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for Books and Writers
by Bamber Gascoigne

Agnar Mykle (1915-1994)


Norwegian writer who is best known for the sexually naturalistic novel Sangen om den røde rubin (1956, The Song of the Red Ruby), which was banned in many countries. With the previously published Lasso rundt fru Luna (1954, Lasso Round the Moon), which described the youth of the super-potent Ask Burlefot, Agnar Mykle provoked one of the last obscenity trials in Norway. A less-known fact of his life is that Mykle pioneered with his wife in puppetry.

"I am for ever renouncing gentleness and mercy, my way leads to Hel. I am selling the harp of heaven and buying the boggart's fiddle. I am abandoning people and taking citizenship in Utgard. I ask for seid. Do you hear, gods, seid!" (Lasso Round the Moon, translated by Maurice Michael, 1960, p. 385)

Agnar Mykle was born Agnar Myklebust in Trondheim, the son of Ole Elias Karlsen Myklebust, a professional musician in a military band, and Emma Gustavsdatter Ramfjord. In his childhood Mykle suffered from asthma and spent long period at home.

At school Mykle was a top student. Before entering at University of Economical and Political Sciences in Bergen, he earned his living in 1936-37 as a teacher and principal at small schools in Finmark. After finishing his studies, he continued his career as a teacher, lecturer, and took odd jobs. He also worked closely with labour organizations. In 1936 he married Ruth Benzen.

Mykle began to write during World War II. In 1944, he changed his surname to Mykle. With his second wife, Axeliane ("Jane") Christine Kielland Holm, a puppeteer, Mykle went in 1947 to Paris to study puppetry at the Académie des Compagnos de la Marionette. He then studied theatre in England in 1951, and in the United States on a Fulbright scholarship. These activities led to the foundation of the Norwegian Puppet Theatre. At the Norwegian Broadcasting Company Mykle was employd by AOF, the workers' education association, for some years.

As a writer Mykle gained fame with his semi-autobiographical novels. His first book, Taustigen, a collection of short stories, came out in 1948. It was followed by Tyven, tyven skal du hete (1951), translated into English under the title The Hotel Room by Maurice Michael. The protagonist in this courtroom drama, Ask Grande has much similarities with Ask Burlefot. Ask assaults a bigoted hotel night porter who enters a room where he and his girlfriend are making love. In his trial for this offense Ask reflects his past. The title of the book was from a nursery rhyme (The thief, the thief you will be called / 'Cause you stole my little friend).

Lasso Round the Moon is about Ask Burlefot's hunt for ideals. Burlefot, the alter ego of Mykle, is the principal of a school in Finnmark, where he manages to get two of his girlfriends pregnant. He flees and returns twelve years later, as a famous composer, to his home town to bury his younger brother Balder. The Trinidadian novelist and critic V.S. Naipaul wrote of Lasso Round the Moon: "Mykle is longwinded; he has certain rhetorical mannerisms, and his technique is clumsy. But the sensibility is true, the passion genuine. [The book] is likely to attract attention because of its frank sexual detail. But this detail is a necessary part of Mykle's theme, which is of development and discovery; it is of a piece with the intensity and honesty of the book." ('New Novels,' New Statesman, 23 April, 1960)

"Now, he sat there knowing that the bottom of love is death." (The Song of the Red Ruby, translated by Maurice Michael, 1961, p. 320)

Sangen om den røde rubin, the sequel for Lasso Round the Moon, was set in the late 1930s. The bildungsroman focused on Burlefot's student days, his affairs with women, flirtation with socialism, and other steps toward deeper self-understanding. The third volume of a planned trilogy was never completed. As in the novels of D.H. Lawrence, Mykle's characters find freedom through sexual exploration. Most likely Mykle knew Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover, which became the subject of an infamous obscenity trial. The first Norwegian translation of the novel by Leo Strøm was published in 1952.

Mykle's sexually explicit scenes led in 1957 to the book's prosecution for obscenity. At the Oslo City Court it was read aloud, and  judged offensive to Norwegian modesty, but after an appeal the verdict was overturned by the High Court in 1958, and Mykle and his publisher, Gyldendal, were acquitted. The literary critic Jens Kruuse defended the novel by arguing that "[a] writer may concern himself with issues deemed indecent by the law in such a way as to raise them up out of the realm of indecency and onto a higher level. " (The Tyranny of Silence by Flemming Rose, 2015, p. 88) Sangen, which had been temporarily confiscated by the police, was again released for sale. In the middle of the trial, Mykle published a collection of short stories, Kors på halsen (1958). The trial strirred a discussion about the obscenity laws in the neighboring countries Sweden and Finland too. The Finnish translation of the novel, published by Akirjat in 1957, was not only confiscated, but the Attorney-General ordered the police to oversee the burning of the books. In Britain, The Song of the Red Ruby became a bestseller. The reviews were mixed. Walter Keir in The Times Literary Supplement said that he "cannot help feeling that Mr. Agnar Mykle has been overpraised." (Tracing the Transmission of Scandinavian Literature to the UK: 1917-2017 by Ian Giles, 2018, pp. 151-152) A paperback edition was issued by Panther in 1963.

