Faulkner in Norway / Faulkner and Norwegian Literature

Hans H. Skei

Introductory Note
     William Faulkner's direct influence on Norwegian literature or on any particular Norwegian writer is hardly noticeable. For numerous writers young and old there can be little doubt that their reading of The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying or Absalom, Absalom! must have been decisive experiences in their lives and careers, and some of our younger writers admit it almost inadvertently by intertexual play on Faulkner texts or by lightly disguised references to characters from his books. Ole Robert Sunde and Pål Gerhard Olsen are two contemporary novelists who draw on Faulkner in this sense. The simple fact that numerous Faulkner texts have been translated into Norwegian for the first time in the 1990s may be one reason for this, although Norwegian readers always have had easy access to Faulkner's books in English paperbacks. 
      I shall give a survey of translations of Faulkner into Norwegian, and comment briefly on his reputation and influence, followed by an attempt to discuss the relationship between Faulkner's literature and world and those of the great Norwegian novelist from the interwar period, Olav Duun.1 It is difficult to establish factual connections between these writers, and Faulkner's influence on Duun may indeed have been slight. In mysterious and surprisingly consistent ways books may still relate to one another, thematically as well as formally. In the case of Duun and Faulkner what they have in common more than anything else seems to me to be the sense of place, the creation of a fictional or imaginary kingdom, and a widesweeping and generous acceptance of human folly and human frailty.

Norwegian Translations of Faulkner's Books:
Influence & Reputation

     Faulkner's reputation in Norway may be said to rest upon a legend of the difficult but otherwise great story-teller from the South, a legend that has been even more tenacious because so few people have been capable of correcting it by reading the books themselves. But it also, inevitably, rest on the reception of the first translations of his books, on influences from abroad and on the relatively wide reading of English-language paperbacks. 
     The Norwegian translation of Soldiers' Pay in 1932, was the first translation of a Faulkner book anywhere. Sigurd Hoel, Norwegian novelist, critic and editor, included the book in his already famous "Yellow Series".2 Hoel also wrote an introduction which is interesting in many ways, not the least because it is one of the very first non-English essays written on Faulkner.3 Light in August was brought out in a translation two years later (1934), also with an introduction by Sigurd Hoel. It was re-issued in 1951, 1964 and 1989. No more translations appeared till after Faulkner's Nobel Prize in 1950: Sanctuary was published in 1951, as was a collection of fourteen short stories. Sanctuary was reprinted in paperback in 1970, and a book club edition appeared in 1988. The collection of selected short stories contains the following fourteen stories: "Was," "Barn Burning," "Two Soldiers," "Death Drag," "That Evening Sun," "Red Leaves," "A Justice," "A Courtship," "Ad Astra," "Wash," "Honor," "Doctor Martino," "Carcassonne." The version of "Was" included here is taken from The Portable Faulkner--not from Go Down, Moses, and should not really have been included since it is stated in the book that all stories are taken from Collected Stories
     Translations of  The Unvanquished, The Reivers, The Wild Palms and The Sound and the Fury appeared in 1957, 1964, 1966 and 1967, respectively. Only The Sound and the Fury has been re-issued, in a book club edition as one of the books in "The Library of  the Century" in 1992.4 
     In 1992 a translation of As I Lay Dying was published. In 1992, moreover, a very handsome edition of 28 of Faulkner's short stories was published by a book club. The book includes 13 of the 14 stories in the 1951 short story volume, and, accordingly, fifteen stories translated into Norwegian for the first time. Absalom, Absalom! appeared in translation in 1994, and Go Down, Moses in 1996. In 1996 the first volume of SNOPES, The Hamlet, was also translated, followed by a translation of The Town in 1998. In the meantime, in 1997, Faulkner's only book for children, The Wishing Tree, was made available in Norwegian. 
      On the basis of this survey, one might think that Faulkner stands a better chance of being influential among Norwegian writers in the coming years than ever before, since so many books have been translated only recently. But literary influence works in mysterious ways, and Faulkner has been read in English as well as in Danish and Swedish translations by Norwegian writers and intellectuals from the early 1930s. One of those whom we know read William Faulkner was, of course, Sigurd Hoel, who did not particularly like his books and preferred Hemingway and Steinbeck and other American writers to Faulkner. Hoel's own novels (of which Faulkner had two in his library) are much simpler structures than any of Faulkner's books, and he clearly preferred logic and clarity whereas Faulkner's books often seem to develop in accord with some subversive or inexplicable logic.

