Cover of Vol 50 No 2, 2011Vol 50 No 2, 2011

Articles

Beverly A Thurber

(Shimer College, Chicago)

A New Interpretation of Frithiof's Steel Shoes

Abstract:

This article traces the origins of the word stålsko (steel shoe) and its frequent interpretation as an ice skate in literature and visual culture. This discussion focuses in particular on a specific reference in Esaias Tegnér’s Frithiofs saga (1825) where Frithiof is said to be wearing stålskor. The author of this article analyses the implications of translating this reference as ‘ice skates’ and proposes the alternative interpretation of ‘crampons’, devices used to walk and fight on slippery surfaces. This interpretation is explained and supported using both textual and archaeological evidence.

Robert Cardullo

(Izmir University of Economics, Turkey)

Day of Wrath, the Spirit of Tragedy, and the Judgment of the Creator

Abstract:

Critics often speak of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s treatment of religious themes, his sense of history, and his austere style, but few recognize any tragic intentions on his part. The director himself, however, writes that in the films The Passion of Joan of Arc, Vampire, Day of Wrath, and The Word, he ‘ended up with a [...] form which [...] has characteristics in common with that of tragedy’. Using a model based on that of classical Aristotelian tragedy, this essay attempts a detailed consideration, from a dramatic as well as a cinematic point of view, of the tragic aspects of Dreyer’s film Day of Wrath (1943), whose script is adapted from the 1909 theatrical melodrama Anne Pedersdotter.

Ellen Rees

(University of Oslo)

Trolls, Monster Masts, and National Neurosis: André Øvrelid's The Troll Hunter

Abstract:

This article offers an analysis of the cultural references and social critique embodied in the trolls in Trolljegeren (2010, The Troll Hunter), a mocumentary directed by André Øvrelid. The author demonstrates how this film combines late modernity with folklore and tradition. While offering a complex critique of the welfare state, the director uses creatively elements drawn from Asbjørnsen and Moe’s folk tales and from the illustrations of Theodor Kittelsen.

Claus Elholm Andersen

(University of Helsinki)

Snow, Shadow, Self: Emil Aarestrup and Poetic Recollection

Abstract:

This article explores the relationship between recollection and lyrical poetry while analysing Emil Aarestrup’s poem ‘Paa Sneen’. According to the author of this article the reception of the Danish poet Emil Aarestrup has long been influenced by two main themes: exile and naturalism. Taking his starting point from Jørn Vosman’s essay ‘Værkets verden, værkets holdning’, Andersen revaluates the importance that the dimension of time and the process of recollection have in Aarestrup’s work and offers a new interpretation of his poem ‘Paa Sneen’.

Mads Bunch

(University of Copenhagen)

Flappers and Macabre Dandies: Karen Blixen's 'Carnival' in the light of Søren Kierkegaard

Abstract:

Despite almost making the cut for what later became Seven Gothic Tales (1934), Karen Blixen’s tale ‘Carnival’ has so far had little attention by scholars. The tale was developed in Africa in the years 1926-1927 in a period where Blixen was very occupied with the works of Søren Kierkegaard. In the tale we find one of the female characters, Annelise, to be dressed as ‘the young Soren Kierkegaard’. She is described as a ‘macabre dandy’ and has her own radical views on Kierkegaard’s work The Seducer’s Diary. This article sets out to examine the metanarrative connections in ‘Carnival’ to the works of Kierkegaard from the first part of his pseudonymous authorship, particularly with regard to narration strategies, notions of gender, art and seduction. The article also elaborates on the depiction of the young, rich and disillusioned smart-set of the Roaring Twenties as a group of Kierkegaardian aesthetes. In the tale a connection between dandyism of the 1840s, in which category Kierkegaard is placed, and the new female flapper of the 1920s is established as a way to examine the androgynous, which, I will argue, in ‘Carnival’ is connected to a notion of trans-gender humanism and eventually to the modus vivendi of the artist.

Comment and Debate

Claire Thomson

(University College London)

Engaging the public with Scandinavian culture: The UCL context

The full text of this article will be available soon.

Reviews

Christopher Abram

Myths of the Pagan North: The Gods of the Norsemen

Continuum, London 2011. Pp. 258.

ISBN: 9781847252470

Reviewed by Tarrin Wills

This work has a rather antiquated sounding title and subtitle, evoking such early popular works as Guerber’s Myths of the Norsemen (1909). The back of the dust-jacket likewise gives the impression that this is a popular retelling of the myths of early Scandinavia, quoting from the opening of Abram’s summary of the myth of Thor and the Miðgarðsormr. Abram’s work is in fact a scholarly account of Old Norse myth which addresses a gap in generalist works on Old Norse mythology which included in the 1980s and 90s mainly dictionary-like works such as those by Simek, Lindow and Orchard. In the last decade the field has been dominated by major international projects to analyse and document Old Norse religion and its poetic sources, including the Lund-based ‘Roads to Midgard: Old Norse religion in long-term perspectives’, the German ‘Edda-Kommentar’ and the international ‘Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages’. There is a need for a scholarly work for a wider audience that brings together the findings of these projects into a simplified account of Old Norse myth. This work, while in some ways addressing this lack, draws little from these projects and is likely to be superseded by the current international effort, ‘Pre-Christian Religions of the North’ and the forthcoming relevant volumes of Edda-Kommentar (vol. I) and Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages (vols I and III, due 2012).

