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Alexander L. Kielland. Photo: Emil Hohlenberg

A short introduction to the life and works of Alexander L. Kielland (1849 - 1906). 


The Poet and the Social Critic 

Nothing is so vast as the ocean, nor so patient. Like a kindly elephant, it bears on its back the little puzzles that inhabit the earth; and in its large, cool deeps contain room all the miseries of the world. It is not true that the sea is faithless, for it has never promised anything: it is without demands, without obligations, free,pure and unadulterated beats its heart — the last healthy one in this diseased world. (From Garman & Worse, 1880) 

Just as the sea contains multitudes, Alexander Kielland encompasses a great deal, both as a person and as an author. He wrote about the things closest to his heart, such as nature, small towns, and their residents. At the same time, Kielland is known as a ‘tendency poet’. He addressed the current and political issues of his time and wished to change society through his literature. Kielland was active during the period of literary history known as ‘Realism’, and had a strong ideal of truth that imbued both his life and his writing.  

Yet Kielland's life was filled with contradictions. He was born into the upper class and was part of Stavanger’s bourgeoisie – and this privilege influenced his personal consumption throughout his life. At the same time, Kielland the author always stood on the side of the weakest members of society, and this apparent contrast led to an inexorable inner conflict. Kielland also had many roles — lawyer, brickyard owner, writer, journalist, mayor and civil servant — but he always longed to write. He had deep roots in Stavanger and Jæren, and this was reflected in his writing. But Kielland also turned his gaze outward, towards Europe. He longed to escape small town life, and he kept up with the major thinkers of his era. Kielland spent time living abroad and elsewhere in Norway – but when he did, he found himself missing Stavanger: “[...] for every day that goes by, my yearning to return home to Bredevannet increases.” (Letter to his brother Jacob, 1888) 

Social Analysis   
Kielland’s career as an author was short-lived; after just over a decade of writing, Kielland felt burnt-out. Yet in that time, he managed to write a great deal: plays, novellas, and novels. He also wrote many letters, which were published after his death. Kielland was fascinated by society and people’s interactions, and the sharp social analyses he contributed in his work remain a valuable and popular resource.  

Poetic Descriptions of Nature 
Kielland is also appreciated for his literary merits, for his poetry and for the distinctive moods of his writing. For example, Sigbjørn Obstfelder writes about the short story Karen: “ – Upon reading such a poem as Karen, one cannot help but proclaim that this prose poetry is more than any verse. And indeed it is — there is music in the words as well as in the thoughts, such a satisfying music — – – – Read it!” 

Kielland described his literary characters simply, with a few typical traits. Nevertheless, he managed to imbue them with substance, and they inspire feelings of recognition and empathy, even in modern readers. Kielland knew that being human is difficult, and his literature contains something human and nuanced. Despite its apparent indignation, there is a kind of warmth and compassion in what Kielland wrote — an attribute that is perhaps better understood when one considers how difficult it was for Kielland to live up to his own ideal of truth. And perhaps this is also one of the reasons why his literature contains friction and conflicts at several levels – as if much is at stake, so something should also be at stake in one’s writing in order for it to be perceived as relevant throughout the period in which it is written and read.   

Dikteren og samfunnsrefseren


Kielland and his era

Kielland can be read with an eye to the era to which he belonged. At the same time, his works bring to life the story of his hometown and provide a snapshot of life in Stavanger at the end of the 19th century. 

Stavanger in Kielland’s Time 
Kielland was born in 1849, and in the course of his lifetime society went through a series of major upheavals. In the 1860s, when he was a student at Kongsgård School, Stavanger had around 18,000 inhabitants. Although the town was small, it was an important port. Herring fishing, and later the canning industry, employed large portions of the population and also introduced many outside influences. The town had a multitude of international contacts established through trade, seafaring and missionary work. Around the turn of the 20th century, Stavanger acquired a library, museum and theatre, and telephone and telegraph connections were set up in the town.  

The Author’s View of Society 
Industrialisation, population growth and urbanisation were changing society. New ways of thinking were emerging, and the writings of Kielland are clearly characterised by the trends of the period, including women’s rights, the worker’s movement, and the call for universal suffrage. In keeping with the Realist tradition, he endeavoured to reveal the truth and illuminate societal problems. His writings reflect his ability to listen and observe as he moved among various social strata, and his sharp analyses of his own time period continue to engage modern readers. 

