Ibsen and Turgenev.

Morten Høi Jensen’s NYRB review of a biography of Ibsen (Ivo de Figueiredo’s Henrik Ibsen: The Man and the Mask, translated from the Norwegian by Robert Ferguson) opens with a couple of good anecdotes:

[…] As many critics have noted, there’s more than a little of Ibsen in Rubek [from When We Dead Awaken]. In 1891 he too returned to Norway, having spent nearly three decades living abroad. And like Rubek, he was by then world famous; his plays sold hundreds of thousands of copies and were performed in theaters all over Europe and the United States, provoking scandal and acclaim in equal measure. Yet unlike Rubek, Ibsen was no recluse. He settled in the middle of Kristiania (now Oslo), appearing twice a day at the same café, a habit he’d picked up when he lived in Munich. There he was, his stately head resting on its august pedestal of beard, his lapel affixed with the blinding number of orders and medals showered on him by various monarchs and heads of state. Tourists, many of them young women, would clamor to catch a glimpse of the famous writer, prompting the Norwegian novelist Arne Garborg to quip “To be in Munich and not see Ibsen is like being in Rome and not seeing the pope.”

Yet rather than simply repose in his literary fame, Ibsen remained restlessly prolific. Between 1877 and 1899, he averaged a new play every two years, each one more controversial than the last. In the final years of his life, despite having suffered a heart attack and three strokes that left him paralyzed on the right side of his body, he thought of writing more. “I do not see how I will be able to stay away from those old battlefields for long,” he wrote in 1900. The year before his death in 1906, he cried out in his sleep, “I’m writing! It’s going really well!”

But what I’m bringing it to LH for is this passage from near the end:

At the height of his international fame in the 1890s, he was attacked by a new generation of writers for his psychological rigidity and moral preachiness. Chief among the dissenters was his fellow Norwegian Knut Hamsun, who once delivered a scathing lecture, in Ibsen’s presence, in which he ridiculed the playwright for his “indefensibly coarse and artificial psychology”—a criticism the inscrutable protagonist of Hamsun’s novel Mysteries repeats. Ibsen’s writing, he says, “is simply mechanical routine.”

I find it hard to disagree. Unlike Hamsun and Strindberg, Ibsen never really questioned the stability and coherence of the self (except for Peer Gynt, that odd outlier in Ibsen’s oeuvre), and perhaps for this reason he doesn’t strike us as modern in the way they do. For all that he scandalized polite society, he remained the very emblem of bourgeois respectability, as the younger generation never ceased to remind him. In this and many other respects, perhaps Ibsen’s stature most closely resembles Ivan Turgenev’s—particularly the Turgenev whose “finely discriminating, slightly ironical vision” Isaiah Berlin once contrasted with the obsessive genius of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky.

That could explain why I’ve never been as excited about Ibsen as I somehow feel I should be. (And I don’t feel the need to reread Turgenev as pressingly as I do Tolstoy and Dostoevsky.)


  1. Ibsen was in the front row at that lecture, says Toril Moi, as were Fridtjof Nansen and Edvard Grieg. Norway in 1891!

  2. Oh, to have been a Nordic fly on that wall!

  3. John Emerson says

    Norway was sort of small-town.

    Joyce’s Ibsenism always puzzled me. I have read that his interest in Norway was partly motivated by the fact that the Norwegians of that time, like the Irish, were impoverished, superstitious, and drunken. Prosperous, egalitarian Scandinavia isn’t more than a century or so old.

    JSTOR has kindly protected me from the article below, which looks interesting:


  4. John Cowan says

    Well, Ibsen must have been quite something for both Joyce and Shaw to admire his work so much.

    Anyway, who is Hamsun to attack anyone for indefensible coarseness, anyhow?

  5. John Emerson says

    In later life Hamsun was as close to being a Nazi as you could be without being a member of the party, but he wasn’t coarse. He was almost an esthetic, and featured a refined sensibility, and when he was in Minnesota he was ridiculed for his foppish dress. A fair proportion of Europe’s aristocracy of taste had fascist leanings.

  6. Jeffry Hiuse says

    Ibsen was far more radical than Turgenev. This fact is sometimes misunderstood because it is usually his women who carry the radicalism is the plays. Rebecca West tells Solness, the Master Builder, “Fork over the kingdom!” while both Hedda Gabler and Nora Helmer emphatically refuse to be constrained by the comfortable lies and corruption surrounding them.