Abram’s approach takes the primary sources and their historical context as its starting point, rather than the myths themselves. The first chapter is a broad and largely accurate account of the types of sources for Old Norse mythology. The dates assigned to Eddic poems (‘most of these poems were composed in the pagan period’ (19) but Hymiskviða is 13th century (31)) contradict the findings of the Edda-Kommentar project and as the book progresses this impacts on Abram’s analysis, which relies heavily on historicising the sources of Old Norse myth. Archaeological and other sources are dealt with judiciously here and the synthesis of the myth of Þórr’s fight with Miðgarðsormr provides an example of a sound approach. The second chapter attempts to reconstruct religious culture in order to contextualise myth in the earliest period. Here archaeology is treated much more skeptically and briefly, and place names and early foreign sources are included with sometimes undue confidence (such as Adam of Bremen’s account of human sacrifice). In chapter 3 Abram enters his most convincing mode: the use of skaldic poetry to understand myth and religion in its historical environment, here c. 850-950. He gives a persuasive account of some mythological figures and phenomena which appear to be attested in the skaldic corpus. Chapter 4 builds on this approach, looking at myth within the context of religious conflict at the end of the pagan period. The discussion of pagan belief and practice at the court of Hákon jarl is detailed and insightful, involving the analysis of various skaldic poems, as is the account of the patron goddess figure Þorgerðr Holgabrúðr. Two eddic poems, Hyndluljóð and För Skírnis are discussed here but it is unclear why: the link to the court of Hákon jarl is non-existent, as admitted by Abram himself. Chapter 5 looks at the period of conversion, analysing more skaldic poetry such as the conversion verses of Hallfreðr. In Chapter 6 the work starts to resemble the hints of the dust-jacket, with a number of reconstructions of myths based largely on 13th-century works, especially Snorra Edda.

A problem affecting the utility of this book is the lack of references to scholarly literature. This is no doubt due to the demands of the publisher and such references would be unnecessary in a work that simply reconstructs the myths for a lay audience. The book instead abounds with phrases such as ‘scholars argue’, ‘historians tell us’, ‘scholars have hypothesised’, and on some notable occasions these formulae allow Abram to eschew some significant scholarly contributions to the matter under discussion. Occasionally the author seems unaware of such contributions, for example, when discussing the prose directions in the Poetic Edda (146 - ‘the original poem would not have had these “stage directions”’). Gunnell’s contributions to this matter, although disputable, deserve some mention here. The lack of references also causes problems, for example, when errors creep in (e.g. misspelling the ‘Trengården’ mould (sic for Trendgården)) and the reader is left without any means of following up the reference (online searches for ‘Trengården’, for example, find only Abram’s work, creating a ghost reference).

This is a well-written and enjoyable work to read, with an often humorous take on the material in question. Its interest for a general audience is largely in the final chapter and to a lesser extent, the first. The strength of this work is its use of literary history to create a picture of a Scandinavia moving from paganism to Christianity, looking effectively at skaldic poetry in particular contexts. It dwells as much on religion and religious practice as myth, and much of the insights come from contextualising mythological material within religious practice, which in turn is based on historical evidence. It is a work that therefore relies heavily on sound dating of literary sources, and is at its most convincing when dealing with skaldic poetry and late sources, but less so when dealing with Eddic poetry and other sources. The book’s utility for students and scholars is somewhat limited because it is not based on the most recent and authoritative scholarship and the lack of references means that it cannot be used as a starting point for independent study or research.

Annie Mattsson

Komediant och riksförrrädare. Handskriftcirculerade smädeskrifter mot Gustaf III

Acta Universitatis Upsaliensis. Skrifter utgivna av Litteraturvetesakpliga institutionen 45

Litteraturveteskapliga institutionen, Uppsala 2010. 411. Illus.

ISBN: 9789155477806

Reviewed by Alan Swanson

Encomia in any age are tedious things to endure and printing has ensured that the plethora of adulation applied to Gustaf III is still with us. Censorship and control of the press has seen to it that we, as were his subjects, have been well-supplied with a complete range of pro- Gustaf admiration. Expressions of disapproval of that king, however, are much harder to come by, and Annie Mattsson’s new dissertation does us the great service of putting before us the opposite case. Drawing on the bibliographic work of Ingemar Carlsson with respect to political manuscripts of the time, she has given us useable editions of and commentaries on a range of manuscript libels against Gustaf III from 1778 (the earliest known) to 1792. Usefully, she gives us all the bibliographic information and a brief description of each of the 120 + 31 known libels, as well as editions of eleven of them, covering the whole period, with readable photographs of the first pages of ten of these.

Though Gustaf III was indubitably one of the most public of Swedish monarchs, a neutral understanding of his acts is difficult to come by. Erik Lönnroth, Beth Hennings, and Marie-Christine Skuncke have all shed valuable light on his life, education, and context, and Sten Carlsson, H. Arnold Barton, and others have attempted to make sense of his political career. Yet only Charles IX seems to have engendered as much spiteful public controversy about himself as a person and a ruler.

The twenty-six year old Gustaf became king at a constitutionally rocky moment in Swedish history. Though his political views were not completely unknown, it was in no way clear what form they would take when put into action. His inaugural speech to the Riksdag, on July 25 1771, was rhetorically brilliant in placing himself among rather than above the parliament. He subtly reminded them that he was the first Swedish-born monarch in fifty years and then called himself ‘the first citizen’. It would not have been unknown to his listeners that he was without a drop of Swedish blood in him, so it was important to stress his Swedishness. Indeed, apparently his first political act as king, some months before, was to fire his mother’s French theatre troupe. This was in itself a rhetorical gesture, as it signalled Gustaf’s patriotism and saved money. (That it was also a signal to his mother of who was now in charge was not as public a fact.) Rhetoric is the art of persuasion and reaction to the speech was generally favorable; he enjoyed broad popularity in the first seven or eight years of his reign.

