Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson was born at Kvikne on 8 December 1832, and he died in Paris on 26 April 1910. The year 2010 marks the centennial of his death. Bjørnson was the first Norwegian to be awarded the Nobel Prize in literature. Through the Norwegian national anthem Ja, vi elsker, his words are still on everybody’s lips.
Freedom and justice
Bjørnson wrote about “the surging demon of enthusiasm”, and imaginative and humorous events become him. One need not feel guilty for playing around with Bjørnson. At the same time, however, there must be room for some of his gravity. Bjørnson appreciated festivities and fierce debate. He referred to political discord as a “Fighter’s Paradise”, but as an artist he is at his best when he is taciturn bordering on the enigmatic, when he moves his readers close to disturbing personal fates, or when the woes of the human condition is stark and naked, as in The Last Pain from 1906.
The best way of celebrating an author is to read his works. Bjørnson’s production was substantial, but uneven. He did not brood over his texts for years before submitting them for publication. Consequently, his less successful texts also include glimpses of great poetry and fascinating spontaneity. The fact that his works were so closely connected to his time can be both a strength and a weakness. They are not always able to speak to us with the same level of potency when the problems they discuss have not stood the test of time. However, when his dedication is allowed to characterise the presentation with pure nerve and intensity, the texts speak to us as vivid expressions of their time.
At age fifteen, Bjørnson published his first text in Romsdals Budstikke, a regional paper: “On Freedom to the People of Molde” featured on the front page on 12 May 1848. This allegorical appeal urged the citizens of Molde to take the 17th of May celebrations seriously. In a larger perspective it was all about developing the concepts of freedom found in the Constitution. Bjørnson and his friends were inspired by the February Revolution that took place in France that year. He wrote his last words on his deathbed in Paris in 1910: “Good deeds save the world”. This was intended as the title of a poem “dedicated to the Polish factory girls”, who collected gifts for those even less fortunate than themselves. 62 years separate these two texts on freedom and justice, but these ideas are central to Bjørnson’s entire authorship. They were his motivation in the struggle for progress. And for Bjørnson it really was a struggle. Today it is easy to forget how despised and controversial he was. His optimism was hard-earned, but irrepressible.
Tales and plays
In the 1850s, Ibsen and Bjørnson were in the vanguard of an emerging class of professional authors in Norway. Ibsen’s authorship has been Norway's most significant contribution to the global literature. In the literary developments of their time, however, Bjørnson often took the lead. Ibsen and Bjørnson each wrote approximately the same number of plays, but Bjørnson also contributed significantly to the emergence of realism in narrative prose. In addition, his contributions to the public domain far exceeded the limits of fiction. Periodically, he dedicated himself entirely to politics, he became one of Norway's greatest orators, he wrote several thousand articles, and Halvdan Koht estimated that he wrote and sent more than 30,000 letters.
Early on in his career, he often fluctuated between peasant tales and historical drama. Following several years of journalistic activities and various attempts and prose, he started publishing stories in Illustreret Folkeblad in 1856. Synnøve Solbakken was first published as a serial in this magazine, before it became Bjørnson’s first novel in 1857. This story marked a new beginning, with its objective and compressed style, inspired by fairytales and sagas, but also by the Romsdal dialect, according to Bjørnson himself. On the surface, it may appear to be just a sappy love story, but realism is ever-present in the social and human interaction, the willingness to include the grotesque and problematic, or the “aspects that shatter the bliss”, as Bjørnson described it. Right from the start, in the introductory description of the landscape, we are introduced to the contrast between the fair Solbakken and the dark Granliden. On a personal level, contrasts are found in Synnøve’s idealised Christianity and Torbjørn’s heathen ferocity. A similar motif can be found in The Father from 1860, where Thord is forced to overcome the loss of the most meaningful element of his life with the breakdown of family pride following the death of his son. In the dramatic trilogy Sigurd Slembe (1862), we see how Sigurd’s calling, his rightful claim to the throne, leads him into a destructive battle resulting in his gruesome death. This trilogy represents the pinnacle of national historical drama in Norway. Bjørnson looks to the civil war era, as this was the period most representative of the discord in his own time.
