When the Danish-born writer, Aksel Sandemose, settled in Norway in 1929 it was because his temperament was rather more Norwegian than Danish. He had strong things to say, and he wanted to be outspoken; he was less concerned with artistry and composition than with a shocking message. Critics received his first major book with enthusiasm, though in some conservative quarters labels like "confused" and "hysterical" were used, as they have been since of Sandemose's work. But the confusion referred to has given Sandemose his place in Norway's literary history; he is one of the few experimenters in recent Norwegian literature, and his attempts to change the conventional form of the novel have been hailed in all Scandinavian countries. Sandemose's other great asset is his social indignation—his so-called hysteria. The "Jante law," a list of proscriptions by which modern society cudgels each of its members into conformity, became famous with the publication of A Fugitive Crosses His Tracks. Alfred Kazin read this work by the angry young Norwegian and found "the average novel perfunctory by comparison."
At sixty-six,[1*] Sandemose still shocks readers, but his dreams are less distant than in his earlier works. For all along Sandemose has had dreams, and in spite of his seemingly somber outlook they have been constructive dreams of how enlightenment will lead mankind toward a state of freedom and harmony where actions are determined by reason rather than by passion.[p. viii]
Aksel Sandemose was born in Nykøbing Mors, Denmark, on March 19, 1899. His father, Jørgen Nielsen, was a blacksmith; his mother, Amalie Jacobsdatter Sandemose, was a Norwegian who had come to Denmark in the 1870's to work as a housemaid. After leaving school, Sandemose attended a one-year seminary, 1914-15, then went to sea and later stayed for shorter periods in Newfoundland and the Canadian prairies. During the 1920's he held a variety of positions, working for some time as a journalist with the Copenhagen papers København and Berlingske Tidende, besides traveling (Canada, West Indies), and writing six books.
The characters in Sandemose's first stories are settlers in Labrador or sailors on the North Atlantic. Critics were eager to show that older patterns, especially the style of Johannes V. Jensen, had influenced the young writer more than was good for him, though they did admit that his refreshing descriptions of life at sea had brought something new to Danish literature. And in the way their people thought and acted these early tales already struck a note of Sandemose's main theme—the outcast. His first success in this new field was Klabavtermanden (The Klabauter Man, 1927), a strange story of a captain who, for violating a young girl, is doomed to sail the seas forever. Ross Dane (1928), a more conventional novel of Scandinavian immigrants in Canada, was also well received, and Sandemose was given a Danish stipend. But during the following year he settled in Norway, where he has lived ever since.
Sandemose's next book, En sjømann går iland (A Sailor Disembarks, 1931), was in Norwegian, and was the first of four books about Espen Arnakke. It consists of two rather loosely connected parts, of which the first treats a crucial event in Espen's life: his slaying of a hated but admired companion, in Misery Harbor, Newfoundland. The second part of the book, in which Espen finds himself among settlers on the Canadian prairies, is rather low-keyed and uneventful by comparison. Espen Arnakke's childhood milieu, the town of Jante where the murderer grew up, is the subject of the important novel, En flyktning krysser sit spor (A Fugitive Crosses His Tracks, 1933). Espen's life is further traced in the books Der stod en benk i haven (A Bench Stood in the Garden, 1937) and Brudulje (Hullabaloo, 1938). The Canadian setting in the second part of A Sailor Disembarks is repeated in the novel September (1939) and in some of the stories of the two collections Sandemose forteller (Sandemose Tells Stories, 1937) and Fortellinger fra andre tider (Stories from Other Days, 1940).
Typical of Sandemose's work habits is the revision and republishing of [p. ix] earlier works. In 1932 The Klabauter Man appeared in a new (Norwegian) edition; and the author has claimed that even Vi pynter oss med horn (Horns for Our Adornment, 1936) is nothing but a third, greatly revised edition of the old Klabauter Man story. This novel was so harshly criticized for "immoral" language that Sandemose brought suit against the reviewer. He lost, but many prominent people, among them the Christian writer Sigrid Undset, supported the book against its severe critic. In 1955, A Fugitive Crosses His Tracks was republished, and in the text of this new revised edition the author had incorporated A Bench Stood in the Garden. Sandemose's revising was even applied to the work of other writers. A strange book, Ole C. Hansen's Reisen til New Zealand (Journey to New Zealand, 1935), is a Sandemose adaptation of the chaotic manuscript of a nearly illiterate Norwegian sailor.
