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Literary Impressionisms

Camilla Storskog

Part II: Modes of Literary Impressionism. Textual analyses

1. Trajectories into the heart of the matter

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  • 1   See e.g., Peters 2001, Matz 2001. By contrast, Richard Berrong goes back to interart comparison i (...)

1The following pages are concerned with forms of literary impressionism present in late nineteenth-century Swedish prose fiction and, specifically, with the narrative techniques employed in the texts that are up for scrutiny. Impressionist techniques in writing is an argument that undoubtedly calls attention to the question of the relationship between literature and the visual arts: are these writerly techniques no more and no less than ut pictura poesis? Are there ways of transferring the means and the methods of painting to verbal art? Is it rather the act of perception characteristic of impressionist writing that should be likened to that of the impressionist painter? Or does verbal impressionism follow a completely different set of rules? While Ford Madox Ford, in 1914, sustained the modernity of those writers who attempted to transfer impressionist painterly techniques into their own medium, words, many recent scholars with an interest for literary impressionism have produced studies stressing the distance between impressionist writing and impressionist painting, rather tracing literary impressionism back to the philosophical thinking of Hume, Locke, or Merleau-Ponty1. To Ford Madox Ford’s strident appeal in the essay On Impressionism (Hueffer 1914a and 1914b), which goes:

Do not, I beg you, be led away by the […] cant phrase […] that the Futurists are trying to be literary and the plastic arts can never be literary. Les Jeunes of to-day are trying all sorts of experiments, in all sorts of media. And they are perfectly right to be trying them. (Hueffer 1914a: 174)

2a contemporary scholar such as John Peters (2001: 15) replies, it would seem, dishearteningly: «although impressionist art and literature share similar philosophical concerns, their techniques for representing those concerns usually differ considerably because of the differing media they employ».

3Within the Scandinavian context, the first broad study dedicated to literary impressionism, Sven Møller Kristensen’s Impressionismen i dansk prosa, begins on the track marked out in Ford’s essay. Møller Kristensen thus considers the phenomenon as one taking more than nominal inspiration from the impressionist school of painting, primarily by sharing the painters’ passive attitude towards their subject, an aspect which, according to this scholar, is made visible in the style of impressionist prose:

I litteraturen medfører impressionismen en omdannelse af stilen, der er parallel med revolutionen af den maleriske teknik. Den psykologiske baggrund er den samme: der foregår en forandring i kunstnerens indstilling til virkeligheden, fra en forarbejdende til en blot modtagende. (1955: 22)

In literature impressionism brings about a change in style, which is parallel to the revolution that occurred in painterly technique. The psychological background is the same: there is a change in the artist’s attitude towards reality, from a preparatory [stance] to plain reception.

4On the subject of syntactical logic, which Møller Kristensen declares as good as non-existent in impressionist writing, the scholar grows bolder in his search for interart analogies, so much so as to set up an equivalence between the absence of preparatory sketching in the visual arts and the abandoning of grammatical correctness in the domain of writing: «den litterære impressionistiske teknik er her ganske parallel med den maleriske: malerne forkastede tegningen som grundlag for maleriet, forfatterne brød med den overlevende logiske syntax for at forøge sprogets maleriske kaft [sic]» (1955: 92; «the literary impressionist technique is in this case quite parallel to the painterly: the painters denied the use of drawing as the basis for painting, the writers broke with the surviving syntactical logic in order to boost the pictorial force of language»). In spite of these cursory equivalences to the visual arts, Møller Kristensen mainly concentrates on grammatical and syntactical questions and does not discuss literary impressionism as a writing focussing on motifs common to the painterly movement, nor does he delve deeper into the ways in which the painters’ compositional techniques or representational methods might be transferred to literature. This is where we need to reassess his suggestions.

5In an attempt to explore the craft of literary impressionists and clarify to what extent Møller Kristensen’s equation between verbal art and visual art needs to be recalculated, the point of departure for the textual analyses that will be carried out in this section of the present work is to pursue the two principal trajectories outlined in the international literature on impressionism in prose. These two lines of interpretation have recently been summed up by Florence Dumora as follows:

L’emploi d’‘impressionniste’ pour la littérature a deux origines possibles: l’une, médiate, suppose la transposition de la peinture à la littérature, l’autre, recentrée sur l’étymon, définit une littérature qui procède par impression, par opposition à celle qui analyse, juge ou construit. (Dumora 2012: 30)

  • 2   As we have seen, Ferdinand Brunetière was the first to indicate the direction of the trajectory t (...)

