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Alexander (Lange) Kielland (1849-1906)


Norwegian novelist who is considered one of "the four great ones" of the 19th century Norwegian literature. The others are Henrik Ibsen, Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson, and Jonas Lie. Kielland was perhaps the foremost prose stylist of his day. His literary career lasted 12 highly productive years, during which he wrote his major works.

"Nothing is so boundless as the sea, nothing so patient. On its broad back it bears, like a good-natured elephant, the tiny mannikins which tread the earth; and in its vast cool depth it has place for all mortal woes. It is not true that sea is faithless, for it has never promised anything; without claim, without obligation, free, pure, and genuine beats the mighty heart, the last sound one in an ailing world. And while the mannikins strain their eyes over it, the sea sings its old song." (from Garman and Worse, 1880)

Alexander Kielland was born in Stavanger into wealthy merchant family. His father, Jens Zetlitz Kielland, was a bank director, consul, and artist. Kielland's mother, Christiane Lange, died in 1862, after which his father married again. His older sister, Kitty, became a professional artist. In addition, a "New Woman," she wrote a pioneering feminist book called Kvindespørgsmaalet (1886). Although Kitty's brother Alexander admired her independent nature, he said in a letter: "She has not "sacrificed" greatly for art, given that she seems predestined not only to remain unmarried, but to a very great degree unmarried; added to this, she is well-to-do, so her artistic life mostly has the appearance of a hobby for an ugly and wealthy woman."

Kielland studied law in Christiania, but he never practiced, although he took  his examination in 1871. Instead he worked for nine years as a manager of a brickyard at Malk, near Stavanger. In 1872, Kielland married Beate Ramsland. During his years at the university he had read Kierkegaard's works. Especially Georg Brandes and Stuart Mill later inspired his decision to devote his creative energies to social criticism and reform. His factory Kielland sold to a stock company. Some of his early stories appeared anonymously in the Christiania Dagblad.

In 1878, Kielland went to Paris, where he met Bjørnson, and showed to him his stories. The older writer encouraged Kielland's literary aspirations and found him a publisher. Paris had a liberating effect on Kielland's creativity.  Next year he published his first book, a collection of short stories. In 1881-1883, Kielland lived in Denmark, spending much time with the Brandes brothers and J.P. Jacobsen.

Among Kielland's most important novels is Garman og Worse (1880), in which he depicts the life in his native city of Stavanger and tells of the decline of a family and a firm. Georg Brandes, with whom Kielland was in correspondence, emphasized the critical role of literature in social questions. Garman og Worse served as a model for Thomas Mann's famous novel Buddenbrooks (1901). Arbeidtsfolk (1881) is a penetrating study of the cynical tyranny of Kristiania officialdom and attacks Norway's state bureaucracy. The harrowing Else (1881) deals with the sexual exploitation of women. Skipper Worse (1882) is another portrait of his native Stavanger and an indictment of religious fanaticism. In the trilogy Gift (1883), Fortuna (1884) and Sankt Hans fest (1887) Kielland satirizes the hypocrisy of Norway's clergy. The story follows Abraham Lövdahl from his childhood to a failed scientist and reflected the contemporary cultural debate Norway. His best plays were the satirical comedies Tre par (1886) and Professoren  (1888), a  devastating  portrait of the ultraconservative philosophy professor Marcus Jacob Monrad (1816-1897).

With his irony Kielland angered 'venstre,' the leftist political group, and the conservatives had problems to tolerate his free thoughts in religious questions. The large-scale industrial capitalism appalled him, and the greed of its beneficiaries. When the government rejected Bjørnson's and Jonas Lies request about Kielland's state pension for more or less political reasons, Bjørnson eventually gave up his own pension. Kielland's novel Jacob (1891) was born from the turmoils of these struggles, and mocked political opportunists who are not ashamed of anything.

From 1889 to 1890, Kielland worked as a journalist at Stavanger Avis. After virtually stopping writing fiction in 1891, he published only stories which had appeared earlier. In 1892, he was appointed Stavanger's burgomaster, although in Arbeidtsfolk had condemned high officials. Partly because of the way he had treated workers in his factory ‒ generally know as a good place to work ‒ he was a popular figure. In 1902, he became the governor (amtman) of Møre and Romsdal in the north-western part of Norway. A person with a preference for open views in landscapes, he never learned to love the sight of the mountains, but drew the curtains of his house in Molde to hide them.

