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Fredrika Bremer: Sweden’s Charlotte Brontë

Cover image of The Colonel’s Family. Credit: an adaptation of an image in E. Neil’s 1891 book The Everyday Cook and Recipe Book published by J. S. Ogilvie, New York.

Our recent reissue of Fredrika Bremer’s The Colonel’s Family, translated by Sarah Death, is guaranteed to provide cheer – we are delighted to have brought it back into print, and with a glorious new cover, no less.

Often referred to as Sweden’s Charlotte Brontë, Fredrika Bremer (1801–1865) was widely translated during her lifetime and became internationally acclaimed as the author of an impressive series of novels and travel books. The Colonel’s Family first appeared in two parts in 1830–31 as part of a series which she called Sketches from Daily Life – a title which boldly signals her intention to step into the world of published storytelling and weave engaging, thought-provoking fiction on the domestic details of women’s lives. 

What was less immediately apparent to her contemporaries was her courage in abandoning the prevailing conventions of insipid romantic fiction in order to explore more profound social and moral problems. Her novel is now recognised as a sensitive exploration of the problems of a frustrated, silenced woman, a creature of strong repressed passions, in an era of highly constrictive marital conventions. The striking narrative style is a combination of the picaresque, the sentimental, the realistic, the comic and even the farcical. This translation of a classic of Swedish literature preserves the freshness and idiosyncratic flavour of the original.

Below, we provide a sample from the novel in the tragic-comic vein: eager son of the family, Cornet Carl, who holds a rank in military music, has for some time been ardently in love with Hermina, the only child of mysterious, unsociable parents who live in a house in the forest. Discovering to his dismay that the family appears to have done a moonlight flit, he sets out on a quest to find his beloved and starts by interrogating the neighbours. In the process he finds himself ensnared …

All at once there came from the next-door room a terrible noise, a shriek, a laugh, a din, an unparalleled jubilation. There was a scraping of fiddles, a clattering of fire-irons, there was singing and whining and squeaking. And amid all this din, the only sound to emerge with any clarity among diverse other cries was:

‘Papa, Papa! Now we know which play! Now we can get ready for the spectacle! Hurrah, hurrah!

The cheering crowd came pouring into the room like a roaring torrent, but when the young people saw Cornet Carl, their joy knew no bounds. Up went a general cry of ‘Iphigenia, Iphigenia! Hurrah! Hurrah! Long live Iphigenia the Second, long live Cornet Iphigenia! Long live…’

‘Death and damnation!’ thought the Cornet, as the wild crowd fell on him and tried to drag him off, shouting, ‘Come on Iphigenia! Come on Cornet Carl, quickly, quickly! We are just going to have a rehearsal. The Cornet can read his part … come on, do come on!’

‘Hocus pocus over Cornet Carl! Kneel down and arise as Iphigenia.’

The last was trumpeted by sweet little Agnes D***, who was standing on tiptoe trying to place a veil on Cornet Carl’s head, but could reach no higher than his ears. Lieutenant Ruttelin came to her aid. Eleonora D*** and Mina P*** had already draped a large shawl around his shoulders, and three young gentlemen wound a sheet around him to look like a skirt. Lieutenant Arvid was also in evidence among the aides of the Misses D***.

The Cornet resisted; to no avail; he raised his voice, even shouted – to no avail – in all the noise, he could not make himself heard, let alone understood. Utter desperation born of pure vexation overwhelmed him, and led him to a desperate decision. Using his strength in a manner that was hardly polite, he elbowed the crowd aside to right and left, tore off the sheet and – ran. Ran through an open door which he spied in front of him, found himself in a long series of rooms, looked neither right nor left, just ran, ran, ran! He knocked over a maidservant, three chairs and two tables, and ran on from room to room, until he emerged in a large dining-room. Beyond it lay the entrance hall. The Cornet knew this – and is about to set off in that direction when to his dismay he hears the cheering troop coming towards him from the hall, blocking his path and uttering loud and reproachful cries of ‘Iphigenia, Iphigenia!’ Deeply agitated and on the verge of turning back to repeat his grand tour, the Cornet catches sight of a half-open door, leading to a little spiral staircase.

He went down it like an arrow. It was dark and cramped – kept on going round and round. The Cornet’s hand was going round and round too, by the time his feet touched firm ground. He was standing in a dark little passageway. A shaft of light came from an iron door standing ajar. The Cornet went through this door too. Through a window opposite, protected by heavy iron bars, the dull light of a setting autumn sun fell on the whitish-grey stone walls of the tiny room. The Cornet found himself – in a prison cell? – No, in a larder.

