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An essay by Hjalmar Hjorth Boyesen

Alexander Kielland

Title:     Alexander Kielland
Author: Hjalmar Hjorth Boyesen [More Titles by Boyesen]

In June, 1867, about a hundred enthusiastic youths were vociferously celebrating their attainment of the baccalaureate degree at the University of Norway. The orator on this occasion was a tall, handsome, distinguished-looking young man named Alexander Kielland, from the little coast town of Stavanger. There was none of the crudity of a provincial either in his manners or his appearance. He spoke with a quiet self-possession and a pithy incisiveness which were altogether phenomenal.

"That young man will be heard from one of these days," was the unanimous verdict of those who listened to his clear-cut and finished sentences, and noted the maturity of his opinions.

But ten years passed, and outside of Stavanger no one ever heard of Alexander Kielland. His friends were aware that he had studied law, spent some winters in France, married, and settled himself as a dignitary in his native town. It was understood that he had bought a large brick and tile factory, and that as a manufacturer of these useful articles he bid fair to become a provincial magnate, as his fathers had been before him. People had almost forgotten that great things had been expected of him, and some fancied perhaps that he had been spoiled by prosperity. Remembering him, as I did, as the most brilliant and notable personality among my university friends, I began to apply to him Mallock's epigrammatic damnation of the man of whom it was said at twenty that he would do great things, at thirty that he might do great things, and at forty that he might have done great things.

This was the frame of mind of those who remembered Alexander Kielland (and he was an extremely difficult man to forget), when in the year 1879 a modest volume of "Novelettes" appeared, bearing his name. It was, to all appearances, a light performance, but it revealed a sense of style which made it, nevertheless, notable. No man had ever written the Norwegian language as this man wrote it. There was a lightness of touch, a perspicacity, an epigrammatic sparkle, and occasional flashes of wit which seemed altogether un-Norwegian. It was obvious that this author was familiar with the best French writers, and had acquired through them that clear and crisp incisiveness of utterance which was supposed, hitherto, to be untransferable to any other tongue.

As regards the themes of these "Novelettes," it was remarked at the time of their first appearance that they hinted at a more serious purpose than their style seemed to imply. Who can read, for instance, "Pharaoh" (which in the original is entitled "A Ball Mood") without detecting the revolutionary note that trembles quite audibly through the calm and unimpassioned language? There is, by the way, a little touch of melodrama in this tale which is very unusual with Kielland. "Romance and Reality," too, is glaringly at variance with conventional romanticism in its satirical contrasting of the prematrimonial and the postmatrimonial view of love and marriage. The same persistent tendency to present the wrong side as well as the right side--and not, as literary good manners are supposed to prescribe, ignore the former--is obvious in the charming tale, "At the Fair," where a little spice of wholesome truth spoils the thoughtlessly festive mood; and the squalor, the want, the envy, hate, and greed which prudence and a regard for business compel the performers to disguise to the public, become the more cruelly visible to the visitors of the little alley-way at the rear of the tents. In "A Good Conscience" the satirical note has a still more serious ring; but the same admirable self-restraint which, next to the power of thought and expression, is the happiest gift an author's fairy godmother can bestow upon him, saves Kielland from saying too much--from enforcing his lesson by marginal comments, _á la George Eliot. But he must be obtuse indeed to whom this reticence is not more eloquent and effective than a page of philosophical moralizing.

"Hope's Clad in April Green" and "The Battle of Waterloo" (the first and the last tale in the Norwegian edition) are more untinged with a moral tendency than any of the foregoing. The former is a mere jeu d'esprit, full of good-natured satire on the calf-love of very young people, and the amusing over-estimate of our importance to which we are all, at that age, peculiarly liable.

As an organist with vaguely melodious hints foreshadows in his prelude the musical motifs which he means to vary and elaborate in his fugue, so Kielland lightly touched in these "Novelettes" the themes which in his later works he has struck with a fuller volume and power. What he gave in this little book was a light sketch of his mental physiognomy, from which, perhaps, his horoscope might be cast and his literary future predicted.

