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The Literature Collection

Aurell, Tage, 1895-1976 / Rose of Jericho, and other stories (1968)

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[introduction]

  [p. vii]  

INTRODUCTION

Tage Aurell, whose stories appear here for the first time in English, was born in Christiania (now Oslo), Norway, in 1895 but grew up in the Swedish town of Karlstad in the province of Värmland. After completing his education and working some years as a journalist on the staffs of several provincial newspapers, he spent a decade on the continent, in Germany (1920-21) and in France (1921-30). Some of the stimulating impressions he received during those formative years, comprising as they did one of the most exciting, experimental periods in the history of the arts, are reflected in the articles about art and literature which he published in various newspapers and journals both in Sweden and in Norway.

Aurell's first novel, Tyberg's Tenement (Tybergs gård) appeared in 1932, two years after his return to Värmland (where he has, incidentally, resided since then) ; it revealed that his long period of apprenticeship had fostered an original theory of fiction. On the surface seemingly but another novel dealing with small town life, Tyberg's Tenement did in fact represent something radically new in this genre. Swedish readers and critics, however, who regarded the novels of tiotalisterna, the literary generation of the 1910's, as the models for this kind of fiction, were bound to register their disapproval, for most were unprepared to accept advanced experiments in this type of fiction. Contrasted with the breezy prose, the vivid and colorful characters, and the impressionistic descriptions of the milieux that marked the styles of the novelists who had been dominating the Swedish literary scene, Tyberg's Tenement, with its restrained and laconic prose,   [p. viii]   its small format, and its highly objective narrative perspective, resembled a stark woodcut. Like the next two novels, To and from Högåsen (Till och från Högåsen, 1934) and Martina (1937), it brought few laurels to its author, since the readers of the 1930's, busily plowing through the bulky trilogies and tetralogies that constituted the fictional autobiographies of the new novelists of the working class, failed, not surprisingly, to perceive the dramatic intensity underneath the low-keyed and unamplified writing in these pocket-size novels.

The turning point came in 1943 with the publication of a brilliant and sensitive essay by the influential critic Knut Jaensson, in praise of Aurell's novels. In the essay, originally inspired by the reading of Aurell's fourth novel, Dime Novel (Skillingtryck, 1943), Jaensson maintained that Aurell's novels represented a new development in Swedish fiction. Above all, Jaensson noted that Aurell's novels were the products not of some highly subjective or idiosyncratic vision or temperament but rather of a deliberate and sustained effort to shift the narrative point of view from the omniscient or self-centered author to a tighter, more objective perspective. That this effort was not motivated by the mere desire for experimentation Jaensson recognized as well. He noted that Aurell's basic desire was identical to that underlying all really significant experiments in fiction: to make the reader perceive a new reality, a reality obscured by the older narrative conventions.

Dime Novel may well rank as Aurell's finest achievement in the novel. The action in this story, woven with consummate artistry, is nevertheless very simple and confined within a period of less than two days. The hero, a young barber named Paul Hedenström, newly married and recently the father of a son, is in difficulties. His barbershop is unprofitable, and his wife has left him. The   [p. ix]   story communicates his sense of loneliness and despair and relates his vain efforts to get his wife and son to rejoin him. He dreams of a new start, even of a mutual suicide pact. All his efforts having met with rebuff, he finally commits a desperate act: he sets fire to the house in which his wife is living with her parents, in the vain hope of winning her back by rescuing her from the fire. Again his hopes are dashed, for instead of regaining his wife and son he is, logically yet ironically, arrested and charged with arson.

This story, told with the utmost economy of means, with a keen sense for the eloquence of even trivial details, and without a touch of sentimentality, has, as Knut Jaensson suggested, much of the compelling power which we associate with the great Russian writers, a Dostoevsky or a Chekhov. For beneath the unsentimental and ironic surface, Dime Novel expresses a profound compassion for the fate of human beings whose misery drives them to such desperate deeds, for the fate of the lonely, the poor, and the misunderstood. Basically, it is a story of man's isolation and his vain efforts to establish deep and lasting contacts with his fellowmen. The presence in the story of representatives of the Church and of the Law, a minister and a district attorney, who both, significantly, fail to help or understand Hedenström, does, however, serve to lend it an added metaphysical dimension. As the lonely outsider in a hostile and homeless universe, Hedenström thus joins the ranks of those more familiar Existentialist heroes, Kafka's K., Camus' Meursault, and Pär Lagerkvist's Barabbas.

The small format is Aurell's trademark, none of his novels being much more than one hundred pages in length. Shorter still are the ten tales which first made their appearance in two slender volumes, Shorter Tales (Smärre berättelser) in 1946 and New Tales (Nya berättelser)   [p. x]   in 1949. These tales, of which nine are included in this volume of English translations,[1*] were well received by the critics who had by now read Jaensson's essay, and they undoubtedly constitute Aurell's finest achievements in the art of fiction. Their brevity makes the essential job of re-reading easier, thus exposing more clearly the basic patterns of Aurell's narrative art and the range of his vision.

