Though his name may be less familiar to North Americans than that of his prolix compatriot Karl Ove Knausgaard, it’s hard to overstate Roy Jacobsen’s stature in contemporary Norwegian literature. Jacobsen, 67, is that thing all authors wish to be: widely read, commercially successful and critically acclaimed. At home, he’s best known for two novels, neither of which has been translated into English: the Viking-themed Frost (2003), and The Victors (1991), considered by many the defining novel about the evolution of Norwegian society in the 20th century. He’s been nominated for every major Norwegian award and bagged several of them.
Jacobsen isn’t content to just be a local hero. Though his 15 novels (he’s also published several volumes of short stories) have been translated into more than 44 languages, including German, French, Arabic and Chinese, he’s still eager to find a readership outside his “tiny little language situated on the top of Europe,” especially in English, which he views as prime portal to a worldwide audience. That’s already happening with his soon-to-expand Barroy trilogy, whose first book, The Unseen, was nominated for the 2017 Man Booker International Prize and sold more than 300,000 copies in Norway. The late Irish Times critic Eileen Battersby, known for her exacting standards, called it one of the best books she’d ever read.
The Unseen, White Shadow, and Eyes of the Rigel, which has just been published here by Biblioasis, are narratively cohesive, yet stylistically distinct. Someone writing the CliffNotes guide to the series would find no dearth of themes – isolation, man against man, against nature, take your pick – but the best reason to read Jacobsen is for the writing itself, which, particularly in The Unseen, is as sublime, austere, and unexpected as the place it seeks to render.
Though he’s now written enough of them – especially if you include the translations – to fill a home, Jacobsen didn’t grow up around books in his working-class Oslo suburb. His mother was a homemaker, less by choice than out of adherence to that post-war era’s social conventions (as for many women, being home “drove her crazy,” Jacobsen says, and she later took a job in a chocolate factory). His father operated large construction equipment. These days Jacobsen and his Belgian-born wife, Anneliese Pitz, a linguist who speaks eight languages fluently, live in Oslo, spending several months of the year outside the city on land that used to be part of his grandfather’s farm.
If you check Jacobsen’s Wikipedia page, one of the few things you’ll learn about him is that he was a convicted of weapons offenses in his teens while a member of a notorious gang, a claim that seems at odds with his warm, avuncular demeanor. When I ask if it’s true (“I know what’s coming”), he says it is, adding that the episode remains the shame of his life, particularly for the pain it caused his mother. He thinks it plausible that his behaviour was, in part, the result of frustrated creativity. Jacobsen loved reading – ”It was strange, [I was a] gangster on the one hand and an avid reader on the other, it wasn’t normal” – becoming self-taught in the classics, but didn’t start writing until his twenties. One thing those delinquent years did teach him was the power of language, his adeptness with words having got him, he says, out of a number of delicate situations.
After doing a year of math at university, he spent four years following in his grandfather’s footsteps, fishing and whaling in the country’s northern regions, an experience that worried his mother but helped him understand “what I was capable of.” After a brief stint in the military, he published his first book, a collection of short stories, in 1982.
The fictional island of Barroy – which derives from Old Norse for “naked island,” and is also the surname of the family that lives on it – where much of the series is set, was inspired by one where his mother grew up, about 1,000 kilometres from Oslo (Norway has thousands such islands). Jacobsen spent many childhood summers there, taking part in a traditional way of living that, though now disappeared, had then endured for more than a thousand years. It struck him as compellingly strange and exotic.
The Unseen takes place around 1910-20, but with no explicit dates or world events to ground the reader, its feeling is hermetic, outside time. It’s propelled not by plot, but by mesmeric, seasonal rhythms – the collecting of eggs, the cutting of peat, the drying of eider. Here, life and work are inextricable from each other. The Barroys, who initially consist of three-year-old Ingrid, her parents, Hans and Maria; her grandfather, Martin; and her aunt Barbro – leave the island only for a few reasons, primarily to sell their wares and, of course, to fish.
On Barroy, survival demands a radical unsentimentality. At one point, Hans and Martin have a brief conversation about the utility of the island’s horse, after which Hans walks the horse down to the marsh and shoots it. Dialogue is minimal, deeds being the main currency. “I know these people,” Jacobsen says. “They were not talkative. This was not a verbal culture. They left no books. They left no written documents. Their wisdom was in their bodies, in their hands.”
Which isn’t to suggest his characters are unfeeling automatons. The sudden death of Hans puts Maria in hospital, and the children struggle to pick up the slack left in her void. Early on, there’s an attempt to find work on the mainland for Barbro – who has some undefined intellectual disability – but it fails, and she eventually stakes a place for herself on the island making fishing nets. When an itinerant Swedish labourer gets her pregnant, nothing is said. There’s an understanding that having an extra mouth to feed will pay dividends down the line in the form of a fresh set of hands, which are pressed into service as soon as the child, Lars, can walk.
