Monday, October 12, 2015

Absalom’s Hair by Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson

When good lives go bad
Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson
Absalom’s Hair is a novel by Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson, winner of the 1903 Nobel Prize in Literature and one of the “Four Greats” of Norwegian literature. The story begins with an unlikely marriage between an intelligent, determined young woman and an abusive old adventurer. The product of this union is a son, Rafael Kaas. At a young age, Rafael demonstrates an exceptional talent for engineering, and his mother works to develop his faculties and secure his career prospects. Her love for her son becomes oppressive, however, and Rafael chafes under her motherly tyranny, especially when she attempts to separate him from the woman he loves.

I enjoyed Absalom’s Hair at first. I appreciated its depiction of Norwegian life, both at the rural seaside estate of Hellebergene—Rafael’s ancestral home—and in the urban setting of Christiania (present-day Oslo). The characters were unique and intriguing. When things were going well for Rafael, I rooted for him and wished him success. When things started going badly for him, however, I had little sympathy for him because his misfortunes were largely due to his own stupid choices. The book ends up being a struggle between three or four main characters, all of whom treat each other like garbage. The title refers to a biblical legend which teaches a moral lesson; a lesson which is applied rather heavy-handedly in the book’s climax. By the time I got to the final third of the book, I had lost interest and was merely reading to get it done, out of morbid curiosity.

Bjørnson is a great writer and a brilliant observer of human nature, but this is not one of his better books. Many writers strive to depict genuine human emotions and psychological motivations, and Bjørnson does it very well, but without a moving story to back it up it all just seems like self-indulgent navel-gazing. In that sense, despite being over a century old, the book was a little too modern for my tastes. It resembles too many of today’s novels in that it examines a dysfunctional family and asks the reader to identify with them and feel their pain, as if such psychological examination were enough to constitute a satisfying book. As a fan of older literature, I would have preferred a little more plot and a lot less angst.

I’m not sure when Bjørnson wrote this work, but the English edition came out in 1908. Also included in that edition was a short story entitled “A Painful Memory from Childhood,” which is also included in many of today’s ebook editions. In this story, the narrator gives an account of a murder that took place in his home village when he was a young boy, and how the killer was brought to justice. It’s brutal matter-of-factness is gripping and compellingly disturbing. Unlike Absalom’s Hair, it shows off Bjornson at the height of his literary powers. I have previously been impressed by his short stories “The Father” and “The Railroad and the Churchyard,” and his novel A Happy Boy. For anyone interested in Norwegian lit, I would recommend spending a couple bucks on The Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson Megapack, the most comprehensive ebook collection of this author’s works in English that I have yet seen.
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