On Learning Norwegian


Norwegian is a language that English-language writers and translators seem willing to pick up. James Joyce learned it to read Ibsen. Lydia Davis is learning it solely by reading Dag Solstad.

On the Literary Hub Lydia Davis (photo on top) shows her handwritten notes in the margins of a novel called “unreadable” and “as dull as the phone book” by critics in Norway where it was published.

In Davis’s meticulous handwriting, systematic descriptions of vocabulary, style, and grammar spill over the pages of the novel and onto a stack of papers. The makeshift booklet, made up of sheets of paper folded in half, densely annotated on both sides, constitute a grammar not only of the novel itself, but of the language in which it was written, a grammar constructed entirely by Davis herself.

After visiting a literary festival in Norway in 2013, Davis embarked upon her most ambitious linguistic project to date. She decided to learn Norwegian, a language previously unknown to her, from this novel, and this novel only.

“I can’t pronounce the title, so I just call it ‘the Telemark novel’,” Davis admits.

“The Telemark novel” is in fact what the book is dubbed even in its native Norway. The full title, which roughly translates as The Insoluble Epic Element in Telemark in the Period 1591-1896, suggests the level at which Davis has chosen to start her self-tutoring.

Dag Solstad
Dag Solstad

It is a novel, of sorts, in which the acclaimed author Dag Solstad delves into the genealogy of his own family, fact by fact, name by name. The result—a 400-page epic, chronicling births, deaths and marriages over the course of four centuries—was described by some critics as somewhere between the endless genealogies of Genesis (“and Abraham begat Isaac, and Isaac begat Jacob”) and Finnegans Wake.

“I did not want to stop reading Norwegian,” Davis wrote about the experiment in The Times Literary Supplement: “I had become attached to my daily immersion in the tales, some quite dramatic, all curiously entrancing.” The result was a heartfelt passion for the book itself.

“You may ask questions in Norwegian—if they are simple,” Davis wrote in an email before the interview for Literary Hub.

“It all started with a resolution. After my books started coming out in various countries, I made a decision: Any language or culture that translates my work, I want to repay by translating something from that language into English, no matter how small. It might end up being just one poem or one story, but I would always translate something in return.”

Haruki Muramaki
Haruki Muramaki

Davis’s choice of Dag Solstad, arguably the finest, and undoubtedly the most critically lauded, contemporary novelist in Norway, is less random than it may appear. The author of 33 books, translated into 30 languages, and the recipient of every major literary award in the Nordic countries, Solstad seems to be enjoying something of a belated international breakthrough. Having only recently been translated into English, all three translated titles were longlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. Another fan, Haruki Murakami, is translating Solstad into Japanese (“He’s a kind of surrealistic writer, very strange novels. I think that’s serious literature,” Murakami told the Guardian.

Dag Solstad, now 73, has for the past 50 years continued to experiment with the form of the novel. Each new Solstad title is not only received as a major cultural event, but they often spark heated debates. His centrality to the cultural life of Norway is perhaps best illustrated by the 2006 publication of a novel that touched on the country’s role in Afghanistan—the book prompted the Foreign Minister to write his own review, debating its political ideas over several pages.

Now imagine Philip Roth publishing a novel deviating so radically from expectations, as to make the critics of The New York Times and The New Yorker claim it really wasn’t a novel at all, and you have some idea of the controversy surrounding the book Lydia Davis has chosen to struggle with.

Jon Fosse

Dan Piepenbring, editor of The Paris Review, learned Norwegian to read Jon Fosse. He says it helps that the grammar is simple, with few tenses and word endings; the vocabulary is small; the language is one of the deep cores of English, so reading it feels eerily familiar, like a song you half know. After being asked to read Fosse’s novel Melancholy in German, Piepenbring decided to co-ytanslate it with a native Norwegian speaker friend, and he has since translated, on his own, two more of Fosse’s novels, Alias at the Fire and Evening, two stories, and a libretto.

Jon Fosse is less well-known in America than some other Norwegian novelists, but revered in Norway—winner of every prize, a leading Nobel contender. Piepenbring thinks of the four elder statesmen of Norwegian letters as a bit like the Beatles: Per Petterson is the solid, always dependable Ringo; Dag Solstad is John, the experimentalist, the ideas man, Karl Ove Knausgaard is Paul, the cute one; and Fosse is George, the quiet one, mystical, spiritual, probably the best craftsman of them all.

Ove Knausgaard on drums. Photo: Anders Gronneberg
Karl Ove Knausgaard on drums. Photo: Anders Gronneberg

Reporting on a Karl Ove Knausgaard reading last summer, The Baffler wrote that “two young men kept comparing the event to a rock concert and complaining that they should have brought 40s … Knausgaard has become a rock star.” The writer himself has told of a German journalist “who compared me to a rock band. He said, the books don’t really have any focus, it’s just loose, it’s like just having some songs about drinking and they don’t have anything else … he saw pictures of me, he said, ‘You pose like a rock star.’ ”

Karl Ove Knausgaard
Karl Ove Knausgaard

At the Norwegian-American Literary Festival in New York last May, Knausgaard played the drums with his reunited college band, Lemen, thus sundering the flimsy membrane that separates him from full-on rock stardom. For this is what rock musicians have done throughout history: sundered membranes.

The performances—on May 20 at Westway, in Manhattan, and on May 22 atSunny’s, in Brooklyn—marked the band’s United States debut. “I think everyone understands that we are not trying to get into the U.S. market with our music,” Knausgaard told the Norwegian paper Dagbladet. Its headline said: “KNAUSGAARD BELIEVES HE HAS NOTHING IN COMMON WITH RINGO STARR”. He goes on to suggest that he’s not a terribly versatile drummer and that Lemen is an ad hoc project.

But don’t let his Scandinavian modesty undercut your expectations. After all, if you’ve been reading My Struggle, you know that Knausgaard has been a musician for a long while. His mastery of such soaring classics as “Smoke on the Water” is well documented. Indeed, his books are full of anecdotes about his restless experimentation, as when, in Book 3, he dreams of starting a rock group with his friend Dag Magne: “He wanted it to be Dag Magne’s Anonymous Disciples; I wanted it to be Blood Clot. Both were equally good, we agreed.”

Perhaps most important, Book 4 reveals his devil-may-care attitude toward equipment—a must for any serious musician:

At a planning meeting some days later Eva went berserk. We had been given permission to use equipment belonging to the band her son played in, but we had treated it carelessly, a string had been broken and not replaced, a drumstick had snapped and not been replaced … People were so preoccupied with trivialities, they kept searching until they found something and then they went for jugular instead of keeping sight of the bigger picture, here we all are, humans on one earth, we’re only here for the short term, in the midst of all this wondrous creation, grass and trees, badgers and cats, fish and sea, beneath a star-strewn sky, and you get worked up over a broken guitar string? A snapped drumstick? … Come on, what’s the matter with all of you?

On Learning Norwegian, compiled by Tor Kjolberg

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