The Cornet searched for a way out. There was indeed a door in the little passageway, facing the door to the vault, but it needed a key to open it, and there was no key. The Cornet searched and searched – in vain. He sat down on a bread bin in the vault, freed himself from shawl and veil, and was comforted to hear the sound of the wild hunters going by up above and moving further off in their efforts to track him down. Yet they still sounded close enough to prevent the Cornet going back upstairs. Miserable, indignant, tired, feeling bitter towards the whole world, he stared vacantly ahead. A plate of pastries, the remains of a pie, of some roast veal and blackcurrant fool, standing in the sunlight on the table, met his eyes in a friendly and beckoning manner.

The Cornet felt a strange sensation; in the midst of his despair, tormented by a thousand agonizing thoughts, he felt – hungry!

Poor human nature! O humanity, pinnacle of creation! Dust-king of the dust! Is it Heaven or Hell which dominates your breast? – Yet you must eat! One minute an angel, the next an animal! Poor human nature!

And conversely: Fortunate human nature! Fortunate dichotomy, which alone maintains the unity of the being. The animal comforts the spirit, the spirit the animal, and only thus can the human being exist.

The Cornet existed – was hungry – saw food, and wasted little time in satisfying his hunger with it. The pie had to surrender its forcemeat and poultry filling to that purpose.

Forgive me! Forgive me, my young lady readers! I know … a lover, and a hero of a novel in particular, should not be so prosaic, so earthy … and our hero may be in danger of losing all your gracious sympathy. But consider, consider, you sweet creatures who live on feelings and the scent of roses, he was a man, and worse – a Cornet; he had had a long ride and eaten not a bite all day. Consider it!

If you would like to read more, you can order The Colonel’s Family here, or from your favourite local bookshop. To learn more about Fredrika Bremer’s delicious writing, see our previous blog: https://norvikpress.com/2022/08/06/its-women-in-translation-month-witmonth/ (which includes a link to an essay on Bremer’s fictional way with food: Shaky Puddings: Fredrika Bremer’s fictional way with food and drink by Sarah Death).

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A child’s Christmas in Sweden

Glögg, or mulled wine, is a warm beverage best enjoyed during the cold weeks leading up to Christmas. It tastes even better if you drink it with gingerbread snaps. Credit: Emelie Asplund/imagebank.sweden.se

‘I can well understand that Maria was obliged to send you packing Alfred, today of all days,’ says Mama. ‘A madcap like you is the last person one wants around when Christmas preparations are in full swing.’ 

It’s approaching that time of year again: of ginger snaps and glögg by the fire, and some cosy Christmassy reading! The above quote is a little snippet of our gift to you: an exclusive seasonal extract from the newest addition to our Lagerlöf in English series, Memoirs of a Child.

Memoirs of a Child continues the story of Selma Lagerlöf’s childhood that was begun in Mårbacka, and its scenes of Värmland county and preparations for winter festivities are the perfect accompaniment this winter. Open up our extract below:

Memoirs of a Child – extract from Pastor Unger

If you would like to immerse yourself in the full experience, you can order Memoirs of a Child here, or from your favourite local bookshop.

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Memoirs of a Child – coming soon!

Cover of Memoirs of a Child, the newest addition to the Lagerlöf in English series

We are delighted to announce a forthcoming addition to our Lagerlöf in English series: Memoirs of a Child.

Memoirs of a Child is the second part of a (notionally!) autobiographical trilogy by Selma Lagerlöf. Continuing on from the personal creation myth begun in Mårbacka, Lagerlöf here broadens the perspective from the farm where she grew up to include the people and places around Lake Fryken in her beloved Värmland county and a focus on the self-discipline and imagination needed to fulfil a childhood ambition to become an author. Pursuing this ambition is hard work that sometimes means taking a stand against convention. It is also a deeply enriching process in a home steeped in storytelling and books. The mature author reveals the roots of the young bibliophile’s growing skill in deploying fiction to manipulate and embellish reality, producing a wryly charming, tongue-in-cheek account – one that we should beware of taking at face value…!

We hope to publish this sequel by the end of November 2022, in good time for Lagerlöf fans to curl up with it by a cosy fire, or to gift it for Christmas.

If you would like to remind yourself of Mårbacka beforehand, you can listen to a reading of it linked from this Tweet (very in keeping with the storytelling theme); and you can order your copy of it here, or from your favourite bookshop.