Torget Kielland og samtiden


Kielland and Art 

Kielland came from a family that was passionate about literature, art, and music. The Kielland family home was a natural meeting point where there was room for discussion and conversation about everything from social issues to art.   

Music was one of Kielland's great interests. He himself played the flute, and started a quartet with a few of his friends. We can also find traces of Kielland’s musical interest in many of his writings. In the novella Siesta (1880), Kielland intentionally uses references to music and musical performances in the composition of the text.  

Alexander and Kitty 
The author's sister Kitty is considered to be one of Norway’s most important artists, and was a pioneer of the local genre of painting known as jærmaleriet (named after the landscape of the Jæren region). Alexander and Kitty had a close bond and shared their challenges and experiences with each other, often through letters. They spent time living together in Paris, where they had a large shared circle of friends which included Harriet Backer, Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson and Jonas Lie. The novella Torvmyr (Peat Bogs on Jæren) is the work that binds Alexander and Kitty together. Kitty created a drawing of the same title, and challenged her brother to write an accompanying text. His response to the invitation was a grotesque, comic and melancholic work. Both the text and the drawing convey the siblings’ concern regarding man-made changes to the landscape and nature, and are inspired by Jæren’s distinctive landscape, of which they were both so fond.  

Kitty Kielland, Torvmyr. Photo: Børre Høstland/Nasjonalmuseet

Kitty Kielland, Torvmyr. Photo: Børre Høstland/Nasjonalmuseet


Kielland and Europe 

Had I arrived in this World in a larger Society, I might have had more Fire in my Blood. - Alexander L. Kielland

Travel Abroad 
For an artist seeking inspiration and new impulses, life in a small town such as Stavanger must have been challenging. Kielland felt compelled to leave his hometown in order to realise his dream of becoming a writer. Thus, in the spring of 1878 he left behind his job, wife, and children to travel to Paris and write. During his stay in Paris, and later in Copenhagen, he made important contacts. The author visited several European countries and also travelled to the Mediterranean region in connection with a sea voyage. During his time as a county governor in Molde, he was enthusiastic about everything he got to see and experience during his business trips throughout the district.  

Impulses from Abroad 
“Don't forget to give me frequent hints about the books I should read; at home I sit with a pot over my head, and see and hear nothing”, wrote Kielland to the Danish author and politician Edvard Brandes. The brothers Georg and Edvard Brandes exercised enormous influence on the intellectual and artistic milieu in Scandinavia. They had important and trend-setting contacts throughout Europe, and the flow of thoughts and ideas throughout this network had a major impact on Kielland's authorship. 

Through his travels, literature and letters, Kielland brought the world home to Little Stavanger, in the form of thoughts and ideas that took root in his writing. 

Alexander Kielland and the danish author, Jens Peter Jacobsen (1882/1883). Photo: Nasjonalbiblioteket

Alexander Kielland and the danish author, Jens Peter Jacobsen (1882/1883). Photo: Nasjonalbiblioteket


Kielland and the Truth 

Kielland’s authorship is an attempt to reveal the truth through writing. 

Kielland is situated in the literary historical period of Realism, a literary movement that originated in the mid 19th century. Realism was a response to Romanticism, which was permeated by emotional and visionary elements. It reflects the major changes of society that characterised Kielland’s era, and was a kind of continuation of the central ideas about knowledge and progress first disseminated during the Enlightenment. Yet the Realist literary movement is still alive today, for example in the form of the autobiographical tendencies of contemporary literature – so-called ‘hyperrealism’. The starting point of realism is mimesis – imitation – the attempt to describe reality in as detailed and truthful a manner as possible, and recognition is a touchstone of the movement.  

Kielland was heavily influenced by the philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, in particular by Kierkegaard's thoughts on truth. In his writing, Kielland constantly grappled with the injustices and social problems of his day. He wished to shed light on these issues and thus reveal the truth. At the instigation of the influential literary critic Georg Brandes and the “the Modern Breakthrough” — the transition to Realism in Scandinavian art and literature — Kielland endeavoured to “debate the issues” in his literature. He described his own authorship as “practical poetry” and wanted it to convey social, political, moral and religious views. 

