‘Outsider king’ remains readers’ darling

Bookmark and Share

Author Ingvar Ambjørnsen has been called a king of outsiders, skillfully governing his expanding world of less fortunate, downtrodden characters through a writing career that spans four decades. Now he’s back with the most successful outsider of them all: A lonely, reclusive, neurotic, opinionated, detail-obsessed fellow by the name of Elling, who now is having a go as a book critic. Real-world critics are rejoicing, again.

Author Ingvar Ambjørnsen has devoted a lifetime of writing to the outsiders, including the wildly popular books about an unusual man named Elling. PHOTO: Cappelen Damm/Marie Sjøvold

“Elling has never been sharper than this,” concluded newspaper Aftenposten‘s reviewer Ingunn Økland. Newspaper VG‘s critic Hans Petter Sjølie called the new Elling book “one of Ingvar Ambjørnsen’s weirdest and wittiest ever.”

It’s Ambjørnsen’s sixth book about Elling, a character he created in the early 1990s. The socially challenged Elling’s adventures, or perhaps lack of adventure, became the topic of four novels that sold half-a-million copies over the next few years. Unlike most of Ambjørnsen’s work, the Elling books are also available in English.

The bittersweet books have also inspired three movies, starting in 2001 with Elling, which was nominated for best foreign language film at the Oscars.

Another Elling-book is out, much to the delight of reviewers and fans.

A roaring comeback
Last year, two decades after the previous Elling release, he made a roaring comeback, and now Ambjørnsen’s getting rave reviews with a sixth installment, entitled called Ingen kan hjelpe meg (No one can help me). The author himself has called it a “bonus track” rather than a book.

The playful story is brief but complex, with Ambjørnsen’s protagonist reading a book by another author, commenting on each chapter as he moves along. The book  is Lanzarote, a sex-packed novel by controversial French author Michel Houellebecq. The plot centers on Elling’s careless promise to let his landlady borrow the book after he’s read it. But Elling made that promise before he had gotten to Houellebecq’s wild tales of his protagonist’s steamy adventures, including a lengthy one with a German lesbian couple on a beach in the Canary Islands.

The 64-year old hippie
The success of the Elling stories doesn’t seem to have changed their author much. Ambjørnsen, now 64 and battling COPD, a chronic lung disease, writes unstoppably from his home in Hamburg, where he has lived since 1984. His long hair and freakish appearance remain roughly the same as in the early 1980s, when his first novels explored some of Norway’s darkest corners at the time – horrible mental hospitals, bored small-town teenagers on deadly dope, a booming narcotics trade, and more. Ambjørnsen, a high school drop-out who lived many years on the fringes himself, knew that territory well.

In his violent, drug-infested thriller Den siste revejakta from 1983, its two main characters are professional hash smugglers planning a career change, but not before they’ve used a massive LSD overdose to literally blow the mind of a drug kingpin who betrayed them. Like much of Ambjørnsen’s work it has never been translated into English, but a movie based on the book got the apt international title The last joint venture.

The story continues below the photo.

Just turned 64 and still sporting his trademark long hair, Ingvar Ambjørnsen’s freakish appearance hasn’t changed much since early years. But his Elling books have connected Ambjørnsen’s sharp and witty pen to a much broader audience. PHOTO: Cappelen Damm/Marie Sjøvold

Some of Ambjørnsen’s early work, topped by Den siste revejakta, a thriller featuring two professional dope smugglers. The upper two are thrillers Heksenes kors (Cross of the witches) and Stalins øyne (Eyes of Stalin). Bottom left is his novel about being young in a small town, Hvite niggere (White niggers) and Jesus står i porten/Jesus is at the gate, a collection of short stories. PHOTO: NewsInEnglish.no/Morten Møst

Hvite niggere (White niggers) is considered Ambjørnsen’s literary breakthrough. It’s also described as key novel, a nøkkelroman as Norwegians call books where people and places, and sometimes the author, are recognizable under a see-through fiction layer. It’s about uneasy youths growing up in a Norwegian town called Lillevik, which suspiciously resembles Ambjørnsen’s native Larvik, an industrial town on the coast of what is now the merged county of Vestfold og Telemark. The original blurb could be Ambjørnsen’s mission in a nutshell, it’s

… the history of the freaks by one of them. A broad, generous and brutal tale of the outsiders, revolting against a hypocritical, self-satisfied bourgeoisie. Like a glowing arch through the novel stands the tale of uncompromising friendship and solidarity. 

