Friday, October 3, 2014

A Happy Boy by Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson

The waiting is the hardest part
A Happy Boy was originally published in 1860 under the Norwegian title of En glad Gut. It was written by Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson, who won the 1903 Nobel Prize in Literature. The novel tells the story of Oyvind Thoresen Pladsen, beginning when he’s about four years old. In the first chapter, he meets a young girl named Marit from a neighboring farm, and immediately develops a fascination with her that will prove enduring as he grows older. At first it seems as if the novel will focus chiefly on the concerns of childhood—growing up on a farm, attending school, the social life of children, etc.—but despite the title the story does follow young Oyvind into early manhood. The main thrust of the narrative revolves around an issue so central to any lad’s adolescence: what sort of a man will this boy grow to be? What kind of a life will Oyvind make for himself, and will Marit be a part of it?

Matters are complicated by issues of class. In the English translation by Rasmus B. Anderson, one word that’s ubiquitous throughout the text is “gard,” which is essentially synonymous with “farm.” (I don’t know why he chose not to translate it as such.) To own a gard is to be a member of the landed class. Oyvind is merely the son of a houseman, which is roughly equivalent to a tenant farmer or sharecropper. As Oyvind grows up, he slowly and painfully develops a consciousness of class. Though he may be the brightest student in his school, his lower-class status looms as a seemingly insurmountable obstacle in his quest for a happy and successful life.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from reading the literature of Bjørnson and other Norwegian writers, it’s that Norwegians must be the world’s greatest waiters. By “waiter” I don’t mean a food service employee, but rather “one who waits.” Frequently, the protagonists of Norwegian novels don’t win battles by conquering their enemies but by outlasting them. Heroism does not rely on strength or power but on endurance and stoicism—a resignation to one’s present situation with the determination that one shall triumph in the end. There is a quiet gravity that underlies every action of Oyvind’s, and the steps he takes to achieve his goals are measured, deliberate, and pragmatic. Far from being boring, this romance of anticipation actually makes for a really engaging read.

On the surface, A Happy Boy appears to be simply a series of scenes from ordinary life. You won’t find the life-or-death struggle of a peasant epic, but nonetheless there’s a powerful drama softly boiling underneath the fallen snow. There is a universal familiarity to this coming-of-age story that reminds us of the importance and dignity of the cycle of life that we all take for granted. After all, there’s nothing less at stake here than the fate of a boy’s life. What could be more important than that?

The subject matter here is similar to an earlier novel of Bjørnson’s entitled Arne. Both chronicle the growth of a young lad in a rural Norwegian village and both are peppered with snippets of poetry and song. Of the two, A Happy Boy is clearly the superior work. The story of Arne is rather meandering and comes across as a bit pointless. In telling Oyvind’s tale, on the other hand, Bjørnson makes more of an attempt to craft a satisfyingly structured narrative, and he succeeds. If you’ve never read Bjørnson and are looking for an introduction to his work, A Happy Boy is a great place to start.

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