Artist of Skepticism - Knut Hamsun, Father of the Modern School of Literature

By Olsen, Eric P. | The World and I, February 2003 | Go to article overview

Artist of Skepticism - Knut Hamsun, Father of the Modern School of Literature


Olsen, Eric P., The World and I


Eric P. Olsen is associate executive editor of The World & I. See the related article, "Hamsun's Nordland," in the Life section.

"Never has the Nobel Prize been awarded to one worthier of it," pronounced Thomas Mann of the Norwegian novelist Knut Hamsun. Andre Gide compared him to Dostoevsky but thought Hamsun was "perhaps even more subtle" than the Russian master. Maxim Gorky, writing privately in 1927, confessed to Hamsun: "I tell you this quite sincerely, at this moment you are the greatest artist in Europe; there is no one who can compare with you."

Today Hamsun is little known or read in the English world and remains a deeply problematic presence in his homeland. Streets, parks, and monuments commemorate the names of Henrik Ibsen and Bj?rnstjerne Bj?rnson, but not of Hamsun. His name draws an ambiguous stare, a reaction that readers of his novels might be forgiven for thinking a more apt memorial than a conventional work of bronze or stone. What has happened? Knut Hamsun's rise to international renown in the first decades of the twentieth century was eclipsed by his fatal alliance with the Nazi cause in the final years of his long life, an act of misplaced nationalism rather than ideological affinity.

Unrepentant until the end--he died at age ninety-two in 1952--Hamsun affected indifference, and throughout his later life was ambivalent about his celebrity. One even suspects that the scandalous acts of his late years--particularly the grotesque gesture of presenting his Nobel Prize medal to Joseph Goebbels--were calculated to shock, to undermine any facile conclusions of literary historians.

Yet Hamsun's great novels remain potent and significant works of art. Ten years before Freud published An Interpretation of Dreams, Hamsun studied the shadowy impulses that inhabit the frontier between consciousness and unconsciousness. Hunger, Hamsun's first major novel, published in 1890, was a stark repudiation of the socially conscious, moralistic fiction exemplified by Ibsen. "I will make my character laugh where sensible people think he ought to cry," Hamsun exclaimed. "And why? Because my hero is no character, no 'type,' ... but a complex, modern being."

Hamsun's novels are characterized by an almost subversive honesty, paradoxically realized through an awareness of the subtle dishonesties we practice through social conditioning and deference to convention. The most insignificant incident--sitting on a park bench with a stranger--can magnify for a Hamsun hero into a hypnotically revealing interior disquisition. Reading Hamsun's Mysteries, for example, Henry Miller commented, "I always feel I am reading another version of my own life."

Knut Pedersen (Hamsun's name underwent a number of permutations) was born in Lom (central Norway) in 1859, the fourth of seven children. Subsistence farming yielded a marginal livelihood for the family, but Norway was becoming industrialized and formerly settled peoples were drifting into cities or immigrating in growing numbers to America.

Joining this generalized movement, the Pedersens immigrated, not to America but to the far north, to join Hamsun's uncle, who had settled on a small farm and sent word that prospects were favorable. Hamsun was not yet three years old when he made the journey into a magical land that was to awaken in him a sympathy to nature that equaled if never quite supplanted his preoccupation with human psychology. Indeed, there are few if any writers for whom a mystical reverence for a landscape so fully defined an author's creative elan.

It is not hard to understand why. The Pedersens settled on a hillside in the village of Hamsund in Hamar?y, some two hundred miles above the Arctic Circle. The exaggerated seasonal changes, the endless summer nights and fiery winter skies, accentuated an intoxicating spectacle of immense, glacier-carved mountains and magnificent fjords.

Hamsun's earliest years were evidently happy, if cramped. …

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