Dag Solstad's Big Socialist Payday

One of the things the Norwegian socialist system has nearly perfected is the punishment of certain beliefs, behaviors, and lifestyles by taxing them to death and the rewarding of others with taxpayer-funded largesse.

For example, if you choose to socialize regularly with your friends at a bar, where you enjoy a couple of beers while talking over your problems, you’ll be severely penalized for it by Norway’s sky-high alcohol taxes, as a result of which the average beer costs around ten dollars. If, by contrast, you choose to meet your friends at a Muslim community center, where you discuss the virtues of hijab, honor killing, forced marriage, and female genital mutilation and the evils of democracy, sexual equality, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and gay rights over a cup of coffee, you’ll be just fine, because these centers enjoy generous government support. It’s all quite simple -- bars bad, Muslim community centers good.

The same calculus applies to all sorts of other things. The Norwegian system is suspicious of entrepreneurs -- seen through socialist eyes, they are troublemakers, introducing an element of chaos, anarchy, and unpredictability into what otherwise would be a smoothly functioning machine under constant government oversight. Among the entrepreneurs who are regarded with suspicion are freelance writers. The system does its best to discourage people from entering this line of work by (among other things) forcing them to charge their customers value-added tax, file paperwork about this every two months, and fill out additional tax forms every year. In addition, the Norwegian system offers a range of benefits and perks to ordinary employees that freelancers finance with their taxes but are barred from enjoying themselves. To be a freelance writer in Norway, in short, is to condemn oneself to the life of a second-class citizen.

But this is not, note well, the case for all freelance writers. A number of authors and poets receive an annual government stipend amounting to a figure which, in American dollars, is somewhere in the low five figures. What to make of this? On the one hand, it is not unreasonable to argue that a democratic nation should find ways to promote cultural achievement. On the other hand, it is not unreasonable to ask why authors upon whom the government does not look fondly should pay steep taxes to support authors who, for whatever reason, have won the government’s favor. This question is especially critical when the taxpaying author is struggling to make ends meet and the tax-money-receiving author is wealthy.

It is an especially critical question when the author at the receiving end of government largesse is someone like Dag Solstad. And we’re not talking about any token sum. No, the Norwegian minister of culture, Anniken Huitfeldt, has just announced that Solstad will be only the fourth cultural figure in Norwegian history to receive what is known as a “honorary salary” at the expense of Norwegian taxpayers. How much? Solstad will be paid 200,000 kroner a year, tax-free, for the rest of his life. Given Norwegian tax rates, that is equivalent to an income of around $60,000 or $70,000 annually -- every kroner of it taken from the taxes paid by, among others, Solstad’s fellow Norwegian writers (most of whom, needless to say, are a hell of a lot less well off than he is).

The three previous recipients of this honor, all of them now deceased, were the nationally famous and beloved actors Per Aabel and Wenche Foss and the sculptor Fritz Røed. None were visibly needy. Foss, for one, could regularly be spotted at one of the priciest eateries in town, Theatercaféen. As for Røed --well, not to put him down, but why give him this honor and not, say, Odd Nerdrum, who is perhaps the greatest painter of our time, and certainly the greatest living artist in Norway? Well, if you want the answer to that question you’d better ask the Norwegian art establishment, whose leading lights have long made it clear that they resent Nerdrum’s creative genius, technical facility, and genuine maverick status -- his rejection of the insipidities of contemporary art and insistence on following in the footsteps of Rembrandt and not Warhol. The Norwegian art scene’s movers and shakers recognize in Nerdrum’s go-it-alone greatness a harsh rebuke to their own witless, mediocre conventionality, their piety toward today’s art-establishment norms.  Such is the nature of this kind of honor: the establishment always calls the shots, and the artist or writer who ends up receiving the honor will invariably be someone whose work and public statements affirm the establishment’s core values and beliefs.