But he had learned his political lessons well from his parents and was well aware they had failed to bring about the enlightened despotism that was his political model. He was well aware, too, that it was the Estate of the Nobility and its privileges that he needed to master. This began with a bloodless palace coup d’état in August 1772, was reinforced by a parliamentary maneuvre in September 1778, and significantly bolstered by the move to absolutism in the parliament of 1789, when most of the privileges of the nobility were circumscribed or abolished. He was assassinated in March 1792, in a plot hatched by some members of the nobility and carried out by one of them.

Mattsson’s choice of libels to submit to extensive discussion shows, among other things, a certain shift in their character from those in 1778 which portray Gustaf as a “ridiculous and incompetent” monarch to those from 1789 on, in which the criticism is that he is a crafty and power-hungry tyrant. One also notes a rise in the sheer vitriol poured upon the king, not least after his death.

‘Rhetoric’ is one of the guide-words of this thesis (it is a special interest of the literature department at Uppsala). Each of the libels Mattsson discusses is preceded by a fine survey of the political situation in which it is found: she has a welcome good sense of their context. She then submits the text to a naming of its rhetorical parts, and has useful observations about its generic and and attitudinal expression. Looking at her reproductions, for instance, one of the things which stuck me strongly, and which she deals with only in passing, is how æsthetically elegant most of these pieces are, or are intended to be. This is not hastily-scratched samizdat, where it is only the content that is important, but rather carefully-produced objects whose import lies not only in the words, but in the visual form in which they are placed. The rhetoric embraces more than the words themselves.

For almost all the libels, she makes it clear that their anonymous authors and, presumably, their recipients and transcribers are noble, a conclusion supported by their visual presentation, and this chimes well with the attitudes and compositional abilities we associate with that class. There is, alas, almost no evidence available of whether or not this rhetoric succeeded in persuading its readers, and there is a strong sense that it was essentially reaching the already-converted.

That Gustaf III had enemies, that they were mostly noble, that the opposition was greater in the last decade of his life than in the first, and that he was assassinated by a disaffected nobleman are all cold facts, long known. What Annie Mattsson has done is to put color and flesh onto those facts which articulate the growing dissatisfaction of one cohort of the Swedish population at the end of the eighteenth century. This is a dissertation and it is subject to all the inherent, but inevitable, compositional expectations and drawbacks of such a document. But it needs to be read by everyone interested in the social history of the Gustavian period and it is welcome on my bookshelf.

Vigdis Ystad, et al. (eds.)

Henrik Ibsens skrifter

Aschehoug, Oslo 2005-2010. 17 vols.

Reviewed by Janet Garton

Finally it is published: the whole of Henrik Ibsen’s collected writings, together with exhaustive introductions, commentaries and indexes. It was to have been completed by 2008; the last volume actually saw the light of day just before the end of 2010. It was to have been in fifteen double volumes with a comprehensive index volume; in the event we have sixteen double volumes, and the ambition to produce a comprehensive index volume has been dropped – the last slim volume 17 is an account of the philological principles behind the edition. Of the sixteen double volumes, the first halves are the texts: ten volumes of plays, four of letters, one of poems, one of other prose writings. The reason for the extra volume is the discovery of far more letters than had been previously collected which were written by Ibsen, and which made the anticipated three volumes of letters swell to a very large four (the last one just shy of 1000 pages). The second halves of the double volumes contain the introductions and commentaries – and these volumes in most cases fill more pages than those containing the texts.

A bookcase full of books, then, extending to just a little short of six feet in width by my tape-measure. It may have been late, it may have been over budget – when are such editions not? – but it is an achievement to be celebrated. At last we have the definitive text of what one of the world’s greatest dramatists actually wrote. Vigdis Ystad and her team are to be congratulated on a fine piece of work. Any criticisms of the criteria used for selection or methodology must first acknowledge that, just as any future translations or adaptations will need to refer to this text as the touchstone.

In my review of the first three volumes to be published (see Scandinavica 2, 2006) I expressed some disappointment at the decision not to include Ibsen’s drafts for the plays in this edition. I understand that the drafts will be made available in the online version of the edition when that is ready; however, I do still feel that it is a pity that they were not included here. They provide invaluable insight into Ibsen’s working methods. Room could have been made for them by cutting down on the repetition of information, for example about Ibsen’s correspondents or the people and events he mentions in his letters. An index including a little more information could have supplied some facts once and for all which as it is take up space time and again.

On the other hand, having now worked with one of the volumes more intensively – in the preparation of a new translation of Peer Gynt – I must admit that I have found the extensive textual commentaries very useful indeed. The explanations of words which have become archaic or changed their meaning, the analysis of the different verse forms used, the information about the frequent references to folk tale or local legend – all these have greatly facilitated the translator’s task. And the introduction – literary-historical background, process of composition, publication, performance, reception (85 pages in the case of Peer Gynt) – is a distillation of contemporary scholarship.

The edition is not cheap any more than it is pocket-sized. Advertized originally with a prepublication price of Nkr 9990 (£1100), it will now cost the purchaser Nkr 14,685 (£1600). But in terms of kroner per page, it still represents very good value – and it is a work which all libraries with any pretensions to serious scholarship in the humanities ought to acquire.