Faulkner and Duun: A Comparison in General Terms

     To my knowledge, we have only one piece of evidence to show that Olav Duun read Faulkner. In a letter to a book reviewer he recommends strongly that she read As I Lay Dying.5 He is clearly impressed by the book, and he has read it very early. Knowing that Faulkner's early books were thus available (in American or British editions) in Norway very quickly, it is tempting to speculate that Duun read more books by Faulkner, like The Sound and the Fury and Light in August; perhaps even Sanctuary. Authors seem to have been more impressed by Faulkner's books than the reading public in general, and an established and very professional novelist like Duun would certainly find things to admire in Faulkner's narrative structures and rhetorical force that he had never dared to even attempt himself. Duun himself remained a fairly traditional teller of stories in the best tradition of historical novels, and even in the contemporary books from the 1930s, he experimented little. Yet Faulkner is certainly also a great storyteller, even in the experimental modernistic novels such as As I Lay Dying and The Sound and the Fury, and even more so in Light in August and Absalom, Absalom!. In a general sense, what Duun and Faulkner share, is first and foremost their sense of place. Both writers are totally and deeply immersed in the land and the culture they write from and about, yet able to see it at a distance and fictionalise it with wry humour and generous understanding of its shortcomings. Both prove that it takes a great deal of history to produce a little literature, and they both create imaginary areas within which almost all their characters live, and all the events of their stories take place. 
     The single most important event in Faulkner's development must be said to be his discovery of his native land, and the functions it could be given in his fiction. As he struggled against reluctant publishers, bad reviews, and low sales, Faulkner discovered his own "postage stamp of native soil,"6 the basis for his fictional Yoknapatawpha County. With The Sound and the Fury (1929) a complete transition seems to have occurred, and in many of his early books he was, to different degrees, "rewriting the homeplace" to use Richard Gray's phrase.7 
     Instead of a comparison of individual novels or of narrative handling or of the function of place, it seems to be both necessary and worthwhile to present Olav Duun and his fictional world and work. Faulkner's world is more or less well known to Faulkner readers young and old. A survey of some of the characteristics of Duun's fiction may hence indicate how and where it in significant ways relates to Faulkner's better known world of Yoknapatawpha.

