumgård Botheim (debut 2009) has been set to music and used on stage, radio and at home. Screen versions of stories from Kristofer Janson (debut  1866) via Tarjei Vesaas (debut 1923) to Martine Grande (debut 2013) have been made as silent movies, feature films or animation.

Several of the Norwegian Nynorsk writers have been nominated for and won Norwegian, Scandinavian, European and international literary awards and grants. Kristofer Janson was the first Norwegian Nynorsk writer to receive a lifetime state grant from 1876–1882. As early as the 1890s Arne Garborg was awarded a grant from the theatre club Freie Bühne in Berlin, and Lars Petter Sveen and Nils Henrik Smith have been chosen to represent the younger generation and profile Norway at the International Book Fair in Frankfurt in 2019.

On the list of nominees for the Nobel Prize in Literature 1901-1967 we find the names of Arne Garborg, Olav Duun, Hans Henrik Holm and Tarjei Vesaas. The latter was the first Norwegian to receive the Nordic Council’s Prize for Literature. Another winner of the same prize, Jon Fosse, was the first writer to move into Grotten, the honorary residence for artists owned by the Norwegian state. Norwegian Nynorsk writers have been translated into many languages. The children’s books of Maria Parr, the poems of Odveig Klyve, the novels of Tarjei Vesaas and the plays of Jon Fosse are just some of the examples of literature written in Norwegian Nynorsk that has been translated into at least 20 languages or more. 

Eyes to the world

The Student Language Society in Oslo, along with the publishers Samlaget, published «Klassiske bokverk» from 1921. The publishing house Skald has from 2016 its own classic book club. Here are the covers of the first titles in each series. They are reproduced by agreement with the publishers.

The Student Language Society in Oslo, along with the publishers Samlaget, published «Klassiske bokverk» from 1921. The publishing house Skald has from 2016 its own classic book club. Here are the covers of the first titles in each series. They are reproduced by agreement with the publishers.

It is perhaps easier to understand the literature in Norwegian Nynorsk in contrast to or in an interplay with literature in Danish and Norwegian Bokmål. The Nynorsk literature has references to itself and to other literature in Norway – but just as much to Europe and rest of the contemporary world and the past. Even the very earliest pioneers Ivar Aasen (Prøver af Landsmaalet 1853) and Aasta Hansteen (Skrift og Umskrift i Landsmaalet 1862) published translations from German, English and Danish along with their own texts.

The publishing house Det Norske Samlaget (1868–) early on received a state grant to translate the Bible and classic texts into Norwegian Nynorsk. From 1897 until 1934 over 20 leading Nynorsk writers, translators and members of the Nynorsk interest organisations were living in Asker for shorter or longer periods. This milieu, which consisted of among others Marta Steinsvik, Hulda Garborg and Henrik Rytter, translated historic and contemporary literature from English, French and German into Norwegian Nynorsk.

Olav Duun was inspired by the great Russian narrators. Aslaug Vaa travelled to France and Germany in the period between the two world wars to search for inspiration to write her poems. Åse-Marie Nesse had translated Wolfgang Hildesheimer, Carlos Fuentes and Nelly Sachs before she herself in 1967 made her debut as a poet with an anthology in a dialogue with the Iliad. Halldis Moren Vesaas translated drama and children’s books from French, German and English into Norwegian Nynorsk over many decades. From the 1960s Olav H. Hauge and Paal-Helge Haugen brought inspiration from Japanese and Chinese lyrical poetry into the Norwegian Nynorsk literature, and Kjartan Fløgstad adopted the magical realism from Latin America in the following decades, the same place that Åse-Marie Nesse felt at home in the prosaic poetry.

Norwegian Nynorsk writers have made international literature available in Nynorsk and introduced inspiration and ideas into Nynorsk literature. This literature has not developed in a vacuum, but has been in touch with other literature from many places, periods and currents of ideas.

From the 1950s onwards a characteristic and dominating essayism in Norwegian Nynorsk developed, in which philosophers like Gunnar Skirbekk and Hans Skjervheim, 70s-authors like Eldrid Lunden and Kjartan Fløgstad and younger writers who alternated between journalism and literature, like Marit Eikemo and Agnes Ravatn, have all found their natural place. Right from Aasmund Olavsson Vinje and Arne Garborg, thinking and expressing opinions using fictional means has been a natural part of writing in Norwegian Nynorsk.

Shorter distance between reader and writer

In Tonje Glimmerdal (2012) Maria Parr created a young girl who uses «swift and self-confident» as her motto in life. The Norwegian tradition of books that are inspired by a child’s own experiences and imagination began with the Norwegian Nynorsk writer Rasmus Løland. Maria Parr is one writer who has continued in that tradition with great success. Photo: The Norwegian Theatre. Photo reproduced by agreement with the theatre.

