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Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson (1832-1910)


Norwegian writer, editor, and theatre director, known with Henrik Ibsen, Alexander Kielland and Jonas Lie as one of the "four great ones" of 19th-century Norwegian literature. Bjørnson campaigned widely for liberal and national ideals, and became an extremely popular national figure. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1903. A friend and rival of Ibsen, he also wrote plays of social realism. However, his fame since his death has diminished in relation to Ibsen.

--Knut Aakre tossed back his disorderly hair, his eyes darted fire, his whole frame appeared like a drawn bow.
--"What sort of a blessing this is that you speak of, I have already proved. It is of the same character as all the others which you have brought to the parish, namely, a doubtful one. True enough, you have provided us with a new church; but, too, you have filled it with a new spirit . and not one of love. True, you have made us new roads - but also new roads to destruction, as is now plainly evident in the misfortunes of many. True, you have lessened our taxes to the public; but, too, you have increased those to ourselves; prosecutions, protests, and failures are no blessing to a community.."
(from 'The Railway and the Churchyard')

Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson was born in Kvikne, in northern Hedmark, the son of Peder Bjørnson, a Lutheran pastor, and Elise Nordraak, a merchant's daughter. In 1849 he went to Christiania (now Oslo) to prepare for the university's entrance exams. He entered the university in 1852 but soon abandoned his studies and joined the cultural scene. He became a theatre and literary critic for the Christiania daily Morgenbladet and later edited Illustreret Folkeblad.

In 1857 Bjørnson succeeded Ibsen as director of the Norske Theater in Bergen. He married in 1858 Karoline Reimers, an actress. Their son Bjørn became an actor, and a daughter Bergljot married Ibsen's son Sigurd. Bjørnson returned to Oslo in 1859 and worked for Aftenbladet, where his liberal editorials finally led to his resignation. Bjørnson's poem 'Ja, vi elsker dette landet' (Yes, We Love This Land ) from 1859 was later set to music by Rikard Nordraak (1842-1866) as the national anthem of Norway.

To promote new theater and to safeguard its interests Ibsen and Bjørnson organized in 1859 the 'Norwegian Society for Theater, Music, and Language.' His first noteworthy stories Bjørnson wrote in the late1850s. They were often set in the idyllic rural milieu, in which the sun shines in a bright midsummer sky. Although he romantically idealized peasants, he also depicted their everyday work and festivities. His best works from this period include the short novel Arne, written in 1859. Its young protagonist, a poet, expressed much of Bjørnson’s own longing for faraway places.

"Hans tanker blev stærkere og drev in i visen: "Over de høje fjælle". Så snare hadde aldrig ordene været, ej heller hadde de føjet sig så sikkert i lag; de var næsten som jænter, der sat rundt på en haug. Han hadde et stykke papir hos sig, og han skrev ned over sit knæ. Og da han hadde skrevet visen færdig, rejste han sig som forløst, vilde ikke til folk, men tok skogvejen hjæmover, skjønt han visste, at da måtte han ta natten med." (from Arne, 1859)

In the short story 'The Railway and the Churchyard' two friends are separated by their different views of progress. Knut Aakre belongs to an old and influential family. He is chairman of the parish commissioners, but also protects his family interests. Contrary to his secret wishes his neighbour Lars Hogstad supports a proposal to establish a savings bank. The decision turn out to be far-sighted and it brings prosperity to the parish. Years later Lars realizes that his bank will fail if a new railway is not built – railway will raise all real estate prices. Knut opposes in vain his plans to build it through the old, now unused, churchyard, the only place it can go. Lars sees the train working through the valley as a strong force, and remembers his grandfather who raised the family from poverty to comfortable circumstances. "... true, a part of his honour as a citizen had been lost, but he had pushed forward, nevertheless. His faults were those of his time; they were to be found on the uncertain borders of the moral conceptions of that period, and are of no consideration now." Sparks from the passing locomotive start a fire and burn down Lars's house, but Knut is the first to help him. Lars is again elected the chairman of the parish, but with Knut at his side.

