Posts Tagged ‘Modernism’

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.

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Summer Reading Part 2: Kawabata Yasunari’s Snow Country.

August 22, 2010

I normally don’t read two books of the same author in a row, so in order to get all the Murakami books out of the way, I had to intersperse them with something else. The first one was by another Japanese writer.
Yasunari Kawabata – or Kawabata Yasunari, if you want to stick to the Japanese way of presenting names – was the first Japanese to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature, in 1968. Whereas Murakami is a Japanese writer very much influenced by the west, and particularly USA, Kawabata’s style and subject matters are Japanese through and through. (At least as far as I can see. I am by no means an expert in Japanese literature, and can base my impression only on a few works). I think Murakami’s western sensibilities, to put it perhaps euphemistically, goes a long way to explain his quite singular success in translated form. Apart from a certain inherent Japanese quirkiness, he often reminds me quite a bit of Paul Auster when Auster still seemed interesting.

Kawabata, on the other hand, is no easy sell abroad, I suspect. At least not these days. While his style can at times have a certain exotic attraction by its very Japaneseness, the at times strong modernist traits won’t ingratiate him with the casual reader. Of course, this is by no means a goal in itself. The only thing Kawabata has in common with Murakami (apart from both being Japanese authors), is that neither of them seem to find the endings particularly important. Snow Country was begun in 1934 and finished in 1947, after having been published piecemeal in various instalments. The ending almost being an afterthought as he revisited the book after several years…
Snow Country is by many considered his finest book, and it opens fantastically:
“The train came out of the long tunnel into the snow country. The earth lay white under the night sky. The train pulled up at a signal stop.”
Note the rhythm here and the haiku-like sparseness of the prose, like some oriental Hemingway. I had to read these lines several times, allowing myself to bask in their perfection. The Haiku is perhaps influential in Kawabata’s way of using very short scenes to stand in for a much larger story; we are never given more than fleeting glimpses into the actual actions and lives of the characters. The opening description of watching a woman’s translucent face halfmirrored in the window of the train during its nightly ascent to the Snow Country, is among the sublime  passages of the book. Here Kawabata suggests not only the protagonist’s way of looking at his world and at life, but  even sums up the novel for us, almost telling us how we should expect to read it.

The plot of the novel is seemingly straightforward, albeit not told straightforwardly. The young well off protagonist of the piece, is a dilettante with enough money not to have to worry about sordid matters such as actual work. As a consequence, he is busying himself by writing a monograph about the occidental ballet, an art form he has never actually seen. He is married, but returns to the hot springs of the Snow Country to meet again a young geisha who has fascinated him. Another girl there also draws his attention. A sense of resignation infuses their conversations and interaction. There is a love affair.

I am pretty sure that Snow Country is a very good book. It might even be a masterpiece. However, there were so many elements I didn’t understand, and I came to believe that I had no means to understand them. I didn’t have any problems with the modernist style of going back and forth in time, without clear indications of how much time passes or who is speaking at any given time. Thus spake Faulkner. Neither did I find the language particularly complicated, and I am convinced that the translation by Edward G. Seidensticker is impeccable. So, I concluded that the reason for reason evading me must be at least in part cultural.  Or I might be a bit more on the stupid side than I hitherto feared.

The translator adds some valuable foot notes trying to explain the more esoteric aspects, for example which cloth is typically used for which kimonos, and what would be the kimono’s purpose and significance in a given situation. However, it seems also the colour of the kimonos, to continue this example, would be pregnant with meaning in a given exchange, signifying not only social status but also symbolic relations. Whether a person is standing to the left or the right of the oldest person in a room could be extremely important for all I know, but – I just don’t know. The translator himself notes in his foreword that he doesn’t know of any other novel in which a slight change in tone signifies so much. Thus, no matter how good a job the translator does, it is pretty impossible to catch all or even most of the nuances of the novel. As a result, I never felt that I managed to inhabit Snow Country in the way the book probably deserves. There are beautiful phrases here, conversations rendered clear and cold as ice. There are psychological insights in the novel that even I could appreciate, told in a spare, distant style, with any melancholy left to the reader, not in the text itself. This will have to be enough for me, and perhaps revisiting the novel in thirty years’ time, I will have learnt more of the culture and know enough of Japanese literature to appreciate Snow Country properly.

By the way. While the foreword is a valuable tool in order to understand what is going on and why, try not to read it before you have been through the book at least once. Seidensticker chooses for some reason to retell the entire plot, including the very last line, even giving his interpretation of the books climactic moment(s).

And by the way again: I just love the painting on the cover of my edition of Snow Country: Ando Hiroshige, or rather, Hiroshige Utagawa’s Night Snow at Kambara (from his 53 Tokaido Stages/Stations) (It’s the first picture at the top of this post). I know of no other painter who portrays snow nearer to my ideal of snow, as if his pictures are communicating to a half forgotten childhood, and there is a faint answer there. I get a warm, excited feeling every time I see one of his snow scenes. (That sounded wrong, didn’t it?) I have a nice framed print of Hiroshige’s Man Crossing a Bridge in the Snowy Landscape, from his 100 (Famous) Views Of Edo. It was begun the year he withdrew from the world to become a Buddhist Monk and would be very fitting of this novel as well. I would decorate our entire apartment with his pictures if it was up to me…

In closing this part, I recommend the book to anyone seriously or half-seriously interested in literature, and it can’t hurt if you also have some interest in Japanese culture. I liked Snow Country a lot, I just didn’t love it. For this, I suspect, I can only blame myself.