In his short stories Kielland could intentionally refer to familiar juxtapositions and motifs, but then undermine expectations just hinting to hidden meanings, leaving conclusions to the reader. 'Karen' depicts a fox who loses its prey in the moor. Parallelly the story follows a busy evening in an inn. Karen serves the guests. She is small and delicate maiden, earnest and reserved, and in her usual way takes care of everything. A tall and handsome conductor comes with his mail coach, and leaves again after a short moment. Karen hears when one fish pedlar mentions that he is married, she drops the teaspoons and goes out. "She heard nothing that was called after her from the inn. She went across the court to her room and began mechanically to make her bed. Her eyes stared into the darkness. She pressed her hands at her head, to her breast; she groaned. She could comprehend nothing – nothing! She heard the landlady's complaining voice: "Karen, dear Karen!" it called. She ran out across the court, behind the inn, across the moor."

In the short story 'Two Friends' Kielland showed the same kind of understanding of human nature that marked Guy de Maupassant's work. Kielland tells how false ambitions can be psychologically destructive. Alphonse is a spoilt child of fortune, handsome, charming and loved by all. However, he doesn't have the energy to have success in life. Charles envies him and struggles hard to became prosperous and respected. Their ways separate and Charles waits for the ruin of his former friend. When Alphonse counterfeits his name on a bill, Charles gets his chance. Alphonse greets him warmly in his favorite café. "It was long since Charles had heard that old pet name. He gazed into the well-known face, and now for the first time saw how it had altered of late. It seemed to him as though he were reading a tragic story about himself." Alphonse takes poison and dies in the middle of his friends.

French literature and rationalistic view of the world influence deeply Kielland, but he also read John Stuart Mill and Charles Dickens. As a novelist he was faithful to realism and rejected the other dominant trend of the period, naturalism. Kielland combined elegant style and brilliant wit with psychological understanding. With Georg Brandes's he shared the view that literature should work as a means of social criticism. Kielland revealed the oppression of the poor, scourged hypocrisy in the clergy, and satirized bureaucracy and the schoolmen. However, Kielland's coldness for the unrefined, surfacing in his novel, Jakob, separated him from a number of fashionable writers who followed the call of Socialism. This work concluded his career as a novelist.  In 1905 he published a study on Napoleon, which is not among his best works. Already from the mid-1880s, Kielland had suffered from shortness of breath, and he could not put his full energy into writing. Kielland died of heart and kidney disease at Bergen on April 6, 1906. He loved food and it has been said that he ate himself to death.

For further reading: Min far Alexander Lange Kielland by B. Kielland (1949); Alexander Kielland's litterära genombrott by N. E. Bæhrendtz (1952); Der Einfluss der norwegischen Literatur auf Thomas Manns "Buddenbrooks" by Walter Gryters: Triltsch (1961); Alexander Kielland's romaner by O. Apeland (1971); Tendenz und satirische Schreibart im Werk von Alexander L. Kielland by Helmut Blochwitz (1988); Alexander L. Kielland og hans samtid by Gerhard Gran (1992); Om Garman & Worse av Alexander Kielland by Hilde Sejersted (1996); A History of Norwegian Literature, ed. by Harald S. Naess (1993, vol. 2 of A History of Scandinavian Literature); Mannen i speilet: Alexander L. Kielland i Stavanger 1888-1902 by Einar O. Risa (1999); Søkelys på "Gift" av Alexander L. Kielland by Ellen Ugland (2000); Forfatterens strategier: Alexander Kielland og hans krets by Tore Rem 2002); Humoristen & Quijote: forfattar og helt i Alexander L. Kiellands roman Garman & Worse by Magne Drangeid (2003); Modern Norwegian Literature 1860–1918 by Brian W. Downs (2011); "Alexander L. Kielland"-ulykken: ringene i vannet, edited by Tord F. Paulsen and Marie Smith-Solbakken, introduction by Aslak Sira Myhre (2017); 'Kitty Kielland as a "New Woman"' by Øystein Sjåstad, Scandinavian Studies, Volume 92, Number 4 (Winter 2020) - Note: Kielland's grandson Axel Kielland (1907-1963), who worked as a journalist for Dagbladet, gained fame as dramatist. He also wrote novels and travel books.  A number of Kielland's short stories appeared in English in Norse Tales and Sketches (1896).  Suom.: Kiellandin teoksista on suomennettu myös kokoelma novelleja.

