Aksel Sandemose caused a storm of controversy, satirizing life in small-town Denmark as being ruled by pettiness, envy, backbiting, gossip, inverted snobbery, and small-mindedness. It's a book about The Law of Jante
Aksel Sandemose, A Fugitive Covers His Tracks, Trans. by Eugene Gay-Tifft, Lulu.com, 2018. // A.A. Knopf, 1936.[1933.]
Part of a long series of novels about the author's alter ego, Espen Arnakke, a sailor from Jante, Denmark, begun in 1931 and continuing to 1938. He explores his irrational act of murdering a friend who seduced his girlfriend. This part is set in the small narrow-minded Danish village he calls 'Yoknapatawpha' where Espen explores his childhood to find out who he is.
1- You're not to think you are anything special.
2- You're not to think you are as good as we are.
3- You're not to think you are smarter than we are.
4- You're not to imagine yourself better than we are.
5- You're not to think you know more than we do.
6- You're not to think you are more important than we are.
7- You're not to think you are good at anything.
8- You're not to laugh at us.
9- You're not to think anyone cares about you.
10- You're not to think you can teach us anything.
11- Perhaps you don't think we know a few things about you?
The Law of Jante is the description of a pattern of group behaviour towards individuals within Nordic countries that negatively portrays and criticises individual success and achievement as unworthy and inappropriate. The Jante Law as a concept was created by the author Aksel Sandemose. The novel portrays the small Danish town Jante where nobody is anonymous.
Your modern-day Dane is not what you would call a God-fearing creature. The Danish church, though never formally separated from the state (as happened in Sweden), plays an ever-diminishing role in the lives of the vast majority of Danes, with Sunday attendance experiencing an apparently inexorable decline, divorce increasing, and church leaders gently shunted into the margins of the popular discourse. You would imagine, then, that the teachings of Martin Luther would hold little currency in Danish society today, yet many of the core principles of Lutheranism—parsimony, modesty, disapproval of individualism or elitism—still define the manner in which the Danes behave toward one another and view the rest of the world, thanks in part to the enduring influence of an improbable literary figure.
Aksel Nielsen was a sensitive and sickly child who grew into a weak and stunted young adult. The son of a smith, he was born in 1899 in the somnolent North Jutland town of Nykøbing on the island of Mors. He received a rudimentary education at the local school until 1916, when, at the age of seventeen, he went to sea on a schooner bound for Newfoundland.
This was the first of many flights from reality upon which the bookish Aksel would embark during his life: the next came just a few weeks later on the other side of the Atlantic, where he jumped ship. But, with the world now at war, Nielsen’s habit of scribbling secretively in his notebooks late at night in his bunk bed, combined with his strange accent, aroused suspicion in Canada. His workmates began to think he might be a German spy. Once again he fled, this time back to Denmark, via Spain, working to pay his passage on a ship.
Back home in Nykøbing, few were pleased to see Aksel. His parents had not been happy about him leaving in the first place, and his jumping ship had compounded their disapproval. But in fact, his North American escapades were to prove his making. At the age of twenty-four, following numerous rejections, Nielsen’s fictionalized version of his Newfoundland adventures was finally published as Stories from Labrador, under a newly acquired surname, Sandemose, taken from a place close to his Norwegian mother’s hometown. More books followed, blending fiction and fact in a style critics have likened to Joseph Conrad’s, albeit interspersed with long, rather worthy essays.
There would be yet more flights in Sandemose’s life. The next was to Norway, where he fled in 1930 with his wife and three children following various financial misadventures, including selling the rights to his next book to two different publishers (I did kick myself when I heard about this). During World War II he ran away again, this time to Sweden, following a peripheral involvement in the Norwegian resistance movement. This amounted to little more than sharing a beer or two with actual resistance members, but they grew fearful that Sandemose wouldn’t be able to keep his mouth shut and so persuaded him to cross the border to their neutral neighbor. In 1945, back in Norway, having left his wife and three kids, he fathered twins with another woman.
