Scandinavians: In Search of the Soul of the North review: Nordic ghosts
An English writer gets beyond region’s cold outer layer for a most absorbing history
A new book on Scandinavia highlights the role of women in Nordic society as well as key cultural icons, from Hedda Gabler to police detective Saga Norén (Sofia Helin, above) in the The Bridge
Scandinavians: In Search of the Soul of the North
Head of Zeus
On August 10th, 1628, the great warship Vasa was launched in Stockholm harbour. Much was expected of this splendid vessel, designed expressly to embody the military might of the ascendant Swedish empire. This being the case, it was unfortunate that after a maiden voyage of a scant minute or two, the Vasa keeled over and sank, with the loss of 50 lives.
The ship had manifestly been ill-designed, but the all-conquering King Gustavus Adolphus had approved every step of its construction; and so nobody, and the monarch least of all, could be found guilty of anything. The Vasa would lie on the seabed, a sort of Nordic Titanic, for an 300 embarrassing years before it was eventually salvaged.
The story of the Vasa involves mistakes and geopolitical strategising, grief and death, blind loyalty, regional rivalries and a quest for national prestige. As such, it is part of a deeply human history. In Scandinavians: In Search of the Soul of the North, Robert Ferguson, an Englishman who lived in Norway for 30 years and written biographies of Ibsen and Knut Hamsen, describes this humiliating incident with an eye for both its political and its human context. This thread is sustained throughout what is an absorbing study of these enigmatic northern lands.
There is a tendency to associate Scandinavia with a hackneyed and bizarrely mixed bag of ideas: Ikea and Abba, oil wealth, melancholia and egalitarianism, Scandi noir, sexual license and political assassinations. And there has been no shortage in recent years of studies of the Scandinavians – Andrew Brown’s bleak Fishing in Utopia and Michael Booth’s jaunty and amusing The Almost Nearly Perfect People come to mind. But Ferguson’s book occupies a larger canvas, and offers a satisfying breadth of historical context that brings life and colour to a myriad of Scandinavian experiences.
Most of all, Ferguson is at pains to unpick the profound differences between Scandinavians themselves – differences of which the people are only too aware. They tend to be lumped together, and such thinking even seems to be encouraged by their governments.
Look, for example, the eye-catching Nordic embassy building in Berlin, where the nation states work together in birch-clad style and share saunas in apparently perfect amity. But the briefest of glances at Ferguson’s book tells a wholly different story, and sets out a history of blood-soaked fratricide, conquest and furious regional rivalries between Norway, Sweden and Denmark that spans the centuries.
Not least absorbing among these stories is the churning currents and counter-currents of the second World War years in Scandinavia. Certain episodes are described with electrifying clarity. There was the audacious operation in the autumn 1943, in which the vast majority of Nazi-occupied Denmark’s Jews were spirited across the water to sanctuary in Sweden.
There was also the sinking by the Norwegians of the heavily armed German warship Blücher in the Oslofjord in April 1940. The attack killed 1,000 German invaders and preserved Norwegian national pride, but also set the scene for a ferocious occupation of the country.
Ferguson traces Sweden’s policies in these violent years. The country was ostensibly neutral, but tilted unmistakably towards Nazi Germany – for stark reasons of national survival, to be sure, but Sweden’s actions generated a low-key bitterness in Norway that endures to the present day.
Many Norwegians today believe, he writes, that “for every refugee that arrives in Sweden, the Swedes cross one more name from the list of German soldiers who had crossed the border between Norway and Sweden from 1940 and 1944”. Equally, Ferguson looks at the uncomfortable history of outright Norwegian collaboration with the Nazis, underscoring the truth that in war, pragmatic self-preservation tends to outrank heroism.
A history of Scandinavia would not be complete without a survey of the wider Atlantic world. The book does justice to a much-travelled culture, exploring the unique Norse culture of Iceland and glancing at some of the enduring mysteries of Nordic history, such as the abrupt disappearance in the 15th century of the Norse colonies in Greenland, and the possible presence of Scandinavian wanderers in medieval North America. History sometimes has no clear answers to offer, and Ferguson is wise enough to underscore this point, and to offer instead fascinating and intricate contexts.
Best of all, perhaps, the author has an eye for social and cultural insights. He explores the female stake in the region’s history to marvellous effect: medieval sources, for example, speak of the independence of movement and thought asserted even in benighted times by Scandinavian women. He spotlights key figures, from the philosophy-hungry and throne-renouncing Queen Christina to actor Liv Ullmann; and cultural figures from Hedda Gabler to Saga Norén, the introverted protagonist of The Bridge.
As well, Ferguson highlights the region’s history of famine and of massive levels of emigration to the New World, setting this history alongside accounts of the contemporary migrants seeking new lives in a modern, prosperous but politically tense Scandinavia.
The narrative technique will not, perhaps, be pleasing to all: Ferguson offers, for example, an annotated rewriting of Ibsen’s Ghosts in order to bring fresh insights into Norwegian and Scandinavian life and culture. Such excursions in the narrative can seem to interrupt the narrative. Even here, however, fascinating glimpses that might otherwise be overlooked or lost are provided into everything from folk memory to royal and domestic history.
Such telling details are, or ought to be, part of the stories that we tell: history, if it is to aim at completeness, must emphasise the domestic and the cultural as much as, or more than, the military and diplomatic.
In this sense in particular, Scandinavians is most welcome: Ferguson stretches wide the fabric of history, his knowledge and insights in the process bringing the varied stories of the Nordic people vividly to life.
Neil Hegarty’s novel ‘Inch Levels’ has been been published by Head of Zeus