Let’s talk about Norwegian literature. No, we’re not going to talk about Karl Ove Knausgaard; we’re going to quote him:
You wouldn’t have read him, there’s a Norwegian writer, Thure Erik Lund, he’s the greatest prose writer in my generation. He’s ten years older than me. He’s very wild. His novels start in one place and end up somewhere completely different. His dream novel, he told me, was a novel that starts here and ends up in Chinese, and the readers should have learned Chinese by the time they got to the end. He’s untranslatable. In one of his books, there’s no people in it, it’s completely empty, but it still works, it’s just great. In Norway, Lund was the only expansive writer I knew of.
It is a bit ironic that such an overhyped author, whose books have been translated into numerous languages, should be the one to break the news to the English-speaking world about the existence of Thure Erik Lund, his complete opposite: obscure, untranslated into any other language, linguistically challenging (“untranslatable” says Knausgaard), not easily marketable. But we should be grateful for the successful author of My Struggle – now we at least know what we are missing.
Thure Erik Lund’s greatest achievement is the genrically heterogeneous tetralogy Myrbråtenfortellingene (The Myrbråten Tales) united by the presence of Thomas Olsen Myrbråten, the eponymous character. The first novel of the cycle is titled Grøftetildragelsesmysteriet (The Ditch Incident Mystery), and it relates the protagonist’s botched attempt to write a report on the protection of Norway’s cultural monuments commissioned by the Ministry of Culture. Crushed by this failure and confronted with the existential void, Myrbråten first moves to the countryside and then retreats deep into the woods to lead there a solitary existence like some of kind of postmodern Thoreau. There he embarks upon writing his own theory of the world. Admiring Lund’s critique of contemporary culture, literary historian Øystein Rottem has written in a review that it is so radical as to make Thomas Bernhard and Dag Solstad “pale” in comparison.
Compromateria, the second novel in the tetralogy, is the wildest. It is a science fiction allegory that stretches the limits of imagination and language alike, notorious among the Norwegian readership for its hundreds of neologisms. The main character of the novel is an unnamed writer who makes his own books, manufacturing the paper from random bits of junk: shreds of fabric, straw pieces, crushed stones. At some point he is transported to the futuristic world of Compromateria in which technologies and language are fused together. In his detailed analysis of the novel (unfortunately available only in Norwegian), the critic Arve Kleiva neatly sums up what to expect of Lund’s extravaganza:
What else should I compare Lund with, in a nutshell? The references or rather the associations and formal similarities are so common that they dissolve into generalities: Homer’s adventures, Dante, Rabelais, Thomas More, Baroque travel allegories, Swift, Holberg and (a far stronger resemblance) Hieronymus Bosch, Mary Shelley, HG Wells, Egil Rasmussen, the 20th century dystopia, surrealism, gonzo, sci-fi literature that the reviewer barely knows, Blade Runner, Independence Day, Matrix, Alien, X-Files, but perhaps just as much the revelation traditions, [..] John’s Apocalypse, the Spanish Renaissance mystics and other visionary poetry. For it is the truth that speaks through this intricate and well-organised system of (alleged) lies and delirium.
The next book of Myrbråtenfortellingene bears the title Elvestengfolket (The Elvesteng Folk) and it features Thomas again as its protagonist. In this short novel we learn about Myrbråten’s earlier life, starting with his childhood in rural Norway in the 1960s and ending in the 1990s, with his arrival in Oslo, on the eve of the great tribulations recounted in the first novel of the tetralogy.
With Uranophilia, the fourth novel, Lund brings his daring literary enterprise to an end. Thomas is now in his sixties and lives in Oslo again, still working on his philosophical system. His ordinary routine is changed when he meets the inventor Ludvig, who has built a time machine in his shabby workshop. Ludvig initiates his friend into his scientific research, and, after the inventor’s death, Thomas continues the experiments with time travelling. Another important part of the plot is the unravelling of the arcane knowledge concealed within a 16th-century treatise called Uranophilia. The investigation of its impact on the course of our civilisation is attended by a welter of historical and cultural references in which fact and fiction are elaborately intertwined. Especially fascinating are travellers’ accounts about visiting fantastic peoples that would make Pliny and Mandeville look like certified anthropologists.
Since the only piece of information in English about Thure Erik Lund’s tetralogy that I’ve been able to unearth is this short entry on the website of Eirin Hagen Literary Agency, I mostly had to rely on Google Translate and common sense when puzzling out the meaning of the Norwegian essays and reviews to form my own opinion. Based on all the secondary sources I thus perused, I would venture to assume that Thure Erik Lund’s cycle of novels fits that rare bill of a literary work whose linguistic complexity is matched by the complexity of its ideas and imagery. The lack of any translations makes Myrbråtenfortellingene especially tantalising, and I want to believe that despite the label of untranslatability, some brave adventurer will stand up to the challenge of widening the readership of this fascinating work.
Update: Matthias Friedrich’s German translation of The Ditch Incident Mystery is now forthcoming from Droschl as Das Grabenereignismysterium.