In the much anthologized story 'The Father' Bjørnson again examined the conflict between the public good and individual commitment. Thord Overaas is the wealthiest and most influential person in the parish and proud of his son. He meets the priest only when he is baptised, then sixteen years later when he is confirmed – and the third time when he is going to marry the richest girl of the region. When the priest notices that Thord has not changed over the years he answers: "That is because I have no troubles." Before the wedding his son drowns. Thord sells half of his farm and gives the money to the poor. The priest says: "I think your son has at last brought you a true blessing."

Between 1860 and 1863 Bjørnson lived abroad, mostly in Italy, and after his return was appointed director of the Christiania Theater (1865-1867). Since 1862, he began to receive an annual pension. From 1866 to 1871 he was editor of the Norsk folkeblad, which he made the mouthpiece for his ideas on political and social reform. Bjørnson's involvement in cultural and political battles marked his fiction, in which his urge to teach his readers occasionally guided his pen more than artistic aims.

As a playwright Bjørnson first gained notice in the late 1850s with historical dramas. Among his works were Mellem Slagene (1857), Halte-Hulda (1858), Kong Sverre (1861), Sigurd Slembe (1863), and Maria Stuart i Skottland (1864). One of the central themes in his plays was the cultural continuity between the pre-Christian Norway and modern day society. In the 1860s he also published poetry, and from his Digte og Sange many poems were later set to music. Bjørnson's interest in the life of peasants was reflected in his novels Synnøve Solbakken (1857), and En glad gut (1860). While in Rome, he came under the influence of Georg Brandes. Bjørnson turned from folk themes to social questions and contemporary issues. The most successful of these was En Fallit (1875), which attacked dishonesty in business.

As an active participant in political and cultural battles, Bjørnson's views about church and religion were much debated. After reading Hippolyte Taine, Charles Darwin and others, he made known his rejection of formal religion. This and his political views brought against him a charge of high treason. In the 1870s and '80s, Bjørnson spent long times abroad and in 1881 he visited the United States. Although only a few of his works had been translated into English, false rumors spread through many German and American journals, that he planned to emigrate to the United States. His best works from this and later periods include the 'problem' plays Redaktøren (1875), exploring journalism, En Hanske (1883), which led to a break between Bjørnson and Brandes, Over Ævne (1886), an attack on dogmatism, and the novels Det flager i Byen og paa Havnen (1892) and Paa Guds Veje (1889), both of which are concerned with the problems of heredity and education. Paul Lange og Tora Parsberg (1898) was based on the events surrounding the suicide of Ole Richter, one-time friend of the author.

In 1888 Bjørnson visited Finland – his first story about peasants was translated into Finnish as early as in 1862. During this journey he was received everywhere as a hero, and he met writers such as Juhani Aho, who wrote three long articles about his stay, and Sakari Topelius. On many occasions in the following years Bjørnson also expressed his support of Finland's struggle against Russification.

While living in Grez-sur-Loing, on the edge of the Forest of Fontainebleau,  Bjørnson enjoyed being the center of the attention. He was called the uncrowned King of Norway. In winter he sat at an open window, wearing a  wolf-skin coat and a Scottish tam-o-shanter. Other members of the Scandinvian artists' colony included Carl Larson, Jonas Lie, Karl Nordström, Ville Vallgren, and Anders Zorn.

His friendship with August Strindberg, whom he met in Grez, eventually grew very sour. When Strindberg was threatened with blasphemy for his collection of short stories entitled Getting Married (1886), Bjørnson first adviced him to go into exile ("This prosecution is the biggest and best advertisement for the book," he wrote) and then urged him to return to Sweden and face the charges. Strindberg's reply crushed Bjørnson's hopes that his younger colleague would be his ally: "Your Majesty. I am in receipt of your Imperial decree and will have the honour of completely ignoring it! . . . "I don't want any immoral advice about returning home and making a spectacle of myself in order to advertise my writings, which need no such assistance! Your former friend, August Strindberg."

In 1893 Bjørnson settled on a farm, travelling from there to Denmark, France, Germany, and Italy. He wrote of the evils of industrialization, defended oppressed minorities and joined Emile Zola in the famous Dreyfus Affair. Although paralysed on one side, he continued working until his death in Paris on April 26, 1910. Bjørnson's novels in 13 volumes were published in an English translation edited by Edmund Gosse between the years 1895 and 1909.

