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Ibsen in His Letters

Ibsen: Letters and Speeches

edited by Evert Sprinchorn
Hill & Wang, 360 pp., $2.45 (paper)

Professor Sprinchorn has edited Ibsen’s letters so well, and translated them so unevenly, that one is torn between gratitude and indignation, with gratitude emerging a narrow victor. Ibsen was an inhibited letter writer (“I am,” he said, “a man whose chief passion is certainly not correspondence, even with his best and dearest friends”), but he never wrote anything but a measured and austere prose, rather like Mr. Eliot’s. Professor Sprinchorn captures his style much less effectively than, for all their faults, Mary Morison and J. L. Laurvik did in the old 1905 edition which this is intended to replace. (Fortunately, over half of the letters in this volume are given in the earlier translation, only occasionally amended, not always for the better.)

Left on his own, Professor Sprinchorn frequently lapses into a nervous and whimsical journalese which conveys a completely false impression of the original. Such phrases as “Come and see us again real soon,” “I feel wonderfully good, and I don’t see how I could have it better anywhere else in the summertime,” and “Say hello to Sigurd for me,” are painfully un-Ibsenish. I hesitate, in an American publication, to criticize the use of “gotten,” “spareribs,” and “standpatters”; but Professor Sprinchorn is too often simply ungrammatical, which Ibsen never was. “With many thanks for the books sent me,” “All of this does not bother me in the slightest,” “seeked,” and “Keep busy artist-like in your atelier” (writing to an artist) are bad English on both sides of the Atlantic.

Professor Sprinchorn also saddles Ibsen with the clichés of advertising jargon where the original is in plain Norwegian: “those heavenly warm potatoes” where Ibsen simply wrote “excellent potatoes” (varme potatis is the ordinary phrase for “potatoes,” and in any case varme here means not “warm” but “hot”), and “a glass of tasty beer” where Ibsen simply wrote “delicious beer.” Of course, Professor Sprinchorn is not always so bad as this, but consistency is one of the prime qualifications of a translator, and all too often one gets the impression, which I am sure is false, that some impatient publisher’s editor, irked by Ibsen’s austerity, has made a misguided attempt to render the letters more “readable.”

On the other hand, Professor Sprinchorn’s linking material (except that he accepts the myth about Hildur Andersen, that gentlest of creatures, sitting as model for Hilde Wangel, and tells us too little about Ibsen’s relationship with Emilie Bardach) could hardly have been better done. His notes are, naturally, based on those provided by Francis Bull, Halvdan Koht and Didrik Arup Seip in their great centenary edition of Ibsen’s works, but he adds a good deal of extra information for non-Scandinavians, and his own contributions are scholarly and valuable.

Were these letters worth re-editing? The Oxford University Press decided not six years ago, when Mr. J. W. McFarlane proposed this project to them. I think they were wrong. Ibsen’s letters, even in this imperfect version, are extremely revealing, as much for what they leave unsaid as for what they say. They do not, as Strindberg’s letters do, and D. H. Lawrence’s, show the whole man (“I am rather like the bard Jatgeir in The Pretenders,” Ibsen wrote to Bjornson in 1864. “I can never bring myself to strip completely”), but they show a good deal, and they are essential reading for any student of Ibsen and, above all, for any director of his plays.

The Ibsen who emerges from these pages resembles the badger of James Agate’s simile who “did not wait to be drawn but adjusted his glasses, sharpened his nose, bared his teeth, and came out into the open uninvited.” We see him as cautious, inhibited, quick to take offence, timid of travel (although he lived for twenty-seven years in Italy and Germany he never visited England or even France), and distrustful of idealists and politicians. “The only thing I love about liberty” he laments in 1870, “is the struggle for it; I care nothing for the possession of it…Liberty, equality and fraternity are not what they were in the days of the late-lamented guillotine. That is what the politicians will not understand; and that is why I hate them. They want only their special revolutions…What is really needed is a revolution of the human spirit.”

Like so many writers who work in self-imposed exile (Byron, Strindberg, D.H. Lawrence, Joyce) he found it difficult to forgive his native country for its early neglect and humiliation of him. “When ten years ago, after an absence of ten years,” he writes to Bjornson in 1884 (Professor Sprinchorn has sensibly left the Morison-Laurvik translation unaltered here, except for one word), “I sailed up the fjord, I felt a weight settling down on my breast, a feeling of actual physical oppression. And this feeling lasted all the time I was at home. I was not myself under the gaze of all those cold, uncomprehending eyes at the windows and in the streets.” And, two years later: “Never have I felt myself further from understanding and sympathizing with the Thun and Treiben of my Norwegian compatriots than after the lessons taught me last year. Never have I been more repelled. Never more disgusted.” Even in 1897, six years after he had returned to live permanently in Christiania, he writes: “Here all the straits are closed in every sense—and all the channels of communication are blocked. Oh, dear Brandes, a man does not live for twenty-seven years in the wider, liberal and liberating, cultural world without suffering the consequences. Up here by the fjords is my native land. But—but—but—where am I to find my homeland? It is the sea that draws and attracts me most.”

