Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Garman and Worse by Alexander Kielland

Family business in a Norwegian coastal town
Alexander Kielland is regarded as one of “The Four Greats” of 19th-century Norwegian literature. His first novel, Garman and Worse, was published in 1880. (This book should not be confused with another Kielland novel entitled Skipper Worse, published in 1882, which is a prequel to this novel.) Garman and Worse takes place in a small town on the coast of Norway. The title refers to the name of a shipping business founded by two families, the Garmans and the Worses. Of the two, the Garmans have the larger stake in the business and are the prominent wealthy family in the town. The novel is largely the saga of the Garman family, though the cast includes a variety of townspeople as supporting players. Richard Garman, the somewhat flighty black sheep of the family, has chosen to man the lighthouse at Bratvold while his brother Christian Frederick Garman, referred to as the young Consul, occupies the nearby family estate of Sandsgaard and acts as president of the family business. When Richard’s daughter Madeleine, who has grown up in rustic isolation at the lighthouse, reaches the age of womanhood, he sends her to Sandsgaard to live at her uncle’s house, where she can acquire the cultured manners necessary to enter society and field potential suitors.

The young Consul has three grown children of his own, and Kielland continues to add new characters in each chapter until the ensemble cast becomes vast and ungainly. I actually had to draw up family trees just to keep track of everyone. With so many intertwining plotlines, the reader wonders when one protagonist is going to rise above the others and become the protagonist of the novel. That never really happens, however, as Kielland constantly shifts perspective from one character to another and distributes the narrative equally among them. Kielland was a realist, and he depicts his fictional microcosm of society with an admirable complexity and authenticity. At times his writing is reminiscent of Emile Zola’s naturalistic novels in his attention to detail and psychological insight, but Kielland’s is a kinder, gentler, realism—less pessimistic, less cynical, and less preachy in its social criticism.

The affections of no less than four young women are at stake in the novel, which leads to much jockeying of position among various admirers: a schoolteacher, a businessman, a lawyer, a clergyman, a laborer, a fisherman, and others. Garman and Worse could therefore probably best be classified as a novel of manners, but Kielland’s concerns are broader than that. Early on, the book shows signs of becoming a novel of class conflict, but that thread disappears for many chapters, only to be recovered towards the end of the book. Though the plot contains few of what might be called exciting events, the reader gradually becomes intimately invested in the lives of these characters as each grows over time and learns his or her own moral lesson. As a study of human nature, Garman and Worse is quietly compelling.

I had previously read a collection of short stories by Kielland, entitled Tales of Two Countries, which is similar in style and quality to this novel. Compared to other Norwegian writers, Kielland’s writing is more realistic and less romantic than that of Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson, another of The Four Greats. Most readers of today would probably prefer a more modernist writer like Knut Hamsun, but those who enjoy classic realist literature of the late 19th and early 20th centuries will find Kielland much to their liking.

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