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by Bamber Gascoigne

Jonas Lie (1833-1908)


Norwegian novelist who is considered one of "the four great ones" of the 19th century Norwegian literature. The others are Henrik Ibsen (1828-1906), Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson (1832-1910), and Alexander Kielland (1849-1906). Jonas Lie stands out for his impressionistic style, picking out only significant details of setting, atmosphere, mood, and speech. In his first novels Lie mingled realistic with fantastic elements. Lie's studies of family life, such as The Family at Gilje (1883), and stories of the life of the fishermen and the stormy Arctic Ocean, represent his finest work.

"They had fifty odd miles of sea before them, and they had no sooner reached the open than it was apparent that the femböring would be put to the test the very first time it was in use. A storm blew up before long, and soon white-crested waves began dashing themselves into spray. Then Elias saw what kind of boat he had. It rode the waves like a sea gull, without so much as taking in one single drop, and he was ready to sear that he would not even have to single-reef, as any ordinary femböring would have been compelled to do in such weather." (from 'Elias and the Draug')

Jonas Lie was born in Hokksund in Øvre Eiker, in southern Norway, but spent his childhood in the northern town Tromsø, to which his family had moved when he was five years old. His father worked there as a judge. The seafarers, winter storms and storms at sea, Russian traders, Lapps and Finns, inspired Lie's imagination and in his books he often revisited the landscape of his childhood. His mother had possibly Romani ancestry. "I remember very well," wrote Hjalmar Hjorth Boyesen in his Esssays on Scandinavian Literature (1895), "this black-eyed, eccentric little lady, with her queer ways, extraordinary costumes, and still more extraordinary conversation. It is from her Jonas Lie has inherited the fantastic strain in his blood, the strange, superstitious terrors, and the luxuriant wealth of color which he lavished upon his poems and his first novel, The Visionary."

After abandoning studies at the naval academy at Fredriksværn due to near-sightedness, Lie went to the Bergen Cathedral School. Then, following his father's footsteps, Lie was educated at the University of Christiania as a lawyer. During this period he met Bjørnson, who remained a close friend, and Ibsen, who was beginning his literary career. When Lie became the owner of the Illustreret Nyhedsblad, he published Ibsen's play Love's Comedy as the magazine's new year gift for 1863 for all subscribers. Their friendship broke down when Lie defended Hans Jæger's story of "free love," entitled Fra Kristiania-Bohêmen (1885, From Christiania's bohemian life), which resulted in a trial in Norway. 

Lie began practice in 1859 at Kongsvinger in southern Norway and married in 1860 his cousin Thomasine Lie. At the same time Lie worked as a journalist and timber merchant. Because of unsuccessful financial speculations, Lie lost his property in the economic crisis of 1865-68. In the autumn of 1868, he returned to Christiania (Oslo), burdened by the knowledge, that he was not able to pay back his over $200,000 debt, although he had sold everything he had.

During the Kongsvinger years Lie did not have much time for literature but he composed some poems and newspaper articles. Having abandoned his career in law, with much encouragement from his wife and with her collaboration, Lie devoted himself to writing. His first novel, Den fremsynte eller billeder fra Nordland (1870, The Visionary or Pictures From Norland), was a popular success and earned him a scholarship. The work, which centered on Lie's childhood impressions of life in an Arctic seaport, was followed by the first Norwegian story of sea and of business life, Tremasteren "Fremtiden" eller Liv nordpaa (1872, The Barque "Future"), written mostly in Rome. Though this novel novel lacked "artistic significance," it showed his skill at depicting seafaring people. 

One of Lie's central works is Familjen paa Gilje (The Family at Gilje), a classic novel that deals with the position of women. The tragedy of Gilje family is set against warm, happy moments of everyday life, which give the dark story a contrast. Lie worked hard on the manuscript, in order to find a literary voice capable of reflecting the impressionistic tone of the tale. "At first it was not easy to see those who sat about in the soft stuffed chairs; what I saw nearest to me was a piece of a foot, with spurs and a broad red stripe along the side, which rocked up and down the whole time. Now and then a head with a fine lace cap bobbed up into the light to put down a cup or to replenish it. The lamp-shade made just a round ring in the room, not a foot from the table." Kommandørens  Døtre (1886) also portrayed the constrains on women and problems of Norway's upper class, but with a more bitter edge. This novel was also translated into English. Lie's publisher Hegel predicted to the English critic Edmund Gosse, who wrote introduction to the novel, that in ten years' time Lie will have more readers than any other Scandinavian writer.

Lodsen og hans Hustru (1874), written almost entirely in Italy, dealt with maritime life in the far north. Maisa Jons (1888) was about a poor seamstress. Disillusioned  Livsslaven (1883), about the slums, was influenced by the French naturalist author Émile Zola. This novel was composed in Paris, where Lie became, along with Bjørnson, the focal point of the Norwegian community. When the Swedish writer August Strindberg left his homecountry in 1883 for continental "exile," Lie acted as one of his hosts. Strindberg's friendship with Lie lasted throughout his life.

