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Literary Impressionisms

Camilla Storskog


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1The motto introducing this study is borrowed from Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There (1871). It was with me even before phrasing the first paragraph, and I believe it captivatingly expresses the irresistible attraction of subjects that seem hard to grasp intellectually. It also points to the difficult, but necessary, attempt that has to be made to bridge the gap between one’s personal understanding of intriguing subjects and the wording of this understanding. Over the past few years the notion of ‘literary impressionism’ has belonged to these, to me, intriguing research subjects. With the aim to frame literary impressionism, a subject, as Alice has it, «rather hard to understand», this study set out to address the question of its existence in Swedish and Finland-Swedish prose in the age of painterly impressionism. Was there an awareness of the notion among literary critics and authors writing in Swedish? If yes, who were these critics and writers? How did they define literary impressionism? What texts written in Swedish would reveal a connection to impressionist writing?

2While increasing academic attention to impressionist writing in French or in English is currently contributing to a growing body of critical commentary on the relationship between literature and impressionism (Bowler 2016; Berrong 2013; Pouzet-Duzer 2013; Saunders 2013 and 2011; Gengembre, Leclerc and Naugrette 2012; Vouilloux 2012b; Parkes 2011), only faint echoes of the rather vivacious late nineteenth-century discussion of literary impressionism in Scandinavia have reverberated in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Given this lack of scholarly work on the topic, the first brick to this study was laid with the idea that zero results would also have been a result – though hardly a book on the subject. A critical survey of the use of the term in literary criticism published in the Finland-Swedish press proved, however, that the term did recur in the critical discourse, particularly in the ‘age of impressionism’, and, in a later stage of the project, I discovered that there were writers, like Stella Kleve, comfortable with the term ‘impressionist’ as a self-definition. Literary impressionism, then, was not merely a «mythe fécond» (Vouilloux 2012a) but a reality as well – perhaps marginal within the context of Swedish literature, but also historical, one that could be approached empirically.

3As the critical survey conducted on the pages of newspapers and Finsk tidskrift demonstrates, the term was used not only to indicate the various ways in which writers were thought to adapt to fiction the technique of painterly impressionism. As a province of critics and authors alike, literary impressionism was also a notion with which to indicate texts drawing on a scenic narration reminiscent of the technique developed by Herman Bang in the mid-1880s, or used with reference to works presented as a subjective deviation from naturalism, as well as a term employed to stigmatize fragmentary, insubstantial, apparently negligent compositions. As the circle, in the course of the critical survey, closed around the years 1880 and 1900 and, in one way or another, around a few recurring names of writers such as Herman Bang, Hans Jæger, Christian Krohg, August Strindberg, Gustaf af Geijerstam, Georg Nordensvan, Mikael Lybeck, and K.A. Tavaststjerna, a quest for texts written in Swedish that could exemplify these numerous variations on the theme was initiated. Although many of the critical opinions examined in the survey appeared too shallow and, it must be said, too ‘impressionistic’ to be of real help in the process of singling out works representative of the wide-ranging Scandinavian idea of literary impressionism, these brief reviews did, however, put me on the track of Helena Westermarck, whose short story Aftonstämning, I found, could be read as an example of the transposition of the motifs and methods of painterly impressionism into words, as well as to Stella Kleve, whose 1880s production does reveal many of the different facets of literary impressionism ranging from Bang’s scenic method to metonymic description, and to the transmission of raw, mentally unprocessed sensory data.

4The writers’ awareness of impressionism has also been examined through an investigation into works of fiction featuring impressionists in the role of protagonists or secondary characters. Since this study considers literary impressionism as «a historical phenomenon but a semantically mobile term» (Bradbury and McFarlane 1976: 1) labelling not only works of literature that engage with painterly impressionism, it is interesting that we should find a character among these fictional impressionists who is not a painter but a clairvoyant with a hypersensitive nervous system; Marck, in K.A. Tavaststjerna’s Impressionisten. This detail can be seen as a confirmation of the pluralistic approach to literary impressionism evident in the late nineteenth-century Scandinavian discussion of the concept, an approach which I have strived to maintain in my methodology.

