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

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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. Although the representation of everyday life has been essential to realism since the beginning of Western literature, as discussed by Erich Auerbach in his monumental work Mimesis, nineteenth-century realism and naturalism transformed the everyday into an ideal. The ordinary, banality, boring routines, everyday life, daily grayness, mediocrity, and life as it is proved to be key concepts in Flaubert and Zola's aesthetics (see Rossi). According to Auerbach, Zola was the first writer to take the representation of the everyday life seriously by making French workers subjects of tragic representation and providing a micro-historical perspective on the everyday life of common people (Auerbach 512).

Despite the stylistic tendency towards abstraction, subjectivism, and alienation from historical reality, the modernist movement does not lose sight of the everyday. The works of William Faulkner, Marcel Proust, James Joyce, and Franz Kafka still encompass naturalist themes of disillusionment, depict everyday situations, and advance file detailed, visual description that Zola established in naturalism. It is my contention that in the modernist novel the everyday serves as an aesthetic space for alternative means of literary expression, and the movement draws its revolutionary strength from this kind of representation. If, as Astradur Eysteinsson affirms, modernism strives to disrupt and problematize traditional realist modes of communication (238), it re-represents naturalist banality and everyday situations in order to search for a radical new aesthetic. Hamsun's Sult can, thus, be taken as a manifesto of modernism, which, through its allegorizing of the naturalistic motif of hunger, evolves into an aesthetic interpretation of the everyday. Jotuni, in turn, reconfigures primitive naturalism into a new form by moving in the direction of existentialist aesthetics. In her work the everyday serves as a reformative space for processing the choices and conflicts of modern life.


Sult belongs to the corpus of late nineteenth-century works of prose fiction that aimed at challenging naturalism. By describing a solitary journalist wandering alone in the streets of Christiania and the thoughts and impressions moving through his mind, Hamsun espoused modernist narration and subjectivity, which later emerged as central to the novels of Marcel Proust and Virginia Woolf. Sult is, thus, the first novel that transforms human consciousness itself into a protagonist. "Hvad der interesserer mig er min Smule Sjaels uendelige Bevaegelighed, og jeg mente, at jeg havde skildret Stemninger i "Sult" hvis absolutte Fremmedartehed iafald ikke skulde traette ved deres Monotoni" (Letter 113 to Georg Brandes, Knut Hamsuns brev 161) ["What interests me is the infinite susceptibility of of [sic] my soul, what little I have of it, and I felt that in Hunger I had described moods so absolutely strange that at least they would not be tiresome by their monotony" (Letter 064 to Georg Brandes, Knut Hamsun: Selected Letters 114)]. Sult was soon translated into French and made a deep impression on French modernists, Andre Gide among others (see Gide). August Strindberg also deeply admired Hamsun. In a letter to Georg Brandes, Strindberg wrote, "Huru djupt jag kommit in i min nya riktning visar sig av min hanryckning over Hamsuns bok om Amerika dar alla de meningar jag lidit halvdoden for under de sista fem aren, aro oppet och frankt uttalade" (Strindbergs brev 123) [How deeply I have gone in my new orientation shows my enthusiasm for Humsun's book about America, there all the opinions I have suffered half to death during the last five years are openly and frankly expressed].

Nonetheless, as is often the case with the experimental works that transgress the prevailing artistic conventions, Hamsun creates his new aesthetic by converting old ideas into a new form. In some respects, the novel consists of all the basic elements of naturalist representation of the everyday. It introduces a typical naturalist protagonist, a man of mediocrity who, despite his ambitious aims to become a writer, has fallen into misery and poverty and become an outsider. The occupation of the narrative I of the novel--a journalist who writes on the most popular topics and themes of the time--recalls the trivialization of literary culture in the nineteenth century resulting from the proliferation of printed materials: the increase in literacy and popular genres, followed by the decline of "poetic" language. (7) As Mark B. Sandberg has shown, Sult's language draws on the contemporary discourse of advertising (Sandberg 265-95). "Everydayness" is thus emphasized through the mixing of diverse discourses of mass and high culture, another feature evoking the trivialization of literature in the nineteenth-century novel.

The theme of the novel itself--hunger--is a naturalist topic par excellence in being firmly rooted in the concept of the everyday and in evoking both the serious study of societal defects and the discovery of individual suffering. In fact, is there anything more everyday and more common than the need for food? Eating, along with drinking, sleeping, and reproduction belong to the few elements of the everyday shared by all individuals and is common to both human and animal (Heller 3). As Susan Skubal explains, "The history of human alimentation has been observed to parallel if not propel human evolution. Everything, from migration and settlement patterns to warfare, religion, family size and structure, technological advances, and even the physical size and characteristics of the human form itself, has to a great extent been predicated on what there was or wasn't to eat" (5).

