Johan Borgen is justifiably regarded as one of the most important figures in modern Norwegian – and indeed, Scandinavian – literature. Although his writing gained something of an international audience towards his death, it never paralleled the reputation he holds in his native country.
Growing up in a period of social change in early twentieth-century Norway, and undergoing further tumult during both World Wars (the latter conflict saw him interned by the Nazis because of his political views), he drew on his experiences in his writing, especially in works such as Days at Grini (1945), an early and significant examination of the German occupation in Norway. However, he is most renowned for his Lillelord trilogy, a series of novels focusing on the life of the character Wilfred Sagen: from his upbringing in Kristiania (now Oslo) just before the First World War, following through his adulthood until after the end of World War II. The first novel, Lillelord, which is partly based on his childhood in Oslo, stands as an excellent example of Borgen’s psychological insight and understanding of the human condition, as well as his abilities as a shrewd social and historical commentator. We were lucky to inherit an English translation of Lillelord from the amazing Calder list – it’s one of its most hidden and shining gems.
Affectionately called ‘Lillelord’ (‘little lord’) by his family, Wilfred lives a sheltered existence within the safe cocoon of a cultured upper-class society. He excels at his studies, appreciates the arts and is a talented musician. His widowed mother, reluctant to wake up to the problems of the outside world, indulges him, trying to prolong his childhood. Although generally seen as the perfect little gentleman, some find his apparent perfection disturbing, suspecting that there is something duplicitous and insubordinate behind the mask.
Wilfred himself is fully aware that he leads a double existence, to the extent of having a split personality – on the surface a cultivated but childlike boy, but one harbouring manipulative and destructive tendencies. As he develops over the course of the novel, a series of experiences, including criminal acts, the discovery of the truth about his father and his sexual awakening, lead him into wishing to rebel against a suffocating society, one which rejects change and knowledge and instead embraces convenient half-truths, assumptions and the established order. This process will isolate him and drive him to insanity.
Wilfred’s growing understanding of the society he lives in and his mental and moral decline provides a remarkable insight into the mind of an intelligent boy in his mid-teens. Caught between childhood and the adult world, he is disgusted and beguiled by both states. ‘Lillelord’ finds himself suffering the frustration, confusion and feelings of displacement now regarded as typical of his age - during a period when the concept of teenagers was entirely alien, where psychological issues were an embarrassment and effective treatment was in its infancy. This is paired with the transformation occurring within Norwegian society. In the background, the threat of war between Germany and England looms closer, there is talk of socialist reform and new technologies are demonstrated, creating the sense that the characters’ comfortable existence is about to be shattered by the advanced but frightening modern world which would fully emerge after the First World War.