Popularly known as “the golden pen,” Nils Kjær referred to the essays of Ludvig Holberg to describe the character of his favorite genre, and used the same word, “epistler” (epistles), as Holberg had some 150 years earlier. He began his writing career as an essayist and developed into one of Norway’s leading social critics. His writing includes travel sketches, literary portraits, and criticism, as well as descriptions of nature, especially along the south coast of Norway. As an essayist, Kjær demonstrated fluidity in style and content. While on the one hand he cultivated an elegant literary style, on the other he developed a polemical and controversial mode of expression. Despite his European bent, he intimated ongoing national concerns in his essays.
Kjær’s lasting impression as an essayist is his contribution “Den litteroere
kritik” (Literary criticism) to the Norwegian journal Tidssignaler (Signs of the time) in 1895, in which he convincingly argued that the critical essay was on the verge of superseding the novel as an art form. The paucity of ideas in modern literature could, he felt, now be corrected. Kjær attributed part of the emerging importance of the critical essay to its role as an expression of popular philosophy and its encouragement of reflection on the part of the sensitive reader.
Another reason Kjær gave for the essay’s new position in Norwegian cultural history was the increasing sophistication of the reading public. He pointed out that the need for entertainment was being replaced by the desire for intellectual stimulation. At the same time, Kjær observed how criticism assumed the responsibility of elucidating literary works as objects of art rather than of science. As a result, the new essayists of Norway should concern themselves more with the intensity of personalities than with scientific accuracy.
Intuitively European in spirit, Kjær was preoccupied with French authors. His first collection of essays was, in fact, entitled Essays: Fremmede Forfatteren (1895; Essays: foreign authors). In the collection, Kjær sketched the lives of the Swedish humanist Viktor Rydberg, Blaise Pascal, Dante, and Edgar Allan Poe. While some of the pieces recall literary reviews, others present broad studies of literary lives. In the case of Poe, in particular, Kjær evinced his ability to transform literary criticism from mere descriptive accounts to portraits of personality and character, doing so by allying himself with the reader and at the same time by employing equal amounts of irony and passion.
A Norwegian reader would be attuned to Kjær’s emphasis on the correspondence of nature and national character in his essays. His depictions of the Norwegian people sketch the conditions under which they live and the spirit of the times. A critic of his age as well as a stylist, Kjær evolved into an essayist with high cultural values, but with a sometimes overpowering sense of pessimism and, later, increasingly reactionary views.
Alongside his warm descriptions of the Norwegian landscape emerged polemics concerning modern culture. His conviction that technological progress signified the regression of humanity colored his deep concern for the humanitarian ideal and cultural values.
Born 11 November 1870 in Holmestrand. Traveled a great deal in France and Italy. Died in Oslo, 9 February 1924.
Essay and Related Prose
Essays: Fremmede forfatteren, 1895
Bøger og Billeder, 1898
I forbigaaende, 1903
Smaa epistler, 1908
Nye epistler, 1912
Svundne somre, 1920
Siste epistler, 1924
Brekkestø breve og andre epistler, 1955
Other writings: four plays (Regnskabets dag, 1902; Mimosas hjemkomsti 1907; Det lykkelige valg, 1913; For troe er der haab, 1917) and short stories.
Collected works edition: Samlede skrifter, 5 vols., 1921–22.
Beyer, Edvard, Norsk Litteratur Historie, Oslo: Aschehoug, 1952: 367–69
Madsen, Mads, En stilkritisk studie af Nils Kjærs naturepistler (dissertation), Oslo: University of Oslo, 1967
Noreng, Harald, Nils Kjær: Fra radikal til reaksjoncer, Oslo: Gyldendal Norsk, 1949
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