Tales of Two Countries

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Tales of two Countries  (1891) 
by Alexander Kielland, translated by William Archer




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Among the many remarkable writers whom Norway has produced in the latter half of the present century, Björnstjerne Björnson, Henrik Ibsen, and Alexander Kielland hold a position of undisputed pre-eminence. Björnson's name has been more or less familiar to English and American readers for twenty years past. His peasant novels have found several translators, and latterly some of his plays have been done into English. For at least fifteen years after his genius had attained its maturity, Henrik Ibsen remained practically unheard-of outside Scandinavia and Germany. Then, some three or four years ago, he suddenly leaped into worldwide—shall I say notoriety?—and is at the present moment one of the most eagerly discussed, if not the best understood, of European writers. Alexander Kielland is a younger man than Björnson and Ibsen (who are almost exactly contemporaries), and came to the front in literature fully twenty years later than they. Though two of his longer novels have been translated into English, he cannot be said to have attained any wide reputation in this country. I am sanguine enough to hope that the present collection of his Novelettes—his earliest but not his least noteworthy writings—may attract the attention of readers with a sense for what is most modern, and at the same time most delicate, in fiction, and may, perhaps, awaken a desire for longer draughts from the same source.

Alexander Lange Kielland was born in Stavanger, one of the principal seaports of south-western Norway, on February 18th, 1849. The Kiellands, like the Garmans of his novel Garman and Worsë, had been for generations the commercial and social leaders of the little town. After passing through the local grammar-school, young Kielland entered the University of Christiania in 1867, taking his final examination in jurisprudence in 1871. He won no great academic honours, and it is commonly reported that even among his comrades he passed undistinguished. Professor H. H. Boyesen, however, who was one of his contemporaries, states that his personality even then attracted attention, and that those who knew him expected great things of him. For ten years it seemed as though they were to be disappointed. He returned to his native place, married, bought a brickfield, and devoted himself to its management, showing no symptom whatever of literary ambition. It was not until 1878 that "he awoke one morning and found himself a novelist." In that year two of his Novelettes appeared anonymously in the feuilleton of the Dagblad, and about the same time he published, with his name, a dramatic sketch, entitled Homewards, in the Nyt norsk Tidsskrift. Leaving Norway for the first time, he passed the greater part of the year 1878 in Paris, polishing his Norwegian Novelettes and writing his French ones. The first series of these sketches appeared in 1879, and was followed by a second, entitled New Novelettes, in 1880. The charm of his limpid prose, as yet unexampled in Norwegian literature, at once raised him to the summit of popularity. Björnson was among the first to welcome his new brother-poet—for a poet he is, though he has written nothing in verse. It now only remained to be seen whether he possessed the staying-power for longer efforts; and this question was answered, in part at least, by his first novel, Garman and Worsë, which appeared in 1880. True, it showed no great constructive skill. Like Middlemarch, though on a much smaller scale, it consisted of three or four different stories running on parallel lines. On the other hand, it proved that the author possessed the gift of sustained and consistent character-drawing, and that his talent was by no means confined to the thumb-nail sketch. His next book, Arbeidsfolk (Workpeople), published in 1881, was as well-knit as it was powerful. Its unflinching realism was a rock of offence to many worthy persons, but it established Kielland, once for all, on an eminence hitherto occupied only by Björnson and Ibsen. The remainder of his career I must briefly summarize. His principal works are Elsa, a Christmas Story, 1881; Skipper Worse, 1882; Two Novelettes from Denmark, 1882; Poison, 1883; Fortuna, 1884; Snow, 1886; St.John's Day, 1887; and Jakob, 1891—all novels; and three comedies, entitled Three Pairs, 1886; Betty's Guardian, 1887; and The Professor, 1888. In 1881 he sold his brickwork, and thenceforth devoted himself entirely to literature. From that date until 1883 he lived in Copenhagen; between 1886 and 1889 he pitched his tent in the environs of Paris. For the rest, he has made his birthplace, Stavanger, his headquarters. His personal life has been happily uneventful, except for a political contest which raged for two years around his name, though his own part in it was entirely passive. The matter was, shortly, this: The Norwegian Storthing or Parliament, in order to encourage native literature, assigns to authors of the first rank a yearly Digtergage (Poet-Stipend) of 1600 crowns—about £88—partly intended as a compensation for loss incurred on account of Norway's non-adherence to the International Copyright Convention. The country is too poor to pay for foreign literature; therefore its native authors cannot enforce their rights as against foreign translators. It was proposed in 1885 that a stipend should be allotted to Kielland, the actual holders of the distinction at that date being Ibsen, Björnson and Lie. The Pension-Committee of the Storthing reported against the proposal, alleging it to be "inadvisable that the State should endow and stamp with its recognition a literary activity which is held in great measure to conflict with the dominant moral and religious principles of the nation." The question was warmly debated, again and again, in two sessions of the Storthing. It caused the first serious split in the ranks of the Liberal party, which had only a short time before vanquished the Conservatives, after a protracted struggle, and come into power in overwhelming majority. That the evangelical section of the party should long dwell in unity with the non-religious section was not in the nature of things to be expected, and the struggle over the "Kielland affair" was merely the first symptom of much deeper-lying dissensions. In the end, the stipend was withheld, though one yearly payment was accorded by special vote. I must not omit to mention that Björnstjerne Björnson, generously indignant at the slight passed on his brother-poet, whose political and religious standpoint was identical with his own, resigned the stipend which he had held for many years.

