Norwegian Literary Nobel Laureates

Between 1903 and 1928, three Norwegian authors were awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. The works of these authors played a central role in establishing the basis for modern Norwegian literature. In 1814 Norway’s 400-year union with Denmark was dissolved, only to be replaced by a union with Sweden that lasted until 1905. As the pressure to gain national independence mounted, so did the desire to build a national literary tradition based on the Norwegian language as opposed to Danish.

Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson (1832-1910) began to publish his Bondefortellinger (Peasant Tales) in the 1850s and onwards, bringing a new narrative style and voice to Norwegian literature. Bjørnson’s works include poetry, stories, novels and plays. A contemporary of playwright Henrik Ibsen (see Drama), Bjørnson won the 1903 Nobel Prize "as a tribute to his noble, magnificent and versatile poetry, which has always been distinguished by both the freshness of its inspiration and the rare purity of its spirit." Bjørnson also became involved early on in the movement to establish a national Norwegian theatre.

Norway’s second Nobel laureate, Knut Hamsun (1859-1952), had his literary breakthrough with Sult (Hunger), an autobiographical novel marking the emergence of Neo-romanticism in Norway. Hamsun received the Nobel Prize in 1920 for Markens Grøde (The Growth of the Soil), published in 1917. Hamsun's work is determined by a deep aversion to civilization and the belief that man's only fulfilment lies with the soil. This primitivism (and its concomitant distrust of all things modern) found its fullest expression in The Growth of the Soil, often considered his masterpiece. His early works usually centre around an outcast, a vagabond figure, aggressively opposed to civilization. During his middle period, Hamsun's aggressiveness gave way to melancholy resignation in relation to the loss of youth. Hamsun’s works are regarded as classics in Norwegian literature, and he remains one of Norway’s most widely translated fiction-writers. In his highly-acclaimed of Hamsun (Enigma, The Life of Knut Hamsun, 1987), Robert Ferguson named Hamsun one of the most significant, inventive literary stylists of the past century, stating that there was virtually no European or American author alive who was not consciously or unconsciously influenced by Hamsun’s works. Knut Hamsun wrote over 40 books, several of which are considered classics.

Sigrid Undset (1882 - 1949) was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1928 for her compelling description of life in the Middle Ages. Her trilogy on Kristin Lavransdatter (1920-1922) has become an international classic. Undset was a productive writer and a wonderful storyteller, who combined thorough knowledge of history with great insight into the human condition. Undset’s books were banned in Germany in the 1930s, and she was forced to leave her native Norway as a result of the Nazi invasion during the WWII. She went to the United States but continued to support the Norwegian Resistance. After the war she returned to her country and received the Grand Cross of St. Olav for her writing and her patriotic endeavours. Her literary production encompasses more than 30 titles, and her books have been translated into a wide range of different languages.

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Knut HamsunPhoto: Wilse/ Norsk Folkemuseum

From the film "Kristin Lavransdatter", based on the books by Sigrid UndsetPhoto courtesy of the Norwegian film institute

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