For further reading: Critical Studies of Ibsen and Bjørnson by G. Brandes (1899); Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson hans barndom og ungdom by C.C.D. Collin (1923); Bjørnson: La seconde jeunesse by J. Lescoffier (1932); Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson: A Study in Norwegian Literature by H. Larsen (1944); Bjørnson's dramatiske diktning by H. Noreng (1954); A History of Norwegian Literature by H. Beyer (1956); Henrik Ibsen by Georg Brandes (1964, with a long essay on Bjørnson); Modern Norwegian Literature 1860-1918 by B. Downs (1966); Bjørnson: Land of the Free. Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson's American Letters 1880-1881, ed. by E.L. and E. Haugen (1978); The Vocabulary of Bjørnson's Literary Works by E. Haugen (1978); Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson by P. Amdam (1978); En mann forut for vår tid: Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson og vi by Philip Houm (1982); Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson: en biografi 1880–1910 by Aldo Keel (1999);Villskapens år: Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson 1832–1875 by Edvard Hoem (2009); Vennskap i storm: Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson 1875-1892 by Edvard Hoem (2010); Syng mig hjæm: Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson 1890-1899 by Edvard Hoem (2011); Det evige forår: Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson 1899-1912 by Edvard Hoem (2012)  

Siste smærte
Å, nu har jeg lært det
hvad jeg frygtet først,
at den siste smærte,

den er også størst.
Kan ej mer arbejde,
har ej kræfter nok.

Kan ej mer arbejde,
har ej kræfter nok,
kan ej længer vejde
mine tankers flok.
De er over fjællet,
samles aldrig mer.

De er over fjællet,
samles aldrig mer.
Og jeg selv på hældet
imot graven ner,
og jeg selv på hældet
imot graven ner.

Selected works:

