As “Nordic Noir” continues to hit our screens and bookshops, Alexander Brett looks back at just how this came about- and it’s a surprisingly long story
The Bridge, Beck, Wallander, The Killing: the sensation that is “Nordic Noir” has never been more popular for British readers and audiences. But why has Scandinavia, whose nations regularly top the charts of transparency, equality, happiness and well-being and the bottom of the charts for crime rates, produced such dark, depressing and disturbing works of art, literature, theatre and television? And how can this gloom and doom coexist with our continual perceptions of a liberal, fun loving land: the sounds of ABBA and A-ha, the cosiness of “hygge” and the stylish furniture of Ikea?
I will embark on a whistle-stop tour of major Scandinavian writers, artists and intellectuals to try and unearth exactly where this darkness has sprung from, and why it continues to be so irresistible for Nordic natives and foreigners alike.
Before the twentieth century, Scandinavia was almost entirely unknown to other Europeans. The Renaissance had failed to reach it with the same magnitude as the rest of the Continent and Norway was not Christianised by the Catholic Church until the early thirteenth century, with the Sami not converted until as late as the eighteenth century; and, with the exception of Sweden, who maintained a relatively strong international presence, the Nordic nations had become incredibly reclusive.
After the fall of the Viking Empire, Norway was in fact close to dying out completely. The Kalmar Union of 1397 meant that it had become the oppressed partner in a union with Denmark and Sweden, and it was not until 1905 that the Swedish king, Charles XIII, finally relinquished control of the country, with Norway becoming an independent state.
But far from embracing this new found independence with open arms, Norway panicked.
Edvard Munch’s painting of 1893, Skrik (The Scream), perhaps the most recognisable and parodied painting in history after De Vinci’s Mona Lisa, personifies the collective Norwegian shock at coming to terms with the fact that they must fend for themselves in an ever changing, rapidly industrialising world: the world moves on while Norway stops and screams at its crippling lack of self-confidence.
After home rule was achieved in 1815, when Norway entered a “personal union” with Sweden and independence appeared inevitable, Norwegian artists, composers and writers came under immense pressure to find a suitable “national cultural language” for their nation. Centuries of rule from abroad had essentially crushed all traces of the ancient, Viking rooted identity, and the “new Norwegian” image would have to be entirely original.
Edvard Grieg, who would later instil in Jean Sibelius a “Finnish national voice” as it shook of Russian rule in 1917, was particularly influential in giving Norway a “national musical language”. What made Grieg unique among the artists of the day was that rather than providing an entirely original genre he attempted to realise what many saw as a dead end: returning Norway to its folkloric foundations, the mysterious land of trolls and legends untouched by the outside world. To his surprise, he was hugely successful in tapping into the lingering nostalgia of times long since passed.
But of this period, it is not an artist or composer who is most remembered, but a playwright: Henrik Ibsen.
Ibsen’s plays are grim, grey and dark, revolving around the lives of the socially oppressed (of which he was a member): he is, in effect, the very essence of all things “Nordic Noir”. But the “land of the oppressed” that Ibsen conjured up so effortlessly was not the stuff not of drama, but reality. His chronically poor family was just one of many thousands across Norway.
Henrik Ibsen- father of Scandi Noir?
Industrialisation had scarcely reached this outpost of Europe, and with the factories of Malmö, Gothenburg and Stockholm snatched away on independence, it was down to cities such as Bergen, Stavanger and Oslo to take up the baton. They took up the challenge, but change was painfully slow, and, just as industrialisation seemed complete, in April 1940 the Nazis invaded. As in its other conquered lands, the Wehrmacht obliterated all of the industrialisation that had been achieved, and anything they themselves built was destroyed by an incredibly strong and brave Resistance movement. By May 1945, as the Germans withdrew, there was, essentially, nothing left.
But, as in France and Britain, the Second World War left a gaping hole for a growth in Socialism and the emergence of a welfare state.
The post war period was to mark the birth of the Norway that we all recognise today- the beginning of the “Nordic Model”, where citizens hand the government up to fifty five per cent of their earnings without a second glance, but are rewarded with some of the most effective social security systems in the world. Under the premiership of Prime Minister Einar Gerhardsen Norway was transformed from a poverty stricken, backward land, to a cultivated, forward thinking European powerhouse. But this transformation was understandably disorientating for most Norwegians, and the country entered the modern world blurry-eyed.
