Et folketog, 1896
Den evige krig, 1899
Moder Lea, 1900
Troens magt, 1903 (The Power of a Lie, 1908)
Fangen som sang, 1913 (The Prisoner Who Sang, 1924)
Den store hunger, 1916 (The Great Hunger, 1918)
Den siste viking, 1921 (The Last of the Vikings, 1923)
Vor egen stamme, 1924 (The Emigrants, 1925)
Folk ved sjøen, 1929 (Folk by the Sea, 1931)
Johan Bojer (BOY-ur) enjoyed great popularity in the United States during the 1920’s. John Galsworthy, Rabrindranath Tagore, Joseph Hergesheimer, and James Branch Cabell all praised his fiction. His reputation in the United States began with the translation of The Great Hunger in 1918, and by 1931 four more of his novels had been translated into English. The change in public taste brought about by the Depression made his optimistic realism seem anachronistic amid the work of James Farrell, John Dos Passos, and John Steinbeck, but his hopefulness was not superficially grounded. Bojer himself had passed through economic and intellectual difficulties in a Norway dominated by the skeptical thought of Henrik Ibsen and August Strindberg.
The son of a servant girl who was unable to care for him, Bojer was brought up in the country by foster parents. He had little schooling, but at the age of eighteen he went to a free military school for noncommissioned officers at Trondheim. After three years there he scraped together a living at such various occupations as fisherman, salesman, and advertising copywriter. He had his first great success at the age of twenty-four when he published his first novel, Et folketog (a procession). Able at last to devote all his energies to writing, he married in 1899, traveled about Europe, and sent occasional articles back to Norwegian newspapers until settling permanently in Norway in 1907.
Always a novelist of ideas, Bojer read widely and constantly. His central theme generally concerns an individual, usually an idealist, in conflict with a hostile environment. In his first two novels, Et folketag and Den evige krig (the eternal strife), he describes how idealists are corrupted when they try to be effectual in the democratic political system. Bojer suggests that moral idealism and party politics are natural enemies and, like the Ibsen of En folkefiende (pb. 1882, pr. 1883; An Enemy of the People, 1890), leaves little hope for the good person in an evil world.
In his third novel Bojer found the values that, particularly in his later work, led him away from moral skepticism. Moder Lea (Mother Lea) presents a peasant woman and her healthy family as examples of normative humanity and ironically contrasts them with a politician who is unable to choose between dreams and action and ultimately ruins his family.
Bojer’s much-admired The Great Hunger reconsiders the character of the romantic idealist. The hero, Peer Holm, tries with tremendous energy to win a victory over the hostile natural world. Dissatisfied with all his scientific achievements and reduced to poverty by his enemies, he saves himself from bitter defeat by secretly sowing his corn in his enemy’s field, not out of Christian love but simply to assert human superiority to the forces that can destroy humanity. Peer’s acceptance of human beings’ necessarily unsatisfactory relationship with an imperfect world contrasts sharply with the earlier portrait of a romantic idealist in The Prisoner Who Sang. The hero of that novel, in trying to encompass all possible human experience, assumes so many disguises that he eventually finds that he has lost his identity; he ends in prison, singing to himself as he madly imagines himself emperor of the universe.
Bojer’s spirit of compromise with life, the sanity of accepting the harshness of one’s environment with dignity and courage, is best exemplified by Mother Lea and the peasantry in The Last of the Vikings and The Emigrants. Knowing nothing of politics and science, knowing only the dangers of daily living, Bojer’s characters cannot envision grandiose, delusive schemes for conquering a universe that will always be more powerful than human beings, and that will never pay much attention to their aspirations.