Once upon a time (1992 to be exact), most Americans knew very little about Scandinavian literature. Sure, they fondly remembered Pippi Longstocking and Hans Christian

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Coming of Age

Two worthy Scandinavian novels reach our shores.

Once upon a time (1992 to be exact), most Americans knew very little about Scandinavian literature. Sure, they fondly remembered Pippi Longstocking and Hans Christian Andersen, but otherwise had only a fuzzy sense of the existential angst, snow, herring, and Volvos associated with these countries spilling into the Arctic Circle. Before You Sleep

by Linn Ullmann (Viking, $23.95) Prince

by Ib Michael (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $25) Then came the unexpected 1993 success of Smilla's Sense of Snow. Peter Hoeg's masterful thriller made contemporary Nordic literature suddenly seem pretty sexy. Now two more guests have arrived at the party: Before You Sleep, by Linn Ullmann, and Ib Michael's Prince. Already best-sellers in their native countries—Norway and Denmark, respectively—these terrific novels deserve a warm reception. In fact, Before You Sleep is already a bit of a media darling. Not only has Ullmann's debut novel elicited rave reviews, but the author is a celebrity baby—the daughter of filmmaker Ingmar Bergman and Norwegian actress/director Liv Ullmann. Her lineage shows in her writing. Ullmann certainly has her own voice, but some of the novel's themes will be familiar to fans of her parents' films: the omnipresence and mutability of memory, infidelity and betrayal in romantic relationships, and, most importantly, the love/hate dynamic between mothers, daughters, and sisters. The Blom family has enough drama queens to stock at least two or three movies: Grandma June, the "good soldier"; her sister Selma, "the world's angriest old woman"; June's daughter Anni, who is "irresistible" but "not quite right in the head"; and Anni's daughters Julie and Karin. Karin, the youngest Blom, is our hostess. Her narrative skitters back and forth, from the 1990s to the 1930s, from Oslo to New York City. What emerges is a crazy quilt of pivotal events—Anni's divorce, Selma's funeral, Julie's wedding and subsequent marital woes, Karin's own brief love affairs, and grandfather Rikard's immigration to America—edged with sharply observed details of personality quirks and day-to-day family life. Karin herself is a wonderfully complex literary creation. Alternately self-deprecating and full of bravado, she is selfish and thoughtful, loving and spiteful, lazy and full of frantic energy. Most of all, she is completely untrustworthy. As she herself boldly and somewhat defensively avers, "I've always lied as if my life depended on it. It was easier that way. And more fun. I didn't see it as a problem. I was fully aware I was lying, I did it on purpose, still do it on purpose, and even though everyone but Father said it was wrong to lie, nobody could tell me why. Only that it was wrong. But as long as I knew I was lying—and that was of course a given—then no one was hurt by it." And Karin's no common, prosaic liar. In Karin's hands the Blom family history often veers wildly into whimsical flights of fancy. She reserves her greatest powers of fabrication for describing her romantic conquests, claiming to have sung one potential lover into submission and then turned him into a fish. She drinks another under the table and then, dressed as a man, carries him home. Luckily, Ullmann is a skillful enough storyteller that she manages to rein Karin and all the novel's other colorful characters in at precisely the right moment, just before we grow impatient with them. When they blunder, which they do often, they make up for it with a gesture that's heroic, kind, funny, or heartbreaking. Ullmann has a great deal of affection for the Bloms in all their imperfect humanity, and so do we. If the ties that bind families are the concern of Before You Sleep, Prince focuses on the bonds of community—specifically, a 1912 Danish fishing village. At the center of this tiny universe is 12-year-old Malte Alexander, a "charity case" from the city (his mother is impoverished, his father long gone) spending the summer at the local boardinghouse. The exceptionally friendly and sympathetic grownup villagers form his ad hoc family: fussy Mrs. Swan, the boardinghouse's proprietress; the dashing Dr. Hansen, who makes Malte his apprentice; Olesen, the lighthouse keeper who lets Malte use his workshop; Oak, the towering pharmacist who teaches the illiterate boy how to read; and Oda, the sweet-natured housemaid who spoils him. It's easy to see why the adults dote on Malte. He's imaginative, thoughtful, exuberant, and joyful. As Michael explains, "to be let loose in the wonderland of childhood—that is what it means to be born a prince." Malte's summer idyll renders him a prince, freeing him from his precarious city existence. Yet Prince is no mere coming-of-age story. At the core of the novel is a mystery: the identity of a handsome sailor who washes up on shore, and the dead man's connection to Aviaja, an eccentric old woman living in a ruined mansion on the village's periphery. The sailor's ghost latches onto Malte, serving as the boy's guardian angel and imaginary companion. This spirit figure, the novel's narrator, assumes many strange forms, including a rock, a fox, and a prehistoric elf trapped in amber (seriously). Michael resolves the ghost story with marvelous finesse and control, managing to weave in disparate subplots like Oda's love affair with a sophisticated bounder, an ill-fated voyage to Greenland, and even the big news event of 1912: the tragedy of the Titanic. Through it all, from its eerie opening passage to the elegiac conclusion, Prince maintains a lyrical, fairy-tale quality. And though it may be Michael's US debut, the versatile and prolific 54-year-old author is well-known in his native Denmark, having produced over 20 works of fiction, poetry, travel literature, and, most recently, the libretto for Operation: Orfeo, a "visual opera." Michael and Ullmann's novels both taste of magical realism, though Ullmann's is with a pop-influenced, post-feminist twist. Hmm . . . Scandinavian magical realism, the new literary genre? However one characterizes them, here are two original, moving, and wholly seductive novels—also beautifully translated, by Barbara Haveland (Prince) and Seattle writer Tiina Nunally (Before You Sleep).

 
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