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Literary Impressionisms

Camilla Storskog


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“It seems very pretty,” she said […], “but it’s rather hard to understand!” (You see she didn’t like to confess, even to herself, that she couldn’t make it out at all.) “Somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas – only I don’t exactly know what they are!”

L. Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There (1871)

1. On the usefulness of locating impressionism in swedish prose

1There are cultural contexts within which impressionism is acknowledged as a significant literary tendency. Swedish literature is not one of these. Histories and overviews of literature written in the Swedish language, whether produced in Sweden or in Finland, do not include units on literary impressionism – unlike the state of affairs in countries such as Austria, Denmark, or Germany. This is not an attempt to rewrite the history of Swedish literature. What follows is rather an effort to clarify to what extent impressionism resonated in Swedish and Finland-Swedish prose at the end of the nineteenth century and what facets it took on in literary writing. In other words, through the examination of texts that in various ways are considered to reveal an impact of impressionism, this book aims to provide an understanding of the numerous dimensions of literary impressionism. In addition, the writers’ awareness of impressionism, both in its painterly and philosophical implications, will also be investigated through a body of texts written in Swedish and featuring impressionists as fictional characters.

2In wider contexts, where literary impressionism might not be a canonized category but where the notion is, at any rate, discussed, an agreement on what it encapsulates – in terms of subjects, narrative techniques, and writers concerned – as well as on its usefulness in literary criticism, has by no means been reached. Recurring definitions of literary impressionism originating for instance from a French, an English-speaking, or a Norwegian perspective, offer a wide spectrum of interpretative possibilities of the concept, ranging, for example, from interart analogies to plotless sketches and fragments, from phenomenological apperception to philosophical concerns, from questions of grammar to matters of style. Not to mention the fact that the notion is repeatedly used as a stigma to indicate disconnected and insubstantial pieces of prose, and continually encounters the perplexity of scholars and literary critics within whose circles it, nonetheless, first emerged. Therefore, it cannot be denied that dedicating a study to the exploration of the ‘elusive’ concept of literary impressionism within a context that officially does not recognize its significance, has at times felt like walking on the edge of a slippery margin, the risk being, on the one hand, that of venturing into a discourse as vague and fleeting as many of the definitions of the notion itself and, on the other, that of overstating the case. Nevertheless, it has been my ambition to clarify an aspect of modern realism and its manifestation in and acclimatization to a literature geographically on the fringes of the European scene, far from the birthplace of its painterly counterpart. By concentrating on Swedish and Finland-Swedish literature, it is my hope to have supplemented the international discussion on the theme with a new perspective and conferred additional, extensive – perhaps even contrastive – facets to the phenomenon of literary impressionism.

3In particular, it has been my objective to produce a piece of writing thorough enough to refine the discourse on the impact of impressionism on Scandinavian literature, hitherto chiefly limited to an engagement with the Danish and the Norwegian literary scene. In general, I hope to have made a valid contribution to the greater transnational debate on a topic that in recent times, as we will see, is enjoying increased attention. If I have succeeded in my ambition, the challenging effort to locate and draw out resonances of impressionism in Swedish and Finland-Swedish prose has been worthwhile.

2. A plea for pluralism

  • 1   All translations are mine, unless otherwise indicated.

4On the subject of the preface in collections of miscellany, Gérard Genette regretfully states that one of its main functions is to compensate, «par une sorte de point d’honneur théorique» (1987: 188; «by way of some kind of theoretical point of honour»)1, for the lack of formal or thematic unity. As the scholar subsequently proceeds to claim his right to put in a good word for the value of plurality and diversity, the message is clear: «pourquoi l’unité serait-elle par principe supérieure à la multiplicité? […] on aimerait pouvoir opposer à cette valorisation presque universelle de l’unité un thème inverse de valorisation de la diversité» (1987: 189; «why should unity, on principle, be preferable to multiplicity? […] to this almost universal appreciation of unity one would like to be able to oppose the inverse theme of the appreciation of diversity»).

