A Field Guide to Scandinavian Literary Birdbrains
If you’re looking for a place with a high concentration of literary eminences who can be counted on to spout incredibly fatuous political clichés in a consistently self-regarding tone, pack your mukluks and set sail for the frozen North.
April 25, 2011 - 12:07 am
Every major Western country has one or two of them. I’m speaking of world-class literary cranks — those high-profile, brand-name authors who, when not banging out novels or collecting Nobel Prizes, keep themselves busy smugly pontificating about the evils of America and Israel, tearing down capitalism and Western freedom, and celebrating totalitarians (who, if put in charge of the countries in which these writers live, would either imprison or execute them).
Until recently, for example, Britain had Nobel laureate Harold Pinter, who in the years before his death in 2008 compared the U.S. to Nazi Germany and championed “solidarity” with the PLO and Castro. Germany still has its own aging Nobelist Günter Grass, who in 2006, after a lifetime of insufferable, self-satisfied moral lecturing from a consistently far-left, anti-American perspective, finally got around to admitting that in his youth he’d been a member of the Waffen SS. Until last year Portugal had José Saramago, a lifelong, unrepentant Communist who likened Israel to Nazi Germany — and who, yep, also bagged a Nobel.
When Saramago died, David Frum, in a National Post article headlined “Death of a Jew-Hater,” quoted from a piece the novelist had written for El País:
“[C]ontaminated by the monstrous and rooted ‘certitude’ that in this catastrophic and absurd world there exists a people chosen by God … the Jews endlessly scratch their own wound to keep it bleeding, to make it incurable, and they show it to the world as if it were a banner.”
And hey, let’s not forget America’s own Gore Vidal, whose rants against all things American have grown more bitter and wacky with each passing year — at least in part, one suspects, a product of Vidal’s frustration over never having gotten that phone call from the Swedish Academy.
But not all famous writers are fools (though it may sometimes seem otherwise), and in fact cranks on the truly impressive level of a Pinter, Grass, Saramago, or Vidal don’t grow on trees (though it may sometimes seem otherwise).
Except, that is, in Scandinavia. If you’re looking for a place with a remarkably high concentration of literary eminences who can be counted on to spout incredibly fatuous political clichés in a consistently self-regarding tone (though heaven knows why, aside from sheer masochism, you’d be looking for such a place), pack your mukluks and set sail for the frozen North. For the fact is that an extraordinary percentage of this region’s most honored and bestselling writers harbor an ardent, palpable, quivering contempt for America and Israel, and express it in a language that’s breathtaking for its utter lack of moderation, nuance, or restraint (or, for that matter, originality).
Take, for example, Jostein Gaarder, author of the international bestseller Sophie’s World, who — as I noted here at PJM recently in a piece about Norwegian anti-Semitism — won new fans with a 2006 Aftenposten op-ed. Writing in the royal “we,” Gaarder took it upon himself to consign Israel to the dustbin of history: “We no longer recognize the state of Israel….The state of Israel in its current form is history. We don’t believe in the idea of God’s chosen people….To present oneself as God’s chosen people is not just stupid and arrogant, but a crime against humanity. We call it racism.” (This is, by the way, a popular trope among Gaarder and his repellent ilk: framing one’s own racism as an accusation of racism.)
“There are limits to our patience,” preached Gaarder, “and there are limits to our tolerance. We do not believe in divine promises as a justification for occupation and apartheid. We have placed the Middle Ages behind us. We laugh uneasily at those who still believe that the God of the flora, the fauna, and the galaxies has chosen a certain people as his favorites and given them funny stone tablets, burning bushes, and a license to kill.” (In the Norwegian original, those last three words are in English.)
