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Literary Impressionisms

Camilla Storskog

Part II: Modes of Literary Impressionism. Textual analyses

3. The narrative methods of the rendering of impressions: Stella Kleve

Texte intégral

  • 1   Cf. for example Virginie Pouzet-Duzer 2008: 7.

1What, then, are the narrative characteristics of a writing that builds on the rendering of impressions? The question has been variously debated. Even a scholar such as Sven Møller Kristensen, who, as we have seen, departs from the idea that impressionist writing is the transposition into words of the methods and style of the painters, reflects on the second element of the coinage ‘literary impressionism’, and agrees that «det dybest gående træk i impressionismen er [...] undgåelsen af den logiske bearbejdelse af indtrykkene, manglen på analytisk virksomhed» (1955: 119; «the most essential trait of impressionism is [...] the avoidance of a logic systematization of the impressions, the lack of analytic work»). Consequently, his studies concentrate on how this fundamental impressionist feature regarding the act of perception comes forth through grammar (for example through the use of «substantivisk stil» [Ibidem; «nominal style»], or «parataktisk og koordinert sætningsbygning» [Ibidem; “paratactic and coordinated syntax”]) as well as through stylistic qualities on a higher textual level, which include, for example, the apparent absence of the author and the unobtrusive position of the narrator, indirect speech, stream-of-consciousness, phenomenological apperception, and metaphorical language. As mentioned in his foreword (1955: 13), Møller Kristensen’s aesthetic and stylistic approach to literary impressionism is, not surprisingly, inspired by the early German formal and linguistic investigation of literary impressionism, as in Louise Thon’s study Die Sprache des deutschen Impressionismus (Thon 1928), a methodology which has recently been judged outdone and unscientific, as previously mentioned1.

2Earlier criticism commenting more or less briefly on Stella Kleve’s impressionism (Dahlerup 1987; Ney 1993a, 1993b, 2005; Lingebrandt 2011) alludes – rather impressionistically, it must be said – to the author’s transmission of instantaneous impressions in her prose, and also mentions the «nervousness» and «frenzy» observed in her prose as an impressionist trait (cf., Ney 2005: 106, Lingebrandt 2011: 70). The category of literary impressionism has furthermore been used to define the author’s «holdning» (Dahlerup 1987: 149; «stance») or «livsuppfattning» (Ney 1993a: 152; «attitude towards life»). Conversely, taking into account the fact that Kleve herself actually felt comfortable with the definition of impressionist – a detail hitherto overlooked by scholars – I will investigate her impressionism by departing from similarities with the scenic method of her revered master, Herman Bang, and then look at what I see as the essential trait of her impressionist mode, namely a mode of apperception that, according to a phrase formulated by Kleve in her short story Pyrrhussegrar (Pyrrhic Victories), strives to represent people and objects as in ‘a cracked mirror’, only rarely allowing the emergence of a totality but steadily focussing on single details and elements that stand for the whole.

3I will speak of this descriptive method as the ‘metonymic’ mode, a definition that draws on Kristensen’s observations regarding the centrality of the figure of metonymy in impressionist writing. This is a narrative mode that, on occasions, blends with what is often spoken of as ‘primitive perception’ in studies concerned with impressionist writerly techniques, and becomes, at least in one instance, an example of what Ian Watt defines as ‘delayed decoding’ in his studies on the impressionist prose of Joseph Conrad. Both forms strive to render the process of perception by relying on an initial sense impression to which meaning is attributed by organizing the narrative description in terms not obeying logic or earlier perceptive experience. I will then argue that Stella Kleve’s adoption of impressionist narrative modes, both scenic and metonymic, is far from being purely decorative and serves her choice of subject in that these become means with which to probe the improbable: the taboo of female eros.

3.1. Stella Kleve and literary impressionism

4According to the consensus view (cf., Ney 1993a: 33, Lingebrandt 2011: 7, Carlander 2013: 94) on the Swedish writer Mathilda Malling (1864-1942), the pseudonym, Stella Kleve, should be used to indicate the early, avant-garde phase of her authorship, located in the 1880s. The writer’s given name, Mathilda, in combination with the surname Malling – replacing her family name Kruse after her marriage, in 1890, to the Dane Peter Malling – instead refers to the later (and less experimental) literary output, consisting mainly of the romantic historical novels that she published from 1894 to 1931. Not surprisingly, it is mainly Stella Kleve who has caught the interest of the scholars. Recent contributions to the small, but growing, body of critical commentary exploring the role of Kleve’s writing on the late nineteenth-century Swedish literary scene comprise Birgitta Ney’s doctoral thesis Bortom berättelserna. Stella Kleve – Mathilda Malling (Ney 1993a; Beyond the Stories. Stella Kleve – Mathilda Malling), revaluating the author’s place in Swedish literary history; Ann Lingebrandt’s portrait of the artist as a counter-culturist, Stella Kleve. Det moderna genombrottets enfant terrible (Lingebrandt 2011; Stella Kleve. The Enfant Terrible of the Modern Breakthrough), and Cecilia Carlander’s recent PhD dissertation Les Figures féminines de la décadence et leurs implications esthétiques dans quelques romans français et suédois (Carlander 2013; Women of the Decadence and Their Aesthetic Implications in Some French and Swedish Novels)2. Nonetheless, both Birgitta Ney (1993a: 183-200) and Ann Lingebrandt (2001: 133) comment that the cleavage separating young Stella Kleve from the ‘grand old dame’ of the romantic novel, Mathilda Malling, is by no means clear-cut. As Lingebrandt puts it: «stilistiskt hittar man visserligen inte längre 80-talets impressionistiska fläktar och dekadenta utsvävningar, men tematiskt tar fortfarande unga kvinnors lidelser och längtan stor plats» (Ibidem; «stylistically one no longer finds the impressionist whiffs and the decadent lavishness of the 1880s, though, thematically, young women’s passions and desires are still central»).

  • 3   It should, however, be mentioned that Karl-Erik Lundevall spoke of Stella Kleve’s literary impres (...)

5At the heart of the following pages is the attempt to sharpen the grasp of Stella Kleve’s «impressionist whiffs». The question of impressionist traits in Kleve’s prose was brought up in the 1980s by the Danish scholar Pil Dahlerup, in her essay Impressionismen – ‘En Unatur, som dog findes i Naturen’ (Dahlerup 1987), partly dealing with the author3. Recently, both Ney and Lingebrandt have picked up the gauntlet in their studies dedicated to Kleve. Following the impressionist doxa as outlined in Sven Møller Kristensen’s Impressionismen i dansk prosa, Dahlerup concludes that her examination of Kleve’s short story Vid Beau-Rivage (1886d; At Beau-Rivage) gives as a result that the text is «i alt overvejende grad impressionistisk, en af de tydligste i nordisk litteratur» (1987: 149; «preponderantly impressionist, one of the clearest examples in Scandinavian literature»). Dahlerup’s succinct stylistic analysis mentions «hyppige sceneskift, betydningsfulde replikker, tilbagetrukket fortæller, lys- og farvemaleri, tankestreger og raffineret brug af metonymi» (1987: 146; «rapid changes of scenes, lines charged with meaning, the withdrawal of the narrator, light- and colour painting, dashes, and a refined use of metonomy»), as textual characteristics conforming to Kristensen’s theory of literary impressionism. In her discussion of the short story’s impressionism, Dahlerup also transfers René Huyghes’ treatment of painterly impressionism to literature, and applies it to Kleve’s use of a metaphorical language in which the energy of nature and of civilization clash (1987: 148); a stance («holdning») which, from Dahlerup’s point of view, is the fundament of the impressionist style (1987: 149).

  • 4   On other occasions, too, Ney similarly falls back on loose interart analogies. When referring, fo (...)
  • 5   The same evaluation is given in Ney’s entry on Kleve in Nordisk kvindelitteraturhistorie (Nordic (...)