Unsurprisingly, the novel sparked lots of noise when published in 1986. But later on, that did not keep the city of Larvik from making Ambjørnsen an honorary citizen along with other local luminaries like explorer Thor Heyerdahl, artist Carl Nesjar and composers Antonio Bibalo and Arne Nordheim.

Short stories and kid crime
Ambjørnsen has written countless short stories  – one titled The dealer who was late for supper springs to mind – as well as poetry, essays and columns. He also likes writing series for young readers, including a nine-volume effort about two young detectives, Pelle og Proffen. “It was like finding a new room after living in the same apartment for years,” he once said. The two heroes of the books, and subsequent films, encounter threatening types in dark alleys, from gangsters to neo-nazis. But they also find heroic figures among the downtrodden. Whatever the genre, Ambjørnsen remains true to his powerful formula of a fast-paced storytelling style, a wit black as night and a keen eye for imbalances both inside his characters’ heads and in the world around them.

Ambjørnsen is often asked whether elements of his stories are autobiographical. He sometimes denies that, sometimes not. He has admitted, though, that the main character from Hvite niggere is the one who resembles himself the most. It’s no coincidence that he’s called Erling Haefs – Ambjørnsen himself added Haefs to his own name when he married Gabriele Haefs, a prominent German translator of Norwegian literature who has brought works of Ambjørnsen, Jostein Gaarder and other authors to Germans. Some of Ambjørnsen’s work also exists in other languages, like Spanish, Dutch, Turkish and even Albanian, but strangely little is in English.

The books about Elling have also become popular movies, like the 2003 Mother’s Elling in which his mum takes him for a holiday in Spain to see new things. The Elling character was played by Per Christian Ellefsen. PHOTO: IMDB movie database

Souls on the move
The new Elling book contains a hint as to whether there are traces of Ambjørnsen in Elling’s persona. His strange project to read a chapter in Houellebecq’s book every day, Elling explains, is really a quiet attack on the zeitgeist, the spirit of our time, in which the space for literature criticism is constantly shrinking. This media criticism, Aftenposten‘s Økland pointed out in her review, resembles statements Ambjørnsen made when he broke off a longtime relationship with newspaper VG as one of its literature reviewers.

Ambjørnsen has won several prizes, including Norway’s Tabuprisen (Taboo award) which promotes openness about mental disorders, and the Salvation Army’s award for work in the spirit of its founder William Booth. He is also known as a discriminating master of words, and his written language has been honoured by both the conservative Riksmålsforbundet which promotes traditional standard Norwegian (as opposed to nynorsk), and Landslaget for språklig samling, which wants Norway to have just one written language.

On Norway’s national day, the 17th of May, in 1986, Ambjørnsen made an irreverent speech to hundreds of fellow self-acclaimed freaks at an outdoor venue across the street from the Royal Palace in Oslo. There’s no mention of that long-forgotten appearance in Wikipedia material about him. What is mentioned, though, is that in 2006, just two decades later, he was found worthy of being that year’s festspilldikter – an author or poet selected for special attention at Bergen international Festival (Festspillene i Bergen), a very solid and polished part of Norway’s cultural establishment.

That was more evidence of the one thing about Ambjørnsen that actually has changed over the decades: His image in the Norwegian society. No longer is he known chiefly as an angry, dope-liberal voice from the literary underground. Instead, Elling and all the other outsiders have connected Ambjørnsen’s golden pen with a much larger audience. The cliché folkekjær – meaning loved by the people, or possibly a part of the national heritage – is frequently used about him these days, a clear indicaton that Ingvar Ambjørnsen has arrived somewhere he probably never thought he’d be.

NewsInEnglish.no/Morten Møst