Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Arne: A Sketch of Norwegian Country Life by Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson

A meandering mix of melancholy and whimsy
Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1903, and is considered by Norwegians to be one of their nation’s greatest authors. Arne is one of his earliest works, originally published in 1859. According to the translator’s preface, this novel was instrumental in the formation of a distinctly Norwegian national style of literature.

Arne begins with a surprisingly fantastical opening that features a conversation between talking trees. This serves merely as a prologue, however, and is not indicative of the novel as a whole. Though the subtitle, “A Sketch of Norwegian Country Life” leads the reader to believe they are in for a story of the quaint charms of peasant life, the novel starts out remarkably bleak. Arne is the name of a boy, born of an unwed mother and an alcoholic, philandering father. Tragic events early on, coupled with the tumultuous relationship of his parents, makes for a rough childhood for Arne.

An unlikely protagonist, Arne is a socially inept loner with a sensitive soul. He shuns contact with others, and is more at home alone in the woods. Besides managing his family farm, Arne is a writer of songs. The narrative is interspersed with lyrics, poetry, and folk tales. At times it feels like the sole purpose of the novel is to act as a venue for displaying these poems and fables, as if Bjørnson were more concerned with the poetry than with the primary narrative. The novel has a bit of a schizophrenic feeling. It can’t seem to make up its mind what it wants to be, or find a tone and stick with it. Early on, the story emphasizes the hardship of rural life. Later in the book, however, this gritty realism is betrayed when everything magically falls into place for Arne, without a whole lot of effort on his part. Arne sort of drifts through the book like a leaf on the sea, buffeted by this wave or that, before finally settling on a rock. There is some pleasantness in drifting along with him, but for the most part the reader is left wanting a little more gravity.

This is a short novel of about 150 pages, so it does not constitute a major investment of reading time. Arne is a good book, but not great. It delivers a contented satisfaction, but it won’t rock your world. For a truly moving and memorable look at Norwegian rural life, I would wholeheartedly recommend Knut Hamsun’s masterpiece Growth of the Soil.

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