I am the miner, the labourer. That is what I am by nature, by feeling, – my poetry, my research is that of the miner and my view of the world is his. When you are descended from a 300-year old mining family, this is perfectly natural.
These are the words Johan Falkberget uses to describe himself. Johan was born in 1879, grew up on Falkberget Farm at Rugldalen in the municipality of Røros, and died in 1967.
Miner and author
Almost no other Norwegian author from the 1900s is as topical today. His works are performed in theatre and opera houses across the country and his prose is both timeless and contemporary.
Falkberget was inextricably linked to the mining milieu of Røros. He was only seven years old when he took his first job as a vaskarryss – a lad whose task was to wash the ore – and he continued to work for Røros Copperworks until the age of 27.
Johan grew up in a literary home, where both parents read a lot, played music and were well informed about the world at large due to the many newspapers to which they subscribed. His father, Mikkel Lillebakken, was a farmer and miner who used to read aloud to his fellow workers during breaks; Johan’s uncle, Ole Johnsen Jamt, was another significant figure in his young life. Ole worked at the Christianus Sextus mine, where an accident one day left him almost blind. This made a lasting impression on the little boy, who suddenly realized how important sight was for reading and writing. It was Uncle Ole who taught the five-year to read, and Johan readily devoured myths and stories about the region and its people – stories which later coloured his literary style.
The writing started during Johan’s time at the mine. At first, he scrawled on the walls of the workers’ huts: later, he wrote by night in the same louse-ridden accommodation. He escaped the day to day grind by writing about his experiences – about how the owners exploited workers and poverty-stricken peasants. But he also gladly found the time to write flowery, heartfelt love letters on behalf of his workmates. Not surprisingly, perhaps, since one of the hallmarks of his style as a writer is precisely this contrast between romance and realism.
Journalist and Editor
No other Norwegian author can boast as many newspaper articles to his name as Johan Falkberget – some 7000 posts in 90 different papers. The first of these were written while he was still employed at the Copper Works and were printed in the local paper, Fjell-Ljom. Johan was only 10 when he sat in the editor’s chair and announced that he would one day be editor himself. Fjell-Ljom proved to be an excellent training ground, and his first books were printed there. In 1906, the family moved to Ålesund so that Johan could become editor of the newspaper, Nybrott. He remained for one year, before moving on to the capital, where he continued to work as a reporter and journalist.
The writer returns home
“I have sat among the ruins of the Roman Forum and longed to be home at the cookhouse, north beside Lake Rugl,” writes Falkberget in a letter. In 1922, he finally returns to Rugldalen where he builds up the farm at Ratvolden together with his wife, Anna Marie. His writing blossoms – the book form of Bør Børson Jnr in 1922 is a great success – but his real breakthrough comes with The Fourth Nightwatch in 1923, which is set in Røros around 1807 and centres around the vicar of Røros church (Bergstadens Ziir). A passionate love story unfolds between the vicar and the bride in the very first marriage ceremony he conducts, with fatal consequences both for the unfortunate couple and for those closest to them. Later, comes the publication of Christianus Sextus, a novel in six parts. The action begins in 1730, just after the Great Northern War, and dramatizes the contrast between power and money on the one hand and the toil and hunger of the workers on the other.
Falkbergets masterpiece, Nattens brød, was written in the period 1940-59, and depicts the struggle to survive for poor peasants in the first half of the 17th century. The protagonist, An-Magritt, born out of wedlock, is the only female charcoal burner (kølkjøreren) in a male-dominated environment. As if this isn’t enough, her cart is pulled not by a horse but by an ox – Hovistuten. Nevertheless, An-Magritt becomes a leading figure for the destitute peasants, teaching them to read and write, to cultivate crops and thus to repossess their land. For many literary scholars, An-Magritt represents a Norwegian Jeanne d’Arc and a precursor to the Constitution in 1814 and the dissolution of the Union in 1905.
The Resistance Man
Falkberget also distinguished himself as a resistance fighter during the war and bore the nickname ‘Jøns’. On 9th April 1940, two refugees arrive at the farm. It is the wife and son of Prime Minister Nygaardsvold, who are fleeing from the Germans and are forced to go into hiding at Ratvolden. Falkberget accompanies them across the border to Sweden but is warned against travelling back. However, his homesickness becomes unbearable and at the end of July he returns to Ratvolden. There, his resistance effort continues peacefully. He writes over 500 letters during the war years and organises fundraising to help families where the breadwinner has been arrested. He refuses to allow the publication of the second volume of the trilogy, ‘Bread of the Night’ and his publisher, Aschehoug, helps to hide the manuscript. When the new Nazi-backed ‘National Assembly’ authorities publish Falkberget’s old articles and books against his wishes, he declares that “to destroy a man’s honour is more than involuntary manslaughter – it is premeditated murder!”
The People’s Nobel Prize
Many people felt that Falkberget should have received the Nobel Prize for Literature. Not only did he gain many prizes and distinctions for his authorship, but he was also widely regarded as an exceptionally ethical and upright person. In 1949, he was awarded something akin to a Nobel Prize, when kr 170 000 was raised by the Norwegian people and donated to Falkberget in a ceremony at Oslo University, along with what was called the ‘Nobel Prize of the Heart’ or ‘The Norwegian People’s Nobel Prize’.
When Johan Falkberget died, on 5th April 1967, he left behind a literary treasure trove containing 50 fictional works and an equally large quantity of journalistic articles. His home, Ratvolden, is today a museum.
A selection of Falkberget’s novels
- Eli Sjursdotter, 1913
- Brændoffer, 1917
- Bør Børson jr., 1920/22
- Den fjerde nattevakt, 1923
- Christianus Sextus, 1927-35
- Nattens Brød, 1940-59