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by Bamber Gascoigne

Aksel Sandemose (1899-1965)

Danish-born Norwegian novelist, who mixed in his works influences from Freud's insights of the psyche and Joseph Conrad's stories exploring complex moral problems. Sandemose wrote his first six works in Danish, then translated the most striking of them, Klabautermanden (1927), a tale of strange beliefs at sea, into Norwegian in 1932.

"Aksel Sandemose is one of the few writers who seriously delved into the teachings of psychoanalysis and thereby became a writer. Like Strindberg and Dostoevsky, he discovered that the irrational is real; his writing is a constant attempt to track down this incomprehensible element. The chaotic nature of his books is traceable solely to this monomaniacal obsession, which for him represented the fight for his own soul." (Sven H. Rossel in A History of Scandinavian Literature, 1870-1980, 1982)

Aksel Sandemose was born in the north Danish town of Nykøbing, Mors Island, the son of Jørgen Nielsen, a blacksmith, and Amalie Jacobsdatter, a housemaid; she died in 1926. At the age of fourteen, Sandemose left school and attended a seminary for one year. While living Copenhagen, he adopted the surname "Sandemose."  He then went to sea, worked intermittently as a teacher, clerk, and journalist. In 1921 he married Dagmar Ditlevsen; the next year they had twin daughters, Hedda and Eva. The family lived on bare bones. Their economic situation improved somewhat in 1925 when Sandemose was hired as a guard by the director of the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek museum, but the job made it hard to write at all. "It's just that [I] have almost no time, since for now I have to work at the Glyptotek into the night. Am having unbelievable money difficulties," he complained in a letter to a friend. (Aksel Sandemose and Canada: A Scandinavian Writer's Perception of the Canadian Prairies in the 1920s, edited by Christopher S. Hale, 2005, p. 15)

During his years of travel, Sandemose's voyages took him to America, Canada, and West Indies. He spoke English pretty well. In Newfoundland he left the ship and worked in a lumber camp before returning to Danmark. The title of his first book, Fortællinger fra Labrador (1923), was misleading: he had never visited Labrador. "The Scandinavian vagadond of the se is the best seaman on earth," Sandemose claimed in Fortællinger. "But in harbor, he pawns his life and health to King Alcohol with his entourage of harlots and becomes the worst sailor on earth. ('The seven seas. Maritime modernity in Nordic literature' by Søren Frank, in Nordic Literature: A Comparative History. Volume 1: Spatial Modes, edited by Thomas A. DuBois and Dan Ringgaard, 2017,  p. 192) This and the following books in the 1920s  Sandemose wrote in Danish. All his early works received poor reviews. Publishers rejected his manuscripts. 

Sandemose's early stories, influenced by great sea story writers Jack London and Joseph Conrad, were based his own experiences as a sailor. He first gained fame with Klabautermanden, a romantic tale of obsession, superstitions, and shattering of illusions. At the end the protagonist, an aging skipper named Adam Klinte, turns into a klabauterman, a ship's ghost. Ross Dane (1928) was for Sandemose a major step toward finding his own literary voice. As a sign of recognition he was awarded Carl Møllers Legat, a stipend of 1,000 kroner, originally established for humorous authors. 

In 1929 Sandemose settled in Norway, where his mother had been born. From the 1930s Sandemose published his works in Norwegian; the written forms of Norwegian and Danish are quite close. En sjømann går i land (1931) started a long series about the author's alter ego, Espen Arnakke, from the small, fictional town of Jante, Sandemose's "Yoknapatawpha," which was  modelled after Nykøbing. Film version of the story, supplemented with material from other books and Espen Haavardsholm's autobiography Mannen fra Jante, was filmed in 1999 by Nils Gaup.

