Oddveig Røsegg Memorial Lecture
by Dr Ian Giles, Edinburgh University.
Britain’s Forgotten Norwegian Bestseller: The Rise and Immediate Fall of Agnar Mykle
This was a wide ranging, interesting and obviously very well researched talk by Ian and the report below can only give a flavour of its content.
Agnar Mykle was a bit of an eccentric, receiving extensive psychiatric care and treatment BUT there was a time when he seemed destined for lasting literary greatness and commercial success. He is now largely forgotten by his English language readership, his works are out of print and he has become a footnote in studies on pornography and censorship.
Mykle was born in Trondheim in 1915 and during his childhood his severe asthma meant that he was housebound for much of that time. He was a star pupil at commercial college, graduating and taking up teaching at the age of just twenty. At twenty one, he became the youngest school principal in Norway (in Kirkenes). In 1939 he moved to Bergen to study at the Norwegian School of Economics. He then wrote copy for the Norwegian Labour Party and also experimented with his own literary forms, publishing his first short story in 1944. His personal life during these years was also rather interesting!
His first full novel Tyven, tyven skal du hete (The Hotel Room) was published in 1951 Mykle produced his first novel for publishers Gyldendal in 1954, Lasso rundt fru Luna( translated as Lasso Round the Moon)), which was Mykle’s breakthrough and was drawn heavily from his own life. The novel sold well and was selected in 1969 as book of the month by Den Norske Bokklubben. Reviews were mixed. The sequel to Luna, Sangen om den røde rubin( translated as The Song of the Red Ruby) was published in 1956.
The (relatively) racy content together with the characters being easily identifiable as real people including prominent figures in the Norwegian Labour movement, meant that copies flew off the shelves in the run up to Christmas 1956!
In February 1957, Mykle and his publishers were prosecuted for obscenity in relation to Rubin - this was followed by a sales bonanza with 25,000 copies selling in just three months! While Mykle was acquitted at the trial, the book itself was banned and all copies confiscated, but that ban was overturned on appeal in May 1958. His first English translation was published in 1960 and Mykle was evidently considered significant from a commercial and publishing perspective. There was a lack of UK figures, but Mykle’s US publishers paid in advance for the right to publish Ruby in paperback the equivalent today of US$ 250,000.
Lasso received most coverage, while Ruby caused little or no scandal. Critics were very divided on the matter of content - ranging from the “ frank sexual detail” to be “of a piece with the intensity and honesty of the rest of the book” to “everything in it is as dull and wholesome as a fjord“! There are conflicting claims as to the sales of Mykle’s books in Britain as British publishing records relating to him are missing. But the figures available (if accurate) would indicate that Mykle was the bestselling Norwegian author in Britain in the 20th century. In retrospect, Jo Nesbø would have taken over that mantle in the 21st century.
After 1960, Mykle’s influence began to wane from his position as one of the earliest pioneers of obscene literature in Britain and his final two books were released in the 1960’s without fanfare. Reprints and reissues of his translations have more or less died out in Britain.
Mykle began to withdraw from public, and literary life, with the obscenity trial and subsequent appeal leaving him exhausted but very wealthy. Much of this wealth was spent on international travels and he went bankrupt. In combination with his declining mental health and all round eccentricity, he became a recluse. He died in 1994, perhaps a sad and forgotten man.