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Literary Impressionisms

Camilla Storskog

Part II: Modes of Literary Impressionism. Textual analyses

4. A criticism of criticism: Georg Nordensvan and Mikael Lybeck

Texte intégral

1As a conclusion to the discussion regarding the modes of literary impressionism in Swedish prose, I will turn back to the results stemming from my critical survey of the use of the term in the Finland-Swedish press, presented in the preceding chapter of this study. By subjecting Georg Nordensvan’s collection of short stories Skuggspel. Tidsbilder and Mikael Lybeck’s novels Den starkare and Allas vår Margit to closer scrutiny, I wish to evaluate the appropriateness of the contemporary critics’ view that these texts were representative of literary impressionism. To what extent do these pieces of prose relate to impressionist modes of writing? Which are the narrative traits in these texts that justify the connection?

4.1. Georg Nordensvan’s Skuggspel. Tidsbilder

  • 1   In his career as an art critic, Nordensvan started to publish articles on painterly impressionism (...)

2As mentioned earlier, in a review of Skuggspel. Tidsbilder for Nya Pressen on 3 November 1884, Gustaf af Geijerstam – one of the early Swedish critics capable of phrasing the relationship between impressionist aesthetics and literary writing – delivered the definition «impressionistiska novelletter» (Geijerstam 1884; «impressionist short stories») with regard to Nordensvan’s short story collection1. In his review, Geijerstam made it clear that he had chosen this adjective with the precise intention of heralding that Nordensvan’s literary method was indebted to impressionist painting and similar in technique: «impressionism, hvilket ju som bekant eljes egentligen betecknar en särskild riktning inom måleriet är just rätta ordet för att beteckna det skriftsätt, som Nordensvan här användt» (Geijerstam 1884; «impressionism, which, as is known, really refers to a particular current in painting, is the correct word with which to define the literary mode that Nordensvan here has made use of»).

3This parallel to impressionist painting builds on what Geijerstam describes as a literary technique attempting to capture the essence of landscapes, interiors, and conversations by conveying barely the main features of the scenes, not the single details. Geijerstam’s following lines inform us of the nature of Nordensvan’s metonymic eye, which translates into a writing transmitting

glimtvis uppfattade naturscenier [sic], snabba rumsinteriörer, samtal, der jämt så mycket är uppfångadt och bibehållet, som behöfs, för att man skall kunna förstå dessa sammanträngda lifsskildringar, der de allmänna dragen tagits med ögonblicksfotografi, och detaljerna suddats bort. (Geijerstam 1884)

natural scenery caught in glimpses, swift room interiors, conversations, from which just as much is reported and maintained as is necessary to make the reader understand these concentrated life stories, of which the general traits have been captured through instantaneous photography, and all details wiped out.

4He concludes by maintaining that the assets of the book reviewed are to be found in Nordensvan’s impressionist sensibility and in his outstanding technical ability: «dess teknik är utmärkt, och uppfattningen är isynnerhet känslig, såsom det höfves en impressionist» (Geijerstam 1884; «its technique is excellent and the execution is particularly subtle, which is what it takes of an impressionist»). Of the fortunate moments when Nordensvan’s impressionist talent best shines through, Geijerstam gives the following examples: «naturskildringar sådana som nyårsmorgonen, interiörer som boklådan eller teatern, lifsbilder i miniatyr som den om gamla fröken Julie eller om grosshandlarn och hans fästmö» (Geijerstam 1884: «descriptions of nature such as the one concerning the morning of the first day of the year, interiors such as the bookshop or the theatre, life miniatures such as the one concerned with the old spinster Julie or the wholesaler and his fiancée»). Before scrutinizing these moments in the narration and integrating Geijerstam’s observations on the text’s impressionism with my own, it should be added that David Sprengel, a few years later, expressed similar opinions about Nordensvan’s narrative technique in Skuggspel: «som skriftställare är han iakttagare, ögonblicksmålare, impressionist» (1902: 295; «as a writer he is an observer, a painter of instants, an impressionist»).

