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:–