By all accounts, Sandemose was a deeply unpleasant man, an untrustworthy, amoral fantasist. One of his sons would later accuse his father, variously, of pedophilia, incest, cruelty to animals, and bigamy, while the alleged murder of a Norwegian man has also been added to the charge sheet against him. I recently noticed Sandemose’s portrait on a Norwegian Air 737, one of a series of “Norwegian” heroes featured on the tails of the company’s planes. He makes for an unlikely corporate icon, it has to be said.
Sandemose’s works are little read these days, except, that is, for a small fragment of one novel, A Fugitive Crosses His Tracks, published in 1933. The book is a thinly veiled roman à clef about the people of Nykøbing, which in the book is renamed “Jante.” It caused a storm of controversy, satirizing life in small-town Denmark as being ruled by pettiness, envy, backbiting, gossip, inverted snobbery, and small-mindedness. Naturally, the book generated some especially indignant spluttering in Nykøbing, exposing as it did the mean-spirited behavior of its residents, many of whom were easily identifiable.
The fragment of A Fugitive that has come both to define and to torment the Danes is a list of rules by which the residents of the fictional town of Jante were said to abide. These rules set out the Law of Jante (Janteloven), a kind of Danish Ten Commandments, the influence and infamy of which have spread beyond their home country throughout the Nordic region.
These are the rules of Jante Law, the social norms one should apparently be aware of if one is planning a move to the north:
- You shall not believe that you are someone.
- You shall not believe that you are as good as we are.
- You shall not believe that you are any wiser than we are.
- You shall never indulge in the conceit of imagining that you are better than we are.
- You shall not believe that you know more than we do.
- You shall not believe that you are more important than we are.
- You shall not believe that you are going to amount to anything.
- You shall not laugh at us.
- You shall not believe that anyone cares about you.
- You shall not believe that you can teach us anything.
My experience has been that Jante Law operates everywhere in Denmark on some level or another, but it is true that it is harder to spot amid the cosmopolitan whirl of the capital. Certainly, I know from speaking to people who have moved away from Jutland that Jante Law still underscores attitudes and behavior to a greater extent on the Danish peninsula, and along the yet more insular, traditional west coast in particular. Sitting next to a woman at a dinner party recently, she had explained how stifling she found the attitude in her hometown. “On the west coast, anyone who even slightly broke with convention, or showed that they had any ambition, was frowned upon,” she told me. “People really didn’t like it. Everyone knew your business, everyone had an opinion about what you should be doing. I had to get away. I came to Copenhagen as soon as I could, and don’t often go back.” It is common to have such feelings about one’s hometown, I suppose, but they do often seem to be particularly keenly felt by people from Jutland.
But what of Nykøbing itself? What signs of Jante Law’s existence would I find if I were to visit its birthplace, I wondered? Was Nykøbing Mors, to give it its full name, as small-minded and mean-spirited as Sandemose had made it out to be? Did its people suppress their hopes and dreams, hold each other back, not allow themselves to “think they were anything”? And if so, would I be able to see any evidence of this?
Nykøbing’s high street looked much like every other provincial Danish high street, at least at first glance. There was a book/gift store with birthday cards on a revolving stand outside, some midrange men’s clothes shops sel ling the usual dark jeans, polo shirts, and three-buttoned jackets that Danish men favor for just about every occasion, a hairdresser’s, tobacconist’s and wine store, pub, and pharmacy. All typical small-town stuff. It was only as I walked back down the street and looked again at the names of the shops that I noticed something curious. My heart sang! The shop names! They were quite extraordinarily prosaic, almost aggressively mundane or, as the Danes would say, tilbageholdende (back-holding, or “reserved”), devoid of even the slightest suggestion of promotion or branding.
The hairdresser’s was called, baldly, “Hair.” The pub was called “The Pub.” The shop that sold clothes and shoes ventured to grab the attention of passersby with the razzle-dazzle name “Clothes and Shoes”; the bookshop was Bog Handler or “Book Dealer.” Clearly affronted by its neighbors’ shameless self-promotion, one retailer had simply taken to naming itself “No. 16”; another, wary of accusations of hubris, had plumped simply for Shoppen, or “The Shop.” These retailers were not merely lacking in marketing skills, they defiantly renounced all conventional notions of salesmanship.
