If asked to describe a Norwegian many Americans might conjure up a Garrison Keillor-inspired image of a stoic, practical, somewhat doughy individual whose approach to life is, “Well, it could be worse.”
Author Robert Ferguson is a British native who has lived and worked in Norway for more than three decades. His most recent book is “Scandinavians: In Search of the Soul of the North.”
When he emigrated to Norway in 1983 he was moving to an imagined country, “the creation of a remarkable handful of artistic geniuses…all of whom I admired.” In his student years in England, Ferguson became so taken by Norwegian author Knut Hamsun that he studied Norwegian to be able to read Hamsun’s novels in their original language.
In the years after his move to Norway, Ferguson came to realize that he had not fully grasped the essence of Norway and its neighbors Sweden and Denmark. In this book he attempts to gather data that might assist him in defining the factors that make northern Europeans unique in their approach to life and their view of the world around them.
Ferguson begins his quest with a synopsis of the history of the Scandinavian countries, citing many of the earliest written records of the region. He feels much of this history is grounded in the influence of Christianity on the region.
He devotes an entire chapter to the conversion of the tribes of Iceland from their animistic, nature-based religion at the end of the first millennium C.E. Of the importance of the 16th-century Protestant Reformation he writes, “I often return to the Reformation in Scandinavia as the only really significant common denominator to consider in any search for the heart of [the region’s] historical association with melancholy.”
The second half of the book, which follows Ferguson’s rewriting of Henrik Ibsen’s drama “Ghosts,” consists of a mixture of conversations with Ferguson’s contemporaries about the nature of the Scandinavian soul, and an analysis of more modern history, including World War II, the nature of Scandinavian women, the role of Scandinavian athletes on the world stage, and other equally eclectic topics.
In the preface Ferguson cites Ibsen, one of his literary heroes, who said, “Between us, Swedes, Danes and Norwegians, we possess all the qualities needed to form a spiritually united, single people: Swedes are our spiritual aristocracy, Denmark our spiritual bourgeoisie, and Norway our spiritual lower class.”
“How valid was Ibsen’s analysis?” asks Ferguson. “How valid is it today? Who are the Scandinavians?”
The author tantalizes us by declining to provide a synopsis of insights he might have gained from this literary exploration. He does, however, provide a rich smorgasbord of information from which the reader should be able to create one of his or her own.