Like Émile Zola, Lie was interested in social and political reforms, but he was not an author whose work was shaped by current literary and cultural ideas. Lie once said, that he had read little beyond Shakespeare, Dickens, and some "Red Indian stories". Thomasine Lie, who had a wider knowledge of literature, encouraged him to familiarize with contemporary modern writers.

By a coincidence, Lie's Niobe (1893), a story of a family destroyed by false ideals and illusions, appeared in the same month than Knut Hamsun's Ny jord (Shallow Soil). The annoyed Hamsun wrote to his publisher that he had better not show up "simultaneously with Jonas Lie." A few years earlier, positioning himself as the voice of the new generation of writers, Hamsun had demolished on a lecture tour  the work of the so-called "Four Greats" as empty and soulless "Tendenzdichtung". Many critics found the attacks to be unfair. 

Lie's much anthologized short story 'The Fisherman and the Draugh' was included in a collection originally published by Gyldendal Norsk Forlag, and was selected by Roald Dahl to his widely read  Book of Ghost Stories (1983) collection. In the tale a poor fisherman plunges a harpoon into a back of a seal - or so he thinks. The creature vanishes into the sea in a spray of mingled blood and water. He sees the creature again, with a long iron prong projecting from its back, in a boat house. Elias buys a femböring, the famous Norland fishing-boat, and sets to sail home with his family. On the dark sea he meets a rival boat. The sea strucks his vessel. His wife, taken by the sea, calls his name. Elias cannot help her and he decides to save the three children he has on board. "At that he was convinced in his innermost soul of two things: one was that it was none other than the Draugh himself who sat steering his half-boat alongside his and who had lured him on to destruction, and the other was that he was fated no doubt this night to sail the sea for the last time. For he who sees the Draugh at sea is a marked man." The Draugh, a sea monster, sails with a crew of men lost at sea who have not received Christian burial. Elias loses his two sons during the night, he tells his Bernt, the youngest, all about the Draugh, who he had wounded him in the neck and how the Draugh was now taking his revenge. In the morning Elias throws himself into the sea, crying: "I'm going to mother. In Jesus's name!" Bernt is saved, but he would never go to sea.

Lie depicted business life, the sea, social misfortunes, the narrow and conventional existence endured by Norwegian middle-class women, and other subjects with sharp sense of social realism. Differing from many of his 19th century colleagues, Lie rarely used his writings for social ends. Although The Barque "Future" (1872) took its theme from Pierre Joseph Proudhon's famous slogan "Property is theft," it juxtaposed coolly, almost journalistically old and greedy merchandising with new ideas and enterprising spirit.

In 'The Peasant and Prima' Lie expresses his admiration of the simple life style of peasants. Evina, a young girl from the backwoods of Finland, likes sing from morning to night to her heart's content. Her beautiful voice attracts the attention of a stranger just before she is due to marry Vermund, a young man from her neighborhood. The stranger persuades her to follow him and became rich. Evina gains success as an opera singer. She learns to speak foreign languages, drink champagne, and have all the things she wants. Years pass and her high notes are no longer so full and pure. She gradually loses all her property to creditors. Evina returns to her birth place and marries Vermund who has faithfully waited for her. "In the evening, Evina sat in the chimney-corner and stirred the pot, humming the while arias and fragments of melody from the operas as they rose in her mind, much like a song-bird that is hoarse and only occasionally can bring its voice into tune." With this story Lie seems to say, that all the artistic glory and fame is temporary, and nothing compared to peace of mind.

Toward the end of his life Lie became more pessimistic and naturalism gave way to mystic views. He wrote two volumes of fairy tales called Trold (1891-92, some translated as Weird Tales from Northern Seas), which draw on his knowledge of the folklore of the far North and Lapp magic. Trold, which was published for Christmas 1891 at Christiania, was an instant popular success. In 'Finn Blood' a fisher named Eilert has prejudices against Finns, his neighbors. He believes that they practice sorcery and idolatry. After a shipwreck he experiences a strange adventure at the bottom of the sea. He then wakes up from his delirious sleep, and the Mermaid of his dream turns out to be a young girl, a Finn - his neighbors had rescued him. "After that it seemed to him that he had never heard anything so absurd and presumptuous as the twaddle that would fix a stigma of shame or contempt on Finn blood, and the same spring he and the Finn girl Zilla were betrothed, and in the autumn they were married."

Down in the sea, Elias is also introduced to a draugh, a sea-demon in merman shape, with whom he enjoys a meal. In 'The Fisherman and the Draug,' 'Tug of War,' and 'Jack of Sjöholm' the draugh has a more demonic nature – the draug revenges Elias by drowning his family. The head of the sea-monster consists of a bunch of seaweed. Lie wrote these tales in a simple epic style, but in later novels he returned to his earlier realism.