Niels Jørgen Cappelørn, Thor Arvid Dyrerud, Christian Janss, Marius Timmann Mjaaland and Vigdis Ystad (eds.)

Kierkegaard, Ibsen og det moderne

Universitetsforlaget 2012. Pp. 238.

ISBN: 9788215016061

Reviewed by Marie Wells

This review also covers KWOK-KAN TAM, TERRY SIU-HAN YIP AND FRODE HELLAND (eds.), Ibsen and the Modern Self, Acta Ibseniana VII-2010, Open University of Hong Kong Press 2012, 328pp, ISSN 1503-2981, ISBN 9789627707738.

The two volumes under review, though both containing the words ‘Ibsen’ and ‘Modern’ in some form, could not be more different. Kierkegaard, Ibsen og det moderne is the fruit of two conferences (held in 2006 and 2008) which brought together a group of mainly Nordic theologians, philosophers and literary scholars who had agreed that although both writers belong to world literature they should for once be discussed and written about in their own languages. Ibsen and the Modern Self is a collection of papers from a conference held in Hong Kong in 2008, where about half the papers were given by Chinese scholars with an interest in Ibsen.

As is noted in the Introduction to Kierkegaard, Ibsen og det moderne one has to go almost ninety years back in time to find a systematic study of Kierkegaard’s influence on Norwegian cultural life and Ibsen in particular, but this study says little about that influence, the impossibility of which is elegantly argued for by Dag Solstad – the only non-academic represented in this volume – and more about parallels and points of contact. The book is divided into three sections. In the first ‘Literatur, Teater og Eksistens’, Vigdis Ystad looks for possible explanations as to why both Kierkegaard and Ibsen used dramatic forms to present the issues that concerned them and argues that the form makes possible in an embodied way the expression of deeper existential questions, not just in words, but in movement and situation. In this way she argues that the theatre can have something of the same function as religion, though of course only if it aims at something more than entertainment. Joakim Garff’s contribution follows on from Ystad’s in showing how and why Kierkegaard through his alias Constantin Constantius in The Repetition can see the German farce or posse as more significant in its effect on the individual members of an audience than a performance of a traditional drama. This is because it breaks down conventional and therefore inauthentic responses, and in this works like the sublime, as opposed to the beautiful in art. In the final article in the first section George Pattison explores ‘Den gådefulle familie’, or how the individual, born into the actuality of a biological family, can find its way to recognizing itself as spirit, and how this journey is made more difficult if, as in Kierkegaard’s case, the father is caught in darkness and a mysterious sense of guilt about a sin for which he believes there is no forgiveness.

The second section on ‘Selvet, sannheten og historien’ opens with an exploration of ‘Endelighedens æstetik’ in which Leonardo Lisi argues that in his idea of how the self is constituted through religious faith Kierkegaard can provide an alternative model of modernism to those usually advocated by French and British theorists, who rely heavily on defining modernism either as being based on the autonomy of the work of art or the avant-garde. Lisi argues that in contrast to the idealists who see the absolute as ‘den oprindelige totalitet af alle enkelte repræsentationer, som går forud for [og] ligger under for og retfærdiggør en empirisk syntese’ (106) for Kierkegaard God is not ‘i kontinuitet med vores subjektivitet, men snarere absolut forskellig fra den’ (107) and so the self is constituted through its relationship to the absolute which is outside itself. Interestingly he then goes on to show how the same æsthetic works in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, where Nora’s decision to leave is not fully explained by any of the preceding events or explanations, but rather by a reference to reality when she throws off her masquerade costume and re-enters with a different perspective, which explains what went before. In ‘Gjenferd i filosofien og i litteraturen’ Róbert Haraldsson explores the split and danger that occurs when characters do not inhabit the words they speak and examines this in relation to Torvald in A Doll’s House and An Enemy of the People.

In the final section ‘Tro, Fortvilelse og Forsoning’ three of the four contributors focus on Ibsen’s play Brand. Niels Jørgen Cappelørn sees the protagonist as a dramatised version of Anti-Climacus, the pseudonymous author of Practice in Christianity, Karl Gervin looks at models for Brand, including the Old Testament prophet Ezekiel, and asks in particular whether Brand is in despair. Eivind Tjønneland’s article concludes the volume by putting the opposite view to Dag Solstad, namely that of course Ibsen knew his Kierkegaard, but that references to the Dane and his writing function as ‘Kierkegaard-kritikk’ (207). The one article not on Brand in the final section is Svein Aage Christoffersen’s which is an exploration of vocation in Little Eyolf, which takes as its starting point Luther’s belief that true vocation was to serve one’s neighbour in the community, not one’s relationship to God in the monastery.

If one asks what was gained by the renewed bringing together of Ibsen and Kierkegaard, I think one can say that the Ibsen scholars managed to highlight how and why dramatic presentation played such an important role in Kierkegaard’s writing, while the Kierkegaard scholars added new perspectives to readings of Ibsen’s social and late plays, but less to plays such as Brand where the Kierkegaardian link has already been fairly thoroughly explored.