In Tonje Glimmerdal (2012) Maria Parr created a young girl who uses «swift and self-confident» as her motto in life. The Norwegian tradition of books that are inspired by a child’s own experiences and imagination began with the Norwegian Nynorsk writer Rasmus Løland. Maria Parr is one writer who has continued in that tradition with great success. Photo: The Norwegian Theatre. Photo reproduced by agreement with the theatre.

When Elias Blix published the first hymns in Norwegian Nynorsk in 1869, he renewed and changed hymn traditions in Norway on a permanent basis. He drew simple, well-known patterns from oral song traditions into the church. Using idioms, words from everyday language and recognised parallels like storm and sea, wind and waves, he made the hymns sung in church more like the songs sung at home.                                                

Ivar Aasen also introduced songs into written poetry. Later lyricists, like Jakob Sande and Kjartan Fløgstad, followed this tradition. They also put songs into their writing and rejuvenated written poetry. With Norwegian Nynorsk poetry came lyrical descriptions of everyday life that had never been written about before. Halldis Moren Vesaas wrote menstruation, the female body and women’s lust into literary history.

It was also Norwegian Nynorsk authors that moved children’s literature closer to children themselves. With Rasmus Løland’s Det store nashorne (1900) and Kvitebjørnen (1906) came the first children’s books in Norway where the reader can enter a child’s own lifeworld and imagination, from the child’s own perspective. Children’s literature appears at eye level with a child, instead of being an admonishing finger raised by women with an education in pedagogy or men with a degree in theology. The tradition of children’s literature on eye level with the world of a child has lived on in both the imaginative Dustefjerten-books (1991–2003) by Rune Belsvik and the more realistic books about Lena and Trille (Vaffelhjarte 2005 and Keeperen og havet 2017) by Maria Parr.

Up until the Second World War, drama was an important genre in which to make your debut in Norwegian Nynorsk. The theatre milieu in the youth movement has needed plays to perform, and writers in or close to the Norwegian youth movement wrote many comedies. The language of the people, the popular humour and everyday drama entered the stage along with the Norwegian Nynorsk writers and in the Nynorsk cultural milieus.

Realistic tales of rural life

Sven Moren, Johan Falkberget and Oskar Braaten sitting on the steps at Moren. They all write realistic narratives in Norwegian Nynorsk or dialect based on the environments they grew up in, whether that was in the countryside in Østerdalen, the mining town of Røros or the urban area called Sagene in Oslo. Photo: Dagfinn Grønoset, year unknown. Source: Trysil-Engerdal Museum at digitaltmuseum.no CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.

Sven Moren, Johan Falkberget and Oskar Braaten sitting on the steps at Moren. They all write realistic narratives in Norwegian Nynorsk or dialect based on the environments they grew up in, whether that was in the countryside in Østerdalen, the mining town of Røros or the urban area called Sagene in Oslo. Photo: Dagfinn Grønoset, year unknown. Source: Trysil-Engerdal Museum at digitaltmuseum.no CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.

The first Norwegian Nynorsk literature stood in stark contrast to the romanticism that had characterised Scandinavian literature, and in particular the fictional accounts of rural life. With the Norwegian Nynorsk written language came the writers who described the rural community as it was, not the way the city dweller saw it when he was on holiday.

In the writing of the Nynorsk authors the romanticised farmer was given his own written language and was himself able to write about the realities of life. These realistic tales of daily life in the countryside took different forms at different times. To begin with, it was Ivar Aasen and Aasmund Olavsson Vinje who did it each in his own way in their poetry and travel accounts. Afterwards came the many narrators who mapped the landscape through their writing, from John Klæbo in Dønna in the north to Hans Seland from Nes outside Flekkefjord in the south.

Kristofer Uppdal from 1910 and Gro Holm in the 1930s were the first in Norway to describe industrialisation and industrial communities in novel form. In the 1960s and 1970s the rural descriptions took on political form. The fringe protest of country versus town manifested itself in various ways in the writing of authors like Knut Gjengedal, Aslaug Høydal, Ingvar Moe and Edvard Hoem. 

From the 1980s onwards, a number of books have appeared with accounts of rural environments with a rather pitiable gallery of characters, in an impartial tone and an objective style, but at the same time with a fundamental empathy. Ragnar Hovland, Olaug Nilssen, Agnes Ravatn and Carl Frode Tiller have all written books that are good examples of this. At the same time Audun Sjøstrand, Knut Hauge, Rune Timberlid, Magnhild Bruheim and Ragnhild Kolden relocated crime stories away from city streets to rural environments, both along the coast and high in the mountains.

