Bodies, Books and the Art of Self-Criticism

Norwegian contemporary literature isn’t all crime and Knausgaard. In fact, the debate the United States is now having about the Norwegian author of My Struggle—and about the spectacle of a male writer taking on the so-called feminine sphere of family and childhood—already took place in Norway, years ago, when his books first came out. Since then, other strands that were already present in Norwegian contemporary literature have continued developing. One is the tendency among young, female writers to consider the body in a particular and complicatedly negative way.

AWT has translated an article by critic and columnist Ingunn Økland written for Aftenposten, Norway’s leading daily, examining this tendency. In addition to broadening the discussion about contemporary Scandinavian writing, Økland’s piece also sheds some light on a more international literary trend: the female exploration of the embodied self.

Young Norwegian women are making their literary debuts with books about psychosis, eating disorders and the medical establishment.

“I placed the tablets on my tongue, one by one, and swallowed them as I counted the reasons I could not be abandoned. I was pretty and I was pretty and I was pretty.”

Maria Kjos Fonn has been nominated for Tarjei Vesaas’ first book award for a story collection filled with destructive girls. I Haven’t Told This to Anyone describes characters who steal, strike, harm themselves or have eating disorders. It might sound extreme. But the book is part of a growing trend among young, female first-time writers. All the candidates for this year’s Vesaas Prize depict girls in a state of depression. All the writers were born in the 1980s. In addition to Maria Kjos Fonn, they include Anne Helene Guddal and Amalie Kasin Lerstang. Last year’s candidates were also all women born in the 1980s. The prize went to Gine Cornelia Pedersen for her novel Zero. It’s all a long monologue in the voice of a psychotic and suicidal girl as she weaves in and out of treatment systems.

There are forerunners to this genre, such as Olaug Nilsson and Mette Karlsvik, but in the past two to three years, a pattern has established itself of debut writers dissecting the mental health of today’s girls. The Authors’ Union has in an indirect way chosen to place its seal of approval on this trend. Because it’s the union’s literary council which awards the weighty Vesaas Prize. It’s easy to salute their evaluation, because this is literature that is raw, energetic and discomfiting. The young, destructive woman has clearly become a mythical figure around whom a repertoire of radical ways of being can be spun.

When young authors now go to that place to collect kindling for their debut-fires, they are also acquiescing to conventions associated with the role of the “first-time writer.” Both the Authors’ Union, critics and ordinary readers expect some rabble-rousing and experimentation from young writers.

 
Europa

 
The body is the dividing line in this literature. It’s especially notable in the novel Europa by Amalie Kasin Lerstang, a book which has also been nominated for the Critics’ Youth Prize. From the title one might expect a certain social engagement from this novel, an attempt at trying to say something about the situation of youth at a time of economic disaster. Unemployment? Revolutionary movements?

The European crisis, instead, functions as a staging ground for a Norwegian girl adrift. To avoid the loneliness of her own crisis situation, she seeks out at-risk youth in a large, unnamed European city. But where they are the victims of a systemic crisis, her own crisis is a private one, originating in an unwanted pregnancy and stinging humiliations. Her ex has written an autobiographical novel that presents her in a singularly unflattering manner. In short, choppy sentences, Lerstang gives us a girl who is trying to swallow the insults by living a vagabond life. She pursues random encounters and has poor eating habits. She gets involved in fistfights and pushes her body to the breaking point:

“I place the shaver against my scalp and pull it along my skull. The machine makes a sharp sound as it hits my hair. A constant hum in my ear. (…) I become another. I wish the shaving machine could be run over the face.”

The novella Alarm by Maria Kjos Fonn is perhaps the most prototypical of the debut texts. The main character, who is as beautiful as a model, has just been left by her live-in boyfriend, and decides to take a powerful dose of medicine. She ends up in the emergency room, and immediately begins a manipulative game against nurses and fellow patients. Fonn draws a raw picture of a smart, self-deprecating and body-fixated girl who intentionally places herself in disastrous situations. She has grown up with a mother who called her Snow White, and who thought “Snow White was at her most beautiful when she lay poisoned, waiting for he who would save her.”

A similar appeal is presented in the short story Fever by Roskva Koritzinsky. While the main character scratches herself until she bleeds, she fantasizes about the moment her boyfriend will discover the wounds. A less typical main character dominates the poetry collection Also the Disagreeable Exists, by Anne Helene Guddal. Contemporary society’s bodily fixation is the background to a traditional, heavy depressive state, and the author references Obstfelder and [poet] Olav H. Hauge rather than [cultural reference points like] TV-series. “In the ambulance I laugh so loudly the driver gets scared,” writes Guddal, who renders the environment at a psychiatric ward with black humor. (“The one who has the worst anxiety attack wins.”)

So one should just applaud the literary quality of what appears to be a fertile genre?

It’s not so easy. I notice myself starting to reflect on this like an amateur pop-psychologist as I read these debut writers’ work. The books are interesting in terms of a literary and art historical perspective, but they certainly do show us considerable health problems and heartbreaking experiences. And what comes first, really? The health problems or their mythologization? Maybe it’s impossible to separate them. It’s fairly naive, in any case, or perhaps inhuman, to read depictions of self-harm and suicide attempts as the actions of totally autonomous literary characters.

“When the book comes out, people will think I’m nuts. But me, I’m fine,” said Gine Corneila Pedersen when asked to comment on the publication of her novel Zero. The degree of autobiography can stretch from what Pedersen describes as a considered use of elements from her own life to a strong correlation between life and fiction. The last is the case—at least, according to the author herself—for Linnea Myhre’s two novels. She won the Tabu Prize in 2012 for her debut Eternal Sunday. The Council on Psychic Health thinks the book might contribute towards reducing prejudice surrounding mental health conditions.

The young, destructive woman has been studied by doctors, psychologists and social researchers. They draw a picture of a stressed and overambitious generation that experiences constant surveillance from a body-obsessed society. But instead of attacking parents, social structures or politicians, youth takes its aggression out on itself. The Danish psychologist Svend Brinkmann thinks today’s youth have been thrown into an individualistic society without any collective sense of responsibility. Rather than going on strike, we strike with our bodies and crash straight into brick walls, he writes in his book Resist.

The literary debut writers confirm this analysis. It’s not society or their parents’ generation which is up for debate in these novels. The young characters instead feel a debt of gratitude to their mothers, as Gine Cornelia Pedersen writes:

“Mommy smells good/she feels like Saturday afternoon, or a warm breeze/I feel sorry for her/She doesn’t know what she’s created.”

Societal criticism has been replaced by self-criticism. Still, there is some kind of activism in these books. It just doesn’t resemble classic feminism in the slightest. Rather than making demands and setting the terms of the debate, these debut writers choose quite simply to expose the destructive impulse. That doesn’t mean the books lack a sense of sisterly solidarity. But the will to fight is summed up with this generation’s sardonic brand of self-insight, as written by Maria Kjos Fonn: “Self-harm is out. We make art of it instead.”

 

Photos courtesy: Aftenposten

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