In reading Aurell, one observes first that he is a regional writer. Like Faulkner, he has created a mythical province that bounds the physical action in his stories. While the town within that province remains unnamed, there are sufficient indications to identify it as Karlstad, Aurell's hometown. Nevertheless, unlike Selma Lagerlöf, his most famous predecessor as a chronicler of the provincial life of Värmland and best known as the author of The Story of Gösta Berling, Aurell is not by any means to be labeled a local colorist. Except for some elements of local dialect in the language, no attention is paid in his stories to the picturesque, to the historical past, or to local traditions, customs, lore, or "types." Aurell is aiming at universality: the sparing use of concrete and specific local details does, in effect, transform them into symbols in the human drama he is trying to convey, a drama independent of time or place.

As far as the action is concerned, very little "happens" in Aurell's stories. A man journeys to Stockholm to visit his daughter who has become a prostitute; another has had his hand severed by a saw in the mill; a third meets with a response to his newspaper advertisements seeking a woman companion. A girl goes dancing and contracts the illness that puts an end to her life at the time when she would have wed. Aloneness, illness and death, and sex   [p. xi]   are the three major motifs: the universal concerns of man.

The characters we encounter are as commonplace as the events. They are mostly simple, ordinary human beings with uncomplicated feelings and needs. Intellectual or ideological questions are rarely debated. Except in "The Assistant Pastor" ("Vice Pastor"), a story not included in this collection, even religion, which often provides an ideological battleground in rural areas, plays little or no role. Of significance is also the fact that the exterior attributes of the characters—physical appearance, dress, personal mannerisms—are almost ignored. Instead the story focuses on a few meaningful details or gestures that reveal the very essence of a person's existence. All this points to the fact that what Aurell is trying to capture above all is some quality of inwardness, some inner reality of the individual. Common to all his characters is also some form of distress—isolation, frustration, illness, the fear of death—the agonies to which all human beings are subject, no matter how insignificant their lives may seem from a social point of view.

The radically new and modern element in Aurell's stories (for modernism is, of course, a way of "making it new") lies, however, in another direction than those already mentioned: it is his bold experimentation with language and narrative point of view. To read Aurell "you must read not only between the lines but between the words as well," as Professor Gösta Holm so aptly suggests in his recent book on the development of Swedish prose, a book in which Aurell is singled out for special attention. The most striking feature of Aurell's language is the break with traditional syntactical patterns. All unnecessary elements have been rigorously weeded out to heighten the emphasis on certain words and sentences, which thus become charged with meaning and import; hence, the incomplete sentences, the frequent absences of the subject,   [p. xii]   the oddities of punctuation, the many dashes, parentheses, and italics.

The motivations for these bold experiments with language are not difficult to discover. The prime purpose is naturalistic: to conquer new realms for fiction, the realms of the inner life, sensations, feelings, fleeting associations. Within the prose experiments we detect the effort to produce a more authentic form of psychological realism. But a secondary intent is also significant: to involve the reader more actively in the reading experience. The very difficulty of the prose forces the reader to become more attentive, to sharpen his powers of perception; forces him, in effect, to take part in the creative process.

Aurell is often labeled berättare, that is, storyteller, a teller of tales, and he does of course name his own narratives berättelser, tales. The label "tale" seems rather anomalous in the case of Aurell, however, for the tale should have a storyteller, a narrator, but in his stories the narrator, too, has been eliminated along with many other literary conventions. Isak Dinesen may with justification be called a teller of tales; Aurell may not. Having said this much, one must, however, admit that some of Aurell's stories, and the best of them at that in my opinion, do compel the reader to listen, with a sensitive and attentive ear indeed. In this sense they may be said to fulfill at least one of the basic requirements of the tale: that it have a listener.

There is, of course, a narrator of sorts in Aurell's stories as there is in all stories, but his presence is rarely felt; he is neither the detached narrator who comments, analyzes, and amplifies nor the omnipresent narrator who is the ordering intelligence. Thus even in the stories in which he is recording the inner thoughts of his characters, as in "Rose of Jericho" or "Until the Ringing of the Bell," Aurell refrains from commentary or analysis. His boldest experiments in   [p. xiii]   fiction are, however, those stories in which the narrative is presented not from a single but from a collective point of view: the townspeople, public gossip. Both in "Gatepost" and in "Whitsun Bride" but above all in "The Old Highway" the story is told by means of fragments of the public voice: broken repartees or snatches of conversation overheard, casual opinions voiced on a bus or at the crossroads, proverbs, a refrain from a popular tune or a hymn, a quotation from the Bible. These fragments form a kind of montage to be assembled by the reader, only the montage is not visual but auditory, a montage for voices. Divested of the narrator, of reporting, of descriptive elements, to some extent of characters even, these "pure" stories tend to make narrative art into a form of dramatic art, into a play for disembodied voices.