The first thing that has to be said about Ibsen and the Modern Self is that the editors should be ashamed of themselves; if they expect readers to take the contents seriously they should not have let a volume go out under the imprimatur of the Centre for Ibsen Studies with such a slew of mistakes: typos, names of characters in Ibsen’s plays spelt any which way, - ‘Botlette’ for ‘Bolette’ ‘Mrs Alvin’, factual errors – Allmers did not go into the forest, but up into the mountains (194), and English that really does not pass muster – ‘the narratable self consists of the desire for one’s own story as being told by the necessary other’ (65). The volume should have been gone through by a native English speaker. All this is all the more important since the Centre for Ibsen Studies has in recent years done a great deal to foster and support the long-standing Chinese interest in Ibsen, and if they treat the efforts of Chinese and other non-English speaking scholars with such lack of attention, they are undermining their own efforts of promotion. Enough said.

If one thing emerges from this volume it is that there is no such thing as a modern self; there is a multiplicity of modern selves, although they are all non-essentialist and post-Freudian. The theoretical scholar most often cited is Charles Taylor, who sees the modern self as created in a process of interaction between intra- and inter-personal dialogues and encounters. His ideas are quoted by Knut Brynhildsvoll writing of Peer Gynt and the plural self as revealed by neuropsychology, by Ewa Partyga discussing the narrative self in Rosmersholm and Xie Qun who explores the problem caused by the ethical aspect of Taylor’s theories in relation to gender norms in The Lady from the Sea. Kwok-kan Tam writes of the dialogic self in A Doll’s House and The Wild Duck more from a Bakhtinian perspective, and Kristin Gjesdahl of Hegel’s æsthetic self also in A Doll’s House. Xie Lanlan discusses the eco-enemy self of John Gabriel Borkman, while Jasminka Markovska explores the dilemma of the self of the artist caught between Romantic idealism and a modernism that celebrates the moment.

Other interesting contributions are those by Julie Holledge who explores what effect playing Nora had on the lives of early actresses who performed that role and Camilla Chun-pai Hsieh who examines parallels between Shakespeare’s The Tempest and Ibsen’s The Master Builder. Jessica Tsui Yan Li looks at the reworking of Nora’s bid for selfhood in Marjorie Chan’s play China Doll, where the protagonist throws off her foot-binding in her bid for freedom, but instead of seeing this from an entirely western perspective where it is regarded as positive, Li highlights the original cultural meaning of the practice.

For this reader the really eye-opening contribution was that by Lin Wei-yu on Lin Zhaohua’s minimalist production of The Master Builder in Beijing in 2006. Not only was the stage set reduced to ‘two pieces of white board […] obliquely clipped to each other to form a geometric space’ (283), and the stage furniture to a single red sofa and a side table but the performance was directed so that the dialogue between Solness and the other characters became like aspects of a meditative soliloquy in Solness’s mind. To this end the style of dialogue was brought close to narration, and everything focused so that the whole should work like a flash-back or moment of consciousness before Solness ascended the ladder, which appeared three minutes before the end when the two white boards slowly parted to reveal ‘a steep and towering ladder’ (283). It seems Zhaohua’s experiment worked and held the audience, showing that ‘Chinese interest in Ibsen’s plays has shifted from “a new self in action” in his early plays to a “new self capable of reflection” in his later plays’ (292). In a production that would have been demanding even in the west, this production must have shown Chinese interest in Ibsen at the cutting edge.

Kwok-Kan Tam, Terry Siu-Han Yip and Frode Helland (eds.)

Ibsen and the Modern Self

Acta Ibseniana VII-2010

Open University of Hong Kong Press, Hong Kong 2010. Pp. 328.

ISBN: 9789627707738

Reviewed by Marie Wells

This review also covers NIELS JØRGEN CAPPELØRN, THOR ARVID DYRERUD, CHRISTIAN JANSS, MARIUS TIMMANN MJAALAND AND VIGDIS YSTAD (eds.), Kierkegaard, Ibsen og det moderne, Universitetsforlaget 2010, 238 pp., ISBN 9788215016061.

The two volumes under review, though both containing the words ‘Ibsen’ and ‘Modern’ in some form, could not be more different. Kierkegaard, Ibsen og det moderne is the fruit of two conferences (held in 2006 and 2008) which brought together a group of mainly Nordic theologians, philosophers and literary scholars who had agreed that although both writers belong to world literature they should for once be discussed and written about in their own languages. Ibsen and the Modern Self is a collection of papers from a conference held in Hong Kong in 2008, where about half the papers were given by Chinese scholars with an interest in Ibsen.

As is noted in the Introduction to Kierkegaard, Ibsen og det moderne one has to go almost ninety years back in time to find a systematic study of Kierkegaard’s influence on Norwegian cultural life and Ibsen in particular, but this study says little about that influence, the impossibility of which is elegantly argued for by Dag Solstad – the only non-academic represented in this volume – and more about parallels and points of contact. The book is divided into three sections. In the first ‘Literatur, Teater og Eksistens’, Vigdis Ystad looks for possible explanations as to why both Kierkegaard and Ibsen used dramatic forms to present the issues that concerned them and argues that the form makes possible in an embodied way the expression of deeper existential questions, not just in words, but in movement and situation. In this way she argues that the theatre can have something of the same function as religion, though of course only if it aims at something more than entertainment. Joakim Garff’s contribution follows on from Ystad’s in showing how and why Kierkegaard through his alias Constantin Constantius in The Repetition can see the German farce or posse as more significant in its effect on the individual members of an audience than a performance of a traditional drama. This is because it breaks down conventional and therefore inauthentic responses, and in this works like the sublime, as opposed to the beautiful in art. In the final article in the first section George Pattison explores ‘Den gådefulle familie’, or how the individual, born into the actuality of a biological family, can find its way to recognizing itself as spirit, and how this journey is made more difficult if, as in Kierkegaard’s case, the father is caught in darkness and a mysterious sense of guilt about a sin for which he believes there is no forgiveness.

