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Knut Hamsun

[1]1,000 words

Translated by Greg Johnson

Portuguese translation here [2], Czech translation here [3]

Knut Hamsun is a mystery. While almost all his works have been translated into French, while there have been quite a few movie and television adaptations [4], while—unlike so many others—his  books are “neither out-of-date nor obsolete” (Hubert Nyssen), he is still ignored by the French public.

The 1920 Nobel Laureate in literature, often compared with Dickens, Ibsen, or Gorky, Knut Hamsun was not, however, merely the renovator of the Norwegian language and the great Norwegian writer of the 20th century—which is already a lot. In his Foreword to the American edition of Hunger, Isaac Bashevis Singer (who translated Victoria into Yiddish), wrote that “all modern literature of this century finds its source here.”

And it is for this very reason that he was admired and hailed by writers as different as Thomas Mann, Henry Miller, Octave Mirbeau, André Gide, John Galsworthy, André Breton, H. G. Wells, Bertolt Brecht, Franz Kafka, Robert Musil, D. H. Lawrence, or Jean Paulhan.

Knut Hamsun, it is true, was an enemy of the modern world. One of the great constants of his work is his true aversion for the bourgeoisie. From the beginning, his lyrical realism was directed against industrial society, capitalist and urban modernity, and the reign of money. But one would be wrong to see him as a “populist” novelist or a simple bucolic eulogist of the earth “that does not lie.”

Granted, for him nature is a recourse. But it is a wild nature, as wild as beasts and men can be. And his narrative style, the heir to oral traditions, is one in which nature, the landscape, inanimate objects themselves, far from playing a decorative role, interact with behaviors, feelings, and ideas. One sees it clearly in Pan, this great love story that exalts the intimate union of the heart and nature, by making them two expressions of the same reality.

“I am realistic in the highest sense of the term,” said Knut Hamsun, “i.e., I show the depths of the human heart.” Indeed, he wanted to depict “the unconscious life of the whole soul,” and this is why from the start, he portrays the inner life with extraordinary richness and complexity. Undoubtedly this focus is what is most foreign to the contemporary world, where beings are motivated only by external motives. He himself was in a thousand sites of current narcissism. Nonconformist, indifferent to honors, he fled his house on his birthday in order to escape public curiosity. His taste drew him to small rural communities, such those of the Lofoten islands dear to his childhood. This is why Henry Miller described him as “marginal, a vagrant, a reject, an irreducible rebel, a relentless enemy of the establishment . . . an aristocrat of the spirit.”

His characters are hardly driven by social indignation or engagement, but by an interior tension, a demanding complexity that is due to their nature as exceptions. They are not common men, and yet they are also not heroes. Far from being of only one cast, to the precise extent to which they belong (without recognizing that fact) to a modernity that generated more anxieties than freedoms, they are torn beings, often solitary, full of dissonances and contradictions. Their nature is initially honest and proud, but they skirt the abyss, and the difficulties they encounter are sometimes insurmountable.

Knut Hamsun himself, at age 15, embarked upon a difficult and adventurous life, “toughened by misfortune” (Octave Mirbeau), full of suffering and deprivations, which led him to a disappointing America, where he could take the full measurement of the new world that was promised.

One can certainly speak of a “dark vision” in Hamsun’s oeuvre. But it would be too hasty to explain it as a kind of Scandinavian pessimism, the product of pearly Nordic fjords and the sleepless nights of the boreal summer. In Hamsun’s novels, love and sensuality are always present. Hamsun loves all that surrounds him, all that gives meaning, so much so that it is no exaggeration to say that love is the true heart of his work.

But this love is inseparable from a tragic vision, because his characters always run up against, not only their own limits, but also against lies and inauthenticity. As in Victoria, where lovers are perverted by a society in which caresses destroy their bodies, or as in Benoni and Rosa, where love is a cruel force, under whose power hearts are seldom in accord.

Love, moreover, is inseparable from hatred, just as joy and the will to live cannot be separated from clear awareness of human finitude. In Hamsun, opposed feelings are based in one another without never solidifying, in the way that the ages of life follow one another with the rhythm of the seasons. Complementarity of opposites.

Born in 1859, Knut Hamsun died in 1952. A Germanophile since the time of Bismarck, he remained one all his life. That was enough, in 1945, at the age of 86, to merit a fate comparable to that of Ezra Pound: condemned to pay the state a fine that reduced him to poverty, he was interned in a psychiatric hospital for having “collaborated.”

To this day, not a street, not a public building, bears his name in Norway, where he was never even the subject of a commemorative stamp.

Hamsun was, however, not a politician, but a musician of words. “Language,” he said, “must cover the whole range of music,” the writer always having to search for the “word that vibrates,” the exact term “that can rend my heart until I sob, by its precision.” This is why he did not write “facilely,” but on the contrary with difficulty, with pain. For him, writing was a way of staying alive.

Source: Editorial for the issue of Nouvelle Ecole (2006), devoted to Knut Hamsun.

Editor’s Note: This essay was published in 2006. In 2009, the 150th anniversary of his birth, Knut Hamsun was honored in Norway with a commemorative stamp. Various public spaces and buildings were also named after him.