Narratives from rural environments are often called regional literature (heimstaddikting, literally, home place literature), while similar descriptions from the town are seen as universal life stories. The term regional literature here has been used in order to undervalue the many Norwegian Nynorsk authors who have written about environments that otherwise have rarely been described in Norwegian literature. The novels of Olav Duun and Tarjei Vesaas provide some of the very best evidence that it is just as legitimate to write universal narratives about the people and their lives in the village as it is of those in the town. Norwegian Nynorsk literature has had both the city and the countryside as the setting for realistic narratives.

Nynorsk provided a language for new voices

Ingebjørg Mælandsmo is one of the authors who shared what was for a long time a typical Norwegian Nynorsk background. She grew up in the country (Heddal), became familiar with a writing environment in the young people’s society, was educated at a folk high school (Sagavoll) and a teachers’ seminary (Notodden), made her debut as a writer while working as a teacher at folk high school, which was a job she had at several places in Eastern Norway. Author Ingebjørg Mælandsmo in the library at Romerike folk high school, where she worked. Photo: Lars Bry, Museene i Akershus. Reproduced by agreement with the museum.

Ingebjørg Mælandsmo is one of the authors who shared what was for a long time a typical Norwegian Nynorsk background. She grew up in the country (Heddal), became familiar with a writing environment in the young people’s society, was educated at a folk high school (Sagavoll) and a teachers’ seminary (Notodden), made her debut as a writer while working as a teacher at folk high school, which was a job she had at several places in Eastern Norway. Author Ingebjørg Mælandsmo in the library at Romerike folk high school, where she worked. Photo: Lars Bry, Museene i Akershus. Reproduced by agreement with the museum.

Many of the first Nynorsk writers had a totally different background than earlier authors in Scandinavia. Ivar Aasen, Aasmund Olavsson Vinje and Arne Garborg were the children of farmers and grew up in the countryside. They met language, literature and thinking in the literary milieus in rural Norway, linked to the church, printing presses and schools.

The Norwegian Nynorsk writers of the 20th century still hailed from the village and were often educated in the cultural institutions and sources of knowledge that were part of or closely associated with the «Norwegianness» movement: young people’s society, the folk high school and the teacher’s seminary.

80th birthday of writer and fruit farmer Olav H. Hauge in 1988 was celebrated at the home of author and forest worker Arvid Torgeir Lie in Telemark, whose own 50th birthday was the same day. From left: sculptor Gunnar Torvund, author Liv Køltzow, artist Bodil Cappelen, author and psychologist Einar Økland, author and professor of literature Kjell Heggelund, author and former industrial worker Kjartan Fløgstad, teacher Liv Marit Økland and Olav H. Hauge himself. Photo from the archives of the Olav H. Hauge Centre for Poetry.

80th birthday of writer and fruit farmer Olav H. Hauge in 1988 was celebrated at the home of author and forest worker Arvid Torgeir Lie in Telemark, whose own 50th birthday was the same day. From left: sculptor Gunnar Torvund, author Liv Køltzow, artist Bodil Cappelen, author and psychologist Einar Økland, author and professor of literature Kjell Heggelund, author and former industrial worker Kjartan Fløgstad, teacher Liv Marit Økland and Olav H. Hauge himself. Photo from the archives of the Olav H. Hauge Centre for Poetry.

From the 1970s a larger number of the debutants in the majority of languages in the world have had an academic background. The Norwegian Nynorsk writing is no exception. The Nynorsk authors are more similar to the Norwegian Bokmål writers than earlier, but they often have a rural upbringing, more often make use of irony and humour and often include essayist elements in their writing.

Never before have so many writers had their debut in book form in Norwegian Nynorsk and dialects than in the period after 2010. The language that Ivar Aasen discovered as he travelled the country in the 1800s is used in writing and reading every single day of the year. New talents make their debuts. Many authors are continuing to write.

English translation Howard Medland


Sources

Tone Birkeland, Gunvor Risa & Karin Beate Vold: Norsk barnelitteraturhistorie. Oslo 2017

Jan Inge Sørbø: Nynorsk litteraturhistorie. Oslo 2018

Ottar Grepstad: Viljen til språk. Oslo 2006

Ottar Grepstad: Skjønnlitterære debutantar på nynorsk og dialekt, 2nd edn. Oslo 2018 

«Nomination Database», Nobelprize.org, http://www.nobelprize.org/nomination/archive/country.php

Først publisert: 22.10.2018
Sist oppdatert: 22.10.2018