Of course Gaarder’s fantasy of a nation run by fanatical biblical literalists is just that: a fantasy, and a bilious one at that, with no connection whatsoever to the reality of contemporary Israeli society or the to the calculus of Israeli defense. (Indeed, Gaarder’s feverish fulminations about medieval belief systems and Master Race ideology would be far more legitimate if directed at Hezbollah, Hamas, or any one of a number of other groups and governments in the Mideast that would quash Israel like a bug if they could.) Yet despicable though Gaarder’s essay was, many of his literary colleagues were quick to hop onto his bandwagon. Renowned novelist and crime author Jon Michelet, who has played a leading role in Norway’s Communist movement, and top-seeded Norwegian intellectual Thomas Hylland Eriksen, who in addition to being a social anthropologist at the University of Oslo is also a ubiquitous TV talking head and critic of “Islamophobia,” supported Gaarder enthusiastically, as did beloved children’s book author Anne B. Ragde (“a very, very good and wise op-ed”) and popular novelist-playwright Edvard Hoem (“Gaarder is doing his intellectual duty, and he’s doing it better than anyone else”).
Then there’s the Swedish writer Henning Mankell, whose Kurt Wallander mystery novels are international bestsellers — and who is a classic anti-Semite and “useful idiot” of the first water. In a time when Jews are being driven out of Sweden by hate-crime-committing Muslims whom the authorities are too pusillanimous to punish, Mankell — a crime writer, mind you — averts his gaze, fastening it instead on Israeli Jews’ purported offenses against Arabs. In 2009, after attending a “Palestinian literary festival” (!), Mankell painted Israelis in Aftonbladet as vicious, rancorous Palestinian-haters while claiming that he had come across absolutely no evidence of anti-Jewish feeling among the Palestinians he’d met. (The systematic poisoning of Palestinian children with lies about Jews is an amply substantiated reality, but in such matters Mankell and his ilk prefer to disseminate propaganda rather than face the plain and simple facts.) Mankell described Israel as an apartheid state and made it clear that he welcomed its fall.
Then, last year, he took in that convoy of Hamas “aid” vessels that headed from Turkey toward Gaza, and after his detention and release by Israeli authorities he claimed to be weighing the option of denying the citizens of that rogue state the joy of reading his potboilers: “I am a best-selling author in Israel and I must consider seriously whether I should block my books from being translated to Hebrew,” Mankell told Dagens Nyheter. The question, of course, is why any self-respecting Israeli publisher would want to have anything to do with this pal of terrorists.
Mankell’s countryman Jan Guillou — author of the Coq Rouge series of spy yarns and a trilogy about the Crusades — agrees with him that Israel is an apartheid state and, like him, looks forward to its demise. A longtime member of Maoist groups who has written glowingly of Saddam Hussein, Guillou walked out of the Gothenburg Book Fair rather than participate in a three-minute silence in memory of the victims of 9/11, explaining that 9/11 was not “an attack on us all” but rather “an attack on U.S. imperialism” that was justified because “the U.S. is the great mass murderer of our time.” (I do not know how Guillou explained later Islamist attacks on London, Madrid, and other non-American targets.) It didn’t come as much of a surprise when, in 2009, the Swedish newspaper Expressen reported that the famed spy novelist had himself once been a paid Soviet agent — a revelation that shows no signs, by the way, of having dented Guillou’s popularity in the slightest.
Let’s not forget Denmark. Just the other day, Danish novelist Jens Høvsgaard gave an interview to Dagbladet about his new crime novel, The Seventh Day. In Scandinavia today, rates of rape, assault, and other violent crimes are on the rise; the perpetrators are disproportionately young Muslim men, and the victims are almost always non-Muslim. Høvsgaard, like other Scandinavian crime writers, neatly flips reality around: in The Seventh Day, the villains are evangelical Christians and the victims are Muslims.
Høvsgaard told Dagbladet that he’s concerned about the dangerous new brew in Western society of extreme religiosity and right-wing politics; needless to say, he doesn’t mean the growth of fanatical, fascistic, patriarchal Islam. No, his type can only see Muslims as good guys; as for the bad guys, Høvsgaard invites his interviewer to “[l]ook at the Tea Party movement in the U.S., for example: Christians of a very racist bent. The groups have the same agenda — they’re against gays, Muslims, and Africans.” (Not only is Høvsgaard either ignorant of or dishonest about the Tea Party agenda; he also appears not to have had time to look into the position of Islam on homosexuality.) Høvsgaard further claims that today’s Danish Muslims are in the same position that Danish Jews were in between the world wars. Yes, who can forget those trouble-making Danish Jews who, back in the 1930s, sponged off the state, taught their kids to despise secular Western democracy, and protested newspaper cartoons by rioting violently, burning Danish flags, and plotting the murder of journalists?