Over the course of the 1870s, Bjørnson shifts his attention to the bourgeois classes of his time. Of the peasant, he stated in a speech: “When he does awaken, he shall awaken to reaction!”. In retrospect, we see that Bjørnson displayed great precision in addressing the challenges of modernity: He first addressed big media and finance, in the two plays The Editor and The Bankrupt (1875). He continued to address a number of controversial topics. In 1877 he published the play The King, wherein he criticised the monarchy, and in the novel Magnhild published that same year he defended women’s rights to divorce their husbands. In the 1880s, he addressed religion and sexuality in the plays Beyond Our Power (1881), The Heritage of the Kurts (1884), and In God’s Way (1889). In the 1890s, he addressed the class issue, in Beyond Human Might (1895). This play portrays a labour conflict from the perspective of both the workers and the business owners. Elias Sang takes the side of the workers, and he eventually blows himself up along with several representatives of the opposing side of the conflict.
Bjørnson’s “beyond our might” idea criticises any idealism that becomes so strong that the ideals ruin lives instead of improving them. In Beyond Our Power and Beyond Human Might, but in other works as well, we see how individuals with the best of intentions are blinded in a way that makes them dangerous. This motif is most successful in his tragedies, as there is an element of classic hubris in this complex. However, in Love and Geography (1885) we also see the comical aspect of the same topic. Professor Tygesen is obsessed with his field, and he invades the entire house with his maps. In his delusion, he believes his family is nothing but an inconvenience.
Worth mentioning are also Paul Lange and Tora Parsberg from 1898. This is an essential anti-Nietzschean tutorial of the brutality of politics. It all ends tragically with Paul’s suicide, but also with Tora’s hope of a society in which the good need not become martyrs. It is Paul Lange’s sensitivity that makes him politically weak, yet so valuable for politics. In several of his works Bjørnson shows great understanding for insecure and evasive characters. Progress lies in recognising the strength of this weakness, or in Tora’s words: “How sensitive, how delicate he must be, he who sees that others are hurting and that danger is present. How fearful, how fragile he must be in himself. The weak vessels are chosen over the iron cauldrons when healing is to be brought forth.In the heat of the moment, however, Bjørnson himself was not always as tactful. His presentation of Paul Lange’s tragedy is testament to Bjørnson’s own struggles. The historical premise was Ole Richter’s suicide during the crisis of 1888. Many believed Bjørnson’s lack of restraint in his arguments was a contributing cause.
Bjørnson was less preoccupied with poetry than he was with narrative prose and drama, but something about the smaller format of poetry appealed to him. His fighting spirit could be expressed in chiselled lines with an almost agitatorial ferocity, and a lyrical mood could develop into a fully flourishing romance in a verse or two. Several of his poems were printed in newspapers and magazines as soon as they were written. Others became part of tales and plays, before the best were collected and published in Digte og Sange (Poems and Songs). First published in 1870, Digte og Sange was later expanded and reprinted in new issues. As reflected in the title of this collection, Bjørnson did not shy away from writing poetry that could be sung. With the help of several different composers he thus also contributed significantly to the Norwegian song tradition.
