Author: Tony Griffiths
A couple of years ago the Finnish film maker Aki Kaurismaki (known in Australia for films like Leningrad Cowboys Go America) was asked in an interview with a German magazine what qualities he considered vital for contemporary film makers.
'To make good films', he replied, `you have to drink a lot'.
In these days of continence, abstinence and increasingly bland global culture, it's good to know that the Scandinavians aren't deserting their cultural traditions.
Alcohol an creativity seem to have gone hand in hand for many of the great Nordic artists; as Tony Griffiths tells us early on in Scandinavia, one of the tourist attractions for Scandinavians in Rome in the 1860s was 'the familiar sight of Ibsen drunk'. The great Finnish composer Sibelius was also not averse to a drop. Depressed by Russian suppression of Finnish national sentiment, he overdid the absinthe the night before the premiere of his First Symphony in Stockholm, and arrived with a hangover to find the concert taking place in a concert tent still sweetly redolent of hay and horse manure.
One of the great attractions of Tony Griffiths' book is its wealth of pithy and often amusing anecdotes, which often give the lie to popular stereotypes of Scandinavians as dour and silent people made introspective by the long northern winters. He's attempted to unfurl a very broad canvas indeed: to show the emergence of Finland, Denmark, Norway and Sweden as modern nation-states, in their cultural diversity and national uniqueness, and in the common qualities which allow us to speak of `Scandinavia'. This could have been a very dry and ponderous undertaking, but Griffiths' obvious relish for a good story or a bit of biographical gossip gives the book verve and vivid colour. He skips back and forth between history, literature, popular culture and biography; the result is occasionally a little glib, but almost always illuminating.
One of the most fascinating aspects of the earlier chapters, which deal with the decline of imperial power and the emergence of movements for national independence in Scandinavia in the nineteenth century, a kind of pan-Scandinavianism prevailed, under the aegis of Sweden and Denmark, the two major imperial powers in Northern Europe. But, as elsewhere in Europe, struggles for democracy and social justice became linked with cultural nationalism. Norway, handed over to Sweden in 1814 after a 400-year union with Denmark, soon began to struggle against its new masters. Linked with this struggle was the growth of a radical peasants' movement in the 1830s, which never came to the point of actual revolution but won representation in the parliament in 1844.
For the people of the new Eastern European democracies, emerging from forty years or more of imperial domination, the right to national self-determination and the right to individual liberty are two sides of the same coin. If we want to understand the darker and more disturbing aspects of nationalism in Yugoslavia or Czechoslovakia, there are some useful lessons we could learn from the history of the Finns and Norwegians, fighting to assert their own sovereignty against the Russian and Swedish empires in the nineteenth century.
Griffiths shows us the great cultural figures of Scandinavia surrounded and often torn by questions of national identity and social reform. The lives of Hans Christian Andersen, Grieg, Ibsen, Strindberg, Sibelius and Edvard Munch all weave in and out of the narrative, as do their works. I hope I'm not having a cheap shot when I wonder why the only woman who gets a look-in in the cultural parade is Tove Jansson, creator of the Moomintroll books. Given that the leaders of all three major political parties in Norway are now women, it's hard to believe that women haven't played a more central role in Scandinavian politics and culture than they do in this book.
I have to admit to two more misgivings, one analytic, the other stylistic. Sometimes the common thread which Griffiths attempts to trace from the early 1800s through to the present becomes twisted or obscured in thickets of excessive detail. Elsewhere, the weave of his historical generalisations is too loose to be convincing. This book is an essay in cultural criticism, not just a history; it's precisely this quality which makes it so fascinating, but also frustrating in its occasional lack of coherence.
Perhaps because of this, Griffiths never seems to get round to answering the really intriguing question about `Scandinavia' - namely, why this loose group of cultures, which began last century more socially conservative and less modernised than many of their neighbours, came to give birth to an enduring and successful form of social democracy. The fact that Scandinavian social democracy is currently undergoing something of a crisis makes this question all the more important.
Certainly, the book describes very comprehensively how social democracy and the compact of labour, capital and the states emerged in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. And perhaps it gives a hint as to why, in stressing how consistently workers' movements and intellectuals chose the path of reform rather then revolution at crucial moments of political conflict. But there's no underlying hypothesis about why social democracy should have emerged as a cultural phenomenon throughout Scandinavia. In some ways, I found the chapter on Sweden in Hans Magnus Enzensberger's Europe, Europe (recently released in paperback by Picador), more illuminating on this point, especially for the link Enzensberger makes between paternalistic capitalism in Sweden in the nineteenth century, and state paternalism in the twentieth.
Nevertheless, Scandinavia is an important and rewarding book, and certainly a very good read for a cold winter's night. It manages, finally, to show a group of nations come full circle to kind of modern pan-Scandinavianism, exemplified by the work of the Nordic Council which, Griffiths writes, `expected to wipe out through education the view ... that Finns were quarrelsome and unintelligible knife-fighters, that Swedes were swaggering boastful, introspective materialists, that Norwegians were a scattered group of puritan and bovine alcoholics, and that Danes were bicycling pornography enthusiasts'.
The Nordic Council may not have been entirely successful in this endeavour, but late twentieth century Scandinavia can surely claim a common achievement of human and sophisticated societies open to the outside world. As the Scandinavian nations prepare to take the plunge into the bracing waters of European competition by joining the EC, let's hope they lose none of the uniqueness and diversity this book evokes. Some disturbing signs have appeared, though; Finland has recently appointed its first Minister of Alcoholic Affairs, a stern teetotaller with a mission to dry out his compatriates. If I were you, I'd settle down with this book and a bottle of akvavit and drink up while you can.