Olav Duun · reading

Olav Duun

Sometimes it happens… After finishing a book I have to have it near me for a day or two. I am not quite sure why I feel this need. It is, naturally, not the case with all the books I read but with those that manage to entwine their world with my own and to make me think of humanity and life’s basic and universal truths. Occasionally, I open the book in question to glance through the noted passages, to read them once again. But mostly, the book just lies (sits?) beside me, shining its content quietly, like an open portal. I guess, having it close helps me (while being in a constant awe at how such a small object can contain a whole world! Ray Bradbury was right – it is magic.) think about what I have read.

So, I have been carrying around The People from Juvik the whole day yesterday. Not very practical but, as I had said, I had to. It has gotten a hold on me. The last three volumes – the history of Odin – left a particularly deep impression. Duun is a master in carving sentences and a perfect example of the art of literature. He reminded me of Gulbranssen – they both share the same vision of a person rising above the pressures and expectations of the community, above prejudice and small-mindedness, struggling with his own being, too and building himself into a Human – a creature of strong morality, of deep understanding and great spirit and soul.

But, I have to make a note of something else that surprised and delighted me – a mise en abyme, a passage mirroring the whole story of Juvik people; in Odin’s daydreaming words:

I want to portray the people as they come stumbling and groping through the ages of old, the ages of shadow and gloom, with the powers of darkness surrounding them all. I want to portray the man who wrestled with the devil and beat him, for that man is the greatest. Ah, I see them, how they come, the whole crowd. They throw off the darkness and free themselves from powers of evil, rush blindly into the light and stand there in confusion, hardly knowing where they are, hardly seeing anything. I sense that I am in their midst, that I have made the whole long journey with them, that I too was blind all the way. I will reveal you the time when they became conscious of each other and the time when an individual here and there became conscious of himself. Finally you shall see the struggle, the great struggle, when all are against one and the one against all. I shall show you the one who loses all things and yet wins.

A note from History of Norwegian Literature by Theodore Jorgenson:

Duun is interested in mankind only. To enter deeply into human nature, to find its laws and to make necessary adjustments in private and institutional livings, to understand the nature of progress, the needs of growth and function, to show the interdependence of the individual and the mass in that the great soul becomes a transvaluator and a savior of the kin which is part of him, to penetrate into the mystery of the making of ideals and the building up of the spiritual world – these are the problems which engage the attention of the mind of Duun.

Olav Duun

The Beginning

I chose to start “Off the Bookshelves” with Olav Duun’s The People from Juvik – an eleven hundred and thirty pages long saga that tells about six generations of men and women of the Juvik family.

I have read a lot about Norwegian peasant life, in literature that is to say (Hamsun’s Growth of the Soil gives one of the most outstanding accounts on the struggles with the land and elements, and it would be wrong not to mention Gulbranssen’s mesmerizing Bjørndal trilogy.), but Duun is something quite different. His people, although Christians, are still very deeply drenched in paganism and see bad signs in everything around them – in polar light, in the stars, the birds, in the direction in which the wind carries the smoke of the burning hay, in clumsiness, in unwillingly making a hole in the bread dough – it is fascinating.. And, everything is bursting with life – the trees, the stones and the wind, the devil and the little elves as equally as men and women.. And they all speak very little and their speech has a quality of an ellipsis. Sometimes I have to read a particular remark or a comment twice to get the meaning, the allusion out of it. And it’s not just the speech – the style of the prose (except when he, Duun, is describing nature) is the same. Clear cut, sharp sentences… I have a feeling this will change with generations to come…

It’s the fourth day of November and I’m one hundred and sixty pages into the book. If I manage to keep this pace I will need some twenty days to read it; which means that I will, probably, be able to read only one book from the additional lists – Saramago’s The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis – before I move on to the December readings.

But, who knows, maybe there will be time for Mitford’s Love in a Cold Climate after all…