Hunger, the lack of food, and the physical affliction resulting from near-starvation each belong to the recurrent themes of Zola's novels about working-class poverty. It is a nodal point that opens views on societal problems and even motivates narration. "Pain, pain, pain!" [Bread, bread, bread!] the striking coal miners cry out in Zola's Germinal (1885), a novel that portrays the conflict between the social classes by contrasting the hunger of the poor with the abundance of the wealthy. Zola's L'Assommoir (1877; The Dram Shop) traces the ascents and descents of a simple laundress, Gervaise Macquart through moments of plenty as well as of hunger--from the gourmet opulence of her birthday party to the absolute lack of food at the end of the novel. After losing her job, family, and human dignity, she wanders the streets of Paris famished (even trying to prostitute herself), eats disgusting scraps, and finally dies of starvation. The plot of La Debacle (1892; The Downfall), Zola's novel describing the Franco-Prussian war, culminates in the portrayal of naturalist hunger. The struggle against starvation proves to be the greatest battle of the novel, which, rather than focusing on military actions, instead consists of extensive descriptions of soldiers searching for food, hunting geese, and cooking a half-rotten horse and red beets.

According to traditional interpretations, Sult "belongs to the tradition of psychological Naturalism" (Kittang 295), which studies the effects of starvation or, alternatively, the veiled autobiography of Hamsun's experienced during his desperate sojourns in Christiania and Chicago. The novel has been viewed as a symptom of the maladies of modernity; it "is one of the great novels of urban alienation" Robert Ferguson affirms (110). Regardless of these naturalistic settings, Sult seems not to be a novel about everyday hunger. Eventually, the question needs to be asked whether Sult is a novel at all. As the writer himself declared:

Min Bog maa ikke betragtes som en Roman. Der er nok af dem, som skriver Romaner, naar de skal skrive om Sult--fra Zola til Kielland. De gor det allesammen. Og er det Mangelen paa det Romanagtige, som kanske gor min Bog monoton, saa er jo det bare en Anbefaling, eftersom jeg simpelthen havde bestemt mig til ikke at skrive en Roman. (Letter 113 to Georg Brandes, Knut Hamsuns brev 161)

My book must not be regarded as a novel. There are enough people who write novels when they want to write about hunger--from Zola to Kielland. They all do it. And if it is the lack of this kind of novel, which perhaps makes my book monotonous, then that is quite simply a commendation, in that I had determined quite deliberately not to write a novel. (Letter 064 to Georg Brandes, Knut Hamsun: Selected Letters 114)

The realistic interpretations of a self-portrait of a hungry and penniless writer or a portrayal of urban alienation can easily be called into question since the novel involves a fundamental contradiction. While the narrator constantly laments his hunger and regrets his vain efforts to find food, he, at the same time, refuses to eat, vomits the food, and even rejects social assistance. "Jeg talte ikke mat, jeg var ikke saledes indrettet; det var en besynderlighet ved mig, en saeregenhet" (Sult 33). ["I couldn't stand food, I wasn't made that way; it was a peculiarity of mine, an idiosyncrasy" (Hunger 26)].

Hamsun's protagonist, a prime example of an unreliable narrator, is not the tragic victim of a faceless society, but as Andre Gide explains in his French preface to the novel, "ce livre etrange" [this strange novel] which had "[a]ucune histoire, aucune intrigue" [no story, no intrigue] portrayed a man whose greatest problem was his self-centered pride and egoism (5-7). The dream-like condition resulting from hunger establishes a ground for the narrator's hallucinatory visions, mad fancies, and imaginary lies: "Jeg var kommet ind i sultens glade vanvid; jeg var tom og smaertefri og min tanke var uten toiler" (Suit 50) ["I had passed over into the sheer madness of hunger; I was empty and without pain and my thoughts were running riot" (Hunger 65-6)]. More than the societal types of French naturalism, Hamsun's protagonist resembles Dostoevsky's heroes and represents a Nietzschean Ubermensch, a concept that Nietzsche developed on the basis of Dostoevsky's novels. As Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment (1866; [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.]), the protagonist of Hunger has an interest in criminal philosophy, writing an article on crimes of the future. Like the underground man or Raskolnikov, Hamsun's narrator considers himself superior to ordinary people. (8) Unlike common creatures, he does not need to eat or rely on manual labor to earn his daily bread. Hamsun's hero seems to have deliberately chosen his condition: he pawns his jacket in order to give money to a poor shoemaker, and, while spending a night in a refuge for the homeless, he refuses to ask for a meal ticket.

