Joyce's youthful fascination with Ibsen was one that never dimmed

 

Letter from Oslo: James Joyce never met Henrik Ibsen but his fascination with the "great master" never dimmed. When the German critic Alfred Kerr visited Joyce in 1936, the latter enquired of him: "By the way, you went to Oslo for Ibsen's funeral, that interests me; you told me you saw him as a corpse in the best room in his flat. I'd like so much to know what his flat looked like, what his street was like."

Indeed, the link between Peer Gynt and Ulysses is crucial,as Richard Ellmann recorded, drawing from Stanislaus Joyce's diary: "Jim told me that he is going to expand his story Ulysses into a short book and make a Dublin Peer Gynt of it."

Bjørn Tysdahl from Oslo University argues that "Ibsen is the most important figure in the literary and dramatic landscape which the young Joyce explores".

Ibsen's apartment on Arbiens Gate is now a museum dedicated to his life and work. It is currently closed for major renovation and restoration. According to Erik Edvardsen, director of the museum, the plan is "to dig out Ibsen's original home, and it [the museum] will open again on January 13th 2006" to mark the 100th anniversary of Ibsen's death. (He died in bed on May 23rd, 1906.)

The "best room", where Ibsen was laid out, is known as the Red Room and was probably the family sittingroom. It was in this room that Ibsen, with his distinguishing "lion's mane", could be seen sitting by the large window. He moved to the flat as he acquired increased social and artistic recognition and it is here he lived with Suzannah "in the most complete bourgeois silence" until his death aged 78.

The dark rich colours, heavy furniture and lino-covered flooring (fashionable at the time) reflect the ambient sense of Ibsen's working and domestic life. The restoration's attention to detail is reflected in every room. Edvardsen tells me they have recently discovered Ibsen's original bath in a field, being used as cattle water trough.

Ibsen spent the last 11 years of his life in this apartment and it is here he wrote his final play, When We Dead Awaken. The then 18-year-old Joyce wrote an article in 1900 on the play, which to his delight was published in the Fortnightly Review, a pleasure reinforced by the complimentary letter he received from the author.

"I have read or rather spelt out a review by Mr James Joyce in the Fortnightly Review which is very benevolent and for which I should greatly like to thank the author if only I had sufficient knowledge of the language," Ibsen wrote to the Fortnightly Review editor, who passed the letter on to Joyce.

The letter was never forgotten, and in later life Joyce was to recount his almost childish thrill at receiving it.

As Ellmann puts it in his book, James Joyce: "It was Ibsen who convinced Joyce that he could be a European writer."

In March 1901, he wrote to Ibsen in Dano-Norwegian to congratulate him on his 73rd birthday. Although translations of Ibsen's works were available, Joyce undertook the arduous task of learning Norwegian (Dano-Norwegian at that time) to read in the original. Later in life, according to Tysdahl, he "studied under at least four Norwegian teachers in Paris in 1926 -27".

He wrote of his admiration for Ibsen and how his "battles" inspired in him the writer's "absolute indifference to public canons of art, friends and shibboleths".

Frank McGuinness, who shares Joyce's passion for Ibsen, puts it best: "Peer Gynt and Ulysses end by affirming love, having earned, miraculously, that right to affirmation. The Viking and the Celt up to glorious badness."