6Birgitta Ney carries Dahlerup’s observations on Vid Beau-Rivage further by adding observations regarding the technique of in medias res, as well as a few, somewhat shallow, references to the art of Berthe Morisot, and Claude Monet (1993a: 147)4. The notion of literary impressionism is however functional to the overall discourse presented in Ney’s doctoral dissertation because it is considered to widen the understanding of those specificities in Kleve’s prose that so offended her contemporary readership: thus, Ney (1993a: 152, 154) sees impressionism as a mode by which Kleve could award prominence to the ‘energy’ and to the specific point of view («blicken») characteristic of her writing building on female experience. More than as a literary style, impressionism is here, too, seen as an attitude towards life, «ett uttryck för en hållning, en livsuppfattning» (1993: 152; «an expression of a stance, an ideology»). Next to Vid Beau-Rivage, another short story that suits Ney’s interpretation of Kleve’s impressionism is Pyrrhussegrar (1886c). This latter tale is also at the centre of Ney’s article from 2005, which, in spite of its title, Impressionism och modernitet hos Stella Kleve (Ney 2005; Impressionism and Modernity in Stella Kleve), only very briefly refers to Kleve’s modern form as impressionist, a definition which is here to be understood in terms of «nervousness» (2005: 106), and as prose with a clear message although dense with implicit allusions: «det antydda och underförstådda i Stella Kleves impressionistiska stil förhindrade inte heller att budskapet gick fram» (2005: 105; «the allusions and the unsaid in Stella Kleve’s impressionist style did not prevent the message from being clear»)5.

7Ann Lingebrandt adds her voice to this choir when stating, on the subject of Pyrrhussegrar, that «stilen är uppjagat impressionistisk, form och tema i perfekt samklang» (Lingebrandt 2011: 70; «the style is hectically impressionist, form and theme in perfect harmony»). Lingebrandt, however, also includes Stella Kleve’s debut novel, Berta Funcke, within the groups of works characterized by the author’s literary impressionism. Lingebrandt speaks of the novel’s composition as a series of «ögonblicksbilder […], likt ett pärlband av impressionistiska scener» (2011: 45; «instantaneous images […], similar to a pearl string of impressionist scenes»), all concentrating on the protagonist’s sensorial experiences. By contrast, Kleve’s second novel Alice Brandt is, according to Lingebrandt, a text in which «de impressionistiska stildragen är nedtonade, istället är det mera teori och diskussioner» (2011: 101; «the impressionist traits are toned down in favour of theoretical discussions»), while the numerous short stories are marginalized as «“småstycken” eller “stämningsbilder” [...] ofta rätt bagatellartade, med något stycke här och där som blänker till i hennes karaktäristiska impressionistiska stil» (2011: 106; «“bits and pieces” or “atmospheres” […] mostly rather trivial, occasionally lit up by passages written in her characteristic impressionist style»).

  • 6   Birgitta Ney has traced around thirty short stories published with the pseudonym Stella Kleve, or (...)

8In short, scholars such as Dahlerup and Ney have primarily been preoccupied with what they saw as an impressionist ‘attitude’ in Kleve’s approach to her subject. To the extent that impressionist traits in Kleve’s prose are delineated in their critical contributions, these are roughly explained with the help of Sven Møller Kristensen’s studies in literary impressionism (1938 and 1955), or cursory defined in terms of ‘nervousness’ or ‘instantaneous images’, ‘hectic’ states of mind, and an emphasis on the implicit. This state of affairs thus calls for a deeper investigation into the presumed ‘impressionist whiffs’ in Stella Kleve’s writing. Therefore, I will subject to close scrutiny Kleve’s debut novel Berta Funcke as well as the short stories published in the 1880s, with the ambition to reveal the dimensions of her literary impressionism6. A reading of Kleve’s strategies of description and prose style in terms of an impressionist narrative is all the more interesting as the writer herself, in 1920, when looking back at the mid-1880s, precisely claimed to have been an impressionist writer in this decade.

9This self-referential statement regarding the nature of her prose of the 1880s, thus suggesting the appropriateness in discussing this writer’s connection to literary impressionism, is a detail that has been overlooked in all the above mentioned studies concerned with the art of Stella Kleve, as well as in Torbjörn Nilsson’s book on Bang’s impressionism (Nilsson 1965), which also briefly touches on the Danish writer’s relationship to Kleve. Indeed, this avowal, present in the first part of her two autobiographical works, Uppfostran och inflytande: 1864-1885 (Malling 1920; Education and Influence: 1864-1885) makes of the Swedish Mathilda Malling, next to Herman Bang, one of the few Scandinavian authors to have spoken of themselves as impressionist writers. Let us take a closer look at the circumstances regarding this self-definition.

10In 1920, while working on her autobiography, Malling goes back to the diary she kept in the 1880s to truthfully render the encounters with Bang in Copenhagen in the winter of 1884, and comments on the quality of her diary annotations from this period. Referring to her frequent discussions with Bang, Malling states that «as an impressionist», she was, at the time she wrote the diary, less interested in the content of their deep conversations than in the «graphic» rendering of Bang’s statements:

Sedan komma vi under samtalets lopp in på religionen, det mänskliga lidandet, de oskäliga djurens lidande – ingenting originellt, men jag, som framför all [sic] är impressionist och objektiv skildrare, återger som vanligt grafiskt alla hans yttranden, rörd och djupt smickrad af alla dessa djupsinniga förtroenden. (Malling 1920: 216-17)

During our conversation we speak of religion, the sufferings of the human kind, the sufferings of innocent animals – nothing original, but I, who, above all, am an impressionist and an objective narrator, render, as usual, all his utterances graphically, touched and deeply flattered by all these profound confidences.

11Of interest in the passage above is not only Malling’s self-definition of being an impressionist: what is more, by equating the «impressionist» and the «objective narrator», Malling gives us a clue to her vision of the essence of the literary impressionist in terms evocative of Herman Bang’s own ideal of a detached, unobtrusive narrator. The somewhat obscure idea of rendering the confidences of her conversation partner ‘graphically’ would perhaps have been possible to clarify had Malling’s diaries been preserved. Unfortunately, they have all been lost or destroyed (Ney 1993a: 34).

12Given Stella Kleve’s connections to Herman Bang, suggestions from the Danish author are, conceivably, of interest for the purposes of the present study. I will briefly look at possible ways to address this query before concentrating on the narrative dimensions of Kleve’s impressionism.

3.2. Stella Kleve and Herman Bang

  • 7   Writers emulating Herman Bang’s scenic impressionism are, as expected, more easily found among Da (...)

13The influence of Bang on Kleve’s writing has been hinted at, but only on a superficial level (cf., Ney 1993a: 145, 1993b: 545, 2005: 29-30; Nilsson 1965: 105). In an early evaluation of the artistic liaison between Kleve and Bang, David Sprengel regarded the former as broadly influenced by the prose of the latter and indicated Berta Funcke as «den första, ohöljt Bang imiterande lilla boken» (Sprengel 1902: 373; «the first little book openly imitating Bang»)7.

  • 8   Birgitta Ney notes that on other occasions Kleve was upset by the critics’ insistence on her depe (...)

14In Uppfostran och inflytande: 1864-1885 from 1920, Malling writes of one of her own early attempts to imitate Bang’s style, found in the diary she consulted while working on her autobiography: «i synnerhet finnes en regnstämning – Wetteryd 2 oktober – i den beundrade Herman Bangs allra värsta manér, hvilket jag under flitiga studier av Haabløse Slægter och Tunge Melodier nu gjorde mitt bästa att till gagns tillägna mig» (Malling 1920: 203-04; «there is, in particular, a rainy day-mood – Wetteryd 2 oktober – in the very worst manner of the venerated Herman Bang, which I was now doing my best to make my own through intense studies of Haabløse Slægter and Tunge Melodier»)8.

  • 9   After the publication of her short story Flirtations, Kleve spent several months in Copenhagen en (...)

15Birgitta Ney (1993a: 25-28) has carefully accounted for the circumstances in which Stella Kleve looked up Herman Bang in Copenhagen on her return from Switzerland in the month of August in 1884, an episode individually documented by both writers. As editor-in-chief of Nationaltidende, Bang took the decision to publish Kleve’s short story Et barn af vår tid (A Child of Our Age) in his own Danish translation and with the new title Flirtations. Moreover, he also signed the preface to Berta Funcke, Kleve’s 1885 novel building on the same short story9.