More than a novel of hunger, Hunger seems to be a description of fasting, evoking the Bible and its teaching of hunger as a spiritual appetite for God's word and thus the sublimation of earthly desires. "Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedth from the mouth of God" (Matt. 4:4, Luke 4:4) Christ declares after fasting for forty days in the desert. Indeed, the representation of hunger in Sult engages in Biblical discourse in several ways: the novel includes a variety of Biblical references from explicit citations to more veiled allusions. Plagued by flies as were the Egyptians who would not release the House of Israel to wander in the desert, the narrative readily presents him as a Job-like martyr figure faced with the mystery of innocent suffering. "Hvad var det som feilet mig? Hadde Herrens finger pekt pa mig? Hvorfor just pa mig? Hvorfor ikke like sa godt pa en mand i Sydamerika, for den skyld?" (Sult 17) ["What was the matter with me? Had the Lord's finger pointed at me? But why exactly me? Why not just as well at some person in South America, for that matter?" (Hunger 16-7)] the narrator laments. The conception of Hamsun's protagonist as a fasting martyr is confirmed by his repulsion by the flesh, a tendency suggesting the Christian ideal of spirit and rejection of the carnal world. But contrary to Christ, who defeats the Devil's temptation in the desert and for whom fasting serves as a spiritual sublimation of natural instincts, Hamsun's protagonist sinks morally ever lower as long as his hunger continues finally lapses into cheating and inventing extraordinary lies: "Jeg nedlot mig til mindre og mindre haederlige handlinger for hver dag" (Sult 37) ["I stooped to less and less honorable actions every day" (Hunger 45)] the narrator explains. Instead of becoming a self-sacrificing servant of God, Hamsun's protagonist chooses the role of rebel, as described in the scene in which he curses God after vomiting a dog-bone: "Jeg sier dig, du himlens hellige Ba'al, du er ikke til, men hvis du var til sa skulde jeg bande dig slik at din himmel skulde dirre av helvedes ild" (Sult 99) ["I say to you, you holy Baal of heaven, you do not exist, but if you did exist I would curse you until your heaven trembled with the fires of hell" (Hunger 136-7)].

Although the doctrine of Sult is not faithful to Christian virtues, on a more general level the Biblical discursive tone functions as a generic sign inviting the reader to abandon mimetic realism and instead adopt an allegorical mode of interpretation, that is essential to reading the Bible. In fact, the tendency towards allegorization is implicated in the representative patterns of modernism and is characteristic of James Joyce's fiction. For instance, as Stephen Sicari has shown, the structure of Ulysses (1922) can be viewed as a shift from the naturalistic novel towards a modernist allegory (see Sicari). The move from realistic to allegorical representation was already taking place in naturalist fiction, which, despite its seeming documentation of everyday realities, often tends to destabilize the realist illusion and envision meanings of a second degree. As in allegory, the accumulation of details in naturalistic descriptions can function as an obtrusive element in the text, attracting the reader's attention and raising questions of the "true" meaning underlying the realistic surface. (9) In Suit, the description of hunger--fundamentally inconsistent with the protagonist's refusal of food--ruptures the realistic reading of text and invites the reader to explore meanings beyond the everyday realities. If allegory was originally a method for discovering hidden meanings in sacred texts, there seems to be, in Hamsun's novel, a message sent to the protagonist and to be interpreted by the reader. Suit's narrator constantly repeats the idea of Guds finger [the Lord's finger] pointing to him, thus recalling the recurrent motif of Jewish and Christian art: the hand of God or that of an angel, a messenger sending a sign from the heavenly realm to the earthly.

In Sult, hunger evokes the double domain of the oral, the human mouth as both the site of human ingestion and utterance. According to the Bible, in the beginning there was the Word (John 1:1) and Sult's protagonist's renunciation of food seems to imply the search for a new word, which, in the context of emerging modernism, could be the "new epoch" or "new spring" brought about by Hamsun's calls for a new mode of literary expression. The sublimation of hunger in pursuit of higher realities is not just religious, but rather also artistic and can be understood as a kind of manifesto for a literary revolution in progress in Hamsun's work. The narrator's peculiar literary drafts and the rejection of naturalism as a descriptive mode for hunger indicate an instance of the emergence of the new aesthetic. The mad fantasy, during which a peculiar word, "kuboa" (50) appears to him, is emblematic of the rise of a new mode of expression:

Ordet var Gudskjelov fundet og det var hovedsaken ... Jeg hadde selv opfundet ordet og jeg var i min gode ret til a la det bety hvadsomhelst, for den skyld. Savidt jeg visste hadde jeg ikke endnu uttalt mig. (Sult 50-1)

The word had been found, thank God, and that was the main thing... I had invented the word myself, and I was perfectly within my rights in having it mean anything whatsoever, for that matter. As far as I knew, I hadn't yet expressed an opinion. (Hunger 66-7)

On the other hand, the inventing of peculiar words and names (Happolati, Ylajali, Andreas Tangen) is not only indicative of the problematization of communication typical of modernist expression, but also evokes the nutritional aesthetics of the work, which parallels Joyce's technique of "cannibalization" of language as discussed by Thomas Jackson Rice (see Rice). Rice regards Joyce's fiction metaphorically as a cannibal of language since by fusing language and by enacting a linguistic assimilation, it recycles and digests its own kind, creating a kind of stylistics of "mumbling" which means both to bite with toothless gums and to babble (27-8). In Sult, cannibalization is underscored by the self-sufficiency of the protagonist, who, to quote Dorrit Cohn, creates a "wholly self-centered, indeed self-obsessed" novel (155).

