Posts Tagged ‘Knut Hamsun’

Summer Reading Part 3: Knut Hamsun

August 24, 2010

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.

After Summer: Reading and Laziness

October 7, 2009

Yes, I have been lax. Summer has gone and autumn done come without this journal having seen any considerable advance. With HBO’s competent miniseries about John Adams still relatively fresh in my mind, I’m tempted to quote Benjamin Franklin’s bon mot that “a life of leisure and a life of laziness are two different things“. I’m afraid that in the matter of keeping up this blog I’ve erred on the side of the latter. All is not lost, though, as I have put my energies, such as they are, to pursuits perhaps equally worthy during this time, the results of which I’ll hopefully see come December or thereabouts. Let that be sufficiently vague. (No, it is not an offspring!)

But enough self-recrimination! Laziness is not what it is if a purpose can be glimpsed. To that end, let’s bring on another quotation that better illuminates how I prefer to view these past hazy days of summer: “Never be entirely idle; but either be reading, or writing, or praying or meditating or endeavouring something for the public good“. Thus, validated by one of my favourite monks, Thomas à Kempis, I can rest assured (bit of a pun there!) that I have not, indeed, been entirely idle.

kempis04One thing I HAVE done during these months is reading. – And writing, supplemented by the occasional meditative moment (which I like to describe as staring emptily into the wall while waiting for a sentence not completely crap to fall down from a place not unlike heaven. If there is prayer involved, it is silent and hidden). As for the public good, well I have voted and not murdered anyone while visiting the local cinema, no mean feat, that. So there, Kempis.

(Kempis is thought to have written the mystic devotional work The Imitation of Christ, in which we learn that “at the Day of Judgement we shall not be asked what we have read but what we have done“, a phrase which rather takes the sheen off his former statement about the merits of reading. Kempis, though, was himself an avid reader, to put it mildly, and a writer, praying and meditating and so on, so I suspect that in both cases he talks more about himself and any general validity, then, is merely hoped for. Much like any religion, organized or not.)

All this hullabaloo, and the only purpose of this post is: These are the books I brought with me and read during the summer:

Marilynne Robinson: Housekeeping. I can’t think of many – if any – novelists alive today with Robinson’s command of language, her eye for the perfect sentences. This was her first novel, released in 1980. I had only read her second novel, the wonderful Gilead, from 2004, which deservedly won a Pulitzer. It seems that she has now picked up speed, for her “sequel” to Gilead, Home, was published last year. I plan to read soonish her book of essays, The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought (1998), which, I’m sure, will be a hoot and a half. A rash and probably inexact description of Robinson would be to place her somewhere between Flannery O’ Connor and Harper Lee, both thematically and stylistically. However, that would be lazy, so let’s not do that, shall we?

Knut Hamsun: Mysterier (Mysteries). This was the second (real) novel of Norway’s best author, released two years after the more famous Sult (Hunger). For some reason I had not read it before, and I planned to really like it. It is, of course, well written in the inimitable Hamsun-style, and there are psychological insights in the book that are surprising of its time. And it is actually very entertaining. However, I couldn’t quite shake the feeling that I would have liked the book better had I read it at a younger age. I found it hard to share the novel’s concerns other than in a very vicarious way, which perhaps is true of all books, though I think not. These days I find that I much prefer Markens Grøde (Growth of the Soil). Even though it is by far a perfect novel, it has a power and a will (dangerous words to use while talking about Hamsun…) and a direction; a goal, something the author seems to need to be saying. It also has plot holes the size of a Frenchman’s ego and severe narrative problems, but these matter less than the mere existence of the work itself. Growth of the Soil insists upon its place in the world much like its protagonist. I haven’t read Hunger in quite a few years, but while reading Mysteries, it struck me that perhaps that book as well will be best appreciated by being read at a younger age than mine. (I liked it a lot when I was 20 or so). Still, these are quibbles, as all the Hamsun books mentioned here are masterpieces of a sort.

nagasakiKazuo Ishiguro: A Pale View of the Hills. I really, really liked this first novel. Having formerly only read An Artist of the Floating World, Ishiguro’s second book (which this novel closest resembles) and When We Were Orphans, I had great hopes for this and was not disappointed. Ishiguro, while having a Japanese name,and having lived in Japan till the age of five, is very much an Englishman, and the Japan he observes in his first two novels is very much a mediated Japan. One gets the feeling that he has studied the films of Yasujiro Ozu with the interest of someone a generation removed from the society and geography that these films represent. As he has added his own literary sensibility to this second hand understanding of Japan, he is able to describe both the society and the results of that society in a way that he maybe could not have accomplished had he lived there himself his entire life. The English reserve and traditional virtues (as seen in Remains of the Day) actually go very well together with the Japan of Ozu.