If I were asked to express in a word what seems to me, not the highest, but the most obvious and indisputable quality of Kielland's work, I should say its readableness. I look along the row of his novels on my shelf, and the stereotyped phrase of the stereotypical reviewer flows to the point of my pen:—"There is not a dull page from beginning to end." The first step at least, in novel-reading, is as a rule laborious. In approaching the works even of the greatest writers one is apt to plod a little painfully at the outset, until the gathering interest—I will not say the thickening plot—begins to carry one along. Few novelists, to my thinking, can compare with Kielland in the knack of enchaining our interest from the very first paragraph. His crispness of attack, his crystalline clearness of utterance, his directness, his simplicity, his concision, unite to constitute what I can only describe as a charm peculiar to himself. It is perhaps unwise of me to dwell on this charm of manner, since, in the following pages, the reader may possibly look for it in vain. I trust, however, that it has not entirely evaporated; if it has, I must own myself a translator-traitor of the deepest dye. In his conception of the aims and methods of fiction Kielland belongs distinctly to the French school. This is naturally not so apparent in his Novelettes as in his longer novels. In the sketches here translated, the influence of Hans Christian Andersen is at least as marked as that of Daudet, and it is doubtful whether, at the date of their composition, Guy de Maupassant had dawned upon the author's horizon. The novels, on the other hand, recall Daudet more than any other writer, though nothing that can be called imitation is to be laid to Kielland's charge. One characteristic which the reader will not fail to remark in the following tales is no less prominent in the longer novels—I mean the satiric bent of the author's disposition. He is far from accepting the impersonal ideal of Flaubert or Maupassant, and regarding himself as a passionless recorder of observations and deductions made in cold blood. He is always what the Germans call "tendentious." Bureaucracy, pedantry, hypocrisy are not, in his eyes, phenomena to be dispassionately studied like any other manifestations of the human spirit, but vices to be lashed and crucified. Though he is far too modern to adopt the "hero, heroine and villain formula"; though he is too much of an artist to paint ideal characters immaculately good or immitigably bad; yet he does not affect to treat his characters with stony impartiality, or shrink from letting us divine his sympathies and antipathies. Quite foreign to him, however, is our English habit of intercalating moral, social, or humorous essays in the pauses of a narrative. He never obtrudes his own personality, never button holes the reader for an interlude of gossip, never indulges in those ingenuous devices, so dear to English writers who at this time of day ought to know better, for making a novel seem something else than a novel—a bundle of letters, for instance, or an autobiography, or a sentimental diary, or a series of affidavits. Where he pauses in his narrative it is not to "moralize the spectacle," but to poetize or symbolize it—as in those marvellous chapters of Workpeople in which he describes the coming of spring to Norway, and the passage of a mail-steamer along the coast with its freight of joy and sorrow. For symbolic description, if I may call it so, he has a peculiar talent; witness the picture in Fortuna of the inflation of credit preceding a commercial crash, and the passages in Snow which give the book its title. His humour, which is, I think, fully exemplified in the following pages, is never allowed to run riot. Exquisitely comic though it be, the toddy-drinking of the two old sailors in Skipper Worsë is at the same time a piece of pure realism. Even in an irresponsibly fantastic sketch like The Battle of Waterloo, the humour is sober, and does not stray into wanton caricature. But the natural cast of Kielland's genius is tragic, almost pessimistic. If his books do not, on the whole, appear so sombre as those of some other novelists of the modern school, it is only because of the extreme alertness of his style. Two of them, Workpeople and Elsa, are pictures of social corruption; one, St. John's Day, deals with clerical tyranny; the rest may be broadly described as studies in the degeneration of character. To this class belong his two finest achievements, in my esteem—Skipper Worsë and Gift (Poison). Pietism is the subject of the former, social hypocrisy of the latter. My personal preference, though I should perhaps be at a loss to give very good reasons for it, points to Gift as his masterpiece. It tells of the struggle between a father and mother for the soul of their son—a struggle in which the mother, a woman of singularly fine and upright nature, is pitifully worsted. But I must not be betrayed into the futility of attempting to arrange the works of so fine an artist in a definite order of merit; especially as the reader is probably not in a position to check my conclusions. The present volume contains in germ all the best qualities of Kielland's talent—his humour in Hope's clad in April Green, his fantasy in The Peat Moor, his tenderness in The Parsonage, his sarcasm in A Good Conscience, his vivid social sympathies in At the Fair. He is not a clairvoyant psychologist, like Meredith, nor a stereoscopic realist like Maupassant; but he is an observer, a humorist, an artist, a poet, and, above all, a born story-teller and creator of living men and women.[1]

William Archer.

  1. For the principal facts in this biographical sketch I am indebted to Herr J. B. Halvorsen's excellent Norsk Forfatterlexikon.