Kielland og sannheten


The letter writer

Alexander Kielland is renowned as having been a prolific letter writer, and more than 2000 of his letters have been preserved. Kielland described letters as “the sound of a far-away friendship”, and as confidential conversations in written form.  

Letters as Literature 
The use of letter writing in literature dates all the way back to antiquity, and can be regarded as a separate literary genre. The letters left behind by Kielland are private missives, but they also have literary qualities. Throughout his life, he corresponded with family, friends, and business associates, and not least with other authors and artists. He himself saw the letters as part of his authorship. The first collection of his letters was published was published just one year after his death. Numerous compilations were subsequently published, and the author's letters are now just as popular with readers as his novels and short stories. 

Kielland’s Letters as a Source of His Authorship 
The letters are personal messages that provide insights into Alexander Kielland – as a man, an author, and a critic. They illustrate his concern for his nearest and dearest, his wit and humour, but also his penchant for melancholy and heavy thoughts. In them, he found an outlet for his despairs about money worries, marital problems, and writer’s block. The letters offer insights into Kielland’s close friendships with numerous authors of his era, as well as his thoughts on literature, writing and key themes in his literary œuvre. 

Brevskriveren Kielland


Kielland and the Writing Process 

My fingers itch to touch the world. - Alexander L. Kielland

The Urge to Write 
Although Kielland is best known as a social critic and Realist, he also found writing to be therapeutic. To August Strindberg, he praised himself happily over the fact that he had the ability to transform his own rage into literature. His urge to write came from a burning desire to express himself through language and text. Kielland was a committed and critical writer who wanted his literature to change society. Contact with other authors and intellectuals was of great importance to Kielland's writing process. Through letters, they exchanged ideas and commented on each other's texts.  

The Strategist 
Kielland worked as a businessman prior to becoming a writer, and was also an accomplished strategist. Although he wished to change society through literature, he was also interested in sales figures and popularity. In a biography of Charles Dickens, he had read about how the author had deliberately worked to increase his sales figures, including by going on reading tours. Kielland did the same and wrote several of his books with such public readings in mind, and with consideration for how they would be received a broader audience.  

Jacob K. Sømme, Alexander L. Kielland. Photo: Stavanger museum/MUST

Jacob K. Sømme, Alexander L. Kielland. Photo: Stavanger museum/MUST


Kielland and Nature  

I did not know it before, but after my stay in Paris and since I have started writing, I have come to realise that this coastal landscape, so ugly, so wild, so capriciously despondent, is as dear to me as it is necessary. - Alexander L. Kielland

A Love for Jæren 
Kielland's love of nature was inextricably linked to Jæren and his family’s country house at Orre. It also inspired his authorship and stayed with him throughout his life. In Stavanger, he competed with the renowned gardener Poulsson in his efforts to persuade the hyacinths to bloom. He also dedicated himself to protecting the nature and wildlife of Jæren. At Orre, Kielland convince large-scale farmers to preserve their estates, and in 1891 he wrote in a letter about the need for what is now the Norwegian State's Nature Supervision Authority: “Were it not for the unfortunate fact that the Norwegian Parliament has actually voted that I am immoral, I would seek to become a bird inspector in Western Norway. Then I would travel around and teach people about the birds [...].”  

Nature in Kielland’s Authorship  
Kielland's deep respect for nature and wildlife is also expressed in his letters, novels and short texts. In Garman & Worse (1880), nature is contrasted with the artificial and diseased aspects of culture. And in the writer’s detailed and thorough descriptions of animal behaviour, it is easy to discern the influence of Charles Darwin and his revolutionary thoughts about man and nature. In Mennesker og dyr (People and Animals) (1891), Kielland sides with the animals in a cultural-critical text that is at least as relevant today as it was when he wrote it. It conveys a very modern perspective on nature and lays the groundwork for present-day ideas regarding nature conservation and ecology.  