16Looking back on these years in 1920, Malling herself speaks of Bang’s preface as an occasion in which the Danish master lifted her up to his level, though perhaps at the wrong moment: «att Bang, som då stod på höjden af sin impopularitet, skref ett långt förord till boken, hvari han på sätt och vis uppställde mig […] som ett slags kvinnlig pendant till honom själf och de mest avancerade modernisterna i Norden, har jag ofta hört tadlas» (Malling 1920: 222; «that Bang, who at the time was on top of his unpopularity, wrote a long preface to the book in which he, in one way or the other, presented me […] as some sort of female pendant to himself and to the most advanced modernists in the Nordic countries, is something that I have often heard being criticized»). Kleve, on the other hand, in an article entitled Om efterklangs- och indignations- litteraturen (Kleve 1886b; On the Literature of Indignation and Reverberation), presented Bang to the Swedish readers as a modern writer who deserved their attention. According to Torbjörn Nilsson, the influence was indeed two-sided. Nilsson (1965: 168) mentions Kleve’s short story Hendes Durchlauchtighed (also published in Danish in the journal Nutiden in December 1885) as a source of inspiration for Bang’s tale Hendes Højhed. Correspondences regard, in Nilsson’s opinion, however only the content: while Bang’s tale is written in his characteristic impressionist style, Kleve’s short story rather mimics the earlier Bang, the author of Fædra (Nilsson 1965: 168-69).

17At the end of her 1920 autobiography, Malling (1920: 214-31) dedicates a long passage to the friendship that developed between her and Herman Bang during her sojourn in Copenhagen in the winter of 1884. The following lines are exemplar of the tone characterizing Malling’s retrospective view of her admiration for the Danish author and early attempts to write in his manner:

Som skribent beundrade jag honom utan förbehåll och finner alltjämt att han – sådan som han är – med sina svagheter och sina företjänster – är en af de mest fängslande, egendomligaste och mest öfvertygande skönlitterära skildrare, Skandinavien någonsin har frambragt. Som jag redan har anmärkt, visste han det också mycket väl själf och gjorde ingen hemlighet af det. En gång – på tal om Excentriske Noveller – sade han till mig: “Lad kun Bladene skælde mig ud! Danmarks Litteraturhistorie vil engang være god mod mig”. Men naturligtvis kan ingen annan tillägna sig hans egendomligheter, och mitt fel var, att jag i min stora grönhet försökte mig på det. Mina första tryckta arbeten har jag inte på många år läst igenom, men när jag nu sitter och tittar i dagboksanteckningarna från samma tid, riktigt grufvar jag mig öfver min affekterade stil. (1920: 220-21)

As a writer I admired him immensely and I still find that he – the way he is – with all his weaknesses and assets – is one of the most haunting, peculiar and convincing writers of fiction of all times in Scandinavia. As I have already mentioned, he was very much aware of it himself and made no secret of it. Once – on the subject of Excentriske Noveller – he said to me: “Who cares if the newspapers attack me! Danish literary history will eventually be good to me”. But of course no one can make his peculiarities their own and my fault, inexperienced as I was, is to have made an attempt at it. I have not read through my first published works in years, but as I now look through my diary from those days, the pretentiousness of my style really does bother me.

18As Birgitta Ney has observed (1993a: 29-30), the artistic dialogue between Herman Bang and Stella Kleve would have been more easily clarified had it been possible to establish an approximate date of composition for the short stories published in the 1880s; although Mathilda Malling burned the original manuscripts there are specificities in these tales that seem to indicate that they were written before the encounter with Bang in 1884. During the work on her memories, Malling observes that when going through the diary entries annotated in Switzerland in the summer of 1884, she already encountered early drafts to her short stories: «här spirar alltså grodden till de typiska “Stella Kleve” novellerna, som […] gång på gång söka bryta sig fram i den lilla tunna dagboken och gång på gång undertryckas af mera handgripliga uppgifter» (1920: 166; «so this is where the typical “Stella Kleve”-short stories germinate, […] insistently trying to make their way through the tiny little diary, insistently submerged by more concrete facts»). She also admits, however, that Berta Funcke was written bearing in mind Herman Bang’s Danish translation of the short story that had formed its basis. The tale was reworked into a novel according to «de vinkar den danska öfversättningen, som kastat ett något annat skimmer öfver den ursprungliga skizzen, gaf mig» (1920: 221; «the suggestions that the Danish translation, which had thrown a slightly different lustre on the original sketch, had given me»).

19When Malling reveals (1920: 224-25) that she asked Bang to buy her a copy of the very novel that Ferdinand Brunetière had used as an example to illustrate the phenomenon of literary impressionism – Alphonse Daudet’s Les Rois en exil – we seem to have come full circle. It is therefore high time to move on to the study of Stella Kleve’s own impressionist whiffs.

3.3. The dimensions of Stella Kleve’s impressionism

20The point at issue here will be to lay bare those specificities of Stella Kleve’s narrative strategies that relate to impressionist modes of writing as mapped by authors and critics who have made attempts to theorize the craft of impressionist writers, and identify their function in the texts. I will attempt to explain the most clearly marked impressionist traits in Kleve’s prose with the help of aspects central to Herman Bang’s, Sven Møller Kristensen’s, Ian Watt’s, and Ford Madox Ford’s theorizations. As I see it, the dimensions of Stella Kleve’s impressionism encapsulate traits of scenic impressionism, the metonymic mode, and the idea of ‘delayed decoding’, a term coined by Ian Watt in his interpretation of Joseph Conrad’s impressionism, but of which Sven Møller Kristensen (1955: 119-34) spoke, with reference to J.P. Jacobsen, as a facet of the ‘phenomenological apperception’ characterizing the transmission of impressions in literary impressionism. Kleve also makes a singular use of punctuation marks, the function of which will be related to her impressionist style and discussed in conclusion.

3.3.1. Scenic impressionism

  • 10   In the novel Berta Funcke published the following year, this passage is replicated almost identic (...)

21As we have seen in the foregoing analysis of Herman Bang’s impressionism, the Danish novelist was primarily concerned with pursuing a dramatic method in prose writing. This solution to the problem of interpreting literary impressionism is not only limited to showing rather than telling, but is, according to Sven Møller Kristensen (1955: 34), often also visible in the impressionist writers’ «indledende regiebemærkninger» («initial set directions»), which support the construction of a scenic narration. As Kristensen puts it, these stage directions are «især brugt ved indledningen til en situation, som en regulær scenebeskrivelse, der oftest foregår i knappe og korte nominalsætninger, en objektiv form, der giver ringe indtryk af fortællerens tilstedeværelse» (Ibidem; «especially adopted to introduce a situation, and as a regular set description, which often makes use of spare and short nominal phrases, an objective mode giving little evidence of the narrator’s presence»). This manner of initiating a story found its way into Stella Kleve’s prose and its effects are particularly striking in the opening paragraphs to short stories such as Flirtations (1884a), Ensam (1886-87; Alone), and Vinterstycke (1884c; A Winter Fragment), as well as in the novel Berta Funcke, all examples of how the author, when setting the stage, resorts to nominal sentences or to the use of verbs in the present tense. To illustrate the technique with just one significant example, we will take a look at the opening lines to Flirtations, which sound as follows in Bang’s Danish translation10:

Et stort Værelse med to høje Vinduer ud mod Humlegaarden; rige, dobbelte Gardiner. Tykke, blomstrede Tæpper, i hvilke Foden sinker; Bord belastedt med Pragtværker, Modejournaler og Aviser. I det ene Hjørne et lille Skrivebord med en Buste af Goethe, mellem Vinduerne et aabent Pianoforte. Bogskab, Chiffonière, en lille Seng med et Silketæppe, halvt skjult af alle de Musselindrapperier – hist og her Blomster i Holdere og smaa Statuetter. (1884a, 25 September)

An immense room with two high windows looking out on Humlegården, heavy, double curtains. Thick, floral-patterned rugs, into which the foot sinks, a table loaded with coffee-table books, fashion magazines, and newspapers. In one angle a small desk with a Goethe bust, between the windows an opened piano. Bookshelves, a chiffonnier, a little bed with a silk spread, half-hidden behind a wealth of muslin draperies – here and there flowers in vases and small statues.

22In Kleve’s production we also find examples of tales – such as Vid Beau-Rivage (1886d), Morgondrömmar (1888b; Morning Dreams), Hemkomst (1886a; Homecoming), and På bröllopsresa (1884b; On Honeymoon), or sections in Berta Funcke – in which the action starts unrolling in medias res, with lines or actions that belong to unintroduced characters, apparently unfamiliar to narrator and reader alike but true to the scenic character of the narration.

