By Lars Frode Larsen
Knut Hamsun was born on 4 August 1859 in Garmo, a remote mountain hamlet on the western shore of Lake Vågå. He died at his country estate Nørholm, near Grimstad, during the night of 19 February 1952. A life of 92 years and 6 months, stretching from the age of horse-drawn carriages to that of the atom bomb. A life full of restlessness and complications, yet at the same time a life rich in experiences. And, most important of all, a life in the service of words.
One is tempted to ask whether it is at all possible to fint a leitmotiv through this life, something which can bind all the individual events into a meaningful whole. Some commen tators have tried to reduce the marathon of Hamsun's life to a mere 100-metre Nazi sprint, thinking that in this way they would be able to forge a key which could be used to unlock the "enigma" Knut Hamsun. It is a rather worthless key: it fits the lock too poorly. The only tool of any real potential use to someone wishing to fathom Hamsun and his work is an understanding of his relationship with words.
To use as a point of departure the theory that Knut Hamsun wrote his books in order to further a particular ideology or to earn his livelihood is to set off on the wrong track. His motive was not the great pleasure he could obtain from entertaining his fellow human beings with good stories; not moral indignation and a sense of commitment, not vanity, social ambition, the desire to be feted and famous, either. All these elements may have played their part in determining Hamsun's "choice" of career, they may also have been of varying consequence at different times in his career. None, however, was the most important driving force behind his activity as a writer. Rather than choosing the career of man of letters, Hamsun probably felt that he had been chosen for it. He succumbed to an inner necessity, an imperative which doomed him to a perpetual labour of writing. If ever in the history of Norwegian literature the use of the word "vocation" is justified, it must be in the case of Hamsun.
His creative talent, his very ability to write was, then, of crucial significance to Hamsun; it was his alpha and his omega. Oscar Wilde wrote in a letter that "to the artist, expression is the only mode under which he can conceive life at all". As for Wilde so for Hamsun; writing became a sort of affirmation that he was still alive.
From his early youth, Hamsun was absorbed by the opportunities of expression afforded by words and language, and by their secret lives. In 1888, two years before his breakthrough came with "Hunger" (Sult), he wrote in an article:
"Language must resound with all the harmonies of music. The writer must always, at all times, find the tremulous word which captures the thing and is able to draw a sob from my soul by its very rightness. A word can be transformed into a colour, light, a smell. It is the writer's task to use it in such a way that it serves, never fails, can never be ignored. The writer must be able to revel and roll in the abundance of words. He must know not only the direct but also the secret power of a word. There are overtones and undertones to a word, and lateral echoes, too."
The preacher and writer Kristofer Janson, who had known Hamsun as a young man, wrote of him that he had never met a person with the same "pathological passion for aesthetic beauty" as Hamsun. "He could jump for joy and wallow in delight for a whole day over an original, particularly expressive adjective he had found in a book or made up himself".
Marie Hamsun, who was married to the writer for more than forty years, tells in her book of memoirs The "Rainbow", (Regnbuen), published in 1953, how the rest of the family had to suffer when Knut was "pregnant" with one of his books and could not get started properly. He was profoundly depressed and unhappy for as long as the "labour pains" lasted. Several times he promised his family and himself that if he could just finish this book, it would be the last. But unfortunately - or fortunately, those who admire his skill with words will say - this was a promise it was impossible to keep.
After her marriage to Hamsun, Marie was astounded to hear repeated complaints from her husband about the many tribulations of being an author. But Marie saw through him. He might well speak deprecatingly of his ink-slinging occupation, yet she perceived that it was only in this selfsame occupation that he could find real joy. She writes: "My love was indeed an ingredient of the atmosphere he needed if he was to attain true happiness. But I understood that when he, as now, could not settle down to his work, there was nothing which could offset that. The happiness I perhaps gave him was only a means, not an end in itself."
To be capable of writing or not to be capable of writing, that was the crucial question. "Well, now we shall see what I am fit for, life, death or putrefaction", he wrote in a letter home to Marie. She was alone with the children at Nørholm. Hamsun had packed his writing materials and gone off to the Ernst Hotel at Kristiansand in order to be able to work undisturbed.
