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Recherche littéraire/Literary Research

Fall 2019


Edited By Marc Maufort

Daniel Acke, Mark Anderson, Eugene L. Arva, Franca Bellarsi, Valérie-Anne Belleflamme, Thomas Buffet, Ipshita Chanda, Mateusz Chmurski, Wiebke Denecke, Christophe Den Tandt, Lieven D’hulst, César Domínguez, Manfred Engel, Dorothy Figueira, John B. Forster, Massimo Fusillo, Gerald Gillespie, Marie Herbillon, S. Satish Kumar, François Lecercle, Ursula Lindqvist, Jocelyn Martin, Jessica Maufort, Marc Maufort, Sam McCracken, Isabelle Meuret, Delphine Munos, Daniel-Henri Pageaux, Danielle Perrot-Corpet, Frank Schulze-Engler, Monica Spiridon, Jüri Talvet, Daria Tunca, Cyril Vettorato, Hein Viljoen, Jenny Webb

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Ursula Lindqvist: Thomas A. DuBois and Dan Ringgaard, eds. Nordic Literature: A Comparative History. Volume I: Spatial Nodes. Amsterdam and Philadelphia: John Benjamins, 2017. Pp. 747. ISBN: 9789027234681.

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Thomas A. DuBois and Dan Ringgaard, eds. Nordic Literature: A Comparative History. Volume I: Spatial Nodes. Amsterdam and Philadelphia: John Benjamins, 2017. Pp. 747. ISBN: 9789027234681.

Nordic Literature: A Comparative History. Volume I: Spatial Nodes is the thirty-first volume to appear in the series A Comparative History of Literatures in European Languages since 1967, when the Coordinating Committee for the Comparative History of Literatures in European Languages (CHLEL), which oversees the series, was founded by the International Comparative Literature Association. This volume is the first installment of an anticipated three-volume set devoted to Nordic literary history and overseen by U.S.-based scholars Steven P. Sondrup and Mark B. Sandberg. The guiding logic for all of the volumes in the larger series has been a broadly comparative approach; unlike traditional literary histories organized according to nation, language, or period, these comparative histories purport to “draw attention to a region defined by geographic proximity and allied but not necessarily identical processes of literary production” (xv). Previous volumes in the series have drawn these boundaries in a wide variety of ways, such as the cultural and geographical (e.g. the literatures in the Iberian Peninsula); the sociological (e.g. orality, literary hybrids and multimedia); the philosophical and stylistic (e.g. modernism, Romanticism); and the critical and conceptual (e.g. literature of the Caribbean). While all of the volumes attend to literatures in European languages, these comparative studies necessarily push well beyond the geographic and cultural boundaries of continental Europe to all areas of the world where European languages have taken residence. At first blush, one might wonder: How does the Nordic region, often imagined to be culturally insular and homogeneous, and whose languages have not taken over far-flung literary cultures, fit into such an ambitious and comparative series?

Perfectly, as project editors Steven P. Sondrup and Mark B. Sandberg patiently explain in their general introduction. In fact, the Nordic region ←225 | 226→proves an ideal subject for a comparative literary history project with such dynamic and fluid perimeters, and making this case is arguably one of the volume’s greatest contributions. As long as literary histories remained mired in national contexts, Nordic literatures were perpetually designated as “minor” outliers that were mostly of interest to those within the Nordic region except when they made the occasional outsized contribution to world literary history, such as the sagas and epic poetry of the Vikings written in Old Norse during Iceland’s Middle Ages, or the work of individual modern writers (e.g. Henrik Ibsen, August Strindberg) who had broken through to the world stage. This three-volume set eschews the “great works” approach entirely by examining Nordic literatures through certain “nodes,” or points in a network where lines or pathways cross, branch, or intersect. “Each of the three volumes will concentrate on new ways to model literary historiography through spatial, figural, and temporal frameworks,” Sondrup and Sandberg write in their introduction, resulting not in complete or encyclopedic coverage, but rather “an ongoing process of narrative reframing” (2). This process is not intended to replace or supersede previous, more traditional approaches to telling literary history, they insist, but rather to complement these foundational works and provide dynamic new ways – in keeping with current trends in comparative literary study – to think about literary history. Volumes II and III of the set, then, will presumably be devoted to figural and temporal nodes. Thus rather than provide a broad survey, or a bird’s eye view, of the scope of Nordic literature, this study instead zooms in on key points of intersection – and perhaps more importantly, through a multiplicity of lenses – in order to reveal the processes that shape, and are shaped by, Nordic literature in the modern era. The individual essays in the volume provide fascinating windows into these processes, and together they weave a nuanced and complex picture of the cultural and linguistic landscape of the Nordic region. As Sondrup and Sandberg assert, this change in method does not dispense with the literary canon, but rather promises to enhance it: “This healthy reshuffling of the canon and introduction of unexpected literary examples for each volume also reveals indirectly the ways in which a less visible (but still present) frame exists for canonical, encyclopedia literary histories as well” (3).

