Canadian Review of Comparative Literature 1997

Sven Hakon Rossel (ed.)
Ludvig Holberg: A European Writer - A Study in Influence and Reception

Editions Rodopi B. V., Amsterdam - Atlanta 1994
ISBN 90-5183-809-3. 238 pages. 50 US - $

This book is one of those rare international publications that tells about a famous Nordic author and the whole body of his work. Ludvig Holberg: A European Writer - A Study in Influence and Reception is a thorough anthology, containing seven different contributions by historians of theatre and literature, translators and a single dramaturgist.

In the first contribution the editor, Sven H. Rossel, makes a fine profile or monographic sketch of “Ludvig Holberg: The Cosmopolitan”. In the following six contributions Holberg is related to different historical, topografical and linguistic areas and perspectives: Holberg and - Greek-Roman Antiquity, German-speaking Europe, the Romance World, the Anglo-American World, the Russian Literary Landscape, and finally Holberg in Scandinavia.

An anthology like this requires the writers to combine substantial detailed study with the stylistic clarity of an essay. This demand has in general been well met by the contributors and the editor of Ludvig Holberg: A European Writer. The reader is given good surveys of as well as interesting details about the history of Holberg and the different literary cultures he has been influenced by and vice versa. There are, however, minor problems. First, and this is a general methodological problem in the literary reception of Holberg, too little attention has been paid to the fact that Holberg wrote in so many different genres and that a quotation is not simply a quotation, but is specifically determined by its literary source. Secondly, and this relates to the editor, a number of details are repeated to frequently. But that is - a detail.

When Holberg published his story about Niels Klim in 1741, he created a sensation in Denmark: the book came close to being confiscated. In Europe it became a bestseller by the standards of that timeAs it was written in Latin Nicolai Klimii iter subterraneum was immediately translated into German, French and Dutch. Soon after into Danish (!) as well, English, Swedish, Russian, Hungarian, Polish and Finnish. Klim, which at the same time is a philosophical science fiction and a satire of Holberg’s own time, is maybe the most obvious illustration of the fact that the relation between Holberg and the literary cultures throughout Europe could be mutual: Influence and Reception. Those two categories are treated with changing importance in this anthology. And with good reason.

Holberg as a playwright, his comedies, is a study on its own when it comes to influence and reception. In general he is one of the most translated Scandinavian authors, but it is in particular the comedies that became a public success. That is of course true for the Nordic countries, but also for Germany - shows Vivian Greene-Gantzberg. From the middle of the eighteenth century via Gottsched’s parallel to Holberg’s own Danish theatre: Die Deutsche Schaubühne, on to Oehlenslager’s enormous  translation of no less than 25 comedies into German in 1822, and up to the last part of the nineteenth century, Holberg’s comedies were staged to an extent that not even the late Henrik Ibsen can rival.

The comedy about Jeppe paa Bierget (Jeppe of the Hill) is particularly interesting in terms of influence and reception. Jeppe was translated into Russian in 1904 and staged in Kiev 1918-19. It became, as far as we know, the only Holbergdrama played during the time of the Sovjet Union as well as after. Holberg was looked upon as a reactionary during the revolutionary period, and that is why he was excluded, so to speak. The anachronistic paradox is, shows Cynthia Dillard, that it was the publishing of the collected works of none other than that Karl Marx in 1956 that reintroduced and established Holberg in Russian culture. Back in 1848 (!) Marx wrote: “Denmark achieved all of its literary power in the same way it achieved its material power, from Germany, and that which is Danish literature - with the exception of Holberg - is but a pale imitation of German Literature”. Soon after six of Holberg’s comedies were published in a new translation, and a review was written about “The Forgotten Dramaturgue”.

Not at least in Scandinavia, of course, Jeppe paa Bierget is highly valued. And with good reason, shows Bent Holm in his sophisticated and well-written essay about “Ludvig Holberg and his Double”. A title and a topic that seem to refer to the famous Antonin Artaud’s visionary manifest Le Théâtre et son Double. Holm describes the double aspect, the relation between absolute and relative levels in Holbergian thematics, especially as exposed by the play about Jeppe. Jeppe as a fool as well as one who makes a fool of others, a carnevalistic comedy of culture, which points out that Holberg’s “work contains a plea for ratiocombined with the almost manic obsession of irratio, a combination of a light and a dark view, and a degree of value relativism lacking a center of orientation”. This essential topic - and not least the changes in the interpretation of it - is displayed very convinsingly by Holm in both a theatrehistorian and a dramaturgic perspective.

The story about the comedies in general is perhaps the obvious example of Holberg having influented in areas of literary culture most different from those areas he was influenced by himself. In Italy and France, those countries so important to Holberg and the comic genre, Holberg never succeeded, neither during his own time nor subsequently. On the contrary. There are several explanations for that, and some of them are given by Torben Damsholt, Jørgen Stender Clausen og Gerald S. Argentsinger in the other three articles of the anthology.

One radical and paradox explanation is that Holberg was at once lagging behind and forerunning contemporary comedy: On the one hand, the development of theatre was delayed in the Nordic countries compared to Paris, where Molière and the upcoming sentimental comedy was in force in the 1720s (and that’s why Holberg failed to bring his comedy on stage in Paris in the year 1725). On the other hand, Holberg produced an original and for his age modern contribution to the comic genre, namely a parodic tendency that pointed beyond contemporary classicism and forward to romantic irony, which was totally strange for (Holberg and) his comtemporaries.

And that points out another explanation of a more general kind: in several parts and genres of his authorship he created an internal and so far hidden critic of the constitution of the works. That is what makes him one of several forerunners of European modernism.

Both from a historical and a modern perspective, Holberg is, indeed, a paradox. He was a literary authority and dramaturgic patriarch, a persona grata, whose social and political satire made it difficult for the local development of the sentimental (tragi)comedy that was on stage in the dramaturgic center for contemporary comedy in Europe: Paris. In the perspective of theatre history one could say that even though Holberg’s comedies disappeared from the stage with surprising rapidity after his death in 1754, he remains a restaint for the development of the comic genre on stage - in his as well as in our time!

Ludvig Holberg: A European Writer - A Study in Influence and Reception captures many sides of the Holbergian paradox. The anthology is a much needed collection of the traditional as well as present reception of Holberg. It should be a natural part of any library containing Scandinavian literature. A pity though, as noticed by Norwegian scholars among others, that the publishers couldn’t find the funds to make an up dated and complete bibliography on Holberg. It is, never the less, a book like this that creates links from scholars and other interested readers to the cosmopolitan Holberg - beyond those automatically made by institutions.

Peter Christensen, University of Aarhus, Denmark