THIS is a great book. I can have no hesitation whatever in saying that. Rarely in reading a modern novel have I felt so strong a sense of reality and so deep an impression of motive. It would be difficult to praise too highly the power and the reticence of this story.
When I compare it with other Norwegian novels, even the best and by the best-known writers, I feel that it transcends them in its high seriousness, and in the almost relentless strength with which its dominant idea is carried through. Its atmosphere is often wonderful, sometimes startling, and its structure is without any fault that has betrayed itself to me.
Of isolated scenes of beauty and pathos it has not a few, and its closeness to nature in little things fills its pages with surprises. All its characters bear the stamp of truth, and some of them are deeply impressive, especially, perhaps, that of Fru Wangen, a tragic figure of a woman, never to be forgotten as long as memory lasts.
Its theme is a noble one. That an evil act is irrevocable, that no retraction and no penitence can wipe it out; that its consequences, and the consequences of its consequences, must go on and on forever—this may not be a new thing to say, but it is a fine thing to have finely said.
I might easily dwell on the passages, and they are many, which have moved me to the highest admiration—the passages with the old pensioners, the passages (especially the last of them, at night and in bed) between the accused man and his great-hearted wife. But this would be a long task, and I am compelled to address myself to a part of my duty which may appear to be less gracious.
When I ask myself what is the effect of this book, its net result, its ultimate teaching, I am confronted by a number of questions which I find it hard to answer with enthusiasm.
This is the story of a man who signs his name as bond for a friend, and then, when the friend becomes bankrupt, denies that he has done so and accuses the friend of forgery. In the end the innocent man is committed to prison and the guilty one is banqueted by his fellow townsmen.
So far the subject of the book cannot antagonize anybody. That the right may be worsted in the battle of life and the wrong may triumph is a fact of tremendous significance, capable of treatment as great, as helpful, and as stimulating as that of the Book of Job. It is against the moral drawn by the author from this fact of life that some of us may find reason to rebel.
If I read this wonderful book aright, it says as its final word that a life of deception does not always wither up and harden the human heart, but sometimes expands and softens it; that a man may pass from lie to lie until he is convinced that he is as white as an angel, and, having betrayed himself into a belief in his innocence, that he may become generous, unselfish, and noble.
On the other hand, this book says, if I do not misunderstand it, that the sense of innocence in an innocent man may be corrupting and debasing; that to prove himself guiltless a man may make himself guilty, and that nearly every good and true impulse of the heart may be whittled away by the suspicion and abuse of the world.
I confess, though I am here to introduce this book to English readers, and do so with gladness and pride, that this is teaching of which I utterly disapprove. It conflicts with all my experience of life to think that a man may commit forgery, as Wangen does, to prove himself innocent of forgery, and that a man may become unselfish, as Norby becomes unselfish, by practising the most selfish duplicity. If I had to believe this I should also have to believe that there is no knowledge of right and wrong in the heart of man, no sense of sin, that conscience is only a juggling fiend, and that the presiding power in the world not only is not God, but the devil.
I hold it to be entirely within the right of the artist to show by what machinations of the demon of circumstance the bad man may be raised up to honour and the good man brought down to shame, but I also hold it to be the first and highest duty of the artist to show that victory may be worse than defeat, success more to be feared than failure, and that it is better to lie with the just man on his dunghill than to sit with the evil one on his throne.
That is, in my view, what great art is for—to lift us above and beyond the transient fact, the mere semblance and form of things, and show the essence of truth which life so often hides. Without it I find no function for art except that of the photographer, however faithful, the reproducer and transcriber of just what the eye can see.
All the same, I recognize the plausibility of quite other views, and I know that the opinions both on art and life of the author of this book, so far as they have revealed themselves to me, are such as receive the warm support of some of the wisest and best minds of our time.
It does not surprise me to hear that the Academy of France has lately crowned “The Power of a Lie,” for both its morality and its excelling power are of the kind which at the present moment appeal most strongly to the French mind. That they will also appeal to a certain side of the Anglo-Saxon mind I confidently believe; and I am no less sure that however a reader may revolt against certain aspects of the teaching of this fine book, he will find that it stirs and touches him and makes him think.