18651996While these reflections may seem boring, in A pale View of the Hills, they are definitely not. There is an extreme tension in the telling, everything so seemingly mundane and matter of fact, that one comes to suspect that Ishiguro’s narrator is perhaps not all trustworthy. Every little event is thus filled with a kind of dread, as if the masks, not only of the society, but the one worn by the narrator herself, might slip at any moment and the result will not be comforting. As the action takes place in Ishiguro’s birth town of Nagasaki, where the atom bomb had been dropped not that long ago, there is a curious mix of traditional Japanes idyllic scenes and an almost post-acopalyptic landscape. This underlines the tension between tradition and the foreign; the new; the rootless so to say. These are people living in an environment where they have learned that everything might disappear in seconds; what does this mean for the traditionally so stoic Japanese mindset? Rather than say more, I urge everyone to read this small wonderful book.

Haruki Murakami: The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. While Ishiguro is an English writer looking to Japan for inspiration – and possibly his “roots” – Murakami is certainly Japanese and looking to the west and particularly to USA. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle was originally a serialised novel, meaning that the author wrote it without having the luxury to go back and change things. This one can certainly see, as there are innumerable plot threads that are never picked up. Lots of scenes seem to be without consequence to the story and this even after the book has been through a kind of editing by the translator, Jay Rubin. Still, it is maybe the most enjoyable book I’ve read this year, and one of the few instances that I’ve not wanted a book to end (This almost never happens. I want most books to end as soon as possible, even the good ones.) as I was having a helluva time with it. In Rubin’s translation, at least, Murakami’s language sounds very polished and elegantly post modern. In fact, I found myself thinking that this is the book that Paul Auster would have written if he’d had any interesting ideas the last 20 years. After having finished it I went straight out and bought 3 more books by Murakami, an author I would have read long ago if I hadn’t been so sceptical to literary fashions and of seeing his books everywhere these last years:

Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman. A collection of short stories, none of which I seem to be able to recall a mere two months after having read them. I remember I enjoying some of them, but frankly, while they perhaps were my cup of tea, I had screwed up the order and gotten a rather bland bag. The fault is possibly mine, as one should not read a short story collection in just two days.

Norwegian Wood. Murakami himself didn’t want this novel translated, even though it was a sensation in Japan. But as the Norwegian publishers desperately wanted the book released (because of the title), the American publishers produced an English version for the purpose. The novel is not more than passable, but never dull.

Michael Chabon: The Yiddisch Policemen’s Union. I read this immediately after having read The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, and possibly that explains the near fury I felt upon reading the first chapters of this. Murakami at his best is indeed a hard act to follow. I’ve liked many of Chabon’s novels, but this one is almost irredeemable. I really can’t explain how something like this can be published. (Actually the publishers almost forced Chabon to publish the book before he felt that it was ready…) The language of the book is amateurish and irritating, the plot never rising above the clichéd nature of the popular fiction it tries to emulate. “The first man to compare the cheeks of a young woman to a rose was obviously a poet; the first to repeat it was possibly an idiot”, as Salvador Dali said. There are rumours that the Coen-brothers will make this parody of Noir into a film. I can actually see how The Yiddisch Policemen’s Union can work better as a film than as a novel, but I have my doubts that any medium can save this mess. At least without some serious rewriting.

After some 100 pages I did begin to warm up to the concoction, but not enough by a long shot to forgive its considerable shortcomings. Whereas Murakami’s imagination and elegance of writing made me overlook the holes in his plot, Chabon is just too much of a journeyman to pull the novel off as an anecdotal trifle. He tries to translate Raymond Chandler to a Jewish Alaska (!), and frankly he is no Chandler, not even an Alistair Maclean. In this novel I find that he is not even himself.   I could – and perhaps should – back up this critique with examples from the text and try to formulate just what I disliked so much, but frankly I can’t be bothered. Life’s too short. I do hope, though, that Chabon will be able to redeem himself, as I know that in his best moments he writes popular prose of a high order.

Richard Ellmann: Yeats; The Man and the Masks. This biography of Yeats was originally written in 1948, a mere ten years after the author’s death. It is considered something of a key text in the understanding of Yeats’ life and literary universe. Ellmann later wrote a highly regarded biography of Joyce, which I’ve not read, but the view he presents of Yeats here doesn’t alltogether convince me. While he covers Yeats the Mystic and makes a case for a perpetually insecure man with no fixed identity, I never felt I got to know Yeats The Man, which, after all, is what one comes to a biography for. Perhaps more inexcusable, I didn’t get to know Yeats The Poet. Almost all of Ellmann’s readings seem determined by how he has chosen to perceive Yeats and allows little leeway or room for what I would call the poet’s genius. (I generelly avoid this word like the plague, but will make an exception in Yeats’ case) That is to say, how he managed to write so many good poems that seem timeless and almost universal even though Yeats himself was very much a man of his times and interests (mysticism).

The book, as it was written with important contributions by Yeats’ widow, never seems to dare to be impolite or, well, daring, and the biographical elements as a result end up less interesting than I suspect they could be. I don’t expect or want sensationalism, but this biography seemed almost reductionist. As for the poems, for example the famous but widely misunderstood The Second Coming, Ellmann seems only interested in the gyre of the poem’ first line, as this term is discussed in Yeats’ A Vision and thus is a key term in Yeats’ mysticism. As for what the poem itself might mean, or why it is a great poem, Ellmann has little to nothing to declare. This is a solid biography, but an artist of Yeats’ stature deserves more than solid.