Though a patrician by birth and training, he revealed a strong sympathy with the toiling masses. But it was a democracy of the brain, I should fancy, rather than of the heart. As I read the book, sixteen years ago, its tendency puzzled me considerably, remembering, as I did, with the greatest vividness, the fastidious and distingué personality of the author. I found it difficult to believe that he was in earnest. The book seemed to me to betray the whimsical sans-culottism of a man of pleasure who, when the ball is at an end, sits down with his gloves on, and philosophizes on the artificiality of civilization and the wholesomeness of honest toil. An indigestion makes him a temporary communist; but a bottle of seltzer presently reconciles him to his lot, and restores the equilibrium of the universe. He loves the people at a distance, can talk prettily about the sturdy son of the soil, who is the core and marrow of the nation, etc.; but he avoids contact with him, and, if chance brings them into contact, he loves him with his handkerchief to his nose.

I may be pardoned for having identified Alexander Kielland with this type, with which I am very familiar; and he convinced me presently that I had done him injustice. In his next book, the admirable novel "Garman and Worse," he showed that his democratic proclivities were something more than a mood. He showed that he took himself seriously, and he compelled the public to take him seriously. The tendency which had only flashed forth here and there in the "Novelettes" now revealed its whole countenance. The author's theme was the life of the prosperous bourgeoisie in the western coast towns; and he drew their types with a hand that gave evidence of intimate knowledge. He had himself sprung from one of these rich ship-owning, patrician families, had been given every opportunity to study life both at home and abroad, and had accumulated a fund of knowledge of the world, which he had allowed quietly to grow before making literary draughts upon it. The same Gallic perspicacity of style which had charmed in his first book was here in a heightened degree; and there was, besides, the same underlying sympathy with progress and what is called the ideas of the age. What mastery of description, what rich and vigorous colors, Kielland had at his disposal was demonstrated in such scenes as the funeral of Consul Garman and the burning of the ship. There was, moreover, a delightful autobiographical note in the book, particularly in the boyish experiences of Gabriel Garman. Such things no man invents, however clever; such material no imagination supplies, however fertile. Except Fritz Reuter's Stavenhagen, I know no small town in fiction which is so vividly and completely individualized, and populated with such living and credible characters. Take, for instance, the two clergymen, Archdeacon Sparre and the Rev. Mr. Martens, and it is not necessary to have lived in Norway in order to recognize and enjoy the faithfulness and the artistic subtlety of these portraits. If they have a dash of satire (which I will not undertake to deny), it is such delicate and well-bred satire that no one, except the originals, would think of taking offence. People are willing, for the sake of the entertainment which it affords, to forgive a little quiet malice at their neighbors' expense. The members of the provincial bureaucracy are drawn with the same firm but delicate touch, and everything has that beautiful air of reality which proves the world akin.

It was by no means a departure from his previous style and tendency which Kielland signalized in his next novel, "Laboring People" (1881). He only emphasizes, as it were, the heavy, serious bass chords in the composite theme which expresses his complex personality, and allows the lighter treble notes to be momentarily drowned. His theme is the corrupting influence of the upper upon the lower class. He has in this book made some appalling, soul-searching studies in the pathology as well as the psychology of vice.

Kielland's third novel, "Skipper Worse," marked a distinct step in his development. It was less of a social satire and more of a social study. It was not merely a series of brilliant, exquisitely finished scenes, loosely strung together on a slender thread of narrative, but was a concise and well-constructed story, full of beautiful scenes and admirable portraits. The theme is akin to that of Daudet's "L'Évangéliste;" but Kielland, as it appears to me, has in this instance outdone his French confrère, as regards insight into the peculiar character and poetry of the pietistic movement. He has dealt with it as a psychological and not primarily as a pathological phenomenon. A comparison with Daudet suggests itself constantly in reading Kielland. Their methods of workmanship and their attitude toward life have many points in common. The charm of style, the delicacy of touch, and felicity of phrase, are in both cases pre-eminent. Daudet has, however, the advantage (or, as he himself asserts, the disadvantage) of working in a flexible and highly finished language, which bears the impress of the labors of a hundred masters; while Kielland has to produce his effects of style in a poorer and less pliable language, which often pants and groans in its efforts to render a subtle thought. To have polished this tongue and sharpened its capacity for refined and incisive utterance, is one--and not the least--of his merits.

