Entertainment Books

Tuesday 22 October 2019

Tracing the life of Joyce's great literary idol

Biography: Henrik Ibsen The Man and The Mask

Ivo de Figueiredo

Yale University Press, €35.99

Henrik Ibsen: aloof, cold, distant and self-important, but his work can be compared with some of Europe's greatest writers. Ruth Wilson (left) stars as the anti heroine in Hedda Gabler
Henrik Ibsen: aloof, cold, distant and self-important, but his work can be compared with some of Europe's greatest writers. Ruth Wilson (left) stars as the anti heroine in Hedda Gabler

JP O' Malley

During the spring of 1901, from his home in Fairview, Dublin, James Joyce wrote a detailed and heartfelt emotional letter to his literary hero. "I am a young Irishman, eighteen years old, and the words of [Henrik] Ibsen I shall keep in my heart all my life," the young Dubliner wrote with a great gusto of enthusiasm to the Norwegian dramatist on the occasion of his 73rd birthday.

Joyce then name-dropped a positive review he published a year previously of Ibsen's play, When We Dead Awaken.

To call Joyce a fan would be putting it mildly - as Ivo de Figueiredo points out several times in this edited version of a biography on Ibsen's life the literary critic originally published in two parts, in Norwegian, in 2006 and 2007 respectively.

Indeed Ibsen epitomised the very essence of the cosmopolitan, urban-spiky-intellectual and European man of letters Joyce wanted to - and did in time - become.

Henrik Ibsen The Man and The Mask isn't the first literary biography to document how Joyce felt an almost spiritual gravitational pull towards Ibsen's uncompromising and otherworldly attitude to art.

Richard Ellmann's 1959 biography of Joyce also noted the peculiar similarities in Joyce and Ibsen's biographical details: both grew up in nations that were considered in their respective lifetimes as provincial by European standards; each believed the life of self-imposed exile in mainland Europe was the only truthful way to write about their complicated feelings towards family, tribe, nation and state: both men's lives were bogged down with a number of petty and bitter vendettas that often served as a central function of their creativity; and perhaps most significantly, both were cut from the same social cloth: raised in petit bourgeois families in which their fathers slipped drastically from middle-class respectability into poverty and debt - events that would see both writers having a lifelong ambivalent, and often complicated, relationship towards money.

But if Joyce and Ibsen's life appear to strangely mirror each other in the respective centuries in which they mastered their fields of literature, there are stark differences too.

Whereas Joyce almost obsessively incorporated his own life's biography into his oeuvre, through a series of enigmatic codes and symbols, Ibsen believed, conversely, that there should be total distance from an artist's life and their work.

The latter de Figueiredo rather eloquently surmises here as focusing on "the dramatic tension between the harmonious Apollonian and the disruptive Dionysian, the contrast between a person's civilised exterior and [their] volcanic interior, conveyed via an artistic perspective that looks both within a person and out from that person".

In other words: Ibsen's dramatic arena is a place where tensions are played out through a series of amorphous, unsettling, and often paradoxical symbols and suggestions that constantly shift-along with the protagonists - between the seemingly well-balanced order of the physical surrounding world, and chaos that is internal human psychology.

Artistic analysis aside, de Figueiredo is left with a difficult task here: as Ibsen left few traces of his life connecting him to his work. And so speculation must ensue where written evidence just simply isn't available.

There is, of course, a basic biography left behind.

Ibsen was born in the small town of Skien in Norway on March 20, 1828; he spent some frustrated years as a chemist's assistant in the town of Grimstad, and later as a writer and theatre manager in Bergen and Christiania (now Oslo); Ibsen cut ties with his siblings and parents early on in life for artistic freedom, choosing to spend most of his days - in Rome, Munich, and Dresden - with his wife Suzannah, whom he married in June 1858, and their son, Sigurd, born a year after, who later served as prime minister of Norway in Stockholm.

Aloof, cold, distant and self-important might best surmise Ibsen the man. Certainly not someone you would regularly meet for a drink if you could avoid it.

How, then, to keep a reader interested for nearly 700 pages, while documenting the life of a boorish-bourgeois-bore?

In a phrase: follow the work.

That is something Ibsen left a treasure trove of behind him. Ibsen's career breakthrough arrived in the 1860s while living in Rome, when he published Brand and Peer Gynt. Two dramas, the biographer stresses, that undertook a dramatic investigation of "the human urge to freedom, [and] the longing to transcend one's own limits, juxtaposing these against values such as responsibility, love and obligations of everyday life".

This would became a central component of Ibsen's later work; and, which subsequently brought its fair share of controversy. Particularly in A Doll's House (1879): where the lead character, Nora, chooses her own freedom over the institutions of marriage and motherhood, and, in Ghosts (1881): a play that ends with the nihilistic image of a son telling his mother he has syphilis.

De Figueiredo thus spends much of his book holding Ibsen's work up like a mirror to the era the playwright lived through, mid-to-late 19th Century Europe: when the continent was the epicentre of the planet; when revolution was in the air, monarchies were on the road to decay; mass democracy was emerging, and the newly-established bourgeois class began to put their individualistic stamp on the continent's politics, art, culture and ideas.

The biographer also places Ibsen's work in the wider canon of European literature, thought and philosophy too. Comparisons are made - rightly in my view - to thinkers and writers as diverse as Goethe, Schiller, Shakespeare, Nietzsche, Hamsun, and Kierkegaard.

Erudite, measured, thought provoking, and applying its hard won and well-researched intellectual analysis with a common touch, Henrik Ibsen The Man and The Mask is a must read for anyone looking to understand an author who brought existential European drama into an artistic dimension that few have managed to match in the interim: proving the age old dictum that, in the end, it's that art, and nothing else, that posterity remembers.

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