Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson - Absalom's Hair
Harald Kaas is an old man, his once powerful body has grown old and weary. Once, he engaged in magnificent adventures of which he never grew tired of sharing. 'Harald Kaas, seated in his log chair by the fireside, his feet on the bearskin, opened his shirt to show us the scars on his hairy chest (and what scars they were!) which had been made by the bear's teeth, when he had driven his knife, right up to the haft, into the monster's heart.' He is a man who has lived a life of strength and force who is finding himself less able to act in the manner to which he is accustomed. This does not, however, prevent him from shooting 'at some night prowlers, one of whom had got "half the charge in his leg, that he had, Deush take him!'
The novel opens with a large amount of static description. First Harald Kaas, and then his home, and then a female guest, are all described in meticulous detail. The writing is very smooth, but the flow of the novel is staunched before it has even begun. This is a great shame, because Harald Kaas is an appealing character as he is described.
Early on, Harald Kaas abandons his bachelor life to marry Kristen Ravn, a wealthy socialite with a penchant for writing purposefully shocking short stories. She is much younger than Kaas, and the talk of the town is that their marriage cannot be happy. How could it, when people 'had heard something of how this husband and wife lived, one in each wing of the house, with different staffs of servants, and with separate incomes; that she had furnished her side in her own way, at her own expense, and had apparently conceived the idea of a new kind of married life.'? She is often seen apart from her husband, and even when a son is born, spends most of her time in the company of others, or alone, walking the baby about the town.
Sons, as they do, become older, and it is the same with Kaas' son Rafael. Kaas is disappointed with his son, when he first saw the newly born baby he 'came in like a lord and went out like a beggar!'. First Kristen's external wanderings, and then a unappealing son, create a great rift between the couple, which, over the years, only deepens the gloom of Rafael's home.
After the sudden death of Harald, the young mother and half-orphaned child leave first for England, and then move to France. As Rafael matures, he comes steadily at odds with his mother. It is clear that their alliance, such as it was, existed purely by way of a mutual dislike of Harald Kaas - without him as a medium, they shared nothing, could not appreciate one another and indeed, seem to actively reject the other's manner of life. They quarrel and make up, constantly fighting for dominance and respect, to the end that '...they passed many pleasant hours together, but they both knew that something was missing in their conversation which could never be there again.'
It is clear from the tone of Bjørnson's writing that, in many ways, Kristen Kaas has placed too much of her own spirit in the destiny of her son. With such an overbearing and impossible husband, it is understandable that she would transfer the majority of her love to Rafael, but it has the unfortunate consequence that, in the absence of a negative force to act against, and with the natural growth apart that all children must achieve to attain true individuality, she becomes disappointed and depressed with her own life. What is there to live for, if all one's hopes have been pinned on a child who chooses to be different than expected? Can we really expect our own identity to survive the desires of another?
Eventually, they return to Norway. 'After having lived for many years in large towns, to find oneself alone in a Norwegian bay is like leaving a noisy market-place at midday and passing into a high vaulted church where no sound penetrates from without, and where only one's own footstep breaks the silence. Holiness, purification, abstraction, devotion, but in such light and freedom as no church possesses. The lapse of time, the past were forgotten; it was as though he had never been away, as though no other place had ever known him.' Rafael, for so long a stranger in different parts of the world, has come home. Unbeknownst to him, his mother has, for several months before they arrived, arranged for their old home to be renovated and updated, with new furniture and furnishings.
It is when we are in Norway that Bjørnson's talent as a writer is put on display. His description of Norway's flora and fauna, of its geography and of its people is inspired. It is almost as though his previous scenes, that of France and England, were done through the coldness of knowledge that comes from books, whereas his depiction of Norway is the fire of a man in love with his own country.
Rafael soon meets and falls in love with a young girl, Helene. They become inseparable, much to the chagrin of his mother. Helen attraction lies in 'The fervour of her eyes, the richness of her voice, the grace of her movements, the glimpses of her soul, had allured him down there in the valley, beside the rushing river, and the feeling of loss of individuality had increased with the exertion and the excitement.'
The novel changes focus. Now that Rafael has been firmly established as the primary character, and now that the preliminary explanations are out of the way, the novel switches from a chatty, passive voice to something more confident, grandiose. The narrator is in his element describing Rafael's thoughts and experiences in Norway, which inevitably revolve around the women in his life. First his mother, then Helene, and lastly Angelika. When the narrative is focused upon his relationships, it becomes simultaneously razor honed with its depth of dissection, but also grand and sweeping, as the bond between a man and a woman is used as a metaphor to explain the majesty of Norway, and of our hearts.
The other aspects of Rafael's life are glossed over, for the most part. This is a weakness of the text, as various plot points surround Rafel's occupation as an engineer, but due to the emphasis on his relationships with females, there is a general sense of confusion as to what exactly is happening elsewhere. The plot, when it moves ahead, does so very rapidly, which can be disorienting after an extended, intimate examination of the thoughts and emotions of Rafael while he spends time with Helene or Angelika.
Rafael is duped into marrying Angelika, and it is here where his character culminates in a mix of Harald Kaas and Kristen Ravn. From his father, he inherits the rage, the strength, the force of character and the daring to accomplish what needs to be done. From his mother, he knows how to suffer, appreciates the advantage of a bowed head, and is able to endure when fighting will not work. His marriage is a horror, the great mistake of his life. Bjørnson is more than capable of allowing us a glimpse into the wracked, nervous, twitching heart of a man who knows that the grand choice of his life has come, and he has failed in selecting the correct option. We feel for Rafael, because there is nothing sadder than a mistake for which their is no easy solution.
Bjørnson provides an uneasy ending to the novel. No easy answers are given, and there is small hope in the overall redemption of the main characters. Mother and son are reconciled, but it is another in a long line of negative relationships. If two people are bound only by their dislike of a third party, what hope is there for their relationship, once the extraneous person is gone? Bjørnson shows us that there is virtually no hope, and, what is more unsettling, he also shows just how easy it is for us to define our relationships with others through negative, and not positive means, proving that we too can fall into the mistakes of Rafael.
A Happy Boy