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Hamnøy, Norway | © Yuriy Garnaev / Unsplash
Hamnøy, Norway | © Yuriy Garnaev / Unsplash

Ted Hodgkinson on the Light and Darkness of Nordic Literature

Picture of Matthew Janney
UK Books Editor
Updated: 21 December 2017

We sat down with Ted Hodgkinson at London’s Southbank Centre where he is senior literary programmer, to talk about The Dark Blue Winter Overcoat, a collection of Nordic short stories he co-edited with Icelandic poet Sjón. The eponymous story, in which the narrator’s father seems to have transformed into a dog, is in many ways representative of the straight-faced humour and stylistic innovation that seem to co-exist within the Nordic canon more generally. During out interview with Ted, we spoke about recurrent themes within the anthology, emergent writers from the region, and getting stuck in Greenland.

Ted Hodgkinson

Ted Hodgkinson | Courtesy of Bookseller

Culture Trip: I want to start by diving straight into the text, and reading from Per Olov Enquist’s The Man in the Boat. “I rowed around the whole lake. There was a thin mist everywhere, a mist that was almost transparent and only a few metres high, but which nevertheless made me feel as though I were rowing in an empty, forsaken world. As if I was completely alone. And it felt good.” To what extent do these polarised themes of isolation and inner warmth define Nordic literature?

Ted Hodgkinson: I think you’re right about isolation absolutely. That​ story​ in​ ​​particular​ is ​about​​ being ​marooned​ in​ a​ memory,​ being completely​ ​locked ​in​ a​ ​moment​ ​of​ ​your​ ​past. In a way it’s an archetypal example of something ​​that ​several​ ​Nordic​ ​stories in our anthology and beyond​ ​share. I think that one of the things that’s very true of Nordic literature is that it’s a space where we go to explore our best and worst selves. We go out into the Nordic stories and if it’s noirish or dark or bleak we’re looking at ourselves in isolation, we’re looking at ourselves when we are reduced, pared back, in extremis situations. The other side of it – the better self – is that community you talk about, that warmth in the belly, the sense of return and that’s the powerful thing about that story. And for me the thing that links those two things of community and isolation, is this sense of the fantastic.

What struck me often when reading the stories, and editing them, and talking to Sjón about them, was a sense that in Nordic fiction there is a very live sense of magic. It’s not a cheap conjurer’s trick kind of magic, it’s much more a sense of a world that is possible beyond the everyday. A world that is possible as a part of human imagination. Sjón has said in the past that life is not just reality – there’s a broader range of experience. Every night when we dream we go into a space that doesn’t completely cohere with the reality that we live through. And that’s a part of our lives as well. That sense of possibility is one of the things that really attracted me to Nordic literature.

CT: A lot of the stories tread that line very carefully, as if they’re on the brink of breaking out into fantasy. When you read the story The Dark Blue Winter Overcoat or “Don’t Kill Me, I Beg You. This Is My Tree” you often don’t really know where you are. To what extent is that mystical bridge between isolation and community inherently more prevalent in Nordic literature?

TH: What those two stories share is this surreal humour. In folklore and in myth it’s not uncommon for people to transform into an animal or into a creature or whatever it may be. So Johan Bargum’s (The Dark Blue Winter Overcoat) story is a very contemporary, comic but also quite sad reimagining of that.

CT: And very disturbing…

TH: It is disturbing, as you’re never really sure if it’s part of some elaborate game he’s playing with his son, or if he’s regressed and is quite seriously unwell. But there are no opportunities for him to ask that. Even though he’s in the hyper urban environment of New York he’s as alone as the character in the Enquist (The Man In The Boat) story. What I liked about that is the humour and the decision of Bargun to leave you constantly in a state of not really knowing what’s going on with his father. I think that story grows very directly out of that Nordic, folkloric tradition. 

Hassan Blassim (“Don’t Kill Me, I Beg You. This Is My Tree” ) gives a really interesting Iraqi twist on that Nordic tradition. What I loved about that story, is that he takes some of the ideas and perceptions of Nordic life – he takes the noir idea and turns it completely inside out. And what was savagely playful and quite innovative, was taking this idea of transformation that’s everywhere in Nordic fiction and subverting our expectations by making the character turn into a Mesopotamian tiger. A tiger is such a proud symbol of a totally different culture – so in a way it’s a story about refugees, immigration, liminal status, marginal status, through a transformative lens.