It’s a close contest, but perhaps he most despicable member of this pantheon is Norwegian novelist Dag Solstad, who is generally viewed as one of his nation’s most distinguished living cultural figures. In 2008, Solstad published an essay in the literary journal Samtiden entitled “On Freedom of Expression,” which was intended, and received, as a major statement by a leading writer about a vitally important topic. It began with the following self-absorbed sentences:
One would think that a left-leaning, oppositional author would be among the most stubborn defenders of freedom of expression in his own country….But that’s not true in my case.
I take a completely indifferent posture toward freedom of expression, as one naturally does toward truisms, and I cannot envision a future in which a situation will arise in which I will be denied the right to express myself.
Far from being threatened, Solstad says, free speech is now being used “as a weapon directed against everything I stand for.” He is referring, of course, to the criticism of Islam by (among others) Danish cartoonists. In Solstad’s view, some expression is simply not worth defending — on the contrary, it deserves to be silenced.
Solstad also argues that, whatever you or I may think, free speech isn’t really all that necessary for the creation and preservation of great books. After all, he notes, his own personal library is crowded with historically significant books, some of them written hundreds of years ago, that people in power never managed to destroy. How did this happen? Solstad writes as if the preservation of these books is the result of some magical, mysterious sociocultural alchemy beyond his comprehension. He doesn’t mention that the Nazis, for example — to name the most recent pack of book-burners to hold power in Norway — were prevented from completing their program of destruction by armed men who risked their lives to bring down Hitler’s tyranny. Nor does Solstad mention the censorship in Communist Eastern Europe of writers like Havel and the imprisonment in the Soviet Gulag of writers like Solzhenitsyn. His attitude seems to be that if you just wait long enough, oppression will disappear, and long-suppressed great books will resurface. It’s a characteristically Scandinavian posture — passive, fatalistic, phlegmatic. Let others fight the battles; better to be peaceable than to fight for freedom.
Or perhaps it’s more correct to describe Solstad’s position as Stalinist. For like many members of the Norwegian cultural elite, Solstad was a longtime member of AKP (m-l), a now-defunct Maoist party. As if to quell any doubts about his current politics, he provided the following reassurance in another 2008 essay: “I say it quite openly: I’m proud. I stand tall. I’m a communist once more.” I quote from the official translation; in the original Norwegian this passage began “I dare say it openly.” That dare is hilarious — for a Norwegian author to “dare” to be a Communist is like a member of NOW “daring” to support abortion rights.
I’ll close with a brief mention of a Swedish writer whose books, in the last couple of years, have sold more copies around the world than those of any of his colleagues, Scandinavian or otherwise. The publication of Stieg Larsson’s giant bestsellers The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl who Played with Fire, and The Girl who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest came after years of intense involvement in Swedish Communist politics: Larsson was an active member of the Communist Workers’ League, the founder of the “anti-racist” group Expo, and the editor of its eponymous journal. Alas, Larsson died in 2004, and his novels were published posthumously — so that if we want to know what sorts of tirades he’d be delivering today if he’d survived to enjoy his international acclaim, we need to look back at the stuff he wrote years ago.
Fortunately, some of Larssen’s essays for Expo are available at its website. They’re works of blatant far-left propaganda. To be sure, he pays intense critical attention to anti-Semitism and terrorism; yet his focus, at least in the essays that have been posted, is exclusively on right-wing European anti-Semitism and terrorism, which are, after all, perfect grist for his propaganda mill. It’s telling that when the topic of Islam surfaces in one essay, we find Larssen not criticizing Islamic anti-Semitism or terrorism, but, rather, censuring his fellow Swedes for expressing concern about Islam — which he attributes, in familiar fashion, to racism and far-right nationalism.
It seems not unlikely, then, that had Larsson lived, he’d have been out there bloviating with the best of them. Not, of course, that Scandinavia’s many-throated chorus of PC literati needed another voice.