Hvem bestemmer over Bjørg og Unni? (Who Is the Boss of Bjørg and Unni?) asked Liv Køltzow in her provocative novel from 1972. It was a question that viewed the women’s movement as a social, political, and gender matter, as comprising something more than the woman’s experience. The life of Bjørg and Unni is a working life with differences in pay and hierarchies, a life divided between work pressures and child care, a life subjected to the power of capital, advertising, and the old roles of the stay-at-home housewife. However, their life also contains involvement in a political struggle in which action and solidarity can pave the way to change. Thus, the novel is a meeting of the socially critical realism and the political feminist utopia that marks a new trend in 1970s literature.
“She speaks out when others fall silent”
When the Norwegian women’s magazine Kvinner og klær introduced Bjørg Vik (born 1935) in 1977 under this headline, she had been a writer for several years, and her audacity had become a trademark. Bjørg Vik made her debut in 1963 with the collection of short stories Søndag ettermiddag (Sunday Afternoon).The review suggested a kinship to Cora Sandel in both theme and writing style: women’s lives, trivial daily life, disillusionment – the abyss between dream and reality presented in a clear, sharp, and thoughtful manner.
Bjørg Vik depicts a 1960s image of frustrated housewives, often in small towns – chain-smoking semi-alcoholics with make-up that appears almost forced. It is the infancy of mass tourism to sunny beaches with its arrogance, as exemplified by Nina in the short story “Bryllupsreise” (1966; Honeymoon): “Picturesque poverty, she said… Silly child, he thought”.
The theme fit with the contemporary women’s world. The ideology of the ladies’ magazines formed the basis of many of these sad women’s stories. Appearance, nice interiors, and colourful children’s clothing cannot fill up the emptiness; the women feel cheated without knowing why. Men’s lives are characterised by their status as sole breadwinners, by stress and a blindness to what is actually going on in the home. In the title story of Bjørg Vik’s third collection, Det grådige hjerte (1968; The Greedy Heart), the female main character, Ena, has a powerful sexual appetite. On a beach in Southern Europe, she takes what life offers and gives her lover a fantastic experience that he can hardly expect from his boring wife, Bitten. There are no divorce plans or dreams of a future together. There is only the expression of carnal hunger and immediate gratification.
In 1970 Bjørg Vik published the novel Gråt elskede mann (Cry, Beloved Man), in which the hippy girl Ilni represents so-called ‘freedom’. Naturally the contrasts between conventional and hippy life are striking, but none of the alternatives seem to provide a basis for the good life.
With Kvinneakvariet (1972; Eng. tr. An Aquarium of Women), Bjørg Vik became the literary voice of the new women’s movement. She belonged to the new feminists and the group involved with the women’s magazine Sirene, but renounced her position as ‘figurehead’ and withdrew from the public eye to concentrate on her writing. Her work developed significantly during the 1970s. Whereas in her early works she kept very close to the private mini-universe, she now explored the inequalities of society. The short story “Klatreroserne” (Climbing Roses) has become a model for an understanding of material aspirations and young people’s reactions to the emptiness of their parents’ ambitions. In “Liv” and “Emilie”, the women are no longer housewives. Liv works in a factory, her life is drudgery and disillusionment. “That she didn’t get an education, a different job, or a different husband?” Emilie has an education, she is a librarian, has a husband and two children, and yet she still ends up having a breakdown.
Bjørg Vik’s writing – her short fiction in the form of short stories and radio dramas, as well as her long fiction in the form of novels and plays – is far reaching. Early in her career she became a communicator of the themes the new women’s movement focused on in other ways and other forums, and she has definitely become a favourite of the readers. Aesthetically, she works in the genre of prose, either with condensed situational sketches or broader portrayals, and in general, the scenes are realistically expressed in a tone of slight resignation or distancing irony. Her plays are set in private interiors, and the tension is embodied in the loaded exchange of lines that reveal underlying or historical conflicts.
When Bjørg Vik published the play To akter for fem kvinner (Eng. tr. Two Acts for Five Women) in 1974, she had reached one of the high points in her characterisation of women at various stages of life, with different frustrations and different ideas of the good life. Five thirty-something women talk about and reveal, more or less involuntarily, their life stories. The five women represent different lives, not always of their own choosing – that is just how things turned out. There is the motherly Lilleba, the bachelorette Gry with a car and computers, the impressive teacher Anne Sofie, the childless Ellinor, who paints, and the divorced photographer Hanna. The conversation shifts rapidly, the topics change – but they are of vital importance in all their apparent triviality: daily life, children, love, affairs, work, or housework – and especially their worn out, disillusioned mothers who hoped for a better life for their daughters. Hanna has gone all the way, leaving her home and suffering severe criticism for abandoning her son – but it was necessary. For her, life had become a conscious protest against her mother’s life: “I knew just one thing: I didn’t want to become like my mother […] the grey, washed out woman with a dust cloth and darning basket”. She is also the one who sees through the need many other women have to buy new furniture and rearrange the living room – as Lilleba still does. It was a constant occupation of their mothers: “They changed the furniture and thought they were changing their lives,” says Hanna.