And because we always like to treat our readers: here is an exclusive extract from Memoirs of a Child, pre-publication:

Memoirs of a Child – Extract

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It’s Women in Translation month! #WITMonth

It’s our favourite time of year again: August, and Women in Translation month! #WITMonth

To celebrate, we are enjoying reading our friends over at Swedish Book Review

…and we are making available online a truly scrumptious essay from the Swedish Book Review archives: Shaky Puddings: Fredrika Bremer’s fictional way with food and drink by Sarah Death. This essay is an abridged version of a conference paper originally delivered in Swedish, and appeared in print in the Swedish Book Review Food and Drink Supplement, 2003 (pp. 13-17). We love all sorts of puddings here at Norvik, particularly nice cool shaky ones – blancmange, jellies, panna cotta, I could go on!

Further gems from the Swedish Book Review archives are available here.

Now, where’s our hammock?!

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Trom

It’s good to see that the Faroe Islands have finally joined the Nordic noir scene! This weekend’s showing of the first episodes of Trom on BBC 4 really showcased the Faroese setting, with tiny rural settlements lashed by wind and rain, precipitous cliffs and pounding seas. And the resilient inhabitants going doggedly about their daily lives, dwarfed by the elements.

It is of course particularly exciting for Norvik Press that Jógvan Isaksen’s Walpurgis Tide, which we have published in translation, is one of the novels on which this series is based. Hannis Martinsson, Isaksen’s representative of the long line of amateur detectives who persist in solving crimes where the police are baffled, returns home to his native land after decades in Denmark, only to discover – and immediately lose – a daughter he did not know existed. Impelled to try to solve her murder, he embarks on an investigation which it is hinted will lead him to an international political conspiracy.

An extra dimension is provided in the dramatization by the use of Faroese actors in most of the parts. It is great to hear Faroese spoken here by native speakers – all except for Hannis and the police chief Karla, who speak Danish. A treat for linguists!

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An evening with Bang: part two

Panellists at the live launch of Some Would Call This Living, an anthology of Herman Bang’s writings

This is the second of two blogs reporting on our recent book launch event for an anthology of writings by Herman Bang: Some Would Call This Living. In part two, we hear from the translators.

Charlotte Barslund on her translations of short stories

While working on his short stories, I have come to appreciate just how well Bang captures the inner lives of characters who might at first sight not be regarded as worthy protagonists. He nails the stifled, impoverished lives of decent people. They try their hardest to improve their lot in life, and the few happy times they have and their lives of endless drudgery are invoked with agonising accuracy, leaving the reader with a sense of outrage and frustration at the harshness of the human condition. At the same time he is an astute, witty and entertaining observer of human nature’s less attractive sides: greed, vanity, self-importance, desire, snobbery. These themes are universal, they span generations and cultures.

As a literary translator working in commercial publishing, rather than academia, my priority was to produce translations which would make it clear why Bang is a writer who deserves wider recognition. When I encountered issues in the Danish text such as terms which nobody knew, inconsistencies in the geography in some short stories and errors in the naming of characters, I was very keen that these should be resolved and cleared up. I was surprised at how many anomalies we spotted, given that Bang had presumably had an editor for his published works. One unintentionally funny error included a heroine’s brother and love interest both being given the same name on the final few pages, which spiced up the plot no end. Either Bang’s editor wasn’t paying attention, or it was a case of not questioning what they presumed to be a divinely inspired author. However, in my experience working with 21st-century publishers, you do your authors no favours by not fixing their mistakes.

Paul Russell Garrett on Bang’s autobiographical accounts

Herman Bang was a very complex personality, who wrote in different ways in different genres. It was a stimulating part of this enterprise to be sent several collections of his texts to read, and to be able to compare solutions with other translators.

There is a great deal of humour in Bang’s autobiographical writings, sometimes at his own expense, as in his account of the lamentable reception of a tour of Bornholm he undertook with fellow artists. He can be extremely sarcastic – for example in his description of the Kaiser’s family, whose only function in life seems to be to pose for photographs – and is fond of biting understatements. Otherwise he is frequently a sympathetic observer of the different classes of society, especially those who are lower down the social scale.

He can also write very subtly, making oblique hints at events rather than explaining them fully. In ‘Expelled from Germany’, for example, he dances around the question as to why he is driven out of one place after another, leaving it to the reader to conjecture as to the cause of his discomfort.

Janet Garton on her translations

Bang’s fiction is at times problematic, even frustrating to unravel. He has often been called Denmark’s most important impressionist writer; his style is allusive and the meaning often elusive. He refers to things obliquely, giving the reader a glimpse of a person or a situation which suggests hidden depths or ambiguities which you are left to guess at. Let me give an example.