The narrator's obsession with the year 1848, a date he writes down even on a job application insists, on aesthetic revolution. Not only does the reference recall the idea of revolution, a term that later became the slogan for modernist literature, but also modernism as a "permanent revolution" as Marx declared, or "a turning-over, even a turning-back ... a break-up, a devolution, some would say a dissolution" as Herbert Read described the nature of modernism (59). The liberation of the modernist aesthetic is stressed in the theme of journalism. The protagonist, who stubbornly attempts to sell his original articles to the city newspaper, suggests freedom of speech and in general evokes the revolution marked by the developments of the press in nineteenth-century literary culture.

But does Hamsun's protagonist himself move in the direction of progress and revolution? Despite his composition of a kind of manifesto for freedom, his own fate remains unclear. The craving for sublime realities, his intention to write ambitious philosophical studies and medieval dramas prove to be megalomaniac efforts and vain illusions, a situation underscored by the strongly ironic tone of the text. At the end of the novel, the narrator signs on as a sailor and sets sail. Thus, on an impulse, he prepares for manual labor. The symbolic significance of the ending remains ambiguous. On the one hand, the ship leaves the miserable city and sails towards Britain thus offering the protagonist the possibility for change and reproduction. But on the other, this Finnish ship that sails under the Russian flag and has a Swedish captain alludes to submission: Finland as well as Hamsun's Norway were still under foreign rule and became independent only at the beginning of the twentieth-century. In addition, after his disappointing experiences in North America, Hamsun's critical attitude towards travel and global mobility grew stronger. His famous work Markens Grode (1917; Growth of the Soil) creates an apologia for finding a stable place, for putting down roots in one's native land while modern civilization, big cities, and the mixing of races appear as menaces to human happiness.

Sult is also a novel of taking charge of space and place, discussing the everyday as a question of integration and participation in the world around us through adaptation to existing realities and learning to adopt new customs and behaviors. The everyday is characterized by an automatized basic trust in the natural world around us and in the continuation of similarity in life, represented by a feeling of bodily and psychic comfort, as Anthony Giddens has argued (127). But since Sult envisions a world in which the sensorial domain--perception and hearing--is constantly disrupted by the external world, it contests the alleged ease of the day-to-day activities. The transgression against the habitualized routines of everyday life and a discovery of a life-world of one's own calls for an aesthetics of estrangement: creating alternative ways of perceiving everyday reality and questioning the normal ways of living.

The need for eating discloses some primordial instincts and primary emotions in human relationships since the act of nourishing recalls a mother's nurture, love, and care. The protagonist utterance on the last meeting with the beloved Ylajali, "Hun rakte sin mund frem" (Sult 112) ["She offered me her mouth" (Hunger 155)] is emblematic of the mouth as a domain both of affection and eating. Sult's solitary hero, however, fails in both eating and affection, and this self-sufficiency in human relationships suggests a refusal of all fixed and preset schemes of identity. The novel's theme of eating is fundamentally a question of being: in modern society, the choice of food--what we eat and what we do not eat--has become a determining factor of our identity. However, in Sult the protaginist's identity remains open. One of the peculiarities of the novel is that the I of the novel lacks the self-exegesis typical of autobiographical texts. Despite the retrospective form of the text, "not once in this entire novel does its narrator draw attention to his present, narrating self by adding information, opinions, or judgments that were not his during his past experience" (Cohn 155). The reader never learns where the I of the novel comes from or where he goes; in fact, one never learns who he actually is. In some respects, the novel manifests a phenomenological conception of man: instead of presenting us with a fully-fledged character, the text shows how an instance of human subjectivity is "beginning to take shape" (Kittang 297). The question of artistic revolution thus evolves into a question of building an identity.


