Book of the month: Carl Frode Tiller


If you think of Norwegian literature, two kinds of writing will probably come to mind. The first is the crime fiction that has taken the world by storm in recent years, spearheaded by the phenomenal success of Jo Nesbø. The second comprises lengthy collections of linked literary novels – from Karl Ove Knausgård’s acclaimed six-book My Struggle to the outstanding Kristin Lavransdatter by Nobel laureate Sigrid Undset (the only translation I ever wrote about on, the blog I had before I decided to expand my horizons and read the world).

What you may not think of in connection with Norway is Nynorsk literature. There’s a good reason for that: despite being an official language, in comparison to Bokmål (the most widely used Norwegian language), Nynorsk (‘new Norwegian’ as its name is commonly translated) is not much published. Books in it are rare. Which means English translations of Nynorsk literature are like hen’s teeth.

In fact, if the subject of this post isn’t the only translation currently available in the world’s most published language, I’d be very surprised (do put a comment below if you know otherwise).

However, though it was written in a different language, Carl Frode Tiller’s Encircling does share some traits with other Norwegian books translated into English. Like Undset and Knausgård’s novels – and indeed much of Nesbø’s work – the book is part of a series. It’s the first in a trilogy, also called Encircling, that Sort Of Books proposes to bring into English in the next few years.

This opening instalment centres around the enigmatic character of David, who, we are told, has lost his memory, giving rise to a newspaper appeal for people who know him to make contact and share stories about his life that might help re-establish his sense of identity. Three people respond: two close friends from his teenage years in the small town of Namsos and his now-estranged stepfather. The narrative consists of their letters to David, interspersed with interior monologues and commentary on their present-day lives.

One of Tiller’s many strengths is his ability to capture people’s emotional states in small details. Through looks, gestures and – strikingly often – desperate or furious grins, he manages to convey the guilt, tensions and frustrations that underpin the familial, platonic and romantic relationships in the novel. He has an eye for ‘the unwritten rules’ that govern long-standing associations and a keen sense of the way emotions can gust up and throw us off-balance, forcing us to do ridiculous or perverse things.

This can give rise to moments of humour, as when the former friends recall some of their teenage posturing and attempts at sophistication. But it can also tilt over into pathos too, as we watch characters sabotaging themselves often in full knowledge of what they are doing but without the ability break the patterns that hem them in.

Another joy is Tiller’s (and translator Barbara J. Haveland’s) skill in presenting the distinctive voices of the three narrators. I particularly enjoyed free-spirit-turned-disillusioned-academic Silje’s occasional exclamations at the beauty of her own writing – a witty key to her character that might have taken pages of description to render another way.

The writing is so enjoyable that many of the passages feel as though they could stand alone as short stories. Yet all the while, the turbo engine of the narrative drives on, navigating deftly from one episode to the next, keeping up the momentum. Tiller takes full advantage of the shifting perspectives to drop in numerous contradictions and revelations along the way, building up a rich, problematic and fractured picture of David and the lives of those around him. The denouement is clever and, unlike the endings of many other trilogy openers, feels satisfying in its own right.

Occasionally, the structure presents problems. Now and then it’s tricky to remember who some of the wider circle of characters are. In addition, the decision to lump long passages of dialogue together into single paragraphs in the latter sections can give the text a (probably intentionally) breathless feel. And while the repetition of certain constructions, such as Silje’s frequent assertion that she doesn’t know why she’s saying what she’s saying, can give a powerful impression of the way the characters are entrenched in toxic mindsets, the overuse of some words and phrases grates occasionally.

Overall, though, this is a great read. It’s certainly the best Nynorsk literature I’ve ever read. And though that’s not saying much for now, there’s no doubt that Tiller can hold his own alongside Norway’s other literary big hitters. I’m very much looking forward to the next instalment.

Encircling (Innsirkling) by Carl Frode Tiller, translated from the Nynorsk by Barbara J. Haveland (Sort of Books, 2015)

Picture: the waterfront in Namsos, Norway, by Grete Rasmussen

19 responses

  1. Just to chime in here, in my completely unbiased opinion you cannot go wrong with any Per Petterson. I Refuse is dark, haunting and my favourite to date, but his Impac Dublin wining Out Stealing Horses should not be missed either.

  2. I have recently read this book and I can say that your review sums up my opinion perfectly! I would also recommend you “Burial Rites” from Hannah Kent. It is an icelandic novel and I found the way of writing similar to Tiller’s! Really nice blog by the way!

  3. You say that books in nynorsk are rare, which puzzels me. I work in a library in a part of Norway where nynorsk is the main language in all schools. There are lots of books in “New Norwegian”, though I haven’t read anything by Carl Frode Tiller (yet).

    One of my favourite authors writes in nynorsk, her name is Aina Basso. She has not been translated into English, as far as I know. Song for Eirabu by Kristine Tofte are books in nynorsk I’d easily recomment too, though not translated into English.

    The old publishing house Samlaget is actually a publishing house that ONLY publishes books in nynorsk. I also have books from other publishers written in nynorsk.

    So, in Norway, books in nynorsk are not at all rare. It’s just a lack of translation, but that can be said of many books.

    (I have read the first book by Knausgård, but hated it – not at all my cup of tea…)

    • Thanks. That’s interesting. The research I did suggested that relatively little is published in Nynorsk compared to overall publishing figures in Norway, but I’m sure you know more than me, particularly if you work in a library surrounded by Nynorsk books! Thanks for those recommendations. I hope they make it into English soon.

      • Compared to the amount of books published in bokmål, there are less in nynorsk. However, there’s a lot of books published per person in Norway – there’s not a lot of us. 😉 It would be great if more Norwegian books were published into English. Example: The trilogy “ravneringene” (fantasy) has been translated into several languages, Finnish, Swedish, Polish… But still not English.

        I’m an avid Science Fiction and fantasy reader, and last year I went to the SF EroCon in Dublin. One of the panels I went to was one on translations, and there were Anglo people there who actually said that they thought that translations wouldn’t be as good as books original written in English. Being sort of a part of the Anglo fandom as well as the Norwegian fandom, this really troubled me. Unfortunately, I think this it what a lot of Anglo readers think – that books originally written in English are better than books originally written in other languages. And that’s sad.

      • Thanks. Yes, I think you’re right that a lot of English-language readers are suspicious of translations, maybe because many of us aren’t that used to reading them. It’s a real shame because there are some fabulous translations out there – and even if you speak ten languages, you would still be confined to only a small selection of the world’s stories if you only read books in their original languages. Let’s hope it changes.

  4. If you are interested in more nynorsk literature that has been translated into English, you can’t go wrong with one of Norway’s greatest writers, Tarjei Vesaas. Vesaas writes absolutely beautifully, perhaps because he was also a poet. Several of his books have been translated into English, most notably ‘The Ice Palace’ from 1963. Highly recommended!

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