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Literary Impressionism and Finland: A Critical Digest

From: Scandinavian Studies
Volume 83, Number 3, Fall 2011
pp. 387-413 | 10.1353/scd.2011.0050

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

The aim of this article is to bring into focus the concept of literary impressionism within the context of Swedish literature in Finland. The attempt is to show to what extent the critical debate demonstrated an awareness of the idea of impressionism in literary writing and what aspects of the phenomenon this understanding encapsulated. This has been done by undertaking a survey of the use of the term in the literary criticism present in Finsk tidskrift and in the Finnish newspapers published in Swedish from approximately 1870 to 1910. By examining the critical attitudes toward literary impressionism in Finland, I hope to add a piece to the greater Scandinavian mosaic that is still being shaped by the contributions of scholars who have tried to clarify the impact of impressionism on Danish, Norwegian, and, even if only partly, Swedish literature. No effort to assess the role of impressionism in the Swedish literature of Finland has so far, to my knowledge, been made.

The point of departure is the fact that the numerous heterodox mannerisms gathered under the common heading of impressionist tendencies are part of the narrative tradition of the nineteenth century. Therefore, the discussion here is limited to what Arnold Hauser defined as "the age of impressionism" (178), that is, the years in which the impressionist movement was born, bloomed, and spread worldwide. Within the context of Swedish literature in Finland, the emphasis then is on the years 1880-1910. Thus, fixing the term in a historical context does not deny the fact that impressionism can also be seen as an ahistorical phenomenon present long before and long after the high point of the impressionist pictorial movement. Glimpses of a similar approach are evident in the journalism that has been taken into account for this article and is also present (at times with what seems to be a provocative intent) within the larger context of Scandinavian literary criticism. The choice of anchoring the investigation to the end of the century is dependent upon the wish to discover whether writers and critics in Finland shared their Scandinavian colleagues' preoccupation with a concept peculiar to their day, which had been introduced into literary criticism by Ferdinand Brunetière in 1879 in his famous article "L'Impressionnisme dans le roman." The debate had proved vivacious in Norway and in Denmark and, as we will see, included Swedish voices in the 1880s arguing in favor of an "impressionistic" break-up with the academic tradition. Reports from the Scandinavian literary scene were frequent in the Finnish press at the end of the nineteenth century. Relevant to this field of research is the fact that journalists followed the scandal aroused by Christian Krohg's novel Albertine in Norway and reported on the foundation and the proceedings of Krohg and Hans Jæger's literary review Impressionisten, on the pages of which a singular, "bohemian" interpretation of literary impressionism as a subjective naturalism was proclaimed. The Scandinavian tour of the Danish writer Herman Bang, who openly expressed his dissatisfaction with the shortcomings of naturalism, reached Helsinki and Turku in 1885 and was covered by the press. In the material taken into consideration, there is one example of a journalist reporting from Russia on a lecture given by P. Gnedich on the subject of impressionism in literature. Not surprisingly, however, it was mainly through the mediation of Sweden that the idea of an impressionistic break with tradition was introduced to the literary circles in Swedish Finland.

One of the Swedish writers capable of articulating the impressionistic experience was Gustaf af Geijerstam (1858-1909). The use of the concept of impressionism in his literary criticism has not, to my knowledge, previously been examined. As Hans Lund points out, the Swedish literary historian Nils Erdmann labeled Gustaf af Geijerstam's own writing impressionistic in his study Modern realism, published in 1884, in order to highlight Geijerstam's manner of transmitting ögonblicksintryck (instantaneous impressions) and his use of point of view (49). Lund also mentions Geijerstam's attack (in Ur samtiden [1883]) on the Norwegian writer Kielland and dismissal of any work of literature conceived under the wing of Brandes's slogan in favor of the work of an opposing group...


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