5These are words of solace to the one standing on the threshold of an introductory discourse on the concept of literary impressionism. The vast body of texts and the miscellaneous mannerisms that, globally, gather under the heading of literary impressionism undoubtedly point in the direction of an acceptance and a study of this critical category as a pluralistic umbrella term. Therefore, in contrast to those scholars who have approached the idea of impressionism in literature in diverse and highly individual ways, and produced writings that reflect their personal interpretations of the phenomenon, what this study has strived to obtain is not so much an unequivocal (re)definition of the term as deductive, methodological pluralism. As Hans Lund (1982: 194), whose works on the interrelation between art and literature have been a source of inspiration for the present investigation in many ways, quite simply puts it: «different texts and different authors pose different problems, which makes it necessary for the student to regulate his instruments of analysis all the time».

6Additionally, on the subject of investigating the use of literary impressionism as a province of the critics, Lund (1993: 7-8) rejects the need for an instantly recognizable, or even personal, redefinition of the term, and instead considers it fruitful to study «de skiftande aspekter som anläggs och genom åren har anlagts på begreppet litterär impressionism, aspekter som har dikterats av eller emanerat ur i tid och rum skiftande kontexter, normer och koduppsättningar» (1993: 8; «the shifting aspects that are being applied to and that have, through the years, been applied to the concept of literary impressionism, aspects that have been dictated by or have emanated out of contexts, norms and combinations of codes, shifting in time and space»).

7In summary, my course of action builds on the need to study literary impressionism – instead of reinventing it.

8Likewise, the discussion of painterly impressionism runs to the rescue of a pluralistic theoretical approach. «Individualism» instead of «impressionism» – as determined by the Swedish writer and art critic Georg Nordensvan (1890: 481), whose own literary method, as we will see, had been judged as dependent on the modes of impressionist painting – was, according to Nordensvan, a more appropriate definition with which to approach the art of the modern painters. More than a hundred years later Elisabeth Lièvre-Crosson formulated herself correspondingly: «l’impressionnisme est avant tout une expression individuelle. Chacun applique ses principes comme il l’entend» (1999: 12-13; «impressionism is above all an individual expression. Each and every one applies its principles as they understand them»). When Verner von Heidenstam and Oscar Levertin in the famous pamphlet Pepitas bröllop. En literaturanmälan (Heidenstam and Levertin 1890: 42; Pepitas Wedding. A Literary Review) established as the ultimate goal of the new literature of the 1890s precisely the imitation of the individualism of the modern painters, they hinted at the interrelation between the visual arts and literature, which is of central concern to the discussion of literary impressionism, as we will see.

9Along these lines, the following discourse on literary impressionism departs from the idea that impressionist texts and impressionist writers should not be seen as connected by one fundamental common feature, and instead assumes what could be defined as a ‘polythetic’ approach to the classification of these writings and authors. By briefly mentioning Ludwig Wittgenstein’s philosophical concept of «family resemblance» as a suitable analogy for explaining the multiplicity of literary impressionism, Paul B. Armstrong, in a review of Peter H. Stowell’s Literary Impressionism. James and Chekov (Armstrong 1980: 384), directed my attention to this possible approach to the issue investigation. Wittgenstein’s idea of Familienähnlichkeit (‘family resemblance’), developed in his work Philosophical Investigations (Wittgenstein 1953) as a means of linking numerous uses of one and the same word, seems in fact particularly apt to help organize a discourse of a literary mode variously understood as a concern with perception, both philosophical and artistic, as the superseder of naturalism, as literary behaviourism, as a modernist stream-of-consciousness technique, and as interart transposition.

10In his attempt to get to the essence of language, Wittgenstein (1953: 31e) describes the concept of Familienähnlichkeit by recurring to the metaphor of games – «board-games, card-games, ball-games, Olympic games» – and invites the reader to find out whether there is something common to all these varieties of games. Wittgenstein’s answer is that there are similarities, correspondences, and relationships between the activities that we call games, although no single characteristic feature central and common to all expressions of the concept of ‘games’ is to be found. Instead, he claims (1953: 32e), we should think of the word ‘games’ as «a complicated network of similarities over-lapping and criss-crossing, sometimes overall similarities, sometimes similarities of detail». He explains:

I can think of no better expression to characterize these similarities than ‘family resemblances’; for the various resemblances between members of a family: build, features, colour of eyes, gait, temperament, etc. etc. overlap and criss-cross in the same way. – And I shall say: ‘games’ form a family. (1953: 32e)

