The Everyday in Nordic Modernism: Knut Hamsun's Sult and Maria Jotuni's Arkielamaa

By Rossi, Riikka | Scandinavian Studies, Winter 2010 | Go to article overview

The Everyday in Nordic Modernism: Knut Hamsun's Sult and Maria Jotuni's Arkielamaa


Rossi, Riikka, Scandinavian Studies


Jeg foler det i hver Nerve i min Krop at vi nu staar foran en ny Periode i Literaturen ... Zola venter, Strindberg venter--vi staar foran en ny Tidsalder. --En ny Vaar er i Fremwkst nye Krofter skyder op--en evig Fornyelse--en Vaarmorgen i hver Generation!--Nu kommer vort! (Letter 4-7 to Yngwar Laws, Knut Hamsuns brev 82)

I feel on ever), nerve in my body that we are now standing before a new period in literature.... Zola waits, Strindberg waits--we stand before a new epoch. A new spring is unfolding, new forces are emerging, an endless renewal, a spring morning with ever), new generation! Now comes ours! (Letter 45 to Yngwar Laws, Knut Hamsun, Selected Letters 87-8)

THESE WORDS WERE WRITTEN by Karat Hamsun (1859-1952) in 1888, two years before the publication of his breakthrough novel Sult. Hamsun had recently returned to Norway after a sojourn in North America deeply disappointed by the harsh realities of the New World. His disillusionment, however, failed to discredit his faith in modernism. The writer was approaching his thirties and proclaimed a "literary resurrection" based on a new conception of the human mind (Letter 45 to Yngwar Laws, Knut Hamsun: Selected Letters 88).

Hamsun was not alone in thus challenging Emile Zola and his comrades-in-arms in Scandinavia. Although French naturalism had recently been introduced to Scandinavia by Georg Brandes and was initially received with enthusiastic admiration, (1) it fell into disrepute soon after its heyday. Resistance to Zola's doctrine also mounted in France on many fronts. In the company of numerous others, Huysmans's epitome of decadent literature, A rebours (1884; Against the Grain), contested naturalist banality in taking the beauty of degeneration as ideal. A group of Zola's own disciples turned against their master in condemning his novel La Terre (1887; The Earth) for its sensational violence and excessively graphic sexuality (2) and began writing parodies and satires of Zola's naturalist style. (3) Dostoevsky objected to the scientific image of man by constantly polemicizing against determinism and the theory of environmental causality (Bakhtin 29). Henri Bergson among other contemporary philosophers also rejected the nineteenth-century rational world view and insisted on the importance of immediate experience and intuition. The new generation of writers thus responded to Dostoevsky's call for freedom of choice and condemned naturalism as an overly pessimistic doctrine. (4)

The resistance to Zola's naturalism is part of the paradigmatic shift towards modernism--a major revolt against the prevalent literary and aesthetic traditions of the Western world that erupted in the late nineteenth century (see Astradur Eysteinsson). Although widely acknowledged that modernism emerged as a reaction against nineteenth-century realist and naturalist literature and in spite of the rich critical tradition of naturalism and modernism, few studies have attempted to bridge the gap between these two literary orientations. (5) In this article, I will explore modernism's relationship to nineteenth-century naturalism by analyzing two examples of early modernism in Nordic literature: Knut Hamsun's Sult (1890; Hunger) and Maria Jotuni's (1880-1943, nee Haggren) Arkielamaa (1909; Everyday Life).

My interpretation will explore the connections between naturalism and modernism by using the concept of the everyday as a bridge. A key issue of realist and naturalist fiction, it provides fertile soil for discussing changes in representative patterns at the turn of the twentieth century. Descriptions of ordinary people, accounts of the repetition of daily routines and mundane incidents are used to create realistic effects in literature. "Cognition, and hence mimesis, have their roots in what is humanly and socially shared" (Prendergast 22), and the representation of the everyday--a universal phenomenon that has always existed in every culture and society--creates a discursive space of recognition and identification independent of cultural differences. …

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