Obscene Act: The Tragic Fall of Norway’s Agnar Mykle

In Guest Contributors by Guest Contributor

By Lewis Manalo

•The latest in our series, “The Best Authors You (May) Have Never Heard Of,” focuses on Norwegian novelist Agnar Mykle, whose career was ruined by a famous obscenity trial in the 1950s.

•In the early 1960’s English editions of Mykle’s The Song of the Red Ruby sold an astounding one million copies.

Norwegian novelist Agnar Mykle wrote vividly about sex and as a result was prosecuted for obscenity the Norwegian government. The case became one of the 20th century’s most notorious obscenity trials and made Mykle, at least from early 1957 through 1958, the most infamous author in the world.

From our vantage in the 21st century, a place where pornography is a mere mouse click away, it’s hard to imagine anyone in the West being charged with obscenity, let alone in tolerant Scandinavia. What’s more, today’s readers are more likely to be shocked by the dressing room shenanigans from a Gossip Girls novel than by the hero of Mykle’s novel The Song of the Red Ruby — Ask Burlefot — who can be found in one scene rummaging around his bedroom looking for a condom (a word, by the way, the English translation of the book doesn’t even use, opting to call it instead “the necessary”). So it may be difficult for those of us from cultures where illicit behavior can, in fact, propel you into stardom, to understand how a career of a great writer could be ruined because his detailed depictions of sex.

The Song of the Red Ruby

Gyldendal, publisher of Henrik Ibsen and Knut Hamsun, released Mykle’s novel The Song of the Red Ruby in Norway in 1956, and among the largely favorable reviews, a lot of moral indignation began cropping up. A few reviewers called the book filthy and pornographic, and it wasn’t long before the self-appointed guardians of Norwegian morality joined the bandwagon.

On April 29th, 1957, Agnar Mykle and Gyldendal’s Managing Director Harald Grieg were indicted for attempting to spread a book that was considered obscene because “considerable portions of the book are dominated by extreme descriptions of sexual acts such as manipulation and licking of the sexual organs and acts of coitus in various positions and situations with the emphasis on details and individual peculiarities in the genital organs of the females concerned and their reactions.”

Before these charges were brought against Mykle, he’d been enjoying a reputation as one of the leading — and most arrogant — authors of his day. Often experimenting with form, Mykle told hilarious stories of lost, young losers on passionate quests to find meaning in their lives. His earlier novel, Lasso Round the Moon, was a virtuosic literary pastiche that still enjoys a reputation as one of the finest Norwegian novels of the 20th century.

A roman a clef, The Song of the Red Ruby tells the story of Ask Burlefot in his first year at the Bergen School of Economics in 1937. When he’s not studying, Ask (re-dubbed “Ash Burlefoot” in the U.S. editions) “chases tail” and attends meetings of the Student Socialist Association, an organization and political philosophy that the book freely ridicules.

Though none of the women whom characters were based on came forward, several prominent socialists are clearly depicted at the student meeting, including Trygve Bull, who spent much of World War II in German concentration camps and later served in Norwegian Parliament, Per Monsen, a journalist and editor of the Labor Party’s daily paper Arbeiderbladet, and Arild Haaland, a Norwegian philosopher and translator. Until The Song of the Red Ruby was published, Agnar Mykle had been the Labor Party’s most talented author. Now, having poked fun at socialism and these socialists, they looked at him as a traitor.

In retrospect, the charges against Mykle look to be politically motivated rather than having anything to do with Ask Burlefot having a quick shag in the yard outside a party.

Acquittal, Ruin

After a year-long legal hassle, which included reading the entirety of the novel aloud in the Oslo Town Court, Mykle and his publisher were acquitted of the obscenity charges. Nevertheless, the novel was ordered pulled from store shelves. Roughly six months after an appeal was filed, the Supreme Court of Norway ultimately declared that The Song of the Red Ruby was not obscene.

Though it was now legal to sell notorious novels, the damage had been done to Agnar Mykle. He would later say, “I have survived my own crucifixion” but his reputation was in ruins -– his next few novels failed to find publishers — and his personal life was in shambles — during the trial he and his wife Jane had divorced (though he’d later remarry her, after first marrying a 22-year-old).

He soon retreated into depression and misanthropy and, as the 1960’s rolled on, Mykle published less and less. In 1966, he declared bankruptcy. He became a frequent visitor to Modum Bad, a psychiatric hospital, where doctors treated him with LSD. By 1978 Mykle had moved out of Jane’s house and shut himself up in a row house where he lived like a hermit, rarely opening his door and refusing to be photographed. The author who’d been put on trial for saying too much receded into silence.

But in the late 1950’s, Agnar Mykle had been a best-selling author. In Norway, The Song of the Red Ruby sold 75,000 copies in a single year, and in the early 1960’s English editions of The Song of the Red Ruby sold in excess of one million copies. (Most of these are heavily abridged.) Though he has fewer readers in Norway today, his influence is still felt. Aside from the court case’s contribution to free speech, Mykle’s original type of male protagonist can be seen in the work of Brage Prize-winner Karl Ove Knausgår, and Jan Kjaerstad, who says that Mykle’s narrative voice reminds him of good music and alludes to Mykle in his own Jonas Wergeland trilogy.

Mykle died in 1994, and the books about him and his work that followed his death are still more evidence of his appreciation in Norway. The Song of the Red Ruby is a hilarious and moving book, complex in its mythical allusions and its structure. Finding the 1967 unabridged English-language edition proved extremely difficult. But it was definitely worth the trouble. Though Agnar Mykle never quite achieved his self-declared status as the “greatest writer in the world,” his work is undeniably entertaining and innovative, from a time when funny writing could still be serious writing, and we are at a loss if we neglect him.

Image: Kai Krabbesund og Lilleba Torjussen

DISCUSS: Could a Literary Obscenity Trial Happen Today?

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Guest contributors to Publishing Perspectives have diverse backgrounds in publishing, media and technology. They live across the globe and bring unique, first-hand experience to their writing.