11However soothing Genette’s homage to multiplicity and Wittgenstein’s concept of Familienähnlichkeit might be, there is still a fly in the ointment. And it buzzes about the question of the usefulness of grouping together a selection of heterodox texts under a common label most often created by literary critics, which, as has been observed by detractors unwilling to speak of impressionist writing as a category, runs the risk of being much too flexible to be functional. In response, I would like to return to Wittgenstein’s philosophical investigations and also refer to the results stemming from the empirical survey of the use of the term in literary criticism accomplished in the present study. Firstly, Wittgenstein’s idea of «family resemblance» stresses the point that any word really corresponds to «a family of meanings» (1953: 36e) and his concept is furthermore indicative of the, not necessarily negative, inaccuracy and blurred boundaries that come with different employments of the same notion:

One might say that the concept ‘game’ is a concept with blurred edges. – “But is a blurred concept a concept at all?” – Is an indistinct photograph a picture of a person at all? Is it even always an advantage to replace an indistinct picture by a sharp one? Isn’t the indistinct one often exactly what we need? (1953: 36e)

12Secondly, this inquiry into literary impressionism departs from the pages of literary criticism written in the ‘age of impressionism’, in which the usage and the reflection on the meaning of the term in point of fact moved in several directions at one and the same time. My venture has been to mirror this reality.

13It is my belief that an approach to the understanding of literary impressionism which stems from the critics’ different approaches to the concept in combination with the writers’ diverse appropriations of and reflections on the tendency is valuable. If this leaves us with a result reflecting a multiplicity of interpretations of the concept of literary impressionism, the usefulness of this approach still remains. More to the point, if we resolved the difficulty of pinning down the definitions by simply expelling the term from the vocabulary, as has been suggested (Brown 1968: 59; Cuddon 1991: 446), how shall we name the various formulas that are known as literary impressionism?

3. What is literary impressionism?

14The answers to the question, whether based on the proximity to the visual arts, on philosophical groundings, or simply on a resistance to acknowledge the phenomenon, seem to flourish. Is literary impressionism about narrative techniques such as achronological narration, the representation of «the immediate epistemological experience» (Peters 2001: 24); in medias res, the author’s filtering of phenomena through the consciousness of one observer; the reader’s and the narrator’s simultaneous discovery of information; a central consciousness with a limited point of view instead of an omniscient narrator; or, multiple narrators? (Peters 2001: 22-27). Or is it, instead, synonymous with suggesting mood and atmosphere? Is it about the fragmentation of form? Of plot? Point of view? Individual perception as opposed to universal conventions? Transposition of painterly impressionism? Linguistic characteristics? Philosophical concerns? All of this, or nothing? According to John G. Peters, «much has been written about literary impressionism, but despite this body of commentary the movement remains amorphous, so much so that those definitions that do exist are themselves usually ‘impressionistic’» (Peters 2001: 13). He continues: «the problem with existing work on literary impressionism is that it either restricts the movement’s subject matter and methodology thereby ignoring crucial characteristics of impressionist literature, or expands the canon to include too many dissimilar authors» (Peters 2001: 14).

15With the conviction that the keys to understanding literary impressionism are manifold, this study departs from a focus on literary criticism written in Swedish at the turn of the nineteenth century in a bid to find an answer. Did literary impressionism exist in Swedish literature? On what terms? How was it interpreted and how can it be defined? Who are the writers connected with this literary mode? Which are the central works? The examination of the concept is further achieved through close readings of a selection of texts, singled out as significant examples of impressionist literary modes partly with the help of the opinions expressed in the literary criticism that has been scrutinized for this study.

4. A field that still requires investigation

16To the extent that literary impressionism has been discussed with reference to works of prose and poetry written in Swedish, contributions to a profound critical reflection on the subject can rightly be defined as negligible. In the 1950s, Karl-Erik Lundevall commented as follows on the notion of literary impressionism and Swedish prose: «i den litterära debatten i Sverige på 80-talet trängde begreppet aldrig igenom, och ingen av åttitalisterna blev annat än möjligen sporadiskt katalogiserad som impressionist» (1953: 240: «in the literary debate of the Swedish 1880s the concept never quite broke through, and none of the writers of this generation were, with the exception of possible sporadic occasions, labelled as impressionists»). Following his words of praise for Sven Møller Kristensen’s systematic study of literary impressionism in Danish prose (Møller Kristensen 1938), Lundevall admits, however, that the question has not quite been probed within a Swedish context: «för svensk litteratur saknas tyvärr några motsvarande utredningar» (1953: 240; «unfortunately no similar investigations have been applied to Swedish literature»). In 1970, Peter Hallberg would reiterate the same regret (Hallberg 1970: 258).