Only one shop dared to break free from the herd and boldly proclaim the eponymity of its owner and risk standing out from the Nykøbing retail crowd: “Bettina’s Shoes.”
Watch out, Bettina, I thought to myself, as I carried on down the high street. They aren’t much for that kind of showboating in these parts. At the library I asked Bent Dupont, chairman of the Aksel Sandemose Society, whether he felt Jante Law was still evident in Nykøbing or Danish society (all the while stroking my camera, knowingly).
“No, no, it was relevant in those days when Sandemose wrote it, but not today,” Dupont, a kindly retired teacher-type with round glasses, told me. “The Jante Law he wrote about, where everyone holds everyone else down, and each believes the other is in cahoots with the rest of the people around them, the ‘You shall not think you are anything’ attitude, is dead. The only place it still exists is in the Danish media. It’s used by celebrities, writers, filmmakers, sports stars. Take Bille August [the Danish Oscar-winning director]. When he directs a bad film and then gets bad reviews, he always says, Oh, that’s Jante Law. If anything, these days we have positive Jante Law—‘You shall think you are something.’ ” Silently, I turned on my camera and cued up the photos I had taken of Nykøbing’s high street. Dupont flicked through them, a smile slowly spreading across his face, until by the end he was—to my great relief—laughing. “I get your point. I can see there is an element of people holding back there,” he said.
To be fair to Dupont, most Danes would claim that the Jante Law attitude is in decline. I did sense its influence more when I first started to visit Denmark a decade and a half ago, probably because I was young, ambitious, and somewhat arrogant. I hadn’t yet learned the mysterious code of the Danes, whose superficial similarities to Brits and Americans, I soon discovered, masked far deeper differences. Over time I have probably also gravitated away from Danes with Jante tendencies—as one does from people with whom one has little in common—but I do still sometimes come up against traces of it when I venture outside my social circle, where it typically manifests itself in a form of confusion verging on mild scorn when I try to explain what I do, or have done, for a living. From time to time I have been lucky enough to travel with my work, to stay in extravagant places, eat indulgent meals, and drive expensive cars, but I tend to tone down recollections of those elements of my life when talking to Danes I don’t know very well.
... She added, “But, you know, the envy part is not the important part. The important part is the inclusiveness: we want to include you, but that is only possible if you are equal. It’s what peasants do.”
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This is an excerpt from The Almost Nearly Perfect People by Michael Booth
Aksel Sandemose, The Werewolf, Trans. by Gustaf Lannestock, University of Wisconsin Press; 2nd ed., 2002.
The Werewolf is a boldly drawn novel of the tyranny of love over men and women and the unending trials of strength between good and evil in human nature. Its main characters are of heroic stature yet deeply flawed, moving against the backdrop of Norwegian society from World War I to the 1960s.
Over the novel broods the symbol of the Werewolf, which for Sandemose represents all the forces hostile to a full, free life—the thirst for power over others’ lives, the lust to destroy what cannot be possessed or controlled. In their private encounters with the Werewolf, few can claim total victory. Sandemose’s characters all bear the scars of lost battles.
"The Werewolf . . . leaves you grasping at what is left of your shattered vision of normality."—Gregg Olson
"In this, his greatest novel, Sandemose carried his fictional experimentation to a triumphant conclusion. . . . He handles the problems of fictional time as adeptly as such writers as James Joyce and Virginia Woolf. His sensitivity, his lyrical capacity . . . create a novel of beauty as well as truth."—Robert D. Spector
This interesting, virile, philosophic novel has been ruined for a general audience by an almost unreadable translation. In short chapter-stitches Sandemose embroiders the life of three people as it ""happened in Felicia's time,"" (1934-1958). He moves back and forth, brings in new characters, all of whom participate in the basic story without really affecting its inexorable progress. The central figures are Erling, a dipsomanic writer; Jan Venhaug, a gentle farmer; his wife Felicia, who is Erling's mistress (only one of her sexual problems); and Julie, Erik's bastard daughter who ends up in Jan's bed. The characters are deliberately submerged and blurred, their oddities explained as the work of the Werewolf, the destructive force in everyone. The translator also seems to have been under his influence: sentences move awkwardly, backwards. A volume in the above-mentioned series. - Kirkus