After the German invasion of Norway Sandemose was active in the resistance movement and in 1941 had to flee to Sweden. Here, in 1944, he published a book in Swedish, Det gångna är en dröm (The Past Is a Dream), which did not appear in Norwegian until 1946. By that time Sandemose had moved back to Norway and written another novel, Tjærehandleren (The Tar Dealer, 1945), the story of a marriage swindler. World War II, forming part of the background of this and the previous novel, is the setting of Sandemose's next book, Alice Atkinson og hennes elskere (Alice Atkinson and Her Lovers, 1949), which takes place in England and Germany; while a following novel, En palmegrønn øy (Island of Green Palms, 1950), is a humorous fantasy of seventeenth-century treasure hunters. After his return to Norway Sandemose settled with his family on a small farm, Kjørkelvik near Risør. From here he sent out a quarterly journal, Årstidene (The Seasons, 1951-55), written entirely by himself. In 1954 a volume of memoirs, Rejsen til Kjørkelvik (Journey to Kjørkelvik), was published in Denmark. More recently Sandemose letters have appeared regularly in the popular weekly Aktuell (Oslo). Since 1952, Sandemose has received a yearly stipend from the Norwegian state.
In 1958 Sandemose published his great novel Varulven (The Werewolf), which was followed in 1961 by a second part, Felicias bryllup (Felicia's Wedding). Between the two novels appeared Murene rundt Jeriko (The Walls Around Jericho, 1960), which is a volume of essays and stories in memory of his son Espen, who died in 1955, and his wife Eva, who died in 1959. Another novel, Mytteriet på barken Zuidersee (Mutiny on the Ship Zuidersee), was published in 1963.
Sandemose does not write plays or poetry. His forms have always been [p. x] either the essay or the story; and the alternating narrative and essayical digression which make up the curious plotless course of the typical Sandemose novel cohere only through focus on a chief character or set of characters. Alice Atkinson and Her Lovers consists of three letters, of which one occupies nine-tenths of the book; The Past is a Dream is a diary of sorts, with four prefaces; Felicia's Wedding is supposed to take place in the narrator's mind during a plane ride from Stockholm to Oslo in April 1959, but there are reports in this book of things happening in 1961. Deliberate disruption of chronology is perhaps the most typical feature of a Sandemose novel. Some have used the term "archaeological" of his method; i.e., a careful unearthing of different layers at different levels. In a Freudian manner, relics of the past are dug up and sorted out so as to produce in the end some meaningful torso of a personality. The novels are often written in the first person and have the form of a confession addressed to a friend or close relative. Their subject is love and murder.
Sandemose's books are also autobiographical to a greater degree than is normally the case. With certain natural reservations, dates and place names as well as many incidents correspond to the circumstances of Sandemose's own life, and the result is an intensification of suspense: "Is he really a murderer?" In this respect there is little difference between Sandemose's fiction and his memoirs; they are both, to use Goethe's title, Dichtung und Wahrheit. Sandemose is a Dichter of his own life in the sense that he adapts, abridges, and arranges; but also in the sense that when he speaks, the world recognizes itself. By his own account, what he writes "is no novel, and if the result is a work of literature, it is unpremeditated. It is not my intention that what I tell you should be a cosmos. It is a tool in my hand to complete my own cosmos. As I write I look deeper into myself." Regarding his subject matter Sandemose says: "I believe I have never had any other goal than finding out what man is. Wherefrom? Wherefore?" And he adds, "I feel deep contempt for people who sit scribbling together words, sentences, chapters and do not move on the outermost edge of consciousness where you hear the screams from the inferno."