17In 1993, however, the Swedish scholar Hans Lund published a meticulous study with a global perspective on the history and usage of the term ‘literary impressionism’, one of the aims of which was to practise «hjärtmassage på den skandinaviska impressionismdebatten» (Lund 1993: 12; «cardiac massage on the Scandinavian impressionism debate»). In spite of Lund’s seminal work, Scandinavian studies on the concept of literary impressionism have only partly, and undoubtedly not yet adequately, explored its usage and significance in Swedish literature, as we will see. Moreover, no effort to assess the resonances and the role of impressionism in Finland-Swedish literature has so far been made.

18The lack of a scholarly tradition investigating literary impressionism in relation to fiction written in Swedish is regrettable considering the long history of the international debate on the theme and, especially, if taking into account its recently registered vivacity within the French and the English-speaking cultural contexts (see, e.g., Bowler 2016; Berrong 2013; Gengembre, Leclerc and Naugrette 2012; Parkes 2011; Pouzet-Duzer 2013; Saunders 2011 and 2013; Vouilloux 2012b). Therefore, what the following pages attempt to add to the ongoing international discussion on the theme is an understanding of the impact of impressionism on literature written in Swedish by way of considering literary impressionism as an inclusive and comprehensive notion, corresponding to its earliest usage in Swedish literary criticism, and not by presenting a personal vision of the substance of the term. This is not to say that critical redefinitions of impressionism in literature need to be ruled out. However, given the marginal attention paid to the study of the phenomenon in relation to Swedish literary texts, the present approach to the question has been deemed the most pragmatic. The dissection of how the term is variously encountered in literary criticism and in the writers’ reflections on the theme is accompanied by close readings of texts that have been singled out in order to highlight different ways of characterizing impressionism in literature and its formal or stylistic aspects. Each text is believed to reveal distinctive aspects of literary impressionism and each reading explores specific impressionist techniques.

5. Acts of reconstruction

19Along these lines, the present study is not aiming at a personal redefinition of literary impressionism like the one Jesse Matz strives to elaborate in his volume Literary Impressionism and Modernist Aesthetics (Matz 2001). Nor does it aspire to link this tendency exclusively to one of the key issues of literary impressionism, to interart comparison, or to narrative techniques, or to philosophical theories of perception. Rather, it wishes to represent acts of reconstruction. As such, it has taken two main directions: firstly, the description of what the idea of literary impressionism meant to critics and writers operating in «the age of impressionism» (Hauser 1999: 178), which has consequently led to the identification of those writers and those texts that were, at the time, considered representative of the tendency. Secondly, it proceeds to an in-depth analysis of aspects in the identified texts that supposedly draw on the modes of literary impressionism.

20By departing from suggestions in critical writings, my objective has been to put across different lines of interpretation of impressionist prose. However, the main body of the textual analysis proposed in part two of the present study, represented by Helena Westermarck and Stella Kleve, is independent of the results stemming from the diachronic examination of the use of the term in the literary criticism evaluated in part one. As we will see, the critical views on literary impressionism exhibited in the press do not always reveal a profound understanding of the phenomenon and often seem to depend on the reviewer’s private associations of what the term might encapsulate and on a superficial analysis of the literary works discussed. Although interesting from the point of view of the issue investigation, many of these brief critical commentaries claiming to find the legacy of impressionism in the texts that are discussed in the reviews are personal evocations that, in my opinion, often fail deeper scrutiny. To supplement the investigation into Westermarck’s and Kleve’s impressionist prose, I also explore what I have reputed the most relevant suggestions offered by these critical reviews, namely the ones regarding impressionist qualities in Georg Nordensvan’s and Mikael Lybeck’s works.

  • 2   See also Berndt Olsson’s article discussing epochal styles, Olsson 1983.