Espen is an impulsive seventeen-year-old sailor, who searches explanation for his own irrational act of murder. In the first book he kills his friend, "Big John," who seduces his girlfriend, and flees to Canada. Perhaps the most famous novel in the series is En flyktning krysser sitt spor (1933, A Fugitive Crosses His Tracks). Now Espen plunges into his childhood to find out who he is. Noteworthy, in this novel Sandemose developed the Law of Jante (Janteloven), which do not only define small town values and life, but is at the same time universal: "But Jante was everywhere; it loomed on the Canadian prairie, it stretched forth across the United States, it blossomed in Jevnaker as it flourished in Jutland." (A Fugitive Crosses His Tracks, translated by translated by Eugene Gay-Tifft, 1936, p. 88) Espen formulates ten nihilistic rules, beginning with "You're not to think you are anything special," and ending to "You shall not believe you can teach us anything." There are other commands too: "Thou shalt not drink!" (Ibid., p. 44)

Espen's story continued in Det stod en benk i haven (1937) and Brudulje (1938). The series develops into a strong defense of all men, who have dreams and live in terms of their own problems. Vi pynter oss med horn (1936, Horns for Our Adornment) is about the relationships between the crew members of a schooner on its way from Bergen to New Foundland. It combines legends, Freudian psycholoanalysis and short sketches. Among the members of the crew is a clergyman accused of child molestation, and a giant, violent sailor, called the Golden Horse, who becomes the central character of the novel.

When Nazism started to grow in Germany, Sandemose warned in his articles of its likely spread northward. Until 1941, Sandemose remained in Norway. His involvement in the resistance movement forced him to escape to a safer country. During German occupation Sandemose lived in Sweden, where he wrote one of his major works, Det svundne er en drøm (1946), a story of a crime and passion recorded in the form of diary entries from 1938 to 1940. John Torson, a Norwegian-American, who is haunted by an unhappy love affair, visits his home country. His younger brother is accused and condemned to die for a murder, which perhaps Torson himself has committed. In Tjærehandleren (1945) Sandemose continued to plumb the depths of destructive behavior. Audun Hamre, hates the world, feels contempt for human beings, and steals money from widows and unmarried women. The only person he loves is his mother.

"Du har hørt dette om at en full kvinne skal være et sånt forferdelig syn - og de er noe i det, men er det noen forskyell på kjønnenes oppførsel i den situasjonen forekommer det meg at mennene baerer prisen hjem. Det er madonna dyrkelsan som igjen er på farten, kvinnen skal ikke brøle opp og være full, det får hun la mannen om, hun skal være en blå blomst i gresset og bli spist av den første oksenkalven som går forbi. Det er også et dogme at når en kvinne går til bunns, gjør hun det så meget frykteligere enn mannen. Kan du si meg hvordan hun skulle bære jegad med det? Det kommer sett og slett av at du kjenner deg forurettet når hun lukter sånn av kloakk at hun ikke er noe å ligge med, men kannskje hun også har luktesans og misliker at menn gjør på seg og oser av gammel fyll." (from Varulven, 1958)

While living in Sweden, a number of his stories came out in Swedish translation. In 1945 he married Eva Borgen; she died in 1959. Sandemose's  third wife, Hanne Holbek, was an actresss 34 years his junior. After the war Sandemose returned to Norway, where Sandemose settled with his family on a farm, Kjørkelvik, near Risør. From 1951 to 1955 he published the magazine Årstidene (The Seasons). He wrote all articles himself.

Alice Atkinson og hennes elskere (1949) consisted of three letter. Sandemose examined one of his favorite themes, the oppressing atmosphere of a small town, the hidden, dark secrets of the human mind, and everyday life cruelty. In the background of the story is World War II. The protagonist, Jörgen Haukli, is tortured by his memories. He is a fighter pilot and a British spy, who writes letters to his sister and tells in them about the mysterious death of a woman, Alice Atkinson, whom he loved passionately.