The Fiction of Olav Duun

     Olav Duun's fiction is firmly rooted in a certain place and time, yet his writing surpasses all geographical or sociological borders, and creates a fictional region in which man's injustice to man is the key question, and in which the metaphoric or figurative representation of landscape, transforms hamlets and villages, islands and inlets, into places of the mind. Duun's places belong in his recollections of a past, in time and place, and they were created in anguish and agony, not in order to trace the well-worn paths of childhood or describe socio-economic or historical changes, but in order to penetrate to the hidden and forbidden recesses of the human heart, in order to understand better, and, by implication, to help in the uplifting of people's hearts. 
     Duun is capable of fusing the local and universal, the individual and community, everyday acts and questions of morality and humanity. By creating literature he lifts his people and their stories onto a new level, where the plain, often illiterate, certainly uneducated and often poor people of his region, fight the struggles, face the conflicts, endure the hardships, suffer the defeats and survive on a few triumphant moments when pity and compassion and even mercy are shown to exist among human beings who are all too often prone to fight all for themselves and their private and small ends. Their struggle reminds us of the Icelandic sagas, and Duun's people are not too distant relatives of the heroes of old. They may even share their wisdom and live according to the same belief in the rule of a blind fate, although they may finally learn that they can shape their own destinies. 
     The observant reader will have noticed that even the language used in my description of Duun's fictional world is intertextually indebted to statements Faulkner made about Yoknapatawpha. A closer study of the uses of place, in Duun's as well as in Faulkner's fiction, must rely on detailed attention to his text, to stylistic devices, narrative techniques, uses of oral language in a writing which is often poetic and beautiful, but also full of contradictions and ironies. 
     Olav Duun (1876 - 1939) was born on the small island Jøa off the coast of Namdalen in Mid-Norway. His family had come from other regions just a generation earlier, and Duun was only slowly accepted as a writer in the region he came from. He grew up on a farm in an area where fishing and agriculture dominated, and he spent numerous winters as a fisherman off the coast where he lived, and only at the age of 25 did he finally make it to a teacher's training college. He then went on teaching till 1927, to begin with in schools in mid-Norway and then from 1908 in Holmestrand south-west of Oslo. He had no wish to become a teacher, but needed an occupation, and the combination teacher and writer has certainly not been an uncommon one in Norway. Duun created his own version of the New Norwegian language, based in local dialects and syntactically very much in keeping with oral story telling traditions he had listened eagerly to as a young boy. He modernised this language and used it with a richness and variety hardly ever paralleled in our country. Even one of his opponents, a strong advocate of the old language based on Danish, Arnulf Øverland, claimed that "a richer and more beautiful, a more resounding and colourful, a more capricious and happy instrument for human spirit and emotion does not exist." To understand Duun's position in Norwegian literature and within the institution at large, one has to be aware of his language. We must bear in mind that marginality seen from one centre may be centrality seen from somewhere else, yet the creation of a world based on the land- and seascape of Namdalen and written in a private version of a marginal language, presented all the excuses a literary critic or historian would ever need to label Duun a regional writer even when he produced world literature. 
     Duun published his first book, a collection of humorous short stories, in 1907, and then hardly a year went by without a book--with few exceptions novels--from his hand. His first books would in all respects qualify as a combination of regional literature--Heimstaddikting--and new realism. His very first novels are lyrical and psychological, but still realistic. We are at sea in open boats, fighting nature to eke out a living the way Duun himself had experienced, but psychological conflicts, in the main characters, or between characters, dominate. New inventions, mechanisation, education and even small industries are part of a new, promising future, but the conservatism and apparent unchangeability of the social order are fought for by those who profit from the old order. Duun knew these forces, the almost complete change of the kind of communities he describes, that took place during the first decades of this century. Again and again he portrays young men and women who, uncertain of themselves, their place and their role, struggle with complicated relationships and sexual desires they do not quite understand, until, in some cases, they are broken, destroyed, become losers in the dangerous battle which life always is in Duun's fiction, or, perhaps, they adjust to a quiet, inconsequential life, because they have found that they were not meant for more, had not been cut out for more, of happiness or of grief. 
     Duun is the great, intuitive psychological writer in Norwegian literature. He knows much about the hidden and profound depths in human hearts, much about drives and desires and bindings and inhibitions, and he links it all to a realistic framework where nature itself, landscape, climate, the social system contribute to the description of psychological patterns, reactions, and consequences. Often character is defined according to what a person may be expected to inherit, from a long family history of strong or weak personalities. Of two brothers, one is often understood to be the born loser while the other one is to carry the family tradition onwards into a new glorious age. Duun's landscapes appear to be anchored in a real, actual society, and events and elements from the outside world are used in his fiction, but they are transformed and take place within the wider world which is his fictional universe. In his early novels, places seem to change from one book to the next; they are never the same or related, but in the period from 1914 (Three friends) to 1923 (In the storm), Duun has established a more stable and lasting region: Leinland, Nesse, Skarsvågen, Valværet, Juvikvågen, Kjelvika, Segelsund, Håberg, with a myriad of smaller places and specific houses, fields, churches, country stores etc. in addition. People also appear and reappear in many of the ten novels in this period. In the fifteen later years of Duun's career, he is again much freer in his choice of place, in the concrete scene he sets up for the agonising acting out of human cruelty and human greatness--for instance in Medmenneske (1929) and in Menneske og maktene, his last book in 1938.

