Norway 2: Bergen and the coastal ferry

Following on from yesterday’s post about Oslo, I started drafting a piece for today on the complexities of the languages spoken and written in Norway, but it started to become too academic, so I’ll just stick to more pictures. As the comment from ireadthatinabook pointed out last time, there are two main variants: Bokmål and Nynorsk. Wikipedia has a pretty comprehensive account.

Bergen harbour

Bergen harbour in the rarity of a sunny day

After three days in Oslo we took the long train ride to Bergen. It’s a pretty harbour town and ferry port surrounded by hills, but less vibrant than the capital – though my son, who’s in the music business, tells me it has a buzzing music scene.

Bergen view from hill

Bergen view from hill

There’s a funicular up to the top of one of them. Great views from the top, and some friendly goats. Friends on social media suggested they’re descended from central Asian cashmere goats.

Bergen goat

At Bergen we boarded the Hurtigruten ferry which was to take us over seven days right up the western coast of Norway, stopping numerous times – often during the night when we were sleeping. This was not a cruise ship, but a working ferry, used by locals as a more convenient way of travelling north when the roads have to avoid long fjords and wind around mountains.

It had more in common with a night sleeper train than a pleasure cruiser. Such a good way to see the harbours, cliffs and crags of this beautiful west coast.

Sadly the northern lights didn’t show up.

Arctic circle marker

Arctic circle marker

Once we crossed the Arctic Circle the scenery started to become bleaker and more brooding, with skies to match.

Here’s some of the pictures I took; I hope they convey some of the magnificence and atmosphere of this nordic world.

 

Ferry wake 2Ferry weather skyTrondheim Cathedral was built in the middle ages by British masons, which probably explains why its front and design generally look so familiar.

I liked the detail of the Norse monster decorating the edge of the romanesque arch over a doorway. A nice pagan touch on a Christian building, typical of the medieval northern sensibility.

The statue of a whaler in Tromsø is an unfortunate reminder of Norway’s history as a whaling nation. Sadly there was often whale steak on the menus of restaurants.

We did get to see some sea eagles at Honningsvåg on another sunny day.

Honningsvag sun

Evidence that it doesn’t always rain in Norway: this is Honningsvåg harbour, with out ferry in the background, with the orange hull.

Trondheim cathedral monster

Trondheim cathedral monster

Trondheim cathedral front

Trondheim cathedral front

Ferry wake

Norway and Elizabeth Jane Howard, After Julius

Oslo opera house

Oslo opera house with the almost finished new Edvard Munch museum to its right

This is my first post since returning from a break in Norway. Three days in Oslo, a lovely city, with floating saunas in the harbour opposite the dramatic sloping roof of the Opera House – designed to look like a glacier. You can walk to the top and get a great view from the top.

Long train trip to Bergen, which at first we found a letdown after Oslo, but it grew on us. Then the Hurtigruten ferry (the name means ‘rapid route’) up the coast, over the northernmost tip of the country and back down yet another fjord into Kirkenes (‘church on a promontory’) just a few kilometres from the Russian and Finnish borders to the south and east. It was one of the most bombed cities in WWII, and has suffered greatly over the years from invasions and occupations by hostile forces.

Elizabeth Jane Howard, After Julius coverI read the two books I took with me. First was Elizabeth Jane Howard, After Julius. Picador paperback, 2015, 339pp. 19651. This was the first in a bundle I bought for a ridiculously low price from the Book People, a budget UK online bookseller. Jacqui Wine recommended this at her blog as the best one to start with.

I enjoyed the crisp, intelligent writing style, and the observations of characters were astute. In this respect EJH reminded me of Elizabeth Taylor: both writers are good at depicting lonely, unfulfilled, thwarted women. Esme is particularly well drawn: at 58 she’s spent the past twenty years as a widow, her eponymous husband Julius having sacrificed his life by sailing single-handed to assist at the Dunkirk evacuation, with no previous maritime experience. It’s an act of suicide, for he’d discovered Esme was having an affair.

Esme’s lover Felix is fourteen years her junior, the love of her life, and she’d hoped when her husband died that they’d at last be able to be together. She’s disappointed. Now, twenty years on, he’s invited himself to a weekend at her country house in Sussex. Her two daughters are there, both also unhappy in love.

The narrative is structured with poise and skill: the three parts deal with the three days of the weekend, with frequent glimpses into the past lives of the main characters that gradually explain how they’ve become the people they are. Five of the chapters in each part take the restricted viewpoint in turn of each of these main characters, with the sixth being a culminating set group piece, usually ending in disaster or farce. Events become complicated, enlightening or humiliating for all of these five characters, as revelations are made that transform their views of themselves and each other. There’s some dark humour to leaven the rather melodramatic plot, and a particularly poignant section in which, in flashback, the fate of Julius is recounted.

It’s a novel of set pieces, such as country house meals and rural walks. Descriptions of interiors and the outdoors are delicately done, integral to the unfolding of character and relationships. The housekeeper’s cat is a fine feline portrait.

Like Jacqui, however (link to her post here) I had grave reservations about some of the sexual relations. Howard is astute about the dawning sexual liberation of the early sixties, with some frank and touching insights into its consequences. It wasn’t the outspokenness that disturbed me; it was her portrayal of abusive and controlling treatment of women by some of the male characters without any apparent sense that this was reprehensible. Unfortunately this ruined for me what had otherwise been an entertaining and well written novel.

The men are weakly done, too. Esme’s anxious and vulnerable younger daughter Emma has brought home an uncouth, working-class boor called Dan Brick (apt name) who we are intended to believe is a poet. She works at the family publishing firm, and he’s supposed to be a literary genius. Yet he shows no sensitivity to or interest in language, culture or people. He’s an inverted snob, scorning the privileged lives of these wealthy people from a world so different from his. He’s a character who doesn’t ring true at all, and this seriously weakens the novel. I found it impossible to believe that a young woman like Emma would be attracted to such a brute.

I wasn’t entirely convinced by Esme’s former lover, Felix, either. Like some of the other characters he attempts to reconcile conflicting moral impulses (Dan wouldn’t even begin to understand such a concept), but ultimately he too behaves like a cad.

I was left at the end thinking that Howard wanted in some way to punish these lonely, desperate women. She shares some of the acerbic wit of Elizabeth Taylor’s narrators, but little of their generosity.

There’s another review of After Julius by Caroline here

I enjoyed the second book much more: Colm Tóibín, Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know will be the subject of another post. There may be more on Norway, too.