Claudel and Norway

We are happy and honored to publish the testimony of Mr. Lars Roar Langslet, former Norwegian Culture Minister, President of the Academy of language and literature.  

It  was the Norwegian Dominican Hallward Rieber-Mohn (1922-1982) who  introduced me  to Paul Claudel’s poetic universe. The very year when I began my studies at Oslo University (1953), he finished  his education  at the Saulchoir and  in Paris, and went back to Norway. He became very quickly an enthusiastic promoter of the currents of the Christian inspiration in  French literature, philosophy, theater and fine arts, by his conferences, his writings and his participation  in numerous debates. For me, as for many others, it was  like a revelation: the discovery of a superior and richer cultural life  than the one we  found at that time in Norway. And Claudel was a central figure in the picture that Father Rieber-Mohn painted of the “Christian rebirth” of the period : during his stay in France, he immersed himself in Claudel’s works; he had seen some of Barrault’s productions, which  had marked this period ; and he had spoken of Claudel with many French experts on  his poetry. At the moment of the poet’s death, in 1955, he expressed his admiration for him in several articles and conferences.

I had already made friends with Rieber-Mohn, that is why I was entrusted to ask him to write a little book on Claudel, for the society of Norwegian students (which was at this time an institution that had both a rich  tradition and  great vitality in cultural life and  debates of ideas in Norway). He immediately accepted and in 1956, we  published Paul Claudel: an  inspired introduction to his works and his epoch; it was moreover for Rieber-Mohn the first book  in a literary production that would become very rich.

The friendship with Rieber-Mohn was decisive for my life and Claudel’s influence was without any doubt very important in my progression towards the Catholic Church – but  that is another story, and more personal ( Father Albert Raulin, French Dominican, has written a beautiful testimony on Rieber-Mohn and the importance of his action in Norwegian cultural life, in “Journalist by God’s grace” Dominican Memoirs 5, Paris, 1994, p.185-191).

In his book on Claudel, the young Father confessed that, in Norway, Claudel was as  yet just a name for  literary specialists. None of his works had yet been translated or produced  on a Norwegian stage (with  one exception:  the Radio Theater had performed The Tidings Brought to Mary  in 1936).

Nevertheless there was a book about him in Norwegian: Anders Wyller’s thesis, Paul Claudel, (Paul Claudel, the drama of a Christian poet) dated  1936. But this work had only a minor  impact outside of French philological circles. Then came the war, which rendered impossible most   literary contacts. In the first years after the war, the rare records in Norwegian of French cultural life focused most of their  attention on Sartre and existentialism. Greater writers, who were already authorities in their own country,  still had to wait a long time before being discovered in our country.

After Rieber-Mohn’s introduction, things  began to change. In particular,  three of Claudel’s plays  obtained  great success on  Norwegian stages: Break of Noon , at the New Theater (1965), at the Radiophonical Theater (1968), at the National Theater (1988) and at the Norwegian Theater (1998), The Tidings Brought to Mary  at the Norwegian Theater (1967 and 1993), and The Exchange at the Regaland Theaterin Stavanger (1989).

Several translations of these plays have been published as books, as well as selected passages of poetry and prose.

 Break of Noon
in 1965 was for me a memorable moment. Claes Gill – a great name  in poetry and Norwegian scenic art – was both   its translator and producer . He had been fascinated by a performance of the play in Paris.  I remember his enthusiastic description of a scene loaded with eroticism between Yse and Mesa; they were standing each on one side, separated by an immense stage, but there was an unbelievable magnetic charge  in the air, “and I thought: my God, the morals police will soon turn up!” Gill put all his  artistic ardour – and it was  exceptional  – into this work. The roles of Yse and Mesa were interpreted by Liv Dommersnes and Espen Skjonberg, two of our best actors. All those who saw  them play have never forgotten this great  moment. This play has since been  considered  the height  of the brilliant Gill’s contribution to scenic art.

Gill’s translation was  published later ( 1949 version of the play, Oslo, 1974). It  was also  the basis of the performance of the play at the National Theater in 1988. Our actress and film-maker of world-wide fame, Liv Ullmann, produced the same play at the Norwegian Theater in 1998, in her translation in “new Norwegian” (Norway has two official written languages!) with  music newly composed by Arne Nordheim. Since, Vera H.Follesdal  published a remarkable translation of  Break of Noon  after the original 1906  version (with very useful commentaries and a bibliography, Oslo, 2005).

The Tidings Brought to Mary  was  translated into “new Norwegian” by the well- known lyrical poetess, Halldis Moren Vesaas, and published  in Oslo in 1967. The performance of this play, the same year, was a gripping encounter with a modern version of the  medieval theatrical style of the mystery play, which could reasonably seem strange in a country with a heavy Lutheran past, but which  was  a triumph owing to its high artistic quality.  Once again,    Claes Gill  was the producer.  The staging  of the performance of 1993 was entrusted to Kjetil Bang-Hansen, who carried it out in a remarkable way. In the process of a discussion on the play he said: “When one works with such a play, one must at the same time be bound to earth and stretch out towards the sky. It is what Claudel is doing. The artist’s mission is to discover the meaning  of human existence”.

