The 2023 award of the Nobel Prize for literature to the Norwegian writer Jon Fosse brings Norwegian literature into focus for English-speaking readers and provides a fresh angle from which to view the writings of Knut Hamsun. Born in 1859, almost exactly a hundred years before Fosse, Hamsun was awarded the same prize in his early sixties, which is also Fosse’s current age. Hamsun’s earlier writings stand at the threshold of European modernism, of which he is an acknowledged forerunner. Fosse’s work may now appear to us as more radically experimental, but its repudiation of traditional narrative and its focus on inner worlds and responses rather than life-like “characters” and their plots belong recognisably to the lineage that Hamsun explicitly set out to inaugurate with two of his works Hunger (1890) and Pan (1894).
However, Hamsun’s political opinions and his subsequent trajectory on the world stage took him to a place very different from Fosse’s. In 2011, in recognition of his contribution to arts and culture, Fosse was granted honorary residence in The Grotto (Grotten), a small house in the grounds of the Royal Palace in Oslo, first inhabited by the nation’s great Romantic poet, Henrik Wergeland (1808–45). Hamsun, by contrast, applauded the rise of the National Socialists in Germany in the 1930s, admired Hitler, and became a leading publicist of the Nazi occupation government. After the war, he was submitted to a lengthy legal and psychiatric enquiry (1945–47), heavily fined, and even received an official medical diagnosis (he was said to suffer from “chronically diminished mental capacities”). He had sacrificed the reputation he had spent a long life building and lived out his last years in disgrace.
Another Norwegian winner of the prize, in 1928, was Sigrid Undset, a novelist whose vast historical canvases and powerful, complex women characters attracted readers worldwide. She became Hamsun’s fierce political opponent during the 1930s, and in April 1940 was the first Norwegian writer to go into exile following Germany’s invasion and occupation of Norway, returning only after the end of the Second World War.
“To what extent should readers let Hamsun’s later public deeds and beliefs affect their reading of his earlier works?”
These different life-choices cast a spotlight on Hamsun’s political affiliations and activities which cannot be erased by means of mitigating arguments. The question they leave open is to what extent readers of today should let Hamsun’s later public deeds and beliefs affect their reading and interpretation of his earlier works.
Hamsun’s Nobel prize was awarded, essentially, for his 1917 novel Growth of the Soil, the story of a pioneering Norwegian farmer who labours to cultivate the land in a remote Norwegian province. This novel cemented Hamsun’s already considerable reputation and was praised for its “idealistic” qualities. The Nobel committee was critical of the experimental qualities of Hamsun’s works of the 1890s, but there is no sign that they reacted against his political ideas. Yet Growth of the Soil was widely read in Germany and was to become a favourite of the National Socialist regime, for which it was held to exemplify the virtues of a Germanic love of the soil. It thus played a central role in making Hamsun a favourite for Goebbels and others in the Nazi leadership when they looked for major cultural figures who could promote their values. Hamsun became, in short, a new Goethe from the north.
This soon led to ideological challenges at home. How was one to read Hamsun? The apologetic Hamsun tradition was started already in 1936 by the communist playwright, later celebrated resistance poet, Nordahl Grieg. He wanted to save a writer whom he loved and insisted that Hamsun was a political idiot but a poetic genius. Life and work ought to be thought of as separate.
What is most remarkable about Hunger and Pan, the early Hamsun works that now appear in new English translations, is that, in their quite different ways, both are accessible, deeply moving, hilarious (Hunger in particular), and rich in strange ways of looking at the world and its inhabitants, while at the same time constantly challenging conventional modes of storytelling. Both also illustrate (again in contrasted ways) what Hamsun meant by “a poetry of the nerves,” his phrase for the mode of inner dissonance that governs his fictional imagination. This is what one reads these works for, and it is also these qualities that give him a unique place in the rise of European modernism. It is what made them seem so fresh and sensational when they first appeared. Hamsun’s fiction, like that of so many of his twentieth–century successors, calls out post-romantic, nostalgic, and emotionally complacent modes of storytelling. These are not doctrinaire novels, but explorative works of fiction, even when they no doubt query certain aspects of the modernity to which they belong; one has to look to Hamsun’s essays and letters for more outright expressions of socio-political opinion.
How one reads Hunger and Pan will thus depend critically on the reader’s choice of perspective. You can regard them as poetic experiments, as uniquely brilliant instances of the early modernist imagination, or, more sombrely, as embryonic symptoms of the twentieth-century European catastrophe. Hamsun’s life and works are suspended between these two polarities.
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