23Essentials in «den iscenesatte fortælling» (Møller Kristensen 1955: 34; «the staged narration»), as pursued by Stella Kleve, are thus the submerged narrator, the presence of set directions, and, as we will see, the use of direct speech in which the lines are coloured by the specificities of expression peculiar to each character, sometimes driven to the point of becoming what Møller Kristensen terms «replikmosaik» (155: 31; «a mosaic of lines»), explained as «et yndet motiv for impressionisten […] indtrykket af mange personers samtidige tale, fx. i selskaber. Replikerne kommer i flæng, flimrende og kaotisk, så i regel kun tonefaldet røber personerne. Bang er mester i denne form, som man især træffer ofte i Stuk» (Ibidem; «a favourite motif among the impressionists […] the illusion of simultaneous conversations engaging many persons, e.g., at social gatherings. Verbal exchanges are indiscriminate, vibrating, and chaotic, and, as a rule, the characters are given away only by the tone of their voice. Bang is the master of this form, which is frequently observed in Stuk»).

24In a novel like Berta Funcke, whose protagonist has an undying love for the theatre and a personal talent for acting, the adoption of scenic impressionism is particularly pertinent. When Stella Kleve here pictures a scene set at a train station, the effort to customize the characters’ individual lines is evident all the way down to the author’s use of typography to indicate pauses, coarseness, perhaps hesitation, while the impression of a frenzy, multilingual crowd is made visible through occasional uses of the present tense, direct, unattributed speech in different languages, insubstantial diegesis and, again, through typographical choices:

– –
“Seså, Berta, der ha vi tåget.” Berta samlar ihop sina saker i hast: “Pappas paraply – der.”
Dörrarna slås upp:
“Lausanne – Neuchâtel – Bâle.”
Rök och drag på perrongen. Ett oupphörligt knuffande: “Pardon, mais mille pardons! –”
“Non-fumeurs – Berta, här!”
[…] Han tryckte handen och såg henne in i ögonen – mörka, glänsande, under det svarta floret.
– –
Så började tåget att gå.
Han såg henne ännu stå qvar på platformen – hög och slank, med sänkt hufvud – båda händerna mot den blanka jernstången. Och han hviskade sakta ännu en gång:
“Farväl!” (Kleve 1885a: 138)

– –
“Well, then, Berta, here comes the train.” Berta gathers her belongings hastily: “Father’s umbrella – there.”
Doors open.
“Lausanne – Neuchâtel – Bâle.”
Smoke and gusts by the track. A constant jostling: “Pardon, mais mille pardons! –”
“Non-fumeurs – Berta, here!”
[…] He squeezed her hand and looked her in the eyes – dark, glowing, behind the black veil.
– –
Then the train departed.
He watched her lingering at the platform – tall and lean, head hanging – both hands on the lucid iron railing. And he whispered slowly once more:

25However, as Møller Kristensen observes, to realize the ideal of the scenic novel by recurring, in this way, to «nøgne repliker» (1955: 32; «naked lines») is not enough: characters have to be exposed to the reader also through their movements, mimicry, and gestures. To Bang, as we have seen, the impressionist writers should make no attempt at analyzing the characters from within by allowing themselves access to the thoughts and feelings of their literary creatures, but should merely focus on those actions and externally observable movements revealing thoughts and feelings. In Bang’s words: «hver lille Handling er et Glughul ind i det skildrede Menneskes Tankeliv» (1890a: 693; «every little action is a peephole into the thoughts of the character described»).

26It is my conviction that the gravitation towards the narrative modes of scenic impressionism in Stella Kleve’s prose is practised with the precise purpose of heightening the reader’s awareness of the text’s thematic concentration on women in the role of seducers and female eroticism that, due to the social conventions of the age, were not allowed to emerge – not even in fiction. Ann Lingebrandt moves in the same circles when, on the subject of the importance of the multiple points of views and the exchange of looks between the characters in Kleve’s prose, she writes: «skiftena i fokus och spelet mellan olika slags blickar förstärker också ledmotivet om sken, förställning och dolda sanningar: det vi ser på ytan och det vi anar därunder» (2011: 52; «the changes in focus and the play with different kinds of gazes reinforce the leitmotif of illusions, daydreams, and hidden truths: what is observed from the outside and what is perceived underneath the surface»). The following passage from Berta Funcke is of interest to the issue investigation as it reveals how the protagonist herself, with an initial understatement, reflects on the significance of these exchanged looks. Meanwhile, through the concluding diegetic comment and in line with the principles of scenic impressionism, the narrator declines to probe the improbable (the character’s thoughts and feelings) and instead fixes the gaze on the physical reactions of this femme fatale: the tremor, the escalating pallor, and the intensified shadows underneath Berta’s eyes, all details indicative of this woman’s innermost feelings:

– – – “Åh – det är knapt värdt att tala om – – Men ibland kan jag från hörnet af en jernvägskupé, från en loge på theatern vexla en blick med en obekant – en, som jag aldrig har sett förut. Och under lokomotivets buller eller musiken från orkestern sjunker blicken djupare – blir ‘fastare’, mera bestämd – – – men jag känner aldrig någon lust att få veta hvad han heter eller odla en sådan bekantskap. Möter jag honom nästa dag – kanske en blick, ett leende – sedan är det förbi.”
Hon lät fingrarne dröjande glida öfver solfjäderns röda sidenkant. De tego båda. Så sade han sakta: “Mins ni, hvad Sti Högh sade om ‘de Melankolske store Samfund?’ – Ni tillhör det.”
Hon darrade lätt och svarade icke. Men hon blef blekare – vidunderligt blek – och ringarne under hennes ögon syntes nästan svarta. – – – – – – – – – – – (1885a: 114)
– – – “Oh – it is hardly worth mentioning – – But sometimes from the angle of a train compartment, from the box seat at a theatre, I happen to exchange a look with a stranger – one whom I have never seen before. And in the midst of the noise of the engine or the music from the orchestra, the look deepens – grows ‘sharper’, and more determined – – – though I never wish to find out his name or engage in a friendship. Should I run into him the following day – perhaps a look, a smile – then it is over.”
She let her fingers trail over the red silk border of the fan. They were both quiet. Then he said: “Do you remember what Sti Høgh said of ‘the great fellowship of the melancholics’ – You belong there.”
She shivered lightly and did not answer. But she grew paler – mysteriously pale – and the circles underneath her eyes appeared almost black. – – – – – – – – – – –

27In the following quotation from Kleve’s debut novel, the author very clearly combines narrative concentration on mimicry and overwrought physical movements with allusions to the veiled eroticism that is seething beneath the transparent shell of the male character’s body language when striving to maintain control over a rampant horse, at least in the eyes of the onlooker Berta Funcke:

Så såg hon honom en gång – på en ridtur de gjorde tillsammans på Djurgården – tygla en rasande häst. Hästen kastade sig tillbaka och stegrade sig gång på gång. Hon såg ryttaren böja sig fram i sadeln – läpparne hårdt sammantryckta, ådrorna på pannan svälde. – Med jernhand stramade han tyglarne, så att djurets hufvud böjdes hårdt mot bringan, och från den lyftade handen hven ridspöet ned.
– –
Då hästen ändtligen gick spak och stilla, var Berta Funcke blek som döden. Löjtnanten, som red bredvid henne, trodde att det var af rädsla. –
Två dagar derefter friade excellensen och fick ja. (1885a: 142)

Then, as it happened, she saw him – during a ride they took together at Djurgården – reining in a restive horse. The horse backed up and reared repeatedly. She watched the rider lean forward in the saddle – lips tightly sealed, veins swelling on the forehead. – His iron hand tightened the reins, pressing the head of the animal hard against its breast, and from the lifted hand the riding whip flicked.
– –
When the horse became calm and docile again, Berta Funcke was death pale. The lieutenant riding beside her thought it was out of fear.
Two days later His Excellency proposed and his proposal was accepted.

28On the subject of the text’s subtle sensuality, which is never explicit but always contained in tangible minutiae, Ann Lingebrandt writes:

Mer fysiskt än några upphetsade andetag och ett par kyssar blir det aldrig. Istället får de konkreta detaljerna härbärgera alla de stämningar av lust och lidelse som sjuder under ytan. Kusinens svettiga mössa. Ett litet ärr vid munnen hos en av beundrarna som Berta inte kan låta bli att vidröra med sitt lillfinger. Sättet hennes danskavaljer håller huvudet och hur hans hår doftar. (2011: 47)

It never gets more physical than a few aroused gasps and a couple of kisses. Concrete details are instead made to accommodate all the feelings of lust and passion that simmer underneath the surface. The cousin’s sweaty cap. A small scar next to the mouth of one of her admirers that Berta cannot refrain from touching with her little finger. The manner in which her dance partner is holding his head and the smell of his hair.

