Monday, February 11, 2013

On "Captain Mansana and Other Stories" by Bjornsterne Bjornson ***

Bjornson was a contemporary of the better-known Norwegian Henrik Ibsen. I was pulled to Bjornson for the Norwegian portion of my Scandinavian reading list because he is known as a writer of short stories about the common person, and such subject matter has often been of interest to me (going back to my high school reading of John Steinbeck).

This little book, however, does not start off with a tale of commoners but rather with one about nobility. The title story, Captain Mansana delves into the life of a man who fights for the revolution for the common people and whose father died doing the same. The story itself is set mostly in Italy. But it is hardly about the revolution either. It is, by and large, a love story, as we follow Captain Mansana as he falls for first one woman and then another. The first woman he falls for is a noblewoman known for breaking men's hearts, who in fact relishes in this reputation and in maintaining her cold front. Mansana, however, is up to the challenge and, like any leading men, does exactly what he sets out to do, winning her in a race she does not exactly voluntarily submit to. Soon, it is the woman who is pestering Mansana, begging to spend time with him. And Mansana, feeling cornered, wanders off to a village in Italy, where he finds himself falling for a common girl--and truly, it is a girl, barely into adulthood. He defends her honor, as her cousin sports with her but without serious intentions. This defense, however, exposes his own true feelings, as well as the feelings of the cousin, who begins to take the young woman seriously. The two fight for the gal's attentions, while the woman who has broken many a heart begins to wonder where her fiance has wandered off to. It takes some family intervention to get things back on the right track.

Surprisingly, given that Mansana is the title story and apparently had some fame in the near term, I found the other two stories in this collection more interesting. Not surprisingly, they had more to do with common Norwegians in the second half of the nineteenth century. "The Railroad and the Churchyard" explores the enmity and friendship between two men who struggle for power in a rural township. "Dust," meanwhile, explores religious and moral themes.

In the latter story, a traveler goes to visit a couple who has two young boys. The husband feels that it is impossible for people to raise children; the wife meanwhile finds that she has no way to reason with her husband. Likewise, the wife and housekeeper have some beliefs in immortality and in the divine, while the men in the story--especially the husband (but possibly the narrator as well)--tend to believe only in physical existence. These two ideas pair off against one another when another young boy in the neighborhood drowns in a nearby iced-over lake. The children are assured that the boy has gone to a better life with God by the housekeeper. The husband comes to the conclusion that the children must be sent away for education, sparking unrest from the mother and from the boys themselves, who when punished, run away. The search for the boys takes up much of the story, but suffice it to say that when they are found, not all is well. Have them fallen prey to the immortality myth, choosing death and life with God rather than to the harsh treatment of their father? Or has God answered the housekeeper's prayer and sent the boys away so that the father can learn that they must not be separated from the mother for schooling? A final irony closes the tale, calling into question the eternal order ("mysterious are the ways of God," notes the housekeeper), a far cry from Hans Christian Andersen's overtly religious fairy tales.

A major motif in "Dust" is in fact dust. It settles on the elements in the couple's house, impossible to be gotten rid of, just as stone accumulates in graveyards without ceasing or snow on the trees in winter. Does the snow come down from the heavens, as the mother at one point explains, or does it come from the earth and fall back to the earth, as the narrator explains? And what is immortality? Is it the ancient Nordic concept of fame and great deeds carried on in stories of one's descendents, or is it some kind of life eternal in the heavens? Where is our final resting place?

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