The second section on ‘Selvet, sannheten og historien’ opens with an exploration of ‘Endelighedens æstetik’ in which Leonardo Lisi argues that in his idea of how the self is constituted through religious faith Kierkegaard can provide an alternative model of modernism to those usually advocated by French and British theorists, who rely heavily on defining modernism either as being based on the autonomy of the work of art or the avant-garde. Lisi argues that in contrast to the idealists who see the absolute as ‘den oprindelige totalitet af alle enkelte repræsentationer, som går forud for [og] ligger under for og retfærdiggør en empirisk syntese’ (106) for Kierkegaard God is not ‘i kontinuitet med vores subjektivitet, men snarere absolut forskellig fra den’ (107) and so the self is constituted through its relationship to the absolute which is outside itself. Interestingly he then goes on to show how the same æsthetic works in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, where Nora’s decision to leave is not fully explained by any of the preceding events or explanations, but rather by a reference to reality when she throws off her masquerade costume and re-enters with a different perspective, which explains what went before. In ‘Gjenferd i filosofien og i litteraturen’ Róbert Haraldsson explores the split and danger that occurs when characters do not inhabit the words they speak and examines this in relation to Torvald in A Doll’s House and An Enemy of the People.

In the final section ‘Tro, Fortvilelse og Forsoning’ three of the four contributors focus on Ibsen’s play Brand. Niels Jørgen Cappelørn sees the protagonist as a dramatised version of Anti-Climacus, the pseudonymous author of Practice in Christianity, Karl Gervin looks at models for Brand, including the Old Testament prophet Ezekiel, and asks in particular whether Brand is in despair. Eivind Tjønneland’s article concludes the volume by putting the opposite view to Dag Solstad, namely that of course Ibsen knew his Kierkegaard, but that references to the Dane and his writing function as ‘Kierkegaard-kritikk’ (207). The one article not on Brand in the final section is Svein Aage Christoffersen’s which is an exploration of vocation in Little Eyolf, which takes as its starting point Luther’s belief that true vocation was to serve one’s neighbour in the community, not one’s relationship to God in the monastery.

If one asks what was gained by the renewed bringing together of Ibsen and Kierkegaard, I think one can say that the Ibsen scholars managed to highlight how and why dramatic presentation played such an important role in Kierkegaard’s writing, while the Kierkegaard scholars added new perspectives to readings of Ibsen’s social and late plays, but less to plays such as Brand where the Kierkegaardian link has already been fairly thoroughly explored.

The first thing that has to be said about Ibsen and the Modern Self is that the editors should be ashamed of themselves; if they expect readers to take the contents seriously they should not have let a volume go out under the imprimatur of the Centre for Ibsen Studies with such a slew of mistakes: typos, names of characters in Ibsen’s plays spelt any which way, - ‘Botlette’ for ‘Bolette’ ‘Mrs Alvin’, factual errors – Allmers did not go into the forest, but up into the mountains (194), and English that really does not pass muster – ‘the narratable self consists of the desire for one’s own story as being told by the necessary other’ (65). The volume should have been gone through by a native English speaker. All this is all the more important since the Centre for Ibsen Studies has in recent years done a great deal to foster and support the long-standing Chinese interest in Ibsen, and if they treat the efforts of Chinese and other non-English speaking scholars with such lack of attention, they are undermining their own efforts of promotion. Enough said.

If one thing emerges from this volume it is that there is no such thing as a modern self; there is a multiplicity of modern selves, although they are all non-essentialist and post-Freudian. The theoretical scholar most often cited is Charles Taylor, who sees the modern self as created in a process of interaction between intra- and inter-personal dialogues and encounters. His ideas are quoted by Knut Brynhildsvoll writing of Peer Gynt and the plural self as revealed by neuropsychology, by Ewa Partyga discussing the narrative self in Rosmersholm and Xie Qun who explores the problem caused by the ethical aspect of Taylor’s theories in relation to gender norms in The Lady from the Sea. Kwok-kan Tam writes of the dialogic self in A Doll’s House and The Wild Duck more from a Bakhtinian perspective, and Kristin Gjesdahl of Hegel’s æsthetic self also in A Doll’s House. Xie Lanlan discusses the eco-enemy self of John Gabriel Borkman, while Jasminka Markovska explores the dilemma of the self of the artist caught between Romantic idealism and a modernism that celebrates the moment.

Other interesting contributions are those by Julie Holledge who explores what effect playing Nora had on the lives of early actresses who performed that role and Camilla Chun-pai Hsieh who examines parallels between Shakespeare’s The Tempest and Ibsen’s The Master Builder. Jessica Tsui Yan Li looks at the reworking of Nora’s bid for selfhood in Marjorie Chan’s play China Doll, where the protagonist throws off her foot-binding in her bid for freedom, but instead of seeing this from an entirely western perspective where it is regarded as positive, Li highlights the original cultural meaning of the practice.

