Timid home life of a revolutionary

HENRIK IBSEN by Robert Ferguson, Richard Cohen Books pounds 25
IBSEN IS a writer who needs a biography, but not a man who invites one. You have to sympathise with Robert Ferguson in what must at times have been a wearisome task; all the more credit to him, then, for producing a life that is readable, and often illuminating in its comments on the plays. Shorter than Michael Meyer's 1974 biography, which is likely to remain the most exhaustive reference in English, it has little to add in the way of new research on the man, but offers a rather different perspective on his work.

Ibsen may have had a revolutionary impact on 19th-century drama, but in his personal life he was unadventurous to the point of timidity. In his later years, back in Norway after long periods spent abroad, he followed so unvaried a routine that his public appearances became a tourist attraction: as he took his daily walk through the streets of Oslo (then Kristiania) to his usual seat in the Reading Room of the Grand Hotel, the curious would wait to stare and sometimes to photograph him.

He didn't expect to be waylaid on this progress, and he would dismiss the importunate with a gruff rebuke, but his correspondence shows that he enjoyed the attention. He also had a notorious hunger for medals and honours, of which he collected a fine array, in some cases after obsequiously soliciting them: Commander Third Class of the (Turkish) Medijidje Order; Knight First Class, then Commander First Class of the Saxe Ernestine Order; Knight, then Commander First Class, then Great Cross of the Order of St Olaf; and three or four others to hang beside them.

Wasn't it enough for him to be Ibsen? Clearly not, but the causes lie so deep - in an unhappy childhood, in unfulfilled sexual needs, in a sense of personal inadequacy - that one can only speculate tentatively, and largely unprofitably, about them. The son of a failed merchant in Skien, on the south-east coast of Norway, he left school at 15 to be apprenticed to an apothecary, and started to write poetry, then verse dramas. By his early twenties, in the hope of completing his education, he set off for the capital and found a niche in the embryonic Norwegian theatre.

Behind him in Skien he left his family, never seeing his parents again after a return visit in 1850, when he was 22 (though his mother lived until 1869 and his father to 1877). He also left an illegitimate child, the result of a brief liaison with an older woman. The scandal seems to have haunted him for the rest of his life. Ferguson argues that there is every reason to believe that Ibsen's marriage was sexless after the birth of his son in 1860; a series of romantic attachments to young women when he was an old man were surely platonic. One might almost say that he had little interest in women, were it not for the plays.

And that, of course, is the point. Whatever emotions and energies Ibsen had went into his work. Suzannah was the ideal, self-sacrificing wife for a single-minded writer, but the repressed Ibsen was more likely than most to realise what might be going on behind this facade of domestic calm. Timid and conformist in his everyday behaviour, he achieved a profoundly radical perspective on social relationships, particularly society's treatment of women. And, though one expects a writer to sublimate his feelings, this degree of sublimation makes life very hard for the modern biographer, whose readers have come to expect an account of the subject's sexual habits and adventures.

Ferguson had better luck with an earlier biography of a Norwegian writer, Enigma: The Life of Knut Hamsun (1987), a man who had two quite lively marriages, went on to fall dangerously in love with Nazism and ensured his place in the hall of infamy by writing, in 1945, an obituary of Hitler that proclaimed the Fuhrer "a prophet of the gospel of justice for all nations". Ibsen, too, had his political ideas; but also, on the whole, had the good sense to keep quiet about them.

Hamsun disliked Ibsen and criticised the Grand Old Man to his face in a series of lecture tours in 1891; Ferguson praises Ibsen's "great courage" in attending the lectures, just as in Enigma he praised Hamsun's "naive courage" in giving them. Perhaps "courage" is not the right word in either case. Even the self-doubting Ibsen, by this time, felt secure in his reputation, while Hamsun was lobbing a brick at the establishment, as young men do, without much risk of harming his target or provoking a response.

If anything, it is Ferguson himself who offers the more radical revision of the dramatist's reputation, seeing Peer Gynt as his greatest work and correspondingly downgrading the later prose dramas. Yet it is through translations of these plays - A Doll's House and John Gabriel Borkman (both on in London at the moment), Hedda Gabler, The Wild Duck, and The Master Builder - that Ibsen was able to exercise an immense and enduring influence on European drama. Ferguson does acknowledge that, but it is chiefly the Norwegian Ibsen that he gives us, a personality which often appears to stand in contradiction to the non-conformism, breadth of vision and human sympathy evident in the plays.