29Lingebrandt’s reading of Kleve’s attention to fragments and particulars of surface phenomena indicated the path to my own understanding of the author’s narrative strategy, to the conviction, that is, that her particular descriptive technique is indebted to impressionist representation. This connection is, as has been foreshadowed in the above, supported by one of Kleve’s own statements regarding her practice of description (which will be commented on in the following section), according to which her focus in the 1880s production was on the abundance of details. I see this trait as illustrative of her impressionist vein and ground my view on Møller Kristensen’s theory of the impressionist narrative in which special prominence is awarded to «de mange metonymiske figurer» (1955: 123; »the many metonymic modes»), emblematic of literary impressionism in general and, in particular, of impressionist character description: «de optræder især i forbindelse med fremstillingen af personer; impressionisten ser ikke det hele menneske, men opfatter i det flygtige øjeblik oftest kun en del af det» (Ibidem; «these appear especially in connection with the representation of characters; the impressionist does not see the entire person, but often grasps only a part of him or her in the fleeting moment»).

30In short, in the following attempt to shed light on Kleve’s use of fragments and trivia, I will depart from the author’s self-definition and from Møller Kristensen’s theorization to develop a discourse on the metonymic mode as an aspect of her prose impressionism. As Møller Kristensen puts it, «metonymien får i den impressionistiske stil en ny variant, hvor den mest fremtrædende sansekvalitet hos en ting bliver ersatning for tingen selv» (Kristensen 1955: 119; «a new version of metonymy, in which the dominant sensorial quality of an object replaces the object itself, is present in the impressionist style»).

3.3.2. The mirror crack’d. On the metonymic mode

31As stated by Mathilda Malling herself in the autobiographical work Uppfost- ran och inflytande: 1864-1885, the composition of her debut novel, Berta Funcke, came to a large extent to depend on the new «litterära fordringar» (1920: 167; «literary requirements») that she had gained insight into after Bang’s intervention on the short story Et barn af vår tid, which had become Flirtations in his Danish translation. These new-found ‘literary requirements’ are subsequently explained in terms reminiscent of a narrative strategy that I will term ‘the metonymic mode’, in a wish to follow up on Sven Møller Kristensen’s reflexion on the metonymy as a figure of speech central to impressionist prose.

32On the subject of character descriptions in her prose dating back to the mid-eighties, Malling writes: «det vimlar af “nackar”, “ryggar”, “ögon” och “leenden” – ryttare på den då brukliga höga cykeln som jag ännu tycker vara vådligt pittoresk» (Malling 1920: 167; «there is a multitude of “necks”, “backs”, “eyes”, and “smiles” – riders on the high wheeler which was popular at the time and which still seems terribly picturesque to me»). As we have seen in the preceding chapter, the response, both literary and painterly, of the impressionists to the inventories typical of naturalist description lied in an attempt to employ single, essential, details in the representation of a totality. In Cuddon’s handbook definition (1991: 446), for instance, impressionism is said to be a writing concerned with selecting «a few details to convey the immediate sense impression left by a scene», and Willy Dahl explains impressionist description as follows: «ikke alt skulle med i bildet, bare det vesentlige, det som trakk blikket til seg, det første inntrykk» (Dahl 1981: 70; «not everything would come into the picture, only what was essential, what attracted the vision, the first impression»).

33As I see it, Kleve’s basic narrative solution to the problem of description – the multitude of fragmentary minutiae ever-present in her work from the 1880s – can be said to reside in the metaphor of the cracked mirror which appears in the short story Pyrrhussegrar as a sort of mise en abyme; a looking glass which can no longer reflect an entirety, but splits it into single details representing the whole:

Nu såg hon hela sitt liv som i en krossad spegel, vilken ej är i stånd att helt och hållet återgiva bilden av ett föremål, men som i varje skärva speglar en stympad torso. För hennes minne dök där oupphörligt upp – än ett ansikte, än en figur i en viss ställning, – en roddares nakna arm, en solbränd nacke under en styf, upprättstående militärkrage, en upplyft fot med skridsko. – Och kring sådana motiv växte där småningom fram en hel situation – skarp, tydlig och färgrik – tills den gled över i en annan och vek för den. (1886c, italics in the original)

She now saw her whole life as in a cracked mirror, which no longer can reflect the complete image of one object, but whose every shard reflects a severed torso. Appearing unremittingly to her mind – once a face, once a body in a certain pose, – the naked arm of a rowing man, a sunburnt neck behind a stiff, upright military collar, a raised foot wearing a skate. – And around these motifs a whole situation eventually came forth – sharp, distinct and colourful – until it gave way to another and disappeared.

34Commenting on J.P. Jacobsen’s technique when describing the appearance of a girl in the woods in the short story Mogens by concentrating on a face and a slender hand while omitting to identify the owner of the face and of the slender hand, Møller Kristensen explains Jacobsen’s use of metonymy as follows: «der gøres her ingen bemærkninger om, at der er en pige, der er indehaver af det lille pigeansigt og den lille hand. De er kun isolerede detailer i et helt synsindtryk» (1955: 120, italics in the original; «no comments to indicate that there is a girl who is the owner of the little girlish face and the little hand are made. These are but isolated details in the totality of the visual impression»). Likening this particular aspect of his greater category of ‘phenomenological apperception’ to metonymy, he continues, with numerous examples from Bang, Pontoppidan, Drachmann, Stuckenberg, and others, to explicate this idea and its relevance to impressionism:

Med den fænomenologiske opfattelse følger en gennemgaaende tendens til ikke at reproducere en genstand fuldstændigt. Man ser ikke genstanden som en helhed, en sum af egenskaber, men kun en enkelt af dem, den iøjnefaldende, som derfor reproduceres alene, isoleret, uden at blive forbundet med sin bærer. Derfra kommer de mange metonymiske figurer i den impressionistiske stil. De optræder især i forbindelse med fremstillingen af personer; impressionisten ser ikke det hele menneske, men opfatter i det flygtige øjeblik oftest kun en del af det. (Møller Kristensen 1955: 123)

With phenomenological apperception comes an overall tendency not to reproduce an element completely. The element is not seen as a totality, a sum of characteristics, but a single detail that strikes the eye is reproduced alone, without any connection to its bearer. This is the origin of many a metonymic figure in the impressionist style. These appear especially when people are represented; the impressionist does not catch the whole person, but most often gathers only a fragment in the fleeting moment.

35I find it significant that even «bicycleryttaren», a rather frequently recurring secondary character in Kleve’s prose and one that Malling, as we have seen, declared to find «terribly picturesque», should undergo this treatment. When he rides past in the short story Pyrrhussegrar, Kleve does not revel in his appearance; instead of giving prominence to the vision, she favours reporting the manner in which the observer experiences this vision. The bicycle rider is thus dismantled to the reproduction of a bent leg, a curved back, a cap, and the glittering spokes of the wheel: «ett trikåklätt ben krökt mot hjulets glittrande stålskenor, en kraftig, litet framåtböjd öfver- kropp och ett hufvud med flat skotsk mössa. – –» (1886c; «a leg in tights, bent against the glittering steel spokes of the wheel, a sturdy, slightly curved torso, and a head with a flat cap. – –»). Rather than a portrait, he becomes «a document on the fragmentary state of the vision of a certain moment», to borrow Victor Carrabino’s words on impressionist perception (1984: 263).

