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by Bamber Gascoigne

Johan Borgen (1902-1979)


Norwegian novelist, essayist, short story writer, journalist, and dramatist, who began his career as a short story writer in the 1920s. Johan Borgen continued with experimental novels and became one of the most important 20th-century short-story writers of Norway. He gained critical success especially with his portrayals of children and young people and explorations of existential problems in modern society. Although he dealt with terrible acts committed by young people, he avoided delivering moral messages.

"Lillelord could see the scene in his imagination more distinctly than if he had really seen it and hear more fully and richly from the middle of the floor where he was standing, precisely where he should stand when they came in and where he would be the little hoast, in a way, fortuitously present when the maid opened the door in a moment." (in Lillelord by Johan Borgen, translated by Elizabeth Brown Moen and Ronald E. Peterson, 1982, original work appeared in 1955)

Johan Collett Müller Borgen was born in Oslo into a well-to-do family, the son of Poul Holst Borgen, an attorney and property owner, and the former Andrea Elfrida Bommen, who had an artistic bent. His happy, priviledged childhood Borgen later depicted in Barndommens rike (1965, The Kingdom of Childhood).

Balancing between his social background and leftist sympathies, Borgen remained conservative in life-style but did not soften his sharp social criticism. After the First World War Borgen began to study law. During the 1920s, he was allegedly involved in smuggling of liquor and he experimented with drugs in Copenhagen and Paris. Borgen's first book, Mot mørket (1925, Towards Darkness), a collection of short stories written often from the viewpoint of a child, did not attract much attention. In the following years Borgen traveled around Europe. In 1928 he married Ruth Bergljot Engelstad; the marriage ended in divorce. For a brief period Borgen worked for the conservative Morgonbladet.

From 1930 to 1941, Borgen was employed as a journalist at Dagbladet, Oslo's largest newspaper. He became know for his witty, sarcastic columns, written under the pseudonym Mumle Gåsägg – the name taken from Peter Asbjörnsen's (1812-1885) folk tales. The first collection of these humorous pieces, Seksti Mumle Gåsegg (Sixty Mumble Goose Eggs), appeared in 1936. Borgen also wrote literary reviews. In 1933 he fell in love with Annemarta Evjenth, who worked as a secretary and office clerk at the newpaper, and made a suicide pact with her. After a failed suicide attempt, Borgen was sent to the Vindern Psychiatric Clinic, from where he escaped to spent the winter with Annemarta in Gausdal. They married 1934. Later in life, Borgen had with the actress Liv Strømsted a long affair, which he tried to hide from his wife.  

Borgen's Når alt kommer til alt, which came out in 1934, depicted existential problems of a middle-aged intellectual. The protagonist also appeared in Mens vi venter (1938, While We're Waiting), a Pirandello-inspired play, which gained a considerable success when it was staged at the National Theatre. Set in a station waiting room, the play continued Borgen's themes of isolation and escape from everyday life. In 1935 Borgen signed a petition with over thirty other writers, among them Nordahl Grieg and Sigrid Undset, to protest Carl von Ossietsky's imprisonment in Germany. The only major Norwegian writer who openly defended the right of the German state to confine Ossietsky, a journalist, pacifist and the recipient of the 1935 Nobel Peace Prize, was Knut Hamsun, who sneered at the petition. However, Hamsun had influence deeply Borgen's writing; Borgen had to struggle long to find his own literary voice.

During the Nazi occupation of Norway, Borgen was arrested by the Gestapo in February 1941 – mainly because of his satirical attacks on the occupiers – and tortured in the domestic concentration camp of Grini. Moreover, a great many journalist were frequently suspected of being involved in the publication of ungerground, anti-Nazi newspapers. Following his release Borgen escaped to Sweden with his family. His experieces Borgen depicted in his book of memoir, Dager på Grini (1945, Days at Grini).

After the war Borgen supported the Communists for many years and contributed to Friheten, a mouthpiece for the Communist Party. However, in the 1960s critical liberalism was a more accurate characterization of his world view. By the middle of the 1950s Borgen had made himself a household name in his own country, largely due to his journalism and broadcasts.

From 1954 to 1959 he was the editor of the literary journal Vinduet (The Window). In 1967 Borgen won the Nordic Council's literary prize for Nye noveller, a collection of short stories. Borgen remained highly productive until his death. He died after a long illness on October 16, 1979, in his home in Hvaler, Østfold. His wife Annemarta published an account of their life, Deg, in 1981. 

