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Eat Your Heart Out, Kafka

COLUMN ONE

Scandinavia has become a mecca for bestselling novelists, apparent proof that wealth and security can go a long way toward creativity.

May 31, 2000|CAROL J. WILLIAMS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

OSLO — Inviting scents of cinnamon and cardamom waft from the crowded cafes along Karl Johans Gate where businessmen and bellboys, shoppers and students, take time each day to sip strong coffee and linger over a good book.

It is a sensuous indulgence that can be seen in town and country across Scandinavia, where decades of economic prosperity have fostered comfort and culture, giving rise to educated societies that have both a hunger for intellectual diversion and the literary talent to feed it.

Writers at the top of national bestseller lists in Norway, Sweden and Denmark--many of whom also are finding unprecedented acclaim among bookworms the world over--have turned on its head the assumption that creative geniuses must suffer for their art.

It seems in this small corner of the world--which has produced far more than its share of international triumphs, such as "Smilla's Sense of Snow," "Sophie's World" and "Hanna's Daughters"--that wealth and security can provide their own inspiration.

Not since the 19th century fame of Hans Christian Andersen and Henrik Ibsen have writers from these chilly, wind-swept lands on the periphery of Europe enjoyed the international stature that they have achieved over the past decade.

Many of the contemporary storytellers distinguishing this region as a land of letters attribute their success to a kind of cultural welfare that frees the mind and imagination from the mundane considerations of mortgages and doctors' bills that burden their colleagues elsewhere.

"When people are rich, they have time and money for concentrating on culture and art," says Jostein Gaarder, whose 1991 history of philosophy seen through the eyes of a 14-year-old girl, "Sophie's World," has sold a phenomenal 20 million copies worldwide.

Like other novelists from this region, Gaarder, a Norwegian, credits a supportive environment and a rich literary history for the renown he and others enjoy not just in their homelands but increasingly in once-impenetrable markets overseas.

"British and American publishers are usually so arrogant," Gaarder says with characteristic fervor, quickly apologizing if he has given offense. "Then came ['Smilla' author] Peter Hoeg, and they could no longer ignore us. My own situation is completely different since 'Sophie's World.' My publisher calls me now to ask if I know about any other interesting novels."

Government programs in the five Scandinavian countries, including Finland and Iceland, provide indirect subsidies to writers by guaranteeing publishers that the state will buy a significant share of each novel's first run for public libraries, taking on much of the risk involved with publishing works by unknowns. All bookstores also are obliged by law to have in stock all titles by national authors published within the past two years.

Only the Brits Buy More Books in Europe

Book prices are fixed, as in most of Europe, which deprives readers of the cut-rate deals offered by big bookstore chains in the United States, to no discernible detriment to local reading habits. In fact, more titles are published and more books are purchased per capita here than in the rest of Europe, where people already read much more than Americans do. According to Svenska Bokhandel, the Swedish booksellers association, Scandinavians trail only Britons in per capita book sales in Europe.

Scandinavian countries also confer their own lucrative and prestigious writing awards to national authors, helping the most promising to divest themselves of their day jobs.

Gaarder, a former teacher, has another novel being translated for the U.S. market. "Maja," which he describes as "edu-tainment," blends art history, modern mystery and natural science. The novel explores human evolution by tracing a contemporary woman's ancestry to the figure in the late 18th and early 19th century paintings by Spanish artist Francisco Goya, "The Maja Naked" and "The Maja Clothed."

"People want to learn but find textbooks too difficult. They want to read about these subjects within the framework of a story," says Gaarder, a youthful 49-year-old who gleams pixieish with enthusiasm for his latest mission.

Norwegian novelist Erik Fosnes Hansen, whose fictional evocation of musicians aboard the Titanic made "Psalm at Journey's End" a bestseller throughout Europe, agrees that the mental relief provided by social democracy is probably an element in Scandinavian writers' success.

"Socialized medicine and national insurance provide everyone with a sense of safety and security," says the 35-year-old author with three ambitious works behind him. "Even if you get a serious illness, you don't have to worry about ending up with huge bills to pay."

However, Danish writer Carsten Jensen, while agreeing that the literati of Scandinavia are isolated from the pain and hardship prevalent in most of the world, doubts that the comfort factor has much to do with creativity.

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