Having obtained a small pension from the Government, Lie was able to write without financial worries. On the occasion of his sixtieth birthday in Norway, the Danish literature critic Georg Brandes proclaimed him "the most amiable of geniuses." In 1904, he was awarded the Grand Cross of the Order of St. Olav. Lie's marriage with Thomasine was happy. They had five children, of whom two died young. "If I have written anything that is good, then my wife deserves as much credit for it as myself," Lie once declared.

Faustina Strozzi (1875), a play dealing with the struggle for Italian liberty, was written while Lie lived with his family in Dresden and Stuttgard. Eventually Paris beccame the home of Lie and his wife for twenty-four years, but during summers, he would head with his family for the Bavarian Alps. However, Lie never found an escape from homesickness. His daughter told once that he called on a Norwegian family in Paris who had just received a plant from Norway in Norwegian earth. "Thinking himself unobserved, I saw him turning from the company, take a pinch of that earth and put it to his mouth. Whether he kissed it or ate it I do not know." In 1906 he returned permanently to Norway, where he spent the last years of his life in a cozy home atFredriksværn. Jonas Lie died at Fleskum in the outskirts of Christiania, on July 5, 1908, less than a year after the death of his wife.

For further information: Esssays on Scandinavian Literature by Hjalmar Hjorth Boyesen (1895); 'Introduction' by Julius Emil Olson, in The Family at Gilje, translated by Samuel Coffin Eastman (1920); Erindringer fra et digterhjem by E. Lie (1928); Six Scandinavian Novelists by Alrik Gustafson (1940); Dikteren og det primitive by H Mildbøe (1964-66); Ideal og virkelighet by Å.H. Lervik (1965); Modern Norwegian Literature 1860-1918 by Brian W. Downs (1966); Jonas Lie i Paris by J. Skancke Martens (1967); Jonas Lies diktning by I. Hauge (1970); Jonas Lie by Sverre Lyngstad (1977); Domt til kunst: Jonas Lies romaner 1884-1905 by Petter Aaslestad (1992); A History of Norwegian Literatures, ed. by Harald S. Naess (Volume 2 of A History of Scandinavian Literatures, 1993); Med lik i lasten?: subjekt og modernitet i Jonas Lies romanunivers by Harald Bache-Wiig (2007); A Poetic History of the Oceans: Literature and Maritime Modernity by Søren Frank (2022) 

Selected works:

  • Den Fremsynte; Eller, Billeder fra Nordland, 1870 (11th ed., 1903)
    - The Visionary or Pictures from Nordland (translated by Jessie Muir, 1894) / 'The Fisherman and the Draug' (translated by R. Nisbet Bain, 1893)
    - Aaveiden näkijä eli kuvauksia Nordlandista (suom. Hj. Hietala [Sandelin?], 1877) / Kaukonäkijä eli kuvauksia Ruijasta (suom. Tekla Lampén, 1914) / 'Elias ja merikummitus' (suom. Tekla Lampén, teoksessa Unikäärme ja muita vanhoja kauhukertomuksia, toim. Matti Järvinen, 2017) 
  • Fortællinger og Skildringer fra Norge, 1872 (contains 'Nordfjordshesten,' 'Søndmørs-Ottringen,' 'Finneblod,' 'Svend Føyn og ishavsfarten')
    - 'Little Grey, the Pony of Nordfjord, or the Story of Gjermund and Sigrid' (translated from the Norwegian of Jonas Lie by the Hon. Mrs. Arbuthnott [née Douglas], 1873); 'The Northfjord Horse' (translated by Nellie V. Anderson, 1885); 'Finn Blood' (in Weird Tales from Northern Seas, translated by R. Nisbet Bain, 1893)
    - Vuonon Kimo, pieni jutelma kyytirattailta (suom. Ferd. Ahlman, 1880)
  • Tremasteren "Fremtiden" eller Liv nordpaa, 1872
    - The Barque "Future" (translated by Ole Bull, 1879)
    - Kolmimasto "Tulevaisuus" eli elämää Pohjolassa (suom. Juhani Siljo, 1920)
  • Lodsen og hans Hustru, 1874
    - A Norse Love Story. The Pilot and His Wife (translated by Ole Bull, 1876) / The Pilot and His Wife (translated by G.L. Tottenham, 1877)
    - Luotsi ja hänen vaimonsa (suom. Teuvo Pakkala, 1895; Juho Hollo, 1922)
  • Faustina Strozzi, 1875 (play)
  • Utmeldt af Klubben, 1876 (play)
  • Thomas Ross, 1878
    - Thomas Ross (suom. 1923)
  • Adam Schrader, 1879
  • Rutland, 1880
    - Rutland (suom. Martti Raitio, 1917)
  • Grabows Kat: Skuespil i tre Akter, 1880 (play)
  • Gaa paa!, 1882 [Forward]
    - Eteenpäin! Kertomus merellä (suom. Kaarlo Wiljakainen, 1886) / Älä hellitä (suom. Juho Hollo, 1919)
  • Familjen paa Gilje, 1883
    - The Family at Gilje (tr. in The Granite Monthly, Vol. XVI, 1894 / The Family at Gilje: A Domestic Story of the Forties, translated from the Norway by Samuel Coffin Eastman, 1920) / The Family at Gilje (with original illustrations by Erik Werenskiold; translated from the Norwegian and with an introduction by Marie Wells, 2012)
    - Perhe Giljellä (suom. L-I S., 1886) / Giljen perhe (suom. Martti Raitio, 1921)
  • Livsslaven, 1883
    - One of Life's Slaves (translated by Jessie Muir, 1895) / The Life Convict (translated by Jas. Langland, 1886)
    - Elinkautien (suom. Herman Niemi, 1889) / Elinkautinen vanki (suom. Lyydi Stenbäck, 1889)
  • En Malstrøm, 1884
    - Kurimus (suom. Siiri Siegberg, 1922)
  • Kommandørens Døttre, 1886
    - The Commodore's Daughters (translated by H.L. Brækstad and Gertrude Hughes, 1892)
    - Komendantin tyttäret (suom. Tellervo ja K.S. Laurila, 1917)
    - film 1912, dir. Leo Tscherning, screenplay by Axel Garde, starring Clara Pontoppidan, Carlo Wieth, Augusta Blad
  • Et Samliv, 1887 [A Wedded Life]
    - Yhdyselämää (suom. Tekla Lampén, 1916)
  • Maisa Jons, 1888
    - Maisa Jons (suom. Selma Patajoki, 1920)
  • Digte, 1889
  • Onde Magter, 1890 [Evil Powers]
    - Pahuuden voimia (suom. I.K. Inha, 1893)
  • Trold. En Tylft Eventyr, 1891-92
    - Weird Tales from Northern Seas (contains 'The Fisherman and the Draug,' 'Jack of Sjöholm and the Gan-Finn,' 'Tug of War,' '"The Earth Draws,"' 'The Cormorants of Andvær,' 'Isaac and the Parson of Brönö,' 'The Wind-Gnome,' 'The Huldrefish,' 'Finn Blood,' 'The Homestead Westward in the Blue Mountains,' '"It's Me,"' translated by R. Nisbet Bain, 1893)
  • Niobe: Nutidsroman, 1893
    - Niobe (translated from Norwegian by H.L. Brækstad., 1897)
    - Niobe: nykyajan romaani (suom. I.K. Inha, 1894)
  • Lystige Koner: Skuespil i tre Akter, 1894 (play)
    - TV film 1985, dir. Thea Stabell, starring Svein Sturla Hungnes, Marianne Krogh, Wence Foss
  • Naar Sol gaar ned, 1895
    - Kun aurinko laskee (suom. Huugo Jalkanen, 1912)
  • Dyre Rein: En historie fra Oldefars Hus, 1896
    - Dyre Rein: kertomus isoisän isän talosta (suom. Anton Helve, 1907) / Dyre Rein: kertomus isoisän isän ajoilta (suom. Toivo Wallenius, 1918)
  • Lindelin: Eventyrspil i fire Handlinger, 1897 (play)
  • Faste Forland, 1899
  • Wulffie & Co., 1900 (play)
    - Wulffie ja kumpp.: näytelmä 3:ssa näytöksessä (suom. J. Aho, 1901)
  • Naar Jerntæppet falder: Af Livets Komedie, 1901 [When the Iron Curtain Falls]
    - Kun rautaesirippu laskee (suom. Tellervo ja K.S. Laurila, 1913)
  • Ulfvungerne, 1902
    - Ulfvungit: lehti intohimojen kirjasta (suom. Maija Halonen, 1904)
  • Østenfor Sol, vestenfor Maane og bagom Babylons Taarn!, 1905 [East of the Sun, West of the Moon, and Beyond the Towers of Babylon]
  • Eventyr, 1909
  • Jonas Lie og hans samtidige, 1915
  • Samlede Digterverker, 1920-21 (10 vols.)
  • The Seer & Other Stories, 1990 (translated by Brian Morton & Richard Trevor)
  • 'Peasant and Prima' and 'Finn Blood', 1995 (in Scandinavian Short Stories) 
  • Weird Tales from Northern Seas: Norwegian Legends, 2009 (illustrations by Laurence Housman; translated by R. Nisbet Bain)
  • Jonas Lie: brev, 2009 (edited by Anne Grete Holm-Olsen)
  • The Jonas Lie Megapack, 2014

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