In Sandemose's production three works stand out: A Fugitive Crosses His Tracks, The Past Is a Dream, and The Werewolf. These are the canonical books of his religion, and Sandemose enthusiasts will read and reread its myths for the beauty and intensity of their message. The three works are from different stages in the author's development, and yet they belong together in some dialectic scheme whereby the themes of the first two blend and reach a resolution in the third.[p. xi]
A Fugitive Crosses His Tracks is the story of Espen Arnakke, who once killed a friend when this friend took his girl away from him. At that moment all his past defeats were gathered as in one focus and resulted in the murder. The book is a panorama of the boy's past, seen like glimpses of night landscape illuminated by lightning. A few situations are sweet with happy memories, several are full of boisterous humor, but for the most part Espen is possessed with hatred as he recalls life in his home town of Jante. Jante is the symbol of all his tormentors, as well as of John Wakefield, whom he killed in Misery Harbor. Jante has only one desire—to force all men down to its own low level of happiness and intelligence. Jante holds Jante down by means of a cruel decalogue which runs monotonously as follows:
Thou shalt not believe thou art something.Thou shalt not believe thou art as good as we.Thou shalt not believe thou art more wise than we.Thou shalt not fancy thyself better than we.Thou shalt not believe thou knowest more than we.Thou shalt not believe thou art greater than we.Thou shalt not believe thou amountest to anything.Thou shalt not laugh at us.Thou shalt not believe that anyone is concerned with thee.Thou shalt not believe thou canst teach us anything.
Espen, unlike other Jante dwellers, does not forget his defeats. His good memory becomes his weapon: "Journeying back to the past for the purpose of seeing how the whole thing had really been I eventually found myself standing with my bloody knife in hand before the law of Jante." When A Fugitive Crosses His Tracks appeared, critics pointed out that while it did give a painful and powerful picture of a tormented youth, it broke down as a gospel of salvation, as a contribution to a better social order. But how can Espen point to a successful therapy when he is not free? He is still a fugitive; in spite of his apparent emancipation he still lives in the shadow of the Jante law. He is obsessed with hatred like an animal thirsting for revenge.
In his bitter review of the past, Espen's honesty will not permit him to overlook the days of happiness when the children played in Adamsen's barn (Adamsen's barn being the wondrous land which adults may view from afar, but never enter). In The Past is a Dream Sandemose's diarist, the middle-aged John Torson, is overcome by an urge to see this lost paradise. Torson is a well-to-do San Francisco businessman visiting his [p. xii] home parish in Norway before and during the early parts of World War II. Immediately upon his arrival he is involved in a murder case, which by his account remains an unsolved mystery, but in which the reader is given to understand that he is the murderer. Later he sees an impoverished, shapeless woman of fifty—the mother of eleven children—and dimly recognizes her as the Agnes for whom he would once have given his life, before she took other lovers and turned him into a fugitive. Now, in desperation, he relives their distant love affair, with another woman. He believes Agnes has come back to him as Susanne, wife of his only good friend, the great author Gunder Gundersen, whose downfall from drink and jealousy he watches with perverse joy.
John Torson is a kind of demon-magician. With his money he buys friends and makes them play over again the sweet play of his childhood. Still, the astounding events of his cool confession are only an attempt to talk himself out of the truth: as he relives the dream of the past he cannot avoid an agonizing identification with all its characters. He is at one time the murderer and the slain, the lover and the cuckold, the poet and his mad twin brother. And even at that he must confess: "I have not told you of the unifying power behind it all, Satan's eye which was upon me all the time." John Torson's actions appear consistently irrational; he seems at all times in the hands of powers outside himself which lead and protect him. But he is led in accordance with a certain pattern. Though he had no reason to kill a man he did not know, the murder does make sense as a symbol. Through it John Torson avenges himself on a society which has struck him with blindness so that he cannot look upon love as a free man: his sight will always be dimmed by jealousy and by the primitive man's vision of his virgo immaculata. As a novel The Past Is a Dream appears structureless; the "plot" moves back and forth in a manner typical of Sandemose's "archaeological" approach. The book has less force, but more tragic beauty than A Fugitive Crosses His Path; it affirms faith in a "distant dream," a faith reflected in its portrayal of Norway's stubborn resistance to Nazi force and Nazi ideas: "We thought that every man would be for sale, if only the price were right. Now we know it is not so."
