Tag Archives: Norway

‘Return to the Future,’ by Sigrid Undset

Pre-Christian pagans – Greeks and Romans and Nordic peoples, or redskins and Asiatic tribes – have usually conceived of the Golden Age as having been some time in the past. The present was hard, and the future was dark and full of menace. When the Christian Church began to speak and taught that God’s kingdom would come, it was in reality challenging people’s innermost convictions.

Inconstant and fickle as I am, I shall now contradict what I told you yesterday about blogging my way through The Conservative Mind. A small writing job came up which required me to bone up on Sigrid Undset, and I decided I needed to read an Undset book I’ve owned for a while but had not yet read – her 1942 war memoir, Return to the Future.

The original manuscript for Viking Legacy included a short passage from Undset, about the ancient piles of stones in Norway which have been cleared from the fields over the centuries. She declares them Norway’s “proudest monuments of antiquity” (my translation). Sadly, that passage (which I adored) was omitted from the final version. I didn’t realize, until I picked up Return to the Future, that it was the opening paragraph of that work.

In April 1940, as the Germans advanced northward in Norway, author Sigrid Undset left her home in Lillehammer in haste. She and her youngest son, Hans, fled with other refugees up to the coast at Molde, where they turned eastward toward the Swedish border, traveling at times on foot or on skis. It was only after their arrival in Sweden that they learned that her oldest son, Anders, an officer in the Norwegian army, had been killed in action. After a short stayover in Sweden, she and Hans took a Russian plane for a connection to the Trans-Siberian railroad.

The trip on the Trans-Siberian forms a large section of the book, and does not present an appealing picture. Even traveling first class, they found the accommodations (built under the Czars and badly maintained) filthy, the food terrible, the compartments stifling (you could not open the windows because of the soot, which got in anyway), and there was no running water. What she saw of the country revealed nothing but poverty, filth, and dull, lifeless faces. In spite of vaunted universal literacy, almost nobody read anything. The Catholic Undset saw in Russia everything she already suspected about Communism.

Arriving in Vladivostok, they take a steamer to Japan, and it’s a whole different world. Though like the rest of the world she is appalled by reports of Japanese atrocities in China, she can’t help but marvel at the beauty of the clothing and the architecture, the delicate politeness of the people (though they insist on ignoring her in favor of Hans, because he’s the male), and the cleanliness everywhere. Her description of the Japanese leg of her trip gives her the opportunity to meditate at length on the nature of politics and power, and how the West has – to some extent – brought the war on itself through treating non-westerners as if they were as materialistic as we are.

Her voyage ended in the United States, and she crossed our country by train, finally settling in Brooklyn. But the book ends before her arrival. One assumes it was brought out fairly quickly, as part of her campaign to promote the cause of the Norwegian government in exile.

Return to the Future was interesting, both for the first-hand account of Norway under attack, and for Undset’s thoughts about international politics, morality and war. She spends a lot of time on the historical sins of the Germans (she baldly declares Martin Luther a “psychopath,” but I forgive her). The sense of the title, as I understand it, is that the Nazi invasion had plunged Norway back into the dark past, and that in coming to America she was returning to the “future” to which she was accustomed. The implication is that America had an obligation to bring that future back for the victims of the war. I would rate the translation by Henriette C. K. Naeseth as adequate, though I flatter myself that I could have done better.

‘The Saboteur,’ by Andrew Gross

In 1965, an English/American film called The Heroes of Telemark was released. It starred Kirk Douglas and Richard Harris as Norwegian saboteurs attacking the German “heavy water” (deuterium oxide) production facility at Rjukan in Telemark during World War II. Heavy water was a necessary buffering agent in the German program to split the atom, presumably to produce an atomic bomb.

The film took a highly cinematic approach to the story, compressing all the action into a couple weeks and replacing the actual participants with fictionalized and combined characters. It found a mixed response in Norway, where people who’d been through the war complained that it took Kirk Douglas two weeks to do by himself what it took a whole team two years to accomplish in real life.

I kept thinking of that film as I read The Saboteur, Andrew Gross’s similarly (though not so thoroughly) fictionalized account of the same clandestine operations.

