Hanne Ørstavik was awarded the Gyldendal Prize this month and here you can read the jury’s statement, a wonderful exploration of her writing over thirty years.

The biannual Gyldendal Prize is Norway’s biggest prize in terms of prestige and monetary value. It’s given to an author with an exceptionally significant body of work, and focuses on a particular recent work, in this case Stay with Me, which we publish in Martin Aitken’s superb English translation on 5th September 2024. (If you subscribe by 10 May 2024, it will be one of the six And Other Stories books per year you receive before publication and in which you are thanked by name.)

Previous winners of the prize include Dag Solstad, Jon Fosse, Vigdis Hjorth, Karl Ove Knausgård and Per Petterson. Here is a translation of the jury’s statement, supplied by Ørstavik’s Norwegian publisher:

‘”Dad held me tightly when I was little. He came home and lifted me up, squeezing me so hard I couldn’t breathe. I liked it, it was so direct.”

These sentences open the book Where Everything Is Clear from 2008, which also contains photographs by Pierre Duba. It’s one of the lesser-known releases from this author. Nevertheless, one gets the feeling that these sentences could be found anywhere in this author’s body of work. Or not quite. The use of the personal pronoun “I” reveals that the sentences come from a book published after the same author received the Hunger Prize in 1999.

Gyldendal’s grant was awarded for the first time ninety years ago. That year, the prize went to Olav Duun. In 1996, it was renamed the Gyldendal Prize and is awarded every other year. The jury consists of Kaja Schjerven Mollerin, Ingrid Nielsen, Aage Borchgrevink, Bernhard Ellefsen, and Knut Hoem.

The statutes emphasize that the prize should be awarded to a particularly significant body of work, and this body of work should be highlighted by a book that adds profile to it.

The last meeting of the Gyldendal grant board took place in a meeting room in this building. We discussed through a shortlist of authors, represented then by their current publication from 2023.

Opinions were divided on several. When we reached this year’s winner, something happened to the atmosphere in the room. There was a feeling of consensus, which is somewhat paradoxical because there wasn’t any of us who hadn’t read the novels of this author without putting up some form of critical resistance. Nevertheless, there was a sense of relief in the room after encountering the novel that lay before us. The book with three small words in the title had reached us all. We were all clearly seized by the acute questions the text posed. The existential questions, which no one living here and now can evade. Where is that in me that is me? Who is it that sees who we really are? How does the one who is dead live on in all things? Personal, but at the same time equipped with a fictional parallel narrative, shedding light on the autobiographical. It’s not so much about updating us on what the author had experienced since the last time. It’s more about what new insights have been gained. We readers enter into a literary language that is attuned to understanding. Indeed, it’s a language that is exploratory, and therefore appeals to the exploratory in us.

This novel virtually came to our rescue by offering sentences that set a new standard for our conversation. And this at a time when the public debate about whether it’s even possible to claim that something is better than something else, that some authors are better than others, haunts us with renewed strength. Could it be that Solveig from Week 43, this author’s most controversial fictional character, was right when she claimed that indisputable quality exists? Yes, but also no. We will continue to discuss these novels, there are fourteen of them so far. Each and every one of us, from our own perspective.

What does it really mean, to surrender to another person? This question is already raised in the beginning of the author’s body of work, in the debut novel Cut from 1994. Three years later, with the novel Love (1997), the author had her definitive breakthrough. The scene where the mother strokes her son’s hair, but has her attention turned to her own newly polished nails, belongs to the most iconic of the author’s books. Later, in a bar, it’s the nails again, drumming impatiently on the counter as the mother tries to realize herself as something other than a mother, as a person full of desire. With this novel, it was as if the thematic center of Norwegian literature was set in motion. Away from the solitary man on an eternal Peer Gynt-like journey in search of the meaning of life. He was replaced by a young mother, and, as if behind her again, a young girl in a house in Tana in Finnmark, trying to understand why the family was not a safe place.

