Alexander Kielland - Tales of Two Countries
The late nineteenth century saw a number of authors shifting their talent to social criticism. Class, wealth, power and their abuses came sharply into focus, first from Balzac and Dickens, and then followed by the naturalists, who were led by Zola. Art, it was supposed, was capable of highlighting the social injustices in the world in a manner which a dry report or a political speech could not. Norway, unlike the French and English writers of the time, was not particularly known for its socially conscious writers. Bjornsterne was more concerned with nationalism; while Ibsen attacked conventional morality. It falls to Alexander Kielland, then, to place his stamp on Norwegian realism. Kielland's collection, Tales of Two Countries, is a series of stories loosely connected by the themes of poverty and the poor; art, intellectualism and the rich.
Kielland was himself a rich man, but his tastes ran toward a system of equal fairness. Hjalmar Hjorth Boyesen's introduction provides an outline of Kielland's life from his immense promise as a young man in his twenties, to the glorious output of his late thirties and forties, when his talent came into itself. Boyesen examines Kielland's writing from its beginning up until he retired from literature to serve as a politician, detailing Kielland's shifts and developments as he grapples with the social problems of his time. On top of that, Boyesen places Kielland within the context of French realism, comparing him favourably with Zola's work.
The stories themselves are by and large concerned with poorer folk, though the rich have their turn. Pharaoh, the opening story, shows a young woman brought out from the drudgery of poverty and into the splendour of wealthy living. She quickly forgets her time as a poor woman, and even begins to condescend toward those very same folk as she traipses from one luxurious party to another. But memory invades and she - not learns exactly, but recalls - compassion, though this feeling confuses her husband. A later story, The Peat Moor, tells the story of rural development from the point of view of a remarkably intelligent crow. Kielland uses the crow as a way to highlight the appeal of nature versus the inevitably dirtying destruction of cities, villages, roads and commerce.
Two Friends is the strongest piece in the collection. It tells the story of Charles and Alphonse, two men who led a virtually identical life, and who are the strongest of friends. Alphonse is the beautiful one, charming to both men and women as he rises through the ranks of the Parisian social world. Charles is industrious, not handsome - he is 'one of those small, black Frenchmen whose beard begins right under the eyes' - but hard-working. When he is promoted, instead of accepting the job he switches to another company, taking the less productive Alphonse with him. They should always be the same, Charles reasons.
Alphonse, however, has no such worries. He loves life, and he loves Charles. He is content with drinking good wine, charming beautiful women, and working, or not, as long as the money comes in. Alphonse 'had a neck of the kind which women long to caress, and his soft, half-curling hair looked as if it were negligently arranged, or carefully disarranged, by a woman's coquettish hand.'
The story works best if we consider that Charles and Alphonse are two halves of the same person. Charles is the Apollonian half, the dedicated, industrious, one would say heartless half. Alphonse is Dionysian, his life given to pleasure and friendship, without a care for consequence. As naturally occurs, there is conflict, with much of it coming from Charles, who sees malice where there is carelessness, who sees vengeance where there is charm. Kielland handles the material very well, rising the story above a simple 'doubles' drama, to become an interesting psychological essay.
A Good Conscience is Kielland at his most Zola-esque. Soren is a bright young man, successful in his role as clerk to the town sheriff. He has some money set aside and, considering that his prospects are good, he marries. But children come, one after the other every year for five years, and soon his wage stretches too thin to cover the finer things in life. Kielland slowly grinds this man down not through misfortune but the inevitable progression of things that occur when you are not a rich nobleman. Finally: 'Badly dressed and badly fed, beset with debts and cares, he was worn out and weary before he had accomplished anything. And life went its way, and Soren dragged himself along in its train.' Soren's life has finished before it has begun, his promise shattered on the sharp rocks of reality.
Each of the stories add a thick dry branch to the bonfire Kielland is building. By the end, the fire is lit; the petty conceits of the rich and the earthen cares of the poor are illuminated with tall yellow flames. Yet Kielland never idealises the poor - rather, he shows them. Yes, they seem more appreciative in love, because they choose for feeling, rather than status, but that is about it. The rich are portrayed as people who simply do not see those who are not themselves rich - the poor are a nuisance, if they are that. But for the poor, who needs must see everything, the rich are overstuff lords, free and willing to spend in a night what they earn in a lifetime. Kielland is compassionate without falling into the trap of sentimentalism; Tales of Two Countries is a collection of stories set in France and Norway, but the countries could just as easily be the rich and the poor.
---A Happy Boy
Zola, Émile - Thérèse Raquin
"Kielland", posted to the South Wing website.
Project Gutenberg Free online text