Summer Reading Part 3: Knut Hamsun

I’ve read surprisingly few books by the Norwegian Nobel Prize winner Knut Hamsun. Being Norwegian myself, this is close to heresy. I can’t offer a good excuse or explanation, especially given my almost unconditional liking of those of his books I have actually read. I began last year to remedy this situation by reading his early novel Mysteries, and continued this summer with a late work. I plan to read at least one Hamsun-book a year, so that should keep me going some 20 years more… (I have the same project going with Faulkner… and I should read more books by John Steinbeck, Jack London, Phillip K. Dick, Herman Melville, Joseph Conrad … Oh time, time, We hardly even knew you! My bad conscience is imprisoned in my book shelves. There it holds court).

Landstrykere, in English known as Vagabonds or Wayfarers, was written in 1927, 10 years after his perhaps best work, Growth of the Soil, which was the novel that probably secured him the aforementioned Nobel Prize. At this point in time, we are approaching the end of his rich authorship. Wayfarers is the first volume of a trilogy about the “lovable scoundrel”-type August. After the trilogy had ended, he wrote only one more novel before his “recollections” Paa Gjengrodde Stier in 1949 marked his very last words, at the age of 90.

At this point in his career, Hamsun had found a voice far removed from the talkative nervousness and longer passages of stream of consciousness found in, say, Hunger and Mysteries. These later novels are also distinctly anti-modernist in theme, so perhaps the stream of consciousness, so indicative of the modernist style, would be unsuitable for and even downright hostile to Hamsun’s treatment of the subject matter.

His voice in Wayfarers, the authorial voice, is that of the old sage; someone who sees through the human follies of his characters and condemns these or accepts them grudgingly. Still, there is love there for a particular type, one with a head upon his shoulders which might be full of foolishness, but dares think outside the box, as the Americans like to say with their excessive love of sports analogies. Hamsun’s genius is that while Hamsun the person wants to warn against the dangers of modernity and a mindless celebration of newness and fads, Hamsun the author balances what could have been merely harsh judgments on his characters with a genuine love for their whims and fallacies. His characters come truly alive under his pen, to use a trite image, and we recognize so much in them that we follow their reasons for making stupid choices as well as forgive them their bad fortune, no matter how much it is of their own doing.

We meet the protagonist, Edevart, at a young age and follows his adventures and life until middle age, through love affairs and attempts to make a life for himself. His is a life spent on the move. Since an early age, as he befriends the bigger than life character August, he is a restless soul looking for some permanence, but comes to realize that he is a vagabond at heart.

August, the gold toothed orphaned boy with illusions of grandeur, comes to dominate not only Edevart’s life, but the novel as well, almost stealing the story and the novel from him. While August is portrayed as a genius with a penchant for -and habit of – utter stupidity, Edevart is more of an everyman, and thus lacks the vibrancy to dominate a novel like this. Edevart has to compete with Hamsun’s wonderful descriptive powers, be it of the landscape or of the physical appearance or psychological exactness with which the author portrays the other characters.

Of course, Hamsun knew how to tell a story, even though he was never the best of plotters. Here, too, is an author who lets himself be carried away by the whims of his characters and starts down narrative alleys he doesn’t always manage to come out of completely unscathed. However, a book about wanderers must dare to wander.
And as I hinted, in this almost instinctive way of telling a story lies some of Hamsun’s particular quality. While he – and the book – wants to tell of the folly of disregarding the earth and the possibilities of the land and the soil, of how the good life can only be lived by close contact with nature, by patience and endurance, the story moves away from any one will and reaches a plurality of world views that sounds more true than any dogma. The story refuses to let itself be reduced to any singular vision and in effect comes to embrace the good and the bad, the foolish and the clever, letting us see a whole world there, in these simple people from a dirt poor village to the north of Norway, in a land that in this novel is itself and the world.

There is no one who writes quite like Hamsun, though many have tried to. Hemingway famously claimed that Hamsun had taught him to write, and Herman Hesse, Isaac B. Singer and Thomas Mann were all highly indebted to him. For me it is fascinating to see how he almost reinvented the Norwegian language, using words, spellings and phrases that seem more true than the dictionary.

Especially in his later novels, Hamsun is also very humoristic. The humour is more often than not based upon human folly – and human inventions and social institutions (say, capitalism). Apart from the humour, his descriptive powers were considerable. I have spent quite some time in a similar environment as these novels. Hamsun’s language helps me see clearly and anew the nature and language of this part of the world. The modern psychological novel would not be the same without Hamsun, but apart from the psychology, there is a way of looking at the world in these novels that, while not unproblematic, is still presented and portrayed in a manner without compare.

I’d venture to say that Hamsun is quite singular in Norwegian literary history. A few good novelists turned up after his time; Tarjei Vesaas, Sigurd Hoel, and Kjell Askildsen (short stories), but none has approached Hamsun’s genius. Of writers before him, I can only think of Ibsen and perhaps Bjørnson, who I’m not that acquainted with. (I’d like to say Snorre, but he was Icelandic…) Hamsun seems one of these flukes, a personality and creator capable of things that by all rights should be beyond him, were it not for some miraculous historical convergence of talent and will, for good and for bad.

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