Like other Norwegian women writers – including Inger Hagerup, Solveig Christov, Ebba Haslund, and Merete Wiger – Bjørg Vik has also written radio plays. A short, condensed narrative similar to the short story is very well-suited for radio drama. “Ferie” (1967; Holiday) is about a married couple in a holiday cottage who get on each others’ nerves, bickering constantly. “Døtre” (Daughters) thematises the tensions and contradictions between mother and daughter. The aging mother, who has been a homemaker “without an education”, finds her publisher daughter uncaring and not domesticated enough, while the young Siv, sick and tired of her mother’s pressure, throws herself whole-heartedly into a life of girlfriends and gossip in the tough language of youth.
The desire for freedom was a motif early in her work. For instance, the title of the collection of short stories from 1975, Fortellinger om frihet (Stories of Freedom), is ambiguous. Often what we call freedom turns out to be the opposite. For children, adult life is associated with the freedom the grown-ups have: apparent freedom of action, no one bossing them around, scolding them, judging them, making rules. And Bjørg Vik’s stories about children and young people strongly reflect this longing for freedom. Fortellinger om frihet starts with the child’s experience of childhood as a prison: the children are “fish in a net”; and girls are subject to even tighter constraints than boys. However, in the socially critical short story “De kommer i små flokker” (They Come in Little Flocks), the adults are also trapped like fish in a net. Modern society with its urban concentration and alienation is destructive – and the dream of freedom is repressed. Did they even choose this life?
The dream of freedom is viewed as individual. The existential problem is having the freedom to choose; however, in making a choice one actually rejects complete freedom. Living in an anarchistic no man’s land is impossible, and the longing for freedom becomes so powerful for many of the women in Bjørg Vik’s universe because these women have not really made a genuine choice. “The pre-determined path” – to get married – is so persistent that in their marriages they almost have no other identity, in contrast to their husbands who must see themselves as professionals and who have also been socialised into the role of breadwinner. For men, too, the freedom of choice is quite illusory. However, they are peripheral in this context because the main character is generally a woman, and it is her point of view we see.
The collections of short stories from the years 1979-1985 are characterised by sadness and melancholy, and the longing for the hectic love of youth is replaced by positive resignation – many of the characters undergo a harmonious growth process. The younger generation’s intense presence emphasises the onset of aging. The titles also suggest resignation: En håndfull lengsel (1979; A Handful of Longing), Snart er det høst (1982; It Will Soon Be Autumn), En gjenglemt petunia (1985; A Forgotten Petunia). The object of love is no longer only the erotic partner: “Enkene” (The Widows) and “Gamle piker må holde sammen” (Old Girls Must Stick Together) portray the relationship between two old girlfriends, while in “Smuler for en gammel mann” (Crumbs for an Old Man), we find the genuine delight of the old editor in the young woman journalist, and “Kystlandskap” (Coastal Landscape) shows a father’s love for his quasi-anorectic daughter.
The three autobiographical novels Små nøkler, store rum (1988; Small Keys, Large Rooms), Poplene på St. Hanshaugen (1991; The Poplars on St Hanshaugen), and Elsi Lund (1994) all belong to the genre of the female bildungsroman. The three volumes tell the story of Elsi Lund’s adolescence and maturity, and are a historical account of childhood in wartime Oslo and the period up to the modestly conventional and seemingly apolitical 1950s. Elsi and her girlfriends live in a privatised sphere – demonstrations and political involvement belong to the next decade. The trilogy ends with Elsi’s reflections on education and work – and worst of all: she becomes pregnant. Contraceptives are practically nonexistent, and an unwanted pregnancy is disastrous. Bjørg Vik’s trilogy moves among the trivialities of daily life and is written with a sense of realistic period colour and timeless existentiality. She alternates between pin curlers and make-up and breakdowns and life crises. Bjørg Vik’s novels about Elsi Lund are a grand, retrospective portrayal of a woman who is characteristic of her time, an amalgamation of the many aspects of her entire body of work.
Annie Riis (born 1927) takes the experience of the 1970s as her literary and personal point of departure. After living as a housewife with three children, she made her debut at the age of forty-eight with the poetry collection Satura (1975), and has since published several collections of poems, children’s books, novels, and reinterpretations. Annie Riis often takes a humorous and satirical approach to her motifs, using quotes from folk poetry and classic literature as resonance.
The emancipation narrative is Liv Køltzow’s (born 1945) preferred genre. In a way, her work always seems to deal with emancipation – slow liberation.
She made her debut in 1970 with the collection of short stories Øyet i treet (The Eye in the Tree). Through a lifetime of reading European modernists – Witold Gombrowicz, Franz Kafka, Samuel Beckett, Jean-Paul Sartre, Robert Musil, Nathalie Sarraute, Michel Butor, Claude Simon – Liv Køltzow developed a conscious relationship to language and form, promptly placing herself in a modernist prose tradition that was in its infancy in Norway at the time.
Modernism is Liv Køltzow’s one standpoint; the women’s movement is the other. In 1974 the National Theatre in Oslo presented the group project Jenteloven (The Law for Girls),
In 1992, Liv Køltzow published the book Den unge Amalie Skram. Et portrett fra det nittende århundre (The Young Amalie Skram. A Portrait from the Nineteenth Century), a biography depicting a stimulating meeting between two strong writers. Based on a personal need to explore a bygone era and delve into the intersection between then and now, Liv Køltzow used her own fantasy, her own experiences, and her tangible, concise language to paint a portrait of Amalie Skram that fascinates the reader just as much as it must have fascinated the author herself. She pushed the limits of the biography genre, which some critics did not appreciate, but her intentions were clear: she exploited her literary abilities while at the same time problematising the biography as a genre.
about women in low-wage jobs working twice as hard. The piece was part of a series of socially critical plays that called attention to unjust social conditions and pointed to possible political solutions. The group behind Jenteloven included, among others, Liv Køltzow and film director Anja Breien. In Liv Køltzow’s work, her political involvement is most clearly evident in her novel Hvem bestemmer over Bjørg og Unni? (1972; Who is the Boss of Bjørg and Unni?), about two women’s daily lives in suburbia and their opportunities for influencing their own circumstances.