  • 1   Cf., Dahl 1981: 92; «den ekstensive nordiske vs. den intensive europeiske […] betydning av begrep (...)

5The examples brought up for discussion in this study give credit to the existence of models of impressionist texts in Swedish literature, and also reinforce the gap between the inclusive understanding of literary impressionism that traditionally has existed in Scandinavia, and the somewhat more restrictive use of the term in an international context1. Although scholars unfamiliar with the early Scandinavian debate regarding literary impressionism might not have to battle with the bohemian understanding of impressionism as a warranty for turning naturalism into subjective, autobiographical writing, the «critical chaos» (Matz 2001: 16) surrounding the theme seems almost universal. This brings us back to the ‘irresistible attraction of subjects that are hard to grasp intellectually’, expressed in the motto chosen for this book: every other scholar with an interest in literary impressionism stresses the problem of arriving at a valid definition of a notion comprizing such a multitude of characteristic expressions (see, e.g., Kronegger 1973: 23; Matz 2001; Peters 2001) – in Wylie Sypher’s words on the impressionists (1960: 171): «how are we to reconcile these competing techniques into a movement?». Similarly, Bert Bender reflects on the usefulness of identifying Stephen Crane’s prose with literary impressionism as the concept seems much too vast and multifaceted to say something constructive about the qualities of Crane’s writing, and concurs: «being unique, Crane’s vision demands its own term» (Bender 1976: 53). This difficulty of definition and the vagueness surrounding the idea of literary impressionism have led scholars to mistrust the term’s critical value – «“impressionism” in literature has become an almost meaningless concept» (Bender 1976: 50) – and consequently to put forward proposals to revoke the term as the only solution to the dilemma of definition (Berrong 2013: 23; Cuddon 1991: 446; Brown 1968: 59).

6The present study has countered these opinions with its investigation into the historical awareness of impressionism in Swedish literature. The aforementioned survey of literary criticism has left us with a result reflecting a multiplicity of interpretations of the category of literary impressionism suggesting that this approach to explaining the phenomenon is more valuable than single accounts of how literary impressionism suits the individual scholar. By registering the numerous accesses to literary impressionism in the critics’ different approaches to the concept, as well as in the writers’ diverse appropriations of the tendency, unnecessary limitations to the understanding of the ways in which impressionism resonated within Swedish literature at the end of the nineteenth century have been avoided. Thus, the results stemming from this survey help to address the undying quandary of the ‘usefulness’ of a critical category as multifarious as literary impressionism. These results demonstrate, I believe, that, since its first appearance, the idea of ‘literary impressionism’ corresponded to a «family of meanings» (Wittgenstein 1953: 36e), and that the indistinctiveness that comes with the employment of this notion is exactly what we need to be able to embrace the variety of concerns that are at stake when we speak of literary impressionism. To be useful, a discourse on literary impressionism then has to depart from the idea that impressionist texts and impressionist writers should not be narrowed down to one fundamental common feature, and the one attempting this discourse should, ungrudgingly, and in Wittgenstein’s words, «travel with the word’s uses» (1953: 32e). This approach is particularly useful to organize an initial discourse on literary impressionism within the context of Swedish literature, where there is no consistent scholarly tradition investigating the notion to rely on.

  • 2   Cf., e.g., Vouilloux 2012b: 2; «le modèle explicative mis en jeu à l’apparition de la notion aura (...)

