Henrik Ibsen: The Man & the Mask
By Ivo De Figueiredo
Translated from the Norwegian by Robert Ferguson
Yale University Press, 2019
The first volume of Norwegian biographer Ivo De Figueiredo’s life of Ibsen, Henrik Ibsen. Mennesket appeared in 2006; the second volume, Henrik Ibsen. Masken, followed in 2007, and the one-volume abridgement, Henrik Ibsen. Mennesket og masken, came later in 2010, and that abridgement, miraculously, now appears in a 700-page English-language translation by Robert Ferguson, a stately brick of a thing from Yale University Press that presents for English-only readers what is certainly the most lauded and complex life of Ibsen since Michael Meyer’s book nearly 50 years ago.
De Figueiredo is a wonderfully sympathetic chronicler of what is an almost unrelievedly somber, angry, and thwarted story, and translator Ferguson’s English translation is a marvel of fluidity - it takes a good deal of skill to make an enormous biography of Henrik Ibsen, of all people, page-turningly readable, but “The Man and the Mask” never flags at any point in its generous length.
Part of the reason for this is doubtless the way Di Figueiredo approaches every aspect of his famous subject with energetic freshness. The tortured life, the black moods, the constant roil of the art, the broader world of 19th century politics ... all of it comes in for clear-eyed re-evaluation, even the basic DNA of Ibsen’s craft itself:
Ibsen was a poet before he became a dramatist, and he remained a poet long after he had committed himself to the theatre. It was here that his talent was most obviously visible, that remarkable talent for chopping and cutting words into rhyming shapes that so impressed those around him - and possibly even impressed himself. His command of drama as a form took considerably longer to acquire.
There’s a risk endemic in writing a long book about a mass of morose melodrama like Ibsen, and the risk is that the writer of such a book will find the abyss staring back. If Ferguson’s translation is as true as it seems, De Figueiredo succumbed to this risk early on in his labors, describing the young Ibsen in terms that sound like they came straight from the older Ibsen:
He was a writer, and a writer did not belong in church, in the society of others. His home was in the steeple, condemned for all eternity to see the world from outside, from above, to describe it, and the tragedy of human life.
And to feel aways the eyes of the devil on his neck.
Hundreds and hundreds of pages of devil-eyes later in the book, our author is still insisting that
“Henrik Ibsen’s life was a dance with angels and demons.” This biographer keeps that dance going with a surprisingly light tempo and an unerring instinct for, oddly enough, zingers - the flying summaries throughout the book are both thoughtful and aphoristic. It’s thoroughly enjoyable to have this work in English.
--Steve Donoghue is a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in The Boston Globe, The Wall Street Journal, The Historical Novel Society, and The American Conservative. He writes regularly for The National, The Washington Post, The Vineyard Gazette, and The Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com.