Tom Shippey in TLS:
The popular image of Scandinavians is full of contradictions. Denmark, Norway and Sweden must by several measures be the richest, happiest and most successful societies the world has ever known; yet their inhabitants are famous for melancholy, now familiar again through the depressed heroes of Scandi noir crime fiction: Wallander, Martin Beck, Jo Nesbø’s Harry Hole. Scandinavia is also famous for hedonism and sexual freedom; yet the plots of Scandi noir stories often turn not on crimes but on old sins: adultery, incest, abuse. Likewise, the Scandinavian countries are probably in practice the world’s most egalitarian – but if you believe Stieg Larsson, Sweden in particular is run by far-right cabals including neo-Nazis and the families of former collaborators, a memory reinforced for Norway by the Anders Breivik massacre of July 22, 2011. What causes these extreme clashes of light and darkness? Robert Ferguson tries to get to the bottom of it through a combination of personal memoir, literary and cultural analysis, and episodic history. In the case of that last category, he has, effectively, a blank page to write on. For most anglophone readers, Scandinavian history means the Vikings – nothing before and very little after. The Kalmar Union of 1367, under which the three nations were united for more than a century? The wars between Sweden and Denmark-Norway, which lasted longer, proportionately, than the wars of England and Scotland? The British blockade of the Napoleonic era, which starved perhaps 10 per cent of the population of Norway to death? The Battle of Dybbøl and the annexation of much of Jutland by Prussia?
All a complete blank, along with mad King Christian VII of Denmark, philosophic Queen Kristina of Sweden and jolly King Christian VIII – who, in spite of his ancestors’ and descendants’ long preoccupation with archaeology, reacted to the news that the intensively studied “runic” inscriptions of Runamo were just glacial scratches by laughing uncontrollably for minutes on end, whooping out, “Oh, the scholars! The scholars! And that enormous book!” Ferguson has brought them all back to life, and very engagingly so. His histories are personal as well. Ferguson recalls actually seeing Breivik, on a train, well before the massacre, absorbed in reading a book by someone Ferguson knew. (It was While Europe Slept by Bruce Bawer.) Ferguson’s first intention in writing his own book, he says, was to find the heart of melancholy, said to lie in the town of Skellefteå in north Norway, where the inhabitants have formed a society called the Friends of Darkness and the Cold.