Historien om Eli (1975; Eli’s Story) was seen by a radical critic as a rebellion against the myth of mother. The most important trial in Eli’s attempt at emancipation is the decision to have an abortion after she becomes pregnant for the second time. Many critics reacted negatively to this apparently simple solution, but a few recognised the reasonableness of Eli’s need to feel secure in herself before she could take responsibility for a new child. The abortion scene – the doctor’s visit – is incorporated in a birth symbolism that emphasises Eli’s own rebirth and break from her mother. Thus, Historien om Eli is less a story about resistance to becoming a mother and more a story about the difficulties of being a daughter.
The short stories in Øyet i treet are phenomenologically occupied with aspects of daily life and apparently insignificant events. The title story of the book, “Øyet i treet”, describes a situation in which the main character, Liv, is sitting in a tree observing what takes place around her and everything that goes on (the children playing hide-and-seek). In the beginning, she is up in the tree and has full control over the island, that is, the world of the story, but she falls down and ends up as the wounded one – with everyone’s eyes turned on her. Initially, she is the narrator, but as the story progresses she becomes the subject of the story. Thus, the story thematises the relationship between the self and others, but also the relationship between identity and narrative. In Liv Køltzow’s very first book, she introduces the narrative as a way of understanding one’s self and the world.
The last short story, “Dobbelt” (Double), continues this theme, as well as introducing erotic tensions and problematic gender relations for the first time. In this story, too, the characters are situated somewhere between action and the inability to act, between the spoken and the unspoken, but the text does not “resolve” the doubt, the ambiguities, and the contradictions.
The idiom in Øyet i treet was new in relation to the dominant prose of psychological realism, and made Liv Køltzow one of the leading prose modernists in Norway today. Her stories are constantly preoccupied with experiments with and innovation of the idiom.
One notable characteristic of Liv Køltzow’s texts is the reflections on the act of storytelling. In her third book, the novel Historien om Eli (1975; Eli’s Story), a narrative voice breaks into the fiction with comments on its own text: “Must move on, cannot continue such stagnation. Eli has simply grown up, a so-called adult, but that is what she is, it ought to make it easier to tell her story”.
The female main character carries within her a longing for something different, another life, a confirmation that she is capable of action. But she has inner barriers to overcome. Because of them, the moment she thinks a thought, she also thinks the exact opposite.
Historien om Eli penetrates the psychological mechanisms and basic assumptions that control the behaviour of the adult woman. The novel depicts the socialisation of a girl in a typical Norwegian middle-class home in the 1950s and analyses the girl’s reactions to the conflict between her need for self-realisation and the demands of her surroundings for conformity. The sequence of events describes a character in a novel who develops from passivity to a degree of activity. But she is constantly plagued by indecision, uncertainty, and doubt, which is expressed in her language as well as in that of the novel.
Kjersti Ericsson (born 1944) is a representative of political lyricism and the women’s movement. Characteristic of the time, she made her debut in 1968 with the poetry collection Fotnoter i rødt (Footnotes in Red), a title that reflects the author’s affiliation with the international Marxist movement. The poems “… are bound up in the oppression and terrorism that takes place at the hands of the imperialists all over the world,” wrote Tor Obrestad in a sympathetic commentary. Ericsson’s next book, Våpnet er smidd på ny, (1978; The Weapon has been Forged Once More), also comprises mainly typical poems of struggle and pièces d’occasion written for political events and other occasions – “Partiet er fire år” (The Party Turns Four), “Til Rød Front-leiren på Herdia 1972” (For the Red Front Camp in Herdia 1972). In her later poetry collections, Kjersti Ericsson continued her involvement in political issues and situations dealing with power, control, and oppression. Over time, her poems also began to depict motifs from the intimate sphere and from nature, still written, however, in her direct language without particular use of imagery or revision; external reality is more important than the poetic language itself.
Løp, mann (1980; Run Man) thematises the relationship between woman and man. The married couple Jon and Rita are at the centre of the story along with their friends Eva and Helge. In many ways it is an Ibsen-like family drama, with Liv Køltzow’s criticism of the marriage situation as an important ingredient.
Løp, mann is both a critique of patriarchy’s cemented mechanisms of expression and a revelation of the fact that the men, too, are actually slaves to this system. The novel is pervaded by a metaphor of running: one which plays on the man’s attempts to always be in control, to always be one step ahead, to always be the strongest, as well as on the perpetual competition among men.
The novel is also a detailed exposure of the fact that socialism’s apparent anti-authoritarian ideology has had no effect on the power relationships between the genders in the private sphere. In this way, the book manages to communicate the deep-seated disillusionment of women socialists and their sense of betrayal: “Jon sat […] in meetings and claimed that he belonged to a bigger picture, that he had found the key to something, solidarity with the weak, strategies for socialism, the beginnings of a new society. But he continued to hold Rita back”.