The aesthetic revolution and narrative convulsions appearing in Hamsun's fiction lie indeed at the heart of modernism. A variety of modernist movements such as impressionism, expressionism, cubism, and surrealism experiment with traditional modes of representation and tend toward abstraction. On the other hand, modernism has been criticized for its strikingly artistic ambitions: according to Lukacs, for instance, the revolution of modernism remained too aesthetic. For him modernism was a decadent, avant-garde movement incapable of serious representation of reality (20-2). Lukacs, nostalgic for nineteenth-century realism, certainly exaggerates, since an aesthetic understanding of modernity is not inevitably followed by a lack of ethical values and social reform. The concern for ethical issues appeared, especially in existentialist fiction, which, along with other modernist movements, began to emerge as a reaction to the crisis of modernity since the mid-1850s. Inspired by the philosophy of Soren Kierkegaard, Nietzsche's texts, and Dostoevsky's fiction, the existentialist movement developed during the first half of the twentieth century bringing new issues and techniques to the fore. (10)

I will now turn from naturalism to modernism in the Finnish author Maria Jotuni, whose work can be included in a corpus of fiction anticipating the existential strain of modernism. The question of the "human condition," a sense of alienation, ethical dilemmas, and a call for individual responsibility make up the fundamental concerns of Jotuni's fiction. In her search for a new modernist aesthetic, Jotuni departed from the nineteenth-century scientific, rational world view by insisting on an emotional understanding of reality and a subjective experience of time in her dialogue-based prose. In Finland Jotuni has gained reputation primarily for her short stories and dramas, which are still frequently staged in Finnish theaters. A reading of her works in the context of Hamsun offers an interesting point of comparison since Jotuni was an enthusiastic admirer of Hamsun's narrative style. She wrote an essay on the Norwegian author, (11) and sent a Swedish translation of her short story collection Rakkautta (1907; Love) to him. Hamsun responded with a complimentary letter, praising especially her sense of form and beauty (Niemi 86). However, as is evident in her works, Jotuni did not content herself with a modest expression of admiration for her fellow writers but consciously strove to create an independent aesthetic. Her professional name, Jotuni, betrays a certain rebellion against the literary culture of the era still mostly dominated by male authors: the word jotuni means giant and refers to the account of the jotun people ("giants") in Scandinavian mythology. The female condition in modern but still patriarchal society lies at the heart of Jotuni's works, and it is a cruel condition between Scylla and Charybdis of social expectations and individual desires. Unhappiness in love and marriage of reason often appear as only means of survival in life while the consenting to desires offers only momentary pleasure and results in tragic end.

Jotuni's novella Arkielamaa (1909; Everyday Life) is a prime example of a work in which the naturalist image of man is transformed by existentialist aesthetics into a new form. As the title of Jotuni's novella--Arkielamaa--suggests, the novel draws from the everyday in diverse ways. The narrated time of the novella is twenty-four hours during which it explores the occasional events of daily life during a single day with the peculiar form of modernist prose that later found its iconic expression in Joyce's Ulysses. In Jotuni's novella, the lives of ordinary peasants, servants, and crofters unfold in a remote countryside village, and the narrative focuses especially on women and their fortunes in love. The single, interconnected episodes center on the vagabond Nyman, a former student of theology who, after unfinished studies, ended up wandering in the countryside. He functions as the implied author of the text and the observing eye of the story. Despite his lack of a diploma in theology, Nyman is still called a priest. For the villagers he represents a voice of authority whose advice they request in solving the problems of everyday life.

What is interesting in Arkielamaa is that it creates an ambiguous double exposure. As in Sult, the description of everyday life is separated from its realistic basis and leans toward an allegorical mode of representation. In many respects, the novella is symbolic in nature, insisted Jotuni's husband, Viljo Tarkiainen, a professor of literature at the University of Helsinki. In a note preserved in the Jotuni Archive, he describes his wife's work as a symbolic collage of different types of Finnish people. National symbolism is evident in the very beginning with the story's opening with a lakeside view thus evoking well-known emblematic works characteristic of Finnish visual arts. However, even though Jotuni's work has been considered one of the most beautiful descriptions of natural beauty in Finland, the depicted episodes and the flashbacks to past events do not invoke a paradise inhabited by pure and unspoiled children of nature. Quite the contrary, the peaceful countryside betrays terrible actions, and in spite of the paradise, the fallen priest enters a kind of earthly hell. Among the villagers, he confronts, for instance, a fallen woman and a woman who has committed an infanticide. He visits an adulterous crofter and meets his wife, who has been raped and who has attempted suicide. The most dreadful incident, a serious case of incest, that has recently been discovered in the village, is revealed to Nyman through a convivial conversation during a lunch break. It is no wonder that many of Jotuni's contemporaries considered the novella an exposition of the primitive in human nature.

