Knut Hamsun

In his biography of the Norwegian writer Knut Hamsun, Robert Ferguson writes that despite being held in the highest esteem by some of the twentieth century’s greatest men of letters, “in discussions in the history of modern literature, Hamsun’s name is rarely mentioned.”  After recently reading Hamsun’s Hunger and Growth of the Soil I would certainly agree with those who place the Norwegian writer among the likes of Kafka or even Dostoevsky.  If you are not familiar with Hamsun it is most likely due to his highly depreciated reputation since the 40s, a result of his status as a prominent Nazi sympathizer.  Although I understand his inevitable fall from grace as a canonical writer, I think his artistry is impossible to ignore.  I tried my best to suspend all that I had read about Hamsun prior to reading his books, especially his later Growth of the Soil, which is arguably the work that earned Hamsun the Nobel Prize.

Sverre Lyngstad’s translation seems to retain many of the hallmarks often cited in discussions of Hamsun, namely his intense exploration of his characters’ psychologies, a remarkable lyricism, and a natural gift for describing the Norwegian landscape.  The plot of Growth of the Soil is remarkably simple.  A farmer, Isak, finds a place in the Norwegian back country in order to till the soil and start a life.  The lengthy novel introduces a number of memorable characters, including Isak’s wife Inger, the memorable Geissler, and the hopelessly bourgeois Brede.  In episodic fashion, Hamsun recounts the seemingly unremarkable happenings of the settlers.  But, the lack of any conventionally intriguing or exciting plot is what makes the novel especially significant.  Above all, the treatment of time in the novel especially struck me.  I do not wish to fall into the trap of analyzing Hamsun as nothing more than a “fascist author,” but his handling of time is certainly compatible with a fascist worldview.  Moreover, it is a feature of the narrative that I cannot say I have encountered elsewhere.

Despite the numerous biblical references in the narration, and the religious activities of the characters, the sense of time in the book is quite anti-Enlightenment and non-Christian and very pagan.  On several occasions, Hamsun equates Isak with a god himself.  Also, the anti-bourgeois and anti-materialist sentiment throughout the book makes it clear that Isak does not work the land for any extrinsic finality.  Instead, cultivating a relationship with the land, and later passing it on, is of paramount importance.  This attitude breaks with the linear conception of time in both Christian and Enlightenment models.  The chapters do not follow any logical progression in their temporal setting.  The events seem similar, but the seasons change and characters age.  Like the seasons, time in Growth of the Soil is cyclical.  Nevertheless, those with a nobility of spirit and will, such as Isak, face the inevitable with heroic stoicalness.

Along with this pagan notion of time, the novel also exalts nature itself.  Such valorization of the relationship between man and soil is further evidence of the author’s distrust in modernity and predominating ideas of progress.  Ultimately, the themes of both time and nature interweave with a number of other themes and values expressed in the novel.  In this preliminary post on Hamsun, I just wanted to address the author himself and a few aspects of Growth of the Soil.  In the near future I hope to elaborate on this brief post and explore the theme of materialism and capitalism as well.  Most of all, if you are reading this post, I hope it inspires you to read any work by Knut Hamsun.  For me, reading him has not only been a pleasure, but also a lesson in how cultural mores and social judgment can alter the recording of literary history.  If Hamsun had not been so enthusiastic as to call Adolf Hitler a “warrior for humanity,” and later be convicted of treason in his beloved Norway, it is likely that he would still attract the attention and veneration that he experienced in the first half of the twentieth century.