Monday, June 10, 2024

The Fourth Night Watch by Johan Falkberget



Norwegian regional realism in a northern mining town
Norwegian author Johan Falkberget’s novel The Fourth Night Watch was originally published in 1923. The University of Wisconsin Press published an English translation in 1968 as part of its Nordic Translation Series. This admirable series introduced English-language audiences to many lesser-known Scandinavian authors. Several of the books in this series, including The Fourth Night Watch, are now available for free download at the University of Wisconsin Libraries website. Falkberget (1879-1967) was a very prolific author of historical novels and highly respected in his home country, but as far as I can tell, this may be the only one of his works that’s ever been translated into English.


This is one of the better books in the Nordic Translation Series. Many of the authors featured in that series are early modernist authors whose prose is somewhat experimental in nature. Falkberget, on the other hand, comes across as a pre-modern realist whose writing exhibits similar characteristics to authors such as Honoré de Balzac, Anthony Trollope or Emile Zola. The introduction to The Fourth Night Watch states that Falkberget was part of a regionalist movement in Norwegian literature, in which writers outside of the urban capital wrote realist novels of their home districts (similar to the regional realist movement in America during the early 20th century). The Fourth Night Watch is set in the mining region of Røros, where Falkberget was born. The story begins in 1807, about the time Norway won its independence from Denmark and entered a war against Sweden.

Benjamin Sigismund has been appointed pastor in the town of Bergstaden, in the Røros mining district. He relocates his family from Christiania (later renamed Oslo), and they take up lodging in rather shabby rented rooms. At first, Sigismund and his wife are appalled by the drab rustic atmosphere of the town and its uncouth, working class inhabitants. Sigismund takes his calling as a man of the cloth seriously, however, and diligently sets out to save the souls of these northerners by reforming their godless ways. At first, the pastor plies his trade with a fair amount of vanity, pride, and self-righteousness, but the more time he spends in Røros the more he begins to see the country laborers as equals rather than inferiors. His position and his marriage are threatened, however, when he falls in love with Gunhild, a beautiful young married woman..

The forbidden love between Sigismund and Gunhild may sound like a familiar melodramatic trope, but here Falkberget handles the relationship realistically. The reader can identify with the feelings of unsatisfied longing, guilt, and loss that this romance engenders. Another important thread running throughout the book is Sigismund’s developing friendship with his sacristan, a blacksmith named Ole Korneliusen, or Ol-Kanalesa in the local dialect. These two characters, of differing upbringings and social classes, start out with an adversarial relationship but gradually begin to find common ground and develop a mutual admiration. Although this is not a religious novel, due to Sigismund’s profession, religion plays a major part in the story, similar to some of Balzac, Trollope, and Zola’s novels with clergyman protagonists. One of the reasons this novel is one of the more interesting entries in the Nordic Translation Series is that you really do learn a lot about Norwegian life, at least during this time period, unlike some of the more modern works in the series that are less specific in time and place. Those with an interest in Scandinavian literature and history will find The Fourth Night Watch a compelling read. Thanks to the University of Wisconsin Press for making such works available to English-language readers.  
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