Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Tales of Two Countries by Alexander Kielland

Norwegian lit with a French twist
Alexander Kielland
In his native Norway, Alexander Kielland is considered one of the “Four Greats” of Norwegian literature, along with Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson, Henrik Ibsen, and Jonas Lie. I first encountered Kielland’s work in the Scandinavian volume of the Stories by Foreign Authors series, which includes his story “Two Friends.” After reading that great selection, I was hungry for more work from this intriguing author. Tales of Two Countries, a collection of ten stories by Kielland, was published in English translation in 1891. These works are among Kielland’s earliest writings and were originally published in Norwegian around 1880. The book’s introduction by H. H. Boyeson provides a brief career overview of Kielland’s writing, but I stopped reading it when it started spoiling the plots to all his novels.

The two countries referred to in the title are Norway—Kielland’s homeland and residence for most of his life—and France—where he lived briefly at the start of his writing career. One can definitely see the influence of French literature on Kielland’s work. Many of the pieces included here express a socially conscious concern with class disparity and the living conditions of the poor. The Francophile reader will spot the romantic influence of Victor Hugo in the revolutionary rhetoric of “Pharaoh,” the gritty naturalistic bluntness of Emile Zola in the squalid scenes of “At the Fair,” and the biting sarcasm of Honoré de Balzac as Kielland lampoons upper-class hypocrisy in “A Good Conscience.” Apart from the social commentary, the other half of the book consists of love stories, often told with a comic sensibility. Their brevity and lightheartedness, coupled with a keen, matter-of-fact insight into human relationships, calls to mind some of the short-short stories of François Coppée’s collection Ten Tales.

Brevity can also be a drawback, however, as these tales often end abruptly and leave the reader wanting more. In general the longest stories are also the strongest. The aforementioned “Two Friends,” set in Paris, is the best entry in the book. Charles is an introverted, unattractive man with a good head for business. His friend and business partner Alphonse is a good-looking, likable bloke who skates through life. When Charles becomes envious and resentful of his happy-go-lucky comrade, the two have a falling out and part ways. In “Romance and Reality,” a young couple ponders marriage, but the groom wants to wait until he’s more financially secure. After all their friends reassure them that love conquers all, these fools rush in, only to wake up too late to the realities of a hasty matrimony. For its time, this is a remarkably modern and frankly unromanticized look at marriage. Kielland even subtly builds a case for family planning. “The Parsonage” is an engaging and bittersweet tale about a minister’s daughter who has lived a sheltered life on her father’s rural Norwegian estate. When a party of young people stops at their home, she experiences her first taste of love. Another good selection, though further afield, is “The Peat Moor,” a story told from the point of view of a raven.

I was a bit disappointed that I didn’t find anything here of quite the same caliber as “Two Friends,” but overall this is still a strong showing by Kielland, and this collection certainly deserves to be read. The promise of these brief, early pieces makes me eager to see what Kielland can do with a full-length novel.

Stories in this collection
The Parsonage 
The Peat Moor 
“Hope’s Clad in April Green” 
At the Fair 
Two Friends 
A Good Conscience 
Romance and Reality 
Withered Leaves 
The Battle of Waterloo

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