    At the same time, Ibsen’s most heroic male characters weren’t l8kely to make easy compromises, either. Stockmann, the Enemy of the People who Ibsen strongly identified with, discovered that his health-spa community was hiding the fact that its famous, “healing” waters were in fact poisonous. The community (maybe every community?) was founded upon a lie.

    “What does it matter if a lying community is ruined? It should be leveled to the ground, I say! All men who live upon lies should be exterminated like vermin! You’ll poison the whole country in time; you’ll bring it to such a pass that the whole country will deserve to perish. And if it ever comes to that, I shall say, from the bottom of my heart: Perish the country! Perish all its people!”

    That’s not bourgeois, in the 20th century it would sound more like the rhetoric of the revolutionary right.

    Perhaps only Bazarov in Turgenev is as radical, but I think Turgenev approves that radicalism much less.

  7. @Jeffry Hiuse: It seems to me that Hedda Gabler does not, in the end, care much for (her own) bourgeois respectability. However, I don’t think it makes sense to say that she “emphatically refuse to be constrained.” Rather than be blackmailed, she shoots herself, perceiving that, having nowhere left to go (or nowhere she considers worth going) it is worth killing herself to preserve a degree of respectability for others.

  8. John Emerson says

    Ibsen was very moralistic and aware of the public good, and Hamsun as a Nietzschean existentialist aesthete, was not. Both were aggressively non-conformist though.

  9. There’s a series of drawings, etchings and paintings by Edvard Munch showing Ibsen, or rather Ibsen’s head framed by white hair and whiskers, in a café – presumably the Grand Café in Christiania. They aren’t as iconic, in a pop-art sense, as The Scream but one day, who knows?

    I can’t imagine Turgenev having conceived, much less written, anything like Peer Gynt. Bazarov is a compassionate moderate next to Brand.

  10. John Cowan says

    In later life Hamsun was as close to being a Nazi as you could be without being a member of the party, but he wasn’t coarse.

    All I can say is that there’s more than one way to be coarse.

  11. John Emerson says

    I just would not use the specific word coarse. I’d admit to brutal.

    Goebbels adored Hamsun’s “Pan”, about an romantic madman aesthete and his gratuitous act, and got an autographed copy. But I wouldn’t call the weasels Goebbels specifically coarse.

  12. Innokenty Annensky, a very fine Russian poet (1855-1909), wrote this in 1906-7 (the translation is mine):

    One has to admit that Brand is a badly made doll although a heavily painted one… Above all, Brand is so little thought out psychologically…

    But Ibsen, it seems, never concealed from us the symbolicity of his Brand…

    Perhaps what’s captivating in Brand is that Brand does not fear being a psychological absurdity from time to time; that we are judging Brand, marveling at him, going to war over him while the wily Norseman keeps grinning quietly.

    It even seems to me that I can see a wide smile broadening his face between the overhanging earflaps of his walrus hat…

    But what is this charming quality of the play?

    Why, after all, are we so ready to forgive not only Brand for being Brand but forgive Ibsen his apothecary rhymes – do you recall: quantum satis and caritatis – twice, even – did he find them so good? –

  13. Trond Engen says

    This is about Norway and all, but I have nothing much to contribute. I might mention that the young iconoclast Hamsun also had taken on the mighty figure of Nansen the National Hero, and that Ibsen probably loved every word of that.

    Norway is still sort of a small town. Another Ibsen biographer, Jørgen Haave, was a high school history teacher for my youngest brother in Bergen almost 30 years ago and now he’s a conservator and director at the museum where my daughter is working as a guide. He’s also written a biography of the philosopher Petter Wessel Zappfe, in which my wife’s grandmother and her family figure prominently.

  14. Trond Engen says

    (But I don’t know him at all. I don’t think we’ve ever met. Our small town is apparently sort of a country.)

  15. John Cowan says

    Two degrees of separation, then.

  16. Trond Engen says

    Yes. It’s really not that impressive, and that’s sort of the point. But it illustrates that when you start looking, the links pile up.

    When I was in my early twenties and my social circle was at its largest, I used to think that everybody in Norway will have some acquaintance in common. That’s not true, but it is usually true for those you meet, because when you meet, however randomly, you have already something in common that put you in the same place at the same time.

    As for few degrees of separation, my daughter realised a few years ago that the pope and the president of the USA were separated by five degrees through her, and none of the links is especially strained either. That’s Norway.

Speak Your Mind