The aesthetic effects of this original form of narrative art are varied and striking. One effect is what I like to call inwardness: because of the narrator's absence we are allowed to enter more intimately into the consciousness of the characters in the story. Another and perhaps still more significant effect is a sense of immediacy: we are injected into the midst of events without any kind of preparation. Just as in our own lives we cannot find our bearings when we are actively caught up in things as they occur, so in Aurell's stories, lacking a vantage point, we do not know what will happen next. We feel, therefore, that we ourselves are participants in the stories and not mere spectators; like Stendhal's Fabrizio at the Battle of Waterloo, we do not know that it is a great event until we read about it in the newspaper afterward, that is, until at a later date we get some overall perspective on what has transpired. Moreover, because they do not bring events to any definite end, some of Aurell's stories are, in effect, as surprising and as inconclusive as life itself.

The overall vision of life that is revealed in Aurell's   [p. xiv]   stories is flavored with the irony inherent in human experience. The human beings we encounter and get to know so intimately are mostly trapped in some way. Insignificant though their lives may be, they mirror the general destiny of the majority of mankind: to be caught up in life's ironies. Thus the young girl in "Whitsun Bride" becomes the bride of death and not of life as she had hoped, and the father in "True Confessions," waiting to see the light go on in his daughter's apartment, is taken for a peeping Tom. A disenchanted vision, it is nonetheless deeply imbued with compassion for human suffering.

New Tales seems for the time being to have marked the end of Aurell's career as a storyteller. A novel, Viktor, made its appearance in 1955, but it is autobiographical and somewhat different from the earlier works, more conventional in narrative structure. In recent years the storyteller has retired in favor of the essayist, the translator. Aurell's admiration for French culture is beautifully reflected in the collection of intimate travel sketches co-authored by his wife Kathrine and published under the title Small French Town (Liten fransk stad, 1954) and in his translation into Swedish of Stendhal's Le Rouge et le Noir. From the French he has also translated August Strindberg's Le Plaidoyer d'un Fou, better known in English as A Madman's Defense, and the same author's Vivisections. Among Aurell's other translations are two well-known works from the German, Franz Kafka's Das Schloss and Georg Büchner's Woyzeck.

It is then above all the early novels and the stories in this volume that constitute Aurell's major achievements in fiction and ensure his place in the history of Swedish literature. Since Aurell is very much our contemporary, it is of course too early to discern what that place will turn out to be. He is obviously a modernist, and, as such, the similarities between his art of fiction and that   [p. xv]   of his contemporaries, be they Swedish, French, English, or American, are too numerous to be elaborated on. That he has roots in the past, in older narrative traditions, is also obvious. Yet his art is by no means derivative; it is deeply original.

As a regional writer, Aurell seems more akin to the Norwegians than to the Swedes. The proximity of Värmland to the Norwegian border may have some influence on this, and we might also recall that Aurell was born in Norway. The fact remains that he has much of Jonas Lie's respect for the quotidian, Kinck's suggestive power, and Duun's laconism; and, like Tarjei Vesaas, he has brought new and advanced narrative techniques to bear on country life.

Nevertheless, if I were to single out one Scandinavian writer whose works have the most striking resemblance to Aurell's, it would be a Danish and not a Norwegian writer: Herman Bang (1857-1912), also a consummate artist and literary craftsman in the small format and known for such exquisite short novels as Tine or By the Highway (Ved Vejen). Bang, too, concentrated his attention on ordinary people in simple circumstances, on stille Existenser, as he called them. Like Aurell, he shied away from moral or ideological arguments, shifting the emphasis onto the universal passions that guide even the humblest human beings. He, too, consciously sought to achieve the objectivity and immediacy of the drama in his novels: avoiding direct commentary or reporting of thoughts and actions, he stressed dialogue and significant gesture, letting the reader assemble the fragments into a unified whole. And like the stories of Aurell, Bang's works reflect an ironic and disenchanted view of life, not without compassion and a sense of humor.

The similarities between Bang and Aurell are too numerous and too striking to be coincidental. That Bang   [p. xvi]   has been one of the masters under whose influence Aurell has come is apparent. Nevertheless, there are some significant differences between the two writers, and it is one of these in particular that stands out as Aurell's original contribution to Scandinavian fiction, namely, his bold experimentation with language, his development of a unique and highly effective prose style. We have already noted some aspects of this style, a style which, it should be added, serves to place Aurell among the masters of modern Swedish prose, together with Vilhelm Ekelund, Pär Lagerkvist, Elmer Diktonius, and Harry Martinson.

The very progressiveness and originality of this prose style is also largely responsible for the general view of Aurell as a "difficult" writer. "Unique," "cryptic," "esoteric," these are some of the epithets commonly applied to his narrative art, and there is little doubt that he is a writer for the happy few. However, like the great Swedish aphorist Vilhelm Ekelund, whom he resembles in some ways and of whom he has drawn such a brilliant and intimate portrait in Roads and Encounters (Vägar och möten) , his originality has its source not in the mere desire to fabricate new forms of expression but in a sustained and genuine dedication to his craft and in a conscious cultivation of his vision. And, as is true of the aphorisms of Vilhelm Ekelund or of the best works of most modernist writers of significance, the beauty of Aurell's stories lies perhaps in their very difficulty, the benefit and pleasure we derive from them being commensurate with the efforts we, their readers, are willing to make.


Notes

[1*] The present volume is based on the 1960 edition of Berättelser, which does not include "Assistant Pastor" ("Vice pastor").

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