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Remembering Knut Hamsun:
August 4, 1859–February 19, 1952

Knut Hamsun, circa 1890

376 words

Knut Hamsun was born Knut Pederson in Lom Norway on August 4, 1859. He died in Grimstad, Norway, on February 19, 1952. The author of more than 20 novels, plus poems, short stories, plays, and essays, Hamsun was one of the 20th century’s most influential writers. His rejection of both Romanticism and naturalism, his emphasis on outsiders and rebels, and his exploration of inner and sometimes extreme states of consciousness, made him a pioneer of literary modernism. He received the Nobel Prize for literature in 1920.

Indifferent to religion, Hamsun was most deeply influenced by Nietzsche, as well as by Dostoevsky and Strindberg. Hamsun rejected both communism and capitalism, emphasizing agrarian and ecological values. With the rise of National Socialism in Germany, he at last found a political movement that reflected his own worldview. After the Second World War, Hamsun, his wife Marie, and his son Arild (who had joined the Waffen SS) were imprisoned by the Norwegian government.

I wish to draw your attention to the following writings about Hamsun on this

Hamsun’s Growth of the Soil (1917) is his longest but most accessible novel; it won him the Nobel Prize. Hamsun’s breakthrough novel is Hunger (1890), which is one of the most unsettling books I have ever read — up there with Mishima’s best work. Other highly recommended shorter, early novels are Mysteries (1892) and Pan: From Lieutenant Thomas Glahn’s Papers (1894).

As a young man, Hamsun spent four years in the United States, which gave him an abiding distaste for Anglo-Saxon culture and capitalism — convictions that were hardened during the Second Boer War. See Knut Hamsun Remembers America: Essays and Stories, 1885–1949, ed. and trans. Richard Nelson Current (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2003).

For a biography of Hamsun, I highly recommend Robert Ferguson, Enigma: The Life of Knut Hamsun (New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1987). I have not read Ingar Slettin Koloen’s Knut Hamsun: Dreamer & Dissenter (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), but it is supposed to be definitive. Finally, I highly recommend Swedish director Jan Troell’s 1996 biopic Hamsun, starring Max von Sydow as Hamsun.


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  1. Alaskan
    Posted August 4, 2011 at 1:17 pm | Permalink

    After Dostoevsky, I think Hamsun is my favorite novelist. Much better than Hesse, who has a similar style. I used to think that Goethe’s “The Sorrows of Young Werther” was the most melancholy story of unrequited love, until I read Hamsun’s “Viktoria”. “On Overgrown Paths” is also a must read. Some of Hamsun’s unflattering depictions of blacks in America, found in his work “The Cultural Life of Modern America”, are so brutally honest and accurate, you will laugh out loud while reading those particular passages. I did, anyway.

  2. Alaskan
    Posted August 5, 2011 at 1:11 pm | Permalink

    Ah, Mishima! That’s a tough one. His work is always so tragic and poetic. I personally like “The Temple of the Golden Pavilion” with its take on aesthetics and the deep, destructive urge to dominate and possess. “Patriotism”, with its message about honor and dying beautifully, is short and to the point. The film is brilliant as well. I also enjoyed “Forbidden Colors” one of Mishima’s clearly autobiographical works, and its meditations on love, the transitory nature of physical beauty and human ugliness. Of course, the scathing misogynistic tone of much of it is amusing as well.

  3. Rudolf Wallace
    Posted August 5, 2011 at 11:10 pm | Permalink

    Hunger, Pan, Mysteries, and Victoria are the Hamsun novels that I’ve read so far; each was quite gripping. The publisher of at least one of them included an introduction by Isaac Bashevis Singer in an attempt to eliminate reluctance to buy caused by the National Socialist “taint”.

    It’s good to learn that Hamsun was such a racial loyalist.

  4. Thomas, Norway
    Posted August 6, 2011 at 4:58 am | Permalink

    Thank you for publishing these excellent writings about Hamsun!

    There is a norwegian folk metal band thas has added music to some of Hamsun’s few poems published in his collection “Det vilde kor” (The wild choir in english, but I dont know if the poems have been translated to english). The band is called Lumsk if you want to check it out. This is my favourite song/poem, “Om hundrede aar er allting glemt”:

    • Alaskan
      Posted August 6, 2011 at 1:18 pm | Permalink

      Thanks, Thomas! I always appreciate being exposed to new Folk/Metal bands.

  5. Stig
    Posted August 17, 2011 at 1:41 am | Permalink

    I really recommend the biography by Ingar Sletten Kolloen (I notice even in New Right-circles our pesky Norwegian names are a cause for trouble, ho ho): it contains a wealth of information and will probably be the definitive biography. I didn’t even know it had been translated, but that is indeed good news! It contains quite a few amusing episodes, as when a young Hamsun on a fast rise as a young budding author attempts to visit the home of his great idol Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson (one of the most famous Norwegian authors of the time) and due to the ice on the stairs of his home, Hamsun slips and falls down the aforementioned stairs in front of the servants. Hence, he is shown off the premises heartbroken due to the servants thinking him a drunkard nobody. Got me laughing, at least.

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