Linguistically speaking, the Nordic region is far more diverse than commonly known, and this poses a challenge for such a comparative project. Sondrup and Sandberg note that while 80 percent of those inhabiting the Nordic region speak either Danish, Swedish, or ←226 | 227→Norwegian – which are fairly mutually comprehensible, particularly in written form – the Nordic region is also home to three distinct language families: Indo-European (the three dominant languages above, plus Icelandic, Faroese, and official minority languages Yiddish and Romany), Finno-Ugric (Finnish, North Sámi, South Sámi, and Meänkieli) and the Inuit’s Kalaallisut language (native to Greenland, a Danish colony for three centuries and now, since 2009, a self-governing nation within the Danish kingdom). Today, English has become a lingua franca for research, commerce, and diplomacy in the region, as well as “a vehicle of popular culture” (13). The political geography of the region is similarly complex. As Sondrup and Sandberg point out, despite the Nordic states’ significant cooperation on cultural, educational and political issues via an intergovernmental body, the Nordic Council of Ministers, “Norden as a self-referential concept has not been consistently fostered, nurtured, or appreciated” (9). This is surely in large part due to historical power imbalances in a region dominated, for hundreds of years, by the imperial kingdoms of Denmark and Sweden, which also operated colonies overseas for a time. Finland, Iceland, and Norway, on the other hand, were bound to these two kingdoms, achieving full independence only in the twentieth century. Finland and Iceland became republics, while Norway – whose royal family served as a symbol of national culture during the years Norway was first in a forced union with Denmark, then with Sweden – followed Denmark and Sweden’s example and established a constitutional monarchy. Norden is also home to some significant, distinct territories with their own languages, cultures, and local governing bodies. These include the Faroe Islands, still part of Denmark; the Åland islands, a Swedish-speaking island in the Baltic that remains part of Finland; and Sápmi, the ancestral homeland of the indigenous Sámi people, which spans the Arctic regions of Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia. Culturally speaking, a sharp rise in immigration over the past few decades, particularly from places outside Western Europe, has transformed much of the Nordic region into a multi-ethnic, multicultural, and multi-racial society and sparked endless debate about “national” culture. Finally, and with particular significance for this volume focused on spatial nodes, the topography and biodiversity of this geographical expanse known collectively as Norden is staggeringly diverse, from the lowlands and marshlands of provincial Denmark, to the mountains of western Norway, to the volcanoes and geysers of Iceland, to the forests and lakes of Sweden and Finland.

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Ironically, the Nordic region’s diversity is precisely what poses the greatest challenge for those crafting such an ambitious set of comparative volumes devoted to Nordic literary history. While there are exceptions, scholars of modern Nordic literature and culture still today tend to be trained in a particular national context, for example as Norwegianists with particular intellectual skill sets (e.g. cinema, critical theory, folklore, poetry and poetics) as opposed to pan-Nordic scholars who study certain literary or cultural phenomena throughout the region. While this is slowly changing, and the embrace of theoretical models has proven a useful bridge into “post-national” scholarship for many, the fact remains that truly comparative research on Nordic literature remains daunting, given the linguistic and cultural diversity of the Nordic region, its vast and variable geography, and traditional staffing decisions in Nordic studies programs and departments. Sondrup and Sandberg acknowledge as much in their general introduction – “Contributors have been asked to stretch their expertise in order to ask more broadly ‘Nordic’ questions” – but at the same time, contributors were invited to explore points of comparison that emerge naturally from asking these questions, rather than impose a predetermined “Nordic-ness”: “The interest here in Nordic literary voices is to find both their occasional harmonious blends as well as their sometimes dissonant contestations; the project does not take regional coherence for granted any more than it does national coherence” (3).