When Hamsun was three years old, his family moved to Hamarøy, Nordland, in the north of Norway. Here they earned their living as ordinary farmers, with his father's trade to supplement the income: he was a skilled tailor. Knut was the fourth of seven children.
When only 17 or 18, he tried his hand at creative writing with "The Enigmatic One". (Den Gaadefulde), which was published in Tromsø in 1877. A year later, Bjørger, was published in Bodø. Another work, a long narrative poem ."The Reconciliation" (Et gjensyn) was printed in 1878. These writings, which the hopeful, young budding author no doubt saw as the first great works on the threshold of a long life as a writer, proved to be no more than an insignificant interlude in his literary career, a short lived "mini-career". Today this teenage Hamsun is of little interest to anyone but specialist researchers. For the ordinary reader the most interesting discovery to be made from these early works would be the fact that even Hamsun at one stage wrote in a cliché-ridden, obscure style.
Greatly encouraged by his success in the local environment of Nordland, and with generous financial support from a wealthy merchant, Erasmus Zahl of Kjerringøy, Hamsun, in 1879, set out into the world with the manuscript of yet another "masterpiece" in his suitcase: the peasant tale "Frida". Some months later he returned, disillusioned, to Norway, to Kristiania after making an abortive attempt to have the book published by Gyldendal in Copenhagen.
A long and trying decade ensued. Hamsun lived a turbulent and roving life, and experimented with many different jobs. Twice (1882-84 and 1886-88) he travelled to America, where he tried working on a farm, as assistant in a store, as tram conductor in Chicago, and as lecturer. His activities were many and varied, but one thing seems to have been a constant: his urge to write. If he was not satisfied, he might in anger tear to pieces what he had written with the utmost care in a leisure hour the previous day, but he was incapable of putting aside paper and pencil for ever. Writing was his spiritual respite from the cold and materialistic world around him, which condemned him to continuous toil to meet his daily wants.
In the autumn of 1888, he at last caught sight of the first lights at the end of a long, workaday tunnel. After returning from America for the second time, this time for good, he published anonymously in the Danish periodical "Ny Jord" a piece he had called "Hunger" (Sult). With its original content and compelling prose style, the piece caused a sensation, and the book of the same name, published in 1890, was Hamsun's literary break-through. Within two years of its publication, "Hunger" had been translated into both German ant Russian.
Later in the 1890s a series of works was published which confirmed Hamsun's reputation as one of the country's most promising young authors. In novels such as "Mysteries" (Mysterier) (1892), "Pan" (1894), and "Victoria" (1898), he, with incomparable mastery of language, took as his subject the experiences and emotions of distinctive characters.
He also tried writing for the stage, though with less success than he had in the epic genre. His strength seems to have lain in characterisation and description rather than in developing a dramatic plot. Consequently there is something static about his drama. "The Game of Life" (Livets spill) 1896, with its dream-play qualities (antedating Strindberg), is probably the best of his six plays. On several occasions Hamsun spoke deprecatingly of drama as an art form. "It is impossible for the dramatist to be a penetrating psychologist", he wrote in an article in 1890. "Besides", he admitted to an admirer, "I don't care about plays, only about the money they earn".
After a failed marriage - to Bergliot 8ech, lasting from 1898 till 1906 Hamsun had by 1909 sufficient courage to try again. Marie Andersen (born in 1881) was to be his companion until the end of his life - despite the souring of their relationship after the Second World War. Marie was a young and promising actress when she met Hamsun, but she broke off her career and travelled with him to his child hood home at Hamarøy. There they bought a farm, the idea being to earn their living as farmers, with his writing providing some additional income. However, after a few years Hamsun discovered - to Marie's regret - that Hamarøy was after all not the place for him, and they moved South, to Larvik.
In 1918; the couple bought Nørholm, an old and somewhat dilapidated manor house between Lillesand and Grimstad. The main residence was restored and redecorated to perfection, new agricultural buildings erected, and new land put under the plough. Hamsun could busy himself with his writing undisturbed, in a special "writing hut" of his own a short distance from the farm, but it was as though his migratory youth had established a pattern in him it was impossible to abandon. Often he had to travel elsewhere to get his writing going.