Kurt Nordstrum is a Norwegian engineer who leaves his career to join the Resistance – with tragic consequences in his personal life. When an engineer at the Norsk Hydro facility in Rjukan tells him and a comrade that they need to get some microfilm to the English immediately, they hijack a coastal steamer and – just barely – manage to escape to Scotland. Then he and his friend join Company Linge, the Norwegian commando unit, and are eventually airdropped back in Norway. Their mission, from which they do not expect to return alive, is to destroy the Heavy Water production facility. Kurt’s father used to tell him, “A true man goes on until he can go no further… and then he goes twice as far.” And that’s precisely what he and his team will be called on to do before it’s over.

Honestly, I found this a hard book to read, but I’m not sure it’s the book’s fault. I knew this story pretty well already, and so was preparing myself emotionally for the unpleasant parts. Author Gross anticipates those expectations to an extent by making small changes in the story. Kurt Nordstrum (who is essentially standing in for real saboteur Knut Haukelid but has a very different back story), is enabled by his imaginary status to do stuff, and get into dilemmas, that Haukelid never did. I found some of those stuff and dilemmas somewhat implausible, but I can’t deny I was moved by the entirely imaginary heroics at the end.

I was bothered all through by the fictional changes, especially the handling of the characters. Several of the saboteurs here are real people, others are fictional (including an entirely imaginary Norwegian-American). I understand the narrative freedom that gave the author (as mentioned above), but it kind of nagged at me.

I suppose I shouldn’t complain too much about the spelling of Norwegian names and places. It’s pretty hit and miss, but I probably should be thankful for the effort.

What it comes down to, I guess, is that I can recommend The Saboteur to those who aren’t already familiar with the Heavy Water mission. But after you read it, you’ll want to read Neal Bascomb’s The Winter Fortress or something like that to get the actual facts.

‘The Rescue Artist,’ by Edward Dolnick

“The big-picture thefts are all motivated by bragging and stupidity. The crooks just move the things around until some sap gets landed with them, like the last guy with a chain letter. The paintings will always have great intrinsic value, so the saps will always dream on.”

In the early morning of February 12, 1994, while an excited Norway prepared for the opening of the Lillehammer Winter Olympics, two burglars climbed a ladder to the second floor of the Munch Museum in Oslo, broke a window, crawled in and took Edvard Munch’s The Scream, one of most iconic paintings in the world, out into the night (falling off the ladder twice in the process). The window was not alarmed, and though the thieves were caught on a security camera, the sole guard on duty was engrossed in paperwork and didn’t notice.

It was a moment of national embarrassment. The Norwegian police searched for clues, but there was little they could do except wait for a ransom demand. Weeks passed and none came.

All this caught the attention of Charlie Hill, star detective on Scotland Yard’s art theft squad. Unfortunately the case was not in their jurisdiction. But Charlie Hill was not a man to be put off by technicalities like that. Half American, half English, a former seminarian and sniper in Vietnam, he’d been a loose cannon in the police service until he found his niche – doing undercover work for the art squad. A natural actor and thrill-seeker, he lived for challenges like this.

So he found a pretext, and the Norwegians requested help, and he plunged in, traveling to Oslo to pose as an American representative of the Getty Museum of Modern Art. What followed was, apparently, more Keystone Kops than Thomas Crown Affair. The great danger in retrieving stolen art, we learn, is not from sophisticated criminal masterminds, but from stupid thugs who are easily spooked and might break something. Abetted, sometimes, by equally stupid policemen.

That’s what The Rescue Artist by Edward Dolnick is about. I have to admit I enjoyed it less than I hoped. It’s true crime, after all, and that’s always less entertaining than the fictional variety. And I’m afraid that (although there are hints that he might be some kind of Christian) I got kind of tired of Charlie Hill. Hyperactive and mercurial, a man who favors instinct over logic, he’s not my kind of detective.

But it’s an educational book for anyone interested in the (apparently) booming industry of art theft. And it has an ironic coda.

Moderately recommended for those inclined. Cautions for language.