5The twenty-five short tales that form the collection are all untitled and display themes such as social injustice, the reality of the underprivileged, married life, ennui, city life (dinner parties, visits to the theatre, reflections on the deceitful façade of the urban environment). Some of the short stories portray fairy-tale universes, at times fantastic, surreal, grotesque, or even Gothic in spirit. In the story depicting a bookshop at night, mentioned in Geijerstam’s review of Skuggspel as indicative of Nordensvan’s impressionist eye, characters from novels come to life in the hours of darkness only to return to their places inside the books on display as soon as the sun rises. Something similar occurs in the very last tale, set on the first day of the year, also included among Geijerstam’s examples of Nordensvan’s impressionism: during a sleigh ride through a wintry landscape, trees and bushes in the woods assume fabulous, suggestive shapes. Outright ghoulish and horrific are instead tales such as the one focussing on a moonlit operating theatre where a newly arrived skeleton reflects on his place in this new environment, as well as the story of a young mother who is forcibly interned in a psychiatric hospital after having killed her own child.

6Geijerstam’s vision of Nordensvan’s impressionism as a prose producing instantaneous photographs in which a few, significant details are made to cater for the total impression, draws close to what I have described as ‘the metonymic mode’ on the subject of Stella Kleve. This narrative aspect can be observed, I believe, in those passages in the volume where Nordensvan indeed sets the scene by swiftly adding item to item to build up a picture, as for example in the opening lines introducing the collection’s third tale: «nötta skolbänkar, slitna armbågar mot borden, böcker öfver allt, solen lysande in i en lång stråle, der dammet dansade. “Gubben” halfliggande i katederstolen med hufvudet stödt mot Afrikas karta, som hängde bakom honom» (Nordensvan 1884: 8; «worn-out school desks, threadbare elbows against the tables, books everywhere, a long ray of sunshine filled with dancing dust motes, lighting up the room. The “old man” stretched out in his chair at the master’s desk, with his head against a map of Africa pinned to the wall behind him»). Similarly, the two and a half pages composing the fourth story, not much more than a series of impressions pitting a lavish dinner party against a mass of labourers, on the one hand, and, on the other, against a bunch of soldiers, starts by briskly numbering a series of details representative of the scene:

Frisk klar luft, starkt sommarsolsken, som förgyller allt, jämnar, lifvar allt. Glittrande vågor i elfven, snömoln, som segla fram nere i sjöns spegel.
Från den stora villan i schweizerstil ljuder festligt glam. Kristallerna skimra, vinet lyser i glasen, fem framför hvarje kuvert.
Upphetsade ansigten, röda, varma och sorglösa. Hvita skjortbröst, svarta frackar, den mest animerade sinnesstämning. (Nordensvan 1884: 18)

Fresh clear air, bright summer sunshine that gilds everything, evens out, uplifts everything. Glittering waves in the stream, snow clouds gliding past over the mirror of the lake.
From the Swiss-style country house a festive sound is heard. The crystals shimmer, the wine gleams in the glasses, five for every setting.
Aroused faces, red, hot and cheery. White dickeys, black tailcoats, the most animated mood.

7The tendency to prefer nominal phrases in this kind of passages is perhaps best observed in the opening to the concluding short story, set on the first morning of the new year. Nordensvan writes: «kallt och mörkt. Pelsen upp öfver öronen, fällen svept om fötterna, hästarna ludna, isade, med hvita moln om nosarna. Allting höljdt i snö, gärdesgårdarna djupt begrafna. Och skogen rundt omkring, tät, oändlig» (1884: 151-52; «Cold and dark. The fur coat up to the ears, feet cloaked in the hide, the horses downy, icy, with white clouds around their muzzles. Everything shrouded in white, fences deeply buried. And the forest all around, dense, boundless»).