36Examples of descriptions building on acts of perception that convey only a few noteworthy features emblematic of the scene observed are especially frequent in Kleve’s prose when it comes to character description. Many of her stories share the setting of ballrooms or dinner parties in private houses where countless characters appear and disappear in the crowd. A distinctive feature in these descriptions is Kleve’s tendency to overlook panoramic views of the gatherings and instead focus on single body parts and details in clothing or interior design – or on the combination of the three. In the following two examples, which can be considered as typical accounts of society life in Kleve’s prose, the writer renders the conversations between guests by directing the reader’s interest to the minute detail of a woman’s rosy ear, which appears behind the silky fabric of her evening gown or, as in the second example, records female flirtation by focussing on a gloved hand and flickering eyes:

Herrarne hade dragit sig in i rökrummet – endast några få af dem hade stannat qvar i salongen. Der stodo de nu och hängde öfver damernas stolar – böjde sig ibland ned och hviskade någonting i ett litet rosigt öra öfver silkesfräset – – – (1885a: 105)

The men had withdrawn into the smoking room – only a few of them still lingered in the sitting room. There they stood leaning over the ladies’ chairs – occasionally bending over to whisper something in a little rosy ear behind a silky fabric – – –

37Similarly, in the short story Förlofning (1885b; Engagement):

Här och der kunde man få se dem ligga på en grossörs divanbord för att efter middagen öppnas av en handskbeklädd hand, under det ögonen för hvart femte ord kikade upp derifrån till en annan herre, som icke ‘kunde se hur erbarmligt tråkigt’ ögonens egarinna hade. (1885b, 25 February)

Here and there one could see them lying on a merchant’s coffee table to be opened after dinner by a gloved hand while the eyes looked up every five words to fix another man who had ‘failed to notice what a miserably boring time’ the owner of these eyes was having.

38Metonymic in structure are many descriptive passages from the novel Berta Funcke in which Kleve also avoids connecting the isolated element to its possessor. In the following quotation in which dancers at a party are observed, the elements necessary to capture the festive atmosphere are fans, blushing faces, twinkling eyes, and women’s shoes, all detached from their human framework: «Solfjädrarne gingo hastigt fram och tillbaka förbi blossande ansigten och strålande ögon; skära och hvita atlasskor slogo tåspetsarne upp och ned mot golfvet i takt med musiken» (1885a: 89; «The fans flickered hastily to and fro in front of blushing faces and starry eyes; pink and white satin shoes hit their tiptoes up and down against the floor to the rhythm of the music»). On other occasions, the concentration on items of clothing is driven to a point where the metonymy is further refined, as in the following lines from Berta Funcke where the woman’s outfit and the man’s dust coat come to substitute the two characters of whom they are attributes:

I halfdunklet under de låga platanerna röra sig de promenerande fram och åter i en mörk, långsam ström. Af och till dyker der upp ur massan en ljus damtoilett, en engelsmans hvita damrock eller fladdrar den långa silkesslöjan kring hans hatt. På den låga stenparapeten längs med sjön sitta en hel del unga arbetskarlar och gossar. Stråhattarna på nacken, de blå bomullsblusarne pösigt uppdragna, dinglande med de klumpiga fötterna – (1885a: 123-24)

In the semi-darkness underneath the low plane trees the walking crowd moves back and forth in a slow, dark stream. Once in a while a woman’s fair dress, an Englishman’s white frock surface in the mass, or the long silk veil flutters around his hat. On the low stonewall along the lake sit quite a few young workers and boys. Straw hats on their necks, the blue cotton shirts bulging at their waists, dangling with their lumbering feet –

39Kleve’s focus on fragments centres, however, specifically on body parts. On these occasions the metonymic mode performs the function of accentuating the theme of sensual love which, although merely alluded to, so upset her contemporary critics and readers (see e.g., Ney 1993a: 40-45). Though the point of view is clearly feminine, and thematic concentration is on female lust and passion, it is interesting that the description should pay attention both to the male body, as in the first example, as well as to the female physique, as in the second, thus blurring the boundaries between object and objectifier:

– – – Detta svarta, mattglänsande hår – så tjockt – om hon blott finge röra vid det. Kinden, som nästan snuddade vid hennes axel, – han borde verkligen icke sitta så sjelfsvåldigt – – – En sådan växt – – så fin och slank – Och skuldran, som sköt upp en smula – – – (1885a: 106, italics in the original)

– – – This black, opaquely shimmering hair – so full – if she only could touch it. The cheek that almost touched her shoulder, – he really should not assume such a self-conscious pose – – – What a physique – – so lovely and slender – and the shoulder, slightly raised – – –


Inne i salongen var det halfmörkt – en enda stor lampa med skärm stod på ett konsolbord bredvid flygeln, så att nästan allt dess ljus föll öfver den spelande damen. Öfver hennes grönblå atlasklädning, hvars åtsittande lif glänste som ett harnesk öfver bröstet – hennes rena profil, mörka, högt uppsatta hår och hvita nacke, då hon böjde sig fram öfver instrumentet. Öfver hennes fasta, välformade armar – bara ända upp till axeln – och öfver fingrarne, som snabt flögo fram på tangenterna. – – (1885a: 104)

Inside the sitting room it was semi-dark – one single big lamp with a screen stood on the console table next to the piano, so that almost all its light fell on the playing lady. Over her bluegreen satin dress, the waist of which glimmered like a cuirass over her breast – her clean profile, dark hair gathered on top of her head and white neck, as she leaned over the instrument. Over her full, well-shaped arms – but no further than to the shoulder – and over her fingers that rapidly flew over the keys. – –

40My last example, taken from Kleve’s second novel Alice Brandt, combines the metonymic mode with a form of postponed processing of the scene described, which is interesting within our issue investigation. When Berta Funcke reappears in Kleve’s second larger prose work, the narrator typically introduces her by concentrating on details in the woman’s appearance (pallor, slimness, hair colour, nostrils), but creates an effect of de-familiarization by deferring the revelation of this lady’s identity:

– Är det inte något med patchouli, du har der borta? – Det var en blek, slank cendré, som nu böjde sig fram ur gungstolen och med vidgade näsborrar begärligt insöp den svaga parfymlukten. – Åh du, låna mig den. – Vill du? – – (1888a: 33-34)

– Isn’t it something containing patchouli you have there? – A pale, slender, ash-blonde now leaned forward from the rocking chair, avidly widening her nostrils to absorb the faint perfume. – Oh, lend it to me, – will you? – –

41This narrative strategy which strives to grasp the dominating and immediately perceptible characteristic of the object of description while postponing the full understanding of the scene described, fits in with a canonical impressionist technique, namely the one defined as ‘delayed decoding’ by Ian Watt for the first time in a speech on Joseph Conrad delivered in 1972, although Watt had important precedents in scholars such as Ford Madox Ford and Sven Møller Kristensen, who had described the same proceedings, though with different a terminology, years earlier.

3.3.3. Delayed decoding. On arrows, bats, rain, and cigarettes

42‘Delayed decoding’ is a fortunate coinage created by Ian Watt and applied to designate a descriptive practice at work in Joseph Conrad’s prose fiction. The expression, defined by Watt (1975) as an «impressionist narrative device», was first used with reference to a specific aspect of Conrad’s narrative technique in Lord Jim, and subsequently further developed in the study Conrad in the Nineteenth Century, published in 198011. With his coinage, Watt wished to give attention to what he saw as an innovation in Conrad’s narrative technique, explained in terms of an effort «to present a sense impression and to withhold naming it or explaining its meaning until later; as readers we witness every step by which the gap between the individual perception and its cause is belatedly closed within the consciousness of the protagonist» (1980: 175). Among the many meaningful examples drawn from Conrad’s authorship to illustrate this device, Watt focusses on a central episode of Heart of Darkness in which the visual impression precedes the intellectual understanding of the scene: in the highly dramatic moment when his boat is attacked by bowmen, Marlow perceives the arrows that surprise him as sticks, and only later gains insight into the true nature of these sticks12. Watt (1980: 175) explains: «this narrative device may be termed delayed decoding, since it combines the forward temporal progression of the mind, as it receives messages from the outside world, with the much slower reflexive process of making out their meaning».

