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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction

By Alexander Kielland (1849–1906)

ALEXANDER KIELLAND, one of the foremost of the Norwegian authors of the nineteenth century, belongs to the generation subsequent to Björnson, Ibsen, and Lie, the three great names that most readily recur among the contemporary writers of his native country. In point of fact, he has very little in common with them or their predecessors, but in many ways marks a new tendency in the literature of Norway, which in its most recent development owes not a little to his incentive. In this attitude he and his immediate contemporary Arne Garborg, though direct antitheses in some respects, here stand together,—an intermediate development between the oldest and the newest phases of that extraordinary literature that has attracted to it the attention of the world.

Kielland was born in 1849, in Stavanger, Norway. His father was a ship-owner and merchant of abundant means and social position, as had been his ancestors for generations before him. At the University of Christiania he studied law, which however he never practiced, although he duly took his examination at the end of the course. Instead he chose at the outset a business career; and bought a brick and tile factory at Malk, near Stavanger, which he managed with ability until 1881, when it was sold to a stock company.

His first literary work saw the light under these conditions. His career began with a series of short stories, which appeared anonymously in the Christiania Dagblad. These first tales, with others written subsequently, went to make up the material of his first two books, ‘Novelletter’ (1879), and ‘Nye Novelletter’ (1880).

Several winters spent in Paris, and the study of modern French literature, established the characteristic tendency of his genius. Many of his novelettes and short stories are so essentially French in method and manner, that except for their environment they might equally well have been the product of French soil. To associate him with Daudet is natural and inevitable; for in his point of view and treatment of material he most resembles that great master of short stories.

Kielland’s use of the Norwegian language is a revelation, and it flows from his pen in incisive and often sparkling sentences. No one ever before has used the language as he uses it. In his hands it is a medium of the utmost clarity, and transmits every delicate shade of meaning. It lends itself readily to translation, but very little has as yet found its way into English. ‘Garman and Worse’ has been translated by W. W. Kettlewell (London, 1885), ‘Skipper Worse’ by the Earl of Ducie (London, 1885), and William Archer has translated a number of short stories which have been published under the title of ‘Tales of Two Countries’ (1891).

Kielland’s first novel, ‘Garman and Worse’ (1880), demonstrated his seriousness of purpose. It is a social study of bourgeois life in the towns of the western coast of Norway, and treats of types of character with which the author has all his life been familiar. Inevitably it is autobiographical, particularly in the incidents of the boyhood of Gabriel Garman. A faithful picture of the life of a small Norwegian town, it is full of clever satire and humorous delineation.

Discontent with existing social conditions ramifying in various directions is the psychological element in most of Kielland’s novels. Kielland’s second novel, ‘Laboring People’ (1881), is the pathology as well as the psychology of vice, and treats of the corrupting influence of the upper classes upon the lower. The horrors of the subject are not disguised; and from this book it may be understood why Georg Brandes, in his brilliant essay upon Kielland, should trace in his writings the influence of Balzac and Zola. In point of structure and composition ‘Skipper Worse’ ranks among the best of his novels; and here as always there is the suggestion of Daudet, for the theme of the story—a study of Pietism in Norway—is similar to that of ‘L’Évangéliste.’ His strength and earnestness are nowhere better exemplified than in this psychological study.

Kielland’s development has been uniform and steady, and his subsequent work shows an immense increase in power. His later books all indicate the trend of his socialistic tendency. ‘Snow’ is a protest against blind orthodoxy. The wintry Norwegian landscape is symbolical of the icy fetters of tradition, but there is a hint and promise of spring. In ‘Jacob,’ however, pessimism settles like a heavy fog, rayless and dispiriting. It is a revolt against senseless optimism and poetic justice, and a plea for what he believes to be reality. Kielland’s characteristic is the spirit of liberalism in politics, ethics, and religion. Of aristocratic social connections, a conservative by birth and education, Kielland is the champion of democracy. So outspoken was he, indeed, that the government itself, through a committee appointed to investigate his claims to the customary literary pension, protested against a literature “opposed to the prevailing moral and religious ideas of the nation,” and refused the grant. But this only served to swell the tide of popular favor, and up to the day of his death (April 6th, 1906) he continued to receive many tokens of public esteem.