Monday, January 18, 2010

Of life, fate, gloom, wry humor, 'Fargo' and Scandinavian detective novels

In a thoughtful review article on Scandinavian detective novels over the weekend, Laura Miller of The Wall Street Journal makes a case for gloomy Scandinavian fiction, in this case detective novels with what she - or a headline writer for the Journal - terms an aura of "existential malaise and bad coffee." She says:
Counterintuitive as it may seem, the Scandinavian brand of moroseness can be soothing in hard times. Its roots lie deep in the ancient, pagan literature of the region, preserved in sagas that were first written down in medieval Iceland. The sagas, created by and for people who led supremely difficult lives, are about love, death and war, like all great stories, but above all, they're about fate. ...

True, the inevitability of fate can lead to the kind of despair that grips Gudrun in "The Saga of the Volsungs," (a source for Wagner's "Ring Cycle"), when her friend Brynhild predicts that she will win her first husband by trickery, lose him, lose both of her brothers and then marry another man she will be driven to kill. "The grief of knowing such things overwhelms me," says Gudrun, understandably enough. But fatalism also annihilates regret; if things can only ever have turned out like this, there's no cause to blame yourself. Your misfortunes aren't your fault, but rather the working out of forces beyond your control. In such a universe, the real test of character is not worldly triumph, but the courage with which you respond to life's inevitable hardships.

In Scandinavian detective fiction, this stoic ideal takes the form of a stalwart, methodical practicality. ...
So, Nordic crime novels tend to be procedurals, a genre Miller defines as "focus[ing] on the often monotonous, day-to-day details of police work." American procedurals, she says, are more apt to focus on technology. Think of literally dozens of high-tech crime scene investigators. Nordic detectives are more likely to be "ordinary schlubs [who] have no flashier alternative than to knuckle down and gut it out."

Miller catches something else, when she notes that a "certain pitch-black humor has always accompanied the legendary Nordic fatalism. Granted, catching the bad guys is never a futile quest, but sometimes the genius of Scandinavian crime fiction lies in elaborating on the idiocies that make doing your job needlessly difficult."

Dark humor is typically Scandinavian, sure. But do we see "a certain pitch-black humor ... elaborating on the idiocies that make doing your job needlessly difficult" in the Coen brothers' movie "Fargo?"

Yeah, sure. You bet we do.

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