Among the writers who most astutely characterized the morality of the 20th century, none may have been more accurate than the Norwegian novelist, essayist and playwright Jens Bjorneboe. His was a powerful voice of truth, and we need now, more than ever, to listen to it.
By the time I met Bjorneboe at his Oslo home in December 1974, he was being hailed as Norway’s greatest living writer, and his latest novel, “The Sharks,” was a best-seller there. The book tells a classic adventure story set on a ship out of hell, one on which every abomination ever known to have occurred is repeated in many forms. The ship is a microcosm of cruelty, pain and intolerance. And yet it is lyrical as well: “The ship moving slowly below him, the sea his bride at night.”
Norway is a country in which the sea always looms large and, it has been said, there is either a missionary or a sailor in every family.
“All my people are sea people,” Bjorneboe told me that freezing night in Oslo. “I was born in Kristiansand, on the south coast of Norway. The Norwegian in ‘The Sharks’ is really my uncle Adolf.”
There was almost no social problem that Bjorneboe didn’t turn his pen to. In his play “Amputation,” he attacked the practice of experimental psychosurgery done on criminals in prison, inferring that the entire medical establishment was guilty by association. In another play, titled “Semmelweis,” about the Hungarian-Austrian physician Ignaz Semmelweis, who demonstrated in 1847 that childbed fever was contagious, he again exposed and castigated the medical profession as being self-serving and the cause of much misery. The Semmelweis in the play is constantly smelling his hands. The real Semmelweis was ostracized by his colleagues for daring to tell them they should wash their hands.
Bjorneboe often wrote about war. He said of World War I battlefield sites that you could tell the ones where the officers fell because the grass on them was greener, due to the fatty diet that officers enjoyed thanks to their class.
He predicted the moral bankruptcy of U.S. foreign policy perhaps earlier than any other non-communist European author, expanding on his ideas in his book of essays, “We Who Loved America.” He was a fierce opponent of his country’s support of the United States’ war in Vietnam.
“I really want to go to America,” he told me, “but they won’t let me in. It’s because I’ve been to the Soviet Union.”
In those days, it was hard to obtain a U.S. visa if you had a Soviet one stamped in your passport.
As much as he was feted at home, however, one of his books caused a scandal in Norway. In 1966 he published “Without a Stitch,” a novel that challenged his country’s censorship laws. The case went to the Supreme Court, which found him guilty of “sexual nihilism” and handed him a one-year sentence. (He avoided serving time by paying a fine the equivalent of a few hunded dollars.)
Thanks in part to the notoriety caused by the trial, the book — which tells of a woman who likes her sex every which way, and with all manner of sex aids — subsequently appeared in translation in many languages, including Japanese, and was made into a film in Denmark. When he published the sequel, “Without a Stitch 2,” he dedicated it “To the Norwegian Supreme Court.”
In 1966, too, Bjorneboe embarked on his greatest achievement in prose, with the publication of the first volume of his trilogy, “The History of Bestiality,” which he completed in 1973. These three books comprise a study of evil, which he saw as morality’s pivotal point of the 20th century. In the novels he is relentlessly asking himself and us: Why do we treat each other with such cruelty?
The novel in the trilogy that is most relevant to us now in our era of ethnic cleansing is the third, “The Silence.” It describes in graphic detail the genocide of the Aztec and Inca peoples brought about by Cortez and Pizarro. Bjorneboe writes:
“His last words were that he wanted . . . ‘to settle his account with God . . . .’ Then he died a Christian syphilitic’s death in God’s name. His work was done: Paradise was a desert. In 30 years, 19 million had been slaughtered. It isn’t given to everyone to destroy a culture.”
Bjorneboe had difficulty coming to terms with his popularity. As one who invariably encouraged the outcast, I think he preferred to be seen as an outcast himself. On that night at his home in Oslo, he got plastered. By the end of the evening he was having trouble putting his words together.
He took me into his study, which was a small room separate from the main house. There was a good 30 cm of snow on the ground outside.
“Is this where you write?” I asked.
“What?” he said. “Look here, look, for chrissakes, above my desk. See this photo?”
It was an awful photograph of two young people, a boy and a girl, hanged on a makeshift scaffold. A Nazi officer was beaming beside them.
“Do you see this?!” he demanded. “These were two Norwegians, hanged for being in the resistance. I keep it here to remind myself of what people do to each other.”
Then he picked up a knife from his desk, and I was convinced he was going to stab me. His eyes were like those in a Munch painting, bloodshot and full of wrath. He turned the knife toward himself, then put it down.
I recognized the photo as one of two young Russians hanged by the Nazis during the war. But to him all people who suffered were his own. He did, in fact, need to feel that in order to write.
Jens Bjorneboe died by his own hand in May 1976, nearly 30 years ago now. He was 55 years old.
In our era, on our 21st-century cliff, we look down into the ravine of the last century and the centuries before. The ravine is piled with victims of cruelty, piled so high that it has become a mountain. Who now will describe this for us, to remind us what we can do if we are not constantly reminded of our capabilities? The voice of Bjorneboe reaches us, if we will only listen.
“I don’t believe that humanity is evil,” he wrote, “nor that humanity is good. Which side shall be permitted to grow and develop depends on ourselves.”
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