Tuesday, December 25, 2012

On "An Introduction to Scandinavian Literature" by Elias Bredsdorff, Brita Mortensen, and Ronald Popperwell **

This fairly short guide, written in 1950, provides a summary of Scandinavian literature from the earliest times to just after World War II. Like most such guides, its brevity is both its strength and its weakness, more the latter than the former. In the effort to be comprehensive, readers are often presented more with a list of names and one sentence commentary than something of substance that really delves into what makes the literature or the times unique, that really tells how that literature had an influence on the society.

On the whole, the earliest sections on the foundations of Danish literature (and Icelandic sagas), the last section on Norway, and the Danish sections in general tend to be the best. I think the first is probably the most interesting because there's so little of it, and so it's easier to summarize. We are given the story of the runes, of Elder Edda (a pre-Christian tale of the gods of the ancient Nordics), and of the family sagas. The last section on Norway proved to be interesting to me mostly because I was still looking for writers from Norway to add to my list of Scandinavian authors to read. And the sections on Danish lit in general seemed best because the author of those sections seemed more often to hit on the right balance of brevity and depth, often quoting important passages (rarely done for the Swedish or Norwegian lit), and more inclined to focus on important individuals.

Unfortunately, too often the book is merely a note on particular authors: so-and-so is an important author of the 1850s, best known for such-and-such. His other such-and-such is highly overrated. And what exactly did I learn from such a passage?

The book focuses primarily on the Danes and the Swedes. Finland is completely ignored; Norway becomes of concern only in the nineteenth century, with its near independence. Iceland, outside of the early sagas, is generally ignored as well. Still, the book did give me a few writers to focus on in the coming months. What I'd have really preferred is a general anthology of Scandinavian literature, but I have been unable to find one.

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