The Werewolf is an answer to questions posed in Sandemose's two other great novels. Can there be no harmony in society? Is there only the choice of being crushed into conformity or else driven out as a fugitive? Also, is there no way out of jealousy, no true equality between the sexes, so that woman is neither a holy virgin nor a prostitute, but another human being? In The Werewolf three people, two men and a woman, succeed in arresting their fugitive selves and realizing their dreams in the [p. xiii] present. In the midst of Jante they build an Adamsen's barn for adults and live in it until the forces symbolized by the werewolf (in the person of Gulnare) destroy their quiet happiness. These characters are marked in some way by the past; to use Sandemose's language, they have all met the werewolf—a complex symbol into which the author has worked all the destructive pettiness and negation that the Jante law voices. Essentially the werewolf symbolizes a perverted lust for power, the desire to force one's will on others, to possess others and control their thoughts and feelings, and in the end to press all society into a mirthless monotony. In this book, as in The Past Is a Dream, the demon or werewolf is manifested most clearly in the feeling known as jealousy. To fight jealousy, therefore, is the main concern of the book's three heroes—Jan Venhaug, his wife Felicia, and her lover Erling Vik. "Hero" is not an inappropriate term, for their lives are heroic, their stature is out of the ordinary, they practice what to others is yet only a dream. But they are modern heroes with all the marks of lost battles. The author Erling Vik cannot free himself from a feeling of social inferiority; his small-town background and his working-class upbringing mark his relationship to middle-class Gulnare and to upper-class Felicia. His relationship to Gustav is also important and shows that though he has at last outgrown his fear of the older brother, he is still left with a kind of perverse respect for this stubborn, simple-minded Jante man. Serious consequences of their struggles against the werewolf are Erling Vik's alcoholism and Felicia's "seances" in the greenhouse. When she exposes her naked body to the passionate peeping of a local werewolf—stupid, "innocent" Tor Anderssen—it is a symbolic revenge on the meanness of male sexual brutality, and more especially on the ugly memory of her humiliation as an eighteen-year-old girl, when Erling Vik made love to her and casually went on his way, like a working-class boy defiling his princess.
The Werewolf is a conglomeration of thoughts and theories, of strange situations and striking personalities. In some parts, as in the story of the young Gulnare, all Sandemose's gifts combine to produce episodes of great beauty. But what makes this book different from his two other main works is the creation of an outstanding woman character, something more in the Ibsen than in the Strindberg tradition. Sandemose admires Strindberg above other writers, and it is natural that it should be that way; their temperaments seem so alike. But Strindberg's idea that jealousy is "a man's sense of cleanliness which prevents his thoughts from entering, through his wife, the sexual sphere of another man" (Black Banners) is now seen by Sandemose as by the fictional Jan Venhaug to be an idea of the past. "How strange," Jan remarks, "to see [p. xiv] jealousy elevated to a first-class virtue, this feeling which is always combined with self-contempt and invariably ends in a complete feeling of shame." Sandemose does not encourage "immorality," but he defends his characters' right to live their lives as they see fit, and he condemns a person's or society's wish to regulate the life of others, if this wish is based on envy. In most cases, he concludes, it is: the werewolf is everywhere.
In The Walls Around Jericho Sandemose tells how The Werewolf grew out of an experience he once had on the west coast of Jutland. He lived in a small cabin among the sand dunes. It was out of season, and his only company was the constant roar of the North Sea waves. One day he saw in the far distance a girl who walked along the beach to the south. He stared at her until she disappeared from sight. Later he followed her footprints and tried to read her personality in the sand until the incoming tide washed it away. In recollection this simple incident became the source of "a never completed story of how love can grow out of a deep humiliation." "I have used this material often," Sandemose writes, "and at times I feel that after the experience on the beach I have written nothing that doesn't somehow center upon it." Perhaps this is the finest achievement of The Werewolf, that in Felicia the mysterious girl on the sand has come to life without losing any of the beauty, pride, and courage which are part of the vision.
[1*] Sandemose died August 5, 1965, while this book was in press.
Copyright © 1958 by H. Aschehoug & Co., Oslo, Norway. Used by permission. English translation copyright © 1966 The Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System. All rights reserved. Use of this material falling outside the purview of "fair use" requires the permission of the University of Wisconsin Press.
TEI markup and other features Copyright © 2000 Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System.
To buy the paperback book, see: http://www.wisc.edu/wisconsinpress/books/1693.htm