KRISTIANSAND: Norwegians are marking 100 years of their controversial author Jens Bjørneboe (1920-1976), who spent much of his brief but noisy life challenging authorities and conventions with memorable passion.
Special events honouring Bjørneboe have been taking place around the country all year, culminating on October 9, which would have been Bjørneboe’s 100th birthday. Even his native Kristiansand is chipping in; while Bjørneboe’s name was once nearly unspeakable in this southern pious city, it has now named a prominent square after after him. Jens Bjørneboes plass (Jens Bjørneboe’s Plaza) is the name of a redeveloped urban space in the heart of Kristiansand, between the city’s historic church, its slick new library, the school young Jens attended and Kristiansand’s memorial to local victims of the July 22, 2011 terrorist attack. Near the harbour, a portrait of Bjørneboe adorns the facade of the swanky new cultural complex known as Kilden (The source), where his masterpiece novel Jonas was turned into a play earlier this year.
That was just one of the events in Bjørneboe’s big year. Libraries and other literary venues around the country, including the National Library (Nasjonalbiblioteket) in Oslo, have been busy paying their respects to Bjørneboe in many different ways. Several new books are being released in connection with the Bjørneboe centennial including De menneskelige boliger (Human dwellings), an anthology in which national librarian Aslak Sira Myhre, author Erik Fosnes Hansen, artist Håkon Bleken and others share their memories and opinions of Jens Bjørneboe’s work.
One might wonder what Jens Bjørneboe himself would have thought of it all. Born into a shipowning family that saw its fortunes dwindle in the 1930s, Bjørneboe developed early on a strong dislike for the bourgeois ways of the upper class, opting instead for a radical approach to literature, culture and education. Not least did he develop a taste for alcohol. He lived a life of excess and ended it himself, when he was just 55 years old.
What’s being thoroughly celebrated, though, is Bjørneboe’s remarkable legacy as an author and powerful defender of the weak and downtrodden. He became one of the angriest and most controversial public figures during the post-World War II decades, churning out novels, plays, poetry, essays and articles that would furiously attack Norway’s school system, its courts and jails, the post-war treason process known as landssvikoppgjøret, and much more.
The fate of the individual and the misfit at the hands of power mongers was often on Bjørneboe’s mind, like in the heartbreaking novel Jonas, about a not-so resourceful boy for whom the established school system has no place.
Bjørneboe feverishly explored the darkest corners of history, discovering ignorance, greed and, above all, the capability of humans to treat each other inhumanely. He presented his disturbing findings in a trilogy of novels often referred to as The History of Bestiality. The three books document bestiality by humans in all its forms, from torture and execution methods to the Holocaust, the Vietnam War and the abuse by colonial powers in poor parts of the world. This material is at the heart of Bjørneboe’s authorship and got lots of attention – most recently by one of Norway’s largest theatres (Det norske Teatret) and Croatian director Ivica Buljan, who reportedly presented some of the wildest, messiest stuff ever seen on a Norwegian stage.
Though a proponent of a vaguely defined “world revolution,” Bjørneboe was not a communist, far from it. He described himself as an anarchist, neither a barricade-builder nor the bomber-in-a-black coat type, but rather a philosopher and a spokesman for anti-authoritarian ideas. “After the silence, the great change will come,” he wrote in Stillheten (The Silence) which concludes the bestiality trilogy. In that volume, Bjørneboe is also very much present in the way he is chiefly remembered – as an angry voice in public debate, a critic and provocateur, and a hard-drinking hedonist. He explored taboos like drunkenness and sex, often shocking his readers with self-exposing tales of alcoholism and sex with other men. One of his most famous books, Uten en tråd (Without a thread), was initially banned in the 1960s and both he and his publisher were convicted of peddling pornography because it offered detailed accounts of a young woman’s sexual awakening while traveling around Europe.
Much of what Bjørneboe did and wrote isn’t so shocking by today’s standards, and his irony hasn’t always aged well. Nor have his views on women; most of his work is about men. Other parts of his message – on the environment, oppression and social injustice, for example – are as timely and urgent as ever. Former Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Støre told newspaper Klassekampen this week how he borrowed the title of one of Bjørneboe’s essays, Vi som elsket Amerika (We who loved America), for a book of his own because “we can still have a deep frustration and fascination about what goes on there.” Bjørneboe’s observations of life in America were both sharp and relevant, according to Støre.
In the age of Corona an interesting companion could be his play Semmelweiss, about the father of modern hand hygiene. Ignaz Semmelweiss was a 19th-century Hungarian doctor who fought puerperal fever, which killed many women giving birth. The reason, Semmelweiss discovered, was a grotesque lack of hand hygiene. Doctors went straight from the autopsy room to the maternity ward without disinfecting their hands. But Semmelweiss had to fight hard against his ignorant colleagues and hospital bosses – and thus became a typical Bjørneboe hero. Paradoxically, the play focusing on the fate of unlucky women has few female characters.
Newspapers packed with tributes
Norwegian newspapers have also been full, especially this past week, of tributes to Bjørneboe and others’ accounts of his impact on their lives. Vigdis Hjorth, one of Norway’s most successful contemporary authors, told Klassekampen how thrilled she was when she won a collection of Bjørneboe’s essays during a traditional lottery at Oslo’s legendary Club7: “I was 17 and going to Club7 was a bit scary, it’s where all the bohemians hung out.” Hjorth has now written the foreword in a “new” Bjørneboe book about alleged torture in Norwegian jails that no one would publish, until now. The novel, Skapsprengeren Manfreds oppstandelse (Safecracker Manfred’s resurrection), wasn’t published when Bjørneboe wrote it in 1963 because its characters too closely resembled a real-life convicted safecracker, a state prosecutor and other authorities of the time. Now they’re all dead and the book has finally come out.
Another popular Norwegian author, Tove Nilsen, claimed she was “utterly starstruck” when she once saw Bjørneboe at Club7 herself in the early 1970s. “He was an adult who told us not to trust adults,” Nilsen said. “That made a big impression.”
Støre, who now leads the Norwegian Labour Party and is trying to become prime minister, told newspaper Klassekampen how his sister had given him Bjørneboe’s book Jonas, “because that’s my name,” but it was The History of Bestiality that made the biggest impression on him. “It was an expression of how people can do great things but also terrible things, and the distance between that can be very short,” Støre said. “Bjørneboe’s literature can contribute to putting that into perspective.”