A Sense of Place

     Seasoned readers of Faulkner will notice that the remote road crossings, hills and hamlets of Faulkner's novels placed in the countryside of Yoknapatawpha bear many resemblances to the descriptions of Duun's world given above. Backwoods people in Faulkner's novels have the same dreams and aspirations as do Duun's fishermen and poor farmers. They share a sense of honour which they cling to, because without it they would not be able to face their neighbour or themselves. They accept their low status and poverty, and they hardly ever really question the order of things. But they react when their position, even the lowest one, is threatened, and they often act violently and with dramatic results. Duun's people do not share a legacy of a glorious past and the burden of a lost cause. Nor do they face problems of race. But they live in accordance with an ethics transferred to them from historical time, and live by very strict norms for decency and fairness among men, and in this sense they are very similar to the ordinary people of Yoknapatawpha County. 
     It is perhaps more interesting and of greater importance to discuss a writer's fictional worlds when they are either very different from the real world or when they may be taken to be a mixture of real and made-up worlds with blurred borderlines. It is far less interesting if the fictional world must be understood as a mimetic, realistic attempt at mirroring the "real" world in fiction, although critics invariably find such descriptions to go beyond or transcend the limits of the real. Duun's and Faulkner's novels almost invariably rely on a mixture of real and made-up worlds, with blurred borderlines: a fictionalised landscape, farming and fishing villages made up of words. They both created real and believable and coherent worlds, but they infused them with a heightened awareness of landscape and climate and intensified through detailed metaphoric descriptions of observations by those characters who are capable of emotional reactions. Duun bases his landscapes--to the very last and very concrete detail--on the area of Namdalen where he lived for twenty-five years, but he transforms it into a fictional landscape, if not a mythical one, not least through his understanding of the many and troubling legacies of the land and its people; in short because of what he knows, or has heard about and read about and imagined when it comes to the historical past. In this sense Namdalen is very much like Yoknapatawpha. Duun's people may well be real and natural in the sense that they are products of their time, place, and history, but in his best books, they transcend even these limitations to exist exempt of time and space, in the timelessness and exile they share with other great literary figures, among them e.g. the population in Frenchman's Bend in The Hamlet. In many of Duun's books we may think that the landscapes simply are there, as a backdrop, as an inevitable part of the story in which people act, live, dream and die, but the story is in part told through the very uses of nature and the forces of nature. Olav Duun's narrative techniques include an unusually frequent use of psychophysical parallelisms, which in simple language means that descriptions of nature invariably prepare, represent, become descriptions of human emotions and conflicts. When the storm clouds gather, when the rain pours down, when darkness weighs heavily on people, serious confrontations are near. Nature is, of course, often conveyed to us from the perspective of one of the characters, and so the stillness of the waves, the play of the seagulls, the lush colours of summer flowers and the drowsy smell from fields and shores, all indicate an inner landscape of a human being at peace with himself, at least for the moment. Again, the long, hot, almost endless summer days of Yoknapatawpha as described in The Hamlet may be the closest parallel in Faulkner's fiction. 
     Yet the landscapes in Olav Duun's and Faulkner's fictions are very different when it comes to the concrete details: Duun's world is an area where sea and land meet, with islands, fjords, and mainland, with hardworking, poor people, and an old system in which everyone has his or her place, and where only a new order, a new system, may work some social change. Faulkner's fictional world is Yoknapatawpha in Northem Mississippi, with its county seat in Jefferson, with railroads and rivers, and with a ruling class and a black class more or less still in servitude. Social mobility is limited in both worlds, however. In Duun's narratives, as in Faulkner's, most things happen slowly, but they happen with a kind of tragic inevitability that gives them great impact. People are very often "doomed" to this or that, or they have a calling, or they want to perform something to prove something so bold that it may become an example for others. Duun measures the strength of the soul in individual man in test after test, most of them in a final battle with the forces of nature--which cannot be won, if final victory does not lie in defeat itself. But all characters--the small, and they are prolific, and the few with greatness in them--are parts of a teeming, growing, struggling world, without which the narratives would not hold, the stories could not be told, the people could not act. 
 What is a fictional or fictionalised landscape? What happens to a landscape when it is narrativised, or at least rendered within the limitations of a narrative? Does the fact that an author is very much aware of the lay of the land and of the reciprocal relationship between man and landscape, mean that descriptions of forest and lake, of mountains and islands, of fjords and inlets, of herring and otter playing in the sea, of secret paths through the woods, of rain and snow and storm and flood, only serve as intensifiers, physical parallelisms to psychological states. In short, is a place in fiction always a place in somebody's mind? I think it is, because so is the nature of fiction. This is what Eudora Welty says, in her essay "Place in Fiction":

