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Johan Borgen (1902-1979)


Norwegian novelist, essayist, short story writer, journalist, and dramatist, who began his career as a short story writer in the 1920s. Borgen continued with experimental novels and became one of the most important 20th-century short-story writers of Norway. He gained critical success especially with his portrayals of children and young people and explorations of existential problems in modern society. Although he dealt with terrible acts committed by young people, he avoided delivering moral messages.

"Det kom inte något tåg. En oerhört trötthet kom över honom - som syrener i blodet; en trötthet som skulle vara livet ut. Det kom inte något tåg. Men förföljarna bakom honom hade stannat vid stängslet. Vägarna... det fanns så många vägar in världen, de delade sig, fulla av möjligheter. Men än sedan? Man valde inte väg, han hade trott det, att han valde vägar till möjligheternas rike. Men man valde inte. Han låg och förblödde på sin väg som var stängd. Han hade valt fel." (from Lillelord, 1955)

Johan Collett Müller Borgen was born in Oslo into a well-to-do family, the son of Poul Holst Borgen, an attorney and  Andrea Elfrida Bommen. Balancing between his social background and leftist sympathies, Borgen remained conservative in life-style but did not soften his sharp social criticism. During the 1920s, he was allegedly involved in smuggling of liquor and he experimented with drugs in Copenhagen and Paris. Borgen's first book, Mot mørket (1925, Towards darkness), a collection of short stories written often from the viewpoint of a child, did not attract much attention. In the following years Borgen traveled around Europe. In 1928 he married Ruth Bergljot Engelstad; the marriage ended in divorce.

From 1930 to 1941, Borgen was employed as a journalist at Dagbladet. He became know for his witty, sarcastic columns, written under the pseudonym Mumle Gåsägg the name taken from Peter Asbjörnsen's (1812-1885) folk tales. Borgen also wrote literary reviews. In 1933 he fell in love with Annemarta Evjenth, who worked as a secretary and office clerk at the newpaper, and made a suicide pact with her. After a failed suicide attempt, Borgen was sent to the Vindern Psychiatric Clinic, from where he escaped to spent the winter with Annemarta in Gausdal. They married 1934. Later in life, Borgen had with the actress Liv Strømsted a long affair, which he tried to hide from his wife.  

Borgen's Når alt kommer til alt, which came out in 1934, depicted existential problems of a middle-aged intellectual. The protagonist also appeared in his play Mens vi venter (1938), which gained a considerable success when it was staged at the National Theatre. This work continued Borgen's themes of fear of isolation and escape from everyday life. In 1935 he signed a petition with over thirty other writers, among them Nordahl Grieg and Sigrid Undset, to protest Carl von Ossietsky's imprisonment in Germany. The only major Norwegian writer who openly defended the right of the German state to confine Ossietsky, a journalist, pacifist and the recipient of the 1935 Nobel Peace Prize, was Knut Hamsun, who sneered at the petition. However, Hamsun had influence deeply Borgen's writing and he had to struggle long to find his own voice.

During World War II Borgen was arrested by the Gestapo mainly because of his satirical attacks on the Nazis  and imprisoned in the domestic concentration camp of Grini. Following his release Borgen escaped to Sweden. His experieces in Grini Borgen later depicted in his book of memoir, Dager på Grini (1945).

After the war Borgen supported the Communists for many years and contributed to Friheten, a mouthpiece for the Communist Party However, in the1960s critical liberalism was a more accurate characterization of his world view. From 1954 to 1959 he was the editor of the literary journal Vinduet. In 1967 Borgen won the Nordic Council's literary prize for Nye noveller, a collection of short stories. Borgen remained highly productive until his death. He died on October 16, 1979, in his home in Hvaler, Østfold.

Borgen was one of the first Norwegian writers to exploit Freud's theories of psychoanalysis. His principal work was the novel trilogy Lillelord (Little Lord), De mørke kilder (The Dark Springs), and Vi har ham nå (We Have Him Now), all three of which were translated into English under the title Lillelord. Borgen again focused on the significance of childhood experiences, and their effects later in life. The story is set in the years before World War I. It follows the life of a young, talented boy, Wilfred Sagen, Lillelord (The Little Lord), from childhood to puberty, and his slow moral degeneration. His father is dead. He is adored by his mother, who is ready to do anything for her son and clings to the child in him. Although Lillelord seems to be devoted to the fulfillment of his mother's wishes, he is only playing his own game. The stronger the bond becomes, the stronger becomes his need for his own life, marked by a cold egoism.

Like Patricia Highsmith's famous hero, Tom Ripley, Lillelord lives a double life: he spends time in the criminal world in Oslo and Copenhagen but keeps up a facade of respectability. The last part is partly based on Borgen's own experiences. In Vi har ham nå Lillelord serves as a border guard for the Nazis. He has betrayed his half-brother but he works as a guide for Jewish refugees escaping to Sweden. Lillelord has no values and no commitments. As the war ends, he is hunted down as a collaborator. The story ends in his death. Another divided personality is Matias Roos from "Jeg" (1959), who runs over a child with his motorcycle or did he?

"Borgen is a master of representing sudden outbreaks of forgotten or suppressed spiritual powers. The primary goal for him is not to tell a story or to reproduce a picture of external reality; rather, his short stories are studies, sudden dives into the dark ravings of the spirit or of a dark past, spotlights on the ironic paradoxes of human existence." (Sven H. Rossel in A History of Scandinavian Literature, 1870-1980, 1982) In Blåtind (1964) Peter Holmgren tries to escape from his cowardly self, and a Jewish woman, Nathalie, has lost connection with her earlier self. Den røde tåken (1967, The Red Fog) was a monologue novel, in which the nameless protagonist is a murderer, a not very distant relative of Camus's Mersault. In Min arm, min tarm (1972) a cruel accident starts a psychological healing process, but again in Eksempler (1974) Borgen shows his doubts about the integrity of a personality.

