Interviste scrittori

Come scrivere un romanzo in 100 giorni

Consigli di lettura

Conoscere l'editing

Rediscovering Arne Garborg’s “Trætte mænd” [Weary Men]

Arne Garborg, Trætte mænd, Weary MenThere is no better way to murder a late 19th century novel than by associating it with decadence. Any book described in terms of fin-de-siècle stereotypes will sound like something we have read a dozen times before. No other literary label – with the possible exception of socialist realism – seems to possess the same uncanny power to suck the individual out of a piece of art, to strip it down to a mere specimen, leaving behind the empty shell of the genre, devoid of all aesthetic interest.

When it comes to Arne Garborg’s Trætte mænd (1891), the almost ritual comparison with Huysmans’s notorious À rebours (1884) is just as misleading as it appears to be flattering. In earlier decades it might have been a way to promote a work that was barely known outside of Nordic circles before Sverre Lyngstad’s accurate and highly enjoyable English translation saw the light of day[1], but it certainly doesn’t help one grasp the subtle and particularly elusive relationship that Garborg’s work entertains with contemporary European trends in such a complex juncture as the early 1890s.

It is striking, for one, that in the same year Hermann Bahr sounded the death knell for literary naturalism with his trendsetting essay collection The Overcoming of Naturalism (1891), at a time when most European countries were still struggling with Zola’s uncomfortable heritage, a Norwegian was ready to strike back with a novel that didn’t just dismiss naturalist clichés as obsolete, but already seemed to point beyond turn-of-the-century alternatives such as aestheticism, mysticism and indeed “decadence”. Garborg’s independence and precocity are a tribute to a generation of Scandinavian authors (Bang, Hansson etc.) whose aesthetic clocks were synchronized with Paris, rather than provincial Berlin. The critical impulses in Trætte mænd, however, are inseparable from the novel’s contradictory, or more exactly dialectic mechanism.

The plot, for what it’s worth, is ridiculously simple: an aging bachelor called Gabriel Gram undergoes a severe existential crisis, contemplates suicide and eventually takes refuge in what seems to be a (dubious) religious conversion. It is immediately apparent, however, that his individual malaise is really a process of painful digestion and elaboration of cultural and social contradictions of the time. The microcosm of Gram’s Kristiania (pre-independence Olso) is equally divided between male friends who incarnate and simultaneously negate stereotypes of the positivist age (the materialist doctor who ends up taking poison, the socialist daydreamer who grows into a callous politician) and “new women” that are just emancipated enough to take long walks in Gram’s company, but hardly willing to sacrifice their respectability to his carnal ambitions. (This erotic dissonance, incidentally, is one of the reasons why the subject of marriage is such a big issue in the Scandinavian literature of the time, at least from Topsøe’s Jason med den gyldne skind, 1875, and Amalie Skram’s family novels). As the months go by and midlife approaches, Gram’s sexual frustration evolves into a general dissatisfaction with his condition and times, ultimately requiring an immediate choice between death and regeneration.

This linear if occasionally elliptic plotline contrasts with the exceedingly complex authorial strategies at play. Far from being Garborg’s alter ego and spokesperson in a didactic drama, Gram is the pivot of an ironic game of mirrors, resulting in a deceptive multiplication of perspectives. What does the protagonist really think and feel? What is the point of view of the man behind the text? To begin with, like many a literary character of the 1890s, Gram exhibits a typical split personality: half of him is morbidly sensitive and thin-skinned; half of him is detached, cold and analytic. One “I” impassively watches the other live and suffer and offers a sardonic commentary. A second layer of complexity is embedded at the diegetic level: the novel consists of fragments of Gram’s autobiographic notes for a novel he never wrote, presented with a considerable dose of esprit d’escalier and interspersed with ex-post glosses. The moral and sentimental agony that appears to be deployed before our eyes with all the immediacy afforded by the refinements and penetration of late 19th century psychological novel, or roman d’analyse, is really the product of a double or triple mediation: schizophrenic self-observation, the retrospective documentation of a crisis past (“new” Gram introduces “old” Gram), and authorial mise en scène with its tactical stakes.