After the turn of the century, Hamsun stopped writing novels which focussed on one individual and changed to a broader, socio-historical format. "Children of the Age", (Børn af Tiden), 1913 and "Segelfoss Town" (Segelfoss By) 1915 were published, books largely based on the reality of North Norwegian society. They were followed in 1917 by "The Growth of the Soil"(Markens Grøde), for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature three years later. Hamsun's message to a world in need was; return to the soil, and to the basic values. Isak, the main character in the book is described as "a tiller of the soil, body and soul; a worker of the land without respite. A ghost risen out of the past to point the future, a man from the earliest days of cultivation, a settler in the wilds, nine hundred years old, and, withal, a man of the day". Only now did the general reading public in England and America begin to take note of his name. Several of his earlier works were translated into English, but he never enjoyed the same success there as in Germany, for example.
In the 1920s and 1930s Knut Hamsun's popularity was at its peak. A number of new works were published in large editions and were immediately translated into all the major languages of the world. Among the most popular were the novels about the adventurer and jack-of-all-trades August: "Way farers" (Landstrykere) 1927, "August" (1930), and "The Road Leads On"(Men livet lever) 1933. For Hamsuns's 70th birthday in 1929, a Festschrift was issued, in which many of the world's Among the contributors were Thomas Mann, Andre Gide, Maxim Gorkij, John Galsworthy and H.G. Wells.
But dark and threatening clouds were gathering on the political horizon. Adolf Hitler seized power in Germany, and embarked on an ominous sabre rattling. Hamsun, who had been friendlily disposed towards Germany since the days of the Empire, through the First World War and the Weimar Republic, adhered to his pro-German sympathies. The painful years began in earnest when the Germans occupied Norway in 1940. Seen with patriotic Norwegian eyes, Hamsun found himself on the wrong side in a life-and death struggle.
At the liberation of Norway in 1945, Hamsun emerged as a rather diminished figure. He was forced to undergo a harsh mental examination, and the psychiatrists' conclusion was that he had "permanently impaired mental faculties". In an ensuing court case he was sentenced to pay a ruinous sum to the Norwegian government as compensation for the moral support he had given to the occupying power. His prospects were rather dismal. Where, for instance, would he find any income in future? The value of his most impor tant asset, his author's copyright, could in his present situation be written off as nil.
Both during and after the Second World War, many Norwegians would, had they had the power to do so, have exhorted Hamsun to return to the anonymity from which he had once emerged. Yet it was impossible to reduce Knut Hamsun to silence. His need to express himself and his urge to write were too strong That his talent, too, was unimpaired he showed in "On Overgrown Paths" (Paa gjengrodde Stier) 1949. In this, his last book, he hit back at the director general of public prosecutions and the psychiatrists for their treatment of him. That apart, the work exudes resignation and sadness. Old and new events parade before the incessently writing man of letters: "One, two, three four- thus I sit and make notes and write little pieces for myself. It is to no purpose, just an old habit. I leak muted words. I am a dripping tap, one, two, three, four - ".
Knut Hamsun's influence on 20th-century literature in Europe and America can hardly be overestimated. What was revolutionary about books such as "Hunger" and "Mysteries" was first and foremost their contribution to a new understanding of human nature. For the first time, modern, alienated and anxiety-ridden Man appeared in literature. With his insight into the aberrations of the psyche, Hamsun, anticipating Freud and Jung, laid the foundations for an extension of our cognition. Into the domain of literature came the ambivalent and composite, at times incoherent elements in the pattern of human reactions. And his descriptive prose was so skillful and assured in style that it, too, became a model to be emulated.
In 1929, Thomas Mann maintained that the Nobel Prize for Literature had never been awarded to someone who deserved it more. And writers such as Franz Kafka, Bertholt Brecht, and Henry Miller have all expressed their admiration of Hamsun. In an introduction to an American edition of "Hunger", Isaac Bashevis Singer states that Hamsun "is the father of the modern school of literature in his every aspect- his subjectiveness, his fragmentariness, his use of flashbacks, his lyricism. The whole modern school of fiction in the twentieth century stems from Hamsun".
What, then, is Hamsun's reputation in Norway today? We must unfortunately place on record the fact that his political views still cast their long and compromising shadows over him, both as an author and as an individual. More than forty years after the end of the Second World War, many Norwegians have an ambivalent attitude towards him, a love/hate relationship that springs from disappointed expectations.
