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Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson and the literary canon

Av Petter Aaslestad, professor, Nordisk litteraturvitenskap NTNU

23.01.2013 19:41

Reading Bjørnson’s works entails being confronted with large chunks of text that appear to be coarse, programmatic and unprocessed – in short, they seem like bad literature. Completely disregarding this literature, however, is not very fruitful, even in the context of establishing a literary canon.

Reviewing Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson’s entire works is challenging to the average understanding of fiction.

One could, however, experience the familiar thrill of rediscovering forgotten masterpieces, such as the original dramatic trilogy of Sigurd Slembe (1862). One could also be moved by parts of the peasant tales that simply cannot be pigeon-holed into the pedagogically simple structures of eternal good and evil, which has traditionally been the most emphasised aspect of these tales. Also, there are plenty of lines of verse and individual poems that generate immediate enthusiasm. It is important to recognise, however, that the quality of Bjørnson’s works has been continually discussed since they were first published. Excessive sentimentality and a certain penchant for laddishness drew criticism even in the nineteenth century. And one would imagine that deficient composition techniques in prose and drama – in short: carelessness – were pointed out at the time the works were published. It is not hard to understand why Bjørnson’s friend Jonas Lie urged him to cut back on politics to improve his writing.

The fact that we sometimes have trouble finding the qualities of Bjørnson’s literary achivements today, is thus not something for which we should blame ourselves. These problems have been around since Bjørnson’s own time. However, to declare Bjørnson’s entire authorship as unintelligible and irrelevant would be to throw the baby out with the bath water.

No other Norwegian has ever written more than Bjørnson. No topic was too small, nor was any topic too big. And he got an immediate response, regardless of whether he was concerned about the use of sand on winter roads near his estate at Aulestad (in the local papers) or about the treatment of Dreyfus in France (in the prestigious European papers). Naturally, this fierce dedication to social issues means reading Bjørnson today requires a comprehensive contextual understanding. Most of his factual prose is not very interesting to the general public on the basis of its literary or stylistic points of view.

Peasant tales
Bjørnson’s peasant tales is a concept that is alive and well in the Norwegian literary consciousness. The approach to this genre is often – in people with a slightly condescending attitude towards it – that of Synnøve Solbakken’s (1857) simple conflict between the light and fair (Solbakken) and the grim and dark (Granliden), where, to top it all off, the female protagonist is associated with cultural stereotypes, such as Peer Gynt’s Solveig and Synnøve Finden. Furthermore, “everyone” is familiar with the boastful opening lines of A Happy Boy (1860): “Øyvind was his name, and he cried when he was born” (Volume 2, p. 3). Previously, admiration of the saga pastiche was common: The statement that father and son in the Granli kin are called Sæmund and Torbjørn, or vice versa, and that only every other man of the kin will have any luck in life “and it was not the one called Torbjørn,” would to us appear unnecessarily elaborate and only to a lesser degree envoke sentiments of Norse sagas. Even the short story “The Father” is often included in the peasant tales. It is ubiquitously present in anthologies and it has remained immensely popular in the education system, from primary school to university. Unreasonable claims (made by Francis Bull, among others) that the texts can cover an entire human life in three pages, could have yielded a certain “overkill effect” in the Bjørnson interest among young adults. Personally, Bjørnson was happy to, much more fitting, refer to “The Father” as an unpretentious sketch. The peasant tales have, in our consciousness, been associated with romantic nationalism and “peasants in their Sunday best” – a genre in the process of consolidating the nation and the emergence of the golden age in Norwegian realism.

If you have not read any of Bjørnson’s peasant tales since your school days, you may be surprised to rediscover the great emphasis placed on poems and songs. The incorporation of songs in the peasant tales is one of their most characteristic features. The songs later on found their way to the separate editions of Digte og Sange. Who remembers that “Ingerid Sletten” originally came from Arne? “Everybody” is familiar with the unforgettably simple song (melody by Nordraak) about the woman who saves the only heirloom she has from her mother on the bottom of her chest, the hat of coloured wool, intended for use at a wedding. Forty years later she realised that “not a single thread was left”. Much of Bjørnson’s poetry is spoken by others, and “Bergljot” is an excellent example of this. The value of “Ingerid Sletten” on its own is undeniable, almost like a ballad sprung from popular poetry, but in its simplicity it also represents a rich potential for interpretation in the context of the larger text in which it is presented. The simplicity suddenly grows complex. The ambivalence regarding the mother figure, for example, is in Arne expressed in a seemingly simple nursery rhyme, “Killebukken”:

This poem is introduced after the Arne is offered a position as school teacher. However, Arne’s ambitions and yearning for freedom are so strong that he takes great care to “avoid the cauldron”. Being his own bellwether without regard to the individuals closest to him, is at this point in the story Arne’s only option.

Nobody has contributed as many first-liners to the Norwegian collective consciousness as Bjørnson: “There lies a fair land near eternal snow”, “The fox lay still by the birch-tree’s root”, “Broad the sails o'er the North Sea go”, “I choose April”; very few people know what comes next. Norwegian citizens can use expressions like “better than peace is having a goal to reach”. Few people know that this are the last two lines from the poem “I choose April” (nor does one need to know, really). Bjørnson is ever-present in our language, whether we like it or not. And the author himself can be said to be inundated with his own poetry. Much like Henrik Wergeland, Bjørnson managed to express his wisdom towards the end of his life – directly, without nostalgia, and firmly placed within his own poetic universe, as illustrated by the following simple lines from “Last Pain” (1906):

Å, nu har jeg lært det

Hvad jeg frygtet først,

At den siste smærte,

Den er også størst.

Kan ej mer arbejde,

Har ej kræfter nok.

Kan ej mer arbeide,

Har ej kræfter nok,

Kan ej længer vejde

Mine tankers flok.

De er over fjællet

Samles aldrig mer.

The above text is taken from Den norske litterære kanon 1700-1900 (The Norwegian literary canon, 1700-1900), and is reproduced here with permission from Aschehoug Publishing House.


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