“Under the premiership of Prime Minister Einar Gerhardsen Norway was transformed from a poverty stricken, backward land, to a cultivated, forward thinking European powerhouse”
Then, as the population began to adjust to their new nation, on 21st August 1969, oil was struck in Norwegian waters. The government rushed to nationalise the reserve, but however much the government tried, it was inevitable that some of this new found wealth would trickle into the hands of the average citizen. With the days of poverty fresh in many Norwegians’ memories, they could not believe their eyes. As the money rained down, they went mad.
Jo Nesbø, once small town footballer and musician from Mølde on Norway’s west coast, was quick to respond to this self-indulgence and free-for-all approach to managing their new-found saviour. In his works that include The Redbreast and The Snowman, since published in over fifty languages, he expresses disillusionment and alienation with his country’s new identity- its greed, and the ruthless criminal underworld that forms as a result, as seen through the eyes of Oslo police officer and alcoholic Harry Hole. His is a world of corruption, deceit and immense pragmatism. But oil also allowed many Norwegians to travel abroad for the first time, and this jet-setting, global outlook is reflected in The Bat, where Hole travels with an Australian sidekick to Queensland.
Sweden, by contrast, had no oil, but was certainly no poorer than her supposedly less civilised neighbour.
Provided they could place it on a map, blonde girls, speedboats and picnics in the sun were the only images of Sweden that found their way to British eyes during the sixties. And this was not only a foreigner’s perspective, but also a Swede’s; with a strong economy, benevolent welfare state and a feeling of unbreakable security, Sweden had never been happier.
Then in came Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö with their irresistibly valiant detective, Martin Beck. This was the beginning of Scandinavian noir as we know it, the unique blend of traditional crime fiction and a poking of holes in societal flaws. The Beck novels were an instant success in both Scandinavia and Britain, but Beck’s impeccable knowledge of the truths of society, written from a left-wing perspective, did little to dent both native and foreign perceptions of the Nordic paradise- it was going to take more than this gritty socialist writing to change our perceptions.
And then they did- with a sudden, unexpected and deeply traumatising jolt.
On the night of 28th February 1986 Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme was walking home from the cinema with his wife, Lisbet. He had shunned police protection for the evening and, as he rounded the corner of Sveavägen, he was shot in the back from point blank range. After a taxi driver raised the alarm, Palme was rushed to hospital, but died shortly after. His attacker had walked calmly onto the Tunnelbana (Stockholm’s metro system) and disappeared.
Sweden descended into shock. The very self-confidence in their security that had meant their Prime Minister did not require protection that night was now under threat and many began to question whether their country really was free from the evils suffered by the rest of the world.
But while most of society panicked, writers rejoiced. The consequent investigation into Palme’s death, which eventually led to the conviction of small time drug addict Christer Petterson, opened a project that cost the Swedish intelligence services 350 SEK (around €30 million), the largest police investigation in history. Palme’s assassination, like Kennedy’s, had opened the door to countless conspiracy theories and questions of corruption- prime material for the rising stars of crime fiction.
“While most of society panicked, writers rejoiced”
It was out of this chaos that Henning Mankell first found success. Mankell, like Sjöwell and Wahlöö, wrote from a profoundly Socialist perspective. A successful dramatist in Stockholm during the eighties, it was in 1991 that Detective Kurt Wallander first came to the attention of Swedes, and Brits soon after in 1997.
The books were an immediate success, and have gone on to be adapted to the screen, stage and even opera. The exploits of this troubled detective have been portrayed by numerous actors, but most notably Kenneth Brannagh in the English translation, and Krister Henriksson in the original Swedish, both of whom were huge successes on either side of the North Sea. He is an old man, an honest but emotionally disturbed man that we can all relate with, wherever we come from.