21Literary impressionism is here thus investigated as a category present in the prose of a specific period, that of the last two decades of the nineteenth century, although «the aesthetic idea of impressionism» (Venturi 1941) is undeniably visible in artistic creations of greatly different eras. As Bernard Vouilloux has observed in a recent contribution to the critical discourse on literary impressionism, «dans le contexte des études littéraires, il n’est pas rare que des catégories originellement historiques, comme celles de baroque, de classique, de romantique ou d’impressionnisme, fonctionnent de manière transhistorique» (Vouilloux 2012: 5; «within the context of literary studies, it is not rare that categories originally historical, such as baroque, classicism, romanticism or impressionism function in a transhistorical way»)2. Accordingly, and as we will see, in the body of commentary that interests the Scandinavian discourse on literary impressionism, the eighteenth-century Swedish poet Carl Michael Bellman is sometimes, as to the nature of his apperception and style, indicated as one of the greatest impressionists in Scandinavian prose, alongside the prose of the seventeenth-century Danish royalty Leonora Christina. Similarly, in the twentieth century, the Norwegian writer Cora Sandel has been seen as an author who has transferred impressionism into modernist writing. However, for the purpose of my investigation here, the discussion is limited to the years in which painterly impressionism gained ground in the Nordic countries as a creative impulse with a potential to fuel the cultural debate.

6. Methodology

22The decoding of the concept of literary impressionism takes as its starting point a survey of the use of the term in the literary criticism of a limited period, i.e., approximately 1870-1910, written in Swedish. The restriction of the field of investigation to these years has depended upon the results of the examination of the electronically accessible digital archives of the Finnish Historical Newspaper Library3. The search results demonstrated that the occurrence of the term was most frequently concentrated to the years 1880-1900, when the pictorial movement (from which literary impressionism at least drew its nominal inspiration) developed and spread worldwide, not the least through the presence of foreign artists living and working in France.

23Special attention had to be given to the use of the adjective impressionistisk in order to avoid the risk of over-interpretation. When Erik Hedén in the article Siri von Essen (Hedén 1920) writes about the correspondence between August Strindberg and his first wife, he speaks of their letters thus: «hos båda samma impressionistiska stil, samma oförmåga att skriva lugnt och jämnt. Bådas brev överflöda av tank-streck» («in both we find the same impressionistic style, the same inability to write calmly and evenly. The letters of the two overflow with dashes»). The adjective ‘impressionistic’ is here used without specifically referring to the style, methods or techniques of the current in the arts (painting, literature, music) but rather as a synonym for ‘spontaneous’ or ‘unstructured’, which, of course, again turns back to the visual arts as these words correspond to the early view of what was one of the main ‘flaws’ in impressionist painting. This meaning of the adjective is, however, certainly adaptable to the prose of any period, although its use is perhaps likely to be more frequent in the wake of the artistic movement that emerged in the early 1870s. By contrast, as Jesse Matz (2011: 116) puts it in a recent criticism of Colm Tóibín’s and Michael Cunningham’s attempts to restore the impressionism of Henry James and Virginia Woolf, «impressionism was never merely impressionistic».

24It is only natural that the concept of impressionism should have influenced the critical writing on literature especially at the time of the painterly current’s greatest fame and fortune. With the pretension of mirroring reality, I have relied on the variety and richness of the definitions of literary impressionism offered by the press in order to avoid restricting the understanding of the term to a fixed formula, destined to exemplify one aspect of the notion only. The attempt to find models, examples and protagonists representative of the various tendencies of literary impressionism in Swedish literature has been done, I repeat, with the claim of reflecting the multiform interpretative possibilities of a concept that was a reality at the time.

25The pluralistic approach to the analysis of literary impressionism chosen for this study has led, where necessary, to separate discussions of method in each section. This is particularly true for the central chapter, Modes of literary impressionism, where the analytic approach is threefold. Firstly, I venture into the minefield of ut pictura poesis with the hypothesis according to which Helena Westermarck’s 1890 short story Aftonstämning (Evening Mood) can be seen as a case of literary transposition of a subject and the techniques of impressionist painting. To avoid the mines constituted by loose interart analogies – «suggestive at best but at worst misleading» (Matz 2001: 46) – I test the idea of the «ekphrastic model» developed by Tamar Yacobi (1995 and 1998) and study Westermarck’s imagistic approach to description with the help of Hans Lund’s concept of «iconic projection» (Lund 1982: 53). Secondly, as I move on to analyze impressionist traits in Stella Kleve’s prose, I explain the specificities of her narrative technique by resorting to Herman Bang’s, Sven Møller Kristensen’s, Ian Watt’s, and Ford Madox Ford’s theorizations of the substantial features of literary impressionism. Lastly, I depart from the results stemming from the critical survey applied to the Finland-Swedish press in order to evaluate the nature of Georg Nordensvan’s and Mikael Lybeck’s texts, which by their contemporary critics were held to be representative of literary impressionism.