Herein lies this volume’s greatest strength. Its theoretical framing is coherent and clear enough to allow for the perimeters of individual essays to be porous and dynamic, providing contributors with both the framing they needed to explore new points of connection and the freedom to pursue them wherever they may emerge. This volume is devoted to spatial nodes, and in their 10-page introduction, editors Dan Ringgaard and Thomas A. DuBois provide an eloquent and admirably succinct overview of the concept of place, the relationship of place and literature and place and region, and critical definitions of scapes and practices related to place. Their introduction places in dialogue with one another the work of important theorists on space and place from a number of fields, such as Gaston Bachelard, Edward S. Casey, Henri Lefebvre, Michel Foucault, Martin Heidegger, Yi-Fu Tuan, and Christian Norberg-Schultz. Their discussion of Arjun Appadurai’s concept of “global flows” demonstrates that this volume stands firmly in the fluid realm of the post-national, underscoring literature’s potential to imagine, or create, new spaces and places through connections forged among actual people and places. But ←228 | 229→even while the volume focuses on spatial nodes, Ringgard and DuBois acknowledge in their introduction that the figural and the temporal always intersect with the spatial to produce meaning: “A spatial node [. . .] can be a significant location, a type of location, or a use of location that can assume the same sort of formative resonance within literary culture, but across history rather than within a single moment. If the primary extension of the temporal node is horizontal (i.e. through the dissemination of the effects of a particular historical event across the entire Nordic region), then that of the spatial nodes is vertical (i.e. through the spread of the effects of a given understanding of place over time)” (19). Nordic literature has long exploited the dramatic features of the region’s natural and built environments in producing meaning and – as Ástráður Eysteinsson’s opening essay on Iceland’s volcanic glacier Snæfellsjökull exemplifies – the meanings of particular places have also been amplified and reconstituted through literature over time.

This theoretical framing continues into the organization of the volume and its essays. The volume is divided into two titled parts: Scapes, or types/kinds of places, and Practices, or the use of these places. Each part is further divided into five titled sections: Scapes consists of Landscapes, Waterscapes, Cityscapes, Lightscapes, and Milleniumscapes (all of them nouns, becoming increasingly abstract); while Practices consists of Settling, Dwelling, Exploring, Sacralizing, and Worlding (also moving from the more clearly concrete to the abstract, and all of them present-participle verbs, evoking a practice both captured in the moment and continuing in the present). Each section has its own introduction, in which one of the editors provides a critical orientation of its conceptual framing. Ringgaard’s section introductions for the Scapes portion of the volume are relatively short, ranging in length from two to ten pages, while DuBois’ section introductions for the Practices portion of the volume run up to 23 pages long. In many instances, these section introductions function not only to set up the selection of individual essays for each section, but they also stand alone as cogent explications of important critical concepts in literary studies. This is particularly true of Troy Storfjell’s 11-page section introduction – the only one not written by the volume editors – titled “Worlding,” in which he describes “the process whereby a local space is situated within a larger world system and inscribed as marginal and as distant from the source of its own meaning” (651) and cites the work of postcolonial theorists to demonstrate how “worlding” operates in diverse geographical and temporal contexts, ←229 | 230→from Danish baroness Karen Blixen’s memoir of her years in Africa to colonialist discourse in the writings of Nobel Prize-winning Norwegian author Knut Hamsun. Taken as a whole, Nordic Literature: A Comparative History. Volume I: Spatial Nodes makes a powerful argument not only for the importance of Nordic literature to comparative literary studies as a whole, but also for the high-caliber, comparative Nordic literary scholarship that experts in the field are producing today.


Ursula Lindqvist

Gustavus Adolphus College (US)