The existential turn of the novel appearing especially in the central figure of the novella, the priest Nyman, center on his need to face these everyday problems and ethical dilemmas ranging from the suffering of innocent children to unhappiness in love. Nyman, as his name suggests, (Swedish: ny man) is as a representative of modernity. As a wandering vagabond, Nyman recalls a number of restless drifters appearing in contemporary fiction including the narrative I of Hamsun's Sult, the wandering gypsies in Maxim Gorky's short stories, and especially the eponymous character in Selma Lagerlof's Gosta Berling's saga (1891). Like Lagerlof's defrocked minister, Gosta, Jotuni's Nyman is also a fallen man, an occasional drunkard separated from the official church, and an enigmatic figure mixing virtues and vices. In many respects, Nyman is portrayed as the opposite of Gosta Berling rather than the kindred spirit. Compared to Gosta Berling--a man who combines fatal beauty and fervent nature while scandalizing the upper-class milieu of the estate--Nyman is a far more serious character. He is incapable of spontaneous passion and, in spite of eros is more concerned with agape and consequently shows an altruistic love for his fellow man. Rather than a Don Juan, Nyman appears to be a Christ figure. Having failed in his mission as a servant of God, he has become a confessor and a trusted man of the village who listens to tales of the poor villagers' sorrows and joys, solves their everyday problems, writes love letters for the illiterate, tells fairy tales to the children, and cures both human and animal illnesses. But, as is typical of modernist characters, Nyman proves to be a controversial figure--one who consoles others but is not capable of expelling his own despair. He suffers from constant anxiety, feelings of estrangement, and self-reflection--the malady of the modern era. (12)

Ei kukaan osannut karsia niinkuin han. Kaikesta nytkin han karsi, kehnoudestansa, ihmiskurjuudesta, jonka han yksin tunsi, kaikesta. Karsi, etta puun piti maassa tuossa kasvaa, etta se ei liikkumaan kyennyt, ei ymmartamaan enemman kuin tylsa ihmishenki. Karsi siita, etta ruoho oli vihrea ja peitti maata ja sitten lakastui ja maaksi muuttui. Vaan ennen kaikkea karsi siita, etta hanen rintaansa niin halkaisi ja sydantansa katkaisi, hanen, yksinaisen korvenvaeltajan, jota maailman tuskat takaa ajoivat. Mita pahaa han oli tehnyt, etta hanen kerjata piti ja alentua. Kielsiko muu luonto niin syvasti itsensa kuin vainottu ihmisraukka, jolle vissit elamisen ehdot annettiin, vaan ei voimaa tayttamaan niita. (Arkielamaa 7)

   (Nobody could suffer like he did. He suffered for everything, even
   now, for his poorness, for the human misery, everything that only
   he could feel, for everything. He suffered for the tree that had to
   grow in the earth but that could not move, could understand no more
   than a miserable human creature. He suffered for the grass that was
   green and covered the earth but then withered and turned into earth
   again. But mostly he suffered because it ached so much in his chest
   and tore in his heart; he, the lonely wanderer of the woods, was
   chased by file agonies of the world. What had he done wrong so that
   he had to beg and demean himself. Did the other nature deny itself
   deeper than the persecuted human being, to whom were given certain
   conditions of living, but not the strength to live in them.)

Anxiety, indeed fills the emotional space of Jotuni's novella; all characters, from Nyman to the female figures, experience despair and sorrow. The description of nature underscores the anxiety of existence. The shafts of sweltering sun exhaust all creatures, from insects to humans, thus bringing to mind the human condition and provoking the characters to question the foundations of their existence.

The Christian ethics informing the figure of Nyman as well as the underlying issues of human life discussed in Jotuni's novella--the problems of suffering, evil, and God's existence on Earth--evoke Dostoevsky's influence. In spite of naturalism or neo-romantism, the intellectual background for Jotuni's work can rather be found in Russian realism, (13) which explains the existentialist turn appearing in her novella. Nyman can, for instance be compared to Alyosha in The Brothers Karamazov (1880; [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.]), the youngest of the brothers, the deeply religious novice, who, at the beginning of the novel, leaves the monastery in order to practice his active Christian love in the real world. The two characters share the role of Christ-figures, of a messenger and of a witness to dreadful incidents that take place around them: they both give voice to the author's implied ethical message. However, in contrast to Jotuni's melancholic Nyman, Alyosha remains a far more optimistic figure since he belongs to those who have discovered the meaning of life and found a vocation to fulfill and declares faith in immortality, love, and the future of Russia.

Dostoevsky played a major role in the existential turn in modernist fiction along with Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard, and Nietzsche and established a contrasting foil to Zola's naturalistic doctrine. Dostoevsky resisted the scientific world-view governed by reason and made room for chance and the absurdity of life by focusing frequently on the problem of suffering and despair. It is no wonder that a generation of existentialists put his work on a pedestal. The Dostoevksian refusal of reason and the emphasis on emotional space is also a recurrent theme in Jotuni's work. It serves as a point of discussion of the unavoidable primitive aspects of human nature. Jotuni's description of society resembles in many ways the Freudian idea of civilization as a conflict between all individual's search for an instinctual freedom and culture's demand for instinctual repression. However, the search for cultural conformity can either be based on intellectual reasoning or ethical self-reflection guided by emotional cognition. Emotions prove to be more reliable than reason, whereas intellectual calculations appear as "a poor guide in moral matters" (Terras, A History 348)--a recurring theme in Dostoevsky's fiction since Crime and Punishment. In Dostoevsky's and Jotuni's world, the most daemonic characters are also the cleverest, the ones who count on their reasoning abilities. Trust in reason also fails to bring happiness to the sympathetic characters--to the women consenting to marriages of reason, for instance.