Like Historien om Eli and Løp, mann, Hvem har ditt ansikt (1987; Who has Your Face) ends with the female main character commencing a new phase of her life after making a break with her past. What is new in Hvem har ditt ansikt? is that she does so together with a man. Twenty-nine-year-old Helen, who has a husband and children and an interrupted artistic career behind her, falls in love with Aksel, a musician with a wife and children.
Liv Køltzow’s special narrative technique is clearly exhibited by the first-person narrator, who begins the book by inserting a text within the text: “– I make an initial attempt to make her notes coherent and immediately realise that it will be like putting together an old jigsaw puzzle”. This narrative voice then proceeds to slip in and out of the story almost imperceptibly, and yet in such a way as to serve as a rupture of the illusion, a reminder of the fact that the story being told is a fiction.
The novel is primarily about Helen’s experiences with Aksel, and her own powerful desire for him. She experiences two bodies that find each other in an overwhelming passion, but at the same time she is frightened that she does not know him well enough. What is he really like? And who is she to suddenly distance herself from her old life? Is the new relationship just a repetition of the old, in which she participates on the man’s premises?
Helen’s wariness is juxtaposed with Aksel’s freedom and his life of artistic creativity. Helen has given up her art, and started taking a course that actually does not interest her in order to ensure that she can find a job later and earn a regular income. She lives a life of habit because she is afraid of everything that is new and different. She is cheated on by her husband, but puts up with it to avoid having to challenge him.
Aksel is strong and independent and expects her to be the same. To Helen he becomes an object of identification: he is an example of someone who has realised exactly what she, herself, dreams of realising, and he stimulates her to find her way back and to dare to realise her own talent. However, even though she starts over again, her old self is still there, the uncertainty, the hesitation. Has she made her own decision, or did he choose for her? Towards the end, Helen travels with Aksel to Italy. They have left the breaks behind them and started afresh somewhere new.
Liv Køltzow’s books have often been criticised for being too static: there is too little action, they are too preoccupied with inner life, without enough focus on outer action. In line with the modernist aesthetic, the stories do not follow a linear sequence of events. Several planes of time meet, creating a fragmented linguistic state in recognition of the notion that consciousness always contains the present, past, and future simultaneously. Fragments of various events at different times are described in parallel, and the story constantly alternates between situations and planes of time. However, there is also a strong narrational driving force in her work, from the old to the new, a powerful willingness in the female main characters to change their lives, overcome their dissatisfaction, and replace it with something new and better.
Despite the fact that Liv Køltzow’s women are fundamentally incapable of action, they do act – in time. Her characters are individuals with conflicting emotions and desires, their actions are not logical and consistent, they change all the time. The narrator is conscious that the portrait being painted neither is nor can be completed. It represents parts of a whole, fragments of a truth, and a subjective interpretation. This is why her works are, for the most part, open-ended. They claim to be a random sample of the lives of random people in a random place at a random time. The stories do not appear to have a clear beginning or ending.
However, they are also consummate constructions and an artistic adaptation of a series of women’s experiences clearly associated with a specific time and a specific place. The core of these experiences – and also a driving force of her entire body of work – can be expressed as the tension between experiencing the inability to act and a powerful inner desire to overcome that state of paralysis.
The novel’s statement is that the break is necessary, and is the only possible solution for the heroines. The women’s ‘victory’ consists in tearing themselves free and becoming self-sufficient. To remain in their current lives would mean continued submission, unfreedom, and defeat.
Tove Nilsen shares her development from elaborate, didactic realism to a more experimental form with other Norwegian writers of her generation. The development in form runs parallel with a shift in content towards stories of a more unusual and bizarre nature. Anthropology’s focus on foreign cultures and unknown tribal peoples are a favoured topic of interest for many characters in her later novels.
Another Point of View
The woman’s perspective also became a new view on the two sexes. In Tove Nilsen’s (born 1952) writing, this concept of another point of view unfolds as experimental narrative and shifts in perspective in relation to a gender and cultural theme. At the same time, she presents the history of power in gender relations from the man’s point of view. The point of departure in the ‘other’ of our culture – the woman – leads her towards a consciousness of the unaccustomed, the different, which views both the man/woman relationship and Western civilisation from a new perspective.
Tove Nilsen had her debut in 1974 with Aldri la dem kle deg forsvarsløst naken (Never Let them Strip You Naked and Defenceless). A typical novel in the “use” literature genre, it was marketed under the heading “literary contribution to the abortion debate”. Nilsen achieved huge success with Skyskraperengler (1982; Skyscraper Angles), about growing up in the Norwegian suburbs. With few exceptions, she has published books every other year, including “reports” from Oslo, “the capital city which is so easy to run away from / and so difficult to romanticise,” she writes in a poem.
The gender issue and the social consciousness of the first two novels have been retained in her later works, although the explicit orientation towards debate has been given more nuanced expression through, among other things, experiments with different narrative voices and levels of style. Chaplins hemmelighet (1989; Chaplin’s Secret) was the first novel in which Tove Nilsen truly juxtaposes two different planes of time. The story of the librarian Tone Holmsen as it unfolds in Oslo in the early 1970s is told in parallel with a colourful and fantastic tale from London about one hundred years earlier, giving the story resonance and continuity. The connection between the stories and the characters is slowly revealed, and Tone Holmsen’s struggle to find her own point of reference is filtered in a sense through her great grandmother’s story.