  • Mellem Slagene, 1857 (historical drama)
    - Between the Battles (translated by J. Weingarten, in The Nobel Prize Treasury, 1948)
  • Synnøve Solbakken, 1857
    - Trust and Trial (translated by Mary Howitt, 1858) / Synnöve Solbakken: a Norwegian tale (tr. 1883) / Synnövé Solbakken (translated by Julie Sutter, 1881) / Sunny Hill, a Norwegian Idyll (translated by Annie S. Cutter, 1932)
    - Synnöve Päiväkumpu (suom. Anna Lilius, 1879; Maila Talvio, 1921) / 'Synnöve Päiväkumpu' (suom. Maila Talvio & Yrjö Koskelainen, teoksessa Valitut kertomukset, 1962)
    - films: 1919, dir. John W. Brunius starring Karin Molander, Ellen Dall, Einar Röd, Svea Peters; 1934, dir. Tancred Ibsen, starring Karin Ekelund, Gösta Gustafson, Victor Sjöström, Randi Brænne, Fritiof Billquist; 1957, dir. Gunnar Hellström, starring Synnøve Strigen, Harriet Andersson, Edvin Adolphson, Gunnar Hellström
  • Halte-Hulda: drama i 3 akter, 1858 (historical drama)
  • Arne, 1859
    - Arne: a Sketch of Norwegian Country Life (tr. 1866) / Arne (translated by Rasmus B. Anderson, 1881) / Arne and The Fisher Lassie (translated by Walter Low, 1894)
    - Arne (suom. Hilda Käkikoski, 1899) / 'Arne' (suom. Maila Talvio & Yrjö Koskelainen, teoksessa Valitut kertomukset, 1962)
  • En glad gut, 1860
    - Happy Boy (translated by H.R.G, 1870) / Ovind (translated by S. and E. Hjerleid, 1869) / The Happy Boy (translated by R. B. Anderson, 1881)
    - Iloinen poika (suom. T. J. Dahlberg, 1862)
    - film 1932, dir. John W. Brunius,starring Hauk Aabel, Gøril Havrevold, Tore Foss, Eugen Skjønberg, Harald Stormoen, prod. National Film
  • Smaastykker, 1860
    - 'Trond', 'Vaarallinen kosinta', 'Karhuntappaja', 'Isä', 'Kotkanpesä' etc. (suom. Maila Talvio & Yrjö Koskelainen, teoksessa Valitut kertomukset, 1962)
  • Kong Sverre, 1861 (historical drama)
  • Sigurd Slembe, 1961 (historical drama)
    - Sigurd the Bastard (translated by W. M. Payne, 1888) / Sigurd Slembe, a Dramatic Trilogy (tr. 1888)
  • Maria Stuart i Skottland, 1864 (historical drama)
    - Mary, Queen of Scots (translated by Aug. Sahlberg, 1912)
    - Maria Stuart Skotlannissa (suom. E., 1878)
  • Bergljot, 1865
  • De nygifte, 1865 (play)
    - The Newly Married Couple (translated by T. Soelfeldt, 1868; S. and E. Hjerleid, 1870)
  • Jernbanen og Kirkegaarden, 1866
    - Railroad and Churchyard (tr. 1882) / 'The Railway and the Churchyard', 'A Dangerous Wooing', and 'The Father' (in Scandinavian Short Stories, 1995)
    - Rautatie ja hautuumaa ynnä muita kertomuksia (suom. A-a, 1904) / 'Rautatie ja hautausmaa' (suom. Maila Talvio & Yrjö Koskelainen, teoksessa Valitut kertomukset, 1962)
  • Fiskerjenten, 1868
    - The Fisher Maiden (translated by M. E. Niles, 1869) / The Fisher-Maiden (translated by Rasmus B. Anderson, 1882)
    - Kalatyttö (suom. P. Cajander, 1869) / 'Kalastajatyttö' (suom. Maila Talvio & Yrjö Koskelainen, teoksessa Valitut kertomukset, 1962)
    - film Det Største i verden, dir. Thomas Robsahm, starring Thomas Hanzon, Herborg Kråkevik, Kirsti Stubø, Jesper Langberg
  • Digte og Sange, 1870
    - Poems and Songs (translated by Arthur Hubbell Palmer, 1915)
  • Arnljot Gelline, 1870
    - Arnljot Gelline (translated by William Morton Payne, 1917)
  • Sigurd Jorsalfar, 1872 (play)
  • En fallit, 1875 (play)
    - The Bankrupt (translated by R. Farquharson Sharp, in Three Dramas, 1913)
    - Konkurssi (suom. C. Edv. Törmänen)
  • Redaktøren, 1875 (play)
    - The Editor (translated by R. Farquharson Sharp, in Three Dramas, 1913)
  • Magnhild, 1877
    - Manghild and Dust (translated by Rasmus B. Anderson, 1883)
    - Manghild (suom. V. Lagus, 1882; Kaarlo Koskimies, 1914)
  • Kongen, 1877 (play)
    - The King (translated by R. Farquharson Sharp, in Three Dramas, 1913)
  • Kaptejn Mansana, 1879
    - Captain Mansana and Other Stories (translated by Rasmus B. Anderson, 1882)
  • Det ny system, 1879
    - The New System (translated by Edwin Björkman, in Plays by Björnstjerne Björnson, 1913)
  • Leonarda, 1879 (play)
    - Leonarda (translated by R. Farquharson Sharp, in Three Comedies, 1912)
    - Leonarda (suom. J. Enlund, 1880)
  • Støv, 1882
