Nils Klim Laureate Simona Zetterberg-Nielsen's Acceptance Speech


Nils Klim Laureate Simona Zetterberg-Nielsen's Acceptance Speech is published here in full.

Your Royal Highness Crown Prince Haakon, Minister Ola Borten Moe, Your Excellencies, Madam Rector Margareth Hagen, Holberg Prize Laureate Joan Martinez-Alier, the Holberg Prize committee, the Nils Klim Committee, family, friends and colleagues!

It is hard to express what a great honour it is to stand here today and join the Nils Klim Laureates. I want to show my deepfelt gratitude to the Nils Klim committee for awarding me the prize. I wish to extend my thankfulness to Bjørn Enge Bertelsen for facilitating the prize-ceremony and for assuring me that it was not a prank when he first called me to tell me that I would be the 2023 recipient – a reassurance which made me wonder if it was indeed a prank. To Jørgen Sejersted for reading my work with such careful precision – that has been an honour in itself. To Ole Sandmo for making the Holberg- and Nils Klim prize visible in the press. And to Ellen Hætta – and my parents – for making it possible to travel to Bergen with my son, Samuel, who has just turned 8 months. 

I want to express my gratefulness not only for receiving the prize, but for the Holberg week as a whole – and what it stands for: A celebration of science, and the humanities. I also want to use the opportunity to honour the founders of the Nils-Klim prize and – as a serious jest – the name of the prize. One might have expected an 'Erasmus Montanus Prize' or a 'Jeppe of the Hill Prize', after some of Holberg’s most known comedies, while a 'Nils Klim Prize' is a more surprising, but nevertheless, well-chosen name. The characters Erasmus Montanus, Jeppe of the Hill, and Niels Klim have in common that they are confused as to their own competences, or lack thereof, and in Holberg’s works the audience or reader is invited to laugh at those who lack self-awareness, which is likely to include the reader. When we celebrate in the name of Holberg, we also celebrate humor, and an important part of the genius of Holberg’s humor is that it is a mixture of jest and seriousness. 'A mixture of jest and seriousness' were the exact words Holberg used when describing his novel Niels Klim.

I am in the exceptional position today that the very book after which the prize is named plays a central role in my research. I have studied the rise of the Danish novel and a key research object in my work is Niels Klim. Today, I wish to give three good reasons for why the name 'Nils Klim Prize' is so well-chosen. Niels Klim is unique because 1) it is one of the very first Scandinavian novels ever written and a central piece in the rise of modern fiction 2) it presents enlightenment ideas about the value of well conducted science, and 3) it does so by establishing a witty opposition to misinformation, superstition and what we might today call fake news. 

In his third 'levnetsbrev' from 1743 Holberg clarifies the aim of Niels Klim. In my translation, it reads:

'At home in Norway, you will find a number of people of both sexes who speak boldly of their intercourse with trolls and goblins, and who swear on their soul that the underworldly have abducted them to hills and mountain caves. These foolish people, who have given substance and content to my novel, are made into a laughing stock in its hero: Niels Klim.

With his fictional novel Niels Klim, Holberg wanted to ridicule superstition, and promote science. In my research I argue that modern fiction and science arose with Holberg and his contemporaries in the 18th century, and that the two were not opposites, but in many respects constituted and sustained each other. Seeking the roots of our modern understanding of science, fact, and fiction, constitutes the core of my research, and Holberg’s novel Niels Klim is one of the protons of that core as it plays a vital role for the rise of science and of fiction in Scandinavia.

The character Niels Klim is not just a perfect anti-hero of 1741, when the novel was first published, but also of 2023. I have made 18th century novels as Niels Klim my subject area, not just for the interest of history itself, but also for the answers to the present and the future that may lie hidden in the past, and I believe we should continue to dig for them. A celebration in the name of Holberg’s Niels Klim is, therefore, a celebration of: 1) historical beginnings 2) of science and fiction; and 3) of resistance to mis-information and superstition. I could not be prouder to be the recipient of a prize with that name. 

My research depends on collective efforts. I am forever grateful to the many research communities who have embraced me: my wonderful and generous colleagues and friends at Aarhus university, and around the world. In the societies for the study of the 18th century, fictionality and narrative and at the departments of literature at Aarhus University, Ohio State University and York University, where some of my closest collaborators reside. Most of all, I am overwhelmed by the never-ending sparring, collaboration, and support, professionally and personally, I have received from Henrik Zetterberg-Nielsen, my husband. He taught me that research happens together, like all other good things in the world, and I have never met anyone as generous as Henrik, who has made everything possible. Thus, let us continue our fight against those who speak boldly of their intercourse with trolls and goblins, together.