For this reader the really eye-opening contribution was that by Lin Wei-yu on Lin Zhaohua’s minimalist production of The Master Builder in Beijing in 2006. Not only was the stage set reduced to ‘two pieces of white board […] obliquely clipped to each other to form a geometric space’ (283), and the stage furniture to a single red sofa and a side table but the performance was directed so that the dialogue between Solness and the other characters became like aspects of a meditative soliloquy in Solness’s mind. To this end the style of dialogue was brought close to narration, and everything focused so that the whole should work like a flash-back or moment of consciousness before Solness ascended the ladder, which appeared three minutes before the end when the two white boards slowly parted to reveal ‘a steep and towering ladder’ (283). It seems Zhaohua’s experiment worked and held the audience, showing that ‘Chinese interest in Ibsen’s plays has shifted from “a new self in action” in his early plays to a “new self capable of reflection” in his later plays’ (292). In a production that would have been demanding even in the west, this production must have shown Chinese interest in Ibsen at the cutting edge.

Anna Westerståhl-Stenport

Locating August Strindberg's Prose: Modernism, Transnationalism, and Setting

University of Toronto Press, Toronto 2010. Pp. 216.

ISBN: 9781442641990

Reviewed by Kristina Sjögren

The centenary of August Strindberg (1849–1912) is quickly approaching, and Strindberg scholars all over the world have sharpened their pencils to contribute something new to the vast flora of research on the giant, who wrote in numerous genres for over forty years in both Swedish and French, and produced more than seventy volumes of prose, drama and essays, as well as over ten thousand letters.

Anna Westerståhl Stenport, associate professor and director of Scandinavian Studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, has published a fascinating and substantial study of spatial setting in Strindberg’s works, showing how settings can be used as a tool for exploring European literary modernism. By contextualising Strindberg against other early modernist writers, Stenport emphasises the burgeoning transnationality of literature at the turn of the last century and challenges previous Strindberg studies that have mostly focused on identity and subject formation.

Research on Strindberg has generally been either interpretations along identity/autobiographical lines, or studies in the aesthetic, social and cultural constructions of his works. Stenport’s interpretations of five Strindberg texts in terms of transnationality and modernism are fresh and innovative. Her analyses show that setting is much more than ‘an anonymous, interchangeable backdrop’, that setting not only structures the story but speaks through the structure: setting is social relations such as gender, class and (trans)nationality.

Locating August Strindberg’s Prose is divided into five chapters, where Stenport deals with five different Strindberg texts. The first is dedicated to Le Plaidoyer d’un fou (A Madman’s Defence; written 1887-1888), one of Strindberg’s most famous novels. It was written in French in Denmark, the setting rapidly changing from Stockholm to France, Switzerland and Germany. Here Stenport explores several issues, for example the implications of using a first-person narrator (traditionally seen as a ‘female’ genre) and how frustration with rigid gender conventions is represented through social transgressions such as lesbianism and divorce as public, rather than private actions. The tension between public and private is represented through settings such as the ‘private’ flat and the public railway station, and through a seemingly never-ending European tour. The transnationality of the text, the genre-shift in narrator, the languages involved: all contribute to what Stenport calls ‘a document of infidelity, of treason toward Sweden and Swedish literary history’ (53). With Le Plaidoyer d’un fou, Strindberg wrote an early European modernist novel.

Chapter two focuses on the travel narrative Bland franska bönder (Among French Peasants; 1889), where Strindberg explores the rural and agrarian setting through modernist ethnography and photography. Stenport especially analyses how the technologically mediated mechanisms of recollection and remembrance are a part of the text’s modernist aesthetics and how spatial transience is represented through them. In Bland franska bönder, Paris is destabilised as the Centre of modernism and the rural is both de-idealised and undemonised, while the work embraces ethnography as a form of modernist representation.

In chapter three, Stenport turns to Inferno (1898), a first-person prose-narrative written in Paris, in French. She discusses the novel’s use of street names and public locations in Paris, and how both Breton and Rilke were probably influenced by this technique. Based on how the novel ‘gestures to and is echoed in other literary representations explicitly concerned with displacements and transience – from those of Nerval and Rimbaud to Mann, Kafka and Rilke’ (124), Stenport suggests the inclusion of Strindberg’s French narratives into the canon of early European modernism.

The fourth chapter deals with Klostret (The Cloister), a fragmented novel about Berlin written in Swedish in 1898, in Sweden. Stenport shows how the text emphasises transience and speed as ‘a rhetoric of displacement fully operable in the Grobstadt’ (17), and she connects The Cloister to Georg Simmel’s theories of urban alienation. The Berlin setting in The Cloister is analysed as displaced and detached from realistic spatial markers, making it metaliterary. The text is also interesting from the gender aspect, presenting an 1890s Berlin with ‘intriguingly fluid and unstable gender relations’ (125), where unmarried cohabitation, working women and open homosexuality are represented as the norm.

In the last chapter Stenport places the novella Taklagsöl (The Roofing Ceremony; 1906) under the magnifying glass. The text is an internal monologue by a male narrator dying in a Stockholm flat, and the spatial representation points to literary modernism’s interest in dismantling boundaries between interiority and exteriority. Stenport shows how setting is used to envisage new models for psychological interiority in Taklagsöl, and the kinship with works by Conrad and Beckett. Again she points to Strindberg’s representation of modern technology, such as the recording practices of a grafophone, which enhances the modernist approach to the text.