Even a realistic and socially critical novel like Den svarte gryte (1985; The Black Pot) maintains a distance to its main character and the material, which despite the seriousness of the subject also has room for humour and irony. While the Oslo narrator in Skyskraperengler can appear almost irritatingly naive, Tove Nilsen’s later works paint both a colourful and a more brutal picture of Oslo. The comparison not only exemplifies Tove Nilsen’s growth as a writer, it is also an interesting reflection on a moment in political history – from the optimistic, social-democratic 1950s to the tougher and more confusing 1980s and 1990s.
In Amazonaspornografen (1991; The Amazon Pornographer), one of the main characters repeats the story of the anthropologist who takes a Yanomamö Indian up in an airplane:
“When the Yanomamö warrior – who was so frightened he clung to the seat during the entire trip – returned to his jungle tribe, the others asked him if he bumped his head against the sky’s ceiling. A few hours earlier, this would have been a natural question for this Yanomamö to ask as well. But what did he do? He looked at the anthropologist and just rolled his eyes.”
This quote demonstrates Tove Nilsen’s ability to report engaging stories with a point as well as illustrating her characters’ sense for the unusual. The main characters in both Amazonaspornografen and I stedet for dinosaurer, (1987; In the Place of Dinosaurs) have an ardent interest in anthropology, and both works have narrators who romp about in a world of anecdotes, specialist knowledge, and the joys of fiction. The books reveal a linguistic inventiveness and sense of visual details that place Tove Nilsen in the company of such varied writers as Dag Solstad and Milan Kundera. The critical potential of her texts cannot be distinguished from the eye that sees and communicates its experiences in erotically charged images. Seemingly irrational details stand in promising contrast to what one of her characters disdainfully calls “commonisation, normalisation, looking at the world the way it is”. And it is the love of “the undeveloped that would never become anything” that is recreated in her more recent works. The photographer in I stedet for dinosaurer, whose job it is to immortalise people, is, paradoxically, primarily concerned with the transitory details, the details that can only be captured at the greatest cost to daily life and marriage: “The Achilles’ tendon he had just left, her ankle as she floats over the asphalt. Hands around the wine glass, the fragility of the stem, the same fragility in the wrist”. And in keeping with his character, it is this exposed wrist he wants to capture on film.
Tove Nilsen has a talent for expressing criticism of the cemented gender and social conceptions through apparently insignificant and superfluous details. Any person who becomes fascinated by what goes unnoticed by the majority is an outsider in a way that provokes those who accept things as they are. The anti-hero, the photographer Kjell, expresses what is, for Tove Nilsen’s main characters – regardless of gender – the epitome of disdain. He bitterly criticises his brother Kåre, “the meathead”: “… the worst thing he could think of was to leave Norway”. The main characters ask more and more questions that lead them into hopelessness and destructive situations as well as demonstrating to the reader that there is a distinction between those who see – and those who cannot or will not see.
The gaze that sees and takes note of details finds its most concrete and extreme expression in Tove Nilsen’s Øyets sult (1993; The Eye’s Hunger). Here the desire of the gaze to penetrate more and more new areas stands in stark contrast to those who settle for attending a Christmas party, while at the same time the great desire is also thematised as a purely physiological fascination. The eye’s hunger should not only be seen metaphorically, but also as symbolising the trembling, gelatinous, and endlessly lonesome human eye in the office of the brain researcher. This link between the literal and the figurative and the repulsive and the beautiful characterises both Tove Nilsen’s writing and her thematic.
In Filmen om Chatila (1983; The Movie About Chatila), Toril Brekke’s female main character, Eva, is a health worker in a Palestinian refugee camp in Libanon. Sølvfalken (1986; The Silver Falcon), is the story of a woman who experiences the distress and degradation of others all over the world through hallucinations, dreams, and telepathy.
Laila Stien’s (born 1946) short stories are populated by everyday people: a school girl, a young girl in a fish fillet factory, an overworked waitress, a mother, a widow, two elderly women in a nursing home. But she also writes about their men: the Sami boy Mattis, who goes to boarding-school and learns Norwegian, the construction worker who is away from his wife all week long, and the old consumptive Greger in the nursing home.
Most of her texts are set in the northern Norwegian landscape with little villages and the ever-present drama of nature. She also often writes her dialogues in dialect.
Laila Stien is very knowledgeable of both Northern Norwegian and Sami culture, and several short stories that are set in the Sami community unfold the inherent drama that lies latent in the meeting between the ancient Sami culture and the Norwegian culture.
In her literary debut, Nyveien (1979; The New Road), she plays out this confrontation – which can be interpreted as an image of a greater and more extensive confrontation between nature and culture – in an intimate and dramatic story, “Reisen mot øya” (The Journey to the Island).
A group of mountain Sami are driving a large flock of reindeer to summer grazing out on the island. They have been travelling for nine days. Now there is only the open sound to cross to get to the island. In the middle of the night, the tide dies down in the sound, and they have half an hour to swim the animals across. If they do not make it, they could be in serious trouble. When the flock is about half way across, a large boat shows up waving a Norwegian flag. Even though the Sami try to warn the boat, it continues to sail on through the sound. The waves cause the reindeer flock to lose their sense of direction and they panic.
