100 years ago today, the Norwegian poet and dramatist Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson died at the Hôtel Wagram in Paris, aged 77. To commemorate him and his work this year has been officially declared “the Bjørnson Year”, an event which was opened by a gala performance at the National Theatre on Saturday in the presence of the King, who the same day also inaugurated an exhibition at the National Library.
By his contemporaries Bjørnson was ranked as the equal of Henrik Ibsen, who was sometimes his friend and sometimes his antagonist. It is however obvious that posterity has ranked Ibsen far above Bjørnson.
Thus it remains difficult to understand for many that the Swedish Academy in 1903 chose to award the Nobel Prize in Literature to Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson, particularly as Ibsen and Tolstoy were also among the nominees that year. However, Ibsen was considered to have laid down his pen and Tolstoy did not want the Prize. Bjørnson was however willing to share the Prize with Ibsen.
Ibsen and Bjørnson (pictured above) are both immortalised by Stephan Sinding outside the main entrance to the National Theatre. It should be remembered that Bjørnson played an important role in establishing this theatre and that he led the campaign for Norwegians actors to speak their own language rather than Danish.
But while there is always at least one Ibsen play given somewhere in the world, years go by without any theatre putting on anything by Bjørnson. Not even in this “Bjørnson Year” will any of the state theatres perform Bjørnson and his only literary work which remains in print is a collection of short stories and poems. On the other hand the national anthem, written by Bjørnson and composed by his cousin Rikard Nordraak, remains known to most Norwegians.
In their days Ibsen and Bjørnson, with Alexander Kielland and Jonas Lie, were known as “the Four Giants”, a PR masterstroke from their publisher Harald Grieg which has stuck in the collective memory of the Norwegian people to this day. It is therefore a bit ironic that hardly anyone today read any of the giants but Ibsen.
The explanation why Ibsen is considered so much greater than Bjørnson today is probably that Bjørnson’s work are generally seen as more dated and thereby, unlike Ibsen’s, not of much relevance to modern society. Some do however disagree, among them Bjørnson’s biographer Edvard Hoem, who holds the opinion that at least some of Bjørnson’s plays are of great relevance today.
Perhaps more interesting was his role as a political activist and debater. He never sat in Parliament or government and did not vote, yet Bjørnson was arguably one of the most significant politicians of his day and played a major role in the formation of the Liberal Party and the events leading to the introduction of parliamentarianism and the dissolution of the union with Sweden. This larger-than-life figure wrote countless articles for a vast number of newspapers and thousands upon thousands of letters.
Perhaps it was a bit sarcastic when Ibsen on one of Bjørnson’s anniversaries congratulated him with the words “Your life is your best literature”, but Ibsen’s words nevertheless ring true even today.
Bjørnson’s death was by the way the cause for a “Diana moment” for the Norwegian royal family. With flags being flown at half mast all over the capital there was mounting criticism that the Royal Palace was the only public building not to do so. As the King’s standard could not be lowered to half mast, King Haakon compromised by having another flag pole suspended from the balcony where the Norwegian flag was flown at half. This has been the solution used ever since – among those for whom a flag has been flown at half mast from the palace balcony are President John F. Kennedy, the current King’s mother-in-law Dagny Haraldsen and Queen Ingrid of Denmark.