Locating August Strindberg’s Prose is an interesting and original study, where Stenport challenges the notion of modernism as a paradigm of the geographic-central. She demonstrates the transnationality of Strindberg’s prose through analyses of the settings and through contextualising it with other European modernist writers of the time. All five texts, as Stenport points out (17), have in common their dependence on spatial setting to convey the experience of modernity. Of the five chapters in the book, I find the first, about Le Plaidoyer d’un fou, extra discerning and proficient – it is a sophisticated analysis of social transgression expressed through spatiality. As a whole, this is a rich and competent study. Stenport writes in an elegant academic prose, which contributes to making the book a pleasure to read. Stenport has published a couple of works on Strindberg earlier – with Locating August Strindberg’s Prose she is rapidly becoming a prominent Strindberg scholar.

Erik van Ooijen

The Mold of Writing: Style and Structure in Strindberg's Chamber Plays

Örebro Studies in Literary History and Criticism 10

Örebro University Press, Örebro 2010. Pp. 219.

ISBN: 9789176687130

Reviewed by Lynn R Wilkinson

Is there such a thing as l’écriture strindbergienne? The implicit thesis of Erik van Ooijen’s dissertation is that there is such a thing, and it manifests itself especially clearly in the five plays Strindberg published under the title Kammarspel or Chamber Plays.

Van Ooijen’s title, The Mold of Writing, draws on a quotation from Strindberg’s letter to Ola Hansson of October 1 1890, in which he compares the process of writing to the proliferation of grapes or mold in the head of the writer (Van Ooijen, 14). Mold, which grows on and within other structures, transforming them as it spreads, is a particularly apt metaphor for Strindberg’s writing, which derives much of its force from the ways in which it evokes structures, conventions, and meanings, while simultaneously subverting and transforming them. This process comes into focus, Van Ooijen argues, in the many glitches or loose ends in The Chamber Plays, such as the old man’s reference to people who mispronounce fönster at the beginning of The Ghost Sonata. These loose ends do not point to a ‘counter-position always already at work within a text’ (66), but instead to ‘what Ulf Olsson calls the abruptive or asyndetic nature of Strindberg’s style, according to which the components of a work remain unordered, isolated and simultaneous rather than stratified and hierarchically organized’ (66).

The chapters on the individual chamber plays unravel previous readings, as well as the texts themselves. Thus, the first in the series, Oväder, undermines what Peter Szondi posited as one of the main features of modern drama, the presence of a central subjectivity in the text. Other inconsistencies, as well, work against the unity of this text, which nonetheless is more coherent than the later plays.

Van Ooijen’s reading of Brända tomten takes as its point of departure the many interpretations that emphasize the incoherence or even failure of this work. This play, he argues, assembles elements from several genres, especially tragedy and detective narratives, but does not fuse them into a whole. The ruin suggested by its title turns out to look remarkably like the rhizome as described by Deleuze and Guattari.

Spöksonaten is a chamber play that could not have been performed within the small spaces of ‘chamber theaters’ such as Reinhardt’s Kammerspiele in Berlin or Strindberg’s Intima Teatern in Stockholm. The references within the play to ‘parody’ and ‘sabotage’ point to the work’s relation to previous forms and conventions, but the play offers a version of parody that is more in line with what Jean Baudrillard has described as ‘simulation’. In Strindberg’s play, ‘simulation would suggest the wraithlike recurrence of form that camouflages its perversion of function by appearing familiarly strange or strangely familiar’ (128). The contradictory scenes of this work offer a ‘total effect of perplexing complexity’.

Although Pelikanen is sometimes described as the most conventional and coherent of the Chamber Plays, it too has some notable loose ends, such as characters who disappear or change professions, or furniture that seems to materialize without warning. These glitches, Van Ooijen argues, are not meaningful in themselves. Instead, they point to a particular style in which such inconsistencies are an essential feature.

The Mold of Writing concludes with a chapter on Svarta handsken. Is this work a ‘chamber play’? Many Strindberg scholars have argued that it isn’t – that it is instead a féerie or fairy tale play or simply an inferior work that doesn’t belong in the same category as the first four Chamber Plays – but for van Ooijen, the play’s differences point to the dynamism of Strindberg’s notion of genre. He writes: ‘To treat the plays as a closed system … is to force closure upon a whole which is itself founded on principles of openness and disorganized transformation’ (206).

In his opening chapter, van Ooijen refers to some apparent glitches in the structuralist studies of Barthes and Genette. Barthes, it seems, could not quite exclude the author from the text; Genette acknowledged in an early study of Flaubert’s L’éducation sentimentale that some episodes in the novel cannot be accounted for in terms of narratological codes, but represent traces of the author and his experience. The Mold of Writing demonstrates that such episodes and traces proliferate in Strindberg’s Chamber Plays. Indeed, on van Ooijen’s reading, the progression of the plays suggests that Strindberg discovered the importance of such traces, such glitches, in the process of writing them. In so doing, he also invented a style in which these heterogeneous elements also found their (uncertain) place.

The Mold of Writing offers a series of compelling readings of Strindberg’s five Chamber Plays that demonstrate that they are consistent in their inconsistency and strikingly postmodern. I wonder, though, about the context of the kind of writing that emerges here. Van Ooijen’s readings bear an uncanny resemblance to Paul de Man’s interpretations in Allegories of Reading. And any focus on avant-garde writing at the turn of the last century must call to mind Julia Kristeva’s La révolution du langage poétique with its evocation of a series of male writers whose works bear witness to the discovery or invention of l’écriture féminine. What, I wonder, does the latter have to do with ‘the mold of writing’?

Photo Credits

Detail from 'Ice on Riddarfjärden' (Stockholm, 2011), Henrik Trygg/imagebank.sweden.se

Photograph used on cover of 2011-2 issue