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Literary Impressionisms

Camilla Storskog

Part I: Lirerary Impressionism. A variety of concerns

1. What is in a word?

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1«What exactly is meant by ‘impressionism’ in fiction?» is one of the questions raised by Marianna Torgovnick in a scathing commentary on Mario Praz’s concluding words to his essay Mnemosyne: the Parallel between Literature and the Visual Arts (Torgovnick 1985: 6). With this, and a host of other queries, Torgovnick is phrasing her perplexity when confronted with Praz’s view on interart analogies relying on the idea of a vague and general Zeitgeist. Torgovnick’s wording is only apparently simple: the adverb «exactly» and the single quotation marks enveloping the noun «‘impressionism’» are bound to generate a series of reflections within a context like ours, discussing the history, the existence and the usefulness of the term literary impressionism.

2I will begin this section of the present work by looking at interpretations of literary impressionism in publications that have recently appeared in the French and in the English-speaking cultural contexts, areas which currently appear to be the most fertile ground for studies dedicated to impressionist literary writing. I will then go on to discuss the few contributions to the debate on literary impressionism that have surfaced in Scandinavia in the years succeeding Hans Lund’s publication Impressionism och litterär text in 1993. To complete the discussion of contemporary interpretations of the notion, I will, in addition, consider handbook definitions of literary impressionism in different cultural contexts, in an attempt to discover how the concept is defined in some of the language areas that recognize it as a literary tendency. Next, I will turn my attention to three key moments in the Scandinavian history of literature of relevance to our discussion here: Herman Bang’s authorship, the Norwegian review Impressionisten, and August Strindberg’s association with impressionism all constitute highlights in the late nineteenth-century Scandinavian debate on impressionism and literature and will therefore be deeper delved into in the following paragraphs.

3The survey of the use of the term in this chapter will end with a profound investigation of its application in the literary criticism written in Swedish and present in the Finland-Swedish newspapers, as well as in the review Finsk tidskrift, in the years 1880-1900, approximately. This last attempt to outline the attention given to the concept by literary critics is first-hand research, made possible through the electronically accessible digital archives of the Finnish Historical Newspaper Library. The results stemming from this survey have allowed me to identify authors, texts, and stylistic modes connected with the idea of literary impressionism – in the impressionist era and in a Swedish and Finland-Swedish cultural context – this investigation therefore, directly or indirectly, lays the basis for the selection of texts analyzed in the third chapter of this study.

4If «the recent rehabilitation of the concept of literary impressionism», of which Max Saunders has spoken in his entry on literary impressionists in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Saunders 2008c)1 – a rehabilitation to which the present study aims to contribute – is persistently proving the pointlessness in earlier incitements (or provocations) to drop the term «from the […] literary vocabulary» (Brown 1968: 59), time has come to permanently unwrap the single quotation marks, which, in Torgovnick’s query, parcel up impressionism as a ‘foreign’ word to literature, and resign to the fact that ‘exact’ is an adjective that hardly applies to its definitions2. To paraphrase Wylie Sypher, who, on the subject of the impressionist painters, claims that «they have no method – only methods» (Sypher 1960: 170), this first chapter of my study will set the scene for my belief that there is no mode of literary impressionism – only modes.

5What, then, approximately, is literary impressionism?


1 Accessed 7 February 2018.

2   By contrast, Florence Dumora, in her essay L’Impressionnisme entre guillemets (Impressionism in Quotation Marks), discusses various meanings of the use of quotation marks in combination with the term literary impressionism, and comes to the conclusion that the «guillemets d’approximation» (2012: 35, italics in the original; «quotation marks indicating approximation») are to be employed when referring to this category of writing. She states: «ces guillemets sont là pour rappeler l’impropre, qui signifie autant ce qui n’est pas approprié que ce qui est figuré sans propre identifiable» (Ibidem, italics in the original, «these quotation marks are there to remind us of the inappropriateness, by which is meant both what is not appropriate and what is figured without precise identification»).


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