Wallander lives in Ystad, a picturesque town in southern Sweden, where small wooden houses give way to swaying wheat fields- the ideal weekend break for a British family, provided you’re prepared to put up with its colossal murder rate- leaving us wondering whether there really is anyone in Ystad who is neither a murderer, victim or both. But Ystad is a metaphor for Sweden as a whole, post-Palme- an idyllic backwater where, all too sadly, bad things happen. And Wallander’s left-wing but subdued, calm recognition of this is vital to the stories’ success.
It is Wallander who points out what was to be yet another blow to the Swedish welfare state: new waves of immigration. 1991, when Faceless Killers, the first of the Wallander series was published, saw the fall of Communism in Europe. With the Iron Curtain swept aside, former Communist citizens flocked to this “strange land” of Sweden that so effortlessly combined Socialism with democracy- Communism without the Stasi and KGB. But was the welfare state really strong enough to cope with these new arrivals from Poland, Serbia, Latvia and Czechoslovakia?
Kenneth Brannagh as Detective Kurt Wallander in the BBC series
Thankfully, the fragile structure of the social security system has held up so far, even with 98,216 Syrian refugees now living in a country of just ten million. Whether Sweden can continue to extend its benevolent welcome to outsiders, support a welfare system and fend off ever-present neo-Nazi movements such as the National Socialist Front (omnipresent in Swedish politics since the nineties), is another question.
No author was faster to acknowledge the rising desire to preserve a land of blonde girls and long haired Vikings to salvage the welfare state than Steig Larsson.
The Millennium Trilogy, which most notably includes The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was a representation of Sweden’s rapidly rising xenophobia. The trilogy’s protagonist, Lisbeth Salander, is anti-social and incredibly ugly- as the title suggests she is covered from head to toe in tattoos. She is the very personification of the Syrian refugees of today: physically and mentally unattractive, there only to be abused and despised by a hostile native population, in Lisbeth’s case, her stepfather.
And the same situation is playing out across the Øresund Bridge in Denmark.
Denmark’s xenophobia is perhaps more worrying, as it concerns an alienation of their own colonial subjects, the Greenlanders. With their Asian appearance, an Eskimo in Copenhagen is immediately recognisable.
Although an alienation to these outsiders, who are given the same official rights as mainland Danes, is ever present in Danish literature, film and television, Peter Høeg is one of the only writers to have created a book centred on the subject, Miss Smilla’s Feelings for Snow. Smilla, a native Greenlander, arrives in metropolitan Denmark with a continual longing to return to her homeland and when a fellow Greenlandic little boy falls to his death, the ineffectual police force means that she must investigate a network of criminal underworlds that open up before her. This is the Denmark nobody wants to admit could exist, a country with colonial ambitions so great that they are prepared to exploit the conquered- a far cry from the travelogues and fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen.
But it’s not all doom and gloom in Scandinavia, as I might have suggested up to now.
The concept of “hygge” (loosely translated as “cosiness”) exploded in the UK last year, with guidebooks on The Art of Hygge and even a Little Book of Hygge- a “hygge” manual like the ones from Ikea in every bookshop.
The idea that since Nordic Noir hit our bookshops and screens we now see Scandinavia as a depressed wasteland is about as far away from the truth as possible. We all want to be a Scandi and even our politicians realise this- David Cameron, a fan of The Killing, was constantly searching for the next secret to success in Copenhagen, and the “Norwegian model” has become a beacon for many post-Brexit.
I think there is still some Viking flare within us, some connection we get with Scandinavia that we can’t from the “Mediterranean Noir” of Inspector Montalbano for example, the Chekhovian darkness or the French despair. Both Britain and Scandinavia have long, cold winters, an innate social awkwardness and a desire for justice to be achieved. We love to watch Montalbano sipping an expresso in the Sicilian sun, but it’s not real life. Wallander working long hours, very tired, living alone and suffering from the early stages of Alzheimer’s- that, all too sadly, is more like the real world.
But what about the Scandinavians themselves, why are they so drawn to writing these depressing stories? Are they bored?
The simple answer is yes. While tragic events may occur- Anders Breivik, Olof Palme- these nations are still unbelievably safe. The noir they tune into is an imagination of a very different world, one of abductions and murders; one that, for Scandinavians, doesn’t exist. They can settle down to watch The Bridge or The Killing, then look out of their window and see that everything is calm, orderly and clean.