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Discovering Norwegian writers: Tomas Espedal

Updated on January 21, 2014
Tomas Espedal in 2010
Tomas Espedal in 2010 | Source

Who is Tomas Espedal?

Tomas Espedal is a «Bergener», from that city on the West coast of Norway, and one of the prominent writers of this country mostly known for its crime novels, its feminist plays and the dark despondent images of Edvard Munch.

Born in the Sandviken area of Bergen in 1961, and after relocating, fleeing, and coming back several times, Espedal still resides there. He has received several awards and his works have been translated in 18 languages.

His distinctive prose

Espedal's prose, very autobiographical, is unique. So much so that the reader hesitates to use that very word: prose. The author likes to keep diaries, to jot down his daily impressions; and those writings often form the thread on which the novel is built, and that thread is kept as bare as possible, without ornaments. The language is simple, the expression honest. Without the meanderings and details of a full-blown descriptive narration, his novels read like auto-biographical poems, like the touching Biografi.

Espedal admits that he does not write on a computer. According to him, the only book he wrote on a computer turned out to be his worse. On the contrary, working with paper and pen allows to rewrite, ameliorate, and weave a text like the hands of a painter dance over the canvas with each brush-stroke. Sentences that are awful have to be rewritten and worked on until they become good – or be erased, even if the process of writing a novel can then take up to four years.

His entire style has a certain minimalism to it, that makes it poignant and shoots straight to the heart. Unlike Knausgård who attacks the events of his autobiographical novels from every possible angle and exhaust them with an overload of details, Espedal cultivates an economy of words that can sometime give the narrative an eery quality, with feelings, impressions and memories piercing through the surface like daggers.

An interview (with English subtitles) about his life and his views on the craft of writing (hosted by Louisiana Channel)

Wandering - from lost love, family and oneself

His main identity concern finds its origin in Thomas Mann's saga, The Buddenbrooks, telling the story of a family coming to an end when the last son renounces the family ways and is unable to produce an heir. Espedal fills the same position: the last of a family of factory workers, he decides to be an intellectual. The line ends with him. He relates those episodes in many of his novels. How he tried to take up a factory job, aged 16, and how, sometimes, on a Sunday afternoon, he wishes he had a profession to exert on the next morning. Though, he admitted that being a writer working with language, having to hone that gift everyday, he finally developed it into a profession, a craft, not only something he could live of, but also a social and intellectual identity.

Another theme is the one of wandering. Wandering through the streets of Bergen (echoing Knut Hamsun, perhaps, in old Kristiania), but also through Europe, Norway, the world sometimes, alone, with friends, with a lost love, following the teachings of the French and German philosophers and poets he holds so dear (Gå. Eller kunsten å leve et vilt og poetisk liv).
For this is a stylistic idiosyncrasy in his work that some may find enthralling yet can make others turn in disgust at what could pass for intellectual snobbism: Espedal loves to quote, and he does so often. His lost love with a younger woman brings Abelard and Heloise from the grave, his reflections on love call for a quote from Ovid's Ars amatoria; as Schiller wrote, as Rimbaud said, as my friend, the writer, the actor, the record-seller, told me (for there is a lot of name-dropping as well in his books)...
Wandering is not so much a way of seeing other parts of the world, but more of relocalising love stories or being oneself some place else. And for the person walking the streets of Bergen, sitting down in the café Opéra where he rekindled his acquaintance with his wife, going to the record shop Apollon, visiting the literature house and meeting in the flesh the protagonists of his novels who form the contemporary Norwegian intellectual scene, the feeling of walking right into the décor of a book makes the illusion of fiction all the more enjoyable.

Everybody dies. Everybody leaves him. Espedal has lived many lives: he lost his father, his mother, his wife (who was an actress and who made him move to South America for a while). He lost his daughter who moved to the capital. He loved a much younger woman who moved away eventually.
Lately, he also ended up in the middle of a controversy where he admitted he was trying to get rid of his readers as well, and lost a lot in the process.

A (surprinsingly sunny) view of Bergen from the top of Mount Sandviken, overlooking Tomas Espedal's birthplace
A (surprinsingly sunny) view of Bergen from the top of Mount Sandviken, overlooking Tomas Espedal's birthplace | Source

The controversy on "culture broads"

According to him, the cultural scene in Norway is mostly driven by middle-aged upper-class women, who have but a nominal interest for art and use their financial power to organize the cultural events that would allow them to rub elbows with writers and artists at salons and causeries. Only few young, poor, students, writers, men, ever come to these events. He called those creatures «kulturmennesker» («culture people»). His words were distorted by a journalist who printed that Espedal had used the word «kulturkjerringer» («culture broads»), and, in the middle of a nation-wide debate, Espedal ended up being accused of misogyny and of disrespecting an audience which effectively allows him to earn his living. Though the affair against him deflated (yet the word «kulturkjerring» was elected word of the year), the author's position on who he wants to have as a readership has not changed. He confesses to be a snob, and writes for a diversified but small minority...but at least he writes well, for, as he said in an interview in Morgenbladet in 2013: write well, or keep silent.

Sophie Calle, discussing with Thomas Espedal about the exhibition in Stavanger dedicated to her work

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BIBLIOGRAPHY

  • En vill flukt av parfymer – (1988) (Eide Forlag)

    A young writer lives in Rome. With that woman, he discovers love and jealousy.
  • Jeg vil bo i mitt navn – (1990) (Eide Forlag)

    A biography. Already an illustration of his poetic and mixed style.

  • Hun og jeg – (1991) (Gyldendal)

    A love story.

  • Hotell Norge – (1995) (Gyldendal)

    Four characters' postmodern views on philosophy, women, desire, art.

  • Blond (erindring) – (1996) (Gyldendal)

    Memories of growing up, and being blond-haired like his mother.

  • Biografi (glemsel) – (1999) (Gyldendal)

    Daily impressions. The first part of a trilogy

  • Dagbok (epitafer) – (2003) (Gyldendal)

    Part two.

  • Brev (et forsøk) – (2005) (Gyldendal)

    Part three.

  • Gå. Eller kunsten å leve et vilt og poetisk liv – (2006) (Gyldendal)

    A journey across Norway and Europe, inspired by philosophers and poets.

  • Ly – (2007) (H Press)

    A botanic of the body.

  • Imot kunsten – (2009) (Gyldendal)

    The story of being the last of a family of factory workers.

  • Imot naturen – (2011) (Gyldendal)

    The narrator falls in love with a young woman and feels it goes against nature. As he retells the story of Abelard and Heloise, he also relates his relationship with the actress he had married.

  • Bergeners – (2013) (Gyldendal)

    Inspired by Joyce's Dubliners, from New York to Bergen, the narrator tries to survive his lost love. One chapter answers Knausgård's chapter on his rape accusation, seen from the point of view of an other witness. Another page deals with July, 22nd. A total mixture of diary entries, poems, short stories and notes.


Tomas Espedal's Bergeners, a different take on Dubliners.
Tomas Espedal's Bergeners, a different take on Dubliners. | Source

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