Modernity designates not only the external change of social structures, but also the re-definition of the concepts such as self and identity. The emotional understanding of reality underlined by Jotuni and Dostoevsky can be viewed as optional forms of knowledge in contrast to the scientific, rational world-view. (14) "To transform the world, to recreate it afresh, men must turn into another path psychologically," as father Zossima affirms in The Brothers Karamazov (321). As Victor Terras explains, "Dostoevsky's message in The Brothers Karamazov is that only a moral regeneration, accomplished through a return to the Christian faith of the simple people, can save Russia" (Terras 65).

The emphasis on emotional space in human life--that is, feelings of anxiety, suffering, and guilt--belongs essentially to the imagery of the modernist novel; in the work of Kafka, for instance, a panicked sense of chaos and anxiety are pervasive (Lukacs 86). In naturalist fiction anxiety is usually concomitant with physical or psychological destruction, but in modernism anxiety relates to ethics and to the sense of responsibility and even appears as a premise for ethical choices. In everyday life, anxiety in a certain sense "derives from the capacity--and, indeed, necessity--for the individual to think ahead, to anticipate future possibilities counterfactually in relation to present action" (Giddens 47). Despite the anxiety brought on by self-reflection, Jotuni regarded sincere self-knowledge as a fundamental basis for a good life. As she uttered in one of her maxims: "Jos onnea on, asuu se meissa. Jos sita etsimme, on sita itsestamme etsittava. Sen pyytely ulkoapain eksyttaa meidat erehdyttaville harhapoluille vain" (Kootut 34-9) [If there is happiness, we are all in it. If we search for it, we must search for it within ourselves. Pleading happiness from the outside only leads astray].

In naturalist works, the contemporary everyday appears most often to be distressing and negative--a blind alley of malady, suffering, and death. However, the everyday in Jotuni's work is not a mere field of "struggle for life" but also a space for individual reproduction. Despite the infernal features that color the sunny summer day, the basic tone of Arkielamaa is not anxious but, paradoxically, rather comforting. Daily communication promotes the production of social cohesion and even establishes a positive counter-force to balance the primitive forces described in the work. Nyman provides relief for the villagers from their anxious feelings and shame and thus the cathartic effect of anxiety furthers social regeneration. The idea of regeneration or re-production of the social is supported by Michel de Certeau's conception of the everyday as a kind of counter-force for the existing systems of power: Certeau considers the everyday a set of microbe-like operations that organize social re-production and establish a kind of "anti-discipline" an opposing force for institutional power (XXXIX-XL). (15)

The ethical message of Jotuni's work is underscored by its fictional form. The modernity of Jotuni's fiction lies in her use of a concise dialogue form, often inspired by everyday media and modes of communication, such as telegram messages, phone conversations, discussions, and rumors occasionally heard in the streets. In Jotuni's world, dialogue appears as an essential manner of being in the world: communication, relationships between people, and the polyphonic coexistence of diverse voices establish a central theme of her works. Jotuni frequently emphasized hearing as the most important human sense (Niemi 291), and in her works she indeed brings people together, to meet and listen to each other. The idea of dialogism is also inscribed in the existentialist vision, which eschews rigid doctrine and instead considers existence more an open question than a set of answers; a sense of existence as a being toward possibilities (Sawiki 486). In consequence, the societal dimension invested in existentialism appears as less tendentious and more as an aesthetic of "engagement" which emphasizes the importance of individual commitment and concern for the common existence.


Knut Hamsun and Maria Jotuni figure prominently in the corpus of writers who aimed at challenging the traditional modes of the realist novel and searched for a new, modernist aesthetic by configuring the realistic theme of the everyday in a new form. In Sult and Arkielamaa, the two authors, however, realized their modernist mission in different ways. Hamsun's ambition can perhaps be viewed as more consonant with the established idea of modernism as a mode of disruption (Astradur Eysteinsson 6). In his work, the everyday serves as a space for questioning the "normal" practices of writing and perception, and in general, "normal" ways living: the description of the everyday creates a space for interrupting our conventional understanding of realities. The modernist revolution takes place both in theme and form and ruptures the whole idea of novel, which certainly explains Hamsun's significance for twentieth-century modernist literature. (16)