The constantly shifting, free-floating point of view (a fourth complication are Gram’s indecisiveness and ever changing evaluation of things) allows Garborg to address the spiritual problems of his country and age, so to speak, from within. Unlike a culture critic evaluating reality at a safe distance, Garborg is having Gram live through the promises and dead ends of modern life, experimenting and discarding solutions in a pathetic via dolorosa. The weakness and inconclusiveness of Gram’s personality turn him into a fine-tuned barometer, fervently adhering to alternative ideals until they prove all unviable: womanizing and marriage, alcoholism and abstinence, the frivolous elegance of Parisian life and retirement in the Norwegian countryside, cynical materialism and the lure of religion. His personal involvement, balancing out the essayistic nature of much of his scribbling, is a guarantee against an abstract and therefore potentially ineffective negation of contemporary trends and existential options.

Much like Nietzsche – whom Garborg was eagerly reading immediately before he set to work on Trætte mænd – Gram is an ailing patient fighting for recovery, a sick man fantasizing about health, not a supposedly “sane” citizen pointing his finger at the moral malaise of the age (Max Nordau for one). This is what affords authenticity and authoritativeness to Garborg’s play with modern stereotypes. Gram is looking for a way out because he is personally entangled in the predicaments of his time.

For all its crudeness, cynicism and intimations of debauchery, Trætte mænd was mistakenly hailed by some religious observers as a Christian pamphlet. When modern man fails, Jesus kicks in to pull him out of his misery. A familiar 18th century trope was at work here: at the end of the rake’s progress, when all pleasures and desires are spent, conversion awaits. Still, Gram’s flight into religion at the end of the book appears to be so reluctant, half-hearted and hastily depicted that it strikes one as by no means triumphant and life-enhancing: it is more like a humane alternative to blowing one’s brains out or sinking into lunacy.

Arne GarborgUnlike his implicit model Paul Bourget and a score of repentant modernists who traded “decadence” for religious fanaticism (just one name: Huysmans), Garborg doesn’t seem to pit the consolations of doctrine against the barrenness of fin-de-siècle society. He is inherently critical both of literary naturalism and its supposed vanquishers, mysticism and aestheticism, but he retains the fundamental lesson of the Flaubert-Goncourt-Zola school: describe things, be as faithful as you can to impressions and mental states and mind your own damn business. The supposedly anti-naturalistic psychological novel is really naturalism applied to the life of the mind. “Seelenmalerei” (soul painting) would not have been possible without the short-lived but intense naturalistic crisis that sent shockwaves through Europe in the 1880s.

Is Trætte mænd a decadent novel? A post-decadent novel? It is probably neither. It is a skillfully presented and artfully exploded protocol of an age of raging contradictions, impersonal enough to make for a paradoxical naturalism of the soul, sufficiently fragmented and rambling to incarnate what Bourget (and Nietzsche copy-pasting after him) defined as a “style of decadence”. Most of all, however, it is an ambitious work of European stature, projecting Norway to the forefront of the literary scene of the early 1890s before Hamsun’s star began to rise.

By no means an immortal book, but one that warrants and rewards an intense and repeated confrontation.

[1] Evanston (Ill.), Northwestern University Press, 1991

Il tuo voto: Nessuno Media: 4.3 (3 voti)

Il Blog

Il blog Sul Romanzo nasce nell’aprile del 2009 e nell’ottobre del medesimo anno diventa collettivo. Decine i collaboratori da tutta Italia. Numerose le iniziative e le partecipazioni a eventi culturali. Un progetto che crede nella forza delle parole e della letteratura. Uno sguardo continuo sul mondo contemporaneo dell’editoria e sulla qualità letteraria, la convinzione che la lettura sia un modo per sentirsi anzitutto cittadini liberi di scegliere con maggior consapevolezza.

La Webzine

La webzine Sul Romanzo nasce all’inizio del 2010, fra tante telefonate, mail e folli progetti, solo in parte finora realizzati. Scrivono oggi nella rivista alcune delle migliori penne del blog, donando una vista ampia e profonda a temi di letteratura, editoria e scrittura. Sono affrontati anche altri aspetti della cultura in generale, con un occhio critico verso la società contemporanea. Per ora la webzine rimane nei bit informatici, l’obiettivo è migliorarla prima di ulteriori sviluppi.

L’agenzia letteraria

L’agenzia letteraria Sul Romanzo nasce nel dicembre del 2010 per fornire a privati e aziende numerosi servizi, divisi in tre sezioni: editoria, web ed eventi. Un team di professionisti del settore che affianca studi ed esperienze strutturate nel tempo, in grado di garantire qualità e prezzi vantaggiosi nel mercato. Un ponte fra autori, case editrici e lettori, perché la strada del successo d’un libro si scrive in primo luogo con una strategia di percorso, come la scelta di affidarsi agli addetti ai lavori.