Silje Bekeng is a young Norwegian writer/journalist/critic who gives (or once gave) her location as “Brooklyn/Oslo”; she has a funny essay at N1BR (“the book review supplement to n+1 magazine”) called Into the Woods, about the peculiar obsessions of Norwegian literature going back to Hamsun. I’m sure she exaggerates for effect, but she provides a great series of “excerpts from the jacket copy of novels published by young(ish) writers in recent years” that certainly seem to illustrate her point, which she states here:
One character keeps showing up in our books: the young man having a breakdown in the woods. The plot goes something like this: the young man has never left his hometown, or has returned (because of the death of a parent) after an unsuccessful attempt at life in the big, unruly world. He has some problems communicating. Sometimes the reader is left to wonder if he might be mentally retarded.
He might meet a traditional animal, like a dog or an elk, that plays a significant role in the novel.
He listens to the silence, falls apart. The story mostly stays within the tradition of realism, though it sometimes flirts with surrealist tendencies. How crazy is he really? Would he ever hurt himself—or someone else? Toward the end, he might seem about to regain his composure. He will probably decide to remain in the countryside. Norwegians resemble Americans in this respect: we know that truth is something people find while walking in golden fields of wheat, that small-town life is more real than city life, and that real people are those who grow up with dirt under their fingernails.
She concludes that Hamsun was a great writer, but they need some other role models; it’s hard to disagree. And she mentions Jante Law, a series of ten rules that all boil down to “Don’t think you’re someone special,” which according to Bekeng “is commonly used to describe how provincial and intolerant other Norwegians are”; it was invented by the Danish-Norwegian writer Aksel Sandemose (not, as the N1BR text has it, “Sandemo”). I wish I could ask my late mother about it; I suspect it had not lost much of its force in the tiny Norwegian-American Iowa town she came (I almost said “escaped”) from.
A side note: Silje is originally a Finnish name, Silja, that was popularized throughout Scandinavia by its use in Frans Eemil Sillanpää‘s 1931 novel Nuorena nukkunut (The Maid Silja); it’s a vernacular form of Cecilia.