26When turning to the representation of the impressionist in fiction I have attempted to disclose themes common to the genre of the artist novel that are found in the texts under consideration. This broader framework has led to a discussion of how some of the strategies specific to the genre (see, e.g., Bowie 1950: 5-7) are incorporated into the discourse on the impressionist painter. Concentration is on the presentation of the technical and aesthetic discourse of impressionist painting and on the painter’s milieu (both the physical environment, inside or outside the city, and the studio, as well as the social setting, such as the painter’s circle of friends). The specificities of each text lend themselves to separate discussions: I relate Gustaf af Geijerstam’s short story Utan pängar (Moneyless) to Marianna Torgovnick’s theorization of the use of the visual arts in fiction (Torgovnick 1985) and discuss the function of ekphrasis in this tale, while the understanding of Georg Nordensvan’s Aja seems to benefit from a comparison with the writer’s activity as an art critic, and K.A. Tavststjerna’s Impressionisten from what seems to be its relationship to phenomenological apperception.

7. Key components

27The attempt to unfold the dimensions of literary impressionism within the Swedish cultural context and in the age of impressionism is, similarly, a procedure in three steps: step one conveys the range of the understanding of the phenomenon; step two illustrates the variety of literary impressionism through textual analysis; step three shows the writers’ awareness of impressionism by examining fictional impressionists featuring in their texts.

28In Part I, Literary impressionism. A variety of concerns, I begin by attempting to explain and reveal studies on literary impressionism that have seen the light after the publication of the Swedish scholar Hans Lund’s monograph, Impressionism och litterär text (Lund 1993), dedicated to the history and understanding of literary impressionism in an international context, including the Scandinavian scene. To target the subject of investigation, I have tried to map the recent revitalization of the debate on literary impressionism that has taken place above all in France and in the English-speaking cultural context, which Virginie Pouzet-Duzer has spoken of as a «un sursaut d’intérêt» (2013: 10; «a surge of interest») and Max Saunders as a «rehabilitation» (2008c). In the scrutiny of the Scandinavian debate, I depart from recent essays on literary impressionism left untouched by Lund’s examination and from handbook definitions of the term, before working my way back in time towards the age of pictorial impressionism, which, as we have seen, offers the temporal limit to the present study.

29The three landmark discussions in the history of literary impressionism in the Nordic countries that occurred in the impressionist era offer the background for my own critical survey of the use of term in the Finland-Swedish area. The Danish author Herman Bang’s poetics of impressionism, the understanding of impressionism in Hans Jæger’s and Christian Krohg’s Norwegian review Impressionisten and, in Sweden, August Strindberg’s association with impressionism, are firstly scrutinized in depth. These three high-water marks in the Scandinavian debate will, I hope, shine a light on the extensive use of the term in Scandinavia, and, by doing so, on facets of literary impressionism to which the international discussion is perhaps to a certain extent unaccustomed. While Herman Bang’s understanding of impressionism engaged with the theatre stage, the intransigence and rebelliousness originally connected with the impressionist movement instead emerge through the Norwegians’ and through Strindberg’s engagement with impressionism. Moreover, the example of Jæger and Krohg also shows that impressionism was seen as a subjective, autobiographical superseder of naturalism, while Strindberg’s reception of impressionist art in 1876 indicates that it was possible to fully understand and admire the unruliness and the ‘madness’ of the first impressionist painters but, at the same time, disapprove of their technique.

30The key issue addressed in this section is, however, a survey of the use of the term in literary criticism written in Swedish in the years 1870-1910. The examination of the Finland-Swedish newspapers and the periodical Finsk tidskrift is first-hand research and has been undertaken with the aim of finding out to what extent the critics contributing with literary reviews to the Finland-Swedish press proved to be concerned with this category, how it was understood and what works and authors were thought to be representative of this phenomenon.