The long story ‘The Ravens’ tells of an old lady, Frøken Sejer, who is presumed to be wealthy, and is surrounded by a family who are all keen to inherit her wealth and stop her squandering it. She gives a lavish dinner for all of them, which they enjoy greedily, at the same time as wondering privately how much it has cost and counting the silver cutlery and cut-glass bowls, which seem to be mysteriously disappearing. Some of them are hoping to have her declared incapable of managing her affairs and confined to an asylum, and there is a great deal of half-concealed jostling for attention and point-scoring against perceived rivals for the inheritance, not to mention downright thieving. There are many unsubtle hints at possible strategies to worm Frøken Sejer’s money out of her, while she enjoys the whole situation hugely.

There is also a concealed homosexual thread running through the story – concealed because of course it could not be openly acknowledged in 1902. There are odd references to having some business in a kiosk, making it sound as if they are places for flirtation, whether hetero- or homosexual. One of the characters in this story, Willy Hauch, is clearly homosexual; he is introduced as being ‘polished to a shine all over’ and comes in apologising for being late because he has had ‘an errand at a kiosk’. He makes various remarks about not being the marrying kind, and during dinner he keeps an eye on Herr Lauritzen, the attractive young hired waiter, who assures Willy at one point that he has ‘many strings to my bow’. As people depart after the dinner, Willy jumps on to an electric tram and, the narrator tells us,

 suddenly spotted Herr Lauritzen …

‘Fancy meeting you here, Lauritzen,’ Willy said, ‘we’ve caught the same tram.’

‘So it would appear, Herr Hauch,’ Lauritzen replied with a nod.

No more is said, and they both leave the story at this point.

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An evening with Bang: part one

Panellists at the live launch of Some Would Call This Living, an anthology of Herman Bang’s writings

This is the first of two blogs reporting on our recent book launch event for an anthology of writings by Herman Bang: Some Would Call This Living. Part one introduces the anthology using comments from two of the panellists.

Paul Binding on the writer Herman Bang

Herman Bang was a master of very different forms of writing, although there is a thematic unity in his production which binds it all together. On the one hand, he was a superb and respected journalist with an enormous social compass, a sharp observer of social distinctions and dramatic events. In his description of the catastrophic Christiansborg fire of 1884, the immediacy of his account makes the reader feel the heat and hear the flames; in his brief recording of a fatal car accident, ‘In a Flash’, he brings home the terrible finality of violent death.

On the other hand, he also wrote many wonderful short stories and novellas, like Ved vejen (Katinka), often recording the quiet existence of those on the sidelines of life, those whose fates are normally unrecorded. This was the era of the short story, and Bang admired amongst others Maupassant and Chekhov. In a story like ‘Frøken Kaja’ he brings to life the inhabitants of a boarding house with a keen awareness of the tiny distinctions which mark out some of the boarders as being of a slightly higher class than the others.

Bang was in many ways an outsider in Danish literary circles. Although he shared many of the preoccupations of the Modern Breakthrough movement with its emphasis on realistic depictions of contemporary society, he had strained relations with its Danish leaders, Georg and Edvard Brandes – perhaps partly because of his precocious early success as a critic with Realisme og Realister, published when he was only 22. He was also an outsider because of his sexuality, being homosexual during a period when it was regarded with hostility. Despite fleeing abroad, he never achieved a harmonious relationship, perhaps because he was too complicated for anyone to be able to reciprocate fully.

The subversive nature of sexuality is a theme of many of his stories, such as ‘Les Quatre Diables’, which tells of a circus act of high-flying trapeze artists, two men and two women whose harsh early lives have led them to form an intimate bond through their act. But their work and dedication is undermined by desire, as Fritz is seduced by an aristocratic lady who saps his strength in their encounters. Here sexuality is shown to be a threat to a well-regulated society.

Dorrit Willumsen’s novel Bang (also published by Norvik Press) is one of the best ever written about a creative writer, tracing how Herman Bang was hounded across Europe, at one and the same time suffering acutely and deliberately provoking his own tragedy.