In Varulven (1958, The Werewolf) and Felicias bryllup (1961) traumatic experiences of two men and a woman in their youth unleash destructive forces of the libido. One of the characters says, "the family is nature's own school in the nature of love." The werewolf of the title symbolizes a struggle against intolerance. Felicia was abandoned at the age of seventeen by Erling Vik. She marries Jan, a farmer. Later Erling, a poet, becomes her lover, but he cannot forget his great love, Gulnare. Murene rundt Jeriko (1960) was partly autobiographical novel, a dreamlike story about death, sorrows and joy. "I have taken the art of lying to its extreme limits, because lying is necessary so that one could live." "But for me, the word is nothing, I cannot understand without an image... I have wished that I never had learned to read and write. Then I wouldn't have this glasswall between my perception and reality..." (from Murene rundt Jeriko, 1960)

Main themes in Sandemose´s works are love and hate, torturing memories, and the oppression of a small-town society. His psychological probing has been compared to the work of an archeologist, also one can detect the influence of Sigmund Freud, August Strindberg, D.H. Lawrence, and James Joyce. Many of the novels have autobiographical background, drawing experiences from his wanderings. He also wrote essays, short stories and memoirs.

Sandemose died in Copenhagen on August 5, 1965. His son from his first marriage, Bjarne Sandemose, revealed in Ugler i Sandemossen (2000), that a great writer is not necessary a great father. He depicts in the book with dark humor about his father's violence and excessive use of alcohol.

For further reading: 'Aksel Sandemose: Investigator of the Mystery of Human Nature' by Erling Nielsen in Scan 8 (1969); Ideas and Ideologies in Scandinavian Literature since the First World War, ed. by Sveinn Skorri Höskuldsson (1975); På sporet af Sandemose. Essays og artikler by Johannes Væth (1975); A History of Scandinavian Literature, 1870-1980 by Sven H. Rossel (1982); Aksel Sandemose: Exile in Search of a Home: by Randi Birn (1984); Janteloven: Aksel Sandemose. En biografi by Ole Storm (1989); A History of Norwegian Literatures, ed. by Harald S. Naess (1993); Vildmanden: Sandemose og animalismen i mellemkrigstidens litteratur by Jens Andersen (1998); Nytt lys på Aksel Sandemose: ti artikler, ed. by Thaly Nilsson (1998); Kollisioner: Aksel Sandemose som outcast och monument by Anna Forssberg Malm (1998); Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Vol. 4. ed. by Steven R. Serafin (1999); Diktning som skjebne: Aksel Sandemose by Jorunn Hareide (1999); Sandemose og offentligheden. Et kildeskrift by Johannes Væth (1999); Ugler i Sandemossen by Bjarne Sandemose (2000); Flyktningen. Aksel Sandemose by Jørgen Sandemose (2004); Aksel Sandemose and Canada:  A  Scandinavian Writer's Perception of the Canadian Prairies in the 1920s, edited by Christopher S. Hale (2005); Dæmoni og ansvarlighed: nye bidrag til Sandemose-forskningen, edited by Steen Klitgård Povlsen & Steen Andersen (2009); Aksel Sandemose och narcissim by Bo Sigrell (2015)

Selected works:

  • Fortællinger fra Labrador, 1923 (Stories from Labrador) 
  • Ungdomssynd, 1924 (Sin of Youth)
  • Stormer ved jevndøgn, 1924 (Storms at Equinox) 
  • Mænd fra Atlanteren, 1924 (Men from the Atlantic)
  • Klabautermanden, 1927 (The Klabauter Man)
    - film 1969, prod. Nordisk Film, dir. Henning Carlsen, screenplay by Poul Borum, Henning Carlsen, starring Lise Fjeldstad, Hans Stormoen, Claus Nissen, Allan Edwall
  • Ross Dane, 1928
    - Ross Dane (translated with an introduction by Christopher Hale, 1989)
  • En sjømann går i land, 1931 (A Sailor Goes Ashore)
    - film: Misery Harbour, 1999, dir. by Nils Gaup, screenplay Sigve Endresen, starring Nikolaj Coster Waldau, Anneke von der Lipe, Stuart Graham, screenplay by Kenny Sanders and Sigve Endresen
  • En flyktning krysser sitt spor; Espen Arnakkes kommentarer til Janteloven, 1933
    - A Fugitive Crosses His Tracks (translated by Eugene Gay-Tifft, with a note by Sigrid Undset, 1936)
    - Pakolainen ylittää jälkensä: Espen Arnakken kommentaareja Janten lakiin (suom. Rauno Ekholm, 1965)
  •  Vi pynter oss med horn, 1936
    - Horns for Our Adornment (translated by Eugene Gay-Tifft, 1938)
    - Me koristamme itsemme sarvilla (suom. Rauno Ekholm, 1963)
  • Det stod en benk i haven, 1937
  • Sandemose forteller, 1937
  • Fortellinger fra andre tider, 1940 (The Tar Merchant)
  • Det gångna är en dröm, 1944 (The Past Is a Dream)
  • Tjærehandleren: Fortællingen om Audun Hamre, der aldrig havde ønsket at gøre livet til en sørøverroman, 1945
    - film: Tjærehandleren, 1971, dir. and sc. by Jens Ravn, prod. Laterna Film, starring Erik Mørk, Axel Strøbye, Helle Virkner, Claus Nissen, Ulla Lock
  • Det svundne er en drøm. Papirer efterladt af Norsk-Amerikaneren John Torson til hans søn i Norge, 1946 (published in Swedish in 1944)
    - Kadonnut on vain unta (suom. Rauno Ekholm, 1961)
  • Alice Atkinson og hennes elskere, 1949 (Alice Atkinson and Her Lover)
    - Alice Atkinson ja hänen rakastajansa (suom. Rauno Ekholm, 1972)
  • Eventyret fra kong Rhascall den syttendes tid om en palmegrønn øy, 1950
  • Rejsen til Kjørkelvik, 1954 (Journey to Kjørkelvik)
  • Årstidene, 1951-55 (The Seasons)
  • Varulven, 1958 (novel continued in Felicias bryllup)
    - The Werewolf (translated by Gustaf Lannestock, 1966)
    - Ihmissusi (suom. Eija Palsbo, 1960)
  • Murene rundt Jeriko, 1960 (The Walls Around Jericho)
    - Jerikon muurit (suom. Rauno Ekholm, 1966)
  •  Felicias bryllup, 1961 (Felicia's Wedding)
    - Felician häät (suom. Rauno Ekholm, 1962)
  • Mytteriet på barken Zuidersee, 1963 (Mutiny on the Ship Zuidersee)
    - Mutiny on the Barque Zuidersee (translated by Maurice Michael, 1970)
  • Dans, dans Roselill, 1965 (Dance, Dance, Little Rose)
  • Verker i utvalg, 1965-66 (8 vols.)
  • Dikteren og temaet: artikler, 1973 (edited by Petter Larsen and Thorleif Skjævesland)
  • Epistler og moralske tanker, 1973 (edited by Trygve Hagen)
  • Brev fra Kjørkelvik, 1974 (edited by Petter Larsen and Thorleif Skjævesland)
  • Bakom står hin onde og hoster så smått: artikler om samfunn og politikk 1933-1965, 1976 (edited by Petter Larsen and Thorleif Skjævesland)
  • Aksel Sandemoses Canada: fantasi og realitet: rejsebetragtninger i udvalg 1927-28, 1994 (edited by Johannes Væth)
  • Nybyggere i Alberta; Sandemose forteller; September; Fortellinger fra andre tider, 2000
  • Fortellinger fra Labrador; Stormer ved jevndøgn; Ungdomssynd; Menn fra Atlanteren, 2000 (translators: Stephan Lange Sandemose; Carl Fredrik Engelstad; Kjell Olaf Jensen)
  • En palmegrønn øy; Mytteriet på barken Zuidersee, 2001
  • En flykting korsar sitt spår: Espen Arnakkes kommentarer til Jantelagen, 2010 (new edition; translated by Cilla Johnson)

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