Feb/Mar 2008

Norse of Nature

Knut Hamsun was one of the master spirits of modern literature

Sven Birkerts


Twenty-seven years separate the publication of Knut Hamsun's Hunger, in 1890, and that of his mature masterwork, Growth of the Soil, in 1917. Hunger, his first novel (he was thirty-one), captured the manic pitch of his long years of living on the brink, in his native Norway as well as in America, where he worked as a manual laborer, served as a streetcar conductor, and, as the well-known story goes, rode halfway across the country on top of a locomotive gulping air in an attempt to cure himself of what a doctor thought was TB (the diagnosis may have been spurious, or the stunt was just what was needed—the ailment disappeared). Growth of the Soil, by contrast, appeared when the author was nearing sixty, by that time revered across Europe and with many successes under his belt, including the novels Mysteries (1892), Pan (1894), and Victoria (1898). But it was this epic-scaled work that consolidated his candidacy for the Nobel Prize, which he was awarded in 1920.

A young man's book, an old man's book; the former an almost unremitting hallucination, the latter like something carved with patience into an obdurate oak. Hunger unfolds its unbroken inwardness in urban Christiana (now Oslo), "that strange city no one escapes from until it has left its mark on him," over several seasons, though it also delves to touch a timelessness known to most of us only from dreams and illness. Growth of the Soil populates a simple square of rural canvas and fulfills its narration of labor's travails and hard-won triumphs over many decades. The novel, sharply and sensuously rendered by Sverre Lyngstad, enacts a lifetime's forward plod, though Hamsun's strategic moments of omniscient retrospect ("Great changes at Sellanrå") every so often telescope long years down until they seem but a cosmic eyeblink.

Nor does this begin to exhaust the contrasts. The first-person narrator of Hunger, who never identifies himself with a believable name, is a cautionary exemplar of the alienated, introspective life—think Raskolnikov or Rilke's Malte Laurids Brigge. Hamsun, channeled through the vividly free-spoken idiom of Robert Bly, puts us in the torn-up shoes of the starving young writer, the proud fantasist. (The poet's translation first appeared in 1967.) By temperament already an ecstatic, he is driven by hunger into fugues of delirium, at times crossing into referential delusion ("I could distinguish the nuances in the voices of passers-by . . . and fell to studying the expressions on the cobblestones, in which I found all sorts of omens and wonderful signs").

Alfredo Anderson’s portrait of Knut Hamsun, 1881.

Meanwhile, Isak, protagonist of Hamsun's third-person saga, seems to have missed altogether the capacity for inwardness. He is a feller of trees, a cutter of furrows, a sower of seeds, as close to the soil as a man can be. In fact, the opening passage of the novel has him emerging into our field of vision as if from the original clay: "A man comes walking north. He carries a sack, the first sack, containing provisions for the road and some implements. The man is strong and rough-hewn, with a red iron beard and little scars on face and hands." But if he is not himself poetic, his life, registered in calm, almost biblical cadences, comes to seem so.

And so they line up, two novels that could not be less alike, as if the assignment had been given to write the second in direct opposition to the first. But isn't this how human nature evolves, cracking open the solipsism of youth on the hard anvil of the world?

The reviewer of these novels has it easy in one respect, for Hamsun makes little traffic with plot or complex situational development. In Hunger, the narrative, start to finish, follows with close focus the fever chart of the narrator's sufferings, his daily-renewed struggle to find some scrap of sustenance, a struggle so dire that in one horrifying moment he actually starts to eat his own finger. The young writer is hurled between needful prostrations that cannot fail to indict the reader in his privilege and a pride (stitched to a shadow of shame) that would be comical were it not so heartbreaking.