Whereas the Bargum story is totally brilliant and odd and within a tradition, the Blassim story is half-inside and half-outside of it, half-parodying it and half-doing it. It was really thrilling when we found that.

 

CT: When you speak of the doppelgänger I can’t help but think of Nabokov and particularly his work Despair, which is about this idea of the perfect murder in order to transform into someone else. And then, in some ways, the The Dark Blue Winter Overcoat recalls Gogol, echoing his short stories The Nose and The Overcoat. It seems like those literary echoes to Russia are there.

TH: To continue the Russian dimension, there are the Master and Margarita moments of very overt talking creatures as well. It’s interesting that both the stories that we’ve been speaking about are Finnish – Hassan’s story being Iraqi-Finnish. That Finnish sensibility is possibly closer to Russian darkness. There’s a sort of uncompromising bleakness to Finnish literature. And it’s also tinged with that Gogol-esque hallucinogenic humour. I see a lot of great Russian literature as being an epic depiction of breakdown. And the Rosa Liksom (A World Apart) story, is one of the most uncompromising of the collection, which has that relentless, pile-driving, narrative centrifugal power to it. I think the Finns have a very specific history of having been close to Russia but also have felt the need to rebuff Russia and that has played out in its literature as well.

CT: To what extent is Nordic literature a problematic term, in that it implies a false homogeneity?

TH: When Sjón and I sat down to do this, we asked, is there such thing as Nordic identity? Is it a Nordic cool hashtag type thing? And he was very much of the view that despite the fact that people can roll their eyes on being asked that question, that there are definite and deep roots and connections between the Nordic countries. We’ve talked about the mythic strain, the folkloric strain, but you can also see the deadpan terse naturalism that comes out of that as well.

Each individual place has a very distinctive quality to it. The Faroese stories tend to have a sort of pressure cooker quality to them – they’re very enclosed, they reflect their surroundings. They are marooned in their stories. The Sólrún Michelsen (Some People Run in Shorts) is basically a story about people running in circles. Whereas, as we’ve been saying about with the Finnish stories, they do take on an expansive Russian darkness.

CT: Culturally and politically, people tend to see the Nordics as quite isolated and exclusive, albeit very progressive. There’s an implicit sense you have to fit in. But I was interested to see in these stories that so many other cultures are brought in, revealing the multi-cultural, multi-layered roots that flow into Nordic countries. To what extent has Nordic literature taken literary cues from elsewhere?

TH: I think that there are many ways that individual authors are in dialogue with their colleagues and contemporaries around the world. The stories do reflect sometimes the rigidity of the homogeneousness of Nordic daily life. The opening story set in Denmark – Sunday by Naja Marie Aidt – is on the surface very halcyon, but what it does in this very distilled way is show you the hairline fractures that run through this picture. And one of the reasons we wanted to start there was to say this is possibly the image of what you have of Nordic countries, but look at the cracks. We wanted to show the ripples on the surface of Nordic life.

If you look at Linda Boström Knausgaard’s (The White-Bear King Valemon) story, that to me feels like there’s something akin to Angela Carter. It’s a story which takes a contemporary story and infuses it with a medieval courtly love and it seems as though it’s gone post-apocalyptic and its gone back in time. You could make comparisons to Atwood, in the way that Margaret Atwood’s speculative fiction is often a form of historical fiction. Knausgaard’s work is reconfiguring the past in a sort if dilapidated, dystopian future.

One of the other links I’ve found is that there’s a playfulness and formal energy that recalls South American literature. There’s an ease with ambiguity, with formal playfulness, that feels closer to South American literature. I’m thinking of people like Cortázar.

 

CT: Two of my favourite stories were by Greenlandic authors. The very frank confrontation with reality in these two stories, that really went headfirst into the internal world of these characters, really stood out for me. Can you say more about these two stories, both written by young, Greenlandic women?

TH: There’s lots to say about that. I went out to Greenland, I actually got stuck in Greenland for eleven days. We arrived and the local people said you Brits think you can control nature, you’re gonna find out pretty soon that you can’t. And then our flight got cancelled. So we were there for a good amount of time. A good amount of reading time. There have been a few Greenlandic authors, of course there have, in the past, but what’s interesting is there’s a group, particularly these two young women writers, writing about identity, sexuality, coming of age, telling stories that we haven’t really heard before. Of course there are older women in the anthology too, but very often the younger women are the people breathing new life into literature and that’s because they’re often telling stories that have never been told before.