“It is obvious that our modern culture subjects humans to massive discipline – bodily, linguistically, emotionally,” wrote Ingrid Nielsen in the journal Vinduet based on the novel As True as I am Real from 1999. That same year, the then thirty-year-old author was awarded the Hunger Prize, awarded to an “eminent young writer.” The Gyldendal grant board justified this partly because she was part of a rich tree of female prose modernists, inspired by, among others, Virginia Woolf and Marguerite Duras.

Today it’s as if the author has shattered those kinds of labels. There followed some daring novels. Week 43 (2002) is written in dialogue with Ibsen’s Brand, the priest who sets the highest demands for himself and his surroundings. But this uncompromisingness is shifted to a district college in a smaller Norwegian town in the icy October rain of our time. The position from which the novel is articulated is different from Ibsen’s, noted Swedish Dagens Nyheter’s critic Birgit Munkhammar, adding that it was as if the author “in her cupped hands should hold out a life so small and naked that it hardly exists: ‘this little human stain that stood there in the corridor and was like a little drop, barely visible, something to wipe away’.”

In The Pastor (2004), she dealt with a historical event. The Kautokeino uprising, where Sami people, awakened by the preacher Læstadius, attacked the sheriff, trader, and priest. Here it becomes clear that what the author seeks in this constant dialogue with historical events, other philosophers and other authors and texts, is always closely linked to the existential issues she seeks to explore. But neither would the author stay here. It’s tempting to borrow a title from one of the later novels. She crossed the mountain! To warmer climes. To more continental philosophers. To an exploration of the meaning of desire and sexuality in human life that is unmatched in Norwegian literary history. The formally innovative The Calling – The Novel (2006) contains a discarded novel about a grandmother who received a calling and became a missionary to China. In the ruins of this tale emerges a new skepticism about whether a human life can even be told. It is in this period that the third-person narrative is replaced by an “I”.

“It has taken a very long time to believe that I have something to say. This is twofold. It’s about ‘I’, as a place to speak from, the statement position, the ability to say ‘I’ at all. And it’s about having something to say, in other words, content. To say and to say ‘I’ is to take up space,” it says in the introduction to the essay collection I Dreamed That All My Books Were in the Kitchen Cabinet from 2018.

On this literary mountain hike that followed from the 2000s onwards, the author has surely lost some old companions, but it is equally certain that she has picked up some new ones on the journey. The Calling – The Novel (2006), 48 Rue Defacqz (2009), The Hyenas (2011), There IS a Big Open Square in Bordeaux (2013), and On the Terrace in the Dark (2014) appear to be more improvised, freer in form, more open about their own method, and therefore perhaps, for a modern reader, easier to follow. In this mature phase, we see an author who is less concerned with metaphorical significance but incredibly adept at knowing what to include. The conversation with the reader expands with new, refreshing themes. Art! Dance! Tennis! (More of that!) And in the last novel: Marilyn Monroe. The lonely man, last seen in Norwegian novels from the 1990s, is replaced by a solitary woman. Equipped with maps of northern Italian cities, she seeks in Novel. Milan (2019) and Ti Amo (2020) a complete form of love – and finds it! Only to lose it again. And in a way that none of those who have read these books can remain untouched by.

And all the while, they keep coming, these luminous sentences that are so difficult to guard oneself against. The unresolved fear from previous novels finds a temporary resolution in a new realization in last year’s novel.

“Who am I when I’m not afraid,” it says in Stay with Me, the prize winner’s latest, magnificent novel – it continues with the main sentences so characteristic of this author, initiated by a relative pronoun: “As if I were trying to understand, all the time. What are we doing? Why are we here? I think I just didn’t understand the point of it all throughout my upbringing. Why live if there is no joy. If there is no good, if nothing is soft, if there is no – love.”

“It’s like with Ibsen’s Brand. You simply cannot remain indifferent to her,” wrote Frode Helmich Pedersen in one of the many debate articles that now almost naturally come after each release. This intimacy between author and reader hinted at here is the result of a unique thirty-year literary work, which is by no means concluded. Rather, there is reason to hope that what we are witnessing here today is a new beginning. It is with great joy that I announce that Hanne Ørstavik has been awarded the Gyldendal Prize for 2023.’

(You can find the Norwegian original text of the jury’s statement here online.)

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