“I lived more than I sang”, Bjørnson wrote in Last Song. This poem touches on a problem evident in relating to Bjørnson today. He was everywhere. One cannot help but be impressed with how he fully embraced the consequences of his dedication to social issues, both nationally and abroad. His presence was so comprehensive, and his person was so ubiquitous and hotly debated that this has had a tendency to overshadow his literary achievements. Bjørnson himself believed that his political involvement gave him a knowledge and a drive that strengthened his writing. In Last Song, for example, he addressed the attacks on his person directed at him by the conservative media in Norway's capital. He objected to the erection of a statue of Schweigaard, as he believed Ibsen should get one first. In the poem, this conflict has been allegorised as a struggle where a country horse is attacked by a ferocious tiger. This is also the origin of the nickname “Tiger City” for Oslo: “Who won in the end I do not know,” he wrote, “as I am but a country horse”
In reviewing Bjørnson’s poetry, the epic cycle Arnljot Gelline (1870) clearly stands out. Many of the songs in this epic boasts conspicuously free form and bold imagery, and interestingly enough, this tendency corresponds well with formal allusions of Norse poetry. Arnljot was a historical person known from Snorre’s Norse king sagas. Not much is known about this strange man, who joins Olaf Haroldson prior to the Battle at Stiklestad. The unknown parts of his story must have drawn Bjørnson in, tempting him to fill in the blanks with fiction. Arnljot seeks revenge on the rural community that burned his home and murdered his father, but his brutality drives away his love forever. In the melancholy poem “Arnljot’s Yearning for the Sea” we learn how his life lacks purpose; he does not find peace in his nomadic lifestyle until he joins Olaf in his cause.
False peace for the people
When Bjørnson abandoned his studies at an early age, he lost his father’s support. He was left to fend for himself in Christiania with a fanciful dream of becoming a writer. He could not refer to a single writer making a living from his writing, nor were there any welfare benefits to draw on, or writing classes or studies he could enrol in to apply for student loans or scholarships. Social developments, however, had set the stage for a professional literature. The 1850s was a key stage in the autonomy process of literature. New opportunities opened up, but the developments also brought great uncertainty in regards to what should be the purpose of literature, and thus also the purpose of writers. Choosing to be an author in Bjørnson’s time would have carried much greater existential consequences than it does today.
Several of Bjørnson’s earlier works could be interpreted as more or less allegorical thematisations of the problems of literature in a state of limbo. In “Aanun” (1856) and “Thrond” (1857) we meet artists struggling to find their place. When he started on Arne in 1858, Bjørnson already had a few works under his belt. The protagonist distances himself from the familiar, traditional art forms found in rural communities. Over time, he develops his own style of writing. His works become indistinguishable from the marginal position in which he finds himself. When Eli falls in love with Arne, and they eventually have each other, the novel emphasises how Eli likes Arne especially much for his songs. Ultimately, thus, Arne could be interpreted as a utopia of social recognition of the new literature.
The emergence of autonomy in literature entails a freedom connected to a certain distance to politics. Bjørnson was free to develop as an author, but therein lay the restriction of being limited solely to literature. He was solution-oriented in his approach to politics, and he could not suppress the need for a more direct intervention. Throughout Bjørnson’s life and career, this drive emerged as two different strategies. On the one hand, he wrote works that sought to address political problems directly, and on the other hand, he shed the confines of literature and took to newspapers and rostrums to make his opinions heard. The first strategy meant that the certain political issues are perhaps a little too prominent in some of his works. However, his speeches and articles were hugely influential, which did not necessarily mean Bjørnson became a popular man. One of his first victories was the 1860 pardon of the Valdres peasant Arne Kulterstad, who had been sentenced to death. As his fame grew, however, a more mature Bjørnson sought to use his influence to help vulnerable individuals and oppressed peoples across the whole of Europe.
Bjørnson went on to write about individuals who were conflicted about their calling, and in many ways they are all literary relatives of Aanun and Arne. The kinship is perhaps easiest to spot when the motif is art, such as in The Fisher Maiden and Magnhild, but the heavy emphasis on the “beyond our might”-motif can be seen as an extension of this familiarity. Towards the end of the 1870s, Bjørnson suffers a religious crisis, after which he published the ponderous “Hymns”, wherein he attempted to formulate a modern philosophy of life following his breach with Christianity. “A singer’s calling is that of the prophet”, he wrote in another poem from this period: “Hopes of the future envelop him”. The poet should take the side of the weaker, new ideas. But even though poets are “the brethren of the little people”, it is not the duty of a poet to dance to the people’s fiddle: “For he threatens the false peace of the people, / its cowardice, its ignorance.”