Though he has by nature no more sympathy with the pietistic movement than Daudet, Kielland yet manages to get psychologically closer to his problem. His pietists are more humanly interesting than those of Daudet, and the little drama which they set in motion is more genuinely pathetic. Two superb figures--the lay preacher Hans Nilsen and Skipper Worse--surpass all that the author had hitherto produced in depth of conception and brilliancy of execution. The marriage of that delightful, profane old sea-dog Jacob Worse with the pious Sara Torvestad, and the attempts of his mother-in-law to convert him, are described not with the merely superficial drollery to which the subject invites, but with a sweet and delicate humor which trembles on the verge of pathos. In the Christmas tale, "Elsie," Kielland has produced a little classic of almost flawless perfection. With what exquisite art he paints the life of a small Norwegian coast-town in all its vivid details! While Björnson, in "The Heritage of the Kurts," primarily emphasizes the responsibility of the individual to society, Kielland chooses to emphasize the responsibility of society to the individual. The former selects a hero with vicious inherited tendencies, redeemed by wise education and favorable environment; the latter portrays a heroine with no corrupt predisposition, destroyed by a corrupting environment. Elsie could not be good, because the world was once so constituted that girls of her kind were not expected to be good. Temptations, perpetually thronging in her way, broke down the moral bulwarks of her nature; resistance seemed in vain. In the end, there is scarcely one who, having read the book, will have the heart to condemn her.

Incomparably clever is the satire on the benevolent societies which exist to furnish a kind of officious sense of virtue to their aristocratic members. "The Society for the Redemption of the Abandoned Women of St. Peter's Parish" is presided over by a gentleman who is responsible for the abandoned condition of a goodly number of them. However, it turns out that those miserable creatures who need to be redeemed belong to another parish, and accordingly cannot be reached by St. Peter's. St. Peter's parish is aristocratic, exclusive, and keeps its wickedness discreetly veiled. The horror of the secretary of the society, when she hears that "the abandoned woman" who calls upon her for aid, has a child without being married, is both comic and pathetic. In fact, there is not a scene in the book which is not instinct with life and admirably characteristic.

Besides being the author of some minor comedies and a full-grown drama ("The Professor"), Kielland has published several novels, the more recent being "Poison" (1883), "Fortuna" (1884), "Snow" (1886), and "St. John's Eve" (1887).

The note of promise and suspense with which "Snow" ends is meant to be symbolic. From Kielland's point of view, Norway is yet wrapped in the wintry winding-sheet of a tyrannical orthodoxy, and all he dares assert is that the chains of frost and snow seem to be loosening. There is a spring feeling in the air.

This spring feeling is scarcely perceptible in his last book, "Jacob" (1890), which is written in anything but a hopeful mood. It is rather a protest against that optimism which in fiction we call poetic justice. The harsh and unsentimental logic of reality is emphasized with a ruthless disregard of rose-colored traditions.

From the pedagogic point of view, I have no doubt that "Jacob" would be classed as an immoral book. But the question of its morality is of less consequence than the question of its truth. The most modern literature, which is interpenetrated with the spirit of the age, has a way of asking dangerous questions--questions before which the reader, when he perceives their full scope, stands aghast. Our old idyllic faith in the goodness and wisdom of all mundane arrangements has undoubtedly received a shock. Our attitude toward the universe is changing with the change of its attitude toward us. What the thinking part of humanity is now largely engaged in doing is readjusting itself toward the world and the world toward it. Success is but adaptation to environment, and success is the supreme aim of the modern man. The authors who, by their fearless thinking and speaking, help us toward this readjustment should, in my opinion, whether we choose to accept their conclusions or not, be hailed as benefactors. It is in the ranks of these that Alexander Kielland has taken his place, and occupies a conspicuous position.

[The end]
Hjalmar Hjorth Boyesen's essay: Alexander Kielland