Academic journal article Scandinavian Studies

Over-Determined Topography in Knut Hamsun's "Dronningen Av Saba"

Academic journal article Scandinavian Studies

Over-Determined Topography in Knut Hamsun's "Dronningen Av Saba"

Article excerpt

IN AN ARTICLE FROM 1997, Bjarne Thorup Thomsen opens an intriguing line of inquiry into the links between Knut Hamsun's short fiction and broader questions of the function of topography within the genre. Thomsen notes that although much has been made of topography and the novel in recent years, such discussions of short fiction are less common. He suggests that what the short story lacks in depth and breadth of description it gains in the intensified correlation between landscape and meaning: "It might be argued that its [the short-story space's] very sketchiness constitutes a useful language for the conveying of both literal and non-literal meanings" (72). Thomsen examines this phenomenon in the story "Livets rost" ["The Voice of Life"] from the 1903 collection Kratskog ["Thickets"]. "Livets rost" takes place in streets and interiors of Copenhagen. Thomsen concludes that the story's "use of location, its symbolical spatial construction, exemplifies that there is no inner sanctuary in the topography of the Hamsun turn-of-the-century short story" (81), which Thomsen in turn links to Hamsun's early prose experimentation.

Thomsen does not follow up on his initial suggestion that topography in short fiction functions differently from the topography of the novel. Although I doubt that it is any more possible to use topography as an empirical criterion for distinguishing short fiction from longer genres than any of the many other features suggested over the years, I would like here to interrogate this issue in a close reading of an exceptionally topographically-determined Hamsun sketch, "Dronningen av Saba" ["The Queen of Sheba"], which appeared in the 1897 collection Siesta. Rather than presenting a sketchy spatiality, this short text (2) exhibits a toponymic specificity that borders on the absurd and is in tension with the protagonist's confusion over the terrain he traverses.

Like most of Hamsun's short fiction, this sketch was to all intents and purposes ignored by critics until the 1990s, as Dolores Buttry has pointed out (233). In recent years, however, a number of scholars have turned their attention to "Dronningen av Saba," which in many ways is emblematic of Hamsun's entire oeuvre from the 1890s with its emphasis on subjective, psychologically-driven narrative presented through an unreliable and at times paranoid narrator. An important element of this text is the litany of place names that appears as the first-person narrator and protagonist makes his way throughout the landscape of Sweden on two separate journeys, one in 1888 and one in 1892. I will argue here that the topography of "Dronningen av Saba" is self-reflectively over-determined, which reveals the binary between real and imagined topographies that reflects Hamsun's focus on reproducing the irrational in fiction. Before turning to the Hamsun text, I will first give a brief overview of the relationship between topography and genre in short-story scholarship.

SHORT FICTION AND TOPOGRAPHY

In thinking about the role of topography in short fiction, one is immediately confronted with the slippery nature of both terms. Essays such as Norman Friedman's "Recent Short Story Theories: Problems in Definition" Austin M. Wright's "On Defining the Short Story: The Genre Question," Mary Louise Pratt's "The Short Story: The Long and the Short of It," and Allan H. Pasco's "On Defining Short Stories" give an indication of the complexities involved in mapping the genre. In each case the conclusion is ultimately that there is no really meaningful way to distinguish the short story from, say, the novel, other than in terms of length. Any qualitative aspect found in short stories can also be identified in longer fictional works. Defining short fiction, then, becomes a quantitative question as well as a question of qualitative degree--that a certain "cluster of characteristics" (Wright 48) tends to be more prevalent in short fiction than in the novel although they can in fact be found in both. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.