In the introduction to this highly useful secondary source about realism in recent
Danish literature, Mads Bunch succinctly establishes his book’s purpose: to discuss
and to draw attention to more recent literary efforts in realism and to address the
movement’s dominant themes and forms. Bunch lives up to his intentions with clarity
and focus, making Samtidsbilleder. Realismen i yngre dansk litteratur 1994-2008 [Contemporary Images: Realism in more recent Danish literature, 1994-2008] an excellent starting point for those with some knowledge of contemporary Danish
literature or—perhaps even more importantly—for those who know very little about the
subject matter and who want to discover what they have been missing. If Jan Sonnergaard
or Helle Helle isn’t currently on one’s bookshelf, Bunch’s discussions of these authors
may prompt an immediate purchase.
Bunch’s self-imposed time frame encompasses those authors who published their first
“realistic” work (no genre novels) between 1994 and 2008—and before they turned 36.
The author explains that he employs this boundary to level the playing field (at least
somewhat), resulting in a discussion of some 200 works by 71 authors (a number he
estimates as 75% of all fiction writers in this period). That number constitutes a
diverse group from a brief period. Bunch sums up his intent by stating that he wants
to bring a sociological, psychological, and historically conscious perspective to
bear on this literature. The book is divided into chapters dealing with such topics
as “Themes, Forms and Styles”, “Realism and the Concept of Realism”, “Minimalism”, and “Perspectives on More Recent Danish Realism from the Turn of the 21st Century”. There is even a section on realism in other media, including a cursory look at the
Dogme film movement and reality TV. Bunch also briefly discusses Norwegian and Swedish
efforts, addressing the notion of a broader “Nordic” approach to realism. He cites the pessimistic views of Swedish critic Gabriella Håkansson
on this subject and argues that—on the literary front—“de tre nordiske lande” [the three Nordic countries] (151) have, indeed, developed similarly from the early 1990s postmodernism and minimalism
to recent efforts in realism. Summaries of the discussed works published by year and,
especially, by theme are particularly useful.
Despite the obviously limited space that can be granted to works in such a project,
one of the strengths of Bunch’s approach is that it is not isolationist, temporally
or culturally. References to such diverse authors as Henrik Pontoppidan, Ernest Hemingway,
H.C. Branner, Amalie Skram, Raymond Carver, Bret Easton Ellis, and Salman Rushdie
ensure that more recent Danish literature is not interpreted within a vacuum, either
temporally or culturally. For example, an insightful reading of Kim Blæsbjerg’s Rådhusklatreren [Town Hall Climber] (2003) draws parallels to Martin A. Hansen’s use of the Cain and Abel myth and to
Goethe, Blixen, and Ibsen. In a similar vein, an account of the contemporary efforts
at the kollektivroman [collective novel] alludes to Hans Kirk’s significant contributions to that genre in the 1920s.
Bunch’s style is often conversational; he begins his fine discussion of Morten Ramsland’s
magic-realist, wildly popular Hundehoved (2005) [Doghead, 2009] with this comment: “Men lad os kaste et blik på Morten Ramsland’s roman” [But let’s take a look at Morten Ramsland’s novel] (75). This casual tone is quite effective in drawing readers (and, assuredly, younger
readers) further into the discussion. The book’s overall tone is reflected in its
design, which features large tabs of quotation marks, in different colours for each
chapter, in the margins (using a design element from the graphic novel). The photographic
illustrations, however, impart the look of a high school textbook.
Naturally, broad surveys often leave readers feeling as if they went too quickly through
det store kolde bord [the smorgasbord]. For example, how can one sum up the Dogme movement in two pages? One unfortunate error occurs in the discussion of Helle Helle’s
much lauded, excellent novel Ned til hundene [Down to the Dogs] (2008). Bunch, confusing two characters, refers to the couple who takes in the narrator
as Putte and Ibber—but it is Putte and John (Ibber is Putte’s brother). Also, at times,
one longs for a fuller discussion, particularly of works that one knows and admires.
In the case of unfamiliar works, Bunch’s treatments are effective in stimulating a
desire to search and to find the literature readers have been missing, which makes
this study a fine educational tool and a distinct service to increased interest in
contemporary Danish literature.