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Aksel Sandemose: Varulven (The Werewolf)

While this book was translated into English – published by the University of Wisconsin Press – it is barely known even by cognoscenti, let alone by the average reader and is now out of print in English. This is a great pity as it is one of the finest European novels of the second half of the twentieth century. Presumably because it is Norwegian – and how many Norwegian writers can you name, apart from Ibsen? – it is virtually unknown.

The subject is the werewolf, not the mythical creature but a symbol used by Sandemose to represent all that prevents us from having a free and happy life. It can be men-women relationships or the lust for power – two key subjects in this book – as well as betrayal of country and friends, also important here. The story follows Erling Vik, a successful writer but an often difficult human being. Erling grew up in a traditional rural family. His older brother, Gustav, who works for a blasting company, continues to follow the old-fashioned way, keen on temperance and the Bible, cantankerous and highly judgemental and, as far as Erling is concerned, the typical tyrannical older brother, even in their later years. Erling has broken free, in part because of his activities with the Norwegian resistance during the war.

It was during the war that he got to know Jan and renewed his acquaintance with Felicia. Erling and Felicia have been having an on-again, off-again affair for some time, presumably with the full awareness of Jan, who married Felicia after the war. Jan is the salt-of-earth type, reliable, steady. He owns a farm, Venhaug, which is a sort of symbol, particularly for Erling but also for others, of tranquillity and a haven from the real world though, in good Sandemose fashion, the real world does come knocking. Erling is a frequent visitor to Venhaug and remains good friends with Jan, despite his relationship with Jan’s wife. Two other women are key to Erling’s life. Firstly, there is Gulnare, his first love. They met one summer and had a glorious summer. Erling did not know who she was, where she lived and even if Gulnare was her real name. One day she disappeared. He tried to find her but in vain. He never forgot her. One day, after the war, a woman sits at his table when he is in a restaurant and tells him that she is Gulnare. Instead of a happy reminiscence, she attacks him as being responsible for her husband’s death in the war (he was apparently a Nazi collaborator) and then tells him that she never came back because her parents had persuaded her that the relationship was not good and she realised that they were right.

The other important woman is Julie, his daughter by a prostitute. Julie lives with various people, till Jan and Felicia take her in to help with their children. As Erling suspects and he and we find out at the end, she has an affair with Jan. Apart from his relationships and his writing, the other key event in Erling’s life is the war and his resistance activities. Jan, Erling and others are very bitter that the collaborators seemed to have escaped punishment after the war. Indeed, like Gulnare, the collaborators seem still very bitter against those who did resist and (as in Erling’s case) those who escaped to unoccupied Sweden. This becomes a key plot theme and a driving force for Erling, Jan and Felicia.

However, it is the werewolf theme, how there is something inside all of us that prevents us from reaching our full potential and drags us down, that is key. Sandemose portrays this brilliantly, mentioning the werewolf but not ramming it down our throats. Erling may well be one of the most fully achieved and complex characters in contemporary Western literature, struggling with his demons, external and internal. Yet, nothing is predictable, either as regards the plot or the character development. Just when you think that you have got the hang of it, Sandemose veers off track. It is certainly not a happy book and not particularly an easy read but it is certainly one of the great books of the twentieth century.

Publishing history

First published 1958 by Aschehoug, Oslo
First English translation by University of Wisconsin Press 1966