"Personally I believe that man's fascination for art lies in our unsatisfied desire for identity. I believe that our unarticulated longing for freedom, our painful and impractical and completely unreasonable longing for freedom derives simply from the fact that we are shut up inside that system of apparent necessities which are called our personality." (Johan Borgen, in World Authors 1975-1980, edited by Vineta Colby, 1985)

Borgen was one of the first Norwegian writers to exploit Freud's theories of psychoanalysis. His principal work was the novel trilogy Lillelord (Little Lord), De mørke kilder (The Dark Springs), and Vi har ham nå (We Have Him Now), all three of which were translated into English under the title Lillelord. Borgen again focused on the significance of childhood experiences, and their effects later in life. The story is set in the years before World War I. It follows the life of a young, talented boy, Wilfred Sagen, Lillelord (The Little Lord), from childhood to puberty, and his slow moral degeneration. His father is dead. He is adored by his mother, who is ready to do anything for her son and clings to the child in him. Although Lillelord seems to be devoted to the fulfillment of his mother's wishes, he is only playing his own game. The stronger the bond becomes, the stronger becomes his need for his own life, marked by a cold egoism.

Like Patricia Highsmith's famous hero, Tom Ripley, Lillelord lives a double life: he spends time in the criminal world in Oslo and Copenhagen but keeps up a facade of respectability. The last part is partly based on Borgen's own experiences. In Vi har ham nå Lillelord serves as a border guard for the Nazis. He has betrayed his half-brother but he works as a guide for Jewish refugees escaping to Sweden. Lillelord has no values and no commitments. As the war ends, he is hunted down as a collaborator. The story ends in his death. Another divided personality is Matias Roos from "Jeg" (1959, The Scaoegoat), who runs over a child with his motorcycle – or did he? Matias is both an "I" and a "he" in the narrative.

"Borgen is a master of representing sudden outbreaks of forgotten or suppressed spiritual powers. The primary goal for him is not to tell a story or to reproduce a picture of external reality; rather, his short stories are studies, sudden dives into the dark ravings of the spirit or of a dark past, spotlights on the ironic paradoxes of human existence." (Sven H. Rossel in A History of Scandinavian Literature, 1870-1980, 1982) Human essence is not something given but something fluid that changes over time in Borgen's works. In the novel Blåtind (1964, Blue Peak) central characters have lost their identities. Peter Holmgren tries to escape from his cowardly self, Ole has been tortured and brainwashed, and a Jewish woman, Nathalie, who had been name a concentration camp prostitute, has no memory of her earlier self. Den røde tåken (1967, The Red Fog) was a monologue novel, in which the nameless protagonist is a murderer, a not very distant relative of Camus's Mersault. In Min arm, min tarm (1972, My Arm, My Intestine) a cruel accident starts a psychological healing process, but again in Eksempler (1974) Borgen shows his doubts about the integrity of a personality.

For further reading: 'The Quest for Authenticity in Three Novels by Johan Borgen' by Randi M. Birn, in Mosaic 4:2 (1970); Johan Borgen by R. Birn (1974); 'Metaphor and Metonymy in Johan Borgen's Eksempler' by Mischler in Scan 16 (1977); Johan Borgen by Kjell Chr. Johanssen (1980); 'Borgen, Johan' by K.A.F. [Kjetil A. Flatin], in Columbia Dictionary of Modern European Literature, edited by Jean-Albert Bédé and William B. Edgerton (1980); Deg by Annemarta Borgen (1981); A History of Scandinavian Literature, 1870-1980 by Sven H. Rossell (1982); 'Borgen, Johan,' in World Authors 1975-1980, edited by Vineta Colby (1985); Lillelord og Lady Brett: Johan Borgen som jeg kjente ham by Brett Borgen (1985); Kreativitet og kommunikasjon: en analyse av Johan Borgens "Lillelord"-triologi by Bente Christensen (1992); Øst for Eden: en biografi om Johan Borgen by Espen Haavardsholm (2000); Narrative strukturer i Johan Borgens "Jeg" (1959) eller "Jeg" av Johan Borgen – en roman, ikke for "fastholdere" by Knut Michelsen (2003); 'Borgen, Johan (1902-1979),' in Historical Dictionary of Scandinavian Literature and Theater by Jan Sjåvik (2006); Ninka interviewer Johan Borgen by Anne Wolden-Ræthinge (2020) - Other writers dealing with the experience of occupation and collaboration: Sigurd Evensmo's Englandsfarere (1945, Boat for England) depicted a band of Norwegians who, trying to escape to Britain, were apprehended and executed. Kåre Holt's Det store veiskillet (1949) tells a story, where the protagonist is split into three different identities: a black marketeer, an informer for the Nazis, and a leader of the home front. - Suom.: Borgenilta on myös käännetty novellivalikoima Varikset (suom. Gerda Lindgren, 1968).

