Literature and Cultures

The Wonderful Adventures of Nils by Selma Lagerlöf
For my tenth birthday I was given The Wonderful Adventures of Nils by Selma Lagerlöf and it immediately became a favourite book. In it a boy, made elf-sized by a spell, jumps on the back of the farm gander, and so joins a flock of wild geese journeying the length of Sweden for summer quarters in the Arctic – and then back, with the approach of winter, down the mountain-spine separating Sweden from Norway. During  his journeys Nils can understand the speech of animals and birds, and enter the world of old legends. Sweden and Norway, and their Nordic fellows, soon became the countries with the greatest appeal for me, compounded in my adolescence by my saturation in  Ibsen and Strindberg, about whom I have written extensively as an adult, and then while an Oxford undergraduate, by my fascination for Ingmar Bergman.
Characteristically for my generation I was greatly drawn to the egalitarianism and social and psychological enlightenment of the Nordic societies, of which at that time Sweden, with its neutrality and remarkably widely-spread prosperity, was surely the leader. Because of my deep anti-War beliefs I greatly admired the endeavours for international peace and inter-racial harmony which these societies, ahead of others, made. When I went to lecture at a Swedish university the country had taken in many US protesters and conscientious objectors to the malign tragedy of the Vietnam War.
This admiration for Scandinavia, its culture and its stances (even in a very different world-order from that prevailing in my youth) has continued, indeed developed, to this very day, strengthened now by personal friendships and contacts, and by extensive travels and stays. What make the Nordic countries remarkable is, I believe, their galvanising fusion of respectful empathy with Nature (hardly surprising considering the majesty of Norwegian mountains and fjords, Swedish forest and skerries, and Danish islands and coastal landscapes) and social justice; they are prime societies for equal relations between the sexes, for contentment in the work-place and for practical help to the unfortunate both at home and overseas.
Romsdale Fjorde
I write regularly on Scandinavian matters for British publications, including Times Literary Supplement, Independent, Independent-on-Sunday, Guardian, New Statesman, Spectator, Literary Review, Financial Times and have given lectures and seminars on them at many cultural institutions, eg the London Embassies of the various Nordic nations, the British Library, University of East Anglia, Riverside Studios, Glasgow University's Hunterian Gallery.
I have been fortunate in that as a result of reviewing certain writers I have been able to follow their careers (and to assist at their recognition here in UK) and establish personal friendships with them. I think of Per Petterson, Linn Ullmann, Lars Saabye Christensen, Merete Morken Andersen, Karin Fossum, Kjetil Bjørnstad, Steinar Opstad, Jon Fosse, Jan Kjærstad, K-O Dahl in Norway, Torgny Lindgren, P-O Enquist, Jonas Gardell, Kerstin Ekman, Alexander Ahndoril, Bodil Malmsten in Sweden, Carsten Jensen, Peter Adolphsen, Janne Teller, Morten Ramsland in Denmark – and I would like to add to the list the truly great Danish painter and sculptor Per Kirkeby. Getting to know the translators and critics and publishers of these artists has meant becoming a member of a particularly rewarding community.

Hans Christian Anderson Statue in Copenhagen

Like everybody I was devastated by the news of the slaughter perpetrated by Anders Breivik, 22 July this summer. It was very moving communicating with Norwegian friends, and I was impressed by the general absence of any punitive recriminating spirit or self-pity.
In 2006, his centenary year, I had published a study of Henrik Ibsen's plays dealing with his treatment of the artist and the insight this offers into his vision of his times, of western society and of the individual: With Vine-Leaves in His Hair (Norvik Press). I am now at work for Yale University Press on a study of the first Scandinavian writer to capture the world's attention, Hans Christian Andersen, HCA: European Witness, in which I aim to show how his famous stories crystallise experiences and the complex reactions to them not just of Danes but of all Europeans during his lifetime.
The Ugly Duckling by Hans C Andersen