I picked up a copy of Frans Bengtsson’s The Longships without necessarily expecting very much of it. I’d had it recommended to me by an impeccable source, and I needed to immerse myself in all things Viking as part of preparation for a new book on Fenris’s finest, but first impressions weren’t good. The edition I own has one of the worst covers of any book I’ve ever seen (pictured in all its soporific glory). Someone’s even blogged on how ugly the English-language editions of this book are. I noted its length (over 400 pages, very dense print), that cover again, and wondered if my time wouldn’t be better spent elsewhere.
Swedish readers of this blog will be rolling their eyes about now, smug in the knowledge of how fantastic The Longships is. To be fair, it has the much cooler title of ‘Red Orm’ (Röde Orm) in the original, and I daresay the covers have a bit more energy about them too, but even in translation the book turns out to be utterly wonderful.
First published in the 1940s, it was (and still is?) a huge hit in Sweden. The prose takes a while to work its magic – it’s consciously written in the manner of an epic saga, and for the first few pages comes across as strangely stilted. Soon, though, the chapters start to flow by and the genius of the storytelling emerges. It’s very, very funny (in a remorselessly dry Scandinavian way) and, despite the characters being prone to regular bouts of drunken violence and motivated almost entirely by the pursuit of money, women and alcohol, surprisingly touching too.
Bengtsson’s style has made me think a lot about the craft of writing. The Longships has two characteristics that would make it, I think, almost unpublishable today: a pared-down, virtually adjective-free prose style, and a complete absence of an inner psychological narrative for the characters. Everything is on the surface: either told straightforwardly by the narrator, or given in actions and speech.
Writing successfully in this way, despite its naive aura of simplicity, is very hard: nothing is wasted, nothing is superfluous, there are no short-cuts. It’s traditional story-telling shorn of narrative tricks and literary flourishes – and it’s marvellous. Reading it is like greeting an old friend after many years apart and finding that they’re just as wonderful as you remembered them being and wishing you’d found a way to stay in better touch.
I enormously admire craft like Bengtsson’s, perhaps partly because it’s such an unfashionable way to write in a post-Joyce world of tricksy, story-free literary hocus-pocus. In a recent interview, the author Will Self said that ‘I don’t really write for readers. I think that’s the defining characteristic of being serious as a writer.’ By contrast, Bengtsson reportedly said that ‘I just wanted to write a story that people could enjoy reading, like The Three Musketeers or the Odyssey.’ To my mind that’s a far tougher and more impressive ambition. In The Longships he succeeds magnificently – if you’re as ignorant of the book as I was, I recommend trying it out.