Norway trip: Oslo

I wanted to relate some of my enthusiasm for my recent two-week visit with Mrs TD to Norway. Although this and any subsequent posts about it won’t be the usual bookish stuff entirely, there will be a literary-cultural aspect, so please don’t look away.

Many Norwegian houses are made from one of the country’s most abundant resources: wood. Not surprisingly, many of its towns and cities have therefore been damaged by fires. After over a dozen such conflagrations, Oslo was effectively destroyed in 1624 in one of its biggest. It was rebuilt and the new town named Christiania, after the then king Christian IV. After a spelling reform in 1877 it became Kristiania. It reverted to Oslo in 1925.

A whole post could be devoted to the Norwegian language. Maybe next time.

Perhaps the best-known novel set in Oslo is Hunger (1890) by proto-modernist Knut Hamsun (1859-1952). I wrote briefly about it in one of my earliest posts here. He won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1920 – a choice that became increasingly controversial because of his support for the Nazi cause during the German occupation of his country before and during WWII. Everywhere we went in Norway there were stories of the ruthless scorched earth policy adopted by the retreating German troops near the end of the war. Whole towns were burnt down and anything that could be used or eaten by the approaching allied forces was destroyed. I hope to say more about the occupation in another post.

The city today bears little resemblance to the one his troubled protagonist roamed through. The area round the Oslofjord harbour is now all steel and concrete high-rises.

The most striking is the Opera House, which I mentioned briefly in my previous post. It’s supposed to resemble a glacier, and it’s fun to walk up its sloping sides to admire the view from the top.

Oslo new Munch museum

The new Munch museum is scheduled to open in spring next year

Behind it is the almost finished new Munch Museum. It’s one of the largest and most striking-looking buildings on the waterfront. I’m not sure what it reminds me of most: a racecourse grandstand, perhaps. It’s a rectangular block, but its top few floors lean forwards as if trying to look at the floor. The architects call it ‘Lambda’, but I can’t see the similarity to that Greek letter.

We visited the existing Munch Museum, housed in a less dramatic modern block just off the city centre. Edvard Munch (1863-1944) was born forty miles from Oslo, and moved there in 1864.

Although it doesn’t hold more than a few dozen of his paintings, the most famous are there, and many of the tens of thousands of prints and drawings he donated to the state in his will. His two most famous – The Scream (‘Skrik’ in Norwegian; I think ‘The Shriek’ doesn’t quite convey the existential horror the picture conveys) and The Madonna – were stolen in an armed raid on the museum in 2004.

Munch Scream

This is I think the 1910 version of The Scream, done in oils; there are also two versions in pastels, and several versions in lithograph

Both were recovered, slightly damaged, two years later. His obsession with these works is reflected in the numbers of versions he produced in oils and prints. Like most of his work, they reflect his lifelong acquaintance with illness, bereavement, love, loss, terror and loneliness.

Munch Madonna

Much has been written about this Madonna (also titled Loving Woman). The pose is ambivalent: erotic, pained, strong, submissive, a victim? The facial ecstatic/pained expression reminds me of the marble Ecstasy of St Teresa by Bernini

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rådhus Oslo

Rådhus Oslo [Public Domain photo: By Ranveig – Own work, CC SA 1.0]

The other most prominent waterfront building is the Rådhus, home of the city council.

This is where, since 1990, the Peace Prize ceremony is held annually. Alfred Nobel (1833-96) is perhaps most famous for inventing dynamite, but he patented over 350 other inventions, including gelignite. At his death he owned ninety armaments factories (including Bofors).

When his brother died in 1888 a French newspaper mistakenly published an obituary for Alfred. So appalled was Alfred to read its condemnation of him as ‘marchand de la mort’ that he made a will donating most of his huge wealth to the foundation of the five prizes named after him, so that his legacy would not be that of a merchant of death. It’s not known why this Swedish industrialist stipulated that the Peace Prize should be decided by a Norwegian committee; the other four are determined by the Swedish academy.

It’s an ugly brutalist building (constructed 1931-50). The mud-brown brick it’s made of has given rise to its unflattering nickname with locals: Brunost, a Norwegian brown cheese that tastes as bad as it looks. But it has some interesting decorative features. My favourite is the frieze of multi-coloured scenes by Werenskiold from the Norse legends related in the Poetic Edda .

Swan maidens

Three valkyries, half spiritual, half earthly, come flying as swans and change into three beautiful maidens. Three brothers discover them, carry them off and marry them. Seven years later they left. Volund remains at home waiting for his wife’s return; his brothers leave to search for theirs [adapted from the caption to this relief in the frieze]

Oslo deer frieze

Four deer grazing on the world tree Yggdrasil’s green shoots. Three of them in this relief are depicted as symbols of ‘peace, cautiousness and timidity’

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The other most notable literary figure associated with Norway is of course Henrik Ibsen (1822-1906). Unfortunately I didn’t get time to visit the museum located at the house where he lived for his last eleven years in Oslo, after spending most of his life in exile abroad – he found the people and atmosphere of Norway stultifying, as much of his drama shows. He wrote in Danish; as I said earlier, so much could be said about the significance of Norway’s relationship to language.

Munch sick child

Munch, The Sick Child. One of his earliest departures from his earlier Impressionist style in favour of the effort to depict his inner soul and emotions expressionistically or symbolically. This is one of six paintings and numerous prints on this theme done 1885-1926; it probably depicts his sister Sopie’s deathbed. She gazes into the abyss – or her aunt’s face. She died of tuberculosis when he was 14; his mother died of the same illness when he was five. Mental illness also ran in the family, the awareness of which haunted him as much as his morbid fear of the precariousness of existence.

Another time I intend to post on the rest of our experience of Norway: by train to Bergen, then the working ferry to Kirkenes…

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.