For further reading: 'The Quest for Authenticity in Three Novels by Johan Borgen' by Randi M. Birn, in Mosaic 4:2 (1970); Johan Borgen by R. Birn (1974); 'Metaphor and Metonymy in Johan Borgen's Eksempler' by Mischler in Scan 16 (1977); Johan Borgen by Kjell Chr. Johanssen (1980); A History of Scandinavian Literature, 1870-1980 by Sven H. Rossell (1982); Lillelord og Lady Brett: Johan Borgen som jeg kjente ham by Brett Borgen (1985); Kreativitet og kommunikasjon: en analyse av Johan Borgens "Lillelord"-triologi by Bente Christensen (1992); Øst for Eden: en biografi om Johan Borgen by Espen Haavardsholm (2000) - Other writers dealing with the experience of occupation and collaboration: Sigurd Evensmo's Englandsfarere (1945, Boat for England) depicted a band of Norwegians who, trying to escape to Britain, were apprehended and executed. Kåre Holt's Det store veiskillet (1949) tells a story, where the protagonist is split into three different identities: a black marketeer, an informer for the Nazis, and a leader of the home front. - Suom.: Borgenilta on myös käännetty novellivalikoima Varikset (suom. Gerda Lindgren, 1968).

Selected works:

  • Mot mørket, 1925
  • Betraktninger og anfektelser, 1932 (as Mumle Gåsegg)
  • Når alt kommer til alt, 1934
  • Lille dommedag, 1935 (as Jørgen Hattemaker)
  • Kontorchef Lie: skuespill i tre akter og epilog, 1936 (play) 
  • Seksti Mumle Gåsegg, 1936
  • Høit var du elsket, 1937 (play)
  • Barnesinn, 1937
  • Mens vi venter, 1938 (play)
  • De syv brødrene / Aleksis Kivi, 1939 (translator)
  • Åndehullet, 1941
  • Andersens: komedie i 3 akter, 1940 (play)
  • Anes eventyr, 1943 (illustrated by Reidar Aulie)
  • Det nytter (as Helge Lind)
  • Ingen sommer, 1944
    - Kesytön kesä (suom. Veera Roos, 1945)
  • Far, mor og oss, 1945 (as Mumle Gåsegg)
  • Nordahl Grieg, 1945
  • Dager på Grini, 1945
  • Ingen sommer, 1946
  • Kjærlighetsstien, 1946
  • Akvariet, skuespill og hørespill, 1947 (play)
  • Hvetebrødsdager, 1948
  • Jenny og påfuglen. En romantisk fortelling, 1949
    - film 1970, dir. by Tom Hedegaard, starring Sisse Reingaard, Lykke Nielsen and Paul Hüttel 
  • Vikinger, 1949 (play)
  • Eventyr, 1949 (play)
  • Noveller om kjærlighet, 1952
  • Natt og dag, 1954
  • Lillelord, 1955
    - Pikkulordi (suom. Helena Raulo, 1957)
    - Lillelord: a Novel (translated by Elizabeth Brown Moen and Ronald E. Peterson, 1982)
  • De mørke kilder, 1956
  • Vi har ham nå, 1957
  • "Jeg", 1959
    - The Scapegoat (translated by Elizabeth Rokkan, 1993)
  • Danmark dejligst -?, 1959
  • Innbildningens verden, 1960
  • Sorry boy, 1961 (as Ola Ullern)
  • Noveller i utvalg 1936-1961, 1961
  • Kalde spor, 1962 (screenplay, with Arne Skouen, dir. by Arne Skouen, starring Toralv Maurstad, Henny Moan and Alf Malland)
  • Frigjøringsdag, 1963 (play)
  • Blåtind, 1964
  • Barndommens rike, 1965
  • Frydenberg, 1965 (script for a TV movie, dir. by Barthold Halle, starring Bab Christensen, Sverre Hansen, Knut M. Hansson, Veslemøy Haslund, Toralv Maurstad, Elisabeth Strøm-Henriksen)  
  • Vaktpostene, 1965 (screenplay, with Arne Skouen, dir. by Arne Skouen, starring Synne Skouen, Arne Aas and Bjørg Vatle)
  • Nye noveller, 1965
  • Ord gjennom år, 1967
  • Bagateller, 1967
  • Den røde tåken, 1967
    - The Red Mist (translated by Oliver Stallybrass, 1973)
  • Alltid på en søndag, 1968
  • Trær alene i skogen, 1969
  • 129 Mumle Gåsegg, 1971
  • Mitt hundeliv, 1971 (illustrated by Hammarlund)
  • Min arm, min tarm, 1972
  • Den store havfruen, 1973 (illustrated by Hammarlund)
  • Eksempler: roman, 1974
  • Lykke til!: noveller, 1974
  • I dette rom, 1975
  • Flukt til virkeligheten: tekster, 1975
  • Notater fra hverdagen, 1975
  • Noveller og annen kortprosa, 1977 (4 vols.; 1. Noveller 1837-1954;  2. Noveller 1961-1965; 3. Noveller 1969-1977;  4. Kortprosa)
  • Borgen om bøker. Norsk og nordisk, 1977 (edited by  Erling Nielsen)
  • Fire foredrag: rammet inn av Annemarta Borgen, 1984
  • Erindringen om en rytme, drømmen om en form: essays og prosastykker, 2002 (edited by Gordon Hølmebakk) 

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