Just to talk about Niviaq Korneliussen (San Francisco), her writing is a total revelation. It refuses to adhere to the stereotypical ideas of Greenlandic literature. It’s written in prose that feels as though the author’s in a continual process of discovering language for the first time which has the same effect on the reader, so you’re constantly in a state of being arrested by it. It’s also very much about belonging, and how much she really feels part of traditional Greenlandic culture. I think often Greenlandic people are asked to perform their identity, to get in there national dress, to do the folkloric thing. And so the question is, how does she frame that Greenlandic identity in a contemporary America? Niviaq’s work is exuberant and playful and irreverent, it’s not pulling any punches in terms of presenting a rosy picture of Greenlandic life. I think it’s a real breakthrough moment for Greenlandic literature.

The other thing to say, when talking about people who are more marginal in the Nordic countries, is that it was really important for us to have a Saami writer. Sigbjørn Skåden’s (Notes from a Backwoods Saami Core) story plays with these expectations of what Saami people do on a daily basis. There’s a very funny moment where a Saami character is doing the washing up, and an anthropologist is observing the Saami character doing the washing up and the Saami character says well if you look very closely you notice how I’m doing the washing up in a very Saami way. And the anthropologist says, its amazing as it just looks like everyone else doing the washing up. And he says no, it’s all in the wrist. I think that humour about showing human life being lived in the Saami community and the Greenlandic world is part of what this collection is really about. We sometimes have this slightly exoticised idea of it, we wanted to show the humour and the everydayness, the mundanity of life being lived out there, and of humanity, in the process.

CT: Why did you choose the The Dark Blue Winter Overcoat as the centrepiece of the collection?

TH: So there are these poles of Nordic literature, the isolation and this warmth of community. Purely in terms of a title, The Dark Blue Winter Overcoat has that in it. It suggests the geography of the region, it suggests the climate, the coldness, it’s a singular garment, it’s something that you alone wear. It’s also got that hint of warmth, protection, shelter. In the Bargum story there’s a hint of magic to it; the way the stitching is described, it’s imbued with a kind of magic power. It felt as though the The Dark Blue Winter Overcoat was a way to invite people to join us in this exploration of the cold landscape, to say ‘look at this overcoat, see how it fits and check out what’s in the pockets.’ Because there are a lot of surprises in it.

CT: What a dark blue overcoat conveys to me is something that may have been passed down through generations, slightly worn, and perhaps with a few holes in.

TH: Yeah, it’s threadbare in places. These are stories that don’t try to gussy up Nordic-ness and say look how spic and span and wonderful it is. They show you the patches on the arms, the seams that are undone – that’s important to us.

 

CT: Southbank dedicated 2017 to Nordic Matters, celebrating and exploring art, design, music and literature from the region. Can you say a little more about why people are drawn to Nordic culture, and are those the same reasons people are drawn to Nordic literature?

TH: I think in some ways the Nordic countries are a parallel version of where we are. We like to see them as ahead of us, more progressive, we have this utopian view of the Nordic countries. Then there’s the other side of it. We go to these places to explore the shadowy parts of ourselves, you could say, to see the crack in the utopian welfare state dream. I think that’s why so many people are gripped by Nordic noir, because its showing you there’s trouble in paradise. So we go to them to play out our fantasies. When we were putting the anthology together, we certainly did not want to present a kind of hygge version of Nordic countries. We wanted to show a more nuanced sense of that. And what emerged in the process I think was both more hopeful and more unsettling.

CT: I think again The Dark Blue Winter Overcoat is so representative of that. It has such a peculiar and hopeful ending. But I found it so disturbing to read, particularly this really troubling role reversal between father and son. But then there’s this sanguine and quite unexpected ending which perhaps speaks to that humour that is often lost in how we perceive the Nordics.

TH: Yes, its truly disturbing. So much of crime noir supposes the worst thing that can happen to you is that you can be murdered. But what that story shows you is often there’s a more troubling outcome that that.

CT: And finally, what are you reading at the moment?

TH: I’ve got a few things on the go. I just read a book called The Second Body by Daisy Hildyard from Fitzcarraldo. It’s a book length essay. It’s a slender but deceptively expansive book about the reverberations that our actions can have. It’s very good. The other book I’ve been reading is Mothers by Chris Power. He’s a fine writer and there’s a Nordic link as well.

***

DBWO

Cover courtesy of Pushkin Press

The Dark Blue Winter Overcoat

Edited by Sjón and Ted Hodgkinson

Pushkin Press | pp | £9.99