Scandinavia's literary wealth


Books: Decades of prosperity and security have fostered a sense of comfort and culture in the region, giving people the time to read and writers the time to work.

June 26, 2000|By Carol J. Williams | Carol J. Williams,LOS ANGELES TIMES

OSLO, Norway - Inviting scents of cinnamon and cardamom waft from the crowded cafes along Karl Johans Gate, where businesspeople and bellboys, shoppers and students, take time each day to sip strong coffee and linger over a good book.

It is a sensuous indulgence that can be seen in town and country across Scandinavia, where decades of economic prosperity have fostered comfort and culture, giving rise to educated societies that have both a hunger for intellectual diversion and the literary talent to feed it.

Writers at the top of national best-seller lists in Norway, Sweden and Denmark have turned on its head the assumption that creative geniuses must suffer for their art.

It seems in this small corner of the world - which has produced far more than its share of international triumphs, such as "Smilla's Sense of Snow," "Sophie's World" and "Hanna's Daughters" - that wealth and security can provide their own inspiration. Not since the 19th-century fame of Hans Christian Andersen and Henrik Ibsen have writers from these chilly, wind-swept lands on the periphery of Europe enjoyed the international stature that they have achieved over the past decade.

Not that Scandinavian writers ever labored in obscurity. In the nearly 100 years that Nobel prizes for literature have been awarded, 15 Scandinavian authors have been honored, compared with 11 from the United States, which has more than 10 times the population of this region.

Writers in Scandinavia are held in much the same awe as movie stars in the United States and are often recognizable to readers because of the revered tradition of public readings. Danish writer Carsten Jensen, although professionally overshadowed by Peter Hoeg, a fellow Dane, has taken part in more than 100 literary evenings at bookstores and community halls over the past few years.

Successful Scandinavian writers also seek prominence outside their homeland because they need a larger stage.

"Scandinavian societies are so small that even once you've become very visible in these countries, there's a limit to how much more you can do," says Norwegian novelist Erik Fosnes Hansen. A different language is spoken in each of the five Scandinavian countries - also including Finland and Iceland - and they comprise only 24 million people.

Many of the contemporary storytellers distinguishing this region as a land of letters attribute their success to a kind of cultural welfare that frees the mind and imagination from the mundane considerations of mortgages and doctors' bills that burden their colleagues elsewhere.

"When people are rich, they have time and money for concentrating on culture and art," says Jostein Gaarder, whose 1991 history of philosophy seen through the eyes of a 14-year-old girl, "Sophie's World," has sold a phenomenal 20 million copies worldwide.

Like other novelists from this region, Gaarder, a Norwegian, credits a supportive environment and a rich literary history for the renown he and others enjoy.

Government programs in the Scandinavian countries provide indirect subsidies to writers by guaranteeing publishers that the state will buy a significant share of each novel's first run for public libraries, taking on much of the risk involved with publishing works by unknowns. All bookstores also are obliged by law to have in stock all titles by national authors published within the past two years.

Book prices are fixed, as in most of Europe, which deprives readers of the cut-rate deals offered by big bookstore chains in the United States - to no discernible detriment to local reading habits.

In fact, more titles are published and more books are purchased per capita here than in the rest of Europe, where people read much more than Americans do. According to Svenska Bokhandel, the Swedish booksellers association, Scandinavians trail only Britons in per capita book sales in Europe.

Gaarder, 49, a former teacher, has another novel being translated for the U.S. market. "Maja," which he describes as "edu-tainment," blending art history, modern mystery and natural science. The novel explores human evolution by tracing a contemporary woman's ancestry to the figure in the late 18th- and early 19th-century paintings by Spanish artist Francisco Goya, "The Maja Naked" and "The Maja Clothed."

"People want to learn, but find textbooks too difficult. They want to read about these subjects within the framework of a story," he says.

Hansen, whose fictional evocation of musicians aboard the Titanic made "Psalm at Journey's End" a best-seller throughout Europe, agrees that the mental relief provided by social democracy is probably an element in Scandinavian writers' success.

"Socialized medicine and national insurance provide everyone with a sense of safety and security," says the 35-year-old author with three ambitious works behind him. "Even if you get a serious illness, you don't have to worry about ending up with huge bills to pay."

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