In this novel, the first in a trilogy, Mytting delves into his country’s past at a time when it is beginning to open up to the wider world. Astrid, a village girl, goes to work for the new pastor, the ambitious, young and worldly Kai Schweigaard. Schweigaard is horrified by the backward ways of the locals and keen to improve their lives, despite their determination to remain unimproved. His plans are thwarted by poverty, rural stubbornness and a melancholic acceptance that life is supposed to be miserable.
This is Mytting’s fourth novel, and his second book to be translated into English (this time by Deborah Dawkin), following on from his surprise non-fiction bestseller Hel Ved (2011; Norwegian Wood, 2015), which rode the past decade’s wave of interest in Nordic and Scandinavian culture as natural, tolerant and hygge. That interest from without was always based on a reduction to a kind of kitsch: woollen jumpers, social democracy and cinnamon rolls. Now Mytting presents a Norwegian kitsch of a historical nature: a vision not just of a simpler past but one where Norway suffered under the yoke of the Danish Empire. Certainly it seems simpler than the country’s present, where a welfare state and ecological conscience are funded by the oil that is destroying the world for everyone else. And so, where we might have found a reckoning between Norway then and now, The Bell in the Lake prefers a version of historical authenticity no less legendary than a peasant tale, and no less artificial than a reconstructed church.
The Bell in the Lake is based on local myths and real people, and you can sense the hours spent by the author sleuthing through old church records for material. However, Mytting’s prose never collapses under the weight of his considerable research; he has seamlessly absorbed dialect words and phrases into his own vocabulary. Much of the local detail is inevitably lost in English, but translator Deborah Dawkin has gone to great lengths to create an equivalent of the rural vernacular, and the result adds wonderful texture to the translation. Although there is the occasional awkward phrase, The Bell in the Lake is a beautiful example of modern Norwegian folklore.
The Bell in the Lake (MacLehose £16.99, translated by Deborah Dawkin) is set in a remote Norwegian village in 1880. A young pastor is intent on tearing down a medieval wooden church and building a new one, so an architecture student is dispatched from Dresden to oversee its demolition and transportation to Germany for reconstruction. Both men are drawn to the free-spirited Astrid Hekne, a farmer’s daughter with ambitions to escape her life’s limitations. In their triangular relationship lie the roots of an unfolding tragedy.
Much like Marcel Pagnol did in his Provençal novels, Mytting shows how landscape and climate can define a character. He also stresses the currency of myths in a rural environment, how they provide a buffer to the elements. He delivers village wisdom — “You knew something was good, when the complaints stopped” — and jagged realism. It is a fireside read with splinters.