At one point, a clerk mistakenly gives him a sum of money. Caught up as we are in his terrifying downward spiral, we are jubilant. As is he for a few moments. But no, his sense of honor—or his will to self-mortification—cannot abide it, and he hurries off almost immediately to find a certain cake seller in the street. "I could still save myself from dishonor, it was not too late, far from it, I would show the whole world what I was capable of! On the way I got the money ready. . . . I bent over the woman's cake board as if I wanted to buy something and suddenly put the money into her hand. I didn't say a word, I turned and left instantly."

The novel ends (and none too soon: The desperation is that punishing) when he abruptly signs on to work on a foreign freighter. To be sure, this is at best a temporary solution—the crisis has not so much been resolved as translated to a new setting, taken offscreen. The young man's character seems unlikely to change.

Or am I being too pessimistic about human nature? If we grant Hunger an autobiographical basis—and there is some warrant for this—and if we then consider how triumphantly Hamsun righted himself after his own arduous years of knocking about, then maybe we can allow that some redeeming revision of self is possible.

Growth of the Soil is not, of course, in any sense a continuation of Hunger, though it is surely a product of Hamsun's gradual self-transformation. Indeed, with a sharp twist of thought, it can be seen as a kind of ante­cedent, a deep imagining of the primal creation of homestead and community, a legend to which Hunger might be appended as a protomodernist coda. The desperate enervation of that novel, like the later chapters of Mann's Buddenbrooks, presents the sadly inevitable dying out of the blood, the wearing out of an original vigor.

In the stirringly unsophisticated pages of Growth of the Soil, Hamsun celebrates the actuality of making, the laying down of the first principles to which later generations seek in vain to return. Isak is the ur-man, the lone homesteader. A tireless laborer—he is like the principle of work itself—he takes a wife, harelipped Inger, fathers children, and, furrow by furrow, ax blow by ax blow, grows a life. He is the first, the trailblazer. Others follow, creating over decades a community of sorts. Then, years later, men come for the stringing of telegraph wires, the mining of ore in the adjacent mountains . . . Mainly, convincingly, exultingly, the novel presents the incursion of man into nature, the imposition of will on a pristine Nordic first world.

The self-contained excellence of both novels aside, it is a wonder that one sensibility generated both. For these are not merely divergent takes. They are, as I've suggested, antithetical minings of experience, not to mention assertions of value. Either the artist's soul encompassed both (in the manner of Whitman's "I contain multitudes") or else the younger vision yielded, grew to repudiate all youthful moonshine.

We will never know, there is no such knowing. Just as on another level—there is no ignoring it—we find no satisfying explanation for Hamsun's late-life pledge of allegiance to Hitler and the Reich. (In 1943, after meeting Goebbels, Hamsun sent him his Nobel medal as a gift.) Some offer it as evidence of a mind in decline (the author was well into his seventies); others lay the blame on his long-nourished hatred of England, combined with the fact that he was so beloved in Germany. Never mind reasons of this sort. How could one of the grand masters—and master spirits—of literature, known for his psychological penetration, for the range of his empathies, make such a call? Was it in spite of who he was as a writer, or because of it?

I hold to no theory, but I was struck by an observation made by Brad Leithauser in his introduction to Growth of the Soil. "More than perhaps any other modern writer of great stature," he writes, "Hamsun presents us with the difficulty of separating the pure created object from the impure creative spirit." The assertion seems almost too binary. Might there not be another split to complicate things—this between the creative spirit and the rest of the psyche, the majority shareholder? It seems that while the two are not entirely impermeable to each other, they might nevertheless be viewed as separate. Different systems obedient to different principles. There have always been writers and artists who have sought perfection in their work and turned their backs on Yeats's "heavenly mansion," life. What drives the dynamic? Is there only so much moral energy available to a person? Or does one sphere actively poach the other? I don't know. But the Hamsun who welcomed Hitler clearly had much to learn from the Hamsun who put his world into language, who woke us to the skinned immediacy of the starving artist, as well as to the durable, generational faith of the laboring folk.

Sven Birkerts most recently published The Art of Time in Memoir: Then, Again (Graywolf Press, 2007).

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