The power of paper

Photo credit: Annie Spratt @ anniesprat

Okay, I’ve got another thing to write about Hans Nielsen Hauge (look a few inches down for my first post on him. It’s the one with the Sissel song), the Norwegian lay revivalist of the early 19th Century. (I’m doing my article for the Spectator too, but this is extra.) As was noted by the lecturer I talked to last week, Hauge is a hero both to the right and to the left in Norway – to the right for his religious influence, and to the left for being one of the founders of their movement.

Because in those days of yore, liberalism had little or nothing to do with socialism. It had nothing to do with sexual practices or the size of government.

Liberalism was about whether the common people should be allowed to participate fully in society. To move out of the social classes they were born into, and aspire to higher ambitions. Even to politics.

One thing our speaker mentioned that I hadn’t appreciated before was Hauge’s sideline in manufacturing paper.

I’d known that he established a paper mill, called the Eker Paper Mill. In it he employed unemployables – the blind, the crippled, amputees – allowing them to live productive lives and contribute to the community. I thought that a very nice thing.

What I didn’t realize was the significance of the paper mill itself.

Cheap paper was a new thing in those days. Paper use had formerly been limited to the elite, and the paper they had was often of poor quality. But new manufacturing techniques involving paper pulp permitted a larger public to get hold of the stuff.

Hauge immediately recognized the wider significance of cheap paper.

It was usual in those days for the common people to be able to read. They had to be able to read to finish “Confirmation,” the Lutheran process that gave young men and women access to the Bible and the Catechism, in order to be full church members.

But those people generally could not write. (I’d never thought about this, but writing is a very different skill. Only the upper classes [and not all of them] could write in those days.)

Hauge had a vision of “awakened” (his term) Christians corresponding with each other all over the country. They could share inspiration, news, and practical information, forming what we’d call today a Haugean “network.”

In order to make that happen, he did two things. One, he built a paper mill (perhaps more than one; I’m not sure), and he organized classes to teach people to write.

This, by the way, was alarming to the authorities. They saw no reason why people should have any regular contacts outside their home parishes. Revolution was abroad in Europe, after all; you never knew what those peasants might get up to. This accounts for some of the hostility Hauge encountered, leading to his ten year incarceration.

But his followers kept writing on Hauge’s paper. Eventually they started newspapers and publishing houses. And today he is a hero of literacy and liberal politics in Norway.

The importance of being Urnes

The Urnes Stave Church, by I. C. Dahl

Dendrodating indicates that part of Urnes Stave Church, which was estimated built before 1100, was constructed using timber from 1069 and 1070. The slightly younger part of Urnes is dated to 1129-1130.

For the sake of clarity: dendrochronology can date the year a tree was felled for the stave churches. The likelihood is that the felling year was also when the construction began.

Recently I’ve given a couple lectures about the conversion of Norway to the Christian faith. In those lectures I argue for a “revisionist” view (based on the arguments of Bishop Fridtjof Birkeli) that questions the traditional narrative, which credits two violent 11th Century missionary kings with the conversion. The view I’ve adopted holds that the conversion was a gradual, centuries-long process, and mostly a peaceful one. Much of the credit for that process arguably belongs to the 10th Century king Haakon the Good, whom the sagas tend to dismiss as a missionary failure.

That view gained a little credibility recently, when results of new research on the famous Norwegian stave churches was released by the Norwegian Directorate for Cultural Heritage. New findings push the dates for some of the oldest stave churches back several decades. As stated above, wood in the Urnes stave church, previously dated to just before 1100, has now been re-dated to about 1069. That’s three years after King Harald Hardrada died – within spitting distance of the Viking era.

As you can see in the drawing above by artist I. C. Dahl, the Urnes church is far from the most beautiful of the stave churches – a fair amount of remodeling has gotten done on it over time, smoothing out some of the distinctive features. But the wall panel you can see has caused the “Urnes” name to be given to a whole era of Viking art – an elegant fusion of Norse and Celtic styles which I consider delightful.

Dendochronology has been an important and invaluable scientific tool for archaeologists for a while now. By identifying patterns in tree rings (a little like fingerprints) they’re able to date ancient wood to the exact year when the tree was cut. But to make dendochronological comparisons, you need to either be able to examine the end of the log, or to do a bore sample – and obviously nobody wants to drill a sample hole in a stave church pillar. The new technology of Photodendrometry allows scientists to examine the rings without destruction to the material – and to do it more accurately.

