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An essay by Arthur Thomas Quiller-Couch

Bjornsterne Bjornson

Title:     Bjornsterne Bjornson
Author: Arthur Thomas Quiller-Couch [More Titles by Quiller-Couch]

June 1, 1895. Björnson's First Manner.

I see that the stories promised in Mr. Heinemann's new series of translations of Björnson are _Synnövé Solbakken_, _Arne_, _A Happy Boy_, _The Fisher Maiden_, _The Bridal March_, _Magnhild_, and _Captain Mansana_. The first, _Synnövé Solbakken_, appeared in 1857. The others are dated thus:--_Arne_ in 1858, _A Happy Boy_ in 1860, _The Fisher Maiden_ in 1868, _The Bridal March_ in 1873, _Magnhild_ in 1877, and _Captain Mansana_ in 1879. There are some very significant gaps here, the most important being the eight years' gap between _A Happy Boy_ and _The Fisher Maiden_. Again, after 1879 Björnson ceased to write novels for a while, returning to the charge in 1884 with _Flags are Flying in Town and Haven_, and following up with _In God's Way_, 1889. Translations of these two novels have also been published by Mr. Heinemann (the former under an altered title, _The Heritage of the Kurts_) and, to use Mr. Gosse's words, are the works, by which Björnson is best known to the present generation of Englishmen. "They possess elements which have proved excessively attractive to certain sections of our public; indeed, in the case of _In God's Way_, a novel which was by no means successful in its own country at its original publication, has enjoyed an aftermath of popularity in Scandinavia, founded on reflected warmth from its English admirers."

Taking, then, Björnson's fiction apart from his other writings (with which I confess myself unacquainted), we find that it falls into three periods, pretty sharply divided. The earliest is the idyllic period, pure and simple, and includes _Synnövé_, _Arne_, and _A Happy Boy_. Then with _The Fisher Maiden_ we enter on a stage of transition. It is still the idyll; but it grows self-conscious, elaborate, confused by the realism that was coming into fashion all over Europe; and the trouble and confusion grow until we reach _Magnhild_. With _Flags are Flying_ and _In God's Way_ we reach a third stage--the stage of realism, some readers would say. I should not agree. But these tales certainly differ remarkably from their predecessors. They are much longer, to begin with; in them, too, realism at length preponderates; and they are probably as near to pure realism as Björnson will ever get.

If asked to label these three periods, I should call them the periods of (1) Simplicity, (2) Confusion, (3) Dire Confusion.

I speak, of course, as a foreigner, obliged to read Björnson in translations. But perhaps the disability is not so important as it seems at first sight. Translations cannot hide Björnson's genius; nor obscure the truth that his genius is essentially idyllic. Now if one form of literary expression suffers more than another by translation it is the idyll. Its bloom is peculiarly delicate; its freshness peculiarly quick to disappear under much handling of any kind. But all the translations leave _Arne_ a masterpiece, and _Synnövé_ and _The Happy Boy_.

How many artists have been twisted from their natural bent by the long vogue of "naturalism" we shall never know. We must make the best of the great works which have been produced under its influence, and be content with that. But we may say with some confidence that Björnson's genius was unfortunate in the date of its maturity. He was born on the 8th of December, 1832, in a lonely farmhouse among the mountains, at the head of the long valley called Osterdalen; his father being priest of Kvikne parish, one of the most savage in all Norway. After six years the family removed to Naesset, in the Romsdal, "a spot as enchanting and as genial as Kvikne is the reverse." Mr. Gosse, who prefaces Mr. Heinemann's new series with a study of Björnson's writings, quotes a curious passage in which Björnson records the impression of physical beauty made upon his childish mind by the physical beauty of Naesset:--

"Here in the parsonage of Naesset--one of the loveliest places in Norway, where the land lies broadly spreading where two fjords meet, with the green braeside above it, with waterfalls and farmhouses on the opposite shore, with billowy meadows and cattle away towards the foot of the valley, and, far overhead, along the line of the fjord, mountains shooting promontory after promontory out into the lake, a big farmhouse at the extremity of each--here in the parsonage of Naesset, where I would stand at the close of the day and gaze at the sunlight playing over mountain and fjord, until I wept, as though I had done something wrong; and where I, descending on my snow-shoes into some valley, would pause as though bewitched by a loveliness, by a longing, which I had not the power to explain, but which was so great that above the highest ecstasy of joy I would feel the deepest apprehension and distress--here in the parsonage of Naesset were awakened my earliest sensations."

