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.
Lars Roar LANGSLET