  • En hanske, 1883 (play)
    - A Gauntlet (translated by Osman Edwards, in The Drama: Its History, Literature and Influence on Civilization, 1903-1904; R. Farquharson Sharp, in Three Comedies, 1912) / The Gauntlet (translated by Edwin Björkman, in Plays by Björnstjerne Björnson, 1913) - Hansikas (suom.)
  • Over Ævne I-II, 1883-95 (play)
    - Pastor Sang (translated by W. Wilson, 1893) / Beyond Human Power (tr. 1915) / Beyond Our Power (translated by Edwin Björkman, in Plays by Björnstjerne Björnson, 1913; L. Hollander, in Chief Contemporary Dramatists, 1915; E. Björkman, in Modern Continental Plays, 1929)
    - Yli voimain I-II (suom. A. B. Mäkelä, 1901)
  • Det flager i byen og paa havnen, 1884
    - The Heritage of the Kurts (translated by C. Fairfax, 1892)
    - Liput liehumassa (suom. V. Hämeen-Anttila, 1910)
  • Geografi og Kærlighed, 1885 (play)
  • Paa Guds Veje, 1889
    - In God's Way (translated by Elizabeth Carmichael, 1890)
    - Jumalan teillä (suom. 1890; 2. p. suom. Viki Kärkkäinen, 1910)
  • Brude-slaatten, 1893
    - The Bridal March and Other Stories (translated by Rasmus B. Anderson, 1882)
    - Morsiusmarssi (suom. suom. A-a, 1904; Maila Talvio, 1922) / 'Morsiusmarssi' (suom. Maila Talvio & Yrjö Koskelainen, teoksessa Valitut kertomukset, 1962) / Morsiusmarssi sekä kertomus Synnöve Päivänkumpu (suom. Maila Talvio & Aale Tynni, 1964)
  • Absalons haar, 1894
    - Absalom's Hair and a Painful Memory (tr. 1898)
    - Absalomin tukka (suom. Martti Raitio, 1916)
  • Nye Fortællinger, 1894
    - Absalomin tukka (suom. Martti Raitio, 1916)
  • The Novels of Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson, 1895-1909 (13 vols., edited by Edmund Gosse)
  • Paul Lange og Tora Parsberg, 1898 (play)
    - Paul Lange and Tora Parseberg (translated by H. L. Braekstad, 1898)
    - Paul Lange ja Tora Parsberg (suom. Otto Manninen, 1928)
  • Laboremus, 1901 (play)
    - Laboremus (tr. 1901)
  • På Storhove, 1902 (play)
  • Daglannet, 1904 (play)
  • Mary, 1906
    - Mary (translated by Mary Morison, 1909)
    - Mary (suom. Werner Andelin, 1906)
  • Naar den ny vin blomstrer, 1909 (play)
    - Kun uusi viini kukkii (suom. Helmi Setälä, 1909)
  • Wise-Knut, 1909 (translated by Bernard Stahl)
  • Samlede værker, 1910-11 (12 vols.)
  • Three Comedies, 1912 (contains The Newly-Married Couple, Leonarda, A Gauntlet, translated by R. Farquharson Sharp)
  • Three Dramas, 1913 (contains The Editor, The Bankrupt, The King, translated by R. Farquharson Sharp)
  • Three Plays, 1913 (translated by Edwin Björkman)
  • Samlede digter-verker, 1919-1920 (9 vols., edited by F. Bull)
  • Artikler og taler, 1920 (edited by Chr. Collin og H. Eitrem)
  • Samlede verker, I - XIII, 1932
  • Brev til Karoline 1858–1907, 1957
  • Samlede verker, 1960 (5 vols.)
  • Selvstændighedens Æresfølelse: artikler og taler i utvalg 1879-1905, 1974 (introduction by Knut Johansen)
  • Land of the Free: Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson's America Letters, 1880-1881, 1978 (edited and translated by Eva Lund Haugen and Einar Haugen)
  • "Og nu vil jeg tale ut" - "Men nu vil jeg også tale ud": brevvekslingen mellom Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson og Amalie Skram 1878-1904, 1982 (edited by Øyvind Anker og Edvard Beyer)
  • De gode gjerninger redder verden: tanker og idéer - råd og dåd, 1982 (edited by Øyvind Anker)
  • Jeg velger meg april!: 95 dikt, 1982 (edited by Rolf Jacobsen)
  • Jeg velger meg Bjørnson: en reise i dikt og fotografier, 1990 (illustrated by Viggo Falck Mortensen )
  • God morgen, Rosalinde!: brev til Rosalinde Thomsen, 1990 (edited by Bodil Nævdal)
  • Bondefortellinger, 1992 (introduction by Arnfinn Åslund)
  • Verker i samling, 1993 (3 vols., edited by Edvard Beyer)
  • Samlede verker, 1995 (4 vols.)
  • Fortellinger i utvalg, 1996 (foreword by Helge Nordahl)
  • Fortellinger, 2000 (edited by Hanne Lillebo)
  • Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson og Eilif Petersen, 2002 (edited by Ragnhild Hjort)
  • Jeg velger meg Bjørnson!: prosa og lyrikk i utvalg, 2010 (edited by Karsten Alnæs)

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