Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson - A Happy Boy
Hjalmar Hjorth Boyesen referred to Björnstjerne Björnson as the living embodiment of the national genius of Norway. “Whenever he opens his mouth,” Boyesen writes in the introduction to A Happy Boy in the Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction, 1917, “it is as if the nation itself were speaking.” Björnson, who died in 1910 at the age of seventy-seven. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1903 for “as a tribute to his noble, magnificent and versatile poetry, which has always been distinguished by both the freshness of its inspiration and the rare purity of its spirit.” Björnson was also a novelist; he wrote a trilogy concerned with the lives of the peasants, the second being A Happy Boy. In this short work, we are shown Oyvind Thoresen from his birth until he marries. A Happy Boy is largely uneventful, and the sole predicament, when it comes, is little more than a hump on Oyvind's road to happiness and comfort. Björnson's novel is less concerned with the restrictions of plot than the examination of the ups and downs of life for the simplest of folk.
A Happy Boy begins at the birth of Oyvind, and the language of the novel reflects this. Much like Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, the complexity of the novel's sentences and grammar increase as the protagonist ages. When Oyvind is very young, he goes awandering: “Oyvind did not see the goat when he came out in the afternoon, and thought at once of the fox. He grew hot all over, and gazing about him, cried,-- "Killy-killy-killy-killy-goat!" ”.
A love interest is introduced fairly early, and then school begins. Björnson uses very familiar story-telling techniques in a manner that suggests he wants to get it all out of the way so that the novel can focus on examining the peasant life. The plot, such as it is, presents itself to Oyvind and the reader at the same time, when he watches the beautiful and charming Marist dance. “Oyvind had always known that he was a houseman's son; but until now he had never realized it. It made him feel so very little, smaller than all the rest; in order to keep up he had to try and think of all that hitherto had made him happy and proud, from the coasting hill to each kind word. He thought, too, of his mother and his father, who were now sitting at home and thinking that he was having a good time, and he
could scarcely hold back his tears. ” Here we see a peasant coming to terms with his coarse origins. Marist, though only slightly higher in social standing, proves high enough that for him to pursue is, he is told by his parents and his schoolmaster, fruitless. Oyvind realises that, “from the day we love some one, we cease to be happy ”.
Once Björnson has introduced the problem, he slows the narration down to best examine the lives of the peasants. He wisely does not choose to tell their lives through the use of an omniscient narrator – rather, much of the characterisation is done through homely dialogue and many famous and not-so-famous Norwegian songs, which are translated ably by Auber Forestier. Emotions and thoughts, when they are presented, are placed firmly within the minds and mouths of the characters, not Björnson himself. This has the effect of creating the little community in its entirety, with Oyvind and Marist shown as participants in a village, rather than main characters in a story focused solely on them.
Midway through the novel shifts focus, with Oyvind leaving for a larger city where he continues his studies. He wishes to prove himself to Marist, vowing to become a well-educated agriculturalist. They exchange heated – for the 1860s – letters of confusion and passion, and it is endearing to read their entreaties that the other burn the letters as they are received. Oyvind and Marist's love – and this is, after it is a novel about peasants, a story of love – possesses the pure simplicity of cold clear water and falling brown leaves. Theirs is a natural emotion, distinct from the expected 'class warfare' love shown in French and English literature of the same era.
On love: Everyone has an opinion. Oyvind writes to Marist, “All unhappy love belongs either to timid people, or weak people, or sick people, or calculating people, who keep waiting for some special opportunity, or cunning people, who, in the end, smart for their own cunning; or to sensuous people that do not care enough for each other to forget rank and distinction; they go and hide from sight, they send letters, they tremble at a word, and
finally they mistake fear, that constant uneasiness and irritation in the blood, for love, become wretched and dissolve like sugar. ”, but her grandfather, who mildly opposes the marriage, tells her that “I have seen many things; love, you see, may do very well to
talk about; yes, but it is not worth much. ”
It is clear that Björnson possesses great fondness for the peasants. He does not condescend to them, but nor does he artificially celebrate their achievements. Much like Knut Hamsun's immense novel, Growth of the Soil, A Happy Boy is a snapshot, and not a commentary, on the hard life that comes from subsistence living. Growth of the Soil is a novel on a different plane to A Happy Boy, but it is certain that what Björnson reached for, he managed to grasp. Though nothing much ever really happens throughout the novel, and though it sometimes comes across as yet another bildungsroman, Björnson's eye for the cadence and rhythm of peasant life makes this a remarkable achievement. The Norwegian songs almost make the novel on their own, but there is much more on offer that is worthwhile.
Björnson is not read much outside of Norway these days, and can be difficult to find in print. His writing makes the effort worthwhile, and is certainly recommended, particularly to those with an interest in European literature.
List of Norwegian authors under review.
Bartleby - Full Online Text
Metropolitan News Company - Long article on Björnson's life and works