"Official Norway" takes little visible notice of Hamsun. Generally speaking, Norwegians are very keen to honour their men of letters, but they let Hamsun be the exception. There is no major thoroughfare, square or public building called after him. His portrait is on no bank-note, nor has a postage stamp been issued to commemorate him.
But though Hamsun may be "officially dead", he has always been alive and topical in literary and cultural circles. People think, talk and write about him continually. Four times since 1982, "Hamsun Days" have been arranged at Hamarøy. These festivals highlight the arts as a whole in that part of the country, yet Hamsun always has a prominent role. During the most recent of the "Hamsun Days", in the summer of 1988, a Hamsun Society was founded. Its aims are to promote greater understanding of the author and his writings.
Of other events on the Hamsun front in recent years may be mentioned the translation into Norwegian of the full-length biography "Enigma: the Life of Knut Hamsun", written by the Englishman Robert Ferguson and first published in 1987. A film version of "Wayfarers", the first part of Hamsun's "August" trilogy, has been embarked on and is due to be premiered in the autumn of 1989. And yet another book by Hamsun has been published: "Fragments of a Life" (Livsfragrnenter), consisting of unknown short stories dug out from dusty newspapers and perodicals.
What then awaits the Hamsun hungry tourist who comes to Norway, eager to follow in that writer's foot steps and absorb impressions of the places lived in and visited by him? At Garmo, enthusiasts have rebuilt the house where Hamsun was born: a small museum has been established there. Also at Garmo there is a nine metre high monument, inset with a relief portrait by the sculptor Wilhelm Rasmussen, unveiled in 1960. At Hamarøy there is the same sort of privately run museum, also with a statue. The latter, whose artistic qualities have been debated, is the work of a Greek, Georg Themistokles Malto. He sculpted the bust from a photograph, and presented it to the municipality of Hamarøy. At Kjerringøy there is yet another statue, a bust of Knut Hamsun as a young man. It is by Thore Bjørn Skjølsvik, and was unveiled by Tore Hamsun, painter and son of Knut Hamsun, during the 1984 "Hamsun Days".
At Nørholm guided tours for visitors were privately arranged for many years, on the initiative of Hamsun's son Arild. However, he died in 1988, and though there has been talk of the municipal authorities taking over, nothing is as yet decided. In the park in front of the residence another of Wilhelm Rasmussen's works may be admired: a bust made during the last war. Hamsun's earthly remains are encased in the plinth. Rasmussen worked from the life; for three days on end, Hamsun sat on the table in his ice-cold atelier, and drank hot chocolate in an attempt to keep in the warmth. "He stayed the course most bravely, though he was freezing", Rasmussen relates. When the bust was finished, Hamsun maintained that it looked as if his teeth were chattering.
Knut Hamsun himself was far from thrilled by his fame all of the time. It is true that in his younger days he could on occasion behave in a waggish and self-advertising manner in order to attract sufficient attention to his works, yet over the years, being in the limelight became an increasing strain on him. On his birthdays he would flee to an unknown address in order to avoid public attention. It pained him to be besieged and gawped at. It might be a consolation to those who regret that there is so little public celebration of Hamsun to learn that he would probably not have appreciated being feted in such a way.
In connection with the publication of Kristian Elster's history of literature in 1923-24, which was to include Hamsun, the publisher Gyldendal contacted Hamsun and asked him if he could provide some pictures of his birthplace. Full of irony and ridicule he replied, "I have just received from two different sources thoroughly documentet statements to the effect that I was born both at Lom and at Vågå, so that must be true. Seven places dispute..." "However", he added, "if only there is enough money, I may well get a statue - perhaps an equestrian statue - at both Lom and Vågå".
In "On Overgrown Paths", Hamsun reverts to the subject of an equestrian statue. He was fully aware of the honour and renown he had lost, but consoled himself with the argument that time would prove a pitiless master for others, too. "Time takes it. Time takes everything and everyone. I lose a little of my reputation in the world, a portrait, a bust; there would hardly have been an equestrian statue anyway".
Knut Hamsun's time in the service of words was running out.