Peder M. Gjemre, Jærstrand i kuling. Photo: Stavanger museum/MUST

Peder M. Gjemre, Jærstrand i kuling. Photo: Stavanger museum/MUST


The social critic

My new story is off to the printer’s, and once it’s published I believe I shall hear quite the commotion. - Alexander L. Kielland

Debating the Issues 
The desire to debate important social issues was a fundamental principle of the Realist literary movement. The mission of literature was to highlight social problems in order to help create a better society. Literary texts should have a clear message, they should deal with the present, and they should problematise social, political, or moral issues in order to raise the reader’s awareness. The author should be a highly influential figure in the public debate. Important topics included the rights of women and workers, the role of religion in society, sexual morality and universal suffrage. Among Kielland’s Norwegian contemporaries were the authors Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson, Henrik Ibsen, Jonas Lie, Amalie Skram, Camilla Collett and Arne Garborg.  

The Author's Voice 
Kielland was conscious of his privileged position in society. He was born into one of Stavanger's wealthiest bourgeois families, but had liberal political leanings. The ideals of Realism and the search for the truth were thus central to Kielland’s work, both as a writer and as the editor of the Stavanger Avis newspaper. He wished to act as a mouthpiece for the weakest members of society, and he endeavoured to move and enlighten readers through his writing. But his commitment came at a cost. Kielland’s critical texts made him a controversial and sometimes unpopular figure, and his applications for poetry stipends were not granted by the Norwegian Parliament.  

Samfunnskritikeren Kielland


The poet and the town

I now know with Certainty, that every longer Stay in Stavanger is a Danger to Life, just as a shorter one is an Encouragement. - Alexander L. Kielland

The Poet and His Hometown 
Alexander Kielland was born into one of Stavanger's most powerful and distinguished families, and grew up in ‘Kiellandhuset’, directly adjacent to Kongsgård School. Hi hometown is central to his authorship, and together with characters clearly inspired by his own family and acquaintances, it is almost its own literary figure in his stories. The town is inhabited by a myriad of characters. Here the reader meets watchmen who wander the streets, pious Haugians, factory workers, members of the bourgeoisie, sailors, peasants and merchants.  

The anonymous small town described by Kielland is easily recognisable as Stavanger. Kielland's attacks on small town hypocrisy, double standards and social games were both provocative and entertaining. The author used well-known people as blueprints for his characters, and some felt attacked and exposed. 

Stavanger Today 
The Kielland Centre is located in the heart of the poet’s beloved hometown, which he used as a source of inspiration. Much has changed in Stavanger since Kielland's time, but from our vantage point one can take in a sweeping panorama of the narrow alleys, streets and small white wooden houses that serve as a backdrop for the bustling small town life we encounter in the author’s writings. 

Vågen seen from Blidensol, 1860 Photo: Stavanger byarkiv

Vågen seen from Blidensol, 1860 Photo: Stavanger byarkiv


Kielland and the Good Life  

One continues living, because one always thinks that champagne and oysters are just around the next corner, and because one knows that the sun shines over Aarrestranden. - Alexander L. Kielland  

A Lover of Life 
Reading Kielland can whet one’s appetite for life – and for food. Despite a lack of money, writer’s block, and other worries, he was a great lover of life. “I'm in a golden mood today, because I've got new clothes from Hamburg – and they fit perfectly!” He knew how to treat himself to a little luxury and liked to stand out from the crowd. Kielland's splendid and sometimes eccentric appearance is often highlighted through imagery and by eyewitnesses. Moderation didn't come naturally for Kielland. He loved food, wine, and women. And although he eventually paid a price for his lifestyle, he had trouble controlling himself. “If I wanted to live like a virgin and nourish myself like a flower, my life could still be long — so they say; but I have no interest in that.” 

A Nature Lover 
For Kielland, the good life was also associated with nature and the seaside resort of Orre. The beautiful and wild nature of Jæren was like medicine for him. With his expensive fishing rod from Eaton & Deller in London, he could, stand and cast for hours, in good company. Few pleasures could compare. He liked to write, but himself admitted that “When I start a chapter that’s burning in my head, it’s so fun– well, I wouldn’t say that it's quite as fun as having a salmon on one’s hook, but it’s at least as fun as a large trout.” 

Orre beach. Photo: Stavanger byarkiv

Orre beach. Photo: Stavanger byarkiv