The definition of ‘impressionist’ as applied to literature has two possible origins: the first understands it indirectly as a transposition of painting into literature, the other, by going back to the philological meaning of the term, designs a writing that proceeds through impressions, as opposed to analysis, judgement, or construction2.

6This choice, it must be admitted, leaves out the investigation of possible Swedish correspondences to the singular interpretation of impressionism as a subjective naturalism concentrating on the writer’s autographical experience, which was central to the Norwegian, bohemian, understanding of the investigation issue, as we have seen. However, though mainly concerned with the textual rendering of visual perceptions, my use of the second interpretive category – generalized by Dumora as «a writing that proceeds through impressions» – does accommodate a side step from this second trajectory which remains faithful to the wide-ranging Scandinavian use of the concept of literary impressionism. Through a reflection on what place Herman Bang’s scenic impressionism holds within a literary tendency shunning analysis and judgement, and counting, instead, on the reader’s collaboration in the process of giving sense to the text, I intend to respect the extensive use of the term evident in its employment in the Scandinavian tradition, which differs from the less encompassing significance it has taken on in an international context.

7Through a close reading of a short story written by the Finland-Swedish painter and writer Helena Westermarck, I will enter the first trajectory: literary impressionism as a transposition of painting into literature. I will argue that Westermarck’s short story Aftonstämning, published in 1890, is a useful and convincing example of how a writer, well-versed in painterly techniques and a connoisseur of French impressionism, transferred a subject familiar to impressionist painting – as well as the means and the methods of this school – to prose.

8As regards the second interpretive course, impressionism as a writing building on the rendering of impressions, I have singled out Stella Kleve’s authorship to lay bare an inspiring case of the adoption of some of the more substantial impressionist writerly techniques charted in the previous section of the present work. Moreover, next to Herman Bang, this author is also one of the few Scandinavian writers to have thought of herself as a literary impressionist, as we will see. Specifically, I will look at the ways in which Kleve’s texts concur: (1) with the maxim of Herman Bang’s impressionism, according to which literary impressionism is to be understood as «den iscenesatte fortælling» (Møller Kristensen 1955: 34; «a staged narration»); (2) with two distinctive features of impressionist writing, firstly with what I have called ‘the metonymic mode’, following up on Møller Kristensen’s discussion of the role of metonymy in Danish literary impressionism (Møller Kristensen 1955: 123), and, secondly, with a technique variously known as ‘delayed decoding’ (Watt 1972 and 1980), the ‘uncorrected chronicle’ (Hueffer 1914a: 173) or ‘phenomenological apperception’ (Møller Kristensen 1955: 119-34). I will also reflect on the function of the punctuation peculiar to Kleve’s prose; an aspect, which again resonates with Bang’s distinctive stylistics.

9Lastly, with the aim of testing the cogency of the hypothetic evaluations put forward by the contemporary critique, which, as I have demonstrated in the critical survey dedicated to the Finland-Swedish press, held Georg Nordensvan’s and Mikael Lybeck’s texts to be representative of literary impressionism, I will scrutinize aspects such as the metonymic mode, the unobtrusive narrator, and scenic impressionism in the prose of these two authors.


1   See e.g., Peters 2001, Matz 2001. By contrast, Richard Berrong goes back to interart comparison in his recent readings of Pierre Loti’s Pêcheur d’Islande, cf., Berrong 2006 and 2013.

2   As we have seen, Ferdinand Brunetière was the first to indicate the direction of the trajectory tracing literary impressionism back to the visual arts in his essay from 1879. H. Peter Stowell’s works (1980 and 1984) are instead symptomatic of the second, cf., Stowell (1984: 538): «the stylistic foundation of impressionism is the creation of linguistic and rhetorical effects that render sensory impressions on eyes, ears, and consciousness. Impressionist characters rarely think causally or conceptually. Instead, if they aren’t directly involved in a sensory experience, their consciousnesses are sorting, resorting, and synthesizing perceptual fragments experienced over time, but reexperienced in each present moment. There is a dramatic and terribly important ontological shift from the verb “to be” to “seems”, “appears”, or “it was as if”. These tropes underscore the tenuous nature of perceived reality, thrusting at the reader the textures of unknowable surfaces. The world of impressionism is the world of appearances […] with the accelerating pace of sensory stimuli constantly assaulting the perceiving consciousness, it becomes possible to deal with the reality of surfaces only».


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