Peter Fjågesund has noted that "[in] the rather sizeable literature about the case and in the several biographical studies of Mykle that have been published in recent years, it is hardly possible to find a single reference to either Lawrence or LCL [Lady Chatterley's Lover] . . . it may also serve as a further confirmation that mentioning Lawrence, at least from the point of view of Mykle's defencers, would not help further his cause among the Norwegian public." ('In Hamsun's Shadow: The Reception of D.H. Lawrence in Norway' by Peter Fjågesund, The Reception of D. H. Lawrence in Europe, edited by Dieter Mehl and Christa Jansohn, 2007, p. 253)

The high-profile juridical process and its wide press coverage made the novel an international phenomenon. All this had a negative impact on Mykle's literary creativity, but not on his megalomaniac picture of himself as "the greatest writer in the world." It has been suggested that Mykle had a Narcissistic Personality Disorde (NPD). (Det grandiose selvet hos Agnar Mykle: slik det er beskrevet i Anders Hegers biografi "et diktet liv" by Jomar Bjorge, 2006) More than once, Mykle compared himself to Jesus, with the difference that he didn't die on the cross.

A film version based on The Song of the Red Ruby and Lasso Round the Moon was made in 1970 in Denmark, directed by Annelise Meineche and starring Ole Søltoft as Ask Burlefot. The reviews were poor. Jørgen I. Jensen said in the magazine Film 70: "For den statistisk interesserede: Filmen rummer ca. 25 coitus. For den pornografisk interessede: Man ser ikke rigtig noget. For den film-interessede: Filmen rummer stort set ikke andet." This sex comedy  angered Mykle, who said that "never, in the history of film, have I seen similar cultural vandalism." He declared war on Denmark. (Gyldendals danske filmguide by Morten Piil, 2008, pp. 475-476)

After divorce Mykle married in 1960 Toril Hofseth, twenty-two years his junior. They separated in 1963 but then remarried. Hofseth suffered a mental breakdown in 1961: Mykle had revealead in his unpublished manuscript, Con amore, that she had been raped in her youth. She committed suicide at the age of 35.

When Mykle withdrew from the publicity in the 1960s, Jens Bjørneboe and Knut Faldbakken took up the role of literary provocateurs in Norway. Mykle's Rubicon (1965), which turned out to be his final novel, was about Valemon Gristevåg, who motorcycles across Hitler's Germany to France in the summer of 1939. This alter ego was portrayed more lightheartedly than Ask Burlefot, whose story it actually is: he planned a motorcycle trip to Paris.

After his third divorce, he lived with Jane. At Modum Bad Nervesanatorium, a psychiatric center 60 miles west of Oslo, Mykle was treated with LSD (under Dr. Gordon Johnsen's supervision) in 1966 in an experimental program. Also the writers Alfred Hauge, Jens Bjørneboe and Axel Jensen took LSD in a similar therapeutic setting. As a result, there was a small wave of psychedelic literature in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The last period of his life Mykle spent in self-imposed seclusion. Nobody was allowed to take a picture of him.

Largo (1967), Mykle's last book, contained two short stories. It was written for LSD therapy. (Rommet bak språket: Psykedeliske ruserfaringer i norske romaner 1965-2016 by Odd Harald Vestrheim Opdal, 2020, pp. 55-65) At that time of its appearance he was bankrupt. A reviewer in the Times Literary Supplement wrote that the book moves like some solemn, slow Scandinavian film. Mykle stopped publishing new work, but he stlll kept on writing. In 'En glad mann' he described his LSD trip.

Sangen om den røde rubin made Mykle famous and was translated into many languages, but in spite of its success he was forced to borrow money from his editor, Harald Grieg at Norsk Gyldendal Forlag, without being able to pay them back. Mykle died in 1994, in Asker.

During his carer Mykle contributed to several Norwegian papers. His essays and letters, selected by from thousands of pages of diverse writings, were published in three volumes in 1997-98. According to Anne Luise Kirkengen's doctoral thesis, Mykle was a victim of sexual abuse by his mother.