8In addition to Geijerstam’s reading of the metonymic impressionism at work in Skuggspel, the texts in Nordensvan’s collection also present passages that connect to the scenic narration which can be seen as a variety of impressionism, as observed in the preceding section of the present work. Several passages are told in medias res (see for example Nordensvan 1884: 61, 90), and there are openings, as the one introducing a refined office at the beginning of the fourth tale, that clearly remind the reader of the stage instructions characteristic of what we have looked at as impressionist settings generated through the use of significant details in Stella Kleve’s short story production:

Snidade panelningar, vapen på väggarna, venetianska speglar, ett svart väggskåp med barockgudinnor af silfver, gamla porsliner, och ett präktigt skrifbord i empirestil med fascer och gloende gripar. Böcker, gravyrer och små konstverk lite hvarstädes, en stoppad och bekväm arbetsstol, en panterhud under bordet – allt utvisande gedigen lyx och förfinad smak. (Nordensvan 1884: 19)

Carved panelling, coats of arm on the walls, Venetian mirrors, a black cupboard with baroque goddesses in silver and antique porcelain hanging on the wall, and a massive desk, empire style, with sheaves and glaring griffins. Books, etchings and small artwork here and there, a padded desk chair, a panther skin rug underneath the table – all things indicative of great luxury and refined taste.

4.2. Mikael Lybeck’s Allas vår margit and Den starkare

9In the essay The Modern Breakthrough’s Author and his Publisher: Mikael Lybeck and Werner Söderström, Roger Holmström presents Mikael Lybeck as «the only relatively important and well-known Finland-Swedish writer from the period of the Modern Breakthrough» alongside Karl August Tavast- stjerna (Holmström 1999: 336). According to Holmström (1999: 338-39), at the end of the 1880s Mikael Lybeck was «best known for his review articles of Herman Bang’s visiting lectures in the Finnish capital in the spring of 1885». However, it is quite clear that Lybeck’s interest for Bang did not comprise an appreciation of those voices that attempted to set up stylistic analogies between his own prose and that of the Danish impressionist. In his examination of the correspondence between Lybeck and his publisher, Holmström quotes from one of Lybeck’s letters to Söderström, who had asked a reader for an opinion on the 1891 novel Unge Hemming (Young Hemming). In the letter, Lybeck is truly resentful towards the reader’s assessment according to which his prose was reminiscent of Bang’s:

Hvad är det för prat om Bang! Min obekante vän känner inte mycket nämnde skriftställares afstympade meningar, om han vill dra honom till jämförelse. Mina meningar äro ofta korthuggna, det är sant, men de ha i regel subjekt och predikat – och saknas någondera någon gång, t.ex. i en tanke-monolog (om jag så får säga), så är det afsiktligt. [...] Bang! Nej, är det påvärkning i någon mån så är det af Lie eller Garborg. (1999: 348-49; italics in the original)

What’s all this nonsense about Bang! My unknown friend does not have much knowledge about the mentioned writer’s mutilated sentences, if he’s a mind to draw a parallel between us. It’s true my sentences are often short but as a rule they contain a subject and a predicate – and if either of them is sometimes missing, for instance in the soliloquy of thoughts (if I may say so) it is on purpose. [...] Bang! No, if there are any slight influences they come from Lie or Garborg. (Translation by Roger Holmström 1999: 349)

10As we have seen, however, in spite of the writer’s personal outcry, the critics would repeatedly insist on the artistic fellowship between Lybeck and Bang, comparing the 1894 novel Allas vår Margit to Bang’s Tine (1889) and attributing it to the literary impressionist school because of what was seen as similarities with Bang’s scenic narration. In the earlier quoted anonymous review of Allas vår Margit, Lybeck draws the short straw in the reviewer’s comparison as he fails to remain faithful to objective character description throughout the novel, and because this impressionist technique is not deemed to suit the action in the novel:

Den tillhör den impressionistiska riktningen, skildrar väsentligen blott hvad man ser och hör, utan att närmare redogöra för de uppträdande personligheternas förhållanden, motiv eller karaktärer eller lägga dessa fram i och genom handlingarne. […] Ett dylikt stilla småstadslif, som här förekommer, egnar sig mindre än något annat för impressionistisk skildring. Det skall vara mera händelserika, rörliga och lifliga förhållanden, som skola kunna uppehålla en skildring af detta slag. Det enda vi förut ega i den nordiska literaturen, som ej är misslyckad, ehuru äfven den kan gifva anledning till olika omdömen är Herman Bangs Trine [sic], men denna har också just till hufvudmotiv de upprörda dagarna vid Dybböls fall och Als’ eröfring. (1894 ’Literatur o konst’)

It belongs to the impressionist movement and reproduces primarily only what one sees and hears, without accounting in detail for the relationships among the characters involved, the motives, or the personalities, that are instead introduced in and through the actions. […] The quiet small-town life that we are presented with is much less suitable for an impressionist rendering than anything else. What is needed to sustain this kind of story-telling are dynamic, animated, and lively conditions. The only successful example in Nordic literature of such a description is Herman Bang’s Tine of which there are many opinions; this novel, however, still has as its main motif the savage days before the fall of Dybbøl and the conquest of Als.

11On the other hand, as we also have seen, another anonymous critic willingly admitted that Lybeck’s Den starkare from 1900 revealed resonances of literary impressionism, a style perhaps somewhat outdated, but still executed in a manner more convincing than Bang’s:

Det på en gång lugnt och nervöst impressionistiska framställningssättet […] värkar som en hälsning från tio år tillbaka, ett dylikt skrifsätt är ej modernt nu i dag, men det hindrar inte att det visar sig vara lifligt målande, och det blir här ej tröttande, som det onekligen varit hos en och annan af denna stils typiska företrädare, Herman Bang till exempel. (1900 Om Mikael Lybecks)

The calm and at the same time nervous impressionistic rendering […] comes across as a souvenir from ten years ago; this way of writing is no longer modern today, but that does not stop it from being lively and evocative, and in this case it does not become tiring, as undeniably has been the case in some of the representatives of the style, as for example Herman Bang.

12That said, I will not attempt to argue that what can be seen as impressionist writerly techniques in Lybeck’s prose are textual characteristics carried out evenly and consciously throughout these two novels. However, it must be admitted that the central episode in Allas vår Margit, namely the protagonist’s loss of her mother, is capably rendered with stylistic elements faithful to scenic impressionism, such as limited point of view, the retreat of the intervening author, in medias res. On the first page of the novel the reader is introduced to the key scene featuring five-year-old Margit and her dying mother. The story opens with a narrator unwilling to guide the reader through the text and by rendering the impressions accessible to the individual mind of the little girl, who perceives a faint voice seemingly emerging from the shadows:

En mycket svag, nästan hviskande röst frågade ur skymningen:
Hvem är det?
Det är Maggie.
Vill du något?
Utan att svara sprang en vacker femåring öfver tröskeln och fram till hvilstolen.
(Lybeck 1893: 5)

An extremely faint, almost whispering voice asked from the gloom:
Who is it?
It is Maggie.
Do you need something?
Without answering a beautiful five-year-old leapt over the threshold and up to the resting chair.

13Throughout the novel, this scene is reiterated both in Margit’s memory and in her dreams, and always with the same vagueness and uncertainty regarding perception and source. In a dream, the adult Margit attends a party and all of a sudden what seems to be the same voice is raised:

En röst höjde sig öfver sorlet och frågade:
Hvem där?
Vill du något?
(Lybeck 1893: 54)

A voice emerged from the noise and enquired:
Who’s there?
Do you need something?