31My chief concern in Part II, Modes of literary impressionism. Textual analyses, is to illustrate modes of literary impressionism – some of which partly identified in the preceding section of this study – through examples from works of prose written in Swedish around the turn of the nineteenth century. The models of exemplification have been selected to show the understanding of literary impressionism as a prose departing from the principles of impressionist painting, firstly, and, secondly, to point out the narrative modes characteristic of literary impressionism. In the first case, I use the Finnish painter, critic, and writer Helena Westermarck’s (1857-1938) short story Aftonstämning as a springboard for the investigation of the concept and practice of ekphrasis in general, and in the context of impressionism in particular. The interpretation of literary impressionism as a transpositional prose adopting the compositional aesthetics of its painterly counterpart concerns here, I argue, both the motif (the balcony view of a Parisian street) and the narrative technique in the short story. To justify the appropriateness of a comparison and avoid irrelevant and inconsistent speculation, I look at narrative methods such as the use of point of view, iconic projection, framing and cropping. Concomitantly, reading Westermarck’s story through the lens of impressionism does reveal the author’s strategy of adopting a very modern form to explore social divisions in the Parisian cityscape. The short story is thus seen to constitute a writerly parallel to the ‘middle way’ found in the Scandinavian painters of the time. The discussion concludes by exposing the tensions between content and form in Westermarck’s interart transposition of visual elements, which contradicts the impressionist project to convey only sensory impressions, not ethical or social interest.

32As to the second analysis in Part II, I address the multifarious narrative expressions of literary impressionism as they appear in Stella Kleve’s short stories and in her debut novel, Berta Funcke. I discuss qualities and narrative methods in her texts seemingly dependent on Herman Bang’s impressionism that drew on the principles of theatrical representation, as well as textual features such as the ‘metonymic’ mode and ‘delayed decoding’, identified, in the international body of commentary regarding literary impressionism, as characteristic of impressionist prose. Through this second analysis, I wish to show the ways in which Kleve adhered to the impressionist ‘school’ of writers, in which she, in retrospective, stated to have had a place in the 1880s.

33Lastly, I examine the grounds for the contemporary literary critics’ definition of Georg Nordensvan’s short story collection Skuggspel (Shadowplay) and Mikael Lybeck’s novels Allas vår Margit (Our Dear Margit) and Den starkare (The Stronger) as examples of literary impressionism.

34Within Part III, Fictional impressionists, I bring into discussion the inclusion of impressionist characters into works of fiction written in Swedish. This chapter does not draw on the writers’ ambition to adapt to language the aesthetic theories or the techniques of impressionist painting. Instead, the examination of the impressionist painters that we encounter in Swedish fiction of the late nineteenth century has been undertaken with the aim of adding a piece to the mosaic having as its theme the writers’ awareness of, and interest in, impressionism.

35One of the ways in which the writers displayed their views and understanding of the methods and aims of impressionist painting may be clarified through a look at their treatment of the impressionist as a literary character. What is the role of the impressionist in these stories? How is the technical and aesthetic discourse presented? This field of investigation is particularly interesting when attention is given to doubly talented authors. Apart from their activity as novelists and short story writers, Gustaf af Geijerstam and Georg Nordensvan were also active as art critics, which is of relevance to the discourse as it implies that they had both the interest and the knowledge necessary to judge and interpret trends in painting.

36Not the artistic discourse but the act of perception is instead essential to K.A. Tavaststjerna’s tale Impressionisten (The Impressionist). Marck, the protagonist in this short story, is not a fictional painter but a person possessing a particularly sensitive nervous system. In fact, at the thematic centre of this novella is the character’s ability to see, i.e., to interpret experience correctly. The protagonist gains reliable data from his subjective impressions and interprets reality merely through his refined senses. My discussion of the text departs from the idea that the presentation of Tavaststjerna’s protagonist in the short story features insightful information to access yet another denotation of impressionism, namely the one that defines impressionism as deriving knowledge from sense impressions. Here, it is the impression, not intellectual reflection, that becomes a form of clairvoyance in its own right.


This book builds on a doctoral dissertation completed at the University of Milan. Sections 5 (Part I) and 2 (Part II) are slightly revised versions of articles that originally appeared in Scandinavian Studies and Scandinavica, respectively (Storskog 2011 and 2012).


1   All translations are mine, unless otherwise indicated.

2   See also Berndt Olsson’s article discussing epochal styles, Olsson 1983.

3   Available at Accessed 7 February 2018.


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