You can count on me to keep you updated on advances in Viking scholarship – whenever they confirm my own prejudices.

‘The 12th Man,’ by Scott and Haug

A multitude of stories of courage and endurance come out of World War II. Surely one of the most remarkable is that of Jan Baalsrud (pronounced “Yon Bowls-rood”), the subject of the book, The 12th Man by Astrid Karlsen Scott and Tore Haug. (If you see a book called Defiant Courage, it’s the same book. They changed the title to go with the release of a 12th Man movie a couple years back.)

Jan Baalsrud was one of a team of 12 saboteurs who sailed to Norway from Scotland in a fishing boat as part of a “Shetland Bus” operation in 1943. They were to deliver arms, munitions and supplies to the Resistance, and to attack some air bases. Tragically, a missed connection led to their betrayal, and a German patrol ship attacked them. They managed to blow their boat up, but the whole team except for Baalsrud were either killed on the spot or captured, tortured, and executed. Baalsrud himself escaped into the mountains with one foot bare and wounded.

Then followed months of working his way eastward toward the Swedish border through some of the roughest terrain in the world. He endured an avalanche, starvation, frostbite, gangrene (he amputated his own toes) and snow blindness. He received help and supplies from scattered farms along the way, but when he finally came to the great mountains around Manndalen he was unable to go further under his own power. He then became dependent on a team of Resistance sympathizers in the area who – in spite of killing weather and repeated missed appointments – refused to let this brave man die.

It’s a harrowing, almost unbelievable story. It was first publicized (I believe) by David Howarth in his book The Shetland Bus. Later he devoted a whole book, We Die Alone, to the tale.

Unfortunately (the authors report) Howarth didn’t get the whole story. Apparently, the Norwegians he interviewed were suspicious of him, and did not tell him everything they knew. Authors Scott and Haug spent five years interviewing surviving participants and combing the records, in order to provide what they believe to be an accurate account.

Sadly, their book isn’t very well written. Ms. Scott and Dr. Haug describe themselves as co-authors, but to me The 12th Man reads exactly like a bad translation (and I know bad translations). The phrasing is consistently Norwegian (hence awkward in English), the word choice poor. I wish I could say otherwise, but the book needed a good editor badly. I’m not quite satisfied with a few passages in Viking Legacy, but I felt better after reading this.

But if you can deal with the clumsy writing, it’s one heck of a story. Cautions for intense situations.

‘Occupied,’ by Kurt Blorstad

There are books you finish because you’re interested in the subject, not because of the writing. That was my response to Occupied by Kurt Blorstad, a novelization (apparently) of the author’s father’s reminiscences from his boyhood in Norway during World War II.

The family is divided in 1936, when the story begins. Young Trygve and his brother Thoralf, along with their baby brother Odd and their mother, are in Norway, separated from “Pappa,” who is working in the United States, saving to bring them over. They move from living with father’s family to living with their maternal grandparents, and we learn about village life in Norway as a little sister is born and the boys start to grow up. In 1940, just when they finally have enough money saved to make the move, the Germans invade and travel becomes impossible.

The German occupiers, arrogant and acquisitive, confiscate whatever they want. They issue ration coupons for food and other goods which are useless because they themselves consume almost everything. The hardships are great, the rules many, the penalties for breaking the rules draconian. Eventually Trygve gets involved in the Resistance in a minor way, keeping it secret from his family.

The story was interesting if you’re interested in the subject and the period – which I am. But it’s low on drama, and written in a very amateur style. Exposition gets delivered like a history class lecture, and nobody uses any contractions in the dialogue.

Some of my readers are interested in the Norwegian Occupation period, and you’re likely to find Occupied interesting, as I did. Strictly as a work of fiction, I can’t recommend it. No cautions for offensive language or subject matter.

Norwegian stuff

Today is Syttende Mai, Constitution Day, Norway’s foremost national celebration. I have my Norwegian flag flying at my house, as is my wont when the weather permits on this date. There are rumors of rain, but so far so good.