Place in fiction is the named, identified, concrete, exact and exacting, and therefore credible, gathering spot of all that has been felt, is about to be experienced, in the novel's progress. Location pertains to feeling; feeling profoundly pertains to place; place in history partakes of feeling, as feeling about history partakes of place.8

     Olav Duun was asked, "What is it that is so great about Namdalen?" and he answered, "That you come from there." He wrote about it from a distance of some 400 miles, but the reality of it may either be considered as being very close, or light-years away. This seeming paradox indicates the problematics of a remembered and created world, transformed and changed through literature, as opposed to as exact a rendering of the real world as possible. Duun's answer also seems to say something about the necessity of having left, of being away from, of distance and perspective, perhaps to the point of being exiled from, the world used as raw material, as basis, for the fictional world. Not all fictional worlds are based on the landscapes of childhood and formative years, but the most convincing ones, which may also be the most literary ones, seem to share this aspect. 
     Some measure of love may be responsible for drawing so many writers to a region and a landscape they know; their places become places of the heart. This love may come late, and it may be a hard-won one, if not simply inherited and taken for granted as a part of a literary tradition. The sense of belonging, of having a past that explains you and that perhaps even made and moulded you, is strong in writers as diverse as Olav Duun, Thomas Hardy, and William Faulkner, all of whom created fictional regions and located their stories within the borders of their mythical kingdoms. Duun's and Faulkner's landscapes develop and change through their use and re-use in different books, from being background, setting, or simply landscape, to becoming places. Places, that is, in the sense that they are given added significance because narrators and characters think about them, contemplate their meaning, try to come to grips with their possible significance in their lives and in the lives of men and women before them. As mentioned, over a period of ten years and ten novels, the places in Duun's novels gain this added significance through reiterated use: they become lasting, abiding, and they take on a meaning larger than themselves and larger than the lives of their inhabitants. The landscapes in narrative become places in fiction, places in one's mind, because they include the experiences of those who lived there, whose lives may linger on in new generations. An author may give eternal life to people as well as places by narrativizing both--for instance in novels such as Juvikfolke and Menneske og maktene; Light in August and The Hamlet
     Duun's and Faulkner's characters get never-ending lessons in hardship, endurance, God-fearing, and humility. Respect, amounting to awe, for the sacred places of childhood that now become places in fiction informs their narratives. These places include small houses, with scattered patches of farmland, with bogs and moors and forests, with inlets and beaches, grey as the weather and the dreary days of autumn and winter, wide-open and hospitable under a blue sky during the long days of summer. More often in Duun than in Faulkner, the quiet days of limitless beauty give way to violent raging storms in the open ocean right outside his world, and human beings often become playthings in the hands of the forces of nature. These forces are often personified, and even though man is not exposed to these forces as in the days of old, they may be stronger and tougher in Duun's world than anywhere else in Norwegian literature. Duun's sense of place is very much a wonderful awareness of nature in its constant change and motion, and nature is at the same time always used to describe, by implication, people and actions. 
     In Duun's major work, the historical novel in six volumes, Juvikfolke (the people from Juvika, or the Juvikings), published volume by volume over the six year period between 1917 and 1923 and almost bringing him the Nobel Prize for 1925, man's place in relation to nature changes, as man builds better places to protect himself and to take care of his own. The forces remain the same however, and can always be put to good use in the final test of a man and his worth. Otherwise, man's place among fellow men, in the community he lives in, and sometimes even in the larger pattern of things, become more important when the basic needs are taken care of. In a sense, man's nature become the battle ground, and in the second half of the six-book series, Odin's growth to maturity and responsibility, with the inheritance of the Juvik tradition as support or burden, is an example. 
     Even if we use all possible contextualisations, including historical, sociological, economic, familial factors, we cannot explain the works of genius. What brought Medmenneske out of Namdalen may be almost as futile a question as to ask how The Sound and the Fury could possibly come out of Mississippi? How could Namdalen produce Duun, so that he, on the basis of Namdalen could produce literature of lasting importance? Perhaps a quote from William Faulkner, where he, inadvertently or deliberately, answers this question, may be of some help: The quotation is really about Eula Varner, in The Hamlet: She comes from Frenchman's Bend