In the next book, White Shadow, the Second World War and Norway’s occupation by the Nazis abruptly replaces these cyclical rhythms with a harsh linearity. The book’s central event is the washing ashore on Barroy of an injured Russian POW, Alexander, whom Ingrid, now an adult, nurses to health and hides from the Germans, falling in love with him in the process. Alexander claims to be a survivor of the Rigel, a German-commandeered freighter that had been transporting Eastern European POWs, although Ingrid can find no one to corroborate that such a ship existed.
In this, Jacobsen is hewing to reality. Despite being Norway’s biggest maritime catastrophe, and the third deadliest ship sinking of all time, the Rigel’s 1944 sinking by British forces remains absent, even today, from official history books (Jacobsen learned about it from a self-published local historian). More people died on the Rigel, he points out, than on the Titanic. When Jacobsen was a teenager the Rigel’s bow was visible offshore in Oslo. When it was finally salvaged in the late 1960s, more a thousand skulls were discovered inside.
Jacobsen talks often about the importance of history, which he sees as something that goes beyond fact, into fiction, myth, and even stereotype and cliché. “Without history, without memory, people probably will make the wrong choices in the future, that is the philosophical background of the whole series,” he says. “But the most important part is that, of course, my obligation to where I come from, my parents, and to think about how important memory or history is for present-day life. I have a saying: Every historical novel is a contemporary novel in disguise.”
Moving from war to a heroine’s journey, the third book, Eyes of the Rigel, could be considered the Odyssey to White Shadow’s Iliad. In it, Ingrid, with a 10-month-old baby strapped to her chest, sets off on an epic journey on foot through mainland Norway and Sweden in search of her brief, lost love. Along the way, she’s aided and deterred by various people, all of whom seem to have something to hide, related, it would seem, to the abetting of their erstwhile German occupiers.
Jacobsen excitedly tells me about an Easter egg he left in the novel. At one point, Ingrid visits a Displaced Persons camp, where she meets a pregnant woman, Kari, the latter being the (unstated) mother of Jacobsen’s hero, jazz musician Jan Garbarek. (Garbarek, indeed, was born in such a camp, later moving to same suburb where Jacobsen grew up, though they didn’t know each other.)
Much credit for the success of the novels in English is naturally owed to Jacobsen’s translators, Don Bartlett and Don Shaw (Bartlett has also translated Knausgaard), who have an unusual tandem working method (Jacobsen jokes about Shaw being Bartlett’s alter ego; he’s never had direct contact with him). Bartlett tells me the Barroy books are some of the most challenging he and Shaw have ever worked on, a major reason being the wealth of nautical, fishing and historical terms they contain. They’re terms most Norwegians wouldn’t be familiar with, let alone English speakers.
An even bigger reason is Jacobsen’s use of Norwegian dialect, especially in The Unseen.
Jacobsen was content for them to ignore it (in Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, for example, her characters’ dialect is rendered in standard Italian), but Bartlett and Shaw felt strongly that the dialect was a key part of the novels’ uniqueness. The problem was how to render it. Their ingenious solution was to “create” a dialect by combining bits of Scandinavian, such as the “hv” consonant cluster, with syntactical features of Northern English in very short sentences. They wanted the language to flow like the Norwegian original, but also be a relatively easy code to crack. In this they succeeded: reading it feels like you’re parsing a foreign language you didn’t know you understood.
Bartlett says he and Shaw feel privileged to work on books they consider masterpieces. He describes Jacobsen’s style in Norwegian as “Extremely compact. Pared down to the bone. Not a superfluous word. What he writes in 200 pages might take another writer 600 pages. And there is much that is not fully explained.” He says the fourth novel (whose English title is Only a Mother) is even more progressive than the first three in terms of its narrative technique. “In one sentence you can have a question, an answer, a statement, the authorial voice and more, all separated by commas and extending over a paragraph. I haven’t translated any other author who writes like this.”
The Barroy books are the first series Jacobsen has written, and he finds it “very, very strange” that his working habits should change so much at this point in his career. “I’m usually so sick of a book by the time I’m finished with it. But I’m not finished with Ingrid,” he says, and it’s easy to see this is true in the way his face lights up when he speaks her name, like a father invoking a favoured child. He recently stepped away from Barroy to write another book, but he has an idea for a fifth installment that might bring things to a close. “But I’m not dead yet, so it might just keep going.”
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