If you’re in the Twin Cities area, and longing for a chance to look on my kindly visage (now that Grumpy Cat has left us), there are a couple opportunities coming up.

This Sunday I’ll be at the American Swedish Institute in Minneapolis for the Vikings Family Day. It was supposed to be outside, but it’s looking like weather will drive us indoors. I’ll have books to sell, if you can find me. 12:00 to 5:00 p.m.

And on Saturday, May 25, I’ll be at Fort Snelling Cemetery for the dedication of the new memorial to the 99th Infantry Battalion (Separate). The time will be 8:00 a.m. to 11:00 a.m.

A little tour of Avaldsnes

From time to time I talk to you about the parish of Avaldsnes in Norway, where my great-grandfather was born, and where one of the most dramatic events in Erling Skjalgsson’s career occurred.

They’re very aware of their Viking heritage at Avaldsnes, as you can see by viewing the short video below. This is the Viking farm they’ve built on the nearby island of Bukkoy. I’m not sure why they identify the naust (boathouse) as a great hall — except that that’s how it’s used in the TV series Northmen, which is filmed there. But still, this video will give you some idea of the place.

“Jeg Er Saa Glad Hver Julekveld”

Here’s Sissel singing the most famous Norwegian Christmas carol — Jeg Er Saa Glad Hver Julekveld. Generations of Norwegian-American kids have learned it by rote and sung it for church programs. As did I.

The art here is not really appropriate. It’s not a Santa song. It uses the lighting of the Christmas tree to meditate on the wonder of the Incarnation of Christ. The child sings that he/she loves Christmas because of Jesus.

Here’s the words in English

April 9, 1940

Invasion Oslo
German troops march into Oslo, April 9, 1940

Today is a grim anniversary. It was on April 9, 1940, that Operation Weserübung (the Weser Exercise) was implemented by the German army against Norway and Denmark. There was resistance, some of it heroic, but it was no contest in the long run. For the rest of the war, Norway and Denmark would be occupied territory.

If you see the movie The King’s Choice, which I reviewed a few days back, you’ll get the gist of the story of how the government and the royal family fled Oslo and eventually went into exile. One element of the movie that hasn’t aroused much notice is the general fecklessness of the parliamentary leaders in response to the attack. There’s no surprise there; we don’t often look to politicians for valor and sacrifice. But there’s another element, not suggested in the film.

The parliamentary leaders weren’t entirely sure Hitler was the enemy.

The Norwegian government in the spring of 1940 was led by the Labor (Arbeider) Party. The Labor Party was by and large a wholly owned subsidiary of Josef Stalin’s Kremlin, which had been bankrolling it for years. Labor leaders in those days didn’t go to the loo without checking with their Russian handlers first.

During spring of 1940, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was in force, making Hitler and Stalin allies. So when the Germans marched in, the Labor leaders were inclined to greet them as friends. The only thing that prevented them from enthusiastically joining in the “Heil!” salutes was the Germans’ incredibly ham-handed conduct.

It wouldn’t be until June 1941 that Hitler would break the pact by launching Operation Barbarossa against Russian possessions. At that point Labor became solidly anti-Nazi, going carefully into denial about their earlier collaborationist sentiments. And so it remains, even unto this day.

It’s pronounced “nee-norsk.”

Ivar Aasen
Ivar Aasen, creator of Nynorsk

From Literary Hub, via Dave Lull: An article on why Norway has two official languages.

Still, no one is talking about getting rid of Nynorsk entirely; and if you live in Western Norway, it’s the majority style. While the idea of teaching just one writing standard circulates in the media every few years, it’s always kicked back because it would probably be the nail in the coffin for Nynorsk. So students reluctantly continue sitting double exams every year, and the Norwegian Language Council requires 25 percent of all government documents to be in Nynorsk, although diversity compliance is poor. The idea of Samnorsk—a common Norwegian—is intriguing: that we could merge these two styles together and create something that represents everyone. It’s a nice notion, but at the rate that Nynorsk is dwindling from use, the problem may well solve itself soon enough.

The last time I visited family in Norway, my cousins gifted me with a book of Nynorsk word endings.