Thursday, August 7, 2014

Stories by Foreign Authors: Scandinavian by Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson, et al.

Get some northern exposure
Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson
This collection of Scandinavian short fiction was originally published in 1899 by Charles Scribner’s Sons as one of ten books in their Stories by Foreign Authors series, each volume of which focuses on a different nation or region of Europe. Most of the books in the series have been scanned and are now available for free online through sites like Project Gutenberg, Hathi Trust, and Amazon. Of the authors featured in this volume, the only name that’s likely to be recognizable to today’s English-language readers is that of Norwegian writer Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson, simply because he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1903. After having previously read a mediocre novel by Bjørnson, I was pleasantly surprised by his two exceptional pieces in this collection. In fact, five of the six stories included in this volume are very good; only the final entry disappoints.

The book kicks off with a very brief piece by Bjørnson entitled “The Father.” It concisely encapsulates one father’s relationship with his son in an unconventional and touching way. “When Father Brought Home the Lamp” by Finnish author Juhani Aho is the best story in the book. When a rural family buys a brand new oil lamp, freeing them from the necessity of burning wood chips, it immediately elevates their social status within their rural village. At times it has the same tongue-in-cheek, warmly nostalgic flavor of the movie A Christmas Story. In “The Flying Mail” by Danish author M. Goldschmidt, a bachelor lawyer writes a love letter to his ideal dream girl and casts it to the wind, letting fate decide his romantic future. The rather whimsical premise stretches the boundaries of credibility, but still it’s an engaging piece. Bjørnson’s second offering, “The Railroad and the Churchyard,” is another very strong work. When two lifelong friends disagree over a matter of local politics, it brings years worth of envy and resentment boiling to the surface. “Two Friends” by Alexander Kielland deals with a similar falling out between two old friends and business partners. Though the author is Norwegian, the story takes place entirely in Paris.

The final piece in the book, entitled “Hopes,” is by Swedish author Frederika Bremer. It’s a stream-of-consciousness narrative from the point of view of a poor man with neither enough food to eat nor wood for a fire. He doesn’t mind his lifestyle all that much, until he begins to feel an uncontrollable longing to be loved. Bremer tries hard to be clever, but mostly it’s just a rambling string of unintelligible drivel. The stories in this book represent a period at which Scandinavian literature was making its transition into modernism. The first five stories all have a naturalistic style that’s reminiscent of the literature of French writer Emile Zola. The Bremer story, on the other hand, feels more modern than the rest, and suffers from the pointlessness of experimentation for experimentation’s sake. For a more successful attempt at the same style and subject matter, read Norwegian author Knut Hamsun’s novel Hunger.

These days Scandinavian literature is undergoing a bit of a renaissance, thanks in large part to the murder mystery genre, but beyond Henrik Ibsen the classic authors of Norway, Sweden, Denmark, and Finland are still largely unfamiliar to English-language readers. This volume provides a good introduction to some worthy authors who deserve greater notoriety. Had they been born in France or Russia, perhaps they’d be household names. Based on the stories included here, Bjørnson, Aho, and Kielland definitely deserve further investigation.

Stories in this collection
The Father by Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson 
When Father Brought Home the Lamp by Juhani Aho 
The Flying Mail by M. Goldschmidt 
The Railroad and the Churchyard by Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson 
Two Friends by Alexander Kielland 
Hopes by Frederika Bremer 

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