Selected works:

  • Mot mørket, 1925 [Towards Darkness]
  • Betraktninger og anfektelser, 1932 (as Mumle Gåsegg)
  • Når alt kommer til alt, 1934 [When All Is Said and Done]
  • Lille dommedag, 1935 (as Jørgen Hattemaker)
  • Kontorchef Lie: skuespill i tre akter og epilog, 1936 (play) 
  • Seksti Mumle Gåsegg, 1936 [Sixty Mumble Goose Eggs]
  • Høit var du elsket, 1937 (play)
  • Barnesinn, 1937 [Children's Minds]
  • Mens vi venter, 1938 (play) [While We're Waiting]
  • De syv brødrene / Aleksis Kivi, 1939 (translator)
  • Åndehullet, 1941
  • Andersens: komedie i 3 akter, 1940 (play)
  • Anes eventyr, 1943 (illustrated by Reidar Aulie)
  • Det nytter (as Helge Lind)
  • Ingen sommer, 1944 [No Summer]
    - Kesytön kesä (suom. Veera Roos, 1945)
  • Far, mor og oss, 1945 (as Mumle Gåsegg)
  • Nordahl Grieg, 1945
  • Dager på Grini, 1945 [Days at Grini]
  • Ingen sommer, 1946
  • Kjærlighetsstien, 1946 [Lover's Lane]
  • Akvariet, skuespill og hørespill, 1947 (play)
  • Hvetebrødsdager, 1948 [Honeymoon]
  • Jenny og påfuglen. En romantisk fortelling, 1949
    - film 1970, dir. by Tom Hedegaard, starring Sisse Reingaard, Lykke Nielsen and Paul Hüttel 
  • Vikinger, 1949 (play)
  • Eventyr, 1949 (play)
  • Noveller om kjærlighet, 1952 [Short Stories about Love]
  • Natt og dag, 1954 [Night and Day]
  • Lillelord, 1955
    - Pikkulordi (suom. Helena Raulo, 1957)
    - Lillelord: a Novel (edited with an introduction by Ronald E. Peterson, translated by Elizabeth Brown Moen and Ronald E. Peterson, 1982) / Little Lord (translated by Janet Garton, 2016)
  • De mørke kilder, 1956 [The Dark Springs]
  • Vi har ham nå, 1957 [We'we Got Him Now]
  • "Jeg", 1959 [I]
    - The Scapegoat (translated by Elizabeth Rokkan, 1993)
  • Danmark dejligst -?, 1959
  • Innbildningens verden, 1960
  • Sorry boy, 1961 (as Ola Ullern)
  • Noveller i utvalg 1936-1961, 1961 [Selected Short Stories 1936-1961]
  • Kalde spor, 1962 (screenplay, with Arne Skouen, dir. by Arne Skouen, starring Toralv Maurstad, Henny Moan and Alf Malland)
  • Frigjøringsdag, 1963 (play) [Liberation Day]
  • Blåtind, 1964 [Blue Peak]
  • Barndommens rike, 1965 [The Kingdom of Childhood]
  • Frydenberg, 1965 (script for a TV movie, dir. by Barthold Halle, starring Bab Christensen, Sverre Hansen, Knut M. Hansson, Veslemøy Haslund, Toralv Maurstad, Elisabeth Strøm-Henriksen)  
  • Vaktpostene, 1965 (screenplay, with Arne Skouen, dir. by Arne Skouen, starring Synne Skouen, Arne Aas and Bjørg Vatle)
  • Nye noveller, 1965
  • Ord gjennom år, 1966 [Words Through the Years]
  • Bagateller, 1967
  • Den røde tåken, 1967
    - The Red Mist (translated by Oliver Stallybrass, 1973)
  • Alltid på en søndag, 1968
  • Trær alene i skogen, 1969 [Trees Alone in the Woods]
  • 129 Mumle Gåsegg, 1971
  • Mitt hundeliv, 1971 (illustrated by Hammarlund)
  • Min arm, min tarm, 1972 [My Arm, My Intestine]
  • Den store havfruen, 1973 (illustrated by Hammarlund) [The Large Mermaid]
  • Eksempler: roman, 1974 [Examples]
  • Lykke til!: noveller, 1974 [Good Luck]
  • I dette rom, 1975 [In This Room]
  • Flukt til virkeligheten: tekster, 1975
  • Notater fra hverdagen, 1975
  • Noveller og annen kortprosa, 1977 (4 vols.; 1. Noveller 1837-1954;  2. Noveller 1961-1965; 3. Noveller 1969-1977;  4. Kortprosa)
  • Borgen om bøker. Norsk og nordisk, 1977 (edited by  Erling Nielsen)
  • Fire foredrag: rammet inn av Annemarta Borgen, 1984
  • Erindringen om en rytme, drømmen om en form: essays og prosastykker, 2002 (edited by Gordon Hølmebakk)
  • Borgens beste, 2005
  • Lillelord-trilogien, 2008 (illustratør Finn Graff; 1. utg. Oslo: Gyldendal, henholdsvis 1955, 1956 og 1957)

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