“Everything happens so quickly. Suddenly all the lines are broken. The rhythmic movements are gone. The antlers get caught in each other. Animal crashes into animal. Struggling every which way. They no longer know the goal. There is no goal. Just desperate attempts to stay afloat. Chaos.”
In her short stories, men and women often follow different directions. A basic conflict in most of her stories is that men and women have such different dreams, and are so bad at sharing their thoughts and dreams with each other. Laila Stien depicts what takes place between people when they find themselves, often because of a trivial matter, stuck in a given set of circumstances. And she writes about what happens when a person shuts out the world and becomes their own worst enemy. She writes about love and longing for love, about jealousy and about the fear and the hatred that jealousy can lead to. The construction worker in the short story “Spiller ingen rolle” (Doesn’t Matter), from Sånt som skjer (1988; These Things Happen), believes that his wife is cheating on him with a new neighbour. The jealousy and uncertainty he feels makes him violent. He chases his wife out of their flat and out of his life.
The pregnant newly-wed in “Hvit brud” (White Bride) cannot get the marriage and husband of her dreams to match reality. When the initial charm wears off of their relationship, he would rather sit in the living room watching sports on TV than look at her. In the next room, accompanied by a howling sports commentator, she turns, in silence and lonely desperation, her dissatisfaction against her own body and against the manifestation of the life she used to wish for, the white bridal gown: “I took the lipstick and smeared on a thick layer, pressing it against my mouth until it broke. Then I took the nail scissors from the shelf and cut my hair, large bunches of it fell to the floor. I then pushed the point of the scissors against my cheek just under my eye, and pulled down. Hard. … Opened the closet door and took out my wedding dress, pulled it over my head. I cried the entire time, so my make-up ran. The dress was stuck like a wreath just under my breasts. It wouldn’t go further down. Had to grab the material and pull. It was a good sound, so I grabbed more and pulled again. The dress slid down over my stomach.”
Laila Stien builds up characters and situations out of everyday images. Sometimes the realism tips over into the grotesque and surreal. This is how she comments on the individual person’s scope of action, drama, and dilemma.
Politics and Utopia
In large parts of the Norwegian women’s movement, the question of female identity, of suppression and revolt is always a greater social and political matter as well. In 1972, the Kvinnefront women’s organisation formed, declaring itself an alternative to the New Feminists, which meant greater involvement of the women’s struggle in the other political mobilisations – and polarisations – of the decade. Much of the emancipation literature of the 1970s was also based on a double commitment to social criticism and to a new women’s consciousness, spanning from a Marxist/Leninist point of view to the Workers’ Communist Party of Norway (AKP) towards a broader social realism. With her debut novel Jenny har fått sparken (1976; Jenny Has Been Sacked), Toril Brekke (born 1949) became known as a writer who emphasised the political dimension of literature, and the Norwegian critics immediately labelled her an “AKP writer”. This group otherwise mainly comprised men, including Dag Solstad, Espen Haavardsholm, Tor Obrestad, and Jon Michelet, who had a significant impact on the debate in 1970s and 1980s Norwegian media over the nature and purpose of literature. For Toril Brekke, it was a matter of integrating the perspectives of feminism and the working class: she wanted to write “use literature” for working women, and she learned from her own experiences as a “self-proletarised” worker when she wrote about the working conditions in a women’s industrial workplace. The story in Jenny har fått sparken is simple and positive. Jenny is fired at the age of sixty, but the younger workers show their solidarity and the strike they carry out is ultimately successful. The women are portrayed as everyday heroes in the midst of routine work and difficult marriages.
Toril Brekke’s greatest epic work is the novel Granitt (1994; Granite), in which she approaches the form of fiction through the history of her own family within the stonemason community on the Iddefjord. The narrative centres around Anton from Syrinplassen, who comes from the lowest social stratum, but who manages, through dreams, music, and masculine strength, to embrace the challenges life offers him. Toril Brekke depicts Anton’s life through the great changes of the 1900s, and she tells the story of her forefather’s legitimate and illegitimate children and grandchildren, who live in different countries and parts of the world. Art serves to bring everything together – in the present time in the novel, Anton’s descendants meet through music in the form of a large European choir concert. Similarly, the novel’s orchestration of the many stories of the lives of the individual characters provides a version of the history of the entire century.
In a year in which the discussion of Norwegian membership of the European Union divided the Norwegian people for the second time into two camps, Toril Brekke demonstrates that even the search for Norwegian roots has European dimensions.
Gerd Brantenberg made her debut in 1973, immediately making a name for herself as a committed rebel with her first book Opp alle jordens homofile (1974; Arise, ye Homophiles of the World). Ja vi slutter (1978; Yes, We Quit), was a book in the same vein, but about a different topic – smoking.
Sangen om St. Croix (1979; The Song of St. Croix), Ved fergestedet (1985; At the Ferry Crossing), and For alle vinder (1989; Blowing in the Wind) all had homosexuality as their theme; however, the trilogy about the childhood of Inger Holm, a girl from Frederikstad, is also written in extension of the tradition of realistic women’s literature from Cora Sandel to Torborg Nedreaas and Bjørg Vik. In these books, Gerd Brantenberg paints a broad portrait of a time, a generation, and a geographical area, but first and foremost of a person who comes to a realisation: she is lesbian. Inger must find herself, her identity, as both a sexual and a social individual, and she must find a way to live a woman’s life that is not generally tolerated by the surrounding society.