Janet Garton on the background to the publication

The story of this anthology goes back to 2018, when I was contacted by a group of Danes going by the mysterious name of De Bangske Morgenmænd (translates roughly as The Bangian Morning Men). I had not heard of them, but it transpired that they are a group of men with a passion for Herman Bang’s works and a desire to promote them, who meet every year on the morning of his birthday to celebrate his achievements. They were aware of how little Bang is known in the English-speaking world, and suggested that Norvik Press might consider publishing some of his short stories and journalism, two genres in which he excelled and which have hardly been translated into English at all. They sent us a quite long and very varied list of short stories, autobiographical pieces, journalism and letters – which is practically identical with the final contents of our volume. We were a little daunted at first by the prospect of such a large publication – a total of 170,000 words to translate – but decided that it would be a really worthwhile undertaking, if we could raise enough funding to cover the substantial costs. It helped a lot that De Bangske Morgenmænd are well connected. We were able to discuss the project in detail when I was in Copenhagen in the autumn of 2019, and as a result we applied to and received funding from Augustinus Fonden and Consul George Jorck og hustru Emma Jorck’s Fond. Professor Poul Houe from the University of Minnesota, who is one of the Morgenmænd, brought us some funding from his university as well as supplying the informative introduction. And the translations were also supported by the ever-reliable Statens Kunstfond. That is how we were able to produce this handsome volume.

Part two will delve into the translators’ experiences while working on this project. Stay tuned!

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Some Would Call This Living: An Anthology

Cover of Some Would Call This Living, an anthology of Herman Bang’s writings

Some Would Call This Living: An Anthology brings together a selection of Herman Bang’s writings – short stories, autobiographical pieces, reportage – in English translation from the original Danish.

Readers familiar with the eccentricities of Bang will enjoy having his fiction and non-fiction gems available in one handsome volume; and readers new to Bang are in for a real treat! For the Bang-curious, you can read two extracts from the Anthology below which provide a flavour of his inimitable flair across prose genres:

Short story: Extract from The Last Ballgown
Journalism: Extract from The Fire

Purchase Some Would Call This Living: An Anthology at your favourite bookshop, or here. Translated by Janet Garton, Charlotte Barslund and Paul Russell Garrett. Introduction by Poul Houe. Get more Bang for your buck by ordering our Bang Bundle with Bang: A Novel about the Danish Writer via our special offer!

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Two of our Swedish translations shortlisted for the Bernard Shaw Prize 2021

Covers of Chitambo and Crisis, the two shortlisted translations

Norvik Press are delighted to announce that two of our translators have been shortlisted for the Bernard Shaw Prize 2021:

  • Sarah Death for her translation of Chitambo by Hagar Olsson
  • Amanda Doxtater for her translation of Crisis by Karin Boye

We are immensely proud of this achievement and its potential to introduce new readers to both of these classics in Nordic modernism and feminism.

The Bernard Shaw Prize is an award for translations into English of full-length Swedish language works of literary merit and general interest. This year’s judges are Charlotte Berry and Annika Lindskog. The award is sponsored by the Embassy of Sweden, London.

The award ceremony will be held in February 2022. If you are planning on reading the shortlist in the meantime, you can read the full press release here and order copies of Chitambo and Crisis through our website or your local indie bookshop. You can also read extracts from both by revisiting our blogposts: start here for Chitambo, and here for Crisis.

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Coming soon (not with a whimper, but a Bang!)

Cover of Some Would Call This Living, our forthcoming collection of Bang’s writings

Herman Bang (1857–1912) was a sharp-witted observer of the society and manners of his age; with an eye for telling details, he could at one moment mercilessly puncture hypocrisy and arrogance, at the next invoke indignant sympathy for the outcasts and failures of a ruthlessly competitive world. In his novels and especially in his short stories he often takes as his protagonist an unremarkable character who might be dismissed by a casual observer as uninteresting: a failed ballet dancer who scrapes a living as a peripatetic dance teacher in outlying villages (‘Irene Holm’), or a lodging-house-keeper’s daughter who toils from dawn to dusk to make ends meet (‘Frøken Caja’). He can also make wicked fun of pretensions and plots, as in ‘The Ravens’, where the family of the aging Frøken Sejer are scheming to have her declared incapable, whilst she is selling off her valuables behind their backs to cheat them of their inheritance. His wide-ranging journalism has many targets, alerting readers to the wretched poverty hidden just a few steps from the thriving city shops or the ineptitude of Europe’s ruling houses – as well as celebrating the innovations of the modern age, such as the automobile or the department store.
Bang was well known throughout Europe in his lifetime, especially in Germany, where his works were translated early. In the English-speaking world he has had little impact, partly no doubt because of his homosexuality, for which he was hounded across Europe. Even now, only a couple of his novels have been translated. This volume is an attempt to remedy this lack by introducing a broad selection of his short stories and journalism to a new public.

Some Would Call This Living: An Anthology. Translated by Janet Garton, Charlotte Barslund and Paul Russell Garrett. Introduction by Poul Houe. Forthcoming February 2022get more Bang for your buck by ordering our Bang Bundle with Bang: A Novel about the Danish Writer via our special offer!