Jens Bjorneboe: Anarchist Writer At Constant Odds With Bourgeois Respectability

Jens Bjorneboe was born on 9 October 1920 into a ship-owning family in Kristiansand in southern Norway. He had a difficult childhood beset by frequent, painful illnesses. He was the youngest of three children of Anna Maria and the Belgian-born shipowner Ingvald Bjorneboe. During his childhood he spent many long days on his own, and spent a lot of this time on reading, poetry and writing. At the age of fifteen, he read the book Moorsoldaten (The Peat-Bog Soldiers) describing the harsh conditions suffered by inmates of the Oranienburg concentration camp in Germany. Such reading plus his own sensibilities vis a vis individual sufferers soon prompted him to devote all of his energies to combatting bourgeois prejudice. During his high-school years he adopted a position of radical opposition to ‘decent society’ and those loyal to the established order. Friedrich Nietzsche soon became his favourite philosopher, whilst his favourite targets for criticism were his high school teachers, precisely because they were the representatives of that order. Inevitably, he quit school. In 1939, following the death of his father, he left to go travelling with his mother Anna Maria. His travels brought him to Italy where he came face to face with the war and the German terror which he described as “concentrated evil”. Indeed, he wrote: “The threat to us came, not from Nazism, nor from the policy of any particular party or just any nation; it came from a specific nation, Germany.” When Germany invaded Norway in 1940, Bjorneboe applied to join the army, but was rejected. That summer he went to sea as a cabin boy, peeling potatoes and performing menial tasks. He went to North America and the Svalbard Islands deep inside the Arctic Circle. He then bummed his way around northern Norway before setlling in Oslo. In the Norwegian capital, he quickly drifted into a circle of bohemians. He learnt to paint and attended an arts and crafts school. He was delving ever deeper into world literature and was attracted to the thought of the Danish philosopher Kierkegaard. He then left for Denmark and finally settled in Stockholm in Sweden where he met the German Jew Lisel Funk. In the Swedish capital he came across refugees from half the countries in Europe. He listened to the tales they told and that was how he discovered the outrages in the concentration camps. After a few years, in 1945, Jens and Lisel, now married, moved to Oslo. There he became deeply involved in symbolist art and literature. He wrote upwards of twenty novels and several plays which highlighted Nazi barbarism, the death camps and a whole education system rooted in authoritarianism. But he also highlighted the difficulties of life in cities subjected to air raids. In the 1950s he became a teacher at a Steiner school. 1955 saw publication of his novel Jonas which targeted the Norwegian school system and the State, as he accused the Norwegian government with exercising power through the school system. The response from the bourgeois world was not long in coming and Jens became the target of a massive campaign of denigration. In 1957 Bjorneboe was stricken by very serious depression. He took to drinking and tried to shake off his depression by going travelling. In 1959 he parted from Lisel and a year after that married Tove Tveteraas, by whom he had three children. It was towards the end of the 1950s that he started to tilt towards anarchism. To be honest, in his Fear in America (1952), there are elements of interest from a libertarian viewpoint. In it, he associates the West with the idea of freedom and the East with the notion of equality, but Jens argued forcefully for the need to marry these two things differently since a society rooted in freedom without equality would lead to privilege and a system of equals would, in the absence of freedom, lead on to slavery.

His trips to Italy led Bjorneboe to turn his attention to matters very different from his past concerns. He wrote Winter in Bellapalma, a book designed to set out the frictions between fisherfolk and tourists. Meanwhile, his drinking was becoming a problem. In the 1960s, his family’s economic fortunes suffered a serious downturn and by then he had a reputation as an author who showed insight but who was also argumentative and unreliable. As if to confirm his critics he published the sexually-based novel Without a Stitch. A scandal erupted and he was accused of nihilism and even faced some difficulties with the law. A few years after that, in Denmark, he published Without a Stitch 2 reigniting the controversy and its consequences.

Between 1964 and 1973, he wrote his trilogy devoted to The History of Bestiality. This is how he described the time he had spent working on these books: “Throughout the entire time I was writing the history of beastliness, I had only one lifestyle: research, drink, work, drink, collapse and drink almost without interruption.”

At a symposium on anarchism held in Oslo in 1971, he argued that the core of the anarchist project was the promotion of socialism plus freedom of the individual and for that very reason he came in for criticism from the Leninists as well as from the capitalists. Anarchism therefore was a candidate for the status of the most despised of political movements.

Bjorneboe saw anarchy as the only acceptable form of society if freedom was to be preserved and equality pursued. But, more interestingly, he zeroed in on anarchism’s ongoing urge to explore, its ongoing refusal to embrace things uncritically.

Bjorneboe remained a free spirit and a lonely one. He despised political parties and organisations and felt close to a number of literary figures like Hans Jaeger, Henrik Ibsen and Arne Garborg. This is what he wrote about parties: “We are losing our ability to face up to other people’s views. We see different opinions as a disease and a crime. On the other hand we see nothing wrong in political parties pursuing a policy in which dissent is not merely unprovided for but inconceivable.”

Shortly before his death, he wrote a play about Emma Goldmann (Red Emma). In May 1976 he took his own life, leaving behind a note that stated that loneliness was killing him.

From: Bollettino Archivio G. Pinelli (Milan), No 25, July 2005 (pp. 35-36) . Translated by: Paul Sharkey.