For further reading: Guide to Modern World Literature by Martin Seymour-Smith (1973); Agnar Mykle: endikterskjebne by Eystein Eggen (1994); Mykle og Norge by Anders Heger (1995); Embodiment of sexual abuse in childhood by Anne Luise Kirkengen (1998); Mykle. Et diktet liv by Anders Heger (1999, recommended introduction to Mykle's life); Mønsteret og meningen: Agnar Mykles romaner om Ask Burlefot by Leif Johan Larsen (2001); 'Agnar Mykle,' in Twentieth-century Norwegian Writers, edited by Tanya Thresher (2004); Det grandiose selvet hos Agnar Mykle: slik det er beskrevet i Anders Hegers biografi "et diktet liv" by Jomar Bjorge (2006); Da Norge mistet dyden: Mykle-saken, ytringsfriheten og kampen om moralen by Jan-Erik Ebbestad Hansen (2011); Tracing the Transmission of Scandinavian Literature to the UK: 1917-2017 by Ian Giles (2018); Rommet bak språket: Psykedeliske ruserfaringer i norske romaner 1965-2016 by Odd Harald Vestrheim Opdal (2020); Sangen om det evige bur: En psykoanalytisk lesning av familiære relasjoner og drifter i tre utvalgte noveller av Agnar Mykle by Kevin Braaten (2021) - Special thanks to Ingvild Kaarvann Berntzen who has helped with this page (however, the mistakes are mine - PL) - Other writer whose works have been banned because of sexual explicitness: Henry Miller, D.H. Lawrence, James Joyce, Jean Genet

Selected works:

  • Jægermarsjen, 1945 [The Hunter March]
  • Taustigen, 1948 [The Rope Ladder]
  • Tipp, og verden er din!, 1949 (play)
  • Morgen i appelsingult, 1951 (play; Morning in Yellow Orange)
  • Tyven, tyven skal du hete, 1951 [The Thief, the Thief You Will Be Called]
    - The Hotel Room (translated by Maurice Michael, 1963)
  • Jeg er like glad sa gutten, 1952 [I Couldn't Care Less, Said the Boy]
  • Lasso rundt fru Luna, 1954
    - Lasso Round the Moon (translated by Maurice Michael, 1960)
    - Silmukka kuun sirppiin (suom. Olli Nuorto, 1957)
  • Dukketeater!, 1956 (with Jane Mykle)
  • Sangen om den røde rubin, 1956
    - The Song of the Red Ruby (translated by Maurice Michael, 1961)
    - Laulu punaisesta rubiinista (suomentanut Olli Nuorto, 1995)
    - film: Sangen om den røde rubin, filmed in Denmark in 1970, prod. Palladium Film, dir. Annelise Meineche, screenplay John Hilbard, Annelise Meineche, starring Ole Søltoft, Elin Reimer, Paul Hagen, Bjørn Møller, Ghita Nørby
  • Kors på halsen, 1958 [Cross My Heart]
  • jeg forstår meg på mirakler, 1958
    - Enkeli ja aamurusko (suom. Caius Kajanti, 1958)
  • Rubicon, 1965
    - Rubicon (translated by Maurice Michael, 1967)
  • Largo, 1967
  • A Man and His Sink and Other Stories, 1968 (translated by Maurice Michael)
  • Samlede verker, 1994 (7 vols.)
  • Brev og annen prosa. 1: Mannen fra Atlantis, 1997 (foreword by Gordon Hølmebakk) 
  • Brev og annen prosa. 2: Alter og disk, 1998 (foreword by Gordon Hølmebakk )
  • Brev og annen prosa. 3: En flodhest på parnasset, 1998 (foreword by Gordon Hølmebakk) [Letters and Other Prose]
  • Kjære lille Moff: reisebrev fra Amerika, 2001 (edited by Arne Bust Mykle) [Dear Little Moff: Letters from Travels in America]
  • Posisjoner: etterlatte brev og annen prosa, 2005 (editd by Gordon Hølmebakk)
  • Mykle og Bergen, 2012 (edited by Willy Dahl)
  • Hjemme hos Smørbukk: Julegaven fra Afrika; Gjete kongens harer; Robin Hood ; Doktor Faustus og djevlene; Ali Baba og de førti røverne, 2015 (afterword by Anne Helgesen)
  • Fyrstikkleken; Morgen i appelsingult; Mannen som visste hva han gjorde; Smørbukk på skolen, 2015 (afterword by Anne Helgesen)
  • Samlede noveller, 2021 (publisher: Gyldendal)

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