The passage is obviously important. And Björnson shows how much importance he attaches to the experience by introducing it, or something like it, time after time into his stories. Readers of _In God's Way_--the latest of the novels under discussion--will remember its opening chapter well.

It was good fortune indeed that a boy of such gifts should pass his early boyhood in such surroundings. Nor did the luck end here. While the young Björnson accumulated these impressions, the peasant-romance, or idyll of country life, was taking its place and growing into favor as one of the most beautiful forms of modern prose-fiction. Immermann wrote _Der Oberhof_ in 1839. Weill and Auerbach took up the running in 1841 and 1843. George Sand followed, and Fritz Reuter. Björnson began to write in 1856. _Synnövé Solbakken_ and _Arne_ came in on the high flood of this movement. "These two stories," writes Mr. Gosse, "seem to me to be almost perfect; they have an enchanting lyrical quality, without bitterness or passion, which I look for elsewhere in vain in the prose literature of the second half of the century." To my mind, without any doubt, they and _A Happy Boy_ are the best work Björnson has ever done in fiction, or is ever likely to do. For they are simple, direct, congruous; all of one piece as a flower is of a piece with its root. And never since has Björnson written a tale altogether of one piece.

His later Manner.

For here the luck ended. All over Europe there began to spread influences that may have been good for some artists, but were (we may say) peculiarly injurious to so _naïf_ and, at the same time, so personal a writer as Björnson. I think another age will find much the same cause to mourn over Daudet when it compares his later novels with the promise of _Lettres de Mon Moulin_ and _Le Petit Chose_. Naturalism demands nothing more severely than an impersonal treatment of its themes. Of three very personal and romantic writers, our own Stevenson escaped the pit into which both Björnson and Daudet stumbled. You may say the temptation came later to him. But the temptation to follow an European fashion does, as a rule, befall a Briton last of all men, for reasons of which we need not feel proud: and the date of Mr. Hardy's stumbling is fairly recent, after all. Björnson, at any rate, began very soon to be troubled. Between 1864 and 1874, from his thirty-second to his forty-second year, his invention seemed, to some extent, paralyzed. _The Fisher Maiden_, the one story written during that time, starts as beautifully as _Arne_; but it grows complicated and introspective: the psychological experiences of the stage-struck heroine are not in the same key as the opening chapters. Passing over nine years, we find _Magnhild_ much more vague and involved--

"Here he is visibly affected by French models, and by the methods of the naturalists, but he is trying to combine them with his own simpler traditions of rustic realism.... The author felt himself greatly moved by fermenting ideas and ambitions which he had not completely mastered.... There is a kind of uncomfortable discrepancy between the scene and the style, a breath of Paris and the boulevards blowing through the pine-trees of a puritanical Norwegian village.... But the book is a most interesting link between the early peasant-stories and the great novels of his latest period."

Well, of these same "great novels"--of _Flags are Flying_ and _In God's Way_--people must speak as they think. They seem to me the laborious productions of a man forcing himself still further and further from his right and natural bent. In them, says Mr. Gosse, "Björnson returns, in measure, to the poetical elements of his youth. He is now capable again, as for instance in the episode of Ragni's symbolical walk in the woodlands, _In God's Way_, of passages of pure idealism." Yes, he returns--"in measure." He is "capable of idyllic passages." In other words, his nature reasserts itself, and he remains an imperfect convert. "He has striven hard to be a realist, and at times he has seemed to acquiesce altogether in the naturalistic formula, but in truth he has never had anything essential in common with M. Zola." In other words, he has fallen between two stools. He has tried to expel nature with a pitchfork and still she runs back upon him. He has put his hand to the plough and has looked back: or (if you take my view of "the naturalistic formula") he has sinned, but has not sinned with his whole heart. For to produce a homogeneous story, either the acquired Zola or the native Björnson must have been cast out utterly.

Value of Early Impressions to a Novelist.

I have quoted an example of the impressions of Björnson's childhood. I do not think critics have ever quite realized the extent to which writers of fiction--especially those who use a personal style--depend upon the remembered impressions of childhood. Such impressions--no matter how fantastic--are an author's firsthand stock: and in using them he comes much closer to nature than when he collects any number of scientifically approved data to maintain some view of life which he has derived from books. Compare _Flags are Flying_ with _Arne_, and you will see my point. The longer book is ten times as realistic in treatment, and about one-tenth as true to life.

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Arthur Thomas Quiller-Couch's essay: Bjornsterne Bjornson