Selected works:

  • Paa hjemvejen, 1878 (play)
  • Novelletter, 1879 (Haabet er lysegrønt, Visne Blade, Erotik og Idyl, Balstemning, En Middag, To Venner, Slaget ved Waterloo, Eksterne lenker)
    - Two Friends (in Scandinavian Short Stories, 1995)
    - Tales of Two Countries (tr. from the Norwegian by William Archer, with an introduction H. H. Boyesen, 1891) / Norse Tales and Sketches (translated by R.L. Cassie, 1896) / Collected Works of Alexander Lange Kielland, 2007 (translated by R.L.Cassie, 2007)
    - Novelleja (sisältää: Toveri, Tanssiaistunteita, Päivälliset; suom. Pekka Aho, 1885)
  • Hans Majestæts Foged, 1880 (play)
  • Det hele er Ingenting, 1880 (play; All Is Vanity)
  • Garman & Worse, 1880
    - Garman and Worse: A Norvegian Novel (translated by W. W. Kettlewell, 1885)
  • For scenen: tre smaastykker, 1880
  • Nye novelletter, 1880 (Torvmyr, Siesta, En Skipperhistorie, Folkfest, En Abekat, En god Samvittlighet, Præstegården, Eksterne lenker)
    - Norse Tales and Sketches (translated by R.L. Cassie, 1896) /  Collected Works of Alexander Lange Kielland, 2007 (translated by R.L.Cassie, 2007)
  • Arbeidtsfolk: roman, 1881 (Workers)
    - Työmiehiä: romaani (suom. T.P., 1884)
  • Else: en jule fortælling, 1881
    - Elsie: A Christmas Story (translated by Miles Menander Dawson, 1894)
  • To Novelletter fra Danmark, 1882 (Trofast, Karen)
    - Norse Tales and Sketches (translated by R.L. Cassie, 1896) / Karen (in Scandinavian Short Stories, 1995) / Collected Works of Alexander Lange Kielland, 2007 (translated by R.L.Cassie, 2007)
    - Karen (suom. Elisabeth Löfgren, 1883)
  • Skipper Worse: roman, 1882
    - Skipper Worse (translated from the Norwegian by Christopher Fauske, edited by Jeff Voccola, 2008) 
    - Laivuri Worse (suom. Elisabeth Löfgren, 1883)
  • Gift, 1883 (Poison)
    - Myrkkyä (suom. J.A.S., 1888)
  • Fortuna, 1884
  • Sne, 1886
  • Tre par, 1886 (play; Three Pairs)
  • Sankt Hans fest, 1887 (Saint John's Festival)
  • Bettys formynder, 1887 (play; Betty's Guardian)
  • Professoren, 1888 (play; The Professor)
    - Professor Lovdahl (translated by Rebecca Blair Flandrau, 1904)
  • Forsvarssagen, 1890
  • Jacob: roman, 1891
    - Jaakoppi (suom. Juhani Aho, 1891)
  • Samlede værker, 1897 (11 vols.)
  • Omkring Napoleon, 1905
    - Napoleon’s Men and Methods (translated by Jospeh McCabe, with a preface by Oscar Browning, 1907)
  • Breve, 1907 (introduction by Gerhard Gran)
  • Alexander L. Kielland: Breve til hans datter, 1909
  • Alexander L. Kielland: breve til hans søn, Jens Zetlitz Kielland, 1910 (2nd ed.)
  • Samlede verker: Hundreårsutgave, 1949-50  
  • Brev, 1969
  • Samlede novelletter, 1978
  • Brev 1869-1906, 1978-1981 (4 vols., edited by Johs. Lunde)
  • Agerhøns med champagne: Alexander L. Kiellands opptegnelser til en selvbiografi, 1983 (edited by Øyvind Anker)
  • Redaktør Alexander L. Kielland: en fornøielse for landet: artikler fra Stavanger avis 1889, 1984 (edited by Einar O. Risa, foreword by Kjølv Egeland)
  • Løvene i Fontainebleau: reisebrev og novelletter fra Paris, 1992 (edited by Owe Apeland)
  • Samlede verker, 1995 (3 vols.)
  • To par: brevvekslingen mellom Alexander L. Kielland og Louise og Viggo Drewsen, 1998 (edited by Tor Obrestad)  
  • Samlede verker, 1999 (4 vols.)
  • Disharmoniens dikter, 1999 (edited by Hans H. Skei)
  • Samlede novelletter, 2000
  • Kielland privat: et brevportrett tegnet av ham selv, 2006 (edited by Kjell Arild Pollestad)
  • Collected Works of Alexander Lange Kielland, 2007 (translated by R.L.Cassie)

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