Journey through Scandinavia and find a culture that nurtures literature.
“I killed a man today.” This startling confession was made by Danish writer Anita Lillevang at the dining table in the beautiful old manor of Hald Hovedgaard in Denmark, where I was one of the international writers-in-residence around this time, last year. The crime was only in fiction, of course. And it was over some fine Gewürztraminer and potato bread that we discussed our day’s work.
To the literary traveller, Scandinavia brings to mind the unlikely combination of dark fiction and fairy tales, having inspired both Hamlet and The Little Mermaid, Seamus Heaney’s Bog poems and those of Tomas Tranströmer, popular crime novels and children’s characters like Pippi Longstocking, among others. And Hald Hovedgaard, nestled in the picturesque countryside near the town of Viborg in mid-Jutland, is the perfect example of this ambivalence. Situated along the magical Hald Lake and ‘Troll’ Forest, with its own little Blacksmith’s House and Chapel that serve as charming writers’ residences together with the 18th century manor (that some swear has a resident ghost), it looms large over deserted swathes of lush landscape that house Viking burial mounds.
In a region known for its tiny population and low rate of crime, the dominance of crime fiction as a genre is baffling (“Because it’s important for people to know what violence is,” explains another Hald writer). But what captures the tourist’s imagination in Denmark, at first glance, are the tales of Hans Christian Andersen. While the statue of The Little Mermaid in Copenhagen is possibly one of the most photographed this part of the world, the sleepy town of Odense — Andersen’s birthplace — throws more light on the writer’s life. The HC Andersen Museum and HC Andersen Hus bring alive his life and times together with audio books of his stories read by the likes of Boris Karloff and Laurence Olivier as well as artistic interpretations by Dali and Gunter Grass. The museum displays, among other things, the writer’s dentures and even the traffic lights in Odense light up Andersen’s silhouette.
But fairytale landscape and Andersen memorabilia apart, how does a nation of just about 5.6 million people (with a readership more or less restricted to this population) promote its books and reading?
“There are several government funded grants for writers. Support is also provided to Danish writers in the form of library remuneration (31 million USD a year), a yearly sum related to the number of copies of your books available for public circulation in libraries. For many writers like myself this is the sole, reliable source of income,” says Salomon (Sally) Altschuler, novelist, playwright, and author of several children’s books.
Altschuler, board member of the Danish Author’s Society in Copenhagen, guided me through the institution’s historic building that dates back to 1894. Although under restoration, the scaffolding shielded vast stone courtyards and office interiors dwarfed by old frescoes. The society provides members with information about available grants, dispenses legal advice and organises seminars, among other activities.
In addition, there are several State initiatives to encourage literary events, both for children in schools and for adult readers in culture houses and cafés. “The minister of culture,” says Altschuler, “has recently announced a new initiative called ‘Denmark is Reading’ where about $3.5 million will be spent on initiatives to encourage reading over the next four years, through local events.”
The Danish literary scene is also inclusive. I had the pleasure of meeting Peter Andersen, professor at the University of Copenhagen and specialist in Santhali (yes, Santhali) literature, and independent publisher Vagn Plenge who has published Anita Nair’s work in Danish. An invitation to the opening of ‘India Today Copenhagen Tomorrow’ brought me to the City Hall in Copenhagen. A project promoting the exchange of culture, science and trade between the two countries, it would see writers Mridula Garg, Githa Hariharan and Manu Joseph in Denmark later last year.
Across the sea from Denmark and among the dramatic fjords of Norway too, writers enjoy similar State support. And in Oslo, while the Ibsen Museum may draw fewer visitors, perhaps, than the Munch Museum, it conducts regular guided tours through the writer’s magnificent house even as it informs or reacquaints Ibsen enthusiasts with his life and work. The playwright’s grand, opulent home is certainly no doll’s house and a peek into his study surprises visitors with its larger-than-life portrait of his rival Strindberg.
Onward to Bergen on the heritage Flam railway line, as singing mythical creatures like the Huldra emerge from behind waterfalls (courtesy Norway Tourism), the landscape is reminiscent of Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson’s “fjords of blue” from his poem ‘Bergen’. And past the lobster, caviar and reindeer meat of the famous fish market of this quaint seaside city — as we sat amid the books of ‘book bar’ Vågen Fetevare, friend and librarian Kjersti Hatland told me about the unique initiative of ‘book dating’ at the Bergen Library. Organised by the library staff, the event helps members find romantic partners over their shared love of reading.
Scandinavia celebrates its books in innovative ways, but nowhere is reading made more delightful than in the surreal book town of Fjaerland where two and a half miles of mostly unattended antiquarian bookstores and solitary bookcases line the water’s edge along the fjord, tempting visitors on their way to the Jostedalsbreen glacier and trusting them implicitly with honesty boxes.
Meanwhile, celebrating Danish literature and keeping the reading habit alive in Denmark are the staff at Hald Hovedgaard that hosts the St. Bogdag or Great Book Day Festival on its lawns every summer. Organised by director Peter Q Rannes, St. Bogdag is a collective effort (his wife Gitte begins preparations days in advance, personally baking bread and cakes, and preparing the snacks that will be sold by staff, family and friends to the thousand odd visitors that day). “The idea is to turn literature into a visible event that can compete with TV, films and the internet. We promote good quality work and new literary talent,” says Rannes. Antiquarian booksellers from nearby Aarhus and elsewhere in the country too congregate here on this day, with many selling their books in wheelbarrows and the very wagons that were hitched to their cars for transportation.
“I’m obsessed with buying rare books but my wife lets me do so on one condition — that I sell the old ones to make space for the new,” confessed collector Lars Nielsen, his old books displayed in a wagon, as he gifted me (much to my delight and disbelief) an 1847 edition of ‘Kong Rene’s Datter’ (‘King Rene’s Daughter’) by Henrik Hertz, to add to our own little collection back home. Further up, publishers had set up tents and a ‘Book Bus’ displayed its books even as performance poets and bands showcased their talents, together with all of us at Hald who read from our works with the shimmering lake as backdrop.
Thanks to my Scandinavian sojourn, I possess some more old books in languages I cannot read. But as Hald Hovedgaard celebrates its Great Book Day once more this August, and the gentle Norwegian sun smiles through the mist on the open air bookstalls of Fjaerland, I find myself leafing through them again.