7Although the adoption of a multifaceted perspective has allowed me to address a great number of the many questions prompted by the term literary impressionism, not all of these have been fully explored, and some might offer material for further research. With a little extra work, part II of this study could be enriched with additional analyses of texts showing the variety of literary impressionisms. In its present form, the examples brought up for discussion cover the idea of literary impressionism as a matter of interart transposition, and also discuss scenic impressionism as well as narrative modes catering for the transmission of a subjective perception. As such, the two main, and internationally recognized, interpretive lines of literary impressionism are at the basis of the investigation, although the prose work of Stella Kleve does accommodate an analysis of characteristics specific to the Scandinavian understanding of the phenomenon2. However, examples of Swedish prose adopting a bohemian impressionist stance could offer new insights into the interpretation of impressionist literary modes. Also, a rethinking of the ways in which plein air prose and poetry engaged with impressionist aesthetics at the turn of the nineteenth century, as suggested in the literary criticism taken into consideration in part I, as well as in a few studies dedicated to ‘impressionist poetry’ (Malmström 1968; Olsson 1983; Johansson 2011) could prove fertile, providing that the methodological instruments are refined. In addition, although the Finland-Swedish press also allows insights into impressionst writing in Sweden, the current digitalization of Swedish newspapers, which is being carried out at the Kungliga Biblioteket in Stockholm, will undoubtedly prove helpful for a future investigation of how literary impressionism as a critical term was used historically also in Sweden.

8When Herman Bang himself reflected on the usefulness of the term, he realized that the value of literary impressionism would emerge only when subsequent tendencies concentrating on different narrative aspects had come to replace it: «den impressionistiske Fortælleform vil vel, som alle Kunstens Former, kun have sin Tid. Men selv den Dag, hvor den er afløst af en ny Form for Fremstillingen, vil Impressionismens Nytte spores» (Bang 1890a: 694; «narrative impressionism, just like any other form of art, is surely destined to live out its life. But the very day it is replaced by another form of representation its usefulness will be revealed»). In a line directed to young Stella Kleve he seems to reinforce this opinion in a highly personal way: «lad kun Bladene skælde mig ud! Danmarks Litteraturhistorie vil engang være god mod mig» (Malling 1920: 220; «just let the press condemn me! One day the history of Danish literature will be good to me»). An investigation of what resonances a movement like impressionism, which in the history of art stands out as a turning point, left on literature is indeed valuable if we wish to widen the understanding of the fin-de-siècle. An oversimplified, though common, sweeping view of the cultural climate of the Scandinavian 1880s and the 1890s deems the former decade as permeated by the grey skies of naturalism and the latter as imbued with neo-romanticism, symbolism, and decadentism. A look at the writers’ engagement with impressionism might then help to explain a facet of modern realism and construct a more nuanced account of the literature of that period: the examples of Helena Westermarck and Stella Kleve discussed in the central chapter of this study show that impressionism could combine with themes that occupied the naturalists, such as social injustice, as well as with the modern theme of female eroticism.

9Though a marginal phenomenon in Swedish literature, and geographically marginal with reference to the birthplace of impressionism in painting and in literature, through its choice of topic this book still wishes to enter the international dialogue on literary impressionism with the ambition of showing that original variations on «un concept confus mais durable» (Rubin 2012: 11; «a confusing yet durable concept») are to be found precisely in the margin. If the difficulties in arriving at a definition of literary impressionism at times have appeared insurmountable, to such an extent that the term has seemed more confusing than useful, the growing corpus of scholarly research proves that literary impressionism continues to challenge critical thought and that we have to learn to deal with the notion somehow. The study that you are holding in your hands is my proposal.


1   Cf., Dahl 1981: 92; «den ekstensive nordiske vs. den intensive europeiske […] betydning av begrepet impresjonisme» («the extensive Nordic vs. the intensive European […] meaning of the concept of impressionism»).

2   Cf., e.g., Vouilloux 2012b: 2; «le modèle explicative mis en jeu à l’apparition de la notion aura connu deux grandes variantes» («the explicative model which was introduced as soon as the notion appeared has known two basic variations»). Vouilloux explains these as the line of Brunetière and that of Bourget: «la littérature s’aligne purement et simplement sur le matérialisme de la peinture (c’est l’hypothèse de Brunetière); ou bien littérature et peinture, dans leur version impressionniste, sont les symptômes d’une même attitude caracterisée par la prédominance de la subjectivité (c’est l’hypothèse de Bourget)» (Vouilloux 2012b: 3; «literature aligns purely and simply with the materialism of painting [Brunetière’s hypothesis]; or else literature and painting in their impressionist versions, are the symptoms of a similar attitude characterized by a predominant subjectivity [Bourget’s hypothesis]»).


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