April 6, 2013

Book review: "Peer Gynt," by Henrik Ibsen

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Peer Gynt, by Henrik Ibsen

Peer Gynt
By Henrik Ibsen
Reviewed by Yair Ben-Zvi

I write this review with more than a little trepidation as one of my best friends is on his way to being, if he isn't already, an Ibsen scholar. So while writing this I imagine him here with me, just waiting to unleash his Olympian store of knowledge against my piddling review. But, you know, I'm nothing if not a challenge seeker, so here we are.

I read a collection of Ibsen's about two years ago, specifically The Wild Duck, Ghosts, A Doll's House, and An Enemy of the People. I enjoyed them all immensely and very much appreciated the near complete lack of whimsy in his plays. Having theatrical experience only with the likes of Shakespeare and a taste of Marlowe (with an occasional sampling of Arthur Miller in high school and only recently Goethe's closet drama Faust I and II) I was unprepared for just how unsympathetic a playwright could depict his world. Shakespeare and Marlowe were so grandiose, it didn't matter if it was romance, tragedy, comedy, everything was built up to the skies. All of the characters felt important, like gods in a pantheon, putting on a divine show for barely comprehending mortals.

But Ibsen is strikingly different. His characters feel much more human, almost approachable. Society is flawed (and how) in the eyes of Ibsen and is that way because of the people who comprise it. Nowhere is this more evident than in Ibsen's most well known work (often called THE Norwegian Play), Peer Gynt.

Based on the fairy tale "Per Gynt," Ibsen gives us the titular character who, very unlike any protagonist of a Shakespeare play, is just, well, low. He seems like the kind of character that, maybe, gets one possibly funny line in a Shakespeare play before being mocked, jeered or just killed before the main character can continue on his epic way. Gynt is, at times, base, shiftless, a vagrant, and, one would think, completely unworthy of an entire work based around his story. But two factors work to his favor. One, ninety-nine percent of the people, no, the world around him, are just as bad as he, worse because at least Gynt seems perfectly cognizant of his shortcomings and the lies he attempts to make his life consist of. Curiously in fact as there's more than enough evidence to justify the reading that every character is as 'full of con', as my father would say, as Gynt. The only difference being that, like so many of Ibsen's other works, the many of society have judged the one individual as the target of their scorn, the altar where they lay their shortcomings, their sin, to burn and be forgotten. Peer Gynt is the scapegoat without the benefit of the title.

And the other reason as to why Gynt is worthy of his story is that there are echoes of Goethe's Faust. Now, that alone doesn't make him worthy. It's the contradiction inherent there that makes the story. Goethe's Faust was about as elite a character as one can find. A brilliant doctor dabbling the black arts for the simple fact that the rest of the world bored him. Gynt is a character who pathologically avoids the rest of the world, only culling what he can whilst avoiding the real issues dogging his soul. Gynt isn't Faust, he's the anti-Faust. And that's the grandness of it as, to me, Gynt and Faust occupy the exact same world.

That having been said, there were more than a few moments where I honestly believed Gynt on his way to redemption would encounter Faust on his way to damnation, the former stumbling and running, the latter marching and proud, wending their way through a world where the divine (better, supernatural) is just below the surface of the world waiting to bless or condemn a man, often one then the other. The equal but opposite of the society that Ibsen routinely lambasted. The cynic in me says Ibsen was painting something like a Sartre 'No Exit' scenario, that there is no hope, or anything like it.

But the final scene, with the button molder, with Gynt in the arms of Solveig, gives us something akin to hope, but not quite. I imagined the sun rising as the birds chirped their songs, a soft breeze caressing the early mist away, Solveig herself at peace while Gynt, near his end and whatever that will entail, driven to exhaustion, to death, with the agent of this fate, the button molder just there, just waiting. Simply gorgeous. So not hope but, it seems, Ibsen doesn't answer the question of Gynt's fate with that, but with an ellipses trailing off into infinity, into that endless question, the 'unexplored continent' of Hamlet. Namely, what we're left with is not a refuge in hope, but a refuge in ambiguity. Gynt could be judged to oblivion or given salvation, and the madness of it is that Ibsen leaves us right at the precipice where we either grow wings and fly or fall to something nice and Tarturus adjacent below.

It's brilliant, unwieldy, and something awesome, truly. Read it.

Out of 10: 8.9

Read even more about Peer Gynt: | Amazon | Goodreads | LibraryThing | Shelfari | Wikipedia

Filed by Yair Ben-Zvi at 3:13 PM, April 6, 2013. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews | Yair Ben-Zvi |