We should  also  mention that Claudel and Honegger’s  Joan of Arc at the Stake was interpreted in its integral orchestral version, in Oslo, in 1967.  Liv Dommersnes  interpreted Joan of Arc’s role. It was again a great artistic success, which was broadcast  on  radio and  television.

Emil Boyson, a poet whose stature extends throughout Europe, , translated several of Claudel’s poems, which were published among others in an anthology of French poetry (Fransk poesi) and completed by adaptations from Sigmund Skard and Swedish lyrical poet Hjalmar Gullberg (3d ed.,Oslo, 2000). Professor Truls Winther has also been a zealous Claudel translator, as much  of his poems (among others  Stations of the Cross ) as of his prose, and has written on Claudel’s works: for example, in 1972, Tausheten og ordet (Le Silence et la parole) and in  1975, Paul Claudel  og det skapende ord (Paul Claudel et la parole créatrice).

Claudel’s poetic works, especially some of his dramas, have thus left  obvious marks in Norway. But unfortunately, our country has had otherwise few cultural contacts with France. However, although  the above mentioned contributions can seem sporadic, they are nevertheless  works of artists who  occupy a  place of the first rank in Norwegian poetry and dramatic art.

Claudel’s greatest dramatic works,  The Satin Slipper  and  The Book of Christopher Columbus, have been neither translated nor  staged in Norway. But those who have been more specially interested in  this great French poet have been able to enjoy good translations in the two other Scandinavian languages, that Norwegian readers fortunately  understand  very well: the Danish translation of The Book of Christopher Columbus (Bogen om Chistoffer Colombus) by Frans Lasson in 1967, and  one in Swedish of  The Satin Slipper  (Sidenskon) by Sven Stolpe in 1982. The presentation of Claudel  made by Stolpe in Den kristna falangen II – “The Christian Phalanx II” – in 1936 (which also contains essays on Maritain, Bremond and Charles de Foucault) has also been frequently read in Norway.

My modest personal contribution to make Claudel known in Norway has been the translation of The Exchange by request of the manager of the Bentein Baardson Theater, who wanted to perform the play at the Rogaland Theater in 1989, with Kjetil Bang-Hansen as producer. It was a memorable performance, played on a small stage. I used the 1951 version. The translation was published  the same year.

This fascination has not left me since, even if my contacts with Claudel’s texts may have become sporadic, and even if I have never been close to becoming  an expert on  this great poet.

What has captivated me and still keeps me  captivated with him? The image of Claudel that inhabits me is probably not different from what many others could express, but it is nevertheless worthwhile  to tell it briefly: it’s the fullness of his poetic expression and the vigour of his vision of human destiny and of the inexhaustible goodness of creation. In German, there is the word Seinsfrömmigkeit, the piety of the being. I think that it corresponds well to Paul Claudel.

It has struck me that he has placed  himself in such an imperturbable and natural way in the line of tradition  preceding “modern times”. There is in him something  peasant- like and robust – he has his roots in a France which is much older than the agitated and sophisticated life of urban civilization. His poems radiate the sun and the fertile earth of undulating landscapes where everything is good because everything is real, is created by the God of goodness. The use of images  is sensuous, daring, sometimes exuberant – quite different from the famous French sense of “measure”. From time to time he happens to condemn the numerous false prophets of our time, with a patriarchal authority almost unbearable  for a modern reader – but is it possible not to allow such explosions to a patriarch of such  stature?

In the drama, he  looked for new models other than the classical tradition or the modern bourgeois play: he  rediscovered the theatrical genre of the exuberant popular play of the Middle Ages, as well as the too -excited religious passion of the baroque drama, in order to create a ritualistic theater, which could find its inspiration as much  in the splendour of liturgy as in the burlesque comedy of medieval itinerant companies.

As we know, he does not at all give  a picture of human life that lacks  conflict.  Evil andsuffering belong to our condition. In the three dramas of which I have  spoken here, conflicts, passions and ruptures  between men are laid barewith an intensity that can make us think of  the great tragic poets. But Claudel’s frame of reference is a Christian vision of man, carefully thought out.  The  characters of his dramas are free people, responsible for  their fate, willing and acting  in the universal fight between good and evil – and in the decisive choice of the way to take, it’s their eternal destiny which is at stake.

Thus Claudel is an anti-modern, in the sense that Maritain gives to this word. And it is precisely why he was  a powerful innovator,  in poetry as well as in drama. I am always  deeply moved when I read him. And I know that his works will pass  to posterity as among   the greatest in  European literature.