“After all it is the menwim [men] who beget babies”. With these words, Gerd Brantenberg (born 1941) introduces her dystopian novel Egalias døtre (1977; Eng. tr. Egalia’s Daughters), a novel that uses untraditional methods – including laughter – to say some of what the women’s movement of the 1970s spent a great deal of energy trying to say in many other ways.
Gerd Brantenberg invented the make-believe world of Egalia, where the women possess all the power and the men must adapt to their female dominance to everyone’s benefit and for the good of the mother country. It is men who care for children, men who earn less money, and men who wear a peho – a penis holder like a jockstrap and the equivalent of a bra – in order to look good. They have their P-cards stamped each month as proof that they have taken the state distributed birth control pill.
The novel tells the story of the young Petronius Bram’s revolt. Together with some friends, he starts a masculinity movement, which his mother, Director Bram, says is destined for failure.
Gerd Brantenberg used an old genre, the utopian novel, and put the gender issue on the agenda in a very concrete manner. Not only did the women have the men’s power, but the language itself reflected this power: “man” became “wom”, “human” became “huwoman”. Maybe it was these details, as much as the obvious social criticism and the complete social reversal, that made Egalias døtre a thought-provoking and mobilising book that became a bestseller in several other European countries before finally gaining popularity in Norway.
Sidsel Mørck works with many literary genres. She made her debut in 1967 as a poet and is a popular writer of nursery rhymes. Her Erta berta Sukkererta (1978; Bees Knees Sugar Peas) is an important work in the Norwegian nursery rhyme tradition.
The Just Cause
In one of Sidsel Mørck’s (born 1937) short stories, the main character wonders whether it is death the ladies are waiting for as they play and eat cake at the morning bingo club. Sidsel Mørck’s books call attention to intimate reality, and are full of simple, perspicacious, and yet subtle observations which are often ascribed to adult, experienced women, as is the case in “Stamcafeen” (The Regular Pub) from Lykkehjulet går! (1976; The Wheel of Fortune Turns!). The core of her work is passionate involvement with the incapacitated and the suppressed, those who have no influence on their own lives.
However, parallel to her involvement in the individual is her political involvement, especially in environmental issues and industrial pollution, for which she has for many years played the role of watchdog and stakeholder on the dividing line between art and non-fiction.
Here she approaches documentarism, as in the story Ikke til salgs! (1983; Not for Sale!), about the engineer who is ostracised from the major petrochemical company in Rafnes, Telemark, because he criticises the company’s dangerous gas transports. Among her readers, she is especially popular for her short stories. In a series of short story collections, she depicts the immediately recognisable daily life, especially the regular lives of women with love and loneliness, the feeling that true life is somewhere else. Several of the characters in her stories rebel in a modest way on their own, such as the pensioner in the story “Fri” (Free) from Kikkeren (1987; The Voyeur).
In Lille-Gibraltar (1972; Little Gibraltar), Vigdis Stokkelien tackles a taboo, namely whether there can be any good in people on the “wrong” side. The story is presented from the point of view of the child Gro, who understands that her aunt’s German husband is an honourable man, even though the German officers and soldiers around them are enemies. The “shady” construction workers who work for the Germans are let off early, and in the delirious atmosphere of liberation, they rape Gro.
The powerful indignation and anger at injustice, environmental destruction, and politically suspicious decisions are also at the centre of Vigdis Stokkelien’s (1934-2005) works. She had her debut in 1967 with the collection of short stories Dragsug (Undertow) and often used this short form in her almost desperate shouting about a world adrift without direction.
Vigdis Stokkelien’s personal experiences are many and varied, and she utilises them to best effect. As a radio operator in foreign trade, as an officer and as a white person, she experienced class differences, but as the only woman in a man’s world, she also broke out from the pre-defined roles. On land, she worked as a journalist, and as a child of war, she knew what awaited people who were on the “wrong” side. All this is expressed in her chief work, the trilogy about Gro: Lille-Gibraltar (1972; Little Gibraltar), Båten under solseilet (1982; The Boat Under the Solar Sail), and Stjerneleden (1984; The Path of Stars). Gro is a child during World War II, and Lille-Gibraltar ends in rape and the lynch atmosphere of liberation day. In the next book, Gro goes to sea as a radio operator in the Orient, and in the final book, she comes home again, seriously ill and with children who are almost grown up.
“You can’t just up and leave …”. The line has become a classic. For many readers, it became the key to a terrifying world: the world of battered women. This world became visible in the wake of the 1970s women’s movement. Crisis centres were established, and Margaret Johansen confronted the problem head on in her slim book Du kan da ikke bare gå (1981; You Can’t Just Up and Leave), which was filmed as a television drama.
The trilogy tells the story of a life from child to mature woman and is composed as a closed cycle – from a strong matriarchy in her childhood through life at sea and the man’s world of war, and back to where she started out. At the centre is the grandmother, a strong woman who can handle anyone, from German officers to “the boys in the woods” of the resistance.
