Scandinavians: In Search of the Soul of the North by Robert Ferguson - review by Bernard Porter

Bernard Porter

Nordic by Nature

Scandinavians: In Search of the Soul of the North


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This book started out as a quest for the Holy Grail of Scandinavian ‘melancholy’. Robert Ferguson has lived in Norway for thirty years and published biographies of the pretty gloomy Ibsen and the unrelievedly depressing (and fascist) Knut Hamsun, so he must know something about it. The book is an odd one, jumping around from one country and one historical era to another. It is interspersed with personal reminiscences and transcriptions of conversations Ferguson has had with literary figures, and also contains an original three-act playlet featuring Ibsen, Ibsen’s wife and the mother of the illegitimate child he fathered in his youth. Ferguson mentions melancholia every now and then, but never quite reaches his stated goal.

Indeed, we’re left feeling at the end that it has all been something of a wild-goose chase, the myth of Scandinavian melancholy being simply that, a myth, spread around Europe by a few well-known artists – Ibsen, Strindberg, Munch, Ingmar Bergman – and latterly by the astonishing popularity of those ‘Nordic noir’ television series, themselves rooted in the same fin-de-siècle stereotype. It’s one of Ferguson’s literary friends whose conversations with him are retailed here, the translator Birger Rønning, who makes this point most persuasively, even if we can’t be sure that Ferguson himself has been quite convinced. ‘Scandinavian melancholy is a literary illusion … For a hundred years, that’s all the outside world ever knew about the Scandinavians. We were appointed official purveyors of melancholy to the rest of Europe.’ In fact the gloomy stereotype of the Nordics is no more accurate than their idea of the Brits as tweed-clad pipe smokers with silly upper-class accents. More generally (though this is my conclusion, not Ferguson’s or Rønning’s), this could be taken as a cautionary lesson for literary scholars who assume they can ever divine the ‘soul’ of any nation from its elite literature. You need to search more widely than that (if a nation can even be said to have a ‘soul’).

That said, Scandinavians is a terrific read. It has some great descriptions of the Vikings (from the sagas and from a few rune stones), of Sweden’s Stormaktstiden (‘Great Power Era’), and of murders, such as the infamous killing of two police officers in Malexander in 1999 by a pair of prison inmates paroled under Sweden’s proudly progressive penal policy in order to perform a play in public as a form of therapy. The mass murderer Anders Breivik also comes into the book, though less prominently. It even has a car chase. Ordinary democratic life in Scandinavia does not feature so much, making Ferguson’s account not always recognisable to someone who lives there more dully, though it is not entirely neglected: its consensual nature is held largely responsible for the madness and the extreme forms of artistic expression (Munch, Strindberg) that are produced, Ferguson claims, as a desperate attempt to escape from it. This is what accounts for the otherwise seemingly inexplicable fact, actually measured in a number of recent international surveys, that Scandinavia is the happiest place on earth. How can you be both happy and sad? If there is a key, this is it.

All this looks like a wild guess to me. But literary scholars are good at wild guesses, some of which might be accurate, and in any case they are generally thought-provoking. That’s what makes a work such as this worthwhile. Scandinavians reads like many 19th-century travel books, which also combined wonderful narrative description with bright speculation. Ferguson is splendid on the differences between what he calls the three main Scandinavian ‘tribes’, which are too often lumped together but which go right back to Viking times; on the age-old competition between them; on the long tradition in Scandinavian history of powerful (as well as beautiful) women, which he attributes to the fact that Viking men were out raiding most of the time, leaving women to take charge of everything else; on the elevated position in Norwegian society of writers, who took the place of the aristocracy, which was formally abolished in 1821; on the serious wars that were fought between Denmark–Norway and the states of Muslim North Africa in the 17th and 18th centuries, provoked by the latter’s slave-raiding in the North, which were new to me; on the very different experiences of Denmark, Sweden and Norway during the Second World War (Ferguson suggests that Sweden’s guilt over its semi-collaboration with Germany may partly explain its generosity towards Middle Eastern refugees today); on polar explorers, especially the ludicrous and ill-fated effort by the Swede Salomon August Andrée and his crew to beat their more famous Norwegian contemporaries to the North Pole by flying over them in a balloon (it was too heavy to take off at the start, so the aviators jettisoned their furs but kept a crate of champagne – they were later found frozen to death); on the enlightened Danish regent Johann Friedrich Struensee and his ghastly end in 1772 (during his execution his genitals were cut off and presented to the watching crowd); on the philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, who turns out to be far more interesting than I, for one, had thought; on Danish football; and on quite a bit more.

Not too much more, however, because Ferguson prefers to elaborate a limited number of themes, characters and events in a novelistic kind of way, rather than attempt any sort of comprehensiveness or impose a logical order on his material. But it’s this approach that makes the book so thoroughly enjoyable – for me at any rate, as a fellow exile in the not very melancholic North, but also, I should guess, for anyone new to it.

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