14If the reason for the unfavourable criticism of Allas vår Margit was that a quiet small town life is not suitable for an impressionist rendering, it must be admitted that Lybeck could have treated the only really dramatic episode in the novel – the fire in chapter eight – or the description of the crowd at the ball in chapter eleven differently, had it been his intention to make the most out of impressionist techniques of writing. That he did possess the technical ability of an impressionist is however evident in certain descriptions present in the novel Den starkare. In this novel, a scene set at the railway station offers a brilliant impressionist narrative solution to the registration of dynamism, animation, and simultaneity, indeed reminiscent of Stella Kleve’s technique in Berta Funcke, commented on earlier:

Korta hvisslingar, hvassa som knifsudddar, långa, ihållande signaler – ljussken blixtra förbi fönstren i kvällsmörkret, det knäpper i skenfogarna, vaggonerna darra och rycka vid bromsningen, och lokomotivet stannar för att frusta ut hvit ånga åt båda sidor. Dörrarna slås upp för folk i snövåta pälsar, armbågar bana väg i trängseln, smått och stort resgods myllrar för fötterna.
Då sätter sig tåget långsamt i gång. Igenkänningsscener växla med dumt stirrande, tidningar vecklas ut och vikas samman, cigarrer tändas, tuggas, slockna och tändas på nytt. Någon frågar efter spelkort. Hva-fan ... det är ju alldeles för trångt! Ventilerna i taket undersökas och skrufvas, kinderna bli heta och röda, luften blir rök. Men färden fortgår som förut – nya hvisslingar ljuda, nya ljusglimtar jaga hvarandra, ny station! (Lybeck 1900: 44)

Short whistlings, sharp as knife-ends, long, insistent signals – blazes of light flash past the windows in the dusk, the rail joints snap, the wagons tremble and jerk as it pulls in, and the locomotive stops to snort out white steam from both sides. The doors open for people in fur coats wet with snow, elbows make their way into the crowd, luggage small and large swarm at their feet.
Then the train slowly sets off. Scenes of recognition mingle with vacuous staring, newspapers are unfolded and folded, cigars are lit, chewed, they go out only to be lit again. Someone asks for a game of cards. What-the-hell… it is much too crowded! The fans in the ceiling are examined and tampered with, cheeks go red and hot, the air turns into smoke. But the journey continues like before – new whistlings ring, new blazes of light chase one another, next stop!

15The central, ‘naked’, line with its colloquial features is unintroduced by the narrator and pronounced by an unidentified character. Similar attempts to use a submerged narrator while granting greater space to the specificity and spontaneity of expression of characters can be observed later in the novel, as the narration, by accumulating impressions, details, and indirect speech helter skelter, focusses on the commotion characterizing the days following the death of the protagonist’s father:

Redan när sköterskan reste, och det skedde morgonen efter dödsfallet, anlände från staden en mager, liten fru i svart bindmössa, tre eller fyra hjälpkvinnor med henne. Låt vara, att endast bärarna inbjudas ... herrejess, det fans ju ändå så mycket att städa och ställa i ordning, så mycket att efterse, att hvad som måste göras, måste göras strax; det viste hon, herrejess, hon har varit där förr. – Alla mattor äro uttagna, golfven lysa rena och nyskurade. Lukten af hackadt granris fyller rummen.
Bjällror!.. barhufvad springer Abel ut på trappan. (Lybeck 1900: 160)

Already as the nurse departed, which happened the morning after the decease, a skinny little lady with a black hat tied under her chin arrived from town in the company of three or four helpers. What did it matter that only the carriers should be invited… my dear, with so much cleaning and ordering to be done, so much to look after, what had to be done had to be done immediately; that she knew, my dear, she had been there before. – All carpets have been brought out, the floors shine spotless from recent scrubbing. The smell of chopped pine branches fills the rooms.
Bells!.. with no cap on his head Abel runs out the door.


1   In his career as an art critic, Nordensvan started to publish articles on painterly impressionism the year before Skuggspel was published. In part III of the present work we will take a look at Nordensvan as a bewildered but attentive observer of impressionist art, receptive, in particular, to the methods and techniques of the impressionist landscape painters. In addition, ten years after the publication of Skuggspel, Nordensvan advanced a discourse on the aesthetics and techniques of impressionism in his short story Aja, which will also be discussed in the third section of this study as an example of Swedish prose featuring impressionists as fictional characters. Nordensvan’s art criticism will here be related to the opinions on impressionism expressed by the characters in this short story.


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