The trilogy is a bildungsroman that consistently associates the girl’s and the woman’s life with history at large, from dark war experiences through the post-war era with the ghost of Nazism and the political McCarthyism that affected young seamen, who were punished for their fathers’ involvement in the communist party, and up to the 60s with the Vietnam War and a greater understanding of the squalor, poverty, and war of the Orient. Gro mastered the outer world, but succumbed to the disease within her own body. However, the books are also a testimonial to how the strength and commitment of women to fight injustice and threats to the environment can be handed down from older women, such as Gro’s grandmother. They depict the world of sailor families as a place where the matriarchy lives on in the constant absence of the men.
Margaret Johansen (born 1923) shares with Sidsel Mørch and Vigdis Stokkelien this solidarity with the weak and a sharp eye for both social injustice and the denial of women’s opportunities in life. She had experience as a writer for the daily newspapers and the advertising industry when she had her debut in 1971 with the collection of short stories Om kvinner (About Women) which she followed two years later with … Men mannen ler (But the Man is Laughing).
The short stories “Damene” (The Ladies) and “Firmafesten” (The Office Party) revolve around the typical women’s work of the office, where the women serve mediocre, middle-aged bosses. The short stories are snapshots of a reality many people recognise. They are “use” literature, but also express a sadness in the portrayal of the small, weak, and not entirely successful women who are outsiders in this universe.
The novel Det var engang en sommer (1974; Once Upon a Summer) is based on the last story of her debut collection. The young, insecure Maria is thoroughly bullied by a tyrannical aunt who is actually her mother – she has been seduced once, and she does not want that to ever happen to Maria. Anders, the nature lover from the woods, brings out the rebel in her, and she finds the strength to defy the tough women’s regime at home, and to rejoice in love and in her own body.
In the collection of short stories Død og småsuppe (1976; Death and Vegetable Soup), the portraits of the small and powerless are drawn with indignation and compassion. The last story, “– og det skal gå deg vel” (– and I wish you all the best) about Marte, who must take care of her senile old father, foreshadows the next book, Damenes vals (1978; The Ladies’ Waltz). As family and friends disappear, it is of course Kristine’s obligation to take care of her presenile husband. A wise and agreeable man has become a victim of the insidious disease that steals brain cells and turns him into another person. With Damenes vals Margaret Johansen entered the social debate on private versus public care, on guilt-driven manipulation and the weakening of responsibility.
Nina Karin Monsen is one of the most well-known feminists in the Norwegian debate of the 1970s and 1980s. In addition to her literary works, she has written philosophical non-fiction, feature articles, and journalistic reports. In Det kvinnelige mennesket (1975; The Female Human) and Jomfru, mor eller menneske? (1984; Virgin, Mother, or Human?), both of which have the subtitle “feministisk filosofi” (Feminist Philosophy), Nina Karin Monsen develops her own feminist position, rejecting both the Marxist and the new feminist modes of worshipping the feminine as illogical and ethically unjustifiable. Nina Karin Monsen’s thesis was that only the individual woman’s personal development in an interhuman space can lead to genuine women’s liberation.
In Det elskende menneske – person og etikk (1987; The Loving Human – Person and Ethic), Nina Karin Monsen presents a personalised philosophy inspired by Emmanuel Mounier. Her emphasis is on how each individual person creates herself in her interaction with others, and gender becomes less important. Yet there is still the utopia: “Amo ergo sum”.
A Third Wave of Feminism
In 1980, the Norwegian feminist Nina Karin Monsen (born 1943) took the title of the first memoirs written in Danish, Leonora Christina Ulfeldt’s Jammers Minde as the title of a modern diary novel, Jammersminne (Memory of Lament). The novel’s main character, Maria, sits in her hexagonal room in Copenhagen and writes to escape from her prison tower – her upbringing as a girl and being stuck in a broken down marriage. She wants to “find (her)self – or rather to find out who is looking for herself”. She therefore writes about her experiences as a woman and about her daily activities. However, this narrative is interrupted constantly by drafts of a good-bye letter to her ex-husband.
Maria’s lack of awareness and understanding of the world is presented as a result of her upbringing as a girl, and it is also expressed in an ambivalence in relation to the act of having children. This issue is also picked up by Nina Karin Monsen in her debut book Kvinnepakten (1977; The Women’s Pact), a first-person novel in which “little Karen” tells the story of her life experience as it has been won after a battle for ownership of her own experiences, as opposed to drowning in the choir of women. The women are mothers who live their (insecure and false) lives through their children – in relation to the child, the mother can glorify herself, be an authority, and call attention to the sacrifices she makes (for husband and children).
The provocative book sparked great debate when it came out. Nina Karin Monsen paints a grotesque picture of the mother role, and thoroughly demystifies motherly love:
“All our mothers have worked hard and are in pain, they have given birth to child after child who have died for them, and they themselves have died little by little on the inside, and the first thing to die was the love for their child”.
While Jammersminne is written within the framework of an everyday aesthetic, Kvinnepakten resembles a fable and a didactic poem. The realistic framework is thus broken down, just as in the collection of short stories Dødt liv (1987; Dead Life). Daily life and its prison are depicted through reports from the lives of various female characters, and when the women rebel out of desperation or a need for self-assertion, exceeding their thresholds, it is communicated through dreams, adventures, and the absurd.
The Norwegian title is a word play on the Jante Law – Janteloven – an alleged pattern of social behaviour in the Nordic countries which serves to cast individual success and achievement as suspect and worthy of criticism, placing all emphasis on the collective.
Anne Birgitte Rønning, Janneken Øverland, and Elisabeth Aasen
Translated by Jenifer Lloyd