"--a little lost village, nameless, without grace, forsaken, yet which wombed once by chance and accident one blind seed of the spendthrift Olympian ejaculation and did not even know it".

Concluding Remarks

     One great writer in a world language, another great writer in a minority language even in his own small country. And yet: similarities abound, and they all seem to have their basis in the uses and functions of an imaginary or fictional region of their worlds, within the borders of which they could investigate the old verities of the human heart and create literature of lasting value. I have reduced my comments on the well-documented world of Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County and have chosen to emphasise what I suspect is the unknown world of Olav Duun's fictional version of a region, Namdalen. And even if I have not pursued the similarities far enough to enable me to say anything about influence and little enough about similarities, I am convinced that an extensive comparison of these two authors and their uses of "imaginary worlds" would add to our understanding of their accomplishment, and, perhaps, enhance our understanding of how literature constitutes its meaning.


1. I have drawn on my discussion of "The Sense of Place in the Fiction of Olav Duun", a lecture at a conference in Chicago, printed in the seminar report Places Within, Places Beyond (Oslo, 1996), and on my survey article on "The Reception and Reputation of William Faulkner in Norway" from Notes on Mississippi Writers (1984). 
2. To understand why Faulkner was translated so early in Norway, a note on a series of books and its editor is required. Sigurd Hoel, one of Norway's leading novelists in the 1930s and 40s, edited a series of books called the "Yellow Series", and published by Gyldendal. In this series new and experimental books were made accessible to Norwegian readers. The very scope and aim of the series explain why Faulkner, among many others, could be discovered so early and translated so quickly in a country far away from the United States at a time when the contact between the two countries was much looser than today. Hoel kept himself well-informed of the developments in the books world, and he also knew many of the important writers personally. It may thus well be that Richard Hughes, who in a sense introduced Faulkner to an English audience, was the one who made Hoel aware of Faulkner in the first place. American writers to be included in the "Yellow Series" were, among others, Sherwood Anderson, Ernest Hemingway, Thornton Wilder, John Dos Passos, Richard Wright, and Elizabeth Maddox Roberts. 
3. The only earlier non-English essay I know of is the one by Maurice Coindreau in La Nouvelle Revue Francaise in June, 1931. 
4. Information about the Norwegian translations of Faulkner's books (up to and including The Unvanquished) can be found in James B. Meriwether's The Literary Career of William Faulkner (Authorized Re-issue: Columbia, S.C.: University of South Carolina Press, 1971), pp. 143-44. 
5. The letter is printed in Otto Hageberg, Olav Duun. Biografiske og litteraturhistoriske streiflys; Oslo: Det Norske Samlaget, 1995, p. 85. 
6. Faulkner's own phrase, in interview with Jean Stein. See Lion in the Garden, edited by Meriwether and Millgate; New York: Random House, 1968, p. 255. 
7. Richard Gray, The Life of William Faulkner, Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 1994. The phrase is section heading for part III of the book. 
8. Eudora Welty, The Eye of the Story: Selected Essays and Reviews. (New York Random House, 1978) 122.

Copywright (C) 1999  Hans H. Skei