43Of interest to my analysis here is, needless to say, the connection established between Watt’s delayed decoding and impressionism. Watt (1980: 176) supports his definition of delayed decoding as an «impressionist narrative device» with a reference to interart parallelism: the method is understood as a textual strategy attempting to transfer to words the painterly representation which was the result of the untainted impressionist eye’s look on reality. As Watt explains it, what Conrad developed is a

  • 13   It is symptomatic of the state of the art in studies on literary impressionism that more recent c (...)

narrative technique which was the verbal equivalent of the impressionist painter’s attempt to render visual sensation directly, Conrad presented the protagonist’s immediate sensations, and thus made the reader aware of the gap between impression and understanding; the delay in bridging the gap enacts the disjunction between the event and the observer’s trailing understanding of it. (Watt 1980: 176-77)13

44Years earlier, however, both Ford Madox Ford and Sven Møller Kristensen in their discussions of impressionist narratives identified technical features peculiar to literary impressionism that are perfectly aligned to Watt’s idea of delayed decoding. Ford Madox Ford observed that in impressionist prose, the representation of a visual phenomenon should render what the onlooker actually experiences in the very instance he fixes his eyes on the scene, without attempting to set this sight in order according to a fashion depending on convention or on previous experience. Citing the example of Alfred Tennyson’s detailed description of bats at dusk «with ermine capes / And woolly breasts and beady eyes» (Hueffer 1914a: 172), Ford explains that it

is no doubt very good natural history, but it is certainly not Impressionism, since no one watching a bat at dusk could see the ermine, the wool or the beadiness of the eyes […] to import into the record of the observations of a moment the observations of a moment altogether different is not Impressionism. (Ibidem)

45Thus, he makes the conclusion that

it has, this school, […] certain quite strong canons, certain quite rigid unities that must be observed. The point is that any piece of Impressionism, whether it be prose, or verse, or painting, or sculpture, is the record of the impression of the moment […] it is the impression, not the corrected chronicle. (1914a: 173)

  • 14   Cf., «Den impressionistiske beskrivelse er typisk derved, at den begynder med virkningen, resulta (...)

46With reference to J.P. Jacobsen’s prose, Møller Kristensen commented on the same narrative device but included it in a wider phenomenon characteristic of literary impressionism, which he termed «fænomenologisk apperception» (1955: 119-34; «phenomenological apperception»). With a quotation from the incipit of Jacobsen’s short story Mogens depicting an initial rainfall, Kristensen points out how Jacobsen, through this impressionist mode of description, manages to remain true to the mechanism of the perceiving consciousness (that of the protagonist Mogens) by focussing first on the effect and then on the cause14.

47An instance of the recording of raw, visual data in which the revelation of sense is deterred, can be found in Kleve’s short story Vid Beau-Rivage. It occurs at the moment of a pivotal encounter between the tale’s two protagonists. At dusk, the woman is waiting for her fiancé under the branches of a tree and, as the man appears, the reader is brought into her consciousness in the very instant in which she perceives his presence: an approaching shadow with a burning dot. Kleve takes care to deliver the description without translating the visual data to the reader, but according to the manner in which the onlooker takes cognizance of it. Accordingly, both the fictional observer and the reader fully grasp the sight only after it has been filtered through the act of reflection of the observer: «Skuggan med den brinnande punkten kommer närmare – – / – – Åh, Jack, röker du?» (1886d; «The shadow with the burning dot is approaching – – / – – Oh, Jack, do you smoke?»).

48By giving primacy to the visual impression over intellectual understanding, this narrative technique – of which Watt spoke as ‘delayed decoding’, Ford as the ‘uncorrected chronicle’ and Møller Kristensen as an aspect of ‘phenomenological apperception’ – remains loyal to the principles of impressionist perception. As such, it is a strategy of description that works well with the scenic method characteristic of Herman Bang’s poetics of impressionism, which strived to limit the reader’s insight into the narration to as much as could be grasped through the observation of surface phenomena, an aspect, as we have seen, that also appears central to Kleve’s declination of the impressionist mode.

3.3.4. Punctuation

49As observed above with reference to Berta Funcke’s reflection on the function of the gaze in a quotation from the homonymous novel, there are metafictional comments to support my line of interpretation according to which impressionist modes of narration serve the purpose of probing the improbable. Similar observations are present also to highlight the use of punctuation in the novel, which, as many of the above-quoted passages testify to, include a generous exploitation of dashes to organize the discourse. In the following metafictional observation from Berta Funcke, Kleve suggests that the novel’s very modern subject matter can only be grasped through silences that suggest meaning, and pauses which have to be filled in by the reader:

der låg ett egendomligt äggande nöje i att tala om dessa “moderna” ämnen med en man. Detta, att akta sig för hvart ord man säger, att vara tvungen att göra hundrade uppehåll och låta meningar ligga qvar utan slut. Att hela tiden röra sig vid gränsen mellan det, som “går an” att säga, och det som “icke går an” – och att ändå aldrig öfverskrida den. (1885a: 32)

there was a strangely thrilling pleasure in speaking about these “modern” subjects with a man. The idea of having to watch every word carefully, to be obliged to make hundreds of halts and leave sentences unfinished. Of having to toe the line between what “can” be said and what “cannot” be said – and never cross it.

50While I do not wish, simply because I do not think it takes us very far, to compare aspects of Kleve’s punctuation to the technique of the impressionist painters – in a manner similar to that in which Maria Elizabeth Kronegger (1973a: 83) treats punctuation in a comment on Jules Laforgue’s prose by claiming that «the great number of commas has its equivalent in the impressionist’s broken brushstrokes», or to Birgitta Ney’s (1993a: 141) allusions to parallels between Kleve’s typographical technique and Morisot’s brush movements on canvas – I would still argue, in accordance with Møller Kristensen, who discusses the use of the dash as «et vigtigt stilmoment i impressionismen» (1955: 97; «an important stylistic trait of impressionism»), that these typographical choices should be connected to the impressionist style. As suggested by the metafictional comment quoted above, the unspoken words and half-finished sentences primarily serve to indicate that there is, in fact, more to tell than meets the eye. Lingebrandt writes:

Satser som tonar ut med ett eller flera tankstreck är en stilistisk markör för de halvkvädna visorna. Likaså vimlar dialogerna av oavslutade meningar och löst utkastade ord, av toner och undertoner. Det är ett slags språkligt maskspel där allt väsentligt egentligen utspelar sig mellan raderna. (2011: 47)

Sentences that fade out into one or more dashes is a stylistic marker indicative of half-recited tunes. Similarly, dialogues are overflowing with unfinished sentences and loosely connected words, with tones and undertones. It is a form of linguistic play with masks, in which everything essential really takes places between the lines.

51Apart from suggesting the text’s deeper, and different, meaning, the dashes also indicate the author’s wish to reproduce a more natural dialogue capable of revealing the characters’ personalities and, as such, this aspect of the narration reconnects to the scenic impressionism that has been discussed in the above as one of the dimensions of Stella Kleve’s impressionism. Torbjörn Nilsson’s (1965: 105) reading of Bang’s use of dashes and ellipsis points as an expression of how impressionism’s dramatic method tries to grant autonomy to the action which has been set in motion, moves in the same interpretive direction.

3.3.5. Conclusions. Probing the improbable

  • 15   The letter is partly quoted in Ney 1993a: 53.

52Flirtations, the short story with which Stella Kleve introduced herself to a Scandinavian readership, set, on its own, the tone for her reputation as a writer dealing with controversial narrative material. In a letter to her sister Ellen, dated 20 December 1884, the author claimed that the subject dominating her prose was «erotika, naturligtvis» («erotica, naturally»), presented in the form of fantasies, never quite realized, but still as an important facet of the female identity15. The short storyʼs protagonist, Berta Funcke, plays the part of a seducer fighting against her own erotic desires, and keeps on fighting – perhaps even harder, according to Birgitta Ney (1993a: 71) – in the homonymous novel that followed. Suppressed, yet disquietingly evident, is the female eros in her stories, so much so that Karl Warburg’s comment on Berta Funcke must be seen as indicative of this unsettling quality of her text: «det “händer” alldeles intet i vanlig mening “osedligt” i hela boken, och dock är skildringen något af det otäckaste man gärna kan läsa» (qtd. in Ney 1993a: 77; «nothing “indecent” in a conventional sense really “happens” in the book, and still it is one of the nastiest accounts one can ever read»). What Warburg perceives is the absence of action illustrating the “inconvenient” argument of women’s sexuality, an absence which is compensated – perhaps even sublimated – by the delving on details as a way of fleshing out what Brigitta Ney (1993a: 127-28) calls the «erotic signals» in the text. In line with Ney’s and Lingebrandt’s observations on Kleve’s art of fiction, I have argued that the author’s concentration on fragments reveals a submerged female universe in turmoil.

  • 16   In addition to the examples quoted earlier, Ney disregards textual indications in her search for (...)