As for Maria Jotuni's importance in modernism, she does not enjoy a status comparable to Hamsun's. However, her work and especially the dialogue-styled fictional form have served as a model for number of later modernist writers in Finland. On the other hand, I consider her fiction also an important reminder of modernism's societal dimension. As we have seen, in her work, the everyday offers a space for existentialist reflection on the human condition and the functioning of modern society that is constantly stressed by the human desire for instinctual freedom. Jotuni's emphasis on emotion-based knowledge as decisive in social conflicts and ethical issues gained more importance towards the end of her career. Jotuni's major novel Huojuva talo [A Swaying House], published posthumously in 1963, offers her final word on the theme. The novel focuses on a submissive housewife, Lea, trapped in an infernal marriage with a highly intelligent psychopath and a respected journalist, who behind the bourgeois, civilized facade tortures his wife psychologically and physically. The novel was originally written in the 1920s and '30s for an international novel competition and it discusses pan-European current issues on race, nature, and culture. This exploration of a destructive marriage can even be interpreted allegorically as a miniature model of contemporary totalitarian ideologies. Compared to Hamsun, a Nazi sympathizer, whose conception of race and gender even embody fascist values, (17) Jotuni takes a critical view in Huojuva talo of totalitarian ideals and discovers the terrors of authoritarian control from an individual's perspective. Despite the desperate devastation of the Second World War, Huojuva talo concludes on a positive note, at least from the female protagonist's perspective: after her husband's suicide, Lea is free to develop a new relationship, suggesting love and happiness in the future.


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Eysteinsson. See Astradur Eysteinsson.

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--. Kootut teokset IV. Avonainen lipas. Helsinki: Otava, 1930.

--. Maria Jotuni's arkisto SKS/KIA.

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--. A Karamazov Companion: Commentary on the Genesis, Language, and Style of Dostoevsky's Novel. Madison: U Wisconsin P, 1981.

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Riikka Rossi

Helsinki University

(1) On the influence of French naturalism in Scandinavian literature, see Rossi.

(2.) "The Manifesto of the Five" was published in Le Figaro in 1887 and condemned La Terre as a"scatological" novel. It was signed by Alphonse Daudet, Paul Bonnetain, Lucien Descaves, Paul Margueritte, and Gustave Guiches.

(3.) On the parodic dimension in naturalism, see Dousteyssier-Khoze.

(4.) On the existentialists' attitude toward Zola's naturalism, see Sartre.

(5.) There are, however, some important contributions to the issue, such as Rossetti's.

(7.) See Vaillant 317-37. Anne-Marie Thiesse characterizes the late nineteenth century by emphasizing the major rise in popular reading culture and relating this phenomenon to the parallel dominance of the "everyday" in literature. See Thiesse.

(8.) Hamsun's interest in the Russian author's work has been discussed by Martin Nag in his book Geniet Knut Hamsun: en norsk Dostojevskij--:Essays. "'Dostojevski er den eneste Dikter jag har laert noget av, hart er den vaeldigste av de russiske Giganter' Hamsun wrote to his wife Marie in 1910" (Nag 195) [Dostoevsky is the first poet I have learned about, he is the greatest of the Russian Giants].

(9.) On the allegory in naturalism, see Seassau and Rossi 193-3.

(10.) On the existentialist movement, see Stralen.

(11.) "Knut Hamsun," published in the review Valvoja in 1908.

(12.) As Anthony Giddens affirms, self-reflectiveness is an essential trait of modernity; the modern self is constantly troubled by the questions: "What to do? How to act? Who to be?" (71).

(13.) Like Hamsun, Jotuni was a keen admirer of the Russian author's novelistic art. Towards the end of her career, she was increasingly touched by the Dostoevsky-like image of man (Niemi 284).

(14.) On reason and emotions as forms of knowledge, see Nussbaum 40-1.

(15.) See also Rojola. As Rojola emphazises, in Jotuni's world the everyday serves especially as female resistance against the patriarchic society.

(16.) Many modernist authors have acknowledged their admiration of Hamsun; Harald Naess and James McFarlane cite Isaac Bashevis Singer as having written that he is the father of the modern school of literature in every respect. Singer further argues that his subjectivism, his fragmentarism, his use of flashbacks, and his lyricism are distinctly modernist in tone. Hamsun is, therefore, the source of the modern school of fiction in the twentieth century (II). In his preface to Hamsun's Hunger, Paul Auster also considered it as a landmark modernist work and wrote: "Something new is happening here, some new thought about the nature of art is being proposed in Hunger. It is first of all an art that is indistinguishable from the life of the artist who makes it. [...] an art that is the direct expression of the effort to express itself" (XV).

(17.) Hamsun's veneration of the Third Reich remains a disputed issue in the studies on Hamsun, but recent research, especially Zagar's Knut Hamsun: The Dark Side of Literary Brilliance reveals the fascist, racist, and sexist values appearing in Hamsun's highly regarded writing.


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