Another literary jubilee sparks debate

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Now it’s Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson’s turn to get some public attention, but the Norwegian government’s decision to spend millions celebrating an author whose works now seem to have gone out of fashion has set off some unusual debate.

Last year was “Hamsun Year,” honoring the works of controversial author Knut Hamsun, and before that it was “Wergeland Year” and “Ibsen Year.” In the past four years, Norwegian taxpayers have funded celebrations of not only Hamsun, Henrik Wergeland and Henrik Ibsen but also several other literary figures.

Now the Ministry of Culture has kicked off “Bjørnson Year,” to mark the 100th anniversary of Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson’s death in 1910. Bjørnson is considered one of Norway’s nation builders, a champion of rural interests and a national romanticist who wrote the lengthy poem Ja vi elsker (dette landet) (Yes, we love this land) that became the lyrics for Norway’s national anthem.

Though little known outside of Norway, the author and playwright was a key force in the movement that forged Norwegians’ struggle to break out of the union with Sweden in 1905. Less famous than his contemporary Henrik Ibsen, Bjørnson nevertheless won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1903.

Commentator Ingunn Økland, writing in newspaper Aftenposten notes that his works, though, are little read or used in school curricula today. Some critics like Professor Petter Aaslestad, she notes, now think Bjørnson’s literature was under par and full of stereotypes.While Ibsen’s plays continue to fill theaters around the world, Aaslestad argues it likely would be “impossible” to mount a Bjørnson production today.

One woman writing a letter to the editor of Aftenposten even criticized Bjørnson’s national anthem lyrics, suggesting they were sexist — “all about men fighting and women crying” — and hopelessly out of date. “I can’t stand to listen to them anymore,” wrote Eva Mannseth of Oslo. “The church modernizes its texts. Who will do something about this discrimination that we’re forced to sing about on all important occasions?”

Biographer Edvard Hoem defends Bjørnson, claiming the author deserves a jubilee not least because his roles as nation builder and author were closely tied. Hoem was at the launch of “Bjørnson Year” festivities earlier this month, which will in fact include the portrayal of Bjørnson works at the National Theater on the date of his death, April 24.National librarian Vigdis Moe Skarstein told newspaper Dagsavisen that “it will be exciting” to see at the end of the year what kind of relevance Bjørnson has today. “We who are working on this (jubilee) think he does have relevance,” she said.

The very name of the jubilee — Bjørnson for vår tid (Bjørnson for our time) — seems to strive for such relevance, prompting Økland to claim the motto lacked fantasy and suggested a sense of panic on the part of organizers.

Culture Minister Anniken Huitfeldt of the Labour Party acknowleged, as she officially opened “Bjørnson Year” at the National Library, that “some think it’s unnecessary to have another jubilee. I believe the opposite. Norway is a young nation. Therefore it’s important to celebrate those who have been important for our nation.”

The state is spending NOK 7 million on the celebration, the same amount allotted for last year’s Hamsun celebration. Hoem has published the first volume of a new Bjørnson bilgraphy and state officials hope the celebration will revitalize interest in Bjørnson. Another NOK 50 million has been spent restoring Bjørnson’s legendary home, Aulestad, just north of Lillehammer.