Monday, February 3, 2014

gleaming herring scales all over their skirts - Alexander Kielland's Skipper Worse

The novels of Alexander Kielland was recommended by JeffryHouse back when I was soliciting advice about Norwegian literature.  I tried the 1882 Skipper Worse, which was short, engaging, and useful, and sometimes even artful.  I can easily recommend it myself to people who are for some reason concentrating their attention on Norwegian fiction.  That is meant to be narrow, but it obviously includes me.

Skipper Worse is a ship captain who in the lively opening scene returns to his small town after a long absence, “the first time a ship from that area had made the journey to Rio de Janeiro” (20), so his return is a triumph.  Worse becomes entangled with the town’s severe pietistic sect.  Kielland was a left-wing reformer, so he has no qualms about making some of the pietists as villains and hypocrites, as when greedy Madam Torvestad keeps her daughter from a love match within their faith by essentially selling her to the wealthy Skipper Worse, thereby ruining his life, her life, and the lives of several others.

The horrible Madam Torvestad arranges a marriage for her younger daughter, too, this time motivated not by greed but spite.  For some reason I have been reading a lot of stories about arranged marriages lately, almost all ending (or beginning) in disaster.  But those in Skipper Worse have been the worst.

All of this was fine, but the best parts of the novel were a bit separate from the story, scenes of action in the life of the little Norwegian port – a terrible storm in Chapter 15 and the arrival of the herring fleet in Chapter 5. 

The whole warehouse was full to the rafters with men, herring, salt, and barrels.  There were shouts and yells, the clang of coopers.  The floor and stairs were always wet and  slippery with herring blood and brine, which dripped between the floors.  Herring scales covered the walls everywhere you looked, and there was a smell like the inside of a whale’s stomach.  (69)

Maybe I should have preceded that with a lunch spoiler alert.

The girls would pull their fish scarves down, so their mouths were free, talking and lightly shouting as they walked in the middle of the street, warm and red-cheeked after the work, gleaming herring scales all over their skirts.  (66)

The girls are mocking the only people in town who to not have to gut herring, the “pale and sallow youngsters” who have to go to school, crushed by “the weight of Greek and Latin books, their thoughts confounded by the demands of a long-gone culture, their brains full of grammar” (66).  One reason I wanted to read Kielland was to see at least some of Norway through a writer other than Henrik Ibsen and Knut Hamsun, both of whom were huge weirdos, but it seems Kielland is a weirdo, too, at least when it comes to Latin. 

The editor tells me that Kielland is the author of a trilogy of novels that “might well be the most searing attack on formal education ever produced,” beginning with the 1883 Gift (translated as Poison), which “attacks the teaching of Latin as the most soul destroying activity ever invented” (167).  Deeply tempting crankery, but I guess not in English.

I read the Cross-Cultural Communications edition of Skipper Worse, 2008, tr. Christopher Fauske.  Alexander Kielland is also an offshore drilling platform that suffered a catastrophic disaster.  Norwegian oil drilling rigs are named after writers.


  1. Your Scandinavian explorations - I so look forward to each new installment - have already turned up some real wonders. The gleaming herring scales? Pretty neat.

    The book attacking the teaching of Latin? Caveat emptor.

  2. Kielland's novel is pretty good throughout, but it is in these "social chapters" that he excels. What does the town do when a warehouse is on fire or the big storm hits?

    The Latin thing may not be as crazy as it sounds. Kielland's animus is directed at the class the education produces, a bunch of useless and corrupt bureaucrats alienated from their working class origins. Something like that. How he turns this loathing into a novel - a trilogy! - is something I would like to see, perhaps at the distance of someone else telling me about it.

  3. I am glad you liked Alexander Kielland! The Latin thing--which I think of as "Little Marius" though the correct title is "Poison"--is actually very good, too. Marius is a student in middle school, perhaps thirteen, who sits frozen on the hard benches of the schoolhouse, fearful that the teacher will humiliate him for not knowing his declensions. The whole painful experience is organized around Latin, but it could be any scholastic grind, anywhere. Maybe I liked it because I identified with Marius' tribulations.

  4. Novels that are actually about pedagogy are rare. Very interesting. I was wondering just that, if the Latin was disease or symptom. The editor makes it seem like the former, but I had doubts.