53By focussing on surface phenomena, Kleve thus points to the profundity of the narrated woman’s self; a self inclusive of erotic pulsations, as in the portraits of Berta Funcke or Märta Ulfklo, in Pyrrhussegrar. In addition, my line of reasoning pushes the discussion further by maintaining that this inconvenient argument was brilliantly countered by Stella Kleve through the adoption of impressionist narrative modes allowing her to probe the improbable. This interpretation of Kleve’s impressionism differs from Pil Dahlerupʼs opinions on Kleveʼs impressionism as well as from Birgitta Ney’s rather lengthy discussion of «vad en läsning av hennes [Kleves] verk i impressionismens ljus och energi kan tillföra» (Ney 1993a: 136; «what a reading of her authorship in the light and energy of impressionism might add»), in which the stress on ‘lightʼ establishes, as we have seen, a few, not quite convincing, parallels to impressionist painting16, while the ‘energyʼ identifies with a «nervous style» and «demonic passion» and marks the authorʼs proximity to decadentism (Ney 1993a: 161). My argument has tried to prove that Kleve, while remaining true to the dramatic method outlined in Herman Bang’s poetics of impressionism, was able to scrutinize the taboo of women’s erotic fantasies by concentrating on actions, behaviour, gestures, and mimicry visible from the outside. On the subject of Bang’s impressionism, Dag Heede (2003), as we have seen, has defiantly advanced the possibility of considering literary impressionism a ‘homosexual’ narrative techninque, suiting the needs of an author who had to recur to extremely subtle devices to allow his themes expression. Stella Kleve’s choice of subject matter placed her in the same ‘outsider’ position as Herman Bang, and she fell back on the same kind of discreet, unobtrusive narrator and on a behaviouristic character description that allowed her to speak of female desire, an argument, at the time, as inconvenient as homoeroticism. Her literary project of ‘probing the improbable’ was further fuelled by an impressionist strategy of description that I have referred to as the metonymic mode: an art of showing that an apparently trivial fragment is capable of hosting a world of significance. The devil, it is said, is in the details.


1   Cf. for example Virginie Pouzet-Duzer 2008: 7.

2   Carlander’s thesis is available online at Accessed 7 February 2018.

3   It should, however, be mentioned that Karl-Erik Lundevall spoke of Stella Kleve’s literary impressionism already in 1953. Lundevall’s perspective is of a different kind as it establishes, on the basis of a personal, unverified association, a cursory parallel to the visual arts when reading the description of a rye field in Kleve’s second novel Alice Brandt as an impressionist painting, cf., Lundevall 1953: 111, 243.

4   On other occasions, too, Ney similarly falls back on loose interart analogies. When referring, for example, to the short story Hendes Durchlauchtighed (Her Highness), Ney speaks cursorily of Kleve’s description of an interior as «denna impressionistiska tavla» (1993a: 144; «this impressionst canvas») and «en impressionistisk skiss» (Ibidem; «an impressionist sketch»).

5   The same evaluation is given in Ney’s entry on Kleve in Nordisk kvindelitteraturhistorie (Nordic Women’s Literary History). The scandal aroused by Pyrrhussegrar is said to be dependent not only on the subject treated, female eroticism, but also on its form, «en nervøs, impressionistisk stil» (Ney 1993b: 545; «a nervous, impressionist style»).

6   Birgitta Ney has traced around thirty short stories published with the pseudonym Stella Kleve, or signed ‘SK’ or ‘Bébé’, in Danish, Finland-Swedish, and Swedish newspapers and periodicals, cf., Ney 1993a: 263-64.

7   Writers emulating Herman Bang’s scenic impressionism are, as expected, more easily found among Danish literates than elsewhere on the Scandinavian literary scene. Agnes Henningsen (1868-1962) is an example of one of the authors whose style seems to have sprung from the Danish impressionist master. In Nordisk kvindelitteraturhistorie 3, Beth Juncker (1996: 84) speaks of her technique as a «scenisk-dramatisk impressionisme» originating in Herman Bang’s method, although Henningsen, who had befriended the author and could count on his help with the publication of her first short stories in 1891, would come to put her own fingerprint on the mode by developing «den dramatiske impressionisme og den særlige spejlingsteknik, der skulle blive hendes fiktions kendetegn» (Juncker 1996: 85; «the scenic impressionism and the particular technique of mirroring, which were to become the hallmark of her fiction»), especially from the work Strømmen (The Current) published in 1899, and onwards. For information on Agnes Henningsen see Zibrandtsen 2003 available at Accessed 23 January 2018.

8   Birgitta Ney notes that on other occasions Kleve was upset by the critics’ insistence on her dependence upon Bang’s influence, cf., Ney 1993a: 243-44, note 47. The adjective «worst», used in the quoted passage, seems indeed to suggest Malling’s dissatisfaction, in 1920, with her earlier mannerism.

9   After the publication of her short story Flirtations, Kleve spent several months in Copenhagen enjoying the company of Bang and his books while working on her upcoming novel. On the subject of Berta Funcke, Lingebrandt (2011: 42) writes: «under vintern arbetar hon om och utvidgar sin novell, efter Bangs råd och de fingervisningar som hans översättning gett. Också hans person kliver in i romanen, lätt förklädd till Nils Max» («during the winter she restructured and expanded her short story according to Bang’s advice and the suggestions offered by his translation. Even his person enters the novel, thinly disguised as Nils Max»). According to Lingebrandt, Bang’s preface to the novel was, more than anything else, a drawback for the debuting novelist: «uppenbarligen kom också Herman Bangs entusiastiska presentation [...] att ligga henne till last: det talades om imitation, bangska egendomligheter drivna till parodi, efterbildning ledd av dålig smak, Fædra-atmosfär “här blott simplare och än mera tillgjord”» (2011: 57; «quite evidently Herman Bang’s enthusiastic introduction [...] proved a stumbling block to her: there were voices arguing for imitation, specificities of Bang’s prose driven to parody, mimicry on a ground of bad taste, Fædra-mood, “though in this case simpler and more conceited”»).

10   In the novel Berta Funcke published the following year, this passage is replicated almost identically, though in Swedish, cf., Kleve 1885: 36.

11  Cf., Delayed decoding at Accessed 7 February 2018.

12   Cf., Watt 1980: 177; «“Sticks, little sticks, were flying about – thick: they were whizzing before my nose, dropping below me, striking behind me against my pilot-house.” But it is only when Marlow has finished attending to his duty as captain, and negotiated the next snag, that his understanding can finally decode the little sticks: “We cleared the snag clumsily. Arrows, by Jove! We were being shot at!”».

13   It is symptomatic of the state of the art in studies on literary impressionism that more recent critics should wish to avoid discussing this narrative feature as an outgrowth of impressionist painterly techniques. Distinguishing between «primitive» and «civilized» perception, H. John Peters (2001: 37) writes: «primitive perception represents an initial sense impression before the observer organizes it into a meaning that accords with past experience, while civilized perception represents the impression after the observer organizes the initial experience and ascribes meaning to it». Peters resolves (2001: 14): «contrary to most commentary, I would argue that any similarities between impressionist art and literature result from similarities in philosophy – not technique».

14   Cf., «Den impressionistiske beskrivelse er typisk derved, at den begynder med virkningen, resultatet af en “kraft”, og først derefter – eller overhodet slet ikke – når til erkendelse af kraften selv: “Pludselig kom der en lille rund, mørk Plet paa det lysegraa Muld, een til, tre, fire, mange, flere endnu, hele Tuen var ganske mørkegraa. Luften var lutter lange, mørke Streger, Bladene nikkede og svaiede, og der kom en Susen, der gik over til Syden; det øste Vande ned”» (Kristensen 1955: 120; «A typical impressionist description begins with the effect, the result of a “force”, and only thereafter – or perhaps not even at all – arrives at the recognition of the force itself: “All of a sudden a small, round, dark spot appeared on the light-grey soil, one more, three, four, many, still more, until the whole mound was rather dark grey. There were sharp, long, dark streaks in the air, the leaves assented and shivered and there was a sudden southward wind; water poured down»).

15   The letter is partly quoted in Ney 1993a: 53.

16   In addition to the examples quoted earlier, Ney disregards textual indications in her search for pictorial parallels when claiming, on the subject of scene, in the short story Hendes Durchlauchtighed: «även om texten anger att den [scenen] liknar en medeltida målning har den ändå ett ljus- och färgspel från impressionismen i aftonsolens rodnande ljus» (1993a: 144; «although the text says that it is similar to a medieval painting. It still shows a play with light and colours typical of impressionism in the blushing reverberation of the evening sun»).


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