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Guest of Honour Book Fair 2019
Norwegian Book Flood

Visitors enjoying the sun at Oslo's opera.
Visitors enjoying the sun at the opera in Oslo. | Photo (detail): Darya Tryfanava © Unsplash

Norway is this year’s Guest of Honour at the Frankfurt Book Fair. Author and journalist Alva Gehrmann talks about the special characteristics of Norway’s literature scene and adventurous writers.

By Alva Gehrmann

My first home in Oslo was the Litteraturhuset. More than 1,700 events take place each year on the four storeys of this independent House of Literature on the edge of the Royal Palace Park. The café and bookshop are on the ground floor. Quite a few of the books sold there are created in the writers’ loft, the skriveloftet. That’s the storey where writers, translators and journalists like myself can work and exchange ideas. And so our creations rain down into the event rooms, where parts of them are read aloud, and collect in the bookshop to be taken away in printed format.
The founders of the Litteraturhuset originally followed the model of German literature houses, but the range of events in Oslo is unusual by international standards. One day, Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexievich tells us about her life, and the next evening, local début writers nervously read out their texts. On one occasion, Greenpeace discusses the country’s future, and on another an oil company presents its new concept. A highlight in the event calendar is publisher Anne Gaathaug’s monthly quiz evening. Otherwise so relaxed, Norwegians are keenly ambitious when it comes to sport and quizzes. Around 100 people sit in groups of five to solve the tricky questions. At least one skriveloftet team also competes.

Maja Lunde © picture alliance/TT NEWS AGENCY

Creative work in the writing loft

 Around 500 creative individuals have a key card to the writing loft that they can use free of charge. But usually, the same 50 people are there, and it is not long before you get to know each other. At lunch, the members chat about their projects or their family outing – one of them is the writer Maja Lunde. In 2017, her novel “The History of Bees“ was Germany’s top-selling book. It was followed by “The History of Water“ in 2018, the second part of her planned quartet about the climate, which also made it onto the Spiegel best-seller list.

So Maja could easily afford her own office. “I can write very well here, and some of my friends are here in the writing loft,“ says Lunde, who is in her mid-forties. Usually, she only manages to get to the office twice a week, because the other days are booked out with other appointments. Sometimes the writer even meets members of the royal family. “Our Crown Princess Mette-Marit is doing great work. She has a very strong commitment to literature, nature and the environment,“ says Maja. “The royal family keep bees in the palace grounds.“
One project close to Mette-Marit’s heart is the literature train, which she organises once a year and with which the Crown Princess hopes to inspire young people in particular to read. One compartment is being converted for the purpose. As well as library books, there are also some books from her private collection. Wherever the train stops, people are welcome to come on board and be inspired. The literature train travels through a different region of Norway each year; in the evenings, Mette-Marit interviews writers or sits in the audience, listening attentively. A recent participant was Jostein Gaarder, author of “Sophie’s World“, whose novel for young people sparked international interest in Norwegian literature in the nineties. To date, the book has sold more than 45 million copies and has been translated into 64 languages.

Next stop for the literature train: Germany

This October, the Crown Princess, patron of Norway’s Guest of Honour presentation, is travelling across Germany on her literature train, with many writers on board. One of them is Karl Ove Knausgård, who became world-famous for his autobiographical series of novels. The star will hold the opening speech at the Frankfurt Book Fair, together with young non-fiction prose writer Erika Fatland. In her latest book, “The Border”, Fatland goes on an adventurous journey through Russia’s neighbouring states.
Despite the success of contemporary literature, earlier poets are very close to Norwegians’ hearts, as demonstrated by the motto of Norway’s Guest of Honour presentation “The Dream We Carry“, a line from a poem by Olav H. Hauge (1908–1994), which was chosen as the country’s favourite line of poetry. The organiser of the Guest of Honour presentation is Norwegian Literature Abroad, NORLA for short. The institution supports the funding of a considerable number of books. Over a period of 15 months, 450 Norwegian books will now be flooding the German-language market alone.

Karl Ove Knausgård © picture alliance/APA/picturedesk.com

Norwegian literary funding

 The Norwegian system for funding literature is regarded as one of the best in the world. There are many scholarships for young and established writers, as well as a state-financed programme, ensuring that up to 1,500 copies of books on a list of 600 new publications each year are bought and distributed to public libraries throughout the country. The idea behind this is to give every Norwegian citizen access to literature, while at the same time, through buying these copies, ensuring that the publishers have at least a minimum income.
Apart from the state, there are a number of private funding institutions, of which “Fritt Ord”, the Free Word, is the most important. As the Foundation’s name reveals, it regards the free press and free expression as playing an important role. Fritt Ord funds hundreds of projects each year and initiated the founding of the House of Literature in Oslo. The building that was my only fixed point when I was starting out, staying overnight in different apartments. For me, it is still an important port of call between my journeys through the long and narrow country whose jagged coasts, deep fjords and high mountains have always left their mark on local literature.