Apart from his father, who was an unsuccessful merchant, Ibsen’s ancestors had for several generations been sea captains. As time passed, he is said to have looked and walked more and more like one himself, and his love of the sea comes out especially strongly in the letters and speeches of his old age. “The sight of the sea is what I miss most here,” he writes from Rome in 1885, “and my longing for it increases year by year.” And of the little port where he was born he says ten years later: “Skien is the town of the storming, streaming, seething waters. At least, that is how I remember it. It is not without reason that I was born in the town of the rapids.” The Lady from the Sea is as deeply personal a play as The Master Builder or When We Dead Awaken, once one realizes how much of himself (as in Hedda Gabler) Ibsen put into the main female character. Ellida, like Ibsen in Rome, Munich, and Dresden, felt caged when away from the sea; like him, she had long ago celebrated a spiritual marriage by throwing linked rings into the sea and, again like him, had been haunted by the idea that her subsequent legal marriage was only a substitute.

But what is perhaps most interesting in these letters is the picture they reveal of Ibsen as a practical man of the theater. Like so many great play-wrights (Strindberg, O’Neill), he hated actually going to the theater, especially to his own plays. He had, he said, a very vivid idea of the characters he had created, and to see actors and actresses speaking his lines got between him and the original image. But he had worked for twelve years as a stage-manager, artistic director, and theater administrator (and as a dramatic critic too, which is often forgotten), and his advice to the players, like Strindberg’s throughout his letters, is always very much to the point. To Sofie Reimers, about to play Rebecca in Rosmersholm, he writes: “Utilize your observations of real life. No declamation! No theatrical emphases!…Do not ever think of this or that actress whom you may have seen. But stick to the life that is going on around you, and give us a true, living character.” And, concerning the casting of Gregers Werle in a production of The Wild Duck: “I hope you will spare me Isachsen, as he always carries on like some strange actor instead of like an ordinary human being.” These statements might have been written by Stanislavski.

What does not emerge from these letters is the man of passion—apart from the poem he wrote to his wife after their first meeting, and two half-remembered fragments to which I shall refer later. The absence of such evidence is very much part of the man. The great and memorable scenes of passion in the plays are about love betrayed or rejected—Skule and Ingeborg in The Pretenders, Peer Gynt and Solveig, Ellida and the Stranger, Borkman and Ella, Rubek and Irene—or love shackled by inhibition—Brand and Agnes, Rosmer and Rebecca West, Hedda Gabler and Lovborg, Alfred and Rita Allmers in Little Eyolf. Such of Ibsen’s lovers as find fulfillment find it only in death—Peer and Solveig, Rosmer and Rebecca, Rubek and Irene and, if you like, Hedda and Lovborg and Borkman and Ella.

Ibsen himself never found fulfilment in love; his private life was a muted tragedy. At sixteen he fathered the illegitimate son of a servant-girl ten years his senior. At twenty-five he fell in love with a fifteen-year-old girl named Rikke Holst; to symbolize marriage, like Ellida and the Stranger, they joined rings and threw them into the sea, but when her irate father appeared on the scene Ibsen, who seems physically to have been something of a coward (this, too, leaves its mark on the plays) ran away. At thirty he married Suzannah Thoresen, a girl of great character and will power who, according to their daughter-in-law Bergliot, was largely responsible for his eventual greatness. But what love there was between them soon died, and thereafter Ibsen put love out of his life. Then, when he was sixty-one, Emilie Bardach, an eighteen-year-old. Viennese girl, fell in love with him. They never had an affair, but she opened a door for him that had long been locked, and in his old age he had a series of romantic attachments with other young girls—the painter Helene Raff, the pianist Hildur Andersen, and Rosa Fitinghoff. Fame, he had discovered too late, is a powerful aphrodisiac; now that love was offered to him, he was too old to take advantage of it. As he had declared in Brand a quarter of a century earlier, whatever you turn your back on gets you at last. This is the theme, in a sense, of all his plays, but particularly of the great, bitter final quintet of Hedda Gabler, The Master Builder, Little Eyolf, John Gabriel Borkman, and When We Dead Awaken.

Ibsen’s letters to Emilie Bardach are, if one reads between the lines and studies them in connection with her letters to him and the diary she kept at the time, extremely moving and revealing—not that one would guess this from Professor Sprinchorn’s translations, which sadly miss the nuances of the original; nor does he give us any hint in his notes that this was anything more than a young girl’s unrequited passion for an old man who was bored with her. The letters to Hildur Andersen, long presumed burned, were discovered barely a year ago. They have not been published, and my information from Oslo is that they never will be. It seems virtually certain that no sexual affair ever took place between Ibsen and Hildur, any more than with Emilie, Helene, or Rosa, and the letters to Hildur are probably no more than fond and perhaps slightly foolish sentimentalities. Two brief notes, based not on manuscripts but on her maid’s recollections of what she had seen, are reprinted in this volume:

Hildur,

These 25 twins [his collected plays] belong to us together. Before I had found you, I sought and searched as I wrote. I knew that you were somewhere in this big, wide world; and, after I had found you, I wrote about princesses in one form or another.

H. I.

and:

Nine red roses for you, nine rose-red years for me. Take the roses as thanks for the years.

One would like to know what the other letters contain: let